The Value of Edtiors


by - July 22nd, 2010


The advent of ebooks and online writing often brings to light an old argument about the value of editorial. The cost of printing and distributing a book, while hardly insignificant, is generally not as large as many people think. Nonetheless, ebook prices are set far lower than print books (compare the $AU14.99 average on the Kindle store to the $AU34.99 average RRP for a new release book). And this seems to be a persistent trend for digital content in general. People expect to get digital products for free or for a reduced price relative to the old analog version – irrespective of whether it is the same or better than the original. Nonetheless, the non-physical costs of producing a book are rarely seen as valuable. At their most powerful, editors are portrayed as dictatorial gatekeepers, controlling what the public gets to see and stopping true gems from seeing the light of day. At worst they are seen as insignificant – costs to be cut from the bottom line.

I’ve spoken about the value a publisher adds to books, but a blog post this week on Digital Book World has made me hone in more specifically on the value an editor adds to book publishing. The DBW post is specifically about the role of editorial in internet writing – a role that can be measured in a number of ways, as they detail in the post. The value of editing when it comes to trade publishing, however, is far harder to measure. You can’t, for example, release two versions of a book – one edited and the other not – just to see which one will sell better. (Would anyone choose the unedited version? Would any author allow their unedited manuscript to be printed?). The editor’s role in trade publishing, in almost all cases, is to remain invisible – to support the author and the author’s brand, to create the illusion that the books that authors write spring from their minds fully formed and are never touched again. Some books, of course, do spring fully formed from authors minds and require no editing. Some books are entirely re-written. The secret to editing is not being able to tell the difference.

Non-editor friends have often confided in me that this or that book was badly edited. However, the fact of the matter is, it’s impossible to tell from the quality of the book alone how good a job the editor has done. They may not have had much time to work on it or they may have had an obstinate author with a love of inconsistent spelling. Reading the book in a vacuum – as it should be read – is not conducive to understanding that process.

My question is: in a world where, increasingly, views, clickthroughs and even eyeball tracking can be used to measure the efficacy of different marketing, sales and writing techniques, how does one measure the value of an invisible job like editing? Can it be done? Should it be done? And if not, how can it be preserved? Should it be preserved at all?

NOTE: Hopefully by now you will have spotted my massive intentional typo. If not, read it again.

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Joel Naoum (113 Posts)

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10 Responses to “The Value of Edtiors”

  1. Dianne Says:

    I have no argument with the need for editors – I can’t even find your massive intentional typo! But thought you might be interested to know that in its latest newsletter, the ASA suggests that if you have written a book ‘that can’t find a publisher, you might want to look into self-publishing an e-book.’ I guess they are a society for authors not editors, but seems a bit rash to me.

  2. Dianne Says:

    I have no argument with the need for editors – I can’t even find your massive intentional typo! But thought you might be interested to know that in its latest newsletter, the ASA suggests that if you have written a book ‘that can’t find a publisher, you might want to look into self-publishing an e-book.’ I guess they are a society for authors not editors, but seems a bit rash to me.

  3. Joel Blacklock Says:

    The typo is in the title of the post. My last post on self-publishing covered this issue. And now apparently authors’ agents are making deals directly with retailers (http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN2211583920100722). Insane! All proof of what I’m saying, however. It’s very difficult to judge the effectiveness of the editorial process from the outside – so I wonder if it will be kept around at all in the future?

  4. Joel Blacklock Says:

    The typo is in the title of the post. My last post on self-publishing covered this issue. And now apparently authors’ agents are making deals directly with retailers (http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN2211583920100722). Insane! All proof of what I’m saying, however. It’s very difficult to judge the effectiveness of the editorial process from the outside – so I wonder if it will be kept around at all in the future?

  5. Dave Roberts Says:

    Self publishing will very probably become a significant issue for publishers, committing a book to electronics is pretty easy, and contrary to your initial statements, the cost of getting a book from original manuscript into it’s printable format, then out to retailers all over the marketplace, then held on a retailer’s shelf until a reader comes along and picks it up is large enough to daunt most first time authors, I’d say.
    Just as importantly, convincing a publisher to take that risk is a hurdle that in many cases just can’t be jumped.
    The editor does a job that the Author can’t do, so even if you’ve got the technical skill to self publish, (or the neighbour’s 13 year old has), it’s going to be important to find someone prepared to pore over your pages for dodgy continuity, silly premises, repeated adjective, and of course typos. Can editors find a way to make themselves visible without belonging to publishers?

