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