Monica Byles is a passionate editor and one of our winners of The Unsung Heroes of Publishing 2018. We asked her a few questions about her work, freelancing and the changes she has seen in the publishing industry since the beginning of her career. For a complete list of #UHoP18 winners please see more here.
Tell us a bit about how you work as an editor.
I’m absolutely passionate about what I do and am dedicated to the cause of helping authors bring out the novel as they’ve dreamt about it, in its very best form. I will go to the utmost degree to research material as I work through to ensure accuracy. What is difficult nowadays is that we all check facts against the internet and it’s sometimes challenging to find the primary source – you see the same phrasing lifted and copied from one website to another. Wikipedia is much scorned, but the References and External Links sections are often great for leading you straight to a relevant site. Nothing beats a good PhD paper, although those can contain errors too. I also use Google Maps and Street View to check locations, distances and travel times between locations, vegetation and other factors.
What do you regard as the most gratifying aspect of the work you do?
People are generally intrigued by what an editor actually does to a piece of work – do we write or rewrite it? Absolutely not. It’s a collaboration between the editor and the author, and you need to crawl into each other’s minds to a certain extent. I find it immensely rewarding to look for solutions when a phrase doesn’t feel quite right, or you feel the structure of a paragraph or a particular storyline needs a bit of massaging. I worked in a busy publishing office for years, and now love the freedom and peace of freelancing from home where I can truly concentrate and fit my hours around domestic commitments and personal development.
Tell us a bit about your approach to your projects.
When a title from a new author is coming in, I research them thoroughly online to get to know as much about them as possible before I start looking at the text. When the text comes in, I read any information from any earlier tiers of editorial input, such as from a structural editor, and perform the checks required by the publisher.
I have a comprehensive list of editorial tweaks that I will look at globally before getting properly started. Most publishers require a sample, so I will work on the first few chapters in detail at this stage, but go over them again when going ‘under the surface’ of the text all the way through.
Editing is a laborious and intensive process, but when the first-pass edit goes back to the author, it should be pretty clean, bar checking the author’s responses and decisions when it returns and making sure it’s all as perfect as possible. I’ve done lots of proof-checking in my time, and don’t undervalue the input of the proofreader at this point. Writing and editing are highly subjective and there’s always something that a fresh pair of eyes will spot!
What are your favourite, and most challenging projects you’ve worked on to date?
Years ago, I worked for just over a decade for Dorling Kindersley, moving around from their children’s department to natural history/reference and gardening. I’m immensely proud to have been involved in several editions of the RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants as I’m a keen gardener.
The most challenging? Probably also the RHS A-Z because of the constant deadlines and level of accuracy required, over two or more years. It was pretty stressful also as senior editor of The Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, with a good-sized team of editors and designers, also with regular deadlines that could not be missed. However, I loved projects that took me to the biggest institutions in the country. I was once allowed to hold the type specimen of Archaeopteryx in the bowels of the Natural History Museum – shhh! I didn’t tell you that…
What have been the biggest changes in the industry that you’ve witnessed during your career?
My very first job was in Oxford, straight after university (Modern Languages at Bristol). I was privileged to be present in the dying days of hot-metal printing where you had to work out an approximation for the number of words in a line / block of text and work from an author’s typed manuscript with alterations in pencil or ink! Nowadays it’s so incredibly easy to tweak text via MS Word, bless it, but I wonder how many editors still watch out for italic ascenders and descenders clashing with closing punctuation? That really distresses me.
Publishers rely on freelancers to help them with lots of their books. How important is the relationship between internal and external creative talent?
The relationship between internal and external creative talent has always been an essential part of the functioning of any business, but never more so than now where overheads and employment rights are such that it’s too costly to keep all work in-house. I do miss banter over the coffee machine, not to mention all the perks such as paid holiday and sick leave, IT support and development within one’s profession. You do the job out of love for books – it helps when in-house staff are supportive because they understand this!
What are you reading at the moment and what’s next on your to-read list?
I’m currently absolutely smitten with the Nibbies award-winning debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon. It’s a masterpiece and I can’t wait to read more of her work.
Not sure what I’ll read next – there’s a huge backlog on my bookshelves and my parents keep passing on more. I’ve just inherited an extraordinary German title from the post-First World War period, last translated into English in the 1930s. If I can struggle on with the Gothic script, I’d love to translate that myself. I won’t reveal the title, because I want to be the person to do it!
You can find Monica Byles on LinkedIn.