  6. Joel Blacklock Says:

    That’s an interesting point. I recommend reading this article, if you haven’t already: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/09/will-authors-of-future-need-publishers.html

    I do think most potential authors underestimate the difficulty of getting a book to a finished state and getting it noticed, irrespective of whether that book goes into a bricks and mortar store or onto an ebook site like Amazon. I think Nathan Bransford has a point in saying that most authors are unlikely to want to deal with all of that, even if they have some of the necessary skills. Nonetheless, I think you’re right to say that it’s likely the continuing ease of self-publishing will to some extent fracture the industry – there’ll be more call for freelance editors, publicists and agents working directly for authors as opposed to larger companies. Don’t know how fast that will happen though …

  7. Dave Roberts Says:

    Self publishing will very probably become a significant issue for publishers, committing a book to electronics is pretty easy, and contrary to your initial statements, the cost of getting a book from original manuscript into it’s printable format, then out to retailers all over the marketplace, then held on a retailer’s shelf until a reader comes along and picks it up is large enough to daunt most first time authors, I’d say.
    Just as importantly, convincing a publisher to take that risk is a hurdle that in many cases just can’t be jumped.
    The editor does a job that the Author can’t do, so even if you’ve got the technical skill to self publish, (or the neighbour’s 13 year old has), it’s going to be important to find someone prepared to pore over your pages for dodgy continuity, silly premises, repeated adjective, and of course typos. Can editors find a way to make themselves visible without belonging to publishers?

  8. Joel Blacklock Says:

    That’s an interesting point. I recommend reading this article, if you haven’t already: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/09/will-authors-of-future-need-publishers.html

    I do think most potential authors underestimate the difficulty of getting a book to a finished state and getting it noticed, irrespective of whether that book goes into a bricks and mortar store or onto an ebook site like Amazon. I think Nathan Bransford has a point in saying that most authors are unlikely to want to deal with all of that, even if they have some of the necessary skills. Nonetheless, I think you’re right to say that it’s likely the continuing ease of self-publishing will to some extent fracture the industry – there’ll be more call for freelance editors, publicists and agents working directly for authors as opposed to larger companies. Don’t know how fast that will happen though …

  9. Helen Says:

    There is no doubt that writers need editors, but as someone who has worked as an editor and now somewhat given up trying to find work and opened a bed and breakfast instead, the difficulty is persuading people that an editor (or at least a proofreader) is needed.

    Like Lynne Truss I have an ‘inner stickler’. I DO notice and get annoyed when I see signs saying ‘DVD’s on sale’. I have to write to advertisers who are spriking an ‘Insulted coffee-pot’ or a house for sale with an ‘upper story’. These companies would not even consider they needed someone to read their copy through before publication.

    A structural edit is surely a necessity for any major piece of writing but it is the novice that most needs, and yet does not ask for, an edit before sending out their work. Established authors are only too aware of how blinkered you can get when you are writing and (fairly) happily hand their work over to an editor. Writing is, necessarily, self-absorbing and you need a detached and subjective reader to see what is needed.

    GO EDITOR!!!

  10. Helen Says:

    There is no doubt that writers need editors, but as someone who has worked as an editor and now somewhat given up trying to find work and opened a bed and breakfast instead, the difficulty is persuading people that an editor (or at least a proofreader) is needed.

    Like Lynne Truss I have an ‘inner stickler’. I DO notice and get annoyed when I see signs saying ‘DVD’s on sale’. I have to write to advertisers who are spriking an ‘Insulted coffee-pot’ or a house for sale with an ‘upper story’. These companies would not even consider they needed someone to read their copy through before publication.

    A structural edit is surely a necessity for any major piece of writing but it is the novice that most needs, and yet does not ask for, an edit before sending out their work. Established authors are only too aware of how blinkered you can get when you are writing and (fairly) happily hand their work over to an editor. Writing is, necessarily, self-absorbing and you need a detached and subjective reader to see what is needed.

    GO EDITOR!!!