Thursday, 15 September 2011

On editing (or not)

‘Impeccably researched, written in an accessible, lively and lucid style, with useful appendices, notes, and bibliography, this is a gem of a book which will delight the scholar and the general reader alike’ – that’s from the most recent review of the book by Tony Lurcock that CBe published late last year.

CBe doesn’t, as a rule, publish non-fiction. The main reason why this one got through is because I like Tony Lurcock’s writing: lucid, yes, and with wit. A large number of non-fiction books aren’t written nearly so well, because their authors are not, primarily, writers – they are, first, academics, or TV presenters or whatever. And they need editing. Not just the line-by-line stuff but the major structural work too.

Once upon a time (the 1980s) I worked for Time-Life Books, which published up-market, heavily illustrated non-fiction. Each chapter in each book was commissioned from a freelance writer (and generously paid for: more money for a few thousand words than many novelists now get paid as an advance for a whole book), whose research was guided by a specialist academic consultant. When the copy came in, it was edited by the volume editor; and then by the series editor; and then by the European editor-in-chief; and then by an editor in America. Each of those editors could, and often did, ask for re-writes. The final text may have been a bit flattened out, but editing, however expensive, was a clearly recognised priority (there were others; I had a drinks cabinet in my office, restocked every week).

That amount of editing doesn’t exist now, anywhere. There are exceptions, there are fine editors who work with authors through draft after draft, but there are many books from whose opening paragraphs you can deduce the background scenario: the book is announced to the trade with a fixed publication date, the manuscript comes in late and the time factor reduces editing to a cosmetic process, not an organic part of the making of the book. (On my desk I have a book, not a CBe one, whose Word file came in on 7 September and that has to be copy-edited, typeset, proofread, corrected and sent to the printer on 20 September. It will happen.)

And the point? Not nostalgia for any golden age. (The Time-Life routine was over-egged, a bureaucracy, each editor editing for the next one above.) But no sympathy for publishers complaining about poor sales unless they’ve put everything they can not just into the packaging but into the words too.

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