The Future of Book Editing: Resistance is Futile


This post is based on a speech made at the Society of Editors and was originally published in the Blue Pencil

I’d like to start with a recent example of the necessity of editors in the world of digital publishing. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling was released around the world by various publishers simultaneously, which is no small achievement. Unfortunately it was discovered after the release that the Kindle file had issues: the ebook was restricted to two font sizes—very large and very small. I spent three months in the UK in 2011 for the Unwin Trust Fellowship investigating different experiments in digital publishing in London. One of the things I discovered is that many publishing houses in the UK have massive departments that deal with ebook checking. However, there are a few that don’t and they tend to rely too much on the typesetter to perform quality assurance instead of in-house talent—unsurprisingly, these are generally the ones that make mistakes like in the case of The Casual Vacancy.

I don’t believe there is ever going to be a point when editorial skills and editors, whether in-house or freelance, are going to be unnecessary for the production of good quality ebooks. And the best bit? The skills required to publish a print book and an ebook are almost exactly the same.

Almost, of course, is the important bit. Freelancers will need to be much more flexible than they are now. Some freelance editors are very strict about whether they will work on screen or not, or fussy about different software packages. Editors no longer have the luxury of pretending that digital books don’t exist because they don’t like them or they don’t read them.

One of the most basic things for editors to keep in mind when planning to move into digital publishing is to actually—at least occasionally—read ebooks. While most ebooks are pretty similar to the print equivalent there are some fundamental differences, and if you’ve never even read an ebook then there are certain basic things you will miss when checking to see if it has been edited correctly.

The structural, developmental side of editing is probably going to be the biggest change to the editorial process, at least for more complex digital texts. To be an effective structural or developmental editor of an enhanced ebook or book app a much deeper level of understanding of the technology that underpins these products is required.

Another thing that is likely to change over the coming years is the conceptual focus on the appearance of books as opposed to their structure. What I mean by this is that with ebooks it is less important to see what the book looks like than it is to see how it is structured. Modern editing has been focused on desktop publishing—the font size of a particular heading level, or the leading, or the kerning—but that is going to begin shifting back towards the idea of text as a structure. In other words, in digital, structure trumps style.

Ebook examples

Some fairly recent examples of ebooks include an app version of Frankenstein. Basically, it is a choose-your-own-adventure style of book, but it is a lot more complicated than that. A digital publisher, an author and a games developer got together for this production, combining their relevant expertise. They have adapted the original Frankenstein and added more than twice as much text. The ebook is not entirely interactive; it’s more like an exploration of the interior of the character, making choices about what to feel and experience rather than influencing the plot. The kind of editing, structural editing in particular, that you would do in a text like this is obviously going to be completely different to how you would approach a linear text.

In The Wasteland, the poem has been transformed into an iPad app. It is much more than just the poem; it has audio recordings by various people reading the poem live, including T.S. Eliot at two different times of his life. There is also video and an annotated version. Most importantly, perhaps, the app makes it easy to move the additional material out of the way and read the poem straight.

The children’s book app Cinderella, published by Nosy Crow, takes the interactive, playful side of children’s print books to a digital extreme. I have seen kids interact with this particular book and it’s amazing to see how well they respond. Although it’s primarily text in the same sense that a picture book is, there are many more opportunities for interactivity in Cinderella. Nosy Crow are set up to publish both digital and print books, but the digital development is where they are concentrating most on innovation, and it shows.

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