This Book is Certified Edited

[This post originally appeared on The Momentum Blog]

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about editing this week. Tomorrow I’m speaking at the Residential Editorial Program, an intensive editing course run by Varuna for professional career editors. My topic is about the future of editing, and although I find myself talking about this almost every day of my working life, it’s hard to sum up precisely how I feel.

And then Rich Adin from The Digital Reader blog gave me a little push.

I’ve been toying with this idea for some time now. I haven’t gotten very far with it because of resistance from editorial colleagues, but I’m wondering if professional editors should certify that a book has been professionally edited as a way to assure the author’s customers that the book was edited?

Adin is talking about self-published authors here. And it’s an extremely noble idea. Adin identifies most of the (many) problems with the idea himself on the post. These include how to penalise bad editing, who decides on certification, who ensures that authors follow the advice, who will promote the value of such certification and, the biggie, “what fee schedule is reasonable for a certification process?” However, he goes on to say that “few of the problems cannot be overcome”. Here I have to disagree with him, and I think the reasoning comes down to this umbrella term – “editing”.

Editing is more than just good proofreading – making sure the author has used the right “your” and “their” and “its” and ensuring that a character with blue eyes and blonde hair remains blue-eyed and blonde throughout the book. A ‘certified’ edited book, in the sense that Adin means, wouldn’t be worth the electrons it was typed in if the book was well proofread and the continuity worked but was still a giant pile of crap to read. In traditional publishing (still the best in show for professional editorial standards, despite objections and occasional dropped balls), the editorial process starts at commissioning. Extremely badly written books don’t get published in the first place. Books that are commissioned usually go through at least one big picture edit that sorts out many of the structural problems (like the six chapters written before the plot starts, the inauthenticity of the setting or the sheer stupidity of a character). Then there’s at least one line edit (or copyedit, depending on your country of origin) and then multiple rounds of proofreading by both freelancers and in-house editorial staff. A huge percentage of editorial work is sent to the author to get their approval, but there is also a lot of stuff that flies under the radar and is just fixed without the author’s knowledge because it’s obviously, glaringly incorrect. All part of the invisible service.

And you know what? Even with all that (and I very much doubt a ‘certified’ editor working with a self-published author could provide all that) not every book that is edited well is a good book. Editing – to a massive extent – is an invisible gloss on a book. I’m frequently enraged when book critics claim that a given book wasn’t very well edited. The kinds of things that can be changed (but are left as is) and the kinds of mistakes that creep in (and are not fixed) are often not the fault of editors, but of the author, the typesetter, the printer, the conversion house and so on and so on and so on. The editor might take ultimate responsibility, but it is almost impossible to determine how ‘well’ a book was edited by looking at the final product.

The other problem with this idea is the cost. The market for self-published, unedited ebooks has proved that there is a proportion of the reading population who are willing to pay a lot less for work that is not edited at all (or edited poorly by non-professional editors). This market is largely driven by price. I’m not convinced that a ‘certified’ editorial scheme is going to make the quality of these books much better unless a lot of money was spent. To address the problems with a certification program, you need an independent third party with a stake in the book with knowledge of editorial skill and the infrastructure to carry it out. And all of that costs money – money that readers of self-published writing don’t want to pay.

Having said that, there is clearly a market for paying slightly more for a well edited book – and that’s to buy it from a publisher. I’m not saying publishers do it perfectly, but it is extremely high on the priority list for our books to go out with as high a level of quality as possible – and it is usually the biggest cost associated with producing a book. Traditional editorial workflow has been built over generations, is constantly improving and it is run efficiently and with razor-thin margins. How, precisely, can self-publishing improve on that?

I do think we can do a better job of ‘selling’ this idea to the reading public. At Momentum, all of our books have the name of the proofreader and the line editor (if appropriate) on the copyright page of the book. It’s one way that we can prove to a sceptical reader that all of our books are edited by real, professional, vetted editors (who are also human beings).

An extract from the copyright page of The Chimera Vector

We also have an email address so that if you do spot errors in our books you can let us know. So far we’ve received two emails from concerned readers, and in both cases they received responses and the errors were corrected.

But I wonder – what else can we do? What do readers expect? Are you willing to pay more for better edited books – or is price more important? Sound off in the comments – I’m curious to hear what you think.

It’s About the Content, Stupid

Most people will agree these days that when it comes to ebooks, what’s important isn’t the format, but the content. People don’t buy ebooks because they like ePub files, they buy them because they want to read the book inside it. This is less true for some dead tree books, but it’s certainly true for the majority of disposable paperback reads. I’ve found that the increasingly shrill choir of people telling me they’d never read a book on screen simply haven’t ever tried using an e-ink reading device.

However, despite this, most publishing houses and the editors who work for them still see the page as the smallest unit of the book. The physical representation of that page is what the book is – even before it is typeset. The page is the end point – it is the reason to edit a book and perhaps even the reason to write the book in the first place. But, increasingly, it isn’t really what a book actually is.

That might sound like a whole lot of nonsense words strung together (not particularly unusual for this blog), but what I’m getting at is that while we might philosophically understand that a book is not the pages it is printed on, most of us in the industry don’t behave as if this is true.

Even our language is tainted by the page paradigm. Every time a digital book is created (no matter how it is created) it is a ‘conversion’ (from a ‘proper’ paper book format – even if that proper paper book doesn’t yet exist in real life). Most editors I know still genuinely believe that a proofread that takes place on screen is inherently inferior to one done on paper. They believe this despite any evidence other than anecdotal, and will probably take this belief to their graves, long after the majority of reading is done on-screen.

Having spent the last couple of weeks working at Faber and Faber and seeing a truly ‘media neutral’ workflow in action, I am now beginning to understand what a massive shift needs to take place if the publishing industry really is looking down the barrel of a books market where more than 50% of the books published are digital. That shift isn’t necessarily about learning new technologies or coding languages – though it’s likely that both will be true – it’s about shifting our perspective away from the page and towards the structure of the content we publish.

David Watkins, once the Managing Editor at Faber, and now the ‘Head of Editorial Text Management’, says that there is a kind of ‘occult mysticism’ surrounding the conventions of print. He describes his exposure to the code that underpins Faber’s format neutral workflow as – initially, at least, ‘forbidding.’

It’s what most of us [editors] have spent our entire careers avoiding … But actually it’s very straightforward when you get to grips with it. In a way it’s quite old school. [Old school] editors think in terms of content, not in terms of appearance. If there’s a hierarchy of headings, they aren’t thinking that’s an 18 point or 14 point, they’re thinking that’s an A heading or that’s a B heading. That distinction between content and appearance got lost a little bit [with the introduction of easy-to-use publishing packages like inDesign]. Thinking of work independently of format, once you get over the stumbling block of the language in which you describe the work, you’re just back to first principles really.

Seeing a room full of editors talking about XML and CSS is certainly a novel experience, but I suspect it’s one we’re going to be seeing a lot more of in the next few years. And when you get down to it, it’s not all that more arcane than editorial mark-up or the ins and outs of Microsoft Word’s Find and Replace feature.

I, for one, welcome our new coding and tagging overlords. But what about you? I know a few editors and authors read this blog. What do you think of working on-screen? And what do you think of your future job as code monkey? Does it terrify you? Or is it all a part of the new world? Sound off in the comments.