Credit Where Credit is Due

Would the perceived value of the publishing process be enhanced by a standard acknowledgement? Or should the author get to decide who takes credit?

There’s been a lot of talk on the web lately about the value of the publishing process. Digital self-publishing gurus like JA Konrath claim that publishers no longer have a role in the production of books. The popular belief of readers, bloggers and many self-published authors seems to be that agents and publishers are grasping middlemen, gatekeepers who hold back genius from the public to line their pockets with sales from writers they conned into giving away their intellectual property.

If you take the information available to the average reader in any given book you might even agree. It says so on the tin. In great big embossed letters, which get bigger as each new book comes out. Stephen King. Stephen King. Stephen King. Stephen King. According to tradition, publishers, editors and agents erase themselves from the creative process of book creation to protect the myth of the author-as-genius. It is up to the author, in the pages of the acknowledgements, to credit those who helped them.

I should point out at this point that published authors are mostly a pretty good bunch. Most authors I know have a deep and abiding respect for their publishers, editors, agents and so on. Most of the time authors even credit the people who helped them in their acknowledgements. But my question for today is – why should they have to? Most published books are not the sole creation of the author. The author may have been by far the biggest contributor, but most books are still a collaborative work that could not have come about without the hard work of many dedicated people, many of whom work in publishing because it is a calling – as much a vocation as being an author, and sometimes just as badly paid.

Sure, books are not as collaborative as film – with a list of hundreds of technicians and skilled workers to credit – but there are plenty of people who go in to making a book what it is. Many of whom do so without even the author’s knowledge. Why aren’t they credited? And if they should be credited, how should it be done? Edward Nawotka over at Publishing Perspectives suggests a mention on the copyright page, much as a magazine lists contributors, editors and subeditors. Most copyright pages already credit typesetters, printers and designers. What do you think? Sound off in the comments below.

25 thoughts on “Credit Where Credit is Due

  1. As a writer who used to work in film and knows how precious those credits are, I say sure why not put some credits on the copyright page? But I have a few reservations – film credits mainly acknowledge those who move from job to job and who have made a creative contribution to the film. the credit helps you get your next job. They’re not as much for people with ongoing employment with corporations doing more generic jobs. It seems to me that the restless creative freelancers in publishing – the designers and some editors – as well as agents and publishers for obvious reasons, do pretty well out of author acknowledgements. Also it’s fun for writers to thank those who’ve helped in creating their book; if there are people who’ve made a creative contribution the author doesn’t know about, by all means put them on the copyright page but let the author write her own thanks – they’re often a fascinating insight.

    • Hmm, I take your point. Though nowadays a large part of the editorial work is done by freelancers and they could potentially benefit from this acknowledgement (though I’ve spoken to freelancers who sometimes claim they’re glad they haven’t been acknowledged on particular books they’ve worked on!).

      I’m certainly not calling for an end to author acknowledgements – but it’d be nice to have credits for some of the other contributors included as a matter of course.

  2. I think the only people who would care one way or the other are the ones who are actually putting in all that hard work. As a reader (but not a really avid reader unless on a leisurely holiday) the only things I really take notice of are the title and the author unless I know the author and may be mentioned in the acknowledgments!! When I open a book I just want to get into reading IT..not reading about who put it together, who edited it or what company published it.

    • Also a good point! This may all just be a lot of windbagging with no actual impact on readers at all.

      • Actually, the indifference of readers to whomever is credited in the acknowledgements is exactly why these credits should be formalised and made a standard entity in the matter of the book. The point of these credits is not, I would imagine, vanity or a concerns on the parts of editors and agents for the inherent moral value of respectfulness. Such credits are calling cards, surely? All those ‘thank yous’ at the Oscars, rambling by so quickly Joe public couldn’t hope to process them anyway, they’re not for the public’s benefit. It’s industry positioning, isn’t it? Of genuine interest to those seeking the services of such and such a professional, or to the prospective author looking for a publisher or agent clearly in sync with the kind of writing they themselves will produce. I think an author’s acknowledgements should be allowed to become more personal, more about marking his or own history for themselves, and the crediting of those who played professional creative roles made part of noting the other publication details. Ideally, this would produce a level of repetition where editors and agents still enjoy the level of relationship with authors that fosters great collaboration, but that’s no reason not to list all the creative ‘ingredients’ on the outside of the packet. For the industry, not the consumer.

