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Follow the Editor: a recommendation engine for readers

Jeff Norton

Author / Founder of Awesome

Just last week I was talking with the managing director of a major publishing company who bemoaned the growing sentiment that in this era of digital books in general, and the rise of self-publishing specifically, that conventional publishers were no longer relevant or required. This newfound ‘accepted wisdom,’ propagated by the press who love to chart the demise of the publisher whilst celebrating the rise of shiny tablets, pads, and e-readers, puts a downward pressure on book prices (especially ebooks “competing” with self published titles) and recklessly ignores the important role that publishers do play, not in the conventional distribution role, but in the creative process itself.

Whenever any industry goes through a paradigm shift of disintermediation, one has to ask what is the function of the intermediary and can it really be eliminated or replaced by someone else in the value chain, or is the function of the intermediary so critical to the entire experience that to disintermediate it would do the end consumer a disservice?

In the case of publishing, I’ve heard publishing execs boast about how only they can pay author advances (critical for authors seeking to make a living from writing, but less so for enthusiastic hobbyists), and only they can get a book onto that front table at a big bookseller chain (also important, but less so in the era of digital book stores), but I believe the most important role that publishers perform is the one they are strangely reluctant to celebrate: the editor and the process of editing an author’s manuscript into a readable book.

The editor doesn’t just champion a manuscript from printed page to finished book (or digital file) but shapes the core creative asset by working with the author to get the very best version of the book down on the page.

In the film world, this would be the equivalent of the producer and the film editor combined, and in that world, both roles are credited on the poster!

And yet the book editor’s role remains anonymous, obscured in the wings whilst the author takes centre stage.  But the role of the editor deserves its own spotlight, otherwise the incorrect sentiment that books are created by only one person continue to dominate our cultural lore, reducing the publisher’s perceived functions to fronting advances and shipping physical books to physical shops.

If traditional publishers want to cement their place in the value chain, and successfully fight for the right to charge a premium to self-published titles, one simple first step is to celebrate the role of the editor.  Give credit where credit is due.

A movie poster lists the key cast and creative heads of department.  Television shows top and tail with similar credits, including the in-house role of “executive in charge of production” or equivalent.  Turn over a (yes, physical) CD and spot the credit the album producer.  Everyone who touched the album gets a mention in the liner notes.  Even in the mp3 era, many music producers (the music business equivalent to book editors) are big names in and of themselves: Dr. Dre, Timbaland, Mark Ronson and Brian Eno to name a few.

But pick up any paperback and the author’s name dominates the cover. Big authors are “brands” unto themselves, even though the final prose was a collaborative effort.  Flip the book over the cover designer and illustrator get credit (in quite small print) but search for the editor’s name and you’ll be lucky to find it in the acknowledgements (at the author’s discretion).  How are we to value the role of the professional editorial process if publishers themselves don’t even celebrate their most crucial contribution to a book’s creation?

Could we develop our editors into brands?  It would be a lot more relevant than imprints (granted, some eponymous imprints are one in the same), which have limited meaning to consumers, but editors are real people, with real taste acting as both curator and collaborator. Editing is a craft, taught through old fashioned, but ever-relevant, on-the-job apprenticeship and should treated as such.

This would be just a start towards building the profile of editors, educating the public that an editor’s role is so much more than circling typos (a common held belief if my dinner party straw polls are anything to go by) but a critical role that delivers high quality fiction in contrast to much (not all) user generated/self-published work.

If we want a strong, viable alternative to user generated fiction, we ought to elevate the role of the editor to its rightful place alongside film producers, music producers, and television creative executives.

In the digital world, we could organize books not just by author name, but also by editor. If you liked this book edited by so and so, try that. It would give readers another recommendation engine, another way to discover new fiction: follow the editor.

Jeff Norton is the founder of creative incubator Awesome, and author of the upcoming novel MetaWars: Fight for the Futureedited by Catherine Coe.

Photo (Library of Congress): Maxwell Perkins – Editor for Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe…


26 Responses to “Follow the Editor: a recommendation engine for readers”

  1. Averill Buchanan Says:

    February 6th, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    Great piece! I would say that – I’m an editor. And with that in mind, can I just point out that it should read “straw polls”, not “straw poles”.

