Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Unsung Praises to Editors

I love editing books. I love standing between the talented, nervous, ingenious author and the bottom line, embattled, crowded-list publisher and staking ground. I love walking the author through all the steps, with falls possible at each one: the cover she hates, the copy editor who doesn't get his voice, the publicist who won't call back, the royalty that is so much lower than expected, the paperback that is... not to happen. It's all hard, but it's an amazing journey to re-live with different folks.

But as an editor, I can't wait around for too big a pat on the back. Yes, we check the acknowledgements page. We do. This blogger has admitted as much as well (while also explaining other uses for the page). But beyond that, we editors need to get over ourselves.

The Guardian book blog is hosting a whole discussion about editors and acclaim here, with a spirited (as ever) comments section. After blogger Damien Walter talks about the attention sci-fi book editors have received, he notes:

Editors within mainstream literature are no less influential and creative. But they are less celebrated. There are reasons for the lack of editorial recognition – the larger size and scope of mainstream literature, the mainstream's relative neglect of short fiction, the idolisation of The Author in literary culture. And even without public recognition, editors still wield great power within publishing. So why should we care if they do not receive awards?

As anyone who has engaged with publishing on any level in recent years will know, the creative editorial role is under increasing pressure. As publishing corporations push for ever greater profits in a market of declining sales, editors have less and less time to actually edit the work of writers. The choice of what is and is not published is increasingly being made by marketing managers and accountants who have an eye for the bottom line, but no real knowledge of literature. As editorial influence declines mainstream literature is becoming less original, less adventurous and consequentially less interesting. Perhaps if we start celebrating our editors, we might see them given more time to practice what is actually a fine art.

I don't know if editors need an award, per se (though a commenter mentions they do have one in the US - the Maxwell E. Perkins Award), but it is nice to see someone note that editors are increasingly under pressures that make choices that much more complicated.

On this blog, I've long advocated for publishing houses to have relatively distinct visions, led by a stable of respected editors who are given the power to shape lists. Readers will come to know the tastes of these editors and come to look to the publishing house to provide consistent reading material. As editorial roles change, as book production changes, there is still a need for strong editors to shape lists and define the kinds of books a house will publish.

And here I'll post yet another look at the future, at a world full of tagged e-books. This WSJ article by author Steven Johnson (sorry if subscription only) does a nice job clearly explaining what very well might occur with e-books, but only once does he mention a note of caution:

My impulsive purchase of "On Beauty" has another element to it, though -- one that may not be as welcomed by authors. Specifically: I was in the middle of the other book, and in a matter of seconds, I left it for one of its competitors. The jump was triggered, in this case, by a sudden urge to read fiction, but it could have been triggered by something in the book I was originally reading: a direct quote or reference to another work, or some more indirect suggestion in the text.

In other words, an infinite bookstore at your fingertips is great news for book sales, and may be great news for the dissemination of knowledge, but not necessarily so great for that most finite of 21st-century resources: attention.

That is a concern, because an author will toil over that narrative (with an editor's help, one hopes!) only to have it interrupted constantly, so that every paragraph, every sentence, every word has to compete with the entire world wide web. This brings to mind the image from this past weekend of my sister trying to speak to her 4 year old with Spongebob Squarepants on the tv behind her head. How could she compete with something intentionally made to distract a child? It's ludicrous! I worry about books in the same way.

And Johnson sees books being edited to fit this new reality:
A world in which search attracts new book readers also will undoubtedly change the way books are written, just as the serial publishing schedule of Dickens's day led to the obligatory cliffhanger ending at the end of each installment. Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google's results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.

This is an editorial nightmare.

If Walter at the Guardian blog is worried about acquisitions decisions being made by "marketing managers and accountants," now let's also worry about editorial choices within a manuscript being made by whomever is overseeing the way in which a book gets networked. This really will impact editing, and not for the better.

Is editing going to have to play into our need to have only the recognizable before us? Will all books turn into shadows of pre-existing books?

I know I'll look once again to the independent presses willing to take a risk and offer something innovative and challenging, as they have in the past (New Directions, Soft Skull, Chelsea Green, etc). Let us hope they don't fall into this trap and instead break the mold so that creative and daring authors can find a home - with an editor not looking for glory, but looking to craft a list full of uncompromising voices.

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