        If publishing professionals were less invisible, they’d immediately seem less shady too.

        • Yes, I do think it’s more for the industry than the readers. But that does undermine my argument about making the publishing process seem more valuable to the end consumer – who is ultimately paying more for traditionally published books. But perhaps it’s more important to make it seem more valuable to writers than readers? I’m not sure. At any rate, if the industry is heading towards more freelancing, and less big house publishing, then it’s even more important that a standard for crediting those who contributed to a book is implemented, at the very least so there is still some way for good editors, copyeditors and proofreaders to be found based on the work they’ve done.

          • I will say that the issue does put me in mind of the frequent complaint heard about the Hugo awards for Editor, especially the Long Form. Because the award are voted upon by attendees of Worldcon, there is a feeling that the awards are voted for at random by a majority public who don’t recognise any name on the ballot and therefore can – at best – only meaningfully vote where they’ve read one of the books. Even then, they’ll vote for a book they like and not from any great understanding of what it is an editor does. So maybe a better understanding of the job comes before a wider recognition of the individuals doing it.
            And if you did mark the great and the good of publishing out for public recognition, what would that do to the perceived value of the art? How much faith would we retain in authors if they were attached to a team well known for producing polished literature. Are they so good, one might wonder, that they can polish a turd? How much is the new artist, and how much the svengalis? A Coke can is a wonder of micro-engineering, smooth and perfect curves and widgets, and we put no value in it. A man takes the time to recreate that factory perfection in his tool shed, we’d display it in the Tate Modern in all its ironic glory. I do think it’s the nature of the product that some mystique needs retained from the reader in order to protect the value for the industry, and also to let the reader retain King’s notional ‘time-travelling communication’ with the writer.

            • I’m not arguing against retaining that mystique for the reader. But when we live in an age where there are entire websites devoted to arguing down the price of a book based on the idea that the majority of the value is in the paper it’s printed on, then we need to find innovative ways to prove to people that books have value beyond that.

              • That’s true, though I think the reader still determines a book’s value by presence of a publisher’s mark first, at least for now. I think the credits page is a good idea, but I think for it to reach the reader you need a period now where authors start reaffirming the need for the publisher’s skills, to educate the readership in what is done for them – which, ironically, brings us back to the primacy of the author’s acknowledgements.

                Sorry for the circular argument.

  3. Hmmm….controversial! I think that saying the author is the largest contributor is really underselling the time and effort that the author spends not just writing but rewriting. Yes there’s a publisher, an editor, a proofreader and a lowly minion somewhere doing the picture section but really 90 per cent of the grunt work is done by the author. After they write 80,000 words or more and then they enter into another nine months of further work before it finally goes to press. Then they go out and sell it while the rest of the team moves on to the next project. So I think those big letters on the cover are justified, except that picture section chump, they totally deserve a credit.

    • Never said the big letters on the cover weren’t justified. But there doesn’t seem to be a formalised way of acknowledging the input of other people in the development of books, and that might be hurting the perception of publishers as adding value to the process of creating a book. Even if it is only 10% (or less for many books!) it’s still something – and might even be more than that in some circumstances.

  4. I like your point that maybe it’s becoming important to point out the value that publishers add. There seems to be a fair bit of ignorant (I think) comment around that authors don’t need the extra work on their books. From what I’ve seen, yes, they do. Having said that, it’s worrying that even famous, well-reviewed authors are not getting as much editing as they need.

    • That’s an ongoing problem in traditional publishing that needs to be addressed. In an era of digital publishing, one of the few things a traditional publisher offers is access to experienced editorial oversight – if this is lost (or degraded) then it’s a much harder task to convince authors they need publishers.

  5. One potential problem with formally crediting contributors such as editors is that no one can judge the work they’ve done unless they have seen the original manuscript. A cover designer’s credit is much clearer. This brings up the issue that Robert Gottlieb discusses in this fascinating Paris Review article (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1760/the-art-of-editing-no-1-robert-gottlieb): how can you criticise (or praise) the editing if you don’t know what shape the original material was in?

    I suppose my concern with having my editorial role formally credited would be that people will then judge my work based on the finished product, without any sense of what the original manuscript looked like and without any understanding of how willing the author was to be edited.

