Scholars Talk Writing: Do Book Editors Do Much Editing?

Full vitae book editors

Image: iStock

As a former book editor in a previous life, I already know "what editors do." But I learned a lot more from a new collection of essays by 27 of the smartest editors in the publishing business. It’s useful reading for anyone who wants to work in the book business, and essential for anyone who wants to be published.

I heard about the book early on since my editor at the University of Chicago Press was of the people working on What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing — or as the project was known internally, the one "edited by editors on how editors edit."

The collection was commissioned by Mary Laur, a senior editor at the Chicago press, and put together by Peter Ginna, who has been an editor at Bloomsbury, Oxford University Press, and St. Martin’s, among others. I interviewed them both for the Scholars Talk Writingseries.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

Peter: Mary proposed it to me — but I had been thinking for a couple of years about the need for a book like this. Editorial training is, for better or worse, largely by apprenticeship. There are university publishing courses, and some good ones, but most entry-level people are expected to learn on the job. There’s no manual. The closest competitor — an anthology called Editors on Editing — hasn’t been updated in a quarter century.

Mary: I had read Editors on Editing back in the 1990s, when I was starting out in publishing. Ned Stuckey-French, an associate professor of English at Florida State University and head of a publishing-and-editing program there, gave me the idea to commission a successor volume. He was teaching from that book but realized it was out of date and wondered if Chicago might consider producing a contemporary version. Peter was our first choice for volume editor, and when I emailed to ask him if he’d be interested, he replied within an hour to say yes.

What are some of the main commonalities that emerged between the different types of publishing that might be of use to academic authors?

Peter: I make the argument in the book that editing has fundamental similarities across categories of publishing. There are real differences between, say, trade and scholarly presses, but for editors at both, the single most important question is: Should I acquire this book? And related to that: Who is the audience for it? And do I know how I can get that audience excited about it? We often need to think about an audience bigger than the one that’s on the author’s mind. That is, the author may be more worried about a tenure committee than about the New York Review of Books.

Editors also ask themselves, What is working with this author going to be like? Do I want to spend a year (or several) bringing this person’s work into print? At one place I worked, some authors were known as "LITS" — "Life is too short." Most authors are a pleasure to deal with, but either way it’s an intimate relationship. You want the author to be a partner in the publishing process, so how you get along with them is important. Finally, whatever kind of book you’re publishing, editing the text comes down to reading it with loving care and trying to make it the best version of itself it can be.

Mary: The most common refrain running through the essays, and one I hear all the time here, is that editors really need to "love" the books they are acquiring and editing. Academic editors — who tend to specialize in particular subject areas more so than trade editors — learn to recognize books that will be greeted as innovative and exciting in their fields, that will become classics in introducing a subject to students, or that will reach out and share important scholarly insights with readers beyond the academy.

I’d like to think we can get just as excited about books like these and the difference they can make in the world in the same way that trade editors do about what they hope will be the next Great American Novel.

Can you talk about rejections?

Peter: In crude economic terms, editors get paid to acquire books, not to reject them. Your boss never says in your annual review, How many manuscripts did you turn down this year? And as a matter of psychology, we’re not ogres who get our kicks from ruining an author’s day.

Editors get into the business because we love books. We come to work every day hoping we’re going to find something we want to share with other readers.

Mary: I did some grading back in graduate school and was surprised to discover how readily papers and exams could be sorted into categories. A handful stood out as either the best or the worst, and then there was the great mass in the middle, the most challenging group to grade.

Something similar happens with book proposals: Some elicit an immediate yes or no, and then there are the many cases in the middle. Often these books are compelling on some fronts but have question marks related to audience size, overlap with similar books, or other factors that have nothing to do with merit, scholarly or otherwise. I agonize over these cases, knowing my decisions have consequences — much as I know good teachers do over their grades.

What are some important things for would-be authors to know about how publishing works?

Peter: Even most published authors, I suspect, find what goes on in publishing mysterious — partly because publishers haven’t done a very good job of explaining it to them. One thing we’ve tried to do in this book is make the publishing house less of a black box.

Most people outside the business don’t understand, for example, how much of an editor’s time is taken up by things other than "editing." The publishing process is enormously complex and the number of people, and amount of time, required to publish and market a book successfully is greater than most authors would imagine. Editors serve in the role of point person, or project captain, for each title they acquire; making the machinery work properly on behalf of the book is a big part of their responsibility.

Mary: One issue I tend to harp on a lot is length. A long book incurs extra costs at every stage of the publishing process — from requiring more hours of editing to consuming more paper when printed. That means we generally have to put a higher price on it to recoup the extra costs, which in turn might discourage people from buying it or assigning it in their courses.

And, of course, there is increasing competition today from all corners of the media for readers’ precious time. Scholars have no trouble recognizing other people’s books as too long yet often can’t see the same problem in their own work. Unless a book is on a proportionately large or significant topic, shorter is usually better.

There seems to be a sense among authors that university press editors do not do much editing.

Peter: A couple of chapters explain that, at university presses, a cost-benefit triage is often applied: Editing resources are usually devoted to those manuscripts where a close edit can really make a difference in the potential sales of the book. "Editors don’t edit anymore" is a lament, or canard, that I’ve been hearing since I got into publishing three decades ago. I know for an absolute fact there are immensely dedicated editors at both big corporate trade houses and at university presses who spend hours toiling over manuscripts.

However, it’s also a stark truth that some books don’t get the level of editing they deserve. Across the industry there’s an increasing pressure to put out more titles without increasing staff, and that can mean parts of the process get shortchanged. (This is why there’s a robust marketplace for freelance book editing.)

If real, close editing is important to you as an author, I would urge you to get an explicit commitment about it from your publisher — don’t assume you won’t get it, but don’t assume that you will.

Mary: I hope the book conveys that "editing" encompasses various levels of editorial attention to the text as well as advocacy tasks on behalf of authors and their work. Even if the acquisitions editor of a university press deletgates the close editing of a manuscript to a copyeditor, that acquisitions editor has invested a great deal of time in its peer review, in presenting it to colleagues, faculty boards, and sales reps, in making sure it moves smoothly through the process to finished book, and so forth. A good editor focuses on the tasks that will contribute most to helping a scholarly book reach its audience.

Are there personality traits that editors seem to have in common?

Peter: I remember our mutual former colleague Sheldon Meyer, who can fairly be called a legend in the profession, was once asked what was the most important quality for an editor. He said, "Optimism!" So often publishing is the triumph of hope over experience. The capacity to tell yourself, "This one is going to work" — and really believe it — is probably something we all share. Editors who lose their optimism don’t stick around very long.

Mary: An obsessive love of books and reading, of course. And many of us in the university press world at least started to pursue graduate degrees before deciding we wanted to be part of the academy but not as faculty. That helps us function in the role of first, ideal readers: We understand what constitutes good scholarship, or a good teaching text. Yet we are sufficiently removed from it to judge whether academic authors are communicating their ideas clearly to other interested but not fully knowledgeable readers.

Being an editor comes close to the dream of reading for a living.

Join the Conversation


Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.