Publishers vs editors: which do we need more?

editorsI linked yesterday to an intriguing op-ed from Book Riot called ‘Why We Still Need Publishers.’ At the time, I thought writer Susie Rodarme made some salient points about the value of a second eye in the editorial process. But now that it’s sat with me overnight, I think Rodarme has reached the wrong conclusion. She is correct that authors—good authors—probably can’t or shouldn’t try to do it all without a helper. But she makes a terminology error and confuses ‘publisher’ with ‘editor.’

For instance, just after declaring in paragraph 4 that ‘publishers perform a necessary and not-easily-replaced service to the book industry as a whole,’ she goes on in paragraph 5 to start enumerating these services—starting with ‘editors help shape books in significant ways.’ So…the publisher’s vital function is to employ editors? Can’t an author simply pay a freelance editor and employ one themselves?

After three paragraphs extolling the virtues of the editor, Rodarme moves on to ‘Publishers know books. They know the industry upside down and inside out.’ Okay. But don’t editors know the industry just as well, since they are employed by these publishers? Wouldn’t the self-publishing author be just as well-served by a freelance editor, and maybe some contract PR or social media help?

She concludes with the idea that working with a publisher is forming a ‘partnership’ and that cannot be discounted. I would suggest that, given the spate of complaints authors have had in the media about low royalty rates, poor promotion and so forth, the value of this ‘partnership’ has been very over-stated. As author Laura Resnick wrote on this blog yesterday, ‘I, too, have passionately taken a side here. I am on my side.’

You don’t need the ‘publishers’ here. There is not one function Rodarme names in her article that a good editor couldn’t take care of for you. Employ one yourself and be on your own side.

13 Comments on Publishers vs editors: which do we need more?

  1. Looking at the ever increasing number of typos found in books the past few years it seems that publishers have already eliminated editors and/or the proofreading process. Likely they just run the manuscripts through a spellchecker and the result is ofttimes laughable.

  2. Editors are a good idea for all books, professionally or self published. However, I think a publisher does more than just edit – they reject. Based on my personal non-scientific survey of self published books, the problems go deeper than typos and bad grammar. Many titles are too poorly written to save with a platoon of enthusiast English majors. Most books of these books should be rejected before an editor goes to town with a red pen.

    Authors hiring free lance editors will fix superficial errors in English, but do nothing to stop the flow of titles that need rejection letters. Maybe a few free lance editors would be up to the task of turning away a job by telling the author the book is beyond hope of fixing – but more would take the money and run.

  3. After publishing one co-authored non-fiction book with a world-famous academic press and getting little or no publicity or support in any area where it would have mattered, I don’t see any evidence to support the claim that they ‘know the industry’. They certainly knew, or appeared to know, very little about the target market for our text, and to care even less.

  4. Barry Marks // July 9, 2014 at 9:53 pm //

    You have some clumsy syntax here and there in your article and it could have benefitted from an editor. Some examples:

    “I liked yesterday to an intriguing op-ed from Book Riot called ‘Why We Still Need Publishers.’” What does that mean?

    “But now that it’s sat with me overnight,”

    I have no objection to what you say in your pretty reasonable article.

    As an avid reader I’m interested in books and peripherally in articles such as this one, about publishing. I’ve been reading more and more blogs lately on this site and a couple of others. I would have thought the literacy of bloggers discussing publishing and writing and books would be fairly high but instead I find that, even though much of what is being said by bloggers is worth reading, many of them need to pay closer attention to their writing.

    I hope you’ll take this as well intentioned criticism and not as a rebuke. I plan to read more that you write but I really hope you’ll start doing it more carefully. And I’m not talking just about you as an blogger but the large “you” that refers to the other bloggers on this site as well.

    Barry

  5. I have been in all 3 positions mentioned: publisher, editor, and self-published author. There seems to be a lot of confusion about what each knows and does.

    Professional editors are knowledgeable about the how a manuscript becomes a published book, but for most editors that knowledge is surface knowledge. Few editors have had experience in design, mockup, PR, advertising, distribution, hiring of other needed services, etc. What they know is how to edit; that is, how a sentence should be put together.

    Publishers are not editors (usually; where the publisher is a 1-person operation, that 1-person wears all the hats; I am speaking of the larger, traditional multiauthor, multititle publisher) nor are they designers or any of the other things they do. What they do is know what is needed and know how to hire the people to do what is needed. Although we say that GM builds cars, it isn’t GM the corporation that builds cars. GM hires the engineers and production line personnel who actually build cars. Saying GM builds cars is simply shorthand that everyone understands. The same is true with publishers.