    • True. But at least it opens up the discussion. People in the industry know that you can’t judge editorial purely by the finished product. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t want to know who proofread or edited a particular book. I do think it helps create a reward system for freelance editors who continually do a great job and are given more important authors to work on by the publisher. The editorial work might be invisible, but the fact that they are trusted on a particular book would be of importance to publishers (or even authors) seeking out freelancers.

  6. When I worked for an engineering/design firm, if a particular project was the development of a new hotel for example, in the public domain the company name would be associated with that hotel, not my name, even if I did most of the work. Likewise, I think that the workers for a publishing company are acknowledged when the logo or name of the company is printed on the spine of the book. But I’m not against having a book credits section, I just don’t think it’s necessary – other than to make the employees of the company feel better about themselves.

    • What about in the cases where books are edited by freelance editors (which is most of the time)?

      • I suppose it depends upon how much proof is required to say you were involved in something when seeking further work as a freelance editor. If it’s very hard to prove to someone else that you worked on a book if your name isn’t printed in the book as editor, then it’s a good idea to be credited somewhere in the book :-)

        • I don’t really think it’s about proof, per se. I think it’s more useful for people in the industry, who look at a particular book and wonder who edited it – they can just flip to the copyright page and see (as opposed to wondering whether the author has acknowledged them).

          • How thin will these reply boxes get?! I don’t think it will harm anyone to list the non-company people in the book somewhere. But when you say there are plenty of people who go in to making a book what it is who do so without even the author’s knowledge and wonder whether they should be credited, I don’t think they should if they’re employed by the company.

            • Thinner yet! I think it can nest about seven levels deep…

              I’m not sure I disagree with you, Luke, but I’m curious why you think the company deserves the credit and not the individual.

              • I suppose because the company enables the individual to work on a particular book, and it’s more important for the company to promote itself than any individual within the company.

  7. Interesting points, Joel. Educational publishers routinely credit everyone on the imprint page, from the publisher and project manager to the dude who rang Fairfax to get permission for the photo on page 254. I like this approach, and think ‘credits’ should be about just that — giving credit for work done, rather than only giving credit to freelancers who might be looking for work.

    However, while I like the approach, I don’t think it’s actually necessary. There are many, many industries in which people’s creative contributions are not publicly credited. You don’t wander by a neighbour’s house, admire the new stone wall they’ve put up, and search for the credits plaque that lists the designer, the stonemason, the guy who made the mortar, the guy who slathered the mortar on, and the guy who came up with a creative solution for stabilising the tricky north-east corner. You can ask your neighbour, of course … but you can also contact a publisher if you’d like to know who edited a book, if you’re that keen.

    I’ve heard lots of complaints that people ‘don’t understand’ what publishing is all about. And it’s true — many people don’t. Some folks do think that manuscripts are pretty well perfect when an author finishes writing them, and that all publishers do is pass the manuscript on to an editor for a spellcheck and the placement of a full stop or two, then send it to a printer. But really, who cares? I don’t understand the business of building stone walls, or hundreds of other creative occupations. The world is full of uncredited people doing great work. You just do the job you like, and do a good job, and see where it takes you.

    Here endeth my opinion.

    • I guess the only thing I’d add is that nobody doubts that work has gone in to making a wall – it’s a wall, it’s physical and it’s there. There aren’t blog posts devoted to proving that wall-building is overpriced and wall-builders are all gouging consumers. The same mostly goes for dead tree books. People see value because they can feel it.

      However, as we move away from physical books towards digital (with the pursuant argument that digital books should be much cheaper than physical ones) it feels to me that there’s more of a reason than ever before to emphasise that plenty of people make a book what it is. Most of the work is done long before the book is physically created, and that work is intangible. It appears the proof is not in the pudding when it comes to ebooks – so I’m trying to think of ways to emphasise the value of books apart from their covers and binding.

      • Yeah, fair point. I tend not to read the nay-saying blogs, so don’t really know much about the damage they’re doing out there. It’s absurd to assume any product — whether a book or an ebook or a piece of software or a wall — is the work of one person, alone, having all the ideas and doing all of the hard yakka of product development and construction and whatever else, isn’t it? There are rare exceptions, but people do accept that most products are the result of a team effort by an organisation of people. Interesting that publishers are viewed differently from any other company that brings a product into the marketplace. I’m hopeful though that as digital forms of publishing gain ground, there’ll be a corresponding increase — slow, maybe — in understanding of what goes into the process. Remember when computers were new and no-one had a clue what software developers did?