Old Before Our Time: The Future of Editorial Part 2

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

So, things are changing. But there are a lot of things we as editors can do to prepare ourselves.

We need to move away from the mental definition of a book being a printed object. Books are going to be different. Nobody knows exactly in what way, but the only way we can know what is going to work and what isn’t is to try new things. We need to experiment with publishing things that are probably not going to make much money, in the same way that we buy authors who aren’t going to make money because in three books’ time they might write a bestseller.

We also have to experiment with different kinds of reading. Below is a comment on a blog post I read recently about why someone would never want to start reading electronic books.

There is something about folding a paperback to snuggle down into the covers of a night. There’s something about being able to underline and use a highlighter for parts that stand out to you when reading and being able to put a date next to those. About being able to write notes with thoughts that have occurred when reading passages …

ALL this will no longer be possible if we lose the traditional book.

Books are my friends. Have been ever since I was young. They are an escape from life for a few hours to a distant land. A chance to grieve and mourn with others of a time long past when we read history …

Books in their printed hard or soft cover form also have something over the Kindle and other electronic forms of ‘books’. They will never run out of battery right in the middle of a really captivating part of the story, they can be read by anyone who can read the written language, so you don’t have to be up on the latest electronic gadgets. There is also the cost of a book compared to these newer readers.

Libraries also are WONDERFUL places to visit. The smells of the old books and the newer books as well.

I SO HOPE the paperbacks and hard covered books NEVER get taken away.

When I read this, I thought – what an idiot. And it’s not just because you can use a Kindle to write notes and highlight passages, or even that nobody is going to try and take printed books away  from anyone. It’s not even that line about books being the commenter’s friends. It’s because this kind of thinking is really common in the publishing industry, especially among editors.

And it is hubris to think that there is a right way and a wrong way to read books. Especially if you’re in the publishing industry. We are not passive consumers of books. Our choices help to define what a book is.

I know a whole lot of editors have ereaders already. But if you’re like the editors I know, you only use them so you don’t have to carry manuscripts around. When you want to relax with a book, you still curl up with the paper version.

Now there’s nothing wrong with having a preference for paper. There’s nothing wrong with this nostalgic, rosy-tinted view of books and reading. There’s also nothing wrong with thinking that books are your friends, either. But if you’re in the publishing industry, especially if you’re an editor, and you think of books in this protective ‘from my cold dead hands’ kind of way, then in less than five years time you’ll be ignoring the experience of a third of readers. And editors are supposed to be the reader’s advocate.

If we want to remain relevant, we need to innovate faster than our readers. We need to understand what readers want before they want it. Part of that is working out what kind of stories and content people want to read, and that’s something editors and publishers are already pretty good at. But another part of it is understanding how people want to read, and that’s not something we’ve had to think about for a long time. And if we start letting Amazon and Apple work that out for us, then we are going to end up working for Amazon and Apple. So we need to seek out new reading experiences, and try to understand them before they overtake us.

In our roles as author wranglers, we’re going to have to become, for some of our authors at least, the technology interpeter. If you’re not already familiar with the way Facebook and Twitter work, then it’s worth playing around with them. You can’t break the internet. Most authors in the next few years are going to have to develop a deep social networking presence, and if we want to remain relevant to them we have to know the answers before they start asking the questions.

Most of all, we need to learn to look past the limitations of technology and embrace the benefits. We no longer have the luxury of being precious about technology. It’s not worth focusing on the fact that you can’t read an ebook in the bath, or that you prefer the smell of paper books. The readers of the next ten years aren’t going to care about that. And if we want to publish books for those readers we need to know what they do care about.

And so to finish in the spirit of the structural edit, I just want to remind you that this is just my opinion – this is your industry. I eagerly anticipate your revisions.

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!

The Value of Edtiors

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.