Editors seem to fall prey to a sort of odd love-hate relationship. They more than anyone else are responsible for improving author manuscripts into something of publishable quality—just look at how often we’re inclined to complain when a book is “badly edited.” But on the other hand, a lot of authors (particularly famous-name authors) seem to enjoy a sort of adversarial relationship with their editors—especially the ones who grow “too big to edit.” And more to the point, a number of publishers seem to consider editorial jobs a place where they can do some cutting of their own.
Or so contends John Pettigrew (photo), in a guest column on Publishing Perspectives. Pettigrew is the founder and CEO of Cambridge Publishing Solutions, and the creator of the Futureproofs editing workflow software, so he has some strong feelings on the matter. He writes:
Sensible authors seek out good editors. At the moment, the best way to do that (for most) is to work with a publisher. Insofar as publishers fail to provide their authors with this support, they’re fundamentally failing, and will drive more and more authors away. This is why I believe that the future for editors themselves is rosy – we’ll always be needed, even if it’s operating as freelancers through networks like Reedsy or Bibliocrunch.
While I don’t recall seeing any other articles lately specifically mentioning a reduction in the number of editors employed by publishers, it seems reasonable that it could be happening. I do recall hearing that individual editors are becoming responsible for more and more books at publishers these days, giving them less time and attention to spare to any individual book.
One of the most common complaints against self-published works is that they don’t get the benefit of editing. If one of the ways publishers are economizing in the face of self-publishing competition is by cutting back on the number of editors they employ, that would be ironic. Given that self-pub authors can pay for freelance editors, rather than simply make do with whatever scanty support their publisher assigns, it’s possible the works of those self-publish do might be better-edited than some professional publishers’ novels.
On a related note, Futureproofs looks like a very interesting software package. Pettigrew wrote a piece about it for Publishing Perspectives last year. It seems to be a multi-user editing software package that allows on-screen mark-up and annotation, so that multiple editors on a given project can work together in real time—sort of a collaborative document editor for professional editors. Pettigrew explained that he created it because the existing digital tools weren’t proving effective for the job.
Most tools that the publishing business uses were not built for the job we use them for. We were fortunate that word processors turned out to be a good fit for our needs. But the fit is often much poorer. My own pet hate is the software editors have to use to mark up page proofs for books and magazines. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with software itself, but it’s being forced into service for proofreading — a job for which it’s poorly suited.
The problem is that proofreading has a specific set of needs and expectations. Over their decades working on paper, they have developed sophisticated, standard systems of notation that let them be very quick and precise. The move on-screen has robbed them of this, requiring many instructions to be written out longhand to make sure that the designer understands what is needed. This slows things down and makes proofs harder to handle.
It’s about time that editing received some benefit from the digital revolution. Though I do have to wonder if, by making it possible for editors to edit books better and more efficiently, Pettigrew might be helping to enable the very trimming of editors he complained about in his more recent column. After all, the publishers might think, if editors can edit multiple books more easily, why do we need so many of them?