Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Editors: who are these people?

The weird doppleganger-y fact that I work in book publishing and also myself wrote a book that was published has minimal impact. I was perhaps slightly calmer about certain aspects of the process because I already knew them from the other side, or at least from publishing school, and I already had some publishing friends when I started going to industry events. But that's about it. Most my knowledge is about pretty specific types of books and situations, or else it's the sort of fun trivia that doesn't really help with anything.

But I am extremely fond of the book world, because it is my world twice-over, and because it produces one of the things I like best. So I like to talk about it, and encourage others to talk about it correctly. Statements like "Editing must be such a cushy job, just sitting around and reading" and "I should be an editor, because I always find typos in the Canadian Tire flier" always make me cringe.

So, though I don't think any aspiring-to-be-published writer *needs* any of these terms below (everyone will introduce themselves with whatever title they prefer), all these jobs are interesting and knowing about them conveys respect for the work done. So:

What Happens to Books that Get Published, Who Does What, and Why
(note: this is book stuff only. If you are publishing in a newspaper, journal, magazine or on the web, the processes are substantially different).

At the very beginning of the publishing process, the book gets acquired by the acquisitions editor. That's not a real exclusive position in most (all?) Canadian publishing houses--most books here are acquired by senior editorial staff who may edit some titles and pass on others to more junior staff. Publishers, editors-in-chief, and editors may all acquire. And then again, given the structure of a given house, some of these people may not acquire, or those positions might not even exist. And then there's the exception to everything, college and university textbooks, which are often acquired by sales reps. It's complicated.

Your book is substantively edited. This is what it sounds like: substantial changes like, "Should this character be a man? I think the third chapter would be a great ending--what do you think? And if possible the book should be about 150 pages shorter." These changes can come from one or max two people--your book's editor. Depending on how big the house and your book's important, you could get someone with a fancier title, someone subject specific or, occasionally, a freelancer. Someone with the title assistant editor would edit books too, but likely smaller projects, and with some oversight.

Whoever is doing the work, these changes will come in the form of a conversation. Suggestions will be made--in person or over the phone, or else in a "notes" letter or email--but no one will rewrite your book. They will suggest how *you* could rewrite it, sometimes alot (or a little; often it's more along the lines of, "Maybe combine chapters 2 and 3," or "Could there be only a few cheerleaders described, rather than the whole squad?")

Interestingly, this process *could* happen *before* acquisitions, if you happen to have an agent who is good at substantive editing. Most will have some suggestions, I think, before they are ready to take a manuscript out into the world under their name. But even after an agent has fine-tuned things, an editor is definitely going to have a go at the work.

This process could last a month or years, depending on your style, your editor's style, and how much work the book needs. And remember, editors read every draft you send, carefully, and they are doing this for many books at the same time.

Some books are then line edited. Again, could be freelanced out or done by one of the in-house people above. A single editor really shouldn't do two steps in the process because they lose the ability to see details, but given finances and deadlines, that might happen and likely it'll be fine.

A line-edit is an interrogation of how the book is written, line by line. A line editor questions or sometimes rewrites (authors get a chance to approve) awkward, unclear, or infelitous sentences, deletes redundancies, questions continuity and factual errors, and cleans up cluttered prose.

Most "literary" books aren't really line-edited--the words are supposed to be the *point* with literary novels and short-stories, and if there are a lot of problems with the prose, the house likely just wouldn't take it on. But with an action thriller, a textbook, or a biography of a dead president, often the writer is very good at or knowledgeable about something necessary that is not writing. The line editor saves them from themselves, and they appreciate the efforts, while many literary authors would throw themselves on their swords if they received their manuscript back with many of the words changed.

Everything in prose gets copyedited. Poetry gets the substantive-edit conversations above and the proofread below--but no one actually messes with the words much. I think it's assumed that poems are a bit too precise and personal for an editor to tinker with. They might suggest a new way of thinking about it, or *possibly* a new wording or structure that *might* improve things, but poets generally have few enough words that they are thought to have a firm bead on all of them.

Not so much us prosists. Copyedits are for spelling, grammar, house style rules, and, if there wasn't a line edit, continuity and factual errors, as well as the occasional sentence that, in the cold light of day, doesn't make much sense. Unlike the above processes, copyedits are (almost always) *not* a conversation. You should get to see it, mind, when it is complete, and veto any changes you disagree with, but copyeditors and writers almost never get to interact.

Either at this point or just before the copyedit (depending on the company) the manuscript has made the jump from the editorial department to production. Post-copyedit, the manuscript and those copyediting changes have any art, photos, illustrations, or other weird stuff added to them. Then they are passed to a page compositor or typesetter who makes that scribbled over manuscript into something that looks like pages of a book, only a bit sloppy and printed on 8.5x11 paper.

Then someone hires a proofreader (this is almost always freelance) to check the typeset pages against the copyedited manuscript to make sure a) everything got in, b) the pages are formatted correctly, and c) the copyeditor didn't miss anything. Authors do not generally see proofreads, as no major changes are being made at this point, and likely the whole project is running late (well, usually).

Unless, of course, the author is asked to *do* the proofread, which happens often with scholarly books (both because the publishers lack budgets and because it is hard to get a proofreader knowledgeable enough in an esoteric fields (and when you are at the point of publishing a full-length academic book, all fields are esoteric). This is good and bad: good, in that the writer usually cares more about the project than anyone else possibly could, and will therefore be extremely vigilant. Bad, because the author knows his/her own material well enough to not really see typos--s/he imagines it is correct because the version in her/his head is what is actually being seen, and that is perfect. Also, most authors tend not to know too much about page formatting. But this usually works out.

A time-and-money saver is to postphone the copyedit until after the pages have been composed and then the copyeditor can check for format issues too. This will only work if it is a very light copyedit, as all altered pages are just going to have to be checked again. This is what was done with *Once*, which of course had very very few errors in it, so it worked just fine.

After this point, mainly, with many exceptions and irregularities, the computer files that constitute the book are checked in various ways and then sent to the printers (out of house, almost always), along with cover files. And from this, the printers manufacture an actual concrete physical item that is the book.

In an effort to make this post not insanely boring and of reasonably length, I've left out lots of people from this process: managing and production editors (that's me!), interns, administrative assistants, and executive types. And there are legions of other folks at the actual print shop, and once it's done, sales reps to get it stores, marketing people, publicity people, in-house finance and tech support and those guys who get the boxes from the warehouse. And the people who work in the stores!! It's an amazing network, and even though yesterday I put some 11x17 pages around my head like a bonnet in an unconscious stress reaction, I am still proud to be a part of it. Mainly.

Soldier on!


Kerry said...

Everything I know about being an editor I learned from watching Being Erica.

writer_guy said...

Nice summation of the process! If anybody is interested in a case study about the substantive and line-editing process, they should visit: (Some guy I know wrote this. Be gentle with your criticisms - he doesn't feel he's the writer he once was...) It's interesting to read Alberto Manguel's take on the role of the editor: he basically disparages the process, calling it "industrial manipulation."

AMT said...

no wonder you cringe -- who the hell reads the Canadian Tire flier?

(... wait, i actually wanted to tell you that this post was super interesting to me.)

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

Glad you guys enjoyed it (sorry I've never seen *Being Erica*)! I liked the editorial case study a great deal--it's like reading someone's diary!

日月神教-向左使 said...