  2. Sophie Says:

    February 6th, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    Ha thanks ! we need good editors…

  3. Sara O'Connor Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 10:05 am

    Hi Jeff,
    Well done for the shout out to the wonderful Catherine Coe (!
    I think editors would appreciate a little more love out in the open, but it would be hard for us to start shouting for our names to be included — we are traditionally a modest bunch, especially those of us in the children’s book world.
    So, it’s great when the people we work with say nice things about us.
    Inside the industry, people know who acquired and edited what, and self-satisfaction for working on something that’s successful is a big source of confidence which leads to opportunities to take more risk with what you acquire…
    Sara OC

  4. Mike Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure how viable it is – just how many producers, editors and engineers are known about across creative industries to the consuming public? (the four mentioned here are also commercially successful ‘acts’)

    I do agree that there’s a lot more that can be done with publishers and imprints to stretch brand beyond the author, as with tv/film/music studios, and this is something which seems to be moving incredibly slowly.

    Ultimately though, I don’t think people care about the process as long as good content is available to them at the right price.

    (and also, as an editor, there’s a missing apostrophe at the head of line 2 par 11 – editors role – sorry)

  5. Edward G. Talbot Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    I think you’ve hit on something.Publishers need to be perceived as adding value – let’s forget the argument about whether and how much they actually do, and focus on that. The perception of their value is diminishing. Building editors as a brand would certainly be one way to do that.

    It seems like a tough row to hoe in terms of getting consumers to notice, but there is relatively little downside to trying it. And it is focusing where it should be, on the value publishers can add.

    I do, however, have one major disagreement. Most notably is the fact that editors are not doing their jobs when it comes to genre fiction for established authors, which is the lion’s share of the non-independent fiction market. What I find is that most first and second novels published by traditional publishers are extremely well-edited. After that, though, when the author has hit a bestseller list, the editors are not doing nearly as good a job. I’m not talking about typos; the copy-editors are fine. But they allow loads of things to get into the finished product that they wouldn’t have with a first-time author. And I am certain that this is not all due to the authors rejecting editors’ suggestions – some of them are very obvious.
    So. . .if publishers are to brand editors, they will have to address this issue.

    On a similar note, I will point out what I’m sure you know, that quality editors can be hired on a freelance basis. I personally wouldn’t consider putting my work out without having it edited, and most of the authors having success as independents feel the same way. That is why my observation above is so important. Yes, editors at big publishers are professionals and probably have better skills than most of the freelancers. But a lot of the books don’t reflect that skill. It’s hard enough to get readers of anything other than literary fiction or the handful of breakout books per year to notice differences in editing quality when it does exist.

    I’ll also challenge your parenthetical notion that advances are critical for authors to make a living from writing. First, very few traditionally published authors make a living from their traditionally published books. Most work other jobs, although some of them do other writing-related work as well. If you want to add to the long list of reasons why traditional publishing is struggling to define its value, add the fact that it has overseen a significant decline in the ability to make a living from writing in the past few decades. Of course, it is not all the fault of publishers, but they do bear a reasonable chunk of the responsibility in their increased focus on the bottom line, which is most effectively supported by bestsellers, not by making sure the stable of mid-listers can afford to write.
    And advances have either been stagnant or declining. Even a typical mid-list advance is not enough to live on at the one book a year on which publishers have insisted in the past.

    So. . .when publishers talk about advances as being a really significant long-term add of value for anyone except pretty big names, they are deluding themselves. Yes, for some authors, getting a $25,000 or $30,000 advance every year (which winds up significantly less after various expenses are subtracted), combined with royalties from a lot of years of work is sufficient. Some authors write under multiple names so they can put out more than one book a year and generate enough income to make a living. But more and more of those mid-list authors are and will continue to choose to hire their own designers and editors and go their own way. The advances just aren’t compelling.

    This may not be a problem financially for publishers, because they make 98% of their money off the big names. And they can always fill their lists by finding some new authors who will accept a $5000 advance and 25% of net on ebooks to come on board. But it’s going to be a tough balancing act, and as ebooks become a huge share of the genre fiction market, tomorrow’s James Patterson will come up via self-publishing and sign with Thomas and Mercer for massively better terms than the Big 6 offer anyone who’s not already selling at that level.

