Of all the attributes necessary for a publisher to have, editing is the one I’m worst at doing. Editors are born not made, and my close attention to detail chromosome must have been left behind along with the neatness one.
I’m referring, of course, to copy editing. One of the many joys of this strange industry is that the same term, editor, can apply to so many actual tasks within a publishing company-production editors, executive editors, managing editors, acquisition editors, copy editors. I’ve discovered that I just can’t be a good copy editor, and I long ago learned to have experts do it.
Editing comes up as the topic of this month’s President’s column, though, because of an article in a recent issue of The New York Times about the dearth of editing talent in New York City publishing houses. These same New York publishing firms used to be the bastions of quality in this business as well as the dominators of the marketplace-and they increasingly are becoming neither. Not only are harried staff members unable to edit manuscripts the way they used to, they can’t even manage to hire competent freelancers to do it for them. Authors and their agents are now hiring their own personal editors to deal with manuscripts before they even dare send them to the publishing houses.
Does this matter? We already expect many of our authors to deliver their final manuscript on disc, properly formatted, and frequently to bear the brunt of their own marketing arrangements as well. And some houses, even reputable ones, even expect authors to front up the initial printing costs. So why not ask them to edit their own manuscripts too? Well, many PMA members have decided that if this is a requirement, why not do the whole thing themselves and take the financial rewards from the book too, and it’s pretty obvious why this has become an attractive option. But whether you’re publishing your own work, or someone else’s, editing is absolutely essential. It’s one of the key elements of the publisher’s job, and it’s irresponsible simply to ignore it or to leave it to someone else to take care of.
A case in point emerged a few years ago with D. H. Lawrence’s classic Sons and Lovers. His heirs produced a “new” version of the book which was in fact his original version. His editors had severely cut back on this version, saying it was way too long and tedious, and a furious correspondence began with D.H.L. denouncing his editor in typically Lawrentian language. But a few months after the book appeared and became so quickly a classic, he wrote back saying how right they had been all along. The reissued version which reinstated the “authorial intention” left no doubt that it would have been left long unread if the editor’s pen had not been at work.
Good editing is not simply grammar and spelling and sentence construction-it’s understanding the purpose and intention of the author and helping the author to express their point in a more succinct way than they had. Every book, every article can benefit from a good editor, and whatever your subject matter and your length, you must ensure that every book you publish has been professionally edited. If there was a Hippocratic Oath for publishers, this would be included.
Like anyone else you hire, be sure that you give your editor a proper brief. Find out which house style guide they tend to use, or if you have a preferred one, make sure they’re familiar with it. Personally, if an author has an unusual usage throughout the manuscript that isn’t wrong, I would prefer to let it be rather than to painstakingly (and expensively) correct it all the way through, and then have an author correct it back again. If the writing is idiomatic, maybe you want it to stay that way. We had a wonderful novel in our Jewish Lives series that worked because the author’s fractured English came through in the manuscript and you could hear his voice. By the time the editor had finished with it, it was rendered into perfect American English and was utterly charmless, and we had to unedit the whole thing (it then got a rave review in The New York Times). You must know how you want the book to read, and make sure your editor knows it too.
Many of those who pick up your book to consider it for purchase are very experienced bookpeople. If they see a badly written sentence or poor editing early on, they will put that book straight back. As important as covers, your marketing campaign, and good production are, a poorly edited book will never succeed.