If you are near Hall 4.0 at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Friday this week at 10 am, do yourself a favour, take an hour out from frenetic rights trading, and consider for a moment one of the critical issues of publishing as an industry in our times: does editing still matter in a digital world, and if it does, who should be doing it? And it is not just an issue of rational organisation and growing margins. For those who have invested a lifetime here, the litany of job titles (copy editor, sub-editor, commissioning editor, managing editor, executive Editor in my own case) recognises the scope of the editing function from selection of what to publish through to the preparation and validation of the published material. It recognises that “editor” has often meant “marketing manager” in some circumstances. And we should nor forget that all those grades and variations in editorial job titles demonstrate the willingness of publishing management to trade a new job title when what was requested was a pay rise!

I wanted to be there to moderate the debate in Hall 4.0. Instead a slipped disc has me on my back, but more than adequately replaced by David Attwooll of David Attwooll Associates (www.attwoollassociates.com), who knows the changing structures of the publishing business far better than most of us. Together with Dr Sven Fund, who runs Walter de Gruyter, and Dr Helmut Pesch of Lubbe this session will explore a question that would have made our publishing grandfathers blanch. Is editing the core of our business, or even a core competence?

One characteristic of a life in publishing is the decline of editorial standards debate. As soon as a new acquaintance realises that you are connected to the trade, then begins the chorus of criticism around standards: in your new friend’s youth, there were no literals in printed books, all the facts were always correct, the index was extensive and the bibliography was right up to date, and above all, the stream of inadequate drivel and trivia now published with fanfares at Frankfurt would have been strangled at birth. The latter comments are pure marketing, and relate to age and changing tastes. The former claims, discounted for failing memory, reflect something very odd about our industry. In a place where brand is mostly invested in the author, and seldom in the publisher imprint (OUP and Penguin may be the exceptions), editorial standards in regard to content preparation can only have been important as a way of attracting authors. Now that we are in an agent and author auction-based world the publisher surely has every right to demand a finished product, edited and ready for publication, and thus we see the trend towards editorial work moving out of publishing houses and going freelance or outsourced.

So the role of the consumer publisher devolves to Investor+Marketeer. Would Max Perkins or Dick Seaver find employment? They would probably work for literary agents , who may or may not be interested in investing in re-shaping and rewriting on the heroic scale of these two representatives of the Great Age of Editing (1925-1960) But notice that none of these changes in the business of publishing has a specifically digital edge. And none of them brings self-publishing into the equation. Yet in a publishing world dominated by these factors, Amazon can offer freelance services to would-be self-publishers, who can also buy into a huge range of specialised self-publishing bureaux, from Blurb to eternity. Editorial standards could improve in an EaaS world. Matching systems derived from the dating world could match editor with author. Fact-checking in a data analytics world will be automated, leaving the editor with the task of resolving clashes of opinion or fact.

And all of this may be fine for consumer publishing, but where does it leave educational, or academic or professional publishing, where there have long been disputes about who is responsible? In the early years of this century I was often told that the end of the publisher role in peer review meant the end of the STM publisher. While the glory days of late 1990s +45% ebitda are now long departed, there is no major journals publisher who is not now an important Open Access publisher. More recently, we have been told that the reason why commercial publishers are more expensive than other routes to market is a result of their high editorial added value. They both improve the accuracy and the literacy of the finished article while ensuring that it’s linking and citing functions work immaculately. Metadata may be the answer; if publishers can prove that they can make content more discoverable and improve user access then surly here is a line of defence for traditional publishing process – the digital need coming to the rescue of the craft industry of copy preparation! While academics debate their article publishing strategy (PLoS One -cheap and quick , but peer review only reaches to validation of methodology Versus Publisher – expensive and slow but thorough in terms of mark-up and metadata) the choices may come down to how quickly these articles are needed in the academic marketplace and whether the research is funded by an institution willing to pay for the editorial added value. And if the editing funding is available is it best spent with the publisher or one of a host of specialised agencies (often created by unemployed publishers’ editors) who can be competitively cheaper and faster?

Or why not just let the crowd do it? The insane desire of the human race to point out the deficiencies of others is so readily channeled into crowd-sourcing that we have turned the vice of promulgating ill-prepared communications and pushing them into the public space into the virtues of crowd-editing in the Age of Wikipedia. And it does work very well, until you reach the point of “who edits the editors?”. Then you find yourself back in St Paul’s Churchyard in London in the eighteenth century, where booksellers like Thomas Longman were protecting their migration to publishing and basing their attractiveness to authors upon the better presentation of their works… publishing does move in some very full circles.


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2 Comments so far

  1. David Attwooll on October 8, 2014 06:54

    Thank you David. We shall try to do our best without you.

    My text for the day will I think be Samuel Beckett’s prophetic words about platform- independent publishing in a digitally disintermediated world:'”the whisky resents the decanter”. How can we distil better whisky than home-brew whatever the container it goes into?

  2. The End of Editing? « P U B L I S H I N G on October 8, 2014 07:23

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