Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Is the Editor Dead?

'No book with a spider on the cover has ever sold'

An intensive writing bout has prevented me from keeping up this blog and attending many of the recent literary events, but I did manage to attend Manchester Literature Festival's panel discussion, 'Is the Editor Dead?'. Four editors representing a spectrum of publishing perspectives - Lee Brackstone and Michael Schmidt of established literary publishers Faber and Carcanet, and John Mitchinson and Peter Hartey of new internet-based setups Unbound and Poetic Republic - tackled the question posed by the Festival brochure: Has the democratisation of the publishing industry (the internet having enabled self-publishing and so-called peer review, a situation in which the role of the editor has seemed increasingly redundant) been good for readers and writers? Perhaps inevitably in a time of great flux in the publishing industry, the evening came up with more questions than answers, and to some extent a retrenchment of opposing views, but it was very interesting.

Speaking first, Lee Brackstone acknowledged that things in publishing are 'relentlessly grim': orders have dropped significantly, the traditional model is under severe strain and the role of the editor is indeed up for interrogation. However, he made a strong case for the importance of the editor: editors are crucial tastemakers; more importantly, the editor's role is to 'add value' to a writer's work. If editors are to continue, however, they need to adapt to the current situation, to think harder and more creatively about how to add value, and his own new role as Creative Director of Faber Social is a way of doing that. He envisages taking greater ownership of authors' careers, taking possession of the various channels now available and, among other stratagems, linking up with other independent publishers. While he may have abandoned the title of editor, he has by no means abandoned the role, and hopes, he implied, rather to enhance it. (Later in the evening, however,  Michael Schmidt would put in that he wishes Faber hadn't abandoned the title, with which I couldn't help agreeing, since names can be so influential in affecting the nature of the things they name.)

John Mitchinson of Unbound spoke next. For those who don't know, Unbound has adapted the eighteenth-century practice of subscription publishing for the internet age: via the website, authors pitch the ideas for their books to potential subscribers until there are enough subscriptions to finance publication by Unbound (and, depending on the level of subscription, subscribers can follow the process of the writing of the books). Mitchinson outlined how his background as first a bookseller and then in traditional publishing had led him to conclude that traditional publishing is a wasteful business - most 'published' books get destroyed rather than sold, in fact - and that the problem is not in our reading culture but in the economics of the way good reading material is delivered to readers. In reality the reading public is millions of people following their own interests, and publishing used to be an ecosystem catering to that, but has become an agribusiness, which is bad for both readers and writers. Unbound, he said, is a new way of bringing writers and readers together, and he expressed huge enthusiasm for the potential of the internet for literature, calling it the most exciting thing since Gutenberg. On the other hand, he acknowledged that it has presented an unforeseen problem: if anyone can write and produce and distribute a book (as is increasingly happening), what becomes of the role of the editor?  In spite of the fact that Unbound clearly encompasses the contemporary notion of crowd-sourcing, involving the public in the tastemaking process, and although Mitchinson indicated that editors should not be gatekeepers, he was in agreement with Brackstone that the editor should be a tastemaker, needs to be someone with an instinct. (Presumably Unbound editors choose the book proposals to present for subscription in the first place.)

Next up was Peter Hartey, co-founder of Manchester-based Poetic Republic, of which I had not previously heard, the online development of a writing group into a prize anthology where participating writers judge each other's work with anonymous peer reviews. Hartey came out fighting and began with an unequivocal and contrarian statement that the editor is indeed dead. He strongly stated that the editor of conventional publishing has indeed been an all-powerful gatekeeper, that the industry has been controlled by publishers who can buy retail space, that editors are fallible and can turn down great books, that there's 'a great sea of writing out there' to which they have no access, and that in practice they rely on contacts. Now, however, they are losing control of book discovery which is happening instead in the wider community and driven by reader behaviour. Traditional publishers are now signing contracts with authors discovered by the community, and the traditional relationship between authors, readers and editors is no longer relevant. If the editor has any role now, it is that of developing new systems. He also said it was all something to do with algorithms, at which point he lost me entirely.

Michael Schmidt began by nailing his colours to the opposite mast and disagreeing that there was a 'great sea of literature' out there: there are small puddles, more like. He then said that he felt that the main change in publishing inimical to both writers and readers is that already pointed out by Mitchinson, its increasing homogeneity. Once there was specialism among the literary imprints of the mainstream houses, but this has gone. This creates a problem for the writer in finding a publisher, and opportunities for readers are reduced. Increasingly therefore, literary writers are turning to small publishers, who are now echoing the situation which existed among the larger publishers in the 60s and 70s. He questioned the 'decorum' which dictates 'what we want now' (and which presumably drives literature towards homogeneity), and with a thought-provoking sleight of hand turned this on Peter Hartey's concept of  'reader discovery', asking what is meant by 'peer review', especially if the reviewer is anonymous. Later, in the Q &A he would ask the question again, slightly differently: in what way are the commentatators/judges of Poetic Republic peers of the writers they are judging? Hartey replied that they are peers in that they are all writers being judged by the same system; they all have the same commitment and all understand the conditions under which they are operating, all of which leads to real validation of poems chosen, and to the result of great writing validated by a large number of people. This did not seem to me at all to answer the implied challenge in Schmidt's question, ie that, just as we cannot assume that there is a 'great sea of good writing', neither can we assume that all, if any, writers are up to the task of editing (personally, I'm pretty sure that since writers have an understandable tendency to judge everything by their own work and aims as writers, they are often the least objective of critics/editors in terms of what others are likely to appreciate), and that indeed editing requires a particular talent that (as with all talents) not every individual is likely to have. Schmidt, backed by Brackstone, then talked about the particular skills that editors bring and the collaborative process that is involved, citing the fact that Lord of the Flies was three times its eventual length before Faber editor Charles Monteith worked on it with Golding. On the whole, Schmidt didn't feel that the publishing landscape has changed as radically as Mitchinson believed - there's a provisionality about the web; blogs, for instance, don't have the weight of essays - and he ended by reiterating that the editor is crucial and endorsing Brackstone's concept of the 'added value' an editor can bring.

