Why the world needs editors, even if it doesn’t need books: Mandy Brett

This edited extract from a talk Text Publishing editor Mandy Brett delivered at the Wheeler Centre first appeared on Crikey’s Culture Mulcher blog by W H Chong. You can also watch it online here.

My claim to fame is that I’m a book editor. It is in fact a pretty anaemic claim, and 95-97% of the time that’s the way I like it. Editors work with writers and we work out of the public eye. The spotlight is, as it should be, on the people who actually do the creative work. But sometimes obscurity can be a problem and that’s one of the things I want to talk about today—we’ll get to it a bit later.

I assume you’re all book lovers here today—I think they scan you at the door as you come into the Wheeler Centre—so you don’t need me to tell you this is a book. [Holds up the prize-winning Traitor, which she edited.]

[Holds up devices.] So is this iPad, and this iPhone, and these e-ink readers (Kindle, Sony Reader): they are devices for reading long-form narrative, or short-form if that’s what you choose to put on them. If we were in America right now, you would be very familiar with these. Current figures suggest US sales of electronic books are doubling year on year, and in January ebooks sales surpassed those of mass-market paperbacks.

Of course, paper books aren’t going anywhere for a while yet. However, if you don’t use an electronic reader now—and the figures suggest that as an Australian reader you probably don’t—at some stage you’re going to find the weight to information ratio or the instant download capacity compelling enough that you can get used to the different form factor. And then you’ll be part of the ebooks upward curve.

Or you won’t, and you’ll be part of a dwindling minority.

So there are big changes coming for how we read.

Not necessarily for what we read: if you look at the Kindle-style products in particular, they are dedicated book-reading devices that don’t do anything else but allow you to carry around a lot of texts in a convenient package. The makers of these devices are assuming there will continue to be a big market for conventional long-form narrative, and I agree. We readers aren’t suddenly going to lose our taste for the absorbing way the written story works on the human imagination.

I do think our numbers will dwindle as time passes, though. I think kids growing up now, with their social media and online games, will still read, but they will do less reading than we did, and fewer of them are going to feel devoted to it in that passionate way of: ‘This is what I do, this is who I am.’ They’ll grow up surrounded by interactive forms, too, expecting to comment and co-write and in other ways contribute to the development of written work. I think over time that will probably shape the nature of writing and reading: how they are made, and how they play out together.

In the short term, however, the changes are to do with the way people shop for, and buy, and pay for their books. The growth of on-line purchasing and the low retail price that’s become standard for ebooks are big problems for the book trade. It’s a challenge even to produce an ebook for the price set by Amazon’s aggressive pricing regime, and a bigger one to make a businesslike profit. We’ll deal with the changes in the end I think, but it is all going to take a while to shake itself out. In the meantime, it makes for uncertainty and insecurity and loss of confidence in bookselling and publishing. And you know how business hates uncertainty.

You would have seen the reports in the newspapers recently about Fairfax getting rid of their entire sub-editing staff and outsourcing the work to an outfit called Pagemasters, owned by AAP. I believe there was also a statement made at some point to the effect that it would all be OK; journalists would just have to submit cleaner copy.

This resonated for me. Newspapers of course run on a different business model from book publishers, and news sub-editors do a different job. But there are some relevant points to be made.

No disrespect to the undoubted skill and integrity of Pagemasters’ employees, but Fairfax’s decision to use their services is about saving money. If it doesn’t come at the expense of quality, I would suggest that’s just a happy accident. In the past, getting the news out went hand in hand with getting it right. Now the message is that the work of sub-editors is neither crucially important nor particularly skilled. There is also a fundamental failure to understand the importance of having written worked checked in some way by someone other than the writer.

Worse: if there is a drop in quality they’re betting no one will notice and if we do we won’t care.

The problem for sub-editors, a problem shared with book editors, is that the work is about things you can’t see. It’s about not having errors of fact, wrong figures, misspellings, nonsensical grammar, missing words, stupid punctuation. Oh, and defamation suits.

It is about standards: knowing what is right and getting things right, and that is a very valuable thing. But when you’ve got it you can’t see it and when it’s gone it’s too late.

So in this era of uncertainty, when content is reportedly king, we are being given serious signals that the quality of the content doesn’t enter into it. I tend to think book publishers, being smart, must be aware that this would be a really bad time to start tinkering with the quality of the product. But I watch the subs getting trashed and I must say I’m receiving a very strong message:

This is a bad time to be performing a role that is both invisible and unquantifiable. This might be a pretty good time to get up on your hind legs and deliver some PR.

