Why are book editors nowadays so bad at their jobs?
November 6, 2012 1:46 AM   Subscribe

What's gone wrong with book editing at major publishers?

Increasingly nowadays it seems to me that books simply aren't being edited rigorously enough. It feels like editors take a laissez-faire attitude and don't even attempt to get the best book out of the author.

The result can be novels that are simply overwritten, the most notorious example being the last Harry Potter book. That could have been half, even a third of the size without suffering. It sounds like JK Rowling's new book suffered too, with reviews mentioning a bizarre assembly of extended/mixed metaphors that should have been spotted.

Non-fiction titles seem to be hit -- I just finished a biography that was badly organised and leaped around in the timeline (at one point a wife died in a sad protracted segment, then a few pages later she was alive again in an anecdote that clearly should have come earlier). Factual errors were common -- the same book talked of The Muppets creator as "Jim Hansen" and a Q&A at the back used American English spellings despite everybody involved being British and the book being published by a British company for British readers. I assumed the spell checker was set accidentally to US English.

I have some theories of my own:

1. "Editors" aren't really editors any longer, but simply business types who believe the book will sell itself on its title, author and cover pic.

2. The process has been stripped down to bare essentials to save money, in the mindless process of rationalisation that happens at some companies.

3. Educational standards have fallen so much that there simply isn't the talent any longer to do a good job, and the craft of editing is dying. I've worked in magazine publishing and experienced this first hand with sub-editors to whom I had to explain how a comma works.
posted by deeper red to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's not the editors' fault because they just aren't hired to do the work any more. They are got rid of in-house and then they don't even seem to go half way and use freelancers. It drives me mad reading books (as an editor myself) and it's hard to convince self-publishers to use editors when they see such bad quality in published books, too!

There is the talent, believe me - I know loads of great editors working freelance. But I be t those "sub-editors" weren't trained people but interns and people being taken advantage of as they tried to work their way up the ladder.
posted by LyzzyBee at 2:00 AM on November 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

For US readers: sub-editor = copy editor.
posted by deeper red at 2:04 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Every sub editor I know who has previously worked in small publishing is currently out of work.

There is a lot of very smart people capable of editing. But it's one of those jobs that looks easy to cut, so cut it is.
posted by Jilder at 2:08 AM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think the root cause is similar to your second theory: the process has been stripped down to bare essentials because publishers have realised that not enough customers notice (or care about) the difference between good and bad editing to justify the expense.

There are probably some genres/classes of book for which this isn't true, but for mass-market fiction and popular biographies it may well be a reasonable assumption to make, at least in economic terms.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:20 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cost, cost, cost is the main one: the whole publishing industry has had to trim back a lot and editing takes time, requires experienced talent and costs money. It's an easy, but lazy, cost saving. But there are cost cuts elsewhere: advances are now a fraction of what they were for most authors, for example. Digitisation brings a whole bunch of cost savings on print runs. The media landscape is still changing and books are having to compete with all the different entertainment options available on things like ipads, iphones, laptops and even plain old TVs. Kindles and Nooks provide a sticking plaster, but at a cost: Amazon dominates and demands its pound of flesh, which puts more pressure on publishers (hence more merger activity to drive scale). To protect the bottom line - even while promotional costs remain constant or even are go up, something has to give.

At the same time cost is being squeezed there is also pressure to get stuff to market more quickly. So publishers aren't sitting on an asset. The digitisation of publishing has brought in a step change in the timelines around product launch: so you go to market quickly because you can correct typos on the fly and replace digital stock at a click. But speed to market also makes everyone feel good - once you can go to market quickly the impetus to keep bouncing a book back and forth between publisher and editor diminishes rapidly. You've invested less, so the need to craft something utterly perfect is less. And, of course, the book market itself is changing. Kindles make the market more of a volume game too. "Publishing" no longer requires a heap of machinery behind it. Self-publishing is less of a taboo (much as youtube videos are not all Charlie bit my finger). If the dominant player in publishing is a single bookseller then choice is king. if publishers want to rise above that, they have to pay to be promoted.

Because you have to compete much harder for purchases you also back fewer horses, but heavily promote the ones you do back. For the rest - the potential sleeper hits out there, you invest the bare minimum and manage the risk profile of your portfolio very carefully to balance bankers and potential sleepers. You try and generate interest for all your titles through social media and have your marketing team prepped to move quickly behind any title that gains organic recognition via social media.

