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Follow the Editor: a recommendation engine for readers

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…

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