Now that we live in the era of e-publishing, publishers, creative writing groups, online writing forums and booksellers are plagued by a nagging question: Is the editor dead?
This was the topic up for discussion tonight at the Anthony Burgess centre as part of the Manchester Literature Festival. The panel debating the topic included publishing warhorses such as Lee Brackstone (Faber editor), Michael Schmidt (Carcanet Press), Peter Hartey (Poetic Republic) and John Mitchinson (Unbound).
With their diverse backgrounds in the publishing world these men (yes, the panel was all men) valiantly defended their individual corners.
Brackstone and Mitchinson lamented the demise of the editor but agreed the role was under serious threat. Hartey praised the democracy of e-publishing, stating that algorithms will be the editors of the future. Schmidt took a different stance, reminding us that the editor plays a vital role in maintaining the standard of quality literature.
There were lots of elephants in the room and they got their mention: Amazon, Waterstones and Kindle; marketing and printing costs; added value and channels of distribution. These are the issues that concern publishers and rightly so. The only problem is that readers couldn't give a toss about any of these things.
Readers just want to have easy access to books. Some are happy to read on a Kindle. Others still swear by the paperback. For the loyal reader, format is not the question. Content is. And that's the domain of the editor.
If you ask me, the publishers of E.L. James missed a trick when the book was published in print form. I haven't read any of the trilogy (and never will) but anyone I talk to who has says it's really badly written.
Why didn't an editor pick up on this? Why didn't some savvy editor say, "Let's make the print version different from the ebook. Let's edit this tripe"? The editors could have slapped a big yellow sticker on the cover of the book: 'Official Editor's Version,' a sort of publishing equivalent to the 'director's cut' on DVDs.
It wouldn't matter that few people read both versions. People talk and would have figured out soon enough that there was a difference, an important difference. E-writing may be new but it's already garnered a bad reputation. People pay less for ebooks for a reason. They don't expect the same quality.
Plus I imagine there is one other group of people who are not wondering about the value of the editor, who still see the role of the editor as crucial. Those people are published print authors.
I'm sure if you asked any contemporary writer, from J.K. Rowling to Hilary Mantel, Will Self to Irvine Welsh, if they consider their editor's contribution essential, they'd all answer without hesitation with a resounding 'yes.'
As an aspiring novelist and current student of an MA in creative writing, I dream of working with an editor. Not just any old editor but one assigned to me by a publishing house. For me, this is the holy grail of writing. That's why I'm against self-publishing a book. I feel it circumvents the real business of writing, which is editing. Any writer worth their salt knows that a book goes through several drafts before it's fit to be read.
I've been listening to bigwigs from the publishing world moaning about the e-publishing revolution for about five years now. I for one am sick of their pessimistic tone. I look at it this way. When the Rubik's Cube appeared, no one questioned it was a phenomenal success. But its success was fleeting, and it didn't stop people playing chess.
Granted I'm not really the generation the publishing people are worried about. I love books. I'll always love books. It's the generations after me that are the problem. My friend's four-year-old can't write his own name but he could play online video games from the age of two. In another few years it's likely that cots will be wired up to Bluetooth with baby books streamed in from a nearby icloud.
The panel ended on the note that modern publishing has to look at new ways of reaching readers and maintaining quality. They recognized that the big players only care about bottom lines but this is of no interest to readers and it's readers that shape the market.
Yes, the world of e-publishing is currently saturated. E-books, fan fiction, blogs, online forums and ezines all dilute and distract from the print reading pool. But to my mind many of these are comparable to the Rubik's cube. When the fad fades all that will remain are the chess players, and we'll need editors to make sure the game doesn't end in a stalemate.