    In short, publishers need to be brutally honest with themselves about the value they add today and expect to add in the future as ebooks become larger and larger. Any assertion they make about their value needs to hold up to a comprehensive examination of its accuracy. I do think that the potential exists for them to remake themselves as shapers of the core creative asset above all else. That is why I believe your focus on branding editors is on the right track. But the only way this remaking will occur is with much different organizations, ones that aren’t focused so much on the bottom line and protecting the supply chain. You suggest that dis-intermediation may be doing a disservice to consumers; I’d argue that the corporatization and focus on the dollars from bestsellers has already removed most of the real distinction between a publisher and an independent author who hires out editing and covers to professionals.

  6. Ragini Werner Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    My sentiments, precisely! I’m another editor, so please forgive me for circling another typo…. When you fixed ‘straw poles’ you left ‘an editors role’ untouched (same line).

  7. Did you miss? | Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    […] an article from (the Awesome) Jeff Norton on The Literary Platform giving a little love to editors. Thanks, […]

  8. Stefan Tobler Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Completely agree! A book is made by a whole bunch of people and editors can do wonders for books.

    And Other Stories gives authors and translators (in the case of translated books) copyright of their work but we also have a page at the back where we also mention everyone else involved specifically for that book: editor, proofreader, typesetter, designer and printer.

  9. Stefan Tobler Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Um.. and maybe I should ALSO edit posts before firing them off. (oops!)

  10. Emma Goldhawk Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    Thanks for being the champion of editors everywhere Jeff! Agree, it is frustrating to be met with the perennial assumption that all an editor does is correct spelling and punctuation. I guess we don’t go into this business to be the ones in the spotlight however, and I do get huge satisfaction from helping brilliant authors to sculpt and shape the best story they can. (Am privileged to be working with some particularly brilliant ones right now, too!)

  11. Sophie Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    thanks for typo check – sack the editor… oh no, that’s me…

  12. Carolyn Jones Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Fine and thought-provoking article and comments – thank you. But, ouch: ‘editors at big publishers are professionals and probably have better skills than most of the freelancers’? Can’t let that go by, sorry. Being freelance doesn’t necessarily mean an editor is less skilled, less trained or less professional. Many of us had in-house experience before freelancing and keep up our CPD via the wonderful SfEP and other organisations. Just saying …

  13. Richard Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    I am not certain readers will ever know how important editors are. Most good authors who are helped by an editor, tend to sing their praises. I do think, however, that editors are known to the audience who wants/needs them most. Writers.

    As a writer editing his first novel, I am wishing I had an editor.

  14. Howard Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    I find this a very disappointing and poorly focussed piece.

    If it is simply intended as a cheerleader piece for promoting the role of editors then fine but even at that it is poor.

    From the start Mr Norton strongly makes the case that only traditional publishers can supply editing, that self published authors have to go to traditional publishers to get editing services. The silliness and inaccuracy of this position is self evident and does a disservice to authors who wish to self publish. It may shock Mr Norton but editing services can and are being utilised by authors outside the remit of traditional publishers.

    Mr Norton’s other implication, that authors going outside traditional publishers is pushing down prices and this is a terrible thing, is equally mistaken. Lower prices are leading to higher sales and better income for writers.

    On the subject of cheerleading for editors Mr Norton is right to point out that the value of editors is not heralded publicly. But why is that important ? why is it important to the public ?

    I see no value to the public to know who edited a title, other than the simple acknowledgement, as with the cover designer etc. Mr Norton suggests a reader might look up what other titles are edited by the same editor … I find this utterly unlikely and worthless. An editor is editing titles that are disparate and diverse, with no common thread other than their own skill, which I agree is substantial. This goes against the very core of what is important to a reader.

    Yes the value of editing as a skill and a NECESSARY and VALUABLE skill in the bringing of any title to the market is one that needs to be recognised more. But let’s not over egg the pudding. The people who really need to appreciate editing are the writers. And writers are increasingly able to access editing on a freelance basis or though the new style of publishing-services agencies. This allows authors to access whichever services they need without having to get sucked into the traditional publisher grinder.

    If anything editors need to get out and contribute to the development of new style services to authors outside the traditional publishers. They need to escape from the suffocating, inefficient, wasteful and limiting world of the Traditional publishers and promote and offer their services directly to writers!

  15. Kate Pullinger Says:

    February 7th, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    I think this is a really interesting idea – editors are part of the gatekeeping role of publishers, quite apart from the skills they bring to the process. But one real problem is that the numbers of editors who stay in post at the same publisher for more than a couple of years seems to be minute. We can all name a few, whose personal, branded, lists would be of great interest – Alexandra Pringle comes to mind as someone who would be interesting to follow, and who has been at the same company for a while now. But that’s rare. Really, you’d have to propose that editors become publishers… which is also an interesting idea.

