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Most successful book authors will tell you that great books aren't written but rewritten. And if that's the case, the role of editors cannot be understated.
Yet many literary experts wonder if we've lost the golden era of the editor. Guardian literary editor Claire Armitstead has publicly lamented the lack of form, style, continuity, and judgment from many of the most respected publishing houses. The chair of the judging panel for the Man Booker Prize James Naughtie publicly criticized the 'sloppy editing' of books today.
Have we lost the art of great editing in publishing?
"Book editing has long been a skillset built more by apprenticeship than through formal education," shared Eric Koester, a Georgetown professor and the founder of the Manuscript Group, a social venture that provides community-powered writing and publishing programs. "What we've seen over the past decades is that the number of books has grown but the spending on editorial support has declined. It's become a real problem."
"Writing a book is such a daunting task," remarked Jaime Martin Ko Atilano, author of the fantasy novel Mala & the Mask of Gold. "I'm one of the lucky first-time authors who worked with an editor from the beginning, and learning to be vulnerable in the creative process with an editor was critical for me."
In some senses, the economics of the publishing industry has driven a steady decline in editorial spending over the past three decades -- while that may just be the beginning. Oxford Economics expects a loss of 26% of editor jobs at publishing houses in the early years of the 2020s. As the number of books being published has exploded over the past decade -- including the rise of self-publishing -- traditional publishing houses have been unable to constrain the supply of books leading them to have less certainty over which books will become breakout successes.
"If it was up to me, I would burn every story structure book," says Lisa Cron, author of Wired For Story and world-renown story coach, "from the much revered, totally misogynist and totally wrong 'Hero's Journey,' all the way up to whatever is the most recent version."
Many of the shorthand frameworks for teaching better writing rely on frameworks that are outdated or oversimplified rubrics. Great books often buck those very conventions.
Koester began researching how an editor can help a book manuscript evolve, studying more than two thousand manuscripts to understand the art of editing. Using data-science techniques across multiple versions of a manuscript, he began to find patterns in great editing. As Cron found, it wasn't that great books and editors followed certain themes or structures, but it was that they worked to improve consistent elements of the stories. He found that first drafts rarely had all the elements necessary for a great book, but through the revision, process authors could be guided to enhance and improve a manuscript markedly.
"This isn't to say you can replace an editor or you can guarantee the book will be exceptional," Koester shared. "But I do think that data science can begin to help us understand and uncover what great editors do to help an author make their book better. So while not every author can work with great literary editors like Diana Athill, Jenny Uglow, John Blackwell, and Charles Monteith, I'm convinced we can use technology to improve a book."
Atilano's publisher New Degree Press has begun to adopt data-science-driven insights including Koester's research into their editorial process. "We don't believe you can replace the art of an editor and the human bond built between an editor and their authors," said Brian Bies, the head of publishing at New Degree Press. "But we do find there are certain learnings that can help enable better alignment on the editing process. It's not that we anticipate less editing work or effort, it's that we anticipate more effective outcomes. Editing has remained a very misunderstood art form and one that we need to better understand to help future authors."
The growing democratization of books may in fact lead to more non-traditional breakout authors who get their start with a great story and a self-published or hybrid published book. We’ve seen breakout books from self-published authors like Andy Weir (The Martian) and Eva Lesko Natiello (The Memory Box), and may see more follow these non-traditional paths as editorial support wanes.
While Claire Armitstead and James Naughtie may lament the decline in editorial quality of today’s books, we might be entering a golden age where editors blend science and art to produce beloved books of the next generation of authors.