Monday, October 1, 2012

The Editing Apocalypse, or Why Authors Need Editors

The following is the transcript of a guest of honour speech I made at the Conflux 8 convention in Canberra on Saturday 29 September, 2012.

My name’s Keith Stevenson. I’m a writer, reviewer and podcaster. I’m also a past editor of Aurealis Magazine and currently the publisher and editor with coeur de lion publishing, an independent press specialising in Australian speculative fiction. And it’s the editing side of things I’d like to talk to you about today, and specifically the editing apocalypse that is upon us. That may sound overly dramatic, but it’s something that is a distinct possibility.
The Global Financial Crisis and growing technological pressures are putting traditional editing processes under severe stress. But should authors and readers care? Books can still be written without editors, can’t they?
Even someone who is not connected in any way with printing or publishing will know that there are huge changes happening in the industry. Look at the amazing rise of ebooks, and the proliferation of digital ereading devices, and apps that let you read books even on your phone. Look at the incredible market dominance of Amazon with its Kindle reader. Look at the iPad, the iPhone and Android tablets and smartphones, and how we are beginning to consume the written word in different ways, reading our newspapers and magazines online wherever we happen to be. Look at the lay-offs and ‘consolidations’ of editorial and journalistic staff here in Australia at News Limited and Fairfax Media and in a whole range of companies overseas. Look at the closures and amalgamations of well-established publishing houses like Murdoch Books. Look at how easy it is now for authors to sidestep traditional publishers and use the internet to quickly and cheaply self-publish, market and sell their own books. Look at how the ‘content gatekeeper’ model traditionally controlled by the publishing houses has become fragmented, with everything available everywhere all the time.
Change can be good. But unmanaged change, change that is allowed to happen without proper consideration of the consequences, is not good. I’d like to take the next 30 or so minutes to talk about that. To tell you what’s happening inside the editing apocalypse, why you should care, and outline what I hope is a way forward for all of us, editors, writers and readers alike.
Firstly I’d like to look at what editing is. What’s good editing and what’s bad editing. I’ll preface my comments by saying I don’t believe I’m a good editor. I’m an okay editor. But I’ve had the privilege of seeing really top-class editors at work and I know what they do. As a writer, I’ve also had my fair share of experiences with good and bad editors alike.
There is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about what editors really do. It’s important that we change this state of affairs because writers need editors – whether they know it or not – just as much as editors need writers. And writers, particularly beginner writers, need to be able to recognise when they are getting good editing advice, and when they are getting bad editing advice.
Let’s start with a few editing horror stories before we look at what editors are meant to do. Just as there are many flavours of good editor, there are many types of bad editor. Probably the most insidious of the bad editor varieties is the editor who is the secret writer. These editors may be fooling themselves into thinking they are giving editing advice when what they’re really doing is rewriting the author’s work as if it were their own. Know the ‘secret author’ editor by the seemingly arbitrary changes in word choice or construction and the vague justifications for why they’ve changed your protagonist’s name. ‘Because it sounds better!’ Okay, in some cases they may be right, but as a writer it’s reasonable to expect editors to be able to explain in detail the reasons why they are suggesting changes. If you don’t agree with the reason, don’t make the change, and if this is happening frequently then maybe you need a different editor. Other editors of this sort will start to make suggestions for changes before they’ve finished reading the whole piece. How can they possibly give reasoned and effective advice when they don’t even know how the story is resolved?
I’m a writer as well as an editor and I know that a writer and an editor approach a piece of work in vastly different ways. As an editor, I respect the author’s voice and vision – just as I would want that respect for a piece of my own work. As a result I’m very tentative in suggesting specific rewrites or changes. I’m more likely to highlight what I believe is a problem area in a story and explain why I think that – outline the problem rather than suggest a solution. There’s a simple reason for this: the author’s story has grown organically over many early drafts. There are reasons, often very personal reasons – perhaps even at a subconscious level – why the story is the way it is. If the current draft contains problems, then the best way to solve those problems is for the writer to consider the issues raised and allow the solution to grow out of their earlier work. By comparison a suggested solution by an external party may work fine, but it may also feel riveted on, sitting ill at ease with the rest of the piece and destroying the overall flow. That’s the worst case scenario, of course, but as a general rule, once a problem has been identified the best solutions come from inside the writer’s head.