And yes, educational standards have slipped. Anecdotally, I hired someone with a first class honours degree in English a few years back and had to teach them basis grammar. As this wore on, they snapped and complained that it was unfair to be pulled up so often as they hadn't ever been taught it. But we are all guilty too: the downside of having a spellchecker is we all loose (ahem) the ability to either pick out words that are spelt correctly in the wrong context, or simply we parse rather than properly read.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:29 AM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Margins in publishing are tremendously thin these days. The really good editors are good because they have been doing this forever and carry significant salaries. Most publishing houses cannot afford to carry editors of that calibre any more, and tasks that were previously done by editors are now being farmed off to the assistants willing to work for lattes.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:02 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Both my book that's been published and my book that's currently in the editing process had multiple rigorous editing passes, for what it's worth. I've heard anecdotally that things are better for editors in YA (which I write) than in adult books, but I'm not sure that's actually the case.

For big-name authors like J.K.Rowling, both authorial egos and "This is going to sell like hotcakes anyway, so we don't have to do anything to it" may be factors.
posted by Jeanne at 3:34 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

All too many book publishers (and newspapers, for that matter) think that just because they have spellcheck on their computers, they no longer need copy editors and proofreaders. This results in misspellings, those factual errors you mention and anecdotes out of coherent order.

As far as actually editing a book before publishing goes --- things like JK Rowling's endless, pointless metaphors in books that should have been drastically trimmed and tightened up --- I suspect that's more a result of the author's developing a giant ego: notice how the first Harry Potter book isn't like that? See how each successive title in the series gets worse and worse about it? As Rowling got more and more famous, I'll bet she gradually refused to accept editorial suggestions: "I'm JK Rowling! *I* don't need any writing advice from you peons!" Please don't think I'm picking on Ms. Rowling, by the way: there are way too many OTHER authors who also let success go to their heads, and who start to think that every word they produce is solid gold.

So: it's a combination of cost (the price of a copy editor) and fear (that your successful author will take their custom elsewhere).
posted by easily confused at 3:54 AM on November 6, 2012

A colleague of mine wrote a pop-sci book some years back and was actually looking forward to the editing to tighten up his writing, make suggestions on what could be reshaped, etc. To his surprise, all that happened was spelling corrections. And this was a first time author at a major publisher. So yes, anecdotally, editing ain't what it used to be.

As for major "name" authors - as easily confused suggests, the widespread theory is that they can't or won't be edited. Plausible, although I know that Stephen King still gets editorial advice. I also wonder if some "event" books are delivered so close to schedule that there's no time for editing.
posted by outlier at 5:15 AM on November 6, 2012

That could have been half, even a third of the size without suffering.

On the Harry Potter thing specifically, remember that those books were marketed to kids of an age where reading a BIG THICK BOOK is a really big deal. I remember going to a release party for the fourth book and hearing a lot of 9 and 10 years olds being all, "This book is One Thousand pages long and someone is going to die in it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" After that, all of the books were 1000+ pages and somebody died in them. So I don't think that is an example of poor editing, but one of editorial choices that are consistent with marketing. Marketing that actually works in this particular case, so unless you remove the profit motive from publishing, there's no real solution for that. I, too, wish that all books were shepherded through the process to be The Best Book They Could Possibly Be, but I think that's a little unrealistic for genre fiction (which YA fantasy is part of). The type of book that HP is will always be guided more by sales strategy than by rigorous standards of Great Literature.

Regarding the rest of your concerns, some books are just not good books. It's disappointing, but it's OK and I don't think the publishing industry is really to blame for that.

The Jim Hansen typo is pretty unforgivable, though.
posted by Sara C. at 5:43 AM on November 6, 2012

For smaller houses and self-pub, cost could be a factor, but at the larger houses I just don't see the pressure there. Copyediting is built into the cost model and they're not likely to skip it. (Developmental editing may well be seen as optional, but I think that has ever been so.) More, I'd point to tight schedules as the culprit. As MuffinMan points out, no one wants to be sitting on an asset. When the entire production schedule is measured in weeks (vs. the months once allowed), then spell check is about the best you can hope for.
posted by libraryhead at 6:12 AM on November 6, 2012

Anecdata: My book came out from a "big six" (or four, now?) publisher in 2010 and in paperback the next year. It had no less than three copyediting passes with two different copyeditors.
posted by mynameisluka at 6:53 AM on November 6, 2012

Your premise is a bit broken.

