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.

Another example of a successful enhanced ebook is The Game of Thrones Enhanced Edition by George RR Martin. These books are quite long and detailed, and they contain a lot of characters. HarperCollins is selling an enhanced version of this book, which has a mix of enhanced ebook features. If you click on an icon or use a gesture, an interactive map is pulled up that shows where each of the characters is in the world at any point of the story. The other useful feature is also the  simplest: every time a character is mentioned you can tap on their name and go to the family tree to be reminded of who they are.


There are all sorts of clever ways people are coming up with to market ebooks online, but almost everyone I spoke to said accurate metadata is by far the best way to sell books. For those who don’t know what metadata is, it’s the information associated with a book that isn’t the book itself. This includes the book blurb, pricing, ISBN, author information, page extent and so on. Unfortunately many books have inaccurate or incomplete metadata. When metadata is incorrect it can make it difficult or impossible for people to find a book when they are looking for it, and that means that all marketing attempts are going to be pointless. Improving metadata should be the first and most important step in making books available for sale online – whether in print or in digital as both mediums require metadata to sell over the web.

Metadata is relevant to editors as they are generally the most likely to know whether metadata is correct or not for their own titles. It is also important when it comes to freelance ebook quality assurance as a lot of this information is embedded in the ebook file. It only takes a little bit of extra effort to double check that this information is accurate and complete and that will help ensure that the book finds an audience.

On-screen editing

I talk to too many editors who say ‘Microsoft Word doesn’t work properly’, or ‘we should be waiting for something better’. Microsoft Word is never going to be perfect. It may not be the best program, but almost everybody has access to it, so when dealing with authors and publishers, Microsoft Word is going to be the standard for some time to come. Editors of the future are going to be MS Word Ninjas. In my experience, those editors that know Word really well end up with fewer errors in the books they work on. This is not about having a good eye. It is about knowing how to use the tools that are available to you.

I’m managing books at Momentum from commissioning all the way through to the proofreading stage. The books that have been edited by an editor who understands Microsoft Word properly and knows how to use styles and templates are almost always of a higher quality at the end of this process. Knowing how to use Word means you can focus more easily on the text instead of spending time correcting needless errors that would never have cropped up in the first place. There are some absolutely fantastic on-screen editing courses via the APA and other organisations so there’s no excuse for hand wringing when it comes to Word.

It is also important to educate authors. There are a lot of writers who are afraid of using track changes in Microsoft Word. My experience at Momentum so far is that all of the authors who have been published can be shown how to use it, including those well into their 70s and even their 80s who have never had any exposure to it before. It isn’t necessary to sit beside someone to show them how to use a software package either. I’ve done Skype sessions with several of our authors to demonstrate how to use track changes effectively. If you are familiar with it, then you can show anyone how to use it.

Format workflows

Format independence is a phrase and concept I became obsessed with after my time in London, introduced to me at Faber & Faber. Like many other publishers, Faber used to employ a traditional editorial workflow centred around desktop publishing—in their case Adobe inDesign. Once the book was edited it was typeset and corrections beyond this point often needed to be taken in by a typesetter or directly by the editor. At the end of this process the final print edition of the book was converted by an external company into an ebook. Any further corrections that were discovered had to be manually added to each format.

This is an imperfect system, but it’s the one that most of us are using. It’s been optimised in traditional publishing, mostly because traditional publishers—like most businesses—prefer to use a system where they can swap people out and swap them back in without threatening the whole process of book production. But in the future of editing and publishing it’s likely that many traditional roles are going to start to blend—especially the role of the editor.

The format independent workflow that Faber & Faber introduced is very similar to using a content management system (CMS) for a website. If you have ever run a website or a blog, the content management system is the place where you add text, pictures and other content. Just like a blog CMS, a book CMS is often hosted online. Anyone who needs to access the book’s content—be it a designer, editor, proofreader or even an author—does so in a central, secure location. This minimises the manual copying of corrections between different sets of pages and the need to make corrections to multiple formats. The CMS can also automatically spit out multiple formats from print files to enhanced ebook files.

Basically, this is how we need to start thinking about books. The print edition is no longer going to be the canonical text, but just another format. The idea of format independence is difficult for many people in publishing to grasp—particularly as it pertains to their own preferred workflow. However, I think it’s safe to say that this change is coming, particularly for books that are straight narrative. Straight narrative fiction in some genres is already approaching 50 per cent or more of the trade market in the US and the UK. This means that it no longer makes sense to produce those books in the way that we have traditionally produced them. The print edition really is just another format. This is already the case. In the future these kinds of changes will flow on to other areas of publishing, and it’s imperative that editors are ready for it when it comes.

