Martin Fletcher started his publishing career as a junior commissioning editor at Sphere Books, moving to Picador as Senior Editor, Simon & Schuster as Editor-in-Chief and Headline as Publisher-at-Large. He is now a freelance editor, project manager and writer.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Chair of the 2018 Man Booker Prize judges, said recently that ‘the editorial role could have been more energetically performed’ on this year’s submitted titles. ‘The chastening pencil has its role and subtraction can be as potent as addition,’ he added. Fellow judge Val McDermid went on to say, ‘I think young editors coming through are not necessarily getting the kind of training and experience-building apprenticeship that happened when I was starting out.’ It was such comments that lead to my reflections ‘on editing’.
Maxwell Perkins, perhaps the most famous of literary editors, has a lot to answer for. He created an aura of romanticism and cultural glorification around the role of the editor, meticulously forging the careers of literary greats such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Indeed, he famously, and patiently, excised 90,000 words from Wolfe’s first novel Look Homeward, Angel. Nowadays, however, the editor’s role is very different.
Within a publishing house an editor has to be attentive to details like cover copy, cover design, scheduling, contract negotiation and legal issues – a host of intricacies that day-to-day advance a book towards publication. At the same time, editors need to be committed to the much broader demands of genre positioning, market budgeting, publicity attention and the sales status of each of their individual titles. It’s within this larger picture that most value is placed.
The editor has to be the cheerleader, the champion, the spiritual owner of the book within a company of equally vociferous and devoted book advocates, all competing for a finite share of resources for each book. There are meetings and then there are more meetings, as process and procedure have to be adhered to.
This leaves very little time for close textual editing. Most editors will edit in their evenings and weekends, during the twilight hours, faithfully keeping the flame of critical excellence alight. Editing is time-intensive and requires emotional engagement.
It’s a shame when a book that hasn’t been edited rigorously gets called out, often in the review pages of national newspapers, blogs or book review sites. Readers can be harsh and particular, and an author’s reputation can be seriously damaged.
There are other reasons why a book isn’t astutely edited: the manuscript may have been delivered late, leaving the editor little opportunity to make meaningful changes; the author can be unmoved by an editor’s opinions. A friend of mine once compiled copious and carefully considered notes for a bestselling author’s latest work only for the author to remark, ‘how many bestsellers have you written?’ The notes were returned unread.
Many new editors are being recruited from other departments within a publishing house, such as sales, publicity and marketing, or even from outside the industry as publishers are seduced by the shiny promise of the tech world. With the emphasis today on book discoverability, these new editors are coming up with creative ways to flag-wave their books and are steeped in the specialist skills of concept selling. They might not have the training or skillset for detailed editorial work: a responsiveness to the nuance of language, components of character, economy of expression as well as a wider view of structure and storytelling, the mechanics of plot.
Maxwell Perkins is a revered figure from a bygone age. In our new publishing environment where turnover and yearly profit margins are corporate priorities, and sales channels are difficult and sometimes hostile, the art of editing may not have the status it once enjoyed. However, there are many experienced and dedicated freelance editors working tirelessly to apply high editorial standards and to ensure authors produce their best possible work. And despite publishing being driven by sales strategies, there are still a great number of remarkable, brilliant and important books taking pride of place on our bookshelves.
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