Like Jeanne, I can tell you this from experience. I'm a debut young adult author being published for the first time next year by Simon and Schuster. This was the editorial process I went through:
  • Seven months of editing with my agent before we went on submission to major publishers. This included correcting typos, fixing worldbuilding errors, streamlining language, expanding several subplots into major plots.
  • Then, after I sold to my editor:
  • A first round of edits, which entailed a seventeen page editorial letter addressing every aspect of plot and characterization. She sent this along with a fully marked-up manuscript, again addressing typos and word-choice issues.
  • A second round of edits, contained in an eleven page editorial letter and another fully marked-up manuscript. This one mostly addressed two major plots in the novel and discussed how we could balance them. At this point, we had a phone call too over a small disagreement about how to characterize one character.
  • A third round of edits (four page editorial letter) discussing how to smooth out several scenes which read awkwardly.
  • Copyedits. I was express overnighted a copy of the manuscript that had been combed through by a freelance copyeditor. Each and every page was marked up. This also included a cast of characters and a timeline of events in the book so that I could address continuity errors.
  • First pass pages. I received a copy of the book formatted like a printed book and was told to go over it in search of typos, formatting errors, and last minute changes.
My editor is young--was recently promoted from an assistant to associate editor. But she is tireless and very, very good at her job. Frankly, it's a bit insulting to people like her to say that "book editors nowadays [are] so bad at their jobs." Additionally, I read a lot of current releases for review--including self-published books--and the primary way these books feel "unedited" isn't in the presence of typos but in the lack of larger-scale cohesion. From experience, cohesion, consistency, rigorous worldbuilding and a stream-lined reading experience are all issues that major US book publishers address. They really are interested in creating polished books.

The Rowling situation is a bit different. I would say likewise for Stephen King, Anne Rice (who famously refuses to be edited), George RR Martin or any bestselling author who writes doorstops. The issue there is often a combination of factors. One is the speed in which the publishing world wants sequels. You're expected to publish a book a year--or something approaching that. The prospect of doing so becomes more complicated when you're talking about a seven-book epic. You have more plotlines to resolve if you want to address everything before a series ends. So these authors are more likely to turn in thousand-page manuscripts to their publishers after or very close to deadline. This is where something breaks in the process--either there isn't time to take this thousand-page book through a rigorous edit (and every stage of edits can take a month or more), or the author is big enough to refuse editorial input. And they are powerful enough--read: sell enough copies--that it doesn't matter. Everyone will buy the book whether it's edited or not. And they want. The book. Now. So publishers push out these tomes in favor of bigger sales.

But these are exceptions, not the rule, and the great majority of authors still go through a fairly rigorous editing process from all accounts I've heard. I don't have the clout to refuse to edit my books (and I wouldn't want to--hell, even Rowling wishes she'd edited some of the HP books better). You have to be a powerhouse bestseller to do that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:57 AM on November 6, 2012 [10 favorites]

It sort of seems like you are generalizing your own experience and trying to figure out some things about the entire industry and I'm not sure that will be effective. I recently heard a talk about "the state of publishing" outlining the economic and social pressures on the business of book making and book selling and if this is a specific area of interest for you I'd suggest reading Merchants of Culture by John B. Thompson or trying to see him when he is around. It's a really interesting and well-researched discussion of just how and why the business is changing with a lot of non-anecdata backing it up.
posted by jessamyn at 7:29 AM on November 6, 2012

Agreeing with PhoBWanKenobi, I just went to a lecture by a novelist who said that between himself and his publisher, each submission goes through twelve drafts.
posted by goethean at 7:31 AM on November 6, 2012

Nthing what PhoBWanKenobi said. The experience I had editing my first novel last year (YA published by a Penguin imprint) wasn't quite as vigorous, but I still went through several drafts with my editor and her tireless and awesome assistant, followed by several rounds of line editing and copy editing.

From what I understand, editors from the major houses do expect more polished work these days, putting more editorial pressure on literary agents. Editors are stretched a lot thinner than they used to be. They're still working like crazy, though.