  16. Stephanie Zia Says:

    February 8th, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Well said. As an author turned epublisher/editor, we are, by default more than design, already doing this at Blackbird Digital Books. Susie Kelly’s Best Foot Forward – From La Rochelle to Lake Geneva, originally published by Transworld, has been edited and retitled (Best Foot Forward – A 500 Mile Walk Through Hidden France) to appeal to the US market where most of our ebook sales take place. Its listing now features Susie’s name and my own as editor. From what I can gather (Jonny Geller’s piece last year rings a bell), editing was a dying art in mainstream publishing, there just not being the budgets or the time for an editor to get as closely involved with a title as they used to. Hopefully this decline is now in reverse.

  17. Alan Says:

    February 8th, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Firstly, I agree with what most of are saying here – but what are you actually doing about it?

    Seeing that this article is being commented upon by editors, I would like, if I may, to throw in a thought or two as an outsider(from newspapers) who decided upon reflection to go his own way and set up a micro-publishing company to produce his own books (in the traditional, paper, sense – followed by epub/mobi and now iPad versions).
    I have been incredibly frustrated in my search for developmental editors (this is, I believe, what you are discussing here) because you just do not “put yourselves about” as you might (part of the reason for which is precisely because traditional publishers keep you guys ‘under wraps’).
    I touched on this in a letter to the agent, Peter Cox, in response to his article on ‘agents-as-publishers’ and I hope you might find it interesting:

    “As an outsider I watch the publicised mega-deals which give no indication as to the median agent-struck deals with publishers. In the case of a non-mega deal what does the agent bring to the party? How does he/she justify his/her existence in a world where deals are struck with no advances to help the author live while penning his next book and where publishers do ‘increasingly’ less to push the book, once published?
    In such a situation and disregarding e-books for a moment, I see a distinct opportunity for a new type of publishing concern – a developmental-content/copy-editing, proofreading and pre-production company working with authors to facilitate the production of their own work under the aegis of their own companies under one of the following agreements:
    Prod Co contracted at straight flat-rate payment for work done for Author Co that pays the printing, shipment, and storage etc., costs. Author Co benefits by lowered print rates through Produce’s total printing volume.
    For new or cash-strapped authors, Prod Co, after initial editorial viability vetting, enters an arrangement balanced between direct payment and royalties (i.e. in reverse of the current norm, with the possibility that some of these will achieve high volumes and continued income for the Prod Co).
    Here the Author Co takes the 42.5-60% share of list price through wholesalers or bookshops direct for street sales or the equivalent through e-tailers.
    [Basically this is what I have been doing these past two years, paying for runs between 1,000 and 3,000.]
    As an outsider I would be only too pleased to have someone come along and say, “Hey, I’ll take all this load off your shoulders to let you get on with the task of creating,” but all I see from this side of the fence is seeming confusion and uncertainty fuelling panic and withdrawal of that real support, cultivating authors through time, that was, I am told, the hallmark of the great editors and agents of the past (before accountants took over the industry).”

    If there are any talented (and I assume you are) developmental editors out there who are just a little curious about what I have achieved so far (on my own) and what I might achieve (with sensitive editorial guidance) I would be only too pleased to hear from you.

    History. Ex-graphics editor of the Daily Telegraph (19 awasds, incl. 5 British Press Awards).
    Set up two businesses: firstly, illustrating for publishers, incl. Penguin Group, Osprey (military), Windmill (packager), Ivy, Aurum; for architects incl. Kit Martin (now Phoenix Trust advisor), John McAslan & Partners (world architect of year, 2010) and Norwich Theatre Royal renovation and expansion.
    Secondly, set up own publ. co., Raven’s Quill Ltd., to publish own fiction. First, illustrated nonsense story of 176pp. has now sold over 8,000 in hardback at pounds 15 and second, gothic ghost tale has sold nearly 3,000 at pounds 10 as paperback with French flaps. Had small crisis with second in discovering our copy-editor left unedited the second when taking up ‘legit’ job resulting in more typos than even I might desire.
    If permitted, I leave my email here: (website in limbo – under redevelopment to accommodate book-for-iPad transactional technology).

