An editor unblocks a pipe with a large brush, causing words to fall out

The editor’s dilemma

by John Pettigrew

The editor’s lot is not always a happy one. Do your job well and no-one notices; make a mistake and suddenly everyone’s looking right at you. But here are a couple of tips that might help.

Publishing can be an odd business, but one of publishers’ core functions has always been acting as the gatekeeper or filter between author and reader. Over the years, of course, we’ve acquired many extra functions but this filtering role has remained central – providing the assurance that a book offered for sale is accurate, appealing and worthwhile.

Filter feeders

Editors can do a bewildering range of things, but we generally work with the content – acquiring it, commissioning it, reviewing it, correcting it or ensuring that it actually comes out on time.

However, we don’t want simply to be a pipe through which content flows onto the page (or screen). A good editor makes that content better. We help the author discover what they really meant to say. We make sure that the words are well chosen and the story well constructed. We find or commission illustrations that shine new light on the words.

Blocking the pipe

And this is what leads to the editor’s dilemma. Do your job well and everyone says, “Isn’t this author great?” Do it badly and the finger points at the editor. As it should, because we are supposed to stop the rubbish getting out.

The problem is (to stretch a metaphor) that the pressures on our industry at the moment are such that the filters are getting clogged. There’s no time to clean out the pipes, no spare capacity to allow an editor to get themselves into peak condition again. Quite the reverse, in fact. In many companies, two factors combine to make matters worse.

  1. Editorial teams are expected to do more with less. This has the inevitable result that the team spend their limited energies on the basic, obvious things like getting the book out on time – with little if any to spare for making sure that the book was worth publishing in the first place.
  2. Editorial work is more and more outsourced, too often with an attitude that the work is relatively unskilled and unimportant. Teams spend more time managing external workers than on doing any editing themselves. This path leads inexorably to the de-skilling of in-house editors, and ultimately to a loss of the reason for publishers to exist.

Obviously, there’s no universal solution to these problems. Not only are the business reasons for the pressures on editorial teams not going to disappear any time soon, but also I suspect that it was ever thus (at least to some extent). The editor’s dilemma means that it’s a position that’s prone to being undervalued. But there are things that I believe we can do.

How much is enough?

The first is to get the management team to acknowledge the role of quality in their business – and to quantify it. Not all publishers have the same attitude to quality. The Folio Society, for example, are famed for their attention to detail at every stage of a book’s production, but end up charging a large amount for each copy in consequence.

Quality is a hard thing to measure, but there are reasonably hard numbers that we can fasten onto – perhaps language level, cultural sensitivity, factual accuracy or a dozen other things. The main point, though, is that ‘lower quality’ really means ‘increased risk’. That is, accepting lower quality across the portfolio means a business runs the risk of some products failing. Some titles might not make their predicted sales levels owing to poor word-of-mouth publicity or critical reviews for a book that just doesn’t feel right. More worryingly, it could also mean getting sued for large amounts because errors were allowed to creep in, or having to withdraw and reprint a book because (for example) you’ve included a map of the Middle East that doesn’t include Israel.

How much does it cost?

Putting quality in these terms means that it’s something that managers understand and can appreciate. But there’s a second, matching aspect, which is that quality costs money.

Publishing is a business with famously narrow margins, which means that there is continuous pressure to spend less money on creating the books that we publish. And the danger of the editor’s dilemma is being noticed only when things go wrong – so that editorial is seen in terms only of failure, not of success.

If the aim is to lower the risk of our publishing portfolio then it follows that we need to spend money mitigating that risk. Managing risk doesn’t mean always pushing for the highest quality (and expense) but recognising the balance that exists between spending money on quality and earning less if you don’t meet customers’ needs. Every business will achieve this balance differently, but if managers want to control their businesses then they need to strike the balance consciously and not accidentally.

That means paying your staff enough to retain the skilled workers – not just letting them leave as soon as they’ve been trained up and hence become more expensive. That means paying your freelancers enough that you can get the skill levels you need. Most of all, that means accepting that there’s a limit to the throughput of the editorial team if the business’s aims are to be met.

The task for management (and, indeed, for the editorial team itself) is to identify and manage that throughput limit. We need to accept that it really is a limit, and that adding ‘just one more project’ will affect all the other projects, too. Conversely, spending time improving your systems so that editors can work more effectively or quickly is likely to pay off. Think about the tasks that your team complains about – photocopying proofs, perhaps, or fielding phone calls from problem authors. Try out new systems for marking up proofs on screen, or scripts to deal with common author queries.

The problem is that risk isn’t a binary, either–or thing. You might get away with overloading your team for a while – but you can’t get away with it for ever. Make sure that you know your objectives and your limitations, and have systems for dealing with the inevitable times when you’re asked to exceed them.

Then, you’ve got a better chance of doing what editors, publishers and readers always want: get it right, and create good content that readers want to buy.

About the author

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has over 15 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.

