The strange case of the drowning editor

Who’d be an editor? What can be the best job in publishing has become something like the opposite of that for many, many reasons – so many it is hard to know where to start, but here are my top 5.

1. Everyone else does your job.

There are almost no editors left who are willing or able to sign something up because they love it, because they can see how to make it work and because their seniority and record of success gives them the right to expect the occasional hunch to be trusted. Every single book is bought by committee – but of course the vast majority are rejected by committee and so the fundamental quality of an editor, their taste, is called into question time and time again by marketing, sales and publicity.

2. They do everyone else’s job.

The only way to get the most out of the ‘publishing machine’ is get your hands on as many of its levers as possible. An editor needs to be an expert copy writer (you don’t want to rely on either the publicity or marketing departments). A graphic designer, to save a book from the me too dreariness that can be foisted on a book. A publicist; that is if you want more for your titles than to have them sent out to the same old people and have a few cursory calls made to magazines and radio stations. Ditto marketing if you want more than a facebook page and some optimistic talk which it inevitably turns out there isn’t the budget for. And, most of all, sales who need constant – but very wary, because they can be touchy – encouragement and refocusing of attention to make sure your book doesn’t get sidelined or forgotten about because something new and more obviously commercial has arrived.

3. Everyone has the right to do your job – you do not have the right to do theirs.

Second guess the editor is a game everyone is allowed to join in on – new books have to have ‘buy in’ from everyone after all, so you can have your judgement publicly trashed by a semi literate knuckle dragger from another department, but woe betide the editor who puts that shoe on the other foot and suggests said knuckle dragger could be doing a better job. Cue outrage all round – especially from your bosses who know full well that given the rates of pay in publishing there is no way to expect top quality staff in all departments.

4. Responsibility without power.

Editors are set budgetary targets, i.e,. have budgetary responsibility, but have nearly zero control over how that budget is reached. They do not control a budget for acquisition and can and do find that the marketing budgets for their books have been slashed and that sales slots have been switched around so their titles are suddenly in a graveyard.

5. Success has many parents, failure is an orphan.

The inevitable upshot of acquisition by committee. Acquire a book that everyone thought was wonderful and it dogs then it is your fault. Use all of your diplomacy tact and enthusiasm to steer through the acquisition of a book no one can see the point of but you and it flies off the shelves and hey presto everyone’s taking credit for their vision and nous.

Above all, a creative environment which has been so corporatised is, inevitably, hugely political. This can penalise editors who have little relish for politics and has helped generate an environment in which editorial passion comes a long way down anyone’s list of priorities. Editors have always been badly paid, but were respected and the job was rewarding in other ways. That feels like a hard argument to make in the current climate.

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