Also, so much of what makes for "good" editing is subjective. While no one's going to defend an obvious typo like "Jim Hansen," saying a book "should" have been shorter or longer or whatever is just an opinion. If the Harry Potter books had been edited severely and cut to half their present length, someone out there would be complaining that they were too short. And so it goes.
posted by QuickedWeen at 8:30 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is also true that even in the glory days when Maxwell Perkins was lovingly, brilliantly editing Fitzgerald and Hemingway, he was the exception rather than the rule, and during that same time, paperback presses were churning out pulp novels for a mass audience with very little editing at all. So it is not really a sign of catastrophic demise of the book industry today when "Demon Vampire Soulmate Chronicles 12: The Unshirtening" has a few typos and continuity errors.

One other issue is that good editing is invisible - you only ever notice the things that don't get fixed. But my guess is that if you were able to look at the early drafts of the books you feel were insufficiently edited, in most cases you would be surprised by how far they had come before reaching the bookstore.
posted by unsub at 9:05 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know a lot of other people have already touched on this, but as an editor, I felt the need to chime in. At my publishing house it's the insane workloads compounded by tight schedules and a general shortage of heads. We are all spread too thin, but can't afford to hire more people. We are all juggling multiple projects in different stages of review. We are all told to hurry even faster. This is not to excuse mistakes, but it does explain why things occasionally slip through, even though we are all working tirelessly and doing our best.

Frankly, I'm a little insulted that you think we are too uneducated to do a good job.
posted by chatongriffes at 10:38 AM on November 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Thanks for some great answers. Who knew so many MeFites write young adult fiction?
posted by deeper red at 1:16 PM on November 6, 2012

another YA author here! my books were published at a random house imprint, and were also comprehensively edited by both my editor (the imprint's VP & a senior editor) and her assistant in multiple, multi-page rounds that made me weep. they also went through rounds of copyediting and proofreading.

however, I'm also with you that many books, even Big 6* books, seem under-edited, and I think that's due to a number of factors others have mentioned: understaffed & overworked imprints, successful author egos, and editors simply varying in the quality of their work (just like authors do). the truth is a lot of those books that seem under-edited do tremendously well -- which probably explains why there's no industry clamor toward better-edited books.

*Big 5 now, alas
posted by changeling at 1:38 PM on November 6, 2012

I just caught the tail end of a BBC documentary with author Ian Rankin: "Ian Rankin and the Case of the Disappearing Detective" (part of the imagine strand) and there was an interesting exchange between Rankin and his editor, Caroline Oakley. She's been editing Rankin's books for twenty years, no longer works for Orion but edits one book a year at Rankin's insistence. Well worth a view if you can access BBC iPlayer.
posted by humph at 3:47 PM on November 6, 2012

I'll throw my anecdata on the pile.

One (non-fiction) publisher I work with has amazing copyediting and fact checking going through multiple people and lots of back and forth. However as long as the word count is correct they don't edit for content.

Another publisher I've worked with doesn't spend much time on copyediting, but has a lot more feedback over form and construction. The second publisher is smaller than the first, but not so much that I think it's a cost thing, I think it's just an internal culture thing.

Are you reading a lot of ebooks? Ebooks have often been copyediting nightmares. The first versions of print books were scanned by robot and not copyedited before publishing leading to lots of errors. After complaints they generally get cleaned up. However newly published books typically work from the original digital file so don't have new typos that aren't in the print versions. As we move forward there will be fewer scanned atrocities.

I don't know, but I suspect that the move to ebooks has reduced the pressure to have a perfect first edition since releasing an improved 2nd or 3rd or 50th edition is cheap and easy with digital, and your readers will point out the errors for you.
posted by Ookseer at 6:33 PM on November 6, 2012

Ookseer, we're not just talking about copyediting but also the editing process which PhoBWanKenobi summed up pretty well as "cohesion, consistency, rigorous worldbuilding and a stream-lined reading experience" -- essentially shaping the book and avoiding author pitfalls. I should have made the difference between copyediting and developmental editing clearer in my question but creating Ask Metafilter questions is an art form I still haven't mastered.

I've marked as "best answer" the answers above that provided insight into the publishing industry and process. The anecdotes from authors being published are really valuable and interesting but I'm not sure they add much apart from their singular examples of experience within the publishing machine.
posted by deeper red at 2:26 AM on November 7, 2012

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