The age of the traditional editor is over, and has been for some time. The birth of the web provided new digital platforms that allow authors to publish themselves without the middle man. Over the last ten years, the change in the economics of publishing has shifted the responsibilities of a key role in the industry. From the breaking of the netbook agreement in the 1990s to the rise of Amazon selling both print and eBooks on the cheap, questions of the value of the written word have coincided with whether a traditional editor needs to be employed by publishers. Enter the market of self-published titles on digital shelves and the gatekeepers in their ivory towers look pretty precarious.
So, what’s an editor?
Is an editor one who simply uses a red pencil to whip a manuscript into shape, or a project manager monitoring cash flow and markets?
A podcast from Guardian Books, The Art of Editing barely scrapes the surface of an editor’s job in today’s digital world. Taking us from the mid-19th century to the present day, it discusses how the role has shifted from talent-spotters and copyeditors to a jack-of-all-trades with an understanding of markets, budgets and schedules. Literary agent Karolina Sutton suggests that it’s the commercial drive that affects the editorial role:
‘What great publishers do is they protect that corner of the market. So, what they do is they allow editors to work on manuscripts and they give them more time, and it’s perhaps less competitive; you can develop writers over a longer period even though the financial rewards are not immediate. That being said, it was a lot easier to protect that section of the market a few years ago, than it is now.’
Traditional publishing still relies on its editors to find content, refine it and turn it into a marketable product that generates revenue. But this has evolved. In the 1950s, former editor Diana Athill thought the idea of understanding the finances of publishing was not her job saying, ‘It is sad to think that we did not appreciate the luxury of not having to ask ourselves “is it commercially viable?” in those happy days before that question set in.’
But now, the editor’s role is driving revenue, balancing the costs and potential profits of the content they develop for the business. This idea is far removed from what many believe the role still is.
Do editors hold the keys to the literary kingdom?
Becoming an editor continues to be a dream role for many. Yet the idea that editors sit in beautiful offices and read manuscripts all day couldn’t be further from the truth. Senior editor Miranda Jewess laughed: ‘I wish I could sit and read books all day. That would be perfect. I haven’t been able to do that in a long time.’ Editors now are the shapers and curators of content: part project managers, part list makers.
In addition, as new degrees begin to emerge, such as Creative Writing and Publishing, more young people are coming to the industry with publishing know-how. Publishing houses have applicants from a diverse educational background – not just the same English Literature graduates of the past – with Penguin announcing it was scrapping degree requirements altogether. This has helped shape the shift: new employees bringing creativity and marketing skills to both in print publishing and digital in a new way.
With much of the traditional gatekeeping role of the editor in shaping and editing manuscripts becoming outsourced to freelancers, is digital self-publishing part of the shift too?
The digital age has seen the rise of self-publishing. With the development of digital platforms for writing, authors no longer need to rely on publishers to print and distribute their work now that the cost of printing books no longer needs to be part of the equation. Diana Athill explains:
‘The person with whom the writer wants to be in touch is his reader: if he could speak to him directly, without a middleman, that is what he would do.’
Vanity publishing, as it was known, has been around for a long time, with many notable authors self-publishing, including Lawrence Sterne and the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy.
Its evolution onto the digital platform starts with blogs, when authors could upload their content to their own site and get readers for free. It was also a way for authors to get instant feedback in the comments section to improve their work. This also existed within the fanfiction realm, where message boards filled with stories would (and still can) continue for years, gathering readership and support.
Next, writers were thinking of ways to monetise their work, and subscription websites emerged. This way, avid readers could sign up to an author’s website, pay a small fee each month and continue to read the story. Sites such as Channillo.com function as a simple way for authors to gain money from self-published work.
But it’s the eBook that saw the greatest impact from self-published authors. With the success of Amazon’s Kindle platform, it’s easier and cheaper than ever for authors to distribute their work to readers. And because Amazon’s name is an established and trusted one as retailer, the high volume of potential readers encourages writers to see opportunities for sales. This is demonstrated in a report from Author Earnings which states ‘…“non-traditionally-published” books make up 60% of all Kindle ebooks purchased in the US’ (figures from 2015).
But is it good enough?
Many believe that eBooks don’t provide quality content for paying readers. Author Chuck Wendig, published both traditionally and self-published, discusses the complexities of this in a (colourfully phrased) blog post that hits on some key points. He argues that by allowing the publishing of unedited (or badly edited) material in the form of an eBook, self-publishers run the risk of devaluing not only traditionally published books but their own. This is even reflected in the extremely low prices that self-published authors sell their books at.
As publishing expert Michael Bhaskar says, ‘Good content is far easier to market; indeed, it markets itself far, far better than bad.’
Outside the system
The quality of self-published books shouldn’t impact the role of the editor too heavily. Freelance editors are now available across the internet and are being used often by new writers as they begin to understand the need for quality writing.
A quick Google search shows how editors are in demand. Breaking the process down, authors can now select different editors based on requirements: a structural edit, a critique, a copyedit, a proofread, plot doctoring, etc. This idea of publishing services being ‘unbundled’ has resulted in new approaches, such as crowdfunding-style publishers Unbound, or bespoke publishing services like Whitefox. Book marketing expert Alison Baverstock says, ‘Publishing is emerging as a process…’
As well as the discussion of quality within eBooks, there is also a question of quantity and how that impacts the market. Bhaskar tweeted this from Frankfurt Book Fair:
Editors as curators
Hoping to target readers in a more direct way is the idea of content curation. By carefully seeking out and publishing market-driven content, editors can ensure that well-constructed books reach readers. Curation can already be seen on the internet, with websites such as Brainpickings.org. Editors can develop this into book form by embracing digital possibilities with their own knowledge and creativity.
What the digital future means
As innovations in technology continue to develop and be embraced by the entertainment industry – such as Virtual and Augmented Reality – book publishing appears to be falling behind. There are several reasons for this. Senior editor, Beth Lewis said,
They want us to develop an AR app for our books. Who’s going to code it? I don’t have time to learn. The IT department can’t do it. So who?
She went on to say how many trade publishers can’t afford to teach their staff, or hire new staff members, to be specialised in digital roles. And when it comes to imagining new digital possibilities, a recent report into the possibilities of academic digital publishing found that editors ‘lack […] involvement with, and in some cases [have a] sense of fear, of digital technology together with a distinct lack of knowledge in this area.’
But there are some positive results. The audiobook market has been increasing and there are interesting developments here, as highlighted in an essay from The Economist. Nosey Crow has an entire division based on storybook apps for children. The possibilities are out there for new editors to develop.
The development of the internet has changed the way we think of editors. Through the evolution of digital platforms for authors, the editor in both traditional and freelance terms must adapt to shifting requirements. The question of what an editor is or should be has, perhaps, become more complicated as it begins to merge with other areas, such as marketing.
And yet the need for the gatekeepers is still there. The value that editors bring to books, as well as the revenue they bring to publishers, is as important as ever in sustaining the publishing industry. As well as maintaining this quality control and curation, editors also need to look to the digital landscape as a way of bringing exciting new innovations to capture readers of the internet age.