The Challenges and Benefits of Digital-only Publishing

Some rights reserved by donjd2

This article was adapted from a speech given at the National Editors’ Conference on 8 September, 2011.

I’m a fan of the dead tree book. Even though I call them dead tree books. Paper books are an amazing technology. There’s a reason they’ve lasted for five hundred years. They’re cheap to produce, durable, beautiful and they smell good. But even the best technology has its limitations. Compared to digital storage, paper is slow and expensive.

And so is traditional print publishing. Think of big publishing companies as massive oceanliners. They haul a tremendous amount of baggage, they have a tremendous amount of power and it can take several crucial hours to turn away from the iceberg. Unlike the Titanic, though, I imagine that the band won’t be playing as the ship goes down – instead, editors will be arguing about whether it’s really a good idea to move the copyright page to the back of the book.

Momentum, on the other hand, has been set up from the beginning to be small, nimble and unencumbered by the traditional way of doing things.

And that, really, is the main reason why we set-up Momentum. To be an advance scout. To experiment and learn the lessons for the mothership before it’s too late to change course. I prefer to think of us as a tugboat rather than a life raft. It isn’t too late. We might take on some water, but we’re not all going to drown. But that isn’t the whole story. The story begins with the iceberg itself.

The iceberg represents the problems that are facing the publishing industry. The book isn’t dying, and it’s certainly not dead. But the printed book as it stands today is under threat. To even consider acquiring a book, a publisher has to think they have a reasonable chance of selling at least three thousand copies at upwards of twenty dollars each. That isn’t impossible, but it’s getting harder. And it’s new and developing authors who suffer. The print book is moving inexorably in two directions – at one end there is the beautifully designed, very expensive gift book. At the other end is a retail environment where it is only economical to sell blockbusters – a Top 40 business.

The problem with that is that it chokes off emerging talent and those authors who have a small but steady readership. New authors need guidance, development, care, attention and just a little bit of money if they’re going to hone their skills and build their audience.

We are in the unique position of helping authors develop. It’s quite a specific skill. Authors want their books to be as good as they can be. Readers want each book to be better than the last. The better books are in general, the more people will read.

Some of the world’s biggest authors were allowed to develop a readership over several books. Ian Rankin, famously, took nine books or more to get to international superstar level. Pan Macmillan’s own Di Morrissey had ten books before she really cracked the bestseller list. Even if we look closer to the midlist now you’ll find authors like Tony Park, who has successfully been building his sales book by book. But Tony started publishing seven books ago. Do publishers have deep enough pockets and enough patience to build that success with an author they sign up today?

Every new author is a potential bestseller, and bestsellers are what keep a traditional publishing company afloat. So that’s the iceberg in the distance. It isn’t in the immediate future, but it’s on the horizon.

At Momentum we are trying to get back to the roots of why most of us got into the book world to begin with – and that’s passion for stories. The biggest pressure on us as publishers and editors is that there are times when we find great stories that we simply can’t publish, and that’s a tragedy. At Momentum we think we’ve found a way of getting past that problem, and we do that by reaching out to a new and rapidly increasing audience of readers.

Momentum has flexibility. In print you can only publish books that are about 60,000 words up to about 200,000 words, and that’s being generous. Digital-only publishing isn’t limited by word length. Short stories, long-form journalism and essays may all find a place in the digital world.

Digital-only publishing is also very fast. We can get books on digital shelves much more quickly than a print publisher. And we’ll never run out of stock when a book goes viral. Digital books are not limited by shelf space – a digital bookseller will never tell you “sorry, there’s no market for that homoerotic science-fiction novel” even though you know it’s totally awesome. Digital books have global reach – a book published by Momentum from Sydney can be read by a Texan stay-at-home mum as easily as it can be read by a German university student.

Of course all of this wonderful accessibility opens up a whole new set of problems for publishers, which can loosely be grouped under “discoverability”. How do digital readers find digital books? Who, in fact, are these digital readers? We think they boil down to three broad categories. There is the rapidly expanding mainstream audience who have always bought paper books but are considering buying an e-reader, and probably will do so in the next 24 months. There are the early adopters, the people who’ve had a Kindle since 2007 or a Palm Pilot since 1997 and no longer buy paper books at all. And then there are the young people – kids and teenagers who have never bought a paper book and probably never will.

Traditional publishers have generally aimed the majority of their marketing efforts at booksellers and journalists. Even though every major publisher is putting a substantial amount of effort into digital marketing, it’s still something that’s seen as an adjunct to traditional publicity and marketing.