    Among editors there are different types of editors who do decidedly different types of tasks. A copyeditor is not the same as a developmental editor who is not the same as a permissions editor. You ask: “But don’t editors know the industry just as well, since they are employed by these publishers? Wouldn’t the self-publishing author be just as well-served by a freelance editor, and maybe some contract PR or social media help?”

    My answer is no. Editors know their specialty areas well. A person who has done copyediting for 10 years is likely to be a very good copyeditor. That does not make them a good developmental editor and gives them zero knowledge about how to get a book distributed. Especially not if they work freelance and thus are insulated from observing what else goes on in the office.

    Not all books published by a traditional publisher receive the same treatment. There are differences within a publisher as well as among publishers. And a publisher like Simon & Schuster that publishes thousands of books each year employs numerous editors, some of whom are better than others, which is why some S&S books are well edited and some are not. As with all other professions, not all editors are equal in skill, knowledge, etc.

    As for the self-publishing author hiring professional freelance editors, sure they can. But many do not and too many of those that do hire on the basis of price rather than skills. More importantly, when they do hire they usually do not know what services they need to hire the editor to perform. At least once a week I get an inquiry from a self-publishing author asking me to quote a price to copyedit their manuscript. In 100% of the cases, when I ask exactly what they mean by copyediting, the answer makes clear that they have no idea of what copyediting is and what it includes and excludes.

    In 90% of the cases, after looking at a few pages of the manuscript it is clear that developmental editing is needed. I explain the difference between developmental editing and copyediting, why developmental editing is needed, and that only after developmental editing should they proceed with copyediting (which should be followed by proofreading).

    The author then asks again about cost. As soon as price is mentioned, the conversation ends. Usually I am told that the cost far exceeds the author’s budget. When I ask what the budget is, I am not surprised at how unrealistic it is.

    The other problem, besides cost and understanding the different types of editing, that self-publishing authors need to deal with, and which few deal with well, is determining who to hire. Even if money is not an obstacle, knowing how to find the right editor and how to determine if an editor is a professional are not easy. Publishers have been doing these assessments for years and even they sometimes get it wrong. But imagine how much more difficult it is for the author who may need to hire an editor once every 5 years.

    Traditional publishers do serve a role and they do provide services. They do not provide all services equally to all authors and not all employees of all publishers are equal in knowledge or skills. But to say that that the self-publisher can fulfill the panoply of roles that a traditional publisher fills as well as the publisher or even better is to ignore the hurdles that the self-publisher has to surmount. It is not that it cannot be done; it can. Rather, it is that few self-publishers have either the time or the money to invest in learning and mastering what traditional publishers are still learning and mastering.

    We can all point to the handful of self-publishers who have done it all and done it well and successfully. But for every 1 we can point to, there are at least 250, if not more, who can be pointed to who haven’t. Need we go any further than to look at Smashwords’ catalog?

  6. @Barry, I’m aware of the irony that I, as the editor of this piece, missed the typo. Liked should have been linked, and it’s been fixed.

    It’s not that bloggers like Joanna are unaware of literacy. As her editor, I find her pieces to be of high quality overall. However, as both writer and editor, I’m aware that you can’t edit your own work, which is why the editorial role is so important. Even editors are human, though, and we make mistakes. It’s why, as a reader, I’m forgiving of a limited number of errors in the books I purchase or blogs I read.

  7. @Rich, you’re right. Developmental editing is expensive if done well, and yes, many self-published authors could benefit from it. However, because it’s expensive, in your experience, how many traditional publishers are taking the time to do it? My impression (which could be wrong) is that they are passing on the manuscripts which need it in favor of manuscripts which need less developmental work. If I’m correct, that’s another barrier to entry for the author with potential who needs coaching on how to improve a story. If they can’t get published by a traditional publisher and can’t afford developmental editing, what’s the choice?

    I tend to agree with the advice to go ahead and self-publish. Accept the feedback (good and bad), learn from it and then write a better book next time. Or go back fix the existing book once the author has hit the “million words” mark and has a decent idea of what he’s doing. Failing that, write a bunch of fanfiction, which isn’t a bad way to write a million words and get some level of feedback.

    My point is that right now there’s a need for good options for authors who need coaching to learn their craft. Writing workshops may work for some, but even those have to be selected with care. Fortunately, I ignored the feedback I received in one creative writing class. If I had listened to that idiot, I’d never have written another word of fiction, and I would have missed the experience I’m having now with self-publishing shamelessly genre fiction.