So here it is: what editors do is make books better, and make more better books.

These are some of the ways I try to do that (editing fiction and a smaller amount of narrative non-fiction).

Acquisition / gatekeeping

Writing a book is really hard. Most people who try, although they have my undying admiration, do not manage to produce anything a large number of people would buy. Someone needs to sort wheat from chaff, and editors, along with literary agents, are the front-line talent spotters. We assess manuscripts with an experienced eye, giving some the imprimatur of quality and thereby keeping choice manageable for readers. It comes down to making any given book accessible to the readers who will love it.

Of course you cannot escape the fact that gatekeeping is about excluding work that is deemed not to be good enough. No wonder this makes many people (not only rejected authors) strongly dislike us. But nature abhors a vacuum of opinion, particularly on the internet, and someone is always going to make quality assessments. Publishers back their judgment by investing in development (i.e. editing), production and promotion. They are thus better placed to be doorbitches than most other candidates.

Structure

My aim is to ensure that we deliver a work of prose  that fulfils the author’s ambitions and the reader’s hopes. Non-fiction should deliver a cogent, persuasive and fascinating read. Fiction, a dramatically effective read that engages real emotions and is peopled with believable characters who speak dialogue you can hear.

Structural editing can involve moving, or deleting, or suggesting new opportunities for, chunks of text. And it can involve close attention to the line. One wrong word can transform a whole character, for good or ill. (‘Giggle’, for example. In a book, almost nobody over the age of ten can giggle without becoming instantly idiotic or creepy.)

Structural line work is about rhythm and timing and plausibility and emotional engagement and breathless, uncompromised satisfaction for the reader. And you don’t always get that, but together a good writer and a good editor have a shot at getting close.

Copy editing & proofreading

Getting the little things squared away: all your styles consistent, everything spelled correctly; grammar, punctuation tight and terrific; page elements—headlines, indents, widows, orphans, hyphenation—looking lovely. No unintended errors; no solecisms not employed deliberately, for effect.

Or at least, that is our aim.

As to how all this plays in the outside world: editorial invisibility is, as I said before, a very good thing almost all the time. When your aim is to ensure a book looks whole and seamless and exactly as it ought to be, invisibility is a sign of success. Extraneous character expunged? Ten thousand words cut to enhance pace and pithiness? If you can’t do those things without leaving a trace, you’ve failed.

By the same token—that the best work cannot be detected—it is functionally impossible to get credit. One reason that reviews which criticise editorial failure are so galling is that there is very rarely any counter-balancing praise. The other is that you (the critic) may be able to perceive that the entirely satisfying work we strive for has not eventuated—or at least not to your taste—but it is very unlikely that you would have any idea why. It is like looking at a plane crash and concluding the pilot must have been pretty crap, steering into the tarmac like that. If you don’t get to look at the black box (and you don’t) then you can’t know what, if anything, went wrong.

So in terms of how our work can be assessed, going public is pretty much a no-win for editors. But on balance I remain convinced that this is no time to be pretending we don’t exist, and even if we do it’s not like we do anything of consequence.

In conclusion,

I want to refer back for a moment to the detail end of the editing process: the copy editing and proofreading.

Correcting spelling and punctuation sounds unglamorous, maybe slightly trivial, in comparison with structural changes that affect pace or plot or characterisation or whatever. But that attention to detail goes to the heart of what you might call the editorial mindset and sums up what I believe is so crucially important about the health and survival of our profession. It’s the insistence that things should be done right.

Looking closely; caring about little things, caring about nuances. Zooming in on detail. Making sure everything seems to sit well, that every gesture or line of dialogue is exactly what a real person would do or say. All the facts are OK, the spelling’s correct and the punctuation’s not splattered randomly all over the page. The grammar’s either correct, or incorrect for a reason.

Editors know about these things; we’re good at them and we insist on them. We are not infallible, but we try very hard to make each book perfect.

And it’s good that somebody does that. It is really a fine thing to have solid values, a sense of how things should be done, and high aspirations. To feel disappointment when you fall short—and to have that as a reason to do a bit better next time. And it is really terrific for creative people—the makers of things we love—to have that kind of expert help, that kind of support in achieving what they set out to do.

It’s good to have rules, and custodians of the rules.

It’s good to have gatekeepers.

We don’t live in the kind of society, thank god, where those things constitute a prison. They are a frame, and you can build some wonderful things on them.

You can read more about how Mandy Brett became an editor here.

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