Old Before Our Time: The Future of Editorial Pt 1

The following is the first part of a talk I gave at the APA’s Don’t Stet: Thinking About Tomorrow panel session on the future of the editor.

In a room full of editors I thought it would be appropriate to take the approach of a structural edit for this talk. You know the one: open with a few flattering remarks before saying what you really think.

So … I love books and publishing, and I think books and publishing are still relevant. And I believe editorial is one of the most important parts of the publishing industry. I also think that so long as we are willing to change, we will all find a place in the editorial department of the future.

Having said that, the publishing industry has been predicting its own demise since the printing press. So, in the spirit of pessimism, here are the reasons why I think we might all be unemployed in ten years.

The publishing industry hasn’t had to change for a very long time, and the changes we do make are usually slow. This has two effects: one is that we’re really bad at dealing with change, and the other is that people who don’t like change like to join the publishing industry.

Editors and publishers are probably the worst of the lot. I’ve spoken to editors with a fetish for particular brands of pencils from the 1970s. Some of us go weak at the knees for a nicely bound B-format hardback. Editors wear their disdain for technology like a badge of honour.

When I first started in the industry, we still relied entirely on a fax machine to send corrections to second pages to the typesetter. I mean, I’d read about fax machines on blogs and stuff, but I’d never actually used one until I became an editor. Until a few months ago, we still had to physically print out the 400-odd final pages of a book on our horrible and prone-to-breaking-down photocopier, then pay a courier to take it interstate to the printer where they would compare our print out with the version they had printed out from the same file on thousands of dollars worth of printing equipment. Just to see if there were any errors.

Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that publishers and editors like to do things in a certain way, and they usually don’t like experimenting.

So we’re not very good at changing, and we don’t like it when we have to do it. On top of that, the industry is run – let me say this delicately – by really really old people. And I don’t mean just in age. I’ve met some very old 25-year-olds since becoming an editor; it’s a cultural gulf. This isn’t just a problem because you have to talk to a lot of people who ask what a Facebook is, or constantly try to explain why anybody would ever in their right minds want to use Twitter, or even those people who still think the biggest roadblock to ereader adoption is that you can’t take a Kindle in the bath with you. No. The biggest problem with the generation gap in the publishing industry is that for all the sound and fury about the digital revolution, the people empowered to save the industry still seem to be playing the wait and see game, hedging their bets until the definitive digital model emerges.

Which leads me to my final reason for why I think we might all be unemployed in ten years. Those people are wrong. The industry is changing really fast. Or rather, people’s reading habits are changing fast and the industry is not keeping up with them. I’m sure you’ve probably heard the statistics. In the US the latest I’ve read is that 9% of the trade is now ebooks, which is up from about 3% the year before. We’re looking very realistically at a third of the industry being digital in the next five years. And after that the predictions are all over the place, because our business model is dependent on paper books. The long and short of it is is that we’re probably going to have to find other ways to make money. And if we don’t, somebody else will. And those people are going to take our jobs.

Stay tuned next time, folks, for the thrilling conclusion to this depressing topic!

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

3 thoughts on “Old Before Our Time: The Future of Editorial Pt 1”

  1. Joel, I really like your blog – and not just because you interviewed me. If having me comment is like having your mum comment on here all the time then just say the word, but…

    I was discussing ebooks with some South Africans here in South Africa the other day. One, an author of non fiction, had just cracked the code on uploading one of her own books to Amazon for sale as a Kindle ebook. I gather she had the digital rights. This book had been out of print for a few years, but within six months she’d sold 300 copies. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s pretty big for what it was, and for here. There’s a publisher somewhere who just lost out on that one – easy money for virtually no additional outlay.

    I’m always recommending obscure old novels to people and suggesting they go online or scour second hand bookshops for them. I wonder what publishers are doing about out-of-print books and if the acceptance of ebooks would give more authors with out of print titles another bite?

    Also, newspapers have gone through this whole ‘will we all be out of a job’ thing in the past and will continue to do so in the future as the media becomes increasibly digitised. Lots of jobs have disappeared in the newspaper/media industries, but rest assured the only two jobs they can’t do away with are writer and editor.

    1. That’s an interesting point (and the more comments the merrier!). When Google Editions launches (very soon, or early next year) we’re likely to see a whole bunch of out-of-print books appearing in digital form. I also think existing publishers will probably start getting on to digitising their extensive backlists when they’ve settled into a groove getting new books digitised simultaneously with new releases. Plenty of publishers still don’t manage that – and seeing as most publishers make almost all of their money from new books, it makes sense to concentrate on that. There are a few roadblocks to digitising older backlist titles. There’s the contract signed at the time (if it did not include digital rights), and also the physical limitation of not having digital files for older books (they were done physically on printer plates). But I suspect it will happen soon enough!

  2. Pingback: The Smell of Books » Old Before Our Time: The Future of Editorial Part 2

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