What else do writers need to look out for? Well, in May this year, first-time author Mandy De Geit created a small explosion in the blogosphere when she posted her experience of getting published in an anthology from Undead Press run by Anthony Giangregorio in the States. When she finally got her copy of the book, she found that not only was there a typo in the story’s title – one that rendered it incomprehensible – but the editor had, without any communication to the author:
·         turned a non-gendered character into a boy
·         invented a name for the character’s best friend
·         created a scene where the character has a memory about animal abuse, and
·         added a suggestion of rape at the end of the story.
Mandy was rightly angry about these changes, and Mr Giangregorio’s email response to her author query made her angrier. She said he told her she should be glad the changes were made, referred any further correspondence to his lawyer and then went on to say how her ‘ranting email’ had made him smile. Shortly after that, Mandy discovered Mr Giangregorio was notorious in certain writing circles. Look him up. It’s enough to enrage even the most timid author.
Anyway, Mandy’s story got a lot of comments, support and feedback, but it didn’t help the fact her story had been butchered As it transpired, Mr Giangregorio had farmed the actual editorial work out to a man called Vincenzo Bilof, who was very inexperienced. In a subsequent interview Vincenzo said he was encouraged by Giangregorio to ‘spice things up’ in the stories. He went on to say, ‘there were times that I didn't feel... comfortable with what I was doing, because I thought editing was supposed to be... different. There were many times where I voiced my worry and hesitation,’ and ‘I should have asked to do it the way that I believed to be “ethical”.’
Mandy suffered from a terrible combination of an inexperienced editor being guided by someone who shouldn’t be let loose near any kind of manuscript whatsoever. The best way to avoid a similar experience is to listen to feedback from other writers about their experiences with different markets and publications. The Predators & Editors website is good. And you can also check out sites like the Australian Society of Editors and the Freelance Editors’ Network for recommendations.
Of course there are other editors that do too little. Ellen Datlow was rightly crapped off by a little blog post entitled ‘How Editors Juggle Anthologies’ written by Shawn Speakman for the SUVUDU SF and Fantasy website. Shawn was talking about his experience in editing an original anthology called Unfettered and made the following statement: ‘I can tell you that the time it takes to work on an anthology is negligible. The work is not hard. In fact, it takes very little time although one must be an able communicator.’ And about the actual editing he did, he said: ‘I’m thankful so far that the stories I’ve received need barely any of it.’
Speaking as someone who put in many, many hours over two solid years to edit and publish the Anywhere But Earth anthology, I can confirm that what Shawn described is not editing. As Ellen Datlow said, ‘you’re not editing, you’re compiling.’ I can only guess at what the reading experience of Unfettered would be, because Shawn’s comments turned me off buying it. But you can be sure that – with a proper editor – the stories would be better after the editing process.
As I said, editors approach a piece differently from writers. Writers are concerned with telling their story as best they can. Some writers might think occasionally about how their piece will play out for an audience, but many don’t even give this a thought. This, however, is a strong focus for any editor. Authors might have a strong idea about what their piece is about, the overall theme and issues addressed. Some won’t, because they’re too close; they just have a story to tell. In other cases the theme the writer had in mind ends up not being what the story is about anyway because it changes as they write it. Editors are always looking for thematic meaning, because that is one key to sharpening the final story and making it relevant to the reader.
Good editors are the ultimate wingman – or woman. They’re not the writer’s friend or partner. They don’t need to say a thing is good when it’s not. They don’t go out of their way to hurt a writer – the best editors are very diplomatic in how they convey their reactions to a piece – but they will give the writer a considered, professional opinion about their writing. In this world, that is pure gold.
So what goes on in good editing? I’ll talk about the traditional model of editing, even though it’s fast being destroyed, but it’s useful to cover to help us think about what needs to come in the wake of the editing apocalypse.