Join the conversation


 Carl Saxton – January 20, 2014

This is often something I ponder about when sat at my desk – the ongoing quality, cost and time triangle. As an editor I am often frustrated when I read anything that hasn’t been properly checked or had the investment it deserves (time, money etc.). Editors should provide an addition of value to the products they work on.

However, I have come to appreciate that ‘quality’ is somewhat subjective and can depend greatly on the type of product you are working on, and who you are, and whether or not you can ‘let go’ (a painful experience for an editor)!

For example, when looking back on my time working on both academic journals and books – the quality was significantly lower than when working on education titles. I think this was percieved as being due to academics being able to cope with clunky English (so long as the content was correct) whereas in education titles – if something doesn’t make sense to me it won’t make sense to the students using the product.

As a manager, an essential part that feeds into the quality-time-cost triangle is the careful planning, resourcing and risk management of each product you produce. I’m a big fan of Gantt charts and detailed schedules and budgets so that I can manage the workflow for myself and my team ensuring that they aren’t overloaded or go over budget, but at the same time making sure that ‘quality’ checkpoints are dotted along the path to production of the final product.

I don’t think anyone will ever ‘get it right’ and there isn’t going to be one solution to cure all – that’s what makes publishing exciting, well for me at least.

A very interesting blog post!

     John Pettigrew – January 20, 2014

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, Carl. The point that quality can be subjective is a good one, and is definitely part of the problem. I do believe, though, that there are fairly hard objective characteristics to quality – whether the answers to textbook questions are correct, for example. Defining how tightly editors are expected to control these things, and measuring the results, can help accountability between editorial and management, in both directions.
    As you say, every business will resolve the question differently, and this keeps things exciting!

 Rushda Khan – January 21, 2014

A great blog post! As Carl said, one of the key issues is working out what counts as quality and indeed how much quality is really ‘good enough’. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ book: the nature of creative and educational expression is that improvements can always be made. The holy grail is striking a balance in the golden triangle to make the whole chain make financial sense – without burning out all the important people in the process.

I think the issue of quality in publishing is becoming even more interesting since the arrival of ebooks. It amazes me how common the customer perception is that the publisher’s ‘added value’ lies in the manufacturing of the printed book parts: that is of course the part they can most easily be seen when they pick up a book in a bookshop. It is no wonder then that so many customers are horrifed when they discover that ebook pricing is comparable to print.

The truth of course is that the manufacturing is just a small part of the process: a huge invisible operation is going on in the background just in developing the content, which is ultimately the most valuable part of the book. Now in the age of digital books, it’s even more important for this added quality to persist, and for customers to notice it. Otherwise, again, this removes the publisher’s reason to exist.

     John Pettigrew – January 21, 2014

    Thanks for dropping by, Rushda. That issue of where customers perceive value in books is a crucial one. As you say, many people have the mistaken belief that ebooks ought to be extremely cheap just because they’re non-physical products!
    But if the value really resides in the content then we need to somehow get customers to realise this. Which means, first of all, getting management really to take account of it in how they run the business.

 Baldur Bjarnason (@fakebaldur) – January 21, 2014

It’s clear to anybody who has been following the publishing industry over the past few years that managers and the money people have decided that money spent on quality has a horrendous ROI and a high opportunity cost.

It’s the only way to explain the cutbacks and focuses prevalent in the industry.

That leads us to another question to ask:

How can we change this dynamic?

There are two ways to change the ROI dynamic of editing. 1. Make intensive editing cheaper. 2. Make the returns higher.

I don’t see a way to do 2 but 1 might well be doable with new tools and workflows.

     John Pettigrew – January 21, 2014

    Hi Baldur. I think that’s true – money people see quality as expensive and inessential. And that’s because you can sometimes (even often) succeed without ensuring quality. But one of the my points was that ‘low quality’ really means ‘increased risk’, and if you reduce quality in the long term then you’ll have more failures and hence lower returns.
    Thus, there’s a third option, which is where I was going with this article: agree what quality actually means and deliver it in a targeted fashion. Or, in financial terms, spend the money where it will do the most good.
    Which isn’t to say that I don’t think reducing the costs of editing with new workflow tools is a bad thing. That’s what I’m doing with our Collate it on-screen proofing platform, after all! 🙂

 Justo Hidalgo – February 2, 2014

We’re having many problems with ebooks from publishers because of many editorial mistakes (not just ebook-specific format issues, but the kind of elements you mention). One thing we’re seeing is that not many aggregators have means for retailers to inform of ebook issues we find. We have editors in-house checking their quality, and we find quite a lot of details that we try to report back, as we obviously cannot modify the content or the metadata. But it’s quite difficult. Shouldn’t an editor take advantage of a lean-er and more community-driven way of reacting to errors or typos?

     John Pettigrew – February 3, 2014

    Thanks for this, Justo. The problems of EPUBs is a topic I’m going to look at in another post soon. As you say, there are lots of issues that need dealing with and publishers shouldn’t really expect their vendors to deal with quality issues in the files they supply.

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