Book editors really do edit books. Really! They’ll tell you so themselves!

find-an-editor1What does it say about what people think of you if you have to write a lengthy editorial insisting that, no, really, you actually do do your job?

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?

Oh, wait, Ben Bova had something to say about this—all the way back in 1989. From Chapter 2 of Cyberbooks, the remarkably prescient satire of the publishing industry:

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.

6 Comments on Book editors really do edit books. Really! They’ll tell you so themselves!

  1. Chris, I want to correct some misthoughts on your part.

    The editing of 50-100 pages a week as was described appears to be what is sometimes called developmental editing. Developmental editing is very time-consuming and can sometimes be as slow as 1-2 pages an hour, depending on how poorly written and organized a manuscript is.

    Copyediting, on the other hand, generally goes much faster. In my 30 years as an editor, my copyediting speed has ranged from 4-6 pages an hour to 20-25 pages an hour. A lot, again, depends on the quality of the authorship and of the developmental edit (assuming there was one).

    Developmental editing is not concerned with spelling and grammar. It is concerned with structure, flow, development. It is concerned with verifying sources (in nonfiction) and whether 5th Avenue is in fact a one-way North-South street if that is what the manuscript says about 5th Avenue in NYC.

    Copyediting is focused on consistency, grammar, and spelling. For example: Are the tenses in a paragraph consistent? Are lists parallel? Does Betty have blue eyes in chapter 1, but green eyes in chapter 12. Is the character’s name spelled Rapscallion in chapter 2, but Rapskallon in chapters 6 and 8?

    Different functions mean different speeds of editing. And just as readers read at different speeds for comprehension, so do editors who are also readers.

    Another fallacy in your article is the statement that editors are supposed to work on multiple books simultaneously. That is simply not true. They may, but most editors focus on one book at a time, assuming the whole manuscript is in-house. I am currently working on a book that runs about 20,000 manuscript pages (yes, 20,000 is correct). It would be difficult for me to edit multiple books at the same time.

    Another problem is your definition of the title “Editor.” Freelance editors may well fit your definition but not in-house editors. In addition to editing, in-house editors also perform multiple other tasks, such as helping prepare marketing material, acquiring new books and authors, budgeting, supervising freelance editors, etc.

  2. There’s no doubt that heavy doses of editorial assistance have made the careers of some famous authors.

    Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird went through numerous revisions. At one point, she got so tired of making changes in that typewriter era, she hurled her manuscript out the window of her apartment. Then she called her editor who told her to go down, retrieve the pages and get back to work.

    In a similar fashion, The first book Michael Crichton published under his own name, The Andromeda Strain, was subject to some six editorial revisions. It was also the book that made him famous. His earlier books, as a John Lange, never made dent in the market.

    I suspect almost all of us as writers would benefit from advice from a good editor. It’s perhaps unfortunate that market forces (and Amazon) are moving against editors as costly and unnecessary.

  3. Over the last ten years or so, every time a publisher downsizes to save money, it’s the editors who have been fired, but the amount of books published haven’t been downsized. In some cases with genre presses I’m familiar with the lines have expanded instead. That means more books per editor.

    The other jobs, mainly bureaucratic, of the editor within the system have not been cut, and the actual editing of the books is at the bottom of the list that the editor must do. Sad.

    I don’t know about Amazon, but we readers sure have been complaining about the quality of the books. On the reading lists I belong to, readers are always talking about various horrific mistakes they find in books.

    As a heavy reader, I find them all the time. My personal favorite huge mistakes are a character following a blood trail to a victim who was strangled., Duke University (Durham, NC) being outside of Atlanta, and the back cover copy being inserted into the novel’s text.

    The failure of editing is so bad I’d hire my own editor and copyeditor to vet my manuscript if I were published by some of these publishers.

  4. Rich: Granted the varying page rates for different types of editing, that nonetheless doesn’t change the fact that this “editor” says, in his piece claiming editors really do edit, that he does his editing “mostly on the weekends.” Which makes his insistence that he edits ring a little hollow, as he apparently doesn’t have time to do it during the rest of the work week.

    Whether editors’ job titles are truly descriptive of what they do anymore or not, that doesn’t help the writers who are left bereft of the editorial attention and guidance they want, given that their editors can apparently only find the time to fit them in on the weekends. Perhaps these “editors'” titles should be changed to “Marketing Manager” or “Book Acquisition Specialist,” and they should hire people who are actually meant to spend most of their time doing that editing and call them editors.

  5. Other common perceptions that are either false or distorted: trade publishers rarely pay advances any longer. If you don’t earn out your advance, you have to give back the unearned portion. Trade publishers no longer do any marketing. And the one that’s the flip side of “editors don’t edit,” but is just as common: when you give your book to a trade publisher, you put yourself into the hands of evil editors who will slash and burn your baby and you won’t have a word to say about it.

    The fact that these perceptions _are_ so common says more about the bitterness and resentment that writers feel toward trade publishing (and also, unfortunately, about the number of writers who would rather embrace “common wisdom” than do their own research), than about the way publishing actually works.

    (Why do in-house editors edit on weekends and at night after work? Because they’re part of an industry where staff has shrunk radically over the past few decades due to consolidation, while the number of published books has continued to rise. Not only are editors handling more books per editor than ever before, they are responsible for administrative tasks that once upon a time there was support staff to carry out.)

  6. Forgot to add: unless I’ve been hallucinating over the past nine books, editors do edit. I’ve had fabulous editors and “meh” ones; I’ve had books that were enthusiastically acquired by editors who shepherded them all the way through to publication, and books that were orphaned after acquisition and palmed off on an editor who didn’t want them. But even in the most uneasy relationships, the editors did edit. Same for the other writers I know, in both the YA and SF/fantasy markets.

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