At the outset of an edit, the editor will read the piece fully. As they’re reading, there’s a lot of things going on in their head. Of course they’re looking at the quality of the writing. Is it descriptive, evocative; is it well-paced or are there spots where the plot drags? Are the characters realistic, well rounded and suitably complex; is the world building consistent and creative; are the situations believable? But they’re also thinking about other things. Who is the target audience; how would they react to the story? What comparison titles are out in the market at present and how does this story compare? Does the plot hang together, and does it have enough twists and turns to satisfy the readership? What is the book about thematically; what is it trying to do and does it achieve that goal?
Editors think about all these things in general and specific terms. For large publishing houses, this type of work is traditionally done by readers, and the reader’s reports are usually provided to the commissioning editor or publisher who wants to know whether the book is worth further work. If the report is good, the commissioning editor will then read it, thinking about the same story elements and any issues highlighted in the report.
But authors can also commission this type of work directly if they know where to go, and I can’t stress enough how useful this can be for an author. Such a report can refocus them on their work and set them up for the next draft. It pinpoints areas that need work. Sometimes it lets them reorient towards a different sector or readership. Or really crystallises for them what the book is about. It’s a really exciting and deeply rewarding thing not just for the writer, but also for the editor who has given the feedback and sees the renewed vigour that this gives the writer.
Once the book has been accepted for publication, and generally after the writer has done further work based on the feedback, the book goes to the structural edit stage. This is another stage where big things happen. While the reader report would highlight major issues, the structural report looks at all the story elements in more detail: character, plotting, pacing, world building. Particularly for popular fiction, the plot is very important. The structural edit looks at how the plot progresses, whether the plot elements are in the right place to make sense, how the plot elements can be tweaked or augmented to increase reader enjoyment and excitement and to address any areas that don’t make sense. The editor brings to this task a great deal of experience in working with book structures. They are well read in the area and know how plots work; they’ve seen and worked with many examples of good plots and many examples of bad plots. They can apply this knowledge to the work at hand in a professional manner. Unlike the author, the editor doesn’t have personal ego invested in the work. In a way they’re freer than the author to really engage with and judge the work. It’s not objectivity as such – no-one can be entirely objective about a piece of work; that’s not how humans are made. But they put the book through an experienced assessment. Again, the good editor will highlight problem areas. They may suggest solutions, but they know that the best solutions come from the author once they’ve been alerted to the problem. All they are interested in is making the book the best it can be. That’s why the editor is the most trusted advisor an author can have.
I think you can see by this stage that the editor does a lot of work. And it also means a lot of work for the author. A thorough edit can be very challenging for the author, sending them back to the drawing board, or thinking about how to pull apart the story and put it back together again. The editor is with the writer every step of the way here. Teleconferences or face-to-face meetings can help the author work through the changes they’re making, bounce ideas off the editor and get the piece to a better, more cohesive place. Whole new scenes may be written at this stage, new characters introduced, existing characters combined or changed. All that pain and effort is ultimately rewarding. What comes out at the end of the structural edit is 100 per cent guaranteed to be better than what went in.
But it’s not over yet. Next comes the copyedit stage. This is where the focus is specifically on the language. Of course while reading the piece the editor will be checking that the structure is better now – or if they are a different editor, they’ll be looking to see that the structure works and will provide feedback on that if need be. But mainly they’ll be looking at the language. Do the words on the page actually say what they’re meant to say? Is there clarity in expression? Is there brevity? How does the language affect the pacing? Does the dialogue of each main character demonstrate a distinct voice, or do they all sound the same? Are character and place names spelt consistently? Are there any remaining plot or setting errors or inconsistencies? And, of course, many spelling and grammar errors will be picked up at this stage too.
All this goes back to the author to accept or reject as they see fit. Yes, if you see a clunky phrase in a finished book, there is a good chance it was pointed out as such by the editor but the author decided to leave it in. It’s the author’s work, after all, and their name on the cover.
The book is finally laid out in print and/or ebook format and a proofread is conducted. This again will pick up any errant spelling or grammar errors, or any other inconsistencies remaining. It also provides an opportunity to check that the text has not suffered any technical glitches while being laid out, and the styling of the book – the fonts, headings, page layout, etc – are correct.