The Q & A threw up some interesting points, though I felt that there was a failure to bring them into a coherent discussion. My notes consist of the following observations:

John Mitchinson considered that the readership for literary fiction has not disappeared (in spite of mainstream publishers' assumptions that it has), that traditional publishers no longer publish for readers but for retail slots, that there used to be a backlist but that this has now been hollowed out by the current system, that under the current system (in conventional publishing) a publisher has to produce bestsellers, and that therefore that's the editor's job: to find bestsellers. That, however, we can't go on having a tiny number of gatekeepers choosing what the rest of us read, although since the internet has proliferated we are in dire need now of some kind of filtering, of curators and gatekeepers after all.

Lee Brackstone said that the elephant in the room is the retailer - a point which could have done with an evening's elucidation, and which I suspected could have been a riposte to Hartey's apparent assumption of the collusion between publishers and retailers. (Mitchison responded that yes, that was why they were doing Unbound.)

Michael Schmidt added that the elephant in the room is copyright and ebooks, a point which was annoyingly left hanging.

Someone in the audience asked Peter Hartey to explain algorithms, but his explanation seemed to presuppose an understanding of algorithms, so I and, I suspect, a lot of the audience were left none the wiser.

Going back to the point of copyright, someone raised the question of access to texts, and  Michael Schmidt said that AHRC is so keen on open access that it's leading to an erosion of new scholarship - another extremely interesting point which I felt could have done with far greater elucidation.

The woman sitting next to me asked in a wonderfully measured way about the fact that editors are inevitably biased and powerful, and that most in mainstream publishing houses are white middle class and therefore not in a position to assess, for instance, Asian writing. Michael Schmidt gave what seemed to me an admirably humble answer in which he confessed to his lack of confidence in editing a writer of a different nationality. The prophylactic, he reiterated, is a variety of outlets for writers - this is very important.

In spite of the radically different views expressed, it seemed that all four editors were in agreement about one thing: that in traditional publishing there has been what someone called 'a race to the bottom' which has in effect made it difficult to make people pay for books, a situation which needs somehow to be turned around.

At some point in the evening someone - I think it may have been Mitchinson - said that no book with a spider on the cover had ever sold, and, readers, I'll leave you to ponder that.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thanks for a really interesting post. Glad to report that working with Helen Garnons-Williams and her assistant Erica Jarnes at Bloomsbury was a terrific that is less likely to happen in future, it seems.
Im also told that books with orange on the cover are hard to sell!

Claire King said...

Thanks for the comprehensive write up of this discussion, Elizabeth. It certainly makes interesting reading. I have to say, I love working with editors and I fear the day I'm expected to do all the work they do on my book on top of what I already do. What I feel is missing in this whole debate is the voice of the readers. Where is it? Who is talking to readers and asking them what they want. I suspect it's not "cheap books" for the majority of readers so much as "good books" still.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Very glad you've both had such good experiences. Claire, I'd say that another point on which all four editors were agreed was that, contrary to what mainstream publishers now assume, readers do still want good/literary books.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this; there's certainly a lot to absorb. There's something that doesn't get a mention, though. As editors become more scarce and more stretched, the role of the agent is changing too. In many cases it now encompasses some of the editorial duties formally undertaken by people in-house. I don't think that this necessarily has any long-term implications but it is, I think, an interesting development nonetheless...

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, no one mentioned the agent in all this, and as you say agents are increasingly taking on the role of working closely with authors on texts. Debi Alper recently said on her blog or Facebook - not sure which - that her agent had told her that books need to be presented to publishers now in a completed form, and the editorial work needs to be done (with the agent) before that. Not sure about the long-term implications of that situation...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I've written what some publishers have termed "literary" fiction (set in 16th century India), and, having not succeeded in landing a contract yet, am considering self-publishing. But I would never do so without an editor. So I scoured the Internet, and trusted recommendations, and found an absolutely fabulous, humble, astute, articulate and talented one, and what he is doing with my manuscript is nothing short of magic. This, I feel, is the true Achilles' heel of self-publishing these days, that so many writers feel they can do without such an edit. So thank you for calling attention to editors, and their tremendous import in the world of publishing, whatever form it takes.