I think that to reach these new audiences without the benefit of a print book is going to require a very different kind of marketing. And to be brutally honest, it’s not the kind of marketing anyone is absolutely sure how to do just yet.

My hunch, though, is that it’s going to require a holistic approach. Long before acquisition right through to the end result, publishers will need to have a very good idea of who the audience is, what they want and how to reach them. Publishing will have to become laser-guided. I once heard someone say that the R&D department of a publishing company is the publishing department. In the digital-only world, however, we can be more deliberate. We can’t just throw books out there and hope they stick. Not when the internet gives us the tools to understand the audience for particular books in a way that we’ve never had access to before.

At Momentum we’re tackling this head on by ensuring the ratio between digital publicity and marketing and publishing is 2:1. There is a horde of books out there, but finding the right readers for those books takes time, dedication and skill. Publicity, marketing and publishing need to feed into each other and work together to bring books to publication.

Now this might sound suspiciously like we’re letting the market decide what books should get published. And you know what? That’s exactly what I’m saying. The audience should dictate what gets published. Not booksellers. Not book critics. Not even publishers. If there isn’t an audience for a book, we shouldn’t be publishing it. The publishing industry can no longer stay in an ivory tower. Authors can’t write into a void. The online world is connected, hungry and knows what it wants. The publisher’s role is to facilitate connecting that hungry audience to the author, and to help make the meal as delicious as possible.

That is the essence of curation in a global digital world. It isn’t about gatekeeping. It’s about understanding the community of readers and writers and building relationships between the two.

None of this is to say that good writing won’t find a home. In fact, I think good writing will find a home in the digital world more easily than in print. The audience for every single digital book is potentially global. And that means we can and should publish books that may not have ever been put into print before.

When Angela James came out from Harlequin US recently, she mentioned a title they’re launching this year that can loosely be described as paranormal, gay, erotic horror fiction. People have accused traditional publishers of racing to the bland middle ground to maximise their audience. Publishing digital-only books is all about racing to the edge. There’s an internet meme called Rule 34. Rule 34 states that if you can think of it, there is a fetish for it on the internet.

Of course, by edge I don’t just mean marginal or trivial. I also don’t mean they need to be weird, genre-bending books that only a niche would enjoy reading. However, the internet gives us access to specific readership numbers within niche communities – centred around unique pageviews, Twitter followers, Facebook connections and the like. We can use this information to justify publication of digital books in almost the same way that we use sales data of comparison titles to justify publication in the print world. A niche, in a global market, is not really that niche.

Which brings me to the literary market. The biggest niche of them all. In the print world, “literary” is a short hand word that means “not many people will read this book but it’s damn good”. In the digital world, a literary book that might not even get a print run up in a traditional publishing company can, at the right price, with the right team of people helping out, find an audience big enough to cover costs and earn a little bit extra.

There are lots of challenges facing Momentum and digital-only publishing in general. The selling periods that we’ve relied upon for years may no longer apply in a global sales environment. Fathers Day? Mothers Day? We share Mothers Day with the United States, but not the UK. We share Fathers Day with nobody, but it’s the same day in the UK and the US. Christmas is somewhat universal, but is there a gift market for ebooks anyway? What about summer holiday reading? When does summer holiday even start in the other English speaking territories? Who says books even have to be purchased during business hours? Early research seems to be suggesting that there’s a big spike in ebook sales after 10pm on a Sunday when people are preparing their reading for the commuting week. What else will we discover as we dig deeper into these patterns?

Rather than being the death knell of the book, digital publishing creates opportunities for new books and new audiences. And that inevitably means a new kind of editing. Editors will have to get used to work of drastically varying lengths and completely different idioms and dialects. There will be new skills to learn and new technologies to explore. Some editors are going to have to be as familiar with the quirks of XML and CSS as they are now with widows and orphans and typesetting mark-up. Editors will no longer have the luxury of being the authority on all things. There will be plenty of questions we don’t know the answer to before we ask them. There may well be no entirely accurate style guide.

But in comparison to the rest of the book trade editorial is going to be the calm centre of the storm. Editing is going nowhere. It is just as vital to digital books as it is to print. When the self-publishing phenomenon Amanda Hocking decided to take a multi-million dollar deal with St Martins Press one of the main reasons she did it was for the access to editorial support. She knew that her books were reaching an audience and that people were responding to her characters and stories. But she also knew that she could be a better writer and that she’d gone as far as she could on her own. Good editors are going to be a scarce resource. Well-edited books are going to do better than the cesspool that is the Kindle Direct Publishing program. We’re standing on the edge of a brave new frontier and all that is holding back linguistic oblivion is us.