Finally, the book is published and you hope someone buys a copy.
So there you have it. That is what goes into editing a book. It is a shitload of work for both the editor and the author. But the book is better for it, and I’d say the author is better for it. The editing process enables the author to engage with their work in a new way. They’ll draw on that experience in the next book they write, and that one will be better again.
I think it’s pretty clear at this point that my opinion of any writer who says their work doesn’t need to be edited is that they’re either lying, they’re stupid, or they haven’t actually written anything much. Sometimes it’s all three.
As I said at the outset, there’s been a kind of perfect storm forming over the past few years that is putting a serious squeeze on editors and the practice of editing. The GFC was only the latest expression of a phenomenon that was already at work in the publishing industry – the continual pressure on profit margins and the need to do more and more with less. The tension in large publishing houses between editorial and marketing, and who is ultimately responsible for selecting and developing content, seems to have been largely resolved in favour of marketing. It was always there, but more than ever the bottom line for any novel is ‘will it make money?’ Signed authors used to be assured of getting at least a couple of books with a publisher to see if they could build a fanbase before their contract was ‘reviewed’. But now it seems more likely that if you’re not an instant overnight success, you won’t get another shot with a publisher unless you are very, very lucky. You can’t really blame the companies. They’re fighting for survival in a tough market and if something isn’t profitable, it has to go. But that makes it tougher for authors – particularly unknown, first-time authors – to get a look in. You only need to look at the Australian market to see the truth of that.
But back to the main game. Financial concerns mean that editors have lost much of the power they used to have in selecting and bringing titles to market. The drop in profits means budgets for books have been tightened even more, which also means editors have been asked to do what they do for less money. A 100,000-word book still takes the same amount of effort to edit regardless of what the economics of a situation dictate.
And then there are ebooks. The public perception is that ebooks should cost less than physical books. There are no paper and printing costs, of course, and marginal storage and distribution costs. So from that point of view they should be cheaper. But again, it still takes the same amount of time and effort to edit an ebook. It’s still made of words. A sensible commercial organisation in an ideal world would recognise that and preserve the editing budget for a particular book while adjusting the costings for other traditional book production elements that are no longer required. But there are two factors at work here, internal and external. Internally, companies will always try to save money even if there are good arguments not to because that’s how you maximise profits and get an advantage over the competition. So in digital publishing the editing budget is being squeezed like every other element of the budget. Externally there’s Amazon, who with their aggressive pricing of ebooks have created an unrealistic expectation for the public of what an ebook should cost. As one author tweeted recently: ‘Just been abused by a reader for the $13 price tag on an ebook it took me 3 years to write – enjoy your $4 coffee.’
Momentum Books, who are doing great things in digital publishing, are selling new books for $2.99. I don’t understand how anyone can make money with that kind of pricing policy – or derive a usable budget. I suspect in Momentum’s case, parent company Pan Macmillan is willing to make a loss on Momentum in the short term in order to establish their web presence in the ebook market and encourage volume sales down the line, because it’s only with high-volume sales that something priced so low can actually make money.
We’ve reached the point in some companies now where there isn’t enough money to do a proper editing job. The choice for editors is to do unpaid work to make sure the product is the best it can be, or to do the best they can with the money they have. Many editors are saints, but even saints have to eat. That means the work is suffering, and ultimately the book is suffering.
And then there’s the other side of epublishing. I totally understand the frustration – and sometimes anger – of authors who have slaved over a book and just can’t get any publishing house to look at it. Anyone in that situation who believes in their work would have to seriously consider self-publishing, and it’s such an easy thing to do now.  After the umpteenth rejection, first-time author Joe or Jill reckons ‘stuff you, publishing house, I’ll do it on my own!’ and promptly follows the instructions to load their book on Kindle Digital Platform, or Smashwords or a plethora of other places that have sprung up on the internet in the last year or so. The trouble is that in many of these cases, while sticking two fingers up at the publishing houses Joe or Jill have also decided either they don’t need editorial help, or they don’t know how to get it, so the only alternative is to go it alone and get their novel out there. Let the work speak for itself. Maybe they’ll sell a million and then watch those publishing houses come begging and crawling to them. Well, it might happen, but we can’t all be EL James. And some of us don’t want to be. A lot of people have read 50 Shades of Grey, but I haven’t heard anyone say it’s really well-written, has a really well-constructed plot, fantastic characters, realistic dialogue and so on. If you’re a writer and you don’t care if people react that way to your work, then you’re in the wrong Conflux session.
