On Writing

Is the book editor an endangered species?

5 Comments 10 February 2011

A recent blog post by Mark Charan Newton, author of Nights of Villjamur, has set me thinking. His post was inspired by an editorial in The Globe and Mail:

“Among the recognizable Canadian publishers that have laid off editors since the economic downturn are Penguin Canada, McClelland & Stewart and Key Porter, which stopped publishing altogether early in the new year. Even plucky Gaspereau Press, the Nova Scotia publisher that brought out Johanna Skibsrud’s Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel, The Sentimentalists, has laid off its only full-time editor.

“’We just couldn’t afford it,’ said Gaspereau co-publisher Andrew Steeves, adding that he is happy to do the work himself. At the same time, he worries about the ultimate effect of industry-wide downsizing. ‘How do you cultivate a professional publishing ethic if you’re farming everything out?’

“Authors, finding today’s downsized publishers increasingly unwilling to invest their own resources in the often laborious process of polishing rough diamonds into marketable gems, are now often forced to hire their own editors – even before submitting their manuscripts for publication. Toronto literary agent Anne McDermid saw the landscape changing two years ago, when a publisher told her, ‘I cannot purchase a book I need to spend 40 hours editing’.”

Mark asks, where have the book editors gone? He notes that this flux of outsourcing is seemingly the case not only for Canada, but for New York and London too. For me, however, the newspaper report does not tell the full story.

When I wrote The Human Race, my publisher outsourced the editing to two different people, neither of whom was employed by the publishing company. It didn’t seem that big a deal to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a new author and it’s all I know. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to it.

Everything is outsourced these days. I have spent years working in the IT industry, in which outsourcing is commonplace. Software development is outsourced to India, IT maintenance to a networking company and book keeping to an accountancy company. Even the reception is manned “virtually”! Independent consultants are retained depending on the project; once the project is finished they move on to another, often with a different company. Hollywood has done it for years with movie production.

Outsourcing is now the way of the world and will eventually accelerate across all industries. You no longer need to employ or be employed.

Publishing is moving in the same direction and I don’t think that there has to be anything wrong with that. The value of a publishing company is no longer measured by its staff payroll, but by the quality of the network it cultivates and can draw upon to launch a book. From the perspective of publishers, such a model is ideal: it means they can downsize/rightsize/whatever you want to call it, to reduce their cost base sufficiently to remain competitive.

It’s a wake up call for staff too. The best editors will still get work and probably command a premium for their services. The poorer ones won’t. Scary, but that’s the harsh reality of the marketplace and in the long term, it will be good for everyone. At the end of the day, the best publishing houses will still attract the best editors and designers, irrespective of their employment status.

In times like these, businesses want la crème de la crème – and if that means outsourcing, that’s what they’ll do.

Why should publishing be any different?

This post was selected for the February 18th 2011 edition of Just Write, hosted by Incurable Disease of Writing, Self-Publishing: Carnival of the Indies Issue #5, hosted by The Book Designer, The Mad Editor’s Round-Up #27, hosted by Asterius Online, Lovely Words Vol.31, hosted by Writing as a Sacred Art and the March 21st 2011 edition of Writing Tips Blog Carnival, hosted by Inspired to Write.

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5 Comments so far

  1. Luna Sol says:

    So, how do you find a good editor? Most NY editors with big names have proved to be real sharks! How can authors afford to pay $20,000+ fees to editors with no guarantees of a good job?

    • O.C. Heaton says:

      Can’t comment on NYC editors because no direct experience of them although $20k sounds very steep. You could almost publish an entire book for that amount. What are they offering for that fee?

      In terms of finding and qualifying a good editor do you have an equivalent to the Society for Editors and Proofreaders in the States? Check out http://www.sfep.org.uk You might not get a big ‘name’ but you will find plenty of very good eidtors.

      The UK site is organised by genre so you can whittle it down and the editors we spoke to seem happy to ringfence their quote and most importantly provide references from both a Publisher they have worked for and a happy ‘publised’ author. If not don’t use them. On every occasion make sure you speak to the reference rather than accept the written reference. Other protections are to (1) not keep the entire edit with one person. In this way they don’t have all the power and you get a fresh pair of eyes on your manuscript and (2) drip feed the agreed fee depending on milestones reached.

  2. Yes, if we’re talking about book editing, $20,000 is really, really expensive even for the most expensive editors. Of course, it depends on your word count and if you’re talking about a long series of books.


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  1. Self-Publishing: Carnival of the Indies Issue #5 — The Book Designer - February 27, 2011

    […] Heaton presents Is the book editor an endangered species? posted at A Rush of Green, saying, “Hi again Joel – a post based on editorial from The […]

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