Why Editors Are Important

Two days ago web fiction writer MCM posted a well-written argument against the book editor. He argued, approximately, that book editors have become obsolete in this day and age, for reasons somewhat related to the way writers are now chosen for publication by most major publishing houses. I’d like to present a counterpoint: I believe that editors will become increasingly important as publishing becomes digital, and that this change will happen over the next five years or so.

Writers in publishing houses have taken the editor for granted. Part of it may certainly be – as MCM suggests – due to the decreased investment editors have in writers, but I suspect a majority of traditionally published writers trust their publisher to bring quality to their work. More often than not such quality is attributed to book editors.

In the relationships between writers, editors and publishers, however, the balance of power seems to be shifting towards the writer.

Never before has the writer been presented with so many alternatives to the traditional publishing house. With the Internet, the iPad, and the increased competition from Apple v. Amazon, writers are now able to skip publishers entirely and deliver straight to the reader. It is likely that publishing in the future won’t be so much about publishing writers as it would be about empowering them.

With writers now able to write online – why, then, are editors still so important? The incorrect assumption to make here would be to say that the quality of writing in a post-publishing world would decline, and would happen due of a loss of editorship. But that assumption is merely that – baseless. There is nothing to suggest that editors would have to die along with publishers (if the publishers even die at all, which is unlikely) – rather, it is likely that writers will need editors all the more. To wit: here’s an example of an editor hiring a publisher. Absolutely impossible just a couple of years ago (not to mention crazy) but there it is, clear as day.

Craig Mod believes that editors will become increasingly important as writers become more empowered. I think this is true. But an interesting corollary to think about here is the changing nature of the editor. If the publishing equation has changed to favour the writer, then an editor’s loyalties will no longer lie with the publishing house they belong to, and instead change to favour the writer instead.

Why Writers Need Editors

Perhaps a more important question to answer is: do writers really need editors? Web fiction writer Lee L. Lowe turned to online publishing for the simple reason that she couldn’t stand being edited, and there’s something rather valid in that (another friend of mine told me recently that he was increasingly bitter at the way his publisher-appointed editor was treating his work … for ‘marketability’). If writers turn to the net because they can’t stand the nature of editing in a traditional publishing house, why would they want to hire an editor today?

The answer lies in the nature of writing. When you finish a book you’ve spent a year with, your first urge is to share it, almost immediately, with friends and family. This isn’t ideal, of course. Some of your friends know nothing about writing, and most won’t be able to give constructive feedback of any usable sort. (In fact many – my sister, for instance – will deliver judgment with a four word response: “Yes I liked it”.)

Writers tend to become wiser over time with whom to take their advice from. Most writers I know have a small group of friends and family they go to, after they’ve finished writing a piece. These people are the ones whose opinions they trust the most. Today – a portion of those people are likely to be Internet buddies, or writers clustered in small communities like this one.

When you hire an editor, what you’re essentially doing is that you’re paying for an extra pair of eyes. (A pair with good writerly instincts, of course.) And this is different from asking your writer friends for feedback. Hiring an editor is to force him or her to be on your team, to see you through the publication of your book. Stephen King once described writing as rowing a bathtub across the Atlantic, and what you’re doing, really, when you hire an editor is to invite someone else into your bathtub, some five hundred meters away from shore.

I’m not sure about you, but I think the monetary reimbursement is justified.

Editors of the Future

I suspect that the editors of the future will be exactly as MCM described, in the closing paragraphs of his post: smart, keen editors who still value quality and nurturing authors. The problem we might have, however, is for an easy way for writers to evaluate and choose good editors. There may be a technological solution to this (job boards for editors, anyone?) but by and large, I think this kink would work itself out, over time.

The more writers sufficiently capable of publishing on their own, the more demand for professional editing there would be. And you know what they say about necessity and the mother of all invention …

I look forward to the editors of the future. I hope you do, too.

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Category: Publishing · Writing
  • http://fiction.courage-my-friend.org/ Chris Poirier

    Good editors are invaluable to writers — they tell you the things you don’t want to hear. They point out where your ego or lack of skill got the better of your story.

    I don’t need an editor to tell me to change a word. That’s not better, that’s just different. I need an editor to tell me when an entire chapter or character just isn’t working. That’s what a good editor does.