I’ll make a prediction. EL James will make a lot of money but she won’t have longevity as an author. She won’t be well regarded by readers, critics, other authors in the long run. Some may not care about that. But I’ve worked with a lot of Australian authors who do. They want their work to be the best it can be, to resonate with the reader, to astound, entertain, and leave the reader wanting more. They’re concerned with intellectual and artistic intent, with stylistic expression. They can’t do all that entirely on their own.
My fear is that continuing economic pressures and the self-publishing phenomenon will squeeze the current professional editing workforce out of a job. If they are replaced it will be by well-meaning but far less experienced junior editors who will do the job more cheaply but not as well. The work will suffer. Readers will either be turned off reading or they will learn to accept work that – to put it diplomatically – does not reach its full potential. Or, if you want it more bluntly, work that is substandard and just plain crap. If that happens, it will truly be the editing apocalypse. It might even be the writing apocalypse.
But I’m more hopeful than that, and I can already see the beginnings of a new way of producing written work.
Authors who know the valuable work that editors do are increasingly seeking out and working closely with freelance editors to develop raw drafts through an ongoing mentorship. Others are commissioning editors to undertake structural edits on their pieces. This is how they hone their work before submitting it to the publishing house. It’s the best way to ensure that their work is presented in the best possible light to a potential publisher. And it immediately gives their work a leg up against anyone else who’s subbed a manuscript that hasn’t had the benefit of a proper edit.
Other authors, particularly those who have a profile already or who are particularly savvy in manipulating social media are going the whole hog and sidestepping the publishing house route altogether. They’re engaging editors to provide the full treatment: developmental work, structural edit, copy edit and proofread, then they either send their book off to an ebook conversion house, or use the many free and powerful tools available on the internet to create their own epub and mobi files and sell through Amazon, Smashwords, iBooks and maybe even their own website. Many small businesses offering the full range of book editing and ebook production services directly to authors are also springing up.
That’s a great thing, but of course some of these businesses are not all they’re cracked up to be. Remember what I said about bad editors? If you’re going to invest your own money in someone to edit your work, I encourage you to check references.
But more and more, this is becoming a viable way for authors to go. And that’s what I’d like to encourage. If you didn’t already, you know now just what a valuable contribution editors make to authors’ works. That’s what I’d like to see happening more and more. We all love books – editors, authors, readers. We want Australian voices to be heard worldwide, we want those voices to be as clear and sharp and beautiful as possible. If you’re an author and you can’t or don’t want to go down the traditional publishing path, don’t forget what editors can do for you. Be smart enough to know that what you write can always be improved with input from a professional editor. Respect your own work enough to let it really shine. Because for a novel – just as in life – you only get one chance to make a first impression.

Over on the Narrative Transport blog, author Michael Pryor has posted a very good piece about the editing process from the author’s point of view that I’d encourage any writer about to embark on the editing process to read.


Anonymous said...

I'm just starting out as an editor, but one guideline that I use whenever I read fiction (that I haven't edited) is this: Are all of the questions that the story raises in my head answered by the end of the story?

I find that the fewer unanswered questions there are ("Oh, ok, so *that's* why that certain piece of info in Chapter 3 was significant."), the happier I am with the story. If there are questions that aren't answered, either they have to remain unanswered for a damn good reason, or the story must remain ambuguous for a reason.

This is actually why I tend not to read a lot of mystery books - the stories raise a lot of questions that I don't feel are answered satisfactorily.

Keith Stevenson said...

Thanks, Christina, and that's a good rule of thumb, particularly for popular/ genre fiction where some kind of resolution - if not a complete one - is certainly part of the reader's expectations.