Unsung heroes

It’s a truism of the editor’s life that people only notice our work when things go wrong. So it’s fantastic when our work is recognised publicly by the people we work with. A couple of posts in recent weeks caught my eye that I wanted to share.

Writers and readers sometimes wonder why it takes so long to publish a book with a traditional house. Here’s why: every step of the process takes time.

So says author Holly Robinson in the Huffington Post. She goes on to say that “a copy editor is someone who takes out her bright lamp, microscope and fine-toothed comb. She nit-picks through each one of your pages… a fierce, mistake-seeking hound, nosing around in every dark corner of every paragraph to make sure you get things right. Thank God.”

Her main point is that:

Copy editors are worth their weight in gold, yet hardly ever garner a mention.

And, for the self-publishing author, she has a stark piece of advice: “if you have any extra funds, do yourselves a favor and hire a copy editor. Your books — and your reputation as a writer — will be better because of it.”

In film

Even film-makers are helping make the point. The Salon ran a piece a few weeks ago about a new Martin Scorsese film about the New York Review of Books. Among other points, the piece’s author (Laura Miller) reminds us of “another part of the editor’s job: Making writing happen in the first place.”

She opens the piece by recalling Andrew Solomon’s thoughts on reading the Amazon reader reviews for his book.

One reviewer objected to having to pay more that $9.99 for something that consisted of nothing more than electronic bits. “What about the 11 years of my life it took to write it?” Solomon asked plaintively. “What about the months my editor spent working on it?”

The investment of time and skill into writing by authors and editors is little appreciated. And it’s not a problem unique to publishing – all the creative industries have this problem. Music suffers just as badly (perhaps worse), with the huge arguments about Spotify and similar services that reward the artist only in tiny amounts for huge numbers of plays of their music.

I am convinced that there is still a place for people who create, and who help others to create. The rise of self-publishing is great, but it doesn’t help readers. Self-publishing is (let’s be honest) all about providing an avenue of expression for everyone who feels that they have something to say. After all, no reader ever woke up one day and thought: “You know, what I’d really like is a book that’s less well written, less clear and less well designed than the one I read yesterday.” Successful self-publishers realise this, and invest in a team to help them be the best writer that they can be.

Editors (of all the varied skills that live under that banner title) are central in this process, but are often hidden behind the veil of writerly mystique. And this is fine – the writer is, in most cases, the central person in the creative process. But the shy and retiring editor is essential for the writer to achieve greatness.

Maxwell Perkins, the editor who fought for (and with) such writers as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, is regularly held up as the pinnacle of the editorial profession in years past. This praise is inevitably followed by the complaint that no one even tries to follow his example anymore. But then again, how would we know?

Posted on 24 Nov 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.