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The Editor’s Tasks in the Digital Age

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The Editor’s Tasks in the Digital Age

by Nicholas Blake

Having joined the industry 20 years ago, before we had computers, before we had email, and before the Web, if not the Internet, was invented, I have seen the growing influence of technology and the Internet all my working life; but the essential skills required of editors—the coherent set of knowledge and the techniques for applying that knowledge—have not changed radically.

And the way editors publish books has not changed radically either. A straw poll in our office agreed that an editor of 1988 who time-jumped to 2008 would, apart from the slight problem of not having read anything for the last20 years, be able to edit and publish successfully. Sad to say, though, the idea that using any tool more sophisticated than Outlook or Word requires a separate skill set that can be delegated is unlikely to disappear for the foreseeable future.

In my view, there is no need for a digital editor as such in a trade publishing house. Instead we need an editor who understands the digital world. Editors have always been needed who can publish into new markets, who can create new markets, and editors are still needed who can publish into new digital markets with the same expertise they publish print books, often at the same time with the same material, and that’s where new knowledge is needed.

Although other publishers have come to different conclusions, notably Penguin UK (with 30 to 40 staff who have half their roles based on digital projects), the two most important decisions we made at Macmillan while devising our digital program were:

locate the editorial process for e-books directly in the editorial department for books, once the digital team has established the workflow and processes

publish our standard e-books at the same level of editorial quality as our paper books, with the same content as far as the technology allows

These two together meant it was natural for editors to work on most of their titles as if they were destination-neutral.

New Knowledge, Not a New Set of Skills

All trade publishers are, or should be, at least in the early stages of incorporating new ways of composing and creating texts, and of considering what texts are, but just because Web 2.0 encourages new ways for readers and writers to get involved with each other, it doesn’t follow that publishers want to, or can, take advantage of them. In a way, the healthier and more active this reader-collaborative culture is, the less likely it is that a publisher will want to become involved for fear of contaminating it.

And delivering chunked text in new forms, both printed and virtual, is still a one-to-many publishing process. Even interesting new writing forms, such as Keitai Bunko in Japan, or distribution forms, such as MPS Mobile’s Global Reader, aren’t radically different, as reflected by the fact that many Keitai are subsequently published in traditional print form, as of course are some of the most popular blogs.

Writing that uses new media by incorporating visuals, sound, movies and so on in different delivery platforms—such as the new Sony Reader, Alternate Reality Games mixing narrative and interaction by readers and contributors, self-published material, collaborative wikinovels, and other kinds of informal or extraformal creativity—produces exactly the kind of material that a traditional trade publishing house, however innovative, finds it very difficult to use, or even acknowledge, in a publishing process. And it’s unlikely to be seriously practical in the short term, which means until someone can think of a way to make money out of it—a task complicated by the fact that digital projects are typically seen by customers and authors as free or very low-cost, when in fact they’re often more expensive than traditional ones because of the high set-up and development costs.

Such projects are seen and will continue to be seen as peripheral to the editorial process, something that happens outside the editorial department, created by the digital or the marketing department and brought to editorial to be realized, and when they’re approved it’s the editor who has the relationship with the agent and with the author who will attract the readers/players/contributors.

In brief, it’s the marketing people who have managed this change, and as long as most of a publisher’s content is sold as books—whether print or digital, and whether through stores or the Web—it’s marketing that will have to continue to change the most to find new readers and new ways of reaching readers, to create a new post-publishing process, a sort of après-lit, which makes clever and effective use of reader involvement through Web sites and with social-networking tools.

A Checklist for the Digital Age

That being so, editors involved with content in both print and digital forms should focus on specific areas where new knowledge will be needed.

Get the rights.

Understand localization. It may be cheaper to produce a single global edition, but how will this affect, or effect, sales?

Be aware of the moral rights included in the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, and of their applicability to material in new formats.

When commissioning indexes, state that the index will be used in all editions; if the index is written by the author, you can’t publish the e-book minus the index without the author’s permission.

Assign ISBNs correctly. Each format of a title needs a unique ISBN, in e-books as in print.

Understand version control and decide on a strategy. This is an issue that each publisher will have to confront for itself; as far as I am aware, there is no standard or recommended policy, unlike with print books. Our current converter is a part of the company that also owns our printer, so we have automatic resupply of the e-book file when corrections and updates are made to a print edition, and oure-books can always be up to date, but this may not be practicable or even appropriate for other publishers.

Get to know your output formats. In particular, know what each does well and badly and prepare your books appropriately for formats such as MS Reader, Mobipocket, and ADE (Adobe Digital Editions), among others. Only the editor can decide what is right for each book.

Get to know your conversion or output process. ADE officially imports from XML; Mobipocket from HTML, Word, PDF, or text; MS Reader from Word. But all the native converters have limitations, some are not properly documented, and some books may not be appropriate for conversion at all.

Understand metadata and decide on its importance for your electronic books. Creation and storage of accurate metadata will be one of the most important issues in their production, and not always in obvious or predictable areas.

Build metadata-friendly elements into your books at the earliest stages.

Understand a digital workflow. It will be different for every publisher, but some of the obvious considerations are:

Will your typesetters output the finished material in a form that requires extra conversion?

How much, if any, checking of the result will be required, and who will do it?

If there will be material unique to thee-book, how will it be produced?

Can the production of certain recurring elements, such as copyright pages, cover images, and thumbnails, be automated?

Should internal cross-references be replaced, and if so, can this be done automatically, or will they have to be indicated for the converter?

And so on . . .

For Additional Insights

As you have probably noticed, these points range from the simple to the complex. Editors who need help with technological challenges would traditionally have been able to find it by asking colleagues, including IT, production, and marketing specialists, but while sharing knowledge and skills is increasingly important, the world ofe-books is moving so fast that at least a third of what you need to know will be one of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.”

There are reference books, trade journals (in print and online), and Web and Internet sites, and everyone will have their own bookmarks (of course I recommend thedigitalist.net, where I write; and O’Reilly Radar at radar.oreilly.com is indispensable for the wider issues, particularly in an American context), but the place to start is the obvious one: look at your competitors’ Web sites, and buy theire-books.

What have they done well? What can you emulate? What mistakes can you avoid? Google the formats in which you plan to publish and look at the applications’ forums—what do their users like, dislike, want, hate, long for? Look at fansites for your authors—what, if anything, do their readers want that they’re not getting in print? Talk to your authors—what can they contribute that was too expensive or difficult, or even impossible, in print? Talk to your converters or potential converters—what are they good at, bad at, what do they overcharge for, what extras can they offer that will improve youre-books?

Most important, as editors, start thinking deeply about what you can publish in e-book formats that you haven’t, as well as that you have, published before. And then work out how you’re going to pay for it.

Nicholas Blake is an editorial manager for Picador, and for the last two years also for Pan Macmillan’se-book and online publishing program. This article is based on a talk he gave to the Society of Young Publishers. All opinions expressed in it are the author’s and are not necessarily those of Pan Macmillan. To contact him, email N.Blake@macmillan.co.uk.



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