Is the (self-)Editor dead? Not here, she isn’t

“As an aspiring novelist and current student of an MA in creative writing, I dream of working with an editor. Not just any old editor but one assigned to me by a publishing house. For me, this is the holy grail of writing. That’s why I’m against self-publishing a book. I feel it circumvents the real business of writing, which is editing. Any writer worth their salt knows that a book goes through several drafts before it’s fit to be read.” Tasha Smith’s blog ‘Is the Editor dead?’ in the Huffington Post

The quality of editing in contemporary fiction has reportedly been in decline for some years, and a New York Times article as long ago as 1998 bewailed the knock-on effects of the massive increasing commercial pressures on editorial staff in the major publishing houses. Not only were publishing house editors failing to find sufficient time to devote to the activity of scrutinising a manuscript for mistakes, inaccuracies and typographical errors, but they were also unable to devote the time to being what the NY Times described as the author’s “romantic ideal of an editor as a confessor and critic”. Increasingly, the article described, authors were proactively employing their own editors not only to help identify mistakes, but also to shape manuscripts to prevent rejection or cancellation. Now, there may be a confusion here between activities more traditionally associated with proof-reading (typos, poor grammar, accuracy) and more stylistic attention to flow, pacing, unnecessary elaboration and so on, but it is the notion of the editor as critic which stands out.

Two years ago, Salman Rushdie publicly criticised JK Rowling’s editors for not being more ruthless in the fashioning of her longer Harry Potter books, saying “editors let J.K. get away with too much because no one wants to challenge the ‘goose that lays the golden eggs….The long books started to have long passages that any editor would normally have the courage to cut'”. What is being suggested here? That Rowling’s books would somehow have been less commercially appealing had they been ruthlessly edited for length and her detailed descriptive style? That Rowling’s literal author-ity should not be undermined, because commercial success is a more objective arbiter of narrative credibility than the opinion of an editor? That Rowling herself was unable to judge how much was too much, when it came to the relationship between quantity and quality?

Either of these last two could be what is being implied by Huffington blogger Tasha Smith, when she talks about the need for redrafting in the pursuit of… Of what? What does Smith mean by “it’s fit to be read”? Every author seeks to publish the very best book they can, a book that will engage, entice and immerse, and not distract, dismay or at worst irritate and annoy. And certainly errors and typos are something which do annoy and should be eradicated before publication. Independent (or self-)published writers may not have a professional organisation behind them to provide those layers of scrutiny, so they may often rely on themselves or on friends to undertake that process for them.

But the process of critical review for qualities of readability is quite different. The relationship with an editor is, in some ways, like the relationship with a literary agent. It is one of trust and, to some extent, one in which responsibility for judging the book’s quality is handed over. Handed over, not shared. Because the implication of this process, one with which I have extensive experience, is that the author does not have the final word on what stays in the print-published draft. The editor does.

And so it can be argued that an independently-published author is actually taking far more responsibility for the final quality of their book than an author who is signed to a publishing house. Because even if an indie-published author asks a dozen of their friends to read the book, or even pays a professional editor to review it, they are under no obligation to take the criticisms that are offered. Despite Ms Smith’s implication, indie-published authors do draft and redraft as frequently as any author whose shoulder is overlooked by a publishing house editor, not least because they take the total and final responsibility for the quality of their books. If they publish a book directly to Kindle and it isn’t good enough, then they cannot hide behind the reputation of the publishing house that signed them and the expectation that at least the publishers think the book has credibility.

It is true that not all authors are as good at self-editing as others, whether signed to a publishing house or indie-publishing their own work. Certainly the objectivity offered by a reader rather than a writer can be enormously insightful in hauling the writer out of the means of production, and blinking into the light of reception. All authors should consider that distinction, if they are to be sure that what they have written is the same as what they want people to read. But what appeals to many indie-publishing authors is the potential to publish exactly the book they want to publish, and not one which is watered down by ever-increasing and ever more distancing layers of opinion. Opinions that in a publishing house reflect issues of marketing or the pigeonhole of a genre, and not the original intentions of the author. Perhaps JK Rowling’s editors didn’t edit her later books down because they were not pursuing the best crafted books they could be, but were after books which most closely reflected the expectations of the readership who had come to enjoy the detailed minutiae as well as the ever more complicated plots.

Editing does fulfil an important function, and it serves different authors in different ways. But the real business of writing is writing. And the shaping of content, style and pacing should not be considered as something done after the writing is over. Indie-published authors probably know the agony of this better than anyone. For what comes with embedding the editing process within the craft of writing, is the authority of knowing that the book is their own.

For indie publishing is about so much more than getting sales. It is about honesty, ownership… and independence.

4 thoughts on “Is the (self-)Editor dead? Not here, she isn’t

  1. Pingback: Guardian Books: A step in the right direction | allonymbooks

  2. Can this be a trend? Two posts in less than a week that suggest writers might actually be capable of editing their own work? And not just grammar, word usage, etc. Your last paragraph should be placed on a plaque, the letters embossed and gilded. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your kind comments on my blogposts. Glad to have echoed your own thoughts about editing and I am honoured at the thought of a plaque! More seriously, my experience of print publishing is that editors often assume you didn’t intend to write something the way you did, and use that as their justification when they set out to change it. And there are times when I think that should just not be someone else’s responsibility or decision.

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