Monday, February 8, 2010

Edit this out...

Someone made this comment on my LJ ( the one I write about writing and politics and stuff on, not the one I write about emigrating to a remote island and self sufficiency etc on - - honestly, this social media is killing me ;-))

"since editing basically means having another literate person look your stuff over and correct your myopic mistakes. He needs cover art, too, but this is available for under $500. Anyone literate enough to write a book should be able to proof (as opposed to editing) it himself."

Um. Now there is truth (this is the way things sometimes are), and falsehood (this is not the way things should be) in that statement.

Editing is a tough job to do well. There are probably less good editors than there are good writers of humorous fiction, and those are the very rarest kind of writers (one man's funny is another man's boring or tragedy - and this often applies to editing too). Sometimes great editing is, of course, leaving it alone. And sometimes editing can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. Editing - to my limited understanding of the subject comes at two levels -- Structural editing - ie where the editor, taking a look at the book from the outside and as whole as it were, sees areas which need change. In my case that's often been needing additional POVs. Very small changes -applied in the right place and with skill can change a book entirely. The great editors of legend - Campbell, Jim Baen, tend to be this kind of editor. They're very very rare. It's quite easy to get outside a book and say that something is wrong with it. It's another matter entirely to be able to tell an author (in such a way that they listen and understand) how to fix it. Eric Flint is very good at this - maybe his union organising experience stands him in good stead. At the next level (and in some ways this is more difficult than seeing the entire picture), you need a good line-editor -- that is someone who goes through your book, line-by-line and makes sure there are no places in which it can be misinterpreted, that contuinity is correct, that there are no anachronisms, and additionally picking up bad writer habits (ellipses in my case) or things like too much use of passive tense, or repeat word patterns. That's hard, tedious work and requires a very special kind of mind and dedication. I'm exceptionally lucky that Barbara is very good at that. You also of course get editors who aren't good at either of these aspects but try to do them anyway. I've never been that unfortunate, but a few of my friends have.

Anyone who thinks editing is just getting a literate friend to read over your work should read one of my early unedited drafts! They're aweful.

Proof-reading... is something you CAN'T do yourself. Trust me: you cannot do it yourself. That too is a skill that requires dedication and an ability to divorce oneself from the content (story) and merely focus on the words.

So: what are we going to do in our new and wonderful world of e-books? If Joe's internet gateway decides to offer e-books what will they need? DIY editors, proofing, covers, publicity (after all these are the things big 5 publishing houses seem to think are worth around 55% of gross). What are they worth to you? Are the big boys giving good value?


Kate said...

Not having dealt with the big boys as an author, I've got no idea how they stand on that front, but from the reader side, hell no. The standard of proofing and editing in far too many of the books I've bought lately is... not what it should be.

I'm not giving details, because I don't want to launch into a long string of expletive-scattered rant.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, there has to be some sort of gatekeeper and quality control. At least if I'm going to spend money on an e-book. There are too many folks out there who think that because they us MS Word, or Open Office or any number of other word processing programs, they can rely on spell check, auto-correct, etc., and you can't. Just as most of us can't be good proofreaders of our own work. For me, I know what is supposed to be on the page and my eyes will gloss over issues like spelling or the use of their for there, for example.

As for whether the big boys are giving good value, especially when it comes to page layout, proofing and copy editing, I vote a resounding "NO!". Sometimes I wonder if they do more than run a manuscript through spell check before setting up the pdf files for printing. And don't get me started about consistency errors. Then there are those books where the copy editors try to "update" language from period to modern. I don't want Lizzy Bennett to sound like a Valley Girl, thank you very much.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave, good editing is like good therapy, it helps the write find what they wanted to say and then it helps them bring it out and polish it.

If editing was getting literate friend to read over your book, it would be like getting a mechanic to repair your car, except in the case of a book the engine is partly obscured by growths of rust and every story-engine is intrinsically different.

The rust needs to be cut away and they can only do this if the editor/mechanic has an intuitive understanding of 'engine' -- the thing that drives a story forward.

I think I better stop there before the analogy trips me up!

Dave Freer said...