  8. @Richard, I recognize your experience, and still have to say that in the slightly messier real world there are not always “different types of editors who do decidedly different types of tasks.” My editing partners and I do what needs doing to a client’s manuscript, whether that’s help with grammar and punctuation, pointing out inconsistencies in plot or character, suggesting more research into the area of the book, or any of dozens of things that book might need. Most authors won’t hire three different editors for one book, and a lot of editors have experience in more than one editing task.

    @Barry, you said “Authors hiring free lance editors will fix superficial errors in English, but do nothing to stop the flow of titles that need rejection letters. Maybe a few free lance editors would be up to the task of turning away a job by telling the author the book is beyond hope of fixing – but more would take the money and run.”

    I believe this shows a lack of experience in working with editors. Editing is damned hard work, and attempting to apply editing plasters to books that need to go back to their authors for another rewrite or two is ridiculously difficult and not in any way worth the money. We turn down any and every book we feel is not ready for what we do. It’s mind-consuming enough to edit the ones that are.

  9. @Bridget.

    I have little experience in working editors, true; but I have full confidence in shysters trying to money on people (writers) who don’t know any better. They will sell services that will be of little to no use to the writers. If you’re an English major looking for work would you rather apply plasters to a wretchedly poor text or scrub dishes in a greasy spoon? Smashwords will accept irregardless of the editing, so why would an unscrupulous free lance editor care?

    I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d give long odds on a good indie author finding a good free lance editor and collaborating to create a good book. I’m sure can happen now and then, but the bookie isn’t getting my action.

  10. @Greg, I agree with you that crooks are everywhere, and especially thick on the ground the greater the need for legitimate help. The odds may be against finding a good freelance editor, but nevertheless there are many, many writers who have sifted through what’s available and done so. Not all writers are entirely dense as to what constitutes good editing, thought I certainly won’t claim that all writers recognize the bad.

  11. Deborah Smith // July 10, 2014 at 8:21 pm //

    Framing this question as “publisher = editor” is beyond absurd. It’s like asking, “Which do you prefer, a car with wheels, or just a car?”

    Publishing houses are far, far more than just Places Where Editors Live. All one needs to do is Google Wikipedia for some essential info on all the many facets involved in the basic publishing house process: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publishing.

    Yes, kids, you can hire yourself an editor. But in order to match the resources of even a small publishing like the one I run, you’d also need to hire a marketing staff, copyeditor, web mistress, accountant, interior designer, cover designer, legal advisor, and pay for liability insurance specific to publishing. You’d also want to bring in at least one fulltime assistant to manage and pursue sub-right sales, and someone with extensive knowledge of business contracts to argue with all the many distributor platforms where you sell your books. There’s lots more to it than that, but you get the idea.

  12. I saw the piece you mention and had pretty much the same objection to it; it’s well intentioned — or seemed so — but it conflated publishing with editing and didn’t quite manage to convince. My first reaction was pretty much exactly yours: of course editing is important. I think all writers should get an editor.

    I actually went back and forth about it with Susie via Twitter. My first tweet to her was “You know one can work with editors without going through a corporate publisher, right?” Because the post didn’t really indicate so. And yes, it does take some research to find a good editor and pay a good rate and get good services, but it doesn’t take any more research than that devoted to finding literary agents or writing a query.

    As for the other point, about knowing the book industry, I’m not sure that’s a great strength, either. Let’s be honest; readers like Susie and Bookriot are the minority. These are the people who still think their tastes can be catered to only by corporate publishers (albeit often small ones). It’s perhaps a vocal minority, especially online, but readers over the past several years have demonstrated time and time again that they’re interested in books no matter the genre or the method of distribution. They’re equally as interested as independent work published via Kindle Direct Publishing as they are the titles produced by corporations. They simply don’t care.

    You can’t solve tomorrow’s problems using yesterday’s solutions, is what I’m getting at. The way forward is not the way things have always been done, and honestly, the more you learn about the corporate publishing industry (low advances. Low royalties. Absurd tastes. No real marketing research. Returns. Etc.), the less it makes sense and likely the less you want to use it. I learned enough about the corporate publishing industry while studying my MFA that I thought there must be a better way; I had to go earn an MBA to figure out what that might be, and it’s pretty much the opposite of the way the corporate publishing industry operates.

  13. Good editors of any kind> publishers of any kind

    I don’t care who the publisher is of any book I read unless it’s one that I won’t buy from but I do care that the books I buy have been edited well.

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