I make it my business to know about the publishing industry, and to keep abreast of news and opinion pieces in the book sections of newspapers and in magazines dedicated to the theme. Of course, much has changed and is changing in this sector, and so people have much to say. But one theme that keeps jumping out at me is this:
The decline of the old-school in-house editor.
Back in the day, a publishing editor’s role was to spot talent and then, if necessary, help the author to hone that talent. So part of the editor’s role was to direct the author on revisions, and to edit rigorously, sometimes over a long period of time.
Today, publishing is more corporate. Money and time matter. An editor wants to buy a book that’s ready to go – or just about. Authors are expected to submit manuscripts that have already been rigorously revised, developed, copy-edited and proofread. Then the editor can take over the book, make the odd tidy and then send it, quickly, to the production team to get into print.
A new film due out in 2015 called Genius (starring Jude Law and Colin Firth) will be focusing on the halcyon days of the hands-on editor. The lead character is based on renowned literary editor Max Perkins, who worked for Scribner and edited the works of Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald,among others. The story follows his work with Thomas Wolfe, who was an early talent in autobiographical fiction.
Writing Magazine (February 2015) has explored what that must have been like for Perkins. Wolfe’s first draft was 335,000 words – more than three times longer than the current average novel – and Perkins was tasked with directing Wolfe in cutting it right down. Wolfe, apparently, was not up to the job: if Perkins got him to agree to cut a few thousand words, Wolfe would then write double that number and insist they must be added. Finally, after a good deal of stress, Perkins handed the finished manuscript over to be published: all 245,000 words.
Today, editors just don’t have the time to put in the kind of effort that Perkins did. I wonder: is that a good or a bad thing? On the negative side, all books benefit from long-term, rigorous editing by an experienced editor – and sometimes the corporate rush can have a detrimental effect on quality. But on the other side, the reduced role of the in-house editor forces authors to take more responsibility themselves for writing well, which is surely a very good thing.
Authors today are much more professional than they were in ‘the good old days’ for one central reason: we have to market. Any author signed to a publisher must market his or her book energetically. We must be on Twitter and Facebook and Goodreads. We must engage in giveaways and write guest posts and interviews for bloggers. We must do myriad activities to support our publishers in selling our books. (We are no different to self-publishing authors in that sense.) The modern author is a businessperson. And with that role comes a willingness to work hard and to care about the quality of the product. So, the modern author conducts rigorous editing him- or herself, and perhaps works privately with an editor before submitting the manuscript to the publisher’s editor.
For me, it’s a joy working to create the very best book I can myself. It’s a source of personal pride. I see itasmy responsibility as well – being a writer is my job, and I take that seriously.
In his time people called Thomas Wolfe a genius, which is a word that suggest innate brilliance that requires no work. But clearly, he did need to work on his writing – and later in his career he came to see how much he needed Perkins’ editing expertise. There is no genius in writing, I think. There is only very, very hard work and a passion for the craft.