  18. Alan Says:

    February 8th, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    for “awasds” read “awards”

  19. Tara Gentile Says:

    February 8th, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    Authors have become entrepreneurs. Editors need to do the same. They can no longer rely on publishers for their keep.

    Authors & editors have always been the important relationship! Getting rid of the publisher & allowing this relationship to truly thrive on its own merit will make for better, more accessible books on a wider market.

  20. Dani G. Says:

    February 8th, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    Lots of good indie editors are hard at work these days, and I know of no successful indie writers who don’t hire one. I turn away work, as do many editors I know. Authors pay for good book cover designers, too. You are correct – it’s a business. Technology has leveled the playing field for all of us.

  21. Shelley Says:

    February 9th, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    I long for a Maxwell Perkins.

  22. TB Says:

    February 9th, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    I wonder if being required to publicise to the world at large the books they have bought might make some editors more cautious in their decisions.

  23. BookMachine Weekly BookWrap: publishing stories from around the web | BookMachine - the book publishing portal - events, views and publishing tips Says:

    February 10th, 2012 at 10:02 am

    […] could editors become brands in themselves, acting as a recommendation engine for […]

  24. Elisabeth Watson Says:

    February 14th, 2012 at 3:09 am

    I’d like to express my thanks for this from the perspective of a (very) young editor who is coming of age in this time where–as my many colleagues above reiterate–we still know the editor is important, we just don’t know for sure where she’ll land.

    I have never known any world but one where ever-more work is freelance, and where self-published authors have already proven their right to some sort of place at the table. I can’t wax nostalgic for anything before this, but I can say that for quite some time, I’ve wanted no profession but that of editor. Of course I’m a writer by nature, but yy vocation is editorial. I practice and study good writing, but never feel more artistically fulfilled than when working with a writer to find the true bones of his or her work. I feel a bit of an odd person out in this, and I would love more mentors–both in-house and freelance–to step forward and say “THIS is my highest art, as much as writing is any writer’s. I strive to be ever better at this, and I don’t want to do anything else.”

    For my generation of editors (currently assistants and associates) such role-models could make for some very strong future “brands” indeed, no matter whether stabled with a publisher or not.

  25. Gumnos Says:

    March 8th, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    In some cases I’d say this is already the situation: I find that books from O’Reilly Media demonstrate a bit of an edge over other publishers’, mostly because of the work Tim O’Reilly has done as you describe. I don’t know how much he’s now involved in the day-to-day editorial work, but his care and curation of titles and text made them my preferred publisher.

  26. Erica Hayes Says:

    May 17th, 2012 at 8:59 am

    I’m a traditionally-published genre fiction author, lucky enough to have benefited from the work of 2 editors and 2 copy editors that I know of, plus who knows how many production editors, proofreaders etc. behind the scenes.

    They’ve all done excellent work. I love them. My books would be the poorer without them.

    But in genre fiction at least, the idea of developing an editor as a brand for readers to follow doesn’t make sense. Editors, even those employed full-time by one publishing house, work on so many different genres and types of books that the editor’s name on the cover would be useless for a reader trying to find what they like — which is the whole point of a brand, right?

    I can’t speak for literary fiction — maybe you have a case there, though I’d imagine this holds even more true for lit fic — but in genre fiction, the voice, style and tone of a novel are generally not the editor’s work. They are the author’s. And so is the story, which is what the genre reader cares about.

    Yes, the editor may have had a hand in developing or tightening or ‘fixing’ the story. But a) that’s not visible to the reader; and b) the editor works on so many different types of story that their name would not be a useful indicator of whether a reader will like it.

    Maybe you have a case for acquisitions editors. A reader could say, ‘if so-and-so bought this novel, I’ll probably like it too’.

    But editors and copy-editors? Sorry. They do fabulous work and I wouldn’t choose to be without them. But there’s a reason that’s my name on the cover, not theirs. I, for one, don’t hand in sloppy first drafts and expect my editor to fix it. I hand in a finished, polished product, and accept their guidance on how to tailor it to the publisher’s needs.

    And I take full responsibility for what’s in it when it hits the shelves. It’s my career that flushes down the toilet if the book does badly, not my editor’s.

    Still, I don’t see why we shouldn’t give editors credit on the copyright page, like we do for cover artists and designers. That way, it’d be there for readers to look up if they wanted to.


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