Last year’s Man Booker panel took a swipe at the editorial standards of some of the submissions they received. The industry response combined defensiveness with begrudging acknowledgement. But whether or not you’d agree with slipping standards, many editors, and not just those of literary fiction, will tell you how hard it is to find the time for a ‘good edit’, and perhaps harder still to justify one.
Does anyone notice?
The quality of an edit is appreciated by authors if it’s done well, and noticed by readers if it’s done poorly. But – eagle-eyed judges aside – it’s usually less visible to those making the initial call as to whether a book gets stocked or publicised to readers, those who make quick decisions based on the combined package of blurb, design, endorsements, and marketing.
Putting the effort in to these other aspects of the book’s production and promotion can yield more obvious returns – for the author, publisher and editor too. So, if a book sells well but a few readers feel it wasn’t as great as it could have been – how much does it matter?
Judging a good edit
An editor’s job – far from the fantasy that we sit around reading all day, before correcting a few spelling and grammar mistakes – involves a complex set of demands, with editing hardly our sole focus.
In light of that, what does it mean to ‘edit well’? Does it mean the same thing to us as to our authors? Is our concept of quality relative to the level of work the manuscript requires or the amount of time we have? A reader, unaware of these variables, will impose their own personal metric.
Personally, I measure an edit in terms of collaboration with the author: whether we had a positive exchange of ideas, and how that shaped the manuscript. Sometimes this will be relative to how much the text improved from the first draft. Other times, it’s more interpersonal: how much I learned and changed my thinking, thanks to working with the author on the text. If my input can help the reader to make similar changes in belief or attitude too, that’s a great edit.
Juggling many responsibilities
Sometimes the pressures on editors mean that something has to give. We need the text for a proof. If we don’t publish in this window, it’ll fall off booksellers’ radar. Let’s prioritise acquiring new titles. Our designer has pulled out last minute… In the face of urgency, do you sometimes accept ‘good enough’, give it a quick polish, and keep on track – keeping colleagues happy and your reputation for meeting deadlines intact?
We’ve probably all gone for this approach at one time or another, and there is often a compelling case to be made for it. But here’s why I think there’s (usually) a better business case for editing well:
- Reader satisfaction matters. A good edit allows readers to connect more intimately with the story or message, without the impediment of errors, repetition, jarring phrasing or odd sequencing. Hearing readers’ love for a book is wonderful, and makes the job feel worthwhile – but it carries financial value too, as ‘word of mouth’ is crucial to sales.
- Booksellers are readers too – discerning ones – and impressing them can make a huge difference to a book’s success. From better placement on shelves to recommendations or support for launches, booksellers are pivotal to a title backlisting well.
- Authors will work with you again if you’ve collaborated with them on the edit, and respected and nurtured them. Retaining authors can save you lots of time and energy, as they already know the process, and you know how best to work with them. Plus, readers, booksellers and the press tend to like a follow-up.
- Editing well feels great. While this might seem woolly, I’d argue that it’s the best business case going. A good edit can give you a sense of purpose, which is hugely motivating, and may positively affect those you work with too. We don’t need to be HR managers to appreciate the value of retaining happy, dedicated staff.
Whether you work at a large house with a reputation to maintain, or a small press with one to build, we’re all in the business of great ideas and great stories – let’s not lose sight of our values.
Kiera Jamison is a Senior Commissioning Editor for non-fiction publisher Icon Books, where she has built a list that comprises everything from comics to psychology to memoir. She enjoys working with first-time authors and those in need of editorial guidance – despite struggling to make the time! Follow her on Twitter at @theportablekj