That’s how a piece by book editor Barry Harbaugh in The New Yorker comes off. Entitled, “Yes, Book Editors Edit,” it insists that, despite Amazon claiming otherwise, book editors at major publishers actually do edit books. The fact that this piece had to be written in the first place possibly says more than does the entire piece itself.
Especially since there are just a few problems with it.
First of all, it’s hard to imagine where Mr. Harbaugh got the impression Amazon was claiming that editors don’t edit. The people who’ve been complaining about editors not editing have by and large been the authors of the works that were supposed to be coming in for editing—but weren’t. For example, look at some of the discussion from when the head of Kensington Publishing responded to writers’ complaints about their experience with the press. Many of those complaints involved the failure to receive any actual editing.
And second, Mr. Harbaugh perhaps unwittingly provides his own best counter-argument when he writes:
I probably mark up fifty to a hundred pages a week, most of it on the weekend. I ask questions and cut sentences and write chapter titles and all that stuff. The other editors at my company, and editors I know socially from other companies, are just as rigorous.
Only fifty to one hundred pages a week?
I’m not a professional editor myself, nor have I had dealings with one. But that seems like a paltry number of pages. One commenter on The Passive Voice discussion of the article claims to do that many pages “in a few hours on a single night.” Editors are supposed to be working on, at the least, several books at a time. And he’s only managing a fraction of one book per week?
And if he’s doing “most of it on the weekend,” what is he doing with the rest of his time? His job title is Editor. That means “one who edits.” If he’s not spending the majority of his time editing, shouldn’t he be called something else?
One of management’s strict edicts at Bunker Books was that editors were not allowed to read on the job. “Reading is done by readers,” said the faded memo tacked to the wall above Lori’s desk. “Readers are paid to read. Editors are paid to package books that readers have read. If an editor finds it necessary to read a manuscript, it is the editor’s responsibility to do the reading on her or his own time. Office hours are much too valuable to be wasted in reading manuscripts.”
So if there’s a perception that editors don’t edit, it’s clearly not something new that Amazon and self-publishing cooked up. It’s been around for quite some time. It’s just that the proliferation of the Internet has enabled more people to say it.
And why does this happen? Probably bureaucracy and mission creep. When you’re involved in bureaucracy, you invariably end up spending a lot of time in meetings, at which people talk about things like why they spend so much time in meetings when there are other things they ought to be doing.
The sad thing is, very few authors would argue that editing is unnecessary. But self-publishing authors by and large have to go out and hire it done—and since they’re paying directly for the work, they end up more likely to get it than people who go through publishers.
In the end, Harbaugh’s article itself proves the point that a traditional publisher’s editor’s failure to edit is such a common perception that no less a mainstay than the New Yorker was willing to publish an article decrying it. And that’s part and parcel of the overall problem traditional publishing now faces as it needs to convince writers to stay with them instead of going to self-publishing. They’re going to have to address this more substantively than an editorial insisting that, yes Virginia, there really is a Santa Editor if they want it to do any good.