Kate, I suspect there is cost cutting on the 'non-important' things. Of course, just how long these can continue to be 'unimportant' when you're actually doing away with your core raison d'arte (the gatekeeper role requires 1)you keep gate - actually acquire the best out there. I'm sorry, outsourcing to agents just doesn't cut it. 2)you keep a quality gate - what goes through is of a certain quality of editing and proofing 3)that you deal effectively with distribution, publicity and payments. If all you're offering is something joe average could do in half an hour on his PC (putting it into book format, running a spell checker, and putting a cover on it, and then pushing into the retail server... that's a high percentage to ask.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, exactly. If someone sets up as an e-tailer of books, without the interface of a publisher, they'll need to make sure SOMEONE (and not just my friend Fred Nook (who can't read so he can't cook)) edits and proofs work they put up.

Dave Freer said...

But rowena if they chip the rust off my story or car it'll disintegrate. Rust is all that holds it together ;-).
Seriusly I tend to think of it as judicious pruning by an experienced pruner, who knows what to cut, what to thin and which branches to encourage. I like you similie about good therapy however. A good editor brings it out of the autor, a poor one just changes things.

Anonymous said...

Amanda, I hear you! In addition to using the spell-checker sparingly (and with a high degree of distrust), I disabled all the auto-correct stuff as well as the funky little underlining that points out spelling or grammatical errors. That road leads to ruin! It might be handy making that memo about the new cover sheets for the TPS reports look like it was actually written by a semi-literate human being who can actually dress himself on even-numbered days, but for anything more complex, it falls far short.

Plus there's the ego thing: no collection of 0s and 1s is going to tell me how to write a damn story. If I did, it'd probably turn it into a glorified memo about the new cover sheet for the TPS reports. Besides, I think I do an okay job proofreading my work -- unless those of you who've read my stuff just haven't had the heart to tell me :-D

Of course, I do have to thank Mrs. Hooper, Mr. Urbia, Mr. Beckers, and Mrs. Charter -- the English teachers I had through high school, who cut me absolutely zero slack when it came to grammar, spelling, and usage ;-)

And Mrs. Hooper, if you're still out there, while diagramming those thousands upon thousands of sentences sucked on toast, it paid off in spades down the road.

Anonymous said...

Oh and here's an article on Scalzi's page about publishing/editing (quite tongue-in-cheek, BTW)

(Hopefully I got the code right and made the clickable...)

Amanda Green said...

Robert, you are so right. Of course, the ever changing grammar rules also drive me crazy. Back in the Dark Ages when I was in school, too used to mean also was set off by a comma, especially if it was in the middle of a sentence. Now, it's not. The possessive of a noun ending in an s was denoted by an apostrophe, not by 's. I still do a double-take when I look at Jones's for example.

I, too, have a couple of English teachers who beat grammar and spelling in my head -- or at least tried to. Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Wells in high school and my freshman English professor at Baylor (who terrorized all of us so badly I have forever blocked her name, but who did know how to get our attention). She handed out a single sheet of typing paper that first day of class with the rules of the class -- all single spaced. Two comma faults, you flunked the paper. Two dangling modifiers, you flunked the paper. Two split infinitives, you flunk the paper. Three misspelled words, you flunk the paper. You don't have a "C" average on the last three papers of the semester and you flunk the course. There was more, but you get the idea.

I'm not saying my spelling, punctuation and grammar are perfect. Far from it. But it is a lot better than so much I see these days in published novels. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Yes Amanda, I have that problem with too, too :-D

C Kelsey said...


I don't remember much emphasis placed on punctuation after the sixth grade. It's kind of sad. It also explains my over-usage of the dreaded "flying comma", otherwise known as an apostrophe.

Now, if y'all will excuse me, I'm being mentally hijacked by a story right now.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

RJ Cruze,

Loved the John Scalzi take on the current publishing world!

Chris McMahon said...

Well - there is not way I can proof my own work. That's for sure.

I thinks some sort of external check is essential - and editors can really add a lot to your final work.

C Kelsey said...

I'm reading "Self Editing for Fiction Writers" right now since Sarah told me too. ;) There's more that I'd never thought of before in that book than, well, than I could have possibly thought of on my own. It makes it painfully clear that, regardless of how well you do on your own, and editor is absolutely vital for it to be a truly professional work.

Dave Freer said...

Bob, Scalzi's making much the same point I am but reaching a different conclusion. To be blunt, publishers are good value IF they deliver good value. When they start avoiding the parts which added value and either subcontracting them (often without pay - as in when they use agents to read slush - which is why agents now charge authors 15% not the 10% they did historically, as in when they expect you to market or deliver an audience - you must have so many facebook contacts etc.) then one deos start to wonder - what are the services they do provide worth? Are you not better off spending the money wisely and watchfully yourself? No, quality isn't free. But is it worth 55% of gross? Only if gross is very very large, and the job is very very good - or if the cost of quality is simply out of reach. Take cover art for eg. There are some great artists out there. They won't work for free. But some will - and do graphic design work for the cover - on the same system as authors do - advance + royalty. It's something I can see possibly developing in publicity and distribution too.

