Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The role of editor in an on-line world

Two week's ago, I reported (What do you want to know about e-publishing?) on my decision to enrol in an e-publishing course. While I haven't said anything since, the first two sessions have been as good as I hoped. Our tutor, David Henley, is good, while those enrolled are an interesting group including Dexter Dunphy who is interested in publishing his poetry on line. 

I will write something more on the things that I have learned a little later in the course just to help me consolidate my thoughts. For the moment, I mention that Neil Whitfield has put up his own post on e-publishing, E-books and editing–opportunity and hazard.

Over on Facebook, Helen Dale (skepticlawyer), wrote "Helen Dale had forgotten how difficult it is to edit to length for purposes of journalism. She is being reminded - with some force - why she hasn't done any opinion-editorial work since 2002." Helen is no mean writer, she won a Miles Franklin award in an earlier life; I feel for her!

In his post, Neil wonders (among other things) about the role of editing and the editor in an on-line world. All forms of publication, and e-publishing is just another form, have their own rules dictated by the structure of the medium. Because e-publishing is apparently so easy, it leads to real quality control problems. Neil gives one example.

To my mind, editing and the role of editors is just as important in the on-line environment as in print. The form of editing is changing, for the opportunities and constraints of on-line publishing affect the way words are presented and combined with other elements. Yet in a world that contains an ever growing volume of really bad crap, something that I referred to in a different context in Sunday Essay - is the internet drowning in it's own excreta?, a good editor can be vitally important in giving you that edge that allows your work to stand out.

Of course, these things are never clear cut. Some badly written pieces will sell because they appeal to to a particular market. Indeed, a good editor may even be a problem here! But I think that my comment is still true as a generalisation.

Some years ago, I read a biography of English writer Somerset Maugham. For the life of me, I cannot remember the title. That's a pity, because it was a very good book! I do remember, however, the descriptions of the sometimes complicated relations between Maugham and his editor. It was Maugham's work, but it gained from the editing.

As I write, youngest is using an editor to check her first book. It's not the first unpublished novel she wrote, just the first to be edited. Clare is a very good writer, different from her father, probably better than her father, but different. Despite her ear for dialogue, her grammar is so bad that it distracts from her writing.

That comment is not a criticism of her schooling. Clare works in bursts of enthusiasm and, when writing, just writes. It's very much part of her personality. Commenting on her preferred sporting role as hockey goalie, I once commented that the role suits her perfectly: long periods of nothing to do but gaze at the world, followed by intense bursts of excitement! So editing provides a check and a discipline.

Her father, too, could benefit from a good editor. Neil notes that much of what we regular bloggers write is actually first draft. Get it written, get it out. Sometimes that leads to painful results, but it's the reality of what we do.

The world changes if we want to turn our scribblings into something more. Now we have to consolidate, revise and edit. Now we could benefit from an editor, an external critic.

For the moment, the changes that have been taking place in publishing directly threaten the traditional role of editor. Editors are being retrenched as print publishers contract. My feeling is that this is just a transition, that the editor will re-emerge as an important element in the mix. The detail of the role will change, but the core elements will remain.

Postscript 24 July 2012

My friendly unpaid research assistant kvd drew my attention to these pieces by the Sydney Morning Herald's Judy Prisk. She occupies the apparently new position - at least new to me - of  Readers' Editor.

I'm writing while eating tea after my return from the latest session in the e-publishing course. Two things stand out in my mind.

The first is the need to flow chart the e-publishing process. I find that this helps me understand. I will do this over the next week or so, get it checked, and then post it here. I should warn you, it won't be flash. My graphic skills can best be described as miniscule!

The second is the limitations in the e-publishing world as compared to either print or the broader internet. There are many things that you either can't or shouldn't do because of the problems they create. Like tables! You must work to the limitations of the medium.

I won't be posting today beyond this postscript. I fear that I need to settle down with some estimates spreadsheets due tomorrow.


Evan said...

I think the role may be a mix of agent and editor (with less emphasis on grammar - you can get good programs for this (for a price!)) and a bit more strategy.

Jim Belshaw said...

I'm inclined to disagree with you, Evan. As I wend my way though the e-publishing maze, the more convinced I am that an editor, not a editor/agent, is essential. A good editor improves clarity for the medium in question, not just grammar as such, although Clare needs help here. This is a literary skill that can't be matched by a program. Then you have the limitations of e-publishing itself and of the programs such as e-pub. You actually have to be aware of these.

I don't pretend in any way to be an expert, but the limitations seem to be significant, as is the need to be aware of simple things like scrolling and the impact of font variations, difficulty with wrap around text and so on.

Evan said...

Hi Jim, the limitations of the software are huge I think.

I did say the role had elements of editor still.

The big advantage publishers had was distribution. I think this will be part of the mix too (not really what an agent did I suppose but related - instead of selling the book to a publisher it will be helping sell the book to customers I think - and perhaps giving advice about amazon and kindle and so forth)

Jim Belshaw said...

Good evening, Evan. I agree with you re distribution. That's a common complain among authors and small publishers in the print field. Add to this reduction in the availability of outlets.

Without justifying my position, let me outline my very tentative initial conclusions.

First, the world of e-publishing holds out real e-publishing niche opportunities below the world of Amazon et all especially when combined with some physical production.

Secondly, the aggregator should not be equated to the distributor except in the broadest sense as an interface between publisher and the the e-store. Amazon and kindle is an e-store.

Thirdly, outside smash hits spread by almost viral marketing in areas like soft porn or management pop, the author will have to promote just as hard as now.

Forth, the skills involved in getting good content and good presentation are at least as specialised as they are now. It's just that the payment point is shifting from traditional publisher and more to author.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

I've held off commenting on this piece, because I agree with you wholeheartedly, but wonder how to say (with best will) that I agree even more about your lovely daughter's grammar, and how it so distracts.

Neil's piece was also very interesting, and he mentions some young up and coming fellow, but in the middle of what I assume was a direct quote we have "were goose-stepping and had their hands rose in a Hitler salute". As Neil said, the writer can write; but 'rose'? Maybe it's local parlance, but it was a minor irrit for this 'audience' and hence a distraction.

And the weird thing is, when you posted this, I had just finished reading a very interesting article in 'The Conversation' about shark attacks in W.A. - but very much reduced in effectiveness by an obvious lack of anyone actually reading the piece after hitting 'submit'. Option (c) was converted to the copyright symbol maybe five times, and we were referred to some Florida based listing of 'shark attachs'.

I think the editor role is very important, and I will be sorry to see it consumed by the needs of marketing. And the other irrit I have is that any time such very basic things as spelling and grammar are raised, I always feel somehow demeaned by politely making the point that it really, sometimes, does actually distract.

ps all edits humbly accepted ;)

Evan said...

You can't proofread your own stuff. Other eyes are needed.

Winton Bates said...

Good post, good discussion!

Anonymous said...

Forgot to put up this link, which is - sort of - on topic:


It's a necessary improvement, but my idea of hell would be to be the poor sod who attended to readers' queries.


Jim Belshaw said...

Evan, you are just so right re proof reading!

kvd, Clare's latest post - http://reading-wild.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/temptation-in-literature.html. I am going to bring up the link plus earlier piece referred to in the main story, along with my reactions to tonight's course.

Why thank you, Winton!