Yep. Still Talking About Editing. And the Industry. World Without End.

We haven’t talked much about the state of the industry lately, and I’m tempted to say that’s because not much has changed since the last time we did. But really it’s just that I’ve had a busy year without much of myself left over for deep thoughts.

But don’t worry. A lot of interesting material—ideas, commentary, theories, plans—came out of the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair (October 9–13). I did follow it (cursorily) but, again, fish gotta swim, editors gotta edit, so I’m just now pulling together some, er, shallow thoughts.

Let’s say this first: the people who go and speak or otherwise participate at these events are way smarter than me and pay a lot closer attention to the industry. (Me, I’m just trying to pay my mortgage.) Two of my faves in this group of smart folk are Porter Anderson and Jane Friedman—you’ve heard me mention them before—so let’s start our brief overview there.

Porter Anderson is a journalist following the publishing industry; his work appears on Friedman’s blog, as well as at Publishing Perspectives, Digital Book World, and Writer Unboxed—and he very handily lists all those communiqués here, so you can just scroll down and easily see the Frankfurt entries. It’s good reportage over a broad range of ideas.

Jane Friedman is the cofounder of Scratch Magazine, the web editor for Virginia Quarterly Review, and a former publisher of Writer’s Digest … and I’m always intrigued by what she has to say, because she’s consistently running out ahead of the curve. In “Why I’m Here,” she voiced an opinion I’ve read from her before in other venues:

I am here because, as much as my career has revolved around the reading, writing and publishing of books, the book, as a content delivery mechanism (whether print or digital), has limitations. The book, in fact, has become very disappointing in comparison to other things I can learn, do and experience through other mediums. While the book has become a shadow of its former self partly because of how often the form has been exploited and overproduced for profit (for the slightest and most banal of ideas), mostly I just see it as a less compelling way—even a last resort—for sharing ideas. I would rather attend a conference, I would rather read and write online articles, I would rather interact on social media (the horror!).

Don’t be scandalized, dear book-lovers. This first in a series of articles was written for the Sprint Beyond the Book project led by Arizona State University, and was just one of the interesting things going on in Frankfurt last month. It’s fascinating stuff, and a good look at how smart people are thinking about mass communication. And whether you (or I) like it or not, we are headed in some version of this direction. (If you don’t believe me, think about this—this very morning a good friend of mine posted on Facebook, “It’s weird when your almost five-year-old starts talking about ‘downloading’ things.” I rest my case.)

Friedman has collected her Frankfurt bulletins here, but you won’t be surprised to hear the article that caught my eye is “The Future of Editing: Beta Readers and Agile Publishing.” She says, “No computer or algorithm can successfully replicate the role and work of a professional development or content editor,” which warms the cockles of my cold little editor’s heart.

And then she goes off in another direction.

That said, there could be considerable transformation in what it means to be a “professional” editor. With the rise of self-publishing (a 60 percent increase in 2012 alone, according to Bowker data), we’ve only seen the demand for editors increase, with authors more acutely aware of the need for some level of assistance in rewriting and polishing their work. But very few authors can afford professional-level, deep editing. Given how writing processes are evolving—with more online and collaborative work, more serializations and more works-in-progress being undertaken—one can envision a world in which smart readers serve as an author’s first editors.

She’s talking about beta readers. And, well, OK, but one function of the professional editor—whether she’s an acquisitions editor at a publishing house or a freelance editor hired by someone who intends to self-publish—is to say, gently, “No, this isn’t publishable. This was your practice novel.” I’m not convinced beta readers are going to have the intestinal fortitude for that conversation. (Remember our discussion about this book? It got lots of great reviews from what were, essentially, beta readers.) Beta readers are going to be nice; they don’t understand we really should hitch up our Big Girl panties and Just Say No to Crap.

Sorry—did I just say that out loud? But Friedman’s an editor; she knows as well as I do that the reason publishing houses have slush piles is because not every manuscript needs to be/should be published. It pains me to be the one to break this to you.

Especially when Catherine Howard over at Catherine, Caffeinated is pointing out—in her articles “Do You Read Self-Published Books Differently?” and “Yes, You Do!”—that readers approach self-published books differently than they do traditionally published books. That perception will never change if self-publishers choose beta readers over professional editors. You may note I have a vested interest in this matter; you may discount my opinion accordingly. I’m just telling you what I’ve observed.

Interestingly, Friedman’s article does mention the gatekeeping (Just Say No to Crap) role editors play:

A final thought: Future editors may struggle to hang onto their gatekeeping role, and only remain tastemakers if their name carries currency with readers, meaning they become brands that signify something important to both authors and the target audience. Are editors open to marketing and publicizing themselves as brands? It may be a difficult future for today’s editors to accept, since the predominant view in publishing is that good editors “disappear” and are not spoken of; the attention goes to the writer.

Quite a little conundrum set up here, don’t you think? I mean, isn’t that whole branding thing (and consumer trust) what a publishing house is all about? When Friedman says, “In some community and digital publishing models that already exist, editors are rewarded by receiving a percentage of book sales, which presumably makes them more invested and incentivized to do their best work”—that also sounds (to me) similar to what happens in a publishing house now. They take a risk on a book, and they profit. Or not. (By the way, I’ve never been offered a percentage of anyone’s sales and I always, always do my best work.)

Still—I’m leisurely parsing an article written on the fly at a busy international book festival, the intent of which was simply to show what’s happening in the publishing industry right now. I’m not going to get to worked up about it, nor should you. But you should be aware that the industry is in a state of flux, that smart people are looking at all sorts of publishing models, that writers have options. And so do editors.

Tweet: A good look at how smart people are thinking about mass communication these days.
Tweet: Writers have options. And so do editors.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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