Project manager or editor?

The nature of editors’ jobs has changed subtly over the past decade or so. Where before we were guarantors of quality in an uncharted sea, now we’re part of a pipeline for content. How does this new focus on managing projects affect the editor’s job?

When I was looking for my first job as an editor, the skills that the adverts were seeking matched the traditional editorial values – good grammar, an eye for detail and so forth. In recent years, though, adverts for editorial jobs have veered more and more in a new direction. ‘Delivers projects on time’, ‘monitors budgets and schedules’ and ‘liaises with other teams to add value’ are all the sorts of attributes editors are now supposed to bring.

Are editors turning into glorified project managers? Is our traditional role as the guardians of quality in published books being eroded by the new emphasis?

Changes in emphasis

I don’t believe so. Because this change is, at its best, just a change in emphasis. Editors have always been responsible for keeping to budgets and schedules. We’ve always been responsible for working with colleagues from other parts of the business – like making sure that Marketing has the correct copy for their catalogues.

The danger is that the new emphasis will make publishers lose sight of the huge value that editors bring to the industry. I have seen publishing companies where editorial jobs were being reassigned to teams with no editorial skills – excellent project-management skills, but literally no idea how to edit a typescript or read a proof.

I have seen publishers make entire editorial teams redundant and hire new teams with a different skill set – again, the new team had valuable skills, but they weren’t hired for their editorial aptitude.

As editors, we need to stand up for the importance of quality. I’ve written before here about the importance of knowing what quality means for the business and agreeing how it should be delivered. It’s all too easy for seeing editors as project managers to mean losing sight of quality completely.

Better tools

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Back in the Dark Ages when I started working as an editor (we’re talking the mid-1990s here), schedules were simple spreadsheets. If you were lucky, they had calculated cells that would adjust as dates slipped – but were often maintained completely by hand.

Project Management is a hugely demanding and skilled profession with its own traditions, and publishing has learned a lot very valuable lessons over the past couple of decades. The development of systems to deal with complex, split schedules with interdependencies (such as the print book, cover, CD, ebook and website) that update automatically when schedules change, has made our lives much better. Processes to predict and handle resourcing estimates, scope changes and much more have helped us be more effective.

Bringing in tools like MS Project has also wrought useful changes. It’s overkill for most editorial schedules but, when it comes to planning whole programmes, it’s massively useful. Being able to predict the resourcing required to deliver a proposed publishing plan over a multi-year timescale makes dealing with senior management a lot easier.

 Quality is still king

But editors are still about quality. If we allow ourselves to be reduced to mere project managers (no disrespect intended) then the publishing industry loses something vital.

We’re in an industry fighting to create a new vision of itself and its purpose in a world where anyone can ‘publish’ their own stuff online, in ebook form or in print very easily. As editors, we need to stand up for the value of curated, verified, authoritative content. For coherent stories that are the best that the author can produce.

Because if publishing doesn’t stand for quality, I don’t know what we can contribute. In a sea of undifferentiated information and misinformation, we need to be islands of stability and security.

Posted on 26 May 2014
Written by John Pettigrew

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has 20 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.