Anonymous said...

There are two kinds of people who are indispensible to the fiction industry.

Writers and readers.

The publishers, printers, warehouses, distributors, and bookstores are the current pathway in between. But if they turn from a roadway to a roadblock, they will discover that they are the dispensible part of the production line.

The internet and POD has made that a lot easier than it used to be. To the point where the old road may have to be repaved to carry the new vehicles. Unfortunately, management seems to have grabbed their picks and shovels to make all new potholes. Writers required to do their own marketing. Poor quality proofing. Hogging the cost savings of quick and easy typesetting programs. *Reducing* the writer's take on ebooks when the expense is lower.

Well, they're getting pretty close to industry wide suicide.

The new road may be a temporary detour, or prove to be an excellent shortcut. We'll only find out by testing it. At this point, we're just arguing the best time to start construction, and what materials to use. I think the inevitability of a new roadway between writer and reader is becoming fairly widely accepted.

But maybe that's just an impression I've gotten from hanging around you lot. :)

Anonymous said...

So Dave, I'm gathering that as long as publishers actually do these things, you're getting bang for your buck. But, when they won't do these things and outsource everything to the point where all they're doing is slapping an imprint on the spine -- and expecting a lion's share of the money while everyone else does all the work for chump-change -- then publishers have basically reduced themselves to middlemen and it's time to cut them out. That about right?

Of course, this could be an opportunity for the smaller, leaner, and meaner publishers, who actually provide these value-added services (publishers that still publish) to step to the forefront and fill that need -- or even for the folks the big boys have been outsourcing to (copy-editors, cover artists, typesetters, etc.) to band together and actually become publishing houses in their own right.

Dave Freer said...

"There are two kinds of people who are indispensible to the fiction industry.

Writers and readers."

Matapam, that is worth quoting and remembering always.

The other stages - well, it's a case what the market will bear. I live on island. The supermarket can charge what it likes. But only up to a cetain point, or I will do without or import it myself. The trouble is that price point is a balancing act between putting off a lot of customers and making as much money as possible. As a reader of fiction Hard-cover prices for an e-book are a long way past that point. As an author... well maybe I am a fool. I don't mind all the other stages making more than I do (don't like it, but will survive) IF I can do what I love and make a reasonable living. If I can't... I have to either do something else, or do this another way, cutting some costs between me and readers.

Dave Freer said...

Bob - I don't think we're quite there yet. There are some books coming out people think are good value, there are some publishers still providing a lot of what an author needs from them. But year after year there seems to be an erosion. Yeah there are some companies, like Baen who have a brand and provide more, but as Ori put it (more-or-less) you can outsource yourself into being valueless. I wonder if you could compare many publish houses to venture capital operations. They're putting in a relatively small amount of capital into a high risk venture - the advance. For some venture capital companies, that's where it ends. But I'll betthe nursemaid + add-value services ones succeed a lot more often, for all they are more expensive.

Anonymous said...


Son much of what the publishers do is stuff writers have no interest in, and may be quite bad at actually doing, that we all wish they'd come to their senses and start doing their jobs and using the new tech possibilities properly and . . .

But as Chris put it, they are the Land of the Unknown. We are reduced to *hoping* we don't have to become our own publishers, with very little ability to prevent the necessity.

Anonymous said...

Dave -- oh yeah, things still haven't hit that critical mass, but you can definitely see things heading that way. As for nursemaiding, another good analogy for that is gardening. Which garden produces the best crop: the one where you just tossed your seeds on the ground and hoped for the best, or the one where you took a little time each day to tend to it? Granted, you might get lucky with the first method, but I think I'd stick with option B to keep food on the table.

matapam (and Dave) -- definitely. When you break it down, the people that actually make money for the publisher are the writers who create the product that the readers (the customers) want to buy. Everything and everyone else in the publishing process is overhead: the costs of doing business. As long as that overhead is geared towards putting books in the customers' hands (or on the electronic devices in those hands), it adds value to the process. However, when it isn't directed toward that end, the overhead actually removes value.

DRM is a perfect example of a non-value-added activity (holy crap, I did learn something in the manufacturing sector!).