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The Editor’s Job in the Digital Age

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by Linda Nix, Founder, Golden Orb Creative —

Linda Nix

Linda Nix

Although e-books are no longer the novelty they were only three years ago, the publishing industry is still experiencing massive disruption from the effects of the digital revolution. Considering three different aspects of today’s publishing landscape, I arrive at one conclusion: The role of the editor is paramount and likely to increase in importance.

Aspect A: The Increasing Complexity of E-Book Production

Clearly, book production has become exponentially more difficult in the digital age, as outlined in Jean Kaplansky’s 2012 Digital Book World article Keeping Up with Fixed Layout Support: What, Where, and Huh?

Kaplansky’s useful article outlines the multiplicity of fixed layout e-book formats and the associated complexity in e-book production. When I read it, I wondered why anyone would go to such lengths to satisfy so many requirements only to recreate print layouts onscreen, and I was gratified to see comments from designer and e-book expert Anne-Marie Concepcion along the same lines.

As she pointed out, “Books with dense passages of text, multiple columns of 10- or 12-pt. type such as is found in scientific, technical, and medical textbooks, or even verbose cookbooks, are almost impossible to read for longer than a few minutes even on a relatively large screen like an iPad; and so are little more than a curiosity for the reader and a pretty showpiece for the publisher.”

Concepcion recommended that these books “be redesigned for the medium” or sold as PDFs from the publishers’ sites “until a better solution is found.”

In other words, publishers need to match content with format. As Concepcion noted, “If you want readers to engage with your content in a reasonably traditional linear narrative fashion, then perhaps an app’s features will be more distraction than enhancement. But if your content lends itself to interactivity, hyperlinking, embedded multimedia, and so on, then the flexibility of an app may be better than the limitations of even the most enhanced e-book readers.” (See also my article Apps: An Overview for the Undecided.)

For some time, I wondered whether it was laziness or lack of skills that made book designers wedded to fixed layout, when redesigning content to suit a reflowable format yields so many more benefits. But then I recalled that reorganizing content isn’t the book designer’s job. Content selection, organization, and markup are tasks for—indeed the forte of—the editor.

It’s the editors who are best placed to decide on content organization and presentation, and to advise designers accordingly. This is practical only, of course, if both editors and designers are aware of what’s possible, what works and what doesn’t, in the digital production environment.

Aspect B: Digital Production Skills

E-book designers currently need coding skills, just as Web designers in the 1990s needed to be able to code in HTML. The absurdity of this situation is elegantly outlined in an article by Baldur Bjarnason called “The End of E-Book Development.”

Bjarnason outlines a vision for the future in which e-book developers code tools and functionality for e-book apps, but don’t do visual design coding, which is handled by built-in templates and themes. Think WordPress or Joomla for e-books.

I think Bjarnason is right, and it will be up to the content creators to select appropriate themes or templates and their application to specific content. Bjarnason doesn’t address who will be assembling the e-book content in these new tools, but, again, it makes sense for content organization and selection to be handled by people experienced and skilled in this area: editors, or authors assisted by editors.

Aspect C: The Rise of Self Publishing

Obviously, authors are already taking advantage of lower barriers to publishing and e-book production to self-publish; if Bjarnason is right, the means will only become easier. This third aspect of the digital revolution also involves an increasingly important role for the editor.

Although some self-published books turn into runaway successes, these are still the exception. Too many suffer from poor writing, poor organization, and so many typos that they get in the way of the story. These mistakes are editorial mistakes. You can accept some such flaws on an amateur Website— heading fonts that don’t quite work, a typo here and there—as long as the navigation is clear and the content is accessible and useful. But a site that is riddled with spelling mistakes, poorly structured at both site and page level, and impossible to navigate will quickly encourage visitors to leave, never to return.

The scenario is even stronger for books. Good writers still need editors, and in my experience the better the writers are, the more likely they are to appreciate the value an editor brings to their work. Obviously, bad writers need editors even more, whether they know it or not. Unfortunately, there is no built-in review process that alerts self-publishing authors to the level of editorial work needed, from light copyediting to rewriting.

Publishers rely on editors to assess a work—not only its quality but the amount of work needed to meet the publisher’s standards—before taking it on. With the rise of self-publishing, good authors, or at least those who respect their potential readers, will increasingly seek out editorial services.

Content organization is a key editorial skill. A recent post in a book design group on LinkedIn asked for ideas on designing a book with different kinds of footnotes. The discussion revolved around whether the designer should solve the tricky design issues (she was thinking sidebars might work better for the notes that were comments rather than citations) or whether the designer should recommend changing the structure of the content.

Like others in this LinkedIn group, I think the book’s editor should have resolved such issues before production or have provided a good design brief. Eventually the designer who posted the query revealed that the author was self-publishing and had used a personal friend as the editor. In other words, the book had not been professionally edited.

In this case, difficulties arose for a print-on-paper edition. Given the issues with footnotes in e-books, I wonder how they would have been addressed for any e-book edition. And I realized once more that the value of a professional editor who understands both page design for print and e-book design cannot be overstated.

The Skills Today’s Editors Need

To begin with, today’s editors need the same skills as yesterday’s editors:

  • a thorough knowledge and love of language
  • the ability to structure and organize content at both macro and micro levels, for both text and illustrations (whether graphic, tabular, or other)
  • contextual and style knowledge in their special field(s)
  • the ability to pay attention to detail
  • the desire to do the best job possible for both authors and readers
  • a working knowledge of production processes (once only for print but now for digital formats too)

Possibly, they also need to learn to code. I’m not convinced of that but coding can be a useful skill, and a good editor shouldn’t be daunted by code: it’s mostly words after all.

Coding involves syntax, semantics, hierarchies, elegance of expression, macro and micro structural organization, attention to detail to the point of pedantry, and some understanding of the domain (context).

Editors have more in common with coders than anyone likes to admit. And learning to code for EPUB, which is quite simple, does not mean learning Java or C++ for software development. A working knowledge of XML and HTML code for EPUB is useful for editors so they can eliminate content that will cause issues in e-book reading devices or apps; so they can alert their e-book developers or designers to potentially awkward content that needs special treatment; and so they can troubleshoot issues that get through the production phase.

In an upcoming issue, I’ll demystify XML for editors in detail. Meanwhile, whatever else may be unclear about the future of the digital revolution, that future is bright for skilled editors willing to adapt and learn.

Linda Nix has 20 years of publishing experience in production, editing, commissioning, and marketing roles. Since launching Golden Orb Creative, her editing and production business, in 2010, she has worked with trade and academic publishers, self-publishers, and authors on fiction and nonfiction books and with businesses and individuals on other kinds of content. She is publisher and editor at Lacuna Publishing, which she founded with her partner in 2012, and a professional member of the Society of Editors (NSW). To learn more: goldenorbcreative.com.

© Copyright Linda Kythe Nix 2013. All rights reserved.

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