The Writer's Economy

Editors Vary


People working within the publishing industry just don’t understand each other.


In the July 26th issue of The Bookseller, Katy Guest, editor of Independent on Sunday’s books pages from 2009 until the paper closed earlier this year, made the point that former literary editors like herself ought to be valued by publishers.


“The closure of newspapers and books sections spells trouble for publishing, then, but I can see one silver lining: all the brilliant people who are now available for work as editors. Publishers ought to snap them up, because a former literary editor is exactly the person to help you make great books and sell lots of them,” she wrote in an article entitled “Critical Re-Thinking”.


After all, literary editors have spent years trawling through thousands of books, can spot potentially big titles, and have tons of contacts and friends in the media.  “What we’re really good at, though, is editing: thoroughly, sensitively and in a hurry, whether the writing is by a Booker Prize-winning author or an unheard-of amateur with a good idea,” Guest explains.


I can’t disagree with her, though I noted that Guest’s notion of editing was not exactly the sort of editing required of authors of book-length manuscripts. I had only a slight unease with Guest’s confidence in this direction, but a commenter on the article felt very strongly that literary editors aren’t an obvious fit for publishing houses.


“Book editors understand how to write and edit short non-fiction pieces. They know how to read books and to give readers their very educated opinions about the merit of books. They have a finger on the zeitgeist of book industry. But understanding the mechanics of stories is a whole different ball of wax,” wrote Colleen Subasic in a comment to the article. She admitted that Guest and literary editors like her would have “an edge on the common man” but felt Guest might be missing a number of necessary skills to be as valuable an editor for a trade publisher as was claimed.


I assume this is the Canadian playwright, Colleen Subasic, speaking; and she makes a fair point. She may be right that literary editors are mostly, if not exclusively, familiar with short non-fiction pieces and that they may need additional skills to become editors of book-length manuscripts.


However, I feel there is enormous value in what a literary editor (or former literary editor) such as Katy Guest can offer authors, even without practice in working with longer texts. One imagines that the experience of literary editors would give them a “helicopter view” of how a particular manuscript might fit into the world of books (and especially where and how to market a title). I can imagine such a person being an excellent acquisitions editor who would know how to champion his or her authors’ works in-house, as well as pull a few favours from the depleted pool of employed literary editors and book reviewers still lucky enough to appear in our national papers and journals.


Not all editors are alike. And this is my point: we authors believe that every other editor is like our editor, and they are not. Some editors line-edit the work thoroughly and some do not. Some are great at rallying the whole publishing house to get behind an author and some are not. Some push a book’s marketing and some leave that side of things alone. My point is that there are many different kinds of editors and no single editor does it all.


I imagine that literary editors would be very valuable to publishers. From what pool do publishers draw book editors at the moment, anyway?  I think I’d be looking for people like Katy Guest rather than the latest graduate whose experience in the industry consists of internships underwritten by their parents (admittedly, I am a parent who underwrites my child’s own career in the arts). Ideally, I’d take both the graduate and the former literary editor, of course. But in these difficult publishing days, how would I pay them?


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