  • http://roydss.blogspot.com Miladysa


  • http://1889.ca MCM

    My new post today syncs up with yours very nicely, I think. The problem with modern editors is they’re encased in a big, stupid machine that makes them pompous without foundation, and they’ve largely stopped doing what they’re meant to be doing. In screenwriting, I have worked with story editors (the closest equivalent) who helped me mature as a writer in a more focused and intelligent way than I could have otherwise. That was their job. I don’t see the same kind of role in the publishing industry, which scares me. It could be they’re buried too deep in their respective companies, but even THAT is a problem.

    I do agree, though, that in the future, the ACTUAL editors will break out and start taking control of the literary landscape. And in the process, you’ll get to see what editors are actual editors, and which ones are just self-important blowhards who happened to find themselves working for a book company.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Chris: Indeed. And I must note that you don’t need a grammatical editor to help you with your fiction – for the large part, you’ve got your audience to do that for you.

    @Miladysa: =)

    @MCM: My hope is that as soon as editors and their loyalties shift to favour the writer, we’d be better off, and not at the brutal mercy of a particularly nasty editor, so willing to destroy your story for the sake of ‘marketability’.

  • http://fracturesbook.com Luke Houghton


    I agree with your comments around needing editors in a more mentoring capacity. From the academic side I have found editors useful when they shift from gatekeeper, to mentoring. Now we have agents who are gatekeepers (how the hell did that happen). A real, honest to goodness ‘editor’, is someone who brings the best out in a work, from my very limited experience! I have heard of agents shaping work and getting it ready to sell but on the whole it’s more a meat market mentality. I used to follow an agent who said authors shouldn’t expect to make a living at writing while running a blog on how he made a living as an agent.

    I think this strikes at the heart of your argument. What role do editors play in helping authors to write better and be able to make a living from writing. They don’t. They filter out everything else because of poor distribution models and a desire to create the next bestseller. When you only cater to that end of the market, there can be no other alternative but to try and make things marketable. Hopefully the re-interest in web fiction will help to flatten out the distribution and open up new and interesting ways for editors and authors to participate.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Luke: thanks for reading. To be honest, I’m now wondering if the shift is likely to happen as fast as we say it would. I know for certain that the publishing industry will change to favour writers (and so: freeing editors to take up editing in a more mentoring capacity) – but what I’m not so certain about is if this would happen within the next year or so.

    There still appears to be a barrier to credibility in web fiction. I’ll talk more about this tomorrow; am starting to worry about this.

  • http://www.blackhatmagick.com Kyt Dotson

    I must throw in right behind @Chris. Editors are still absolutely necessary for the writing industry. While writers may provide the stone, editors will still remain the refinement of the otherwise rough and raw. An editor can spend time studying the audience, industry, and positioning of a story than a writer can—it lets the writer spend time growing and cultivating the story. Equally, I am less interested in having someone totally modify what I’ve written out from under me and having someone to show me how to increase the clarity of my narrative for my audience.

    And to agree wholeheartedly with @Luke. Every time I’ve worked with an editor I’ve learned a heaptonne about the entire process of storytelling and that’s the way that I’d like to see it. Every time I’ve worked hand-and-hand with a good editor (and they’re like mechanics!—a good one is worth more than gold) I’ve not only come out the other side with a better novel overall, but a stunning, deep-seated confidence in my own ability to write something more challenging for my next project.

    Our Internet fans and audience certainly guide and focus our direction; but a good editor who can communicate the mechanics and fabric of the art will leave an author with a better story to tell next time.

  • http://fracturesbook.com Luke Houghton

    @Eli: Yes credibility is a big problem and that’s one thing that the traditional process brings. Looking forward to that post

    @Kyt: You raise a good point, they are like good mechanics. The amount of patience you require to become a good one too. Well said.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Kyt: I liked your analogy about the mechanic, and, yes – I agree that editors (the right types, at least) can be awesome to work with. I think this effect doesn’t necessarily have to be a ‘professional’ editor – anybody who’s willing to sit down with your writing and constantly suggest improvements, over the course of editing your book – is probably going to help you in some way or other.