Closing keynote address Editors Canada

Was very pleased to be the closing keynote speaker for the 2022 Editors Canada conference held May 29 and 30, 2022.

Below is my address:

I’d first like to thank you for inviting me to be one of your keynote speakers. Given my somewhat reclusive nature, and the still present concern regarding this pandemic, it’s a pleasure to meet you all virtually.

Today I’m going to talk about: editing for a changing world: a perspective on the profession of editing, and how the social, political, and environmental changes that are happening now may influence our work as editors today and in the future.

In order to know where we’re going, we need to know where we’ve been, or rather what work we’ve done historically. And in order to understand that, we need to know what we are. So… what exactly is an editor?

The Oxford Dictionary defines an editor as: a person who is in charge of and determines the final content of a newspaper, magazine, or multi-author book. The OED also offers: A person who commissions or prepares written or recorded material for publication or broadcast.

By that definition, as editors we’re gatekeepers, the arbiters of information, knowledge, and art. By that definition we also curate and cultivate a body of work for public consumption.

But how did we get there? It’s not like the first Paleolithic pictograph painters were recording history under the guidance and influence of an editor. Or the court records of the Gonghe Regency of China in 841BCE were handed off to a copyeditor to check for spelling and grammar, let alone verifying facts. And it’s also not as if editors tut-tutted and asked for revisions when some Viking carved runes onto a stone proclaiming some feat or ownership. Bjorn was here. And in the margins: we don’t know who is Bjorn.

So, let’s delve a little deeper into our development as editors.

If we look at the origins of the word editor, Oxford further offers: Mid 17th century from Latin, ‘producer (of games), publisher’, from edit – ‘produced, put out’, from the verb edere.

Hold on there: games? So, editors came up with senet, adjudicating how it is Egyptians should throw their sticks?

I know, I know, I’m being awfully literal here. But the etymology of the word is fascinating. It still begs the question, however: how did our profession come to exist? And given there is that tantalizing reference or possible origin of our trade from the mid 17th century, it might lead one to the conclusion ours is a rather more modern profession.

Perhaps the answer to that can be directly linked to the evolution of printing and accessibility of books. Seems obvious, yes? Well, maybe not. Before Gutenberg’s remarkable and seminal printing press, we had the scriptoria of medieval Europe, let alone the printed works prior to that of the Eastern nations of Persia, China, and India. At that point books were laboriously copied by hand onto vellum or parchment, and depending on region, papyrus, not only for use by other religious and political institutions, but also royal gifts from one potentate to another, or among the aristocracy and the wealthy merchant class.

To own a book was an event of note. In Europe, the privileged class were known to hold a parade or procession to display to the town, the guilds, the brokers of power that here was an individual to be reckoned with because they’d commissioned and now owned a book, a piece of art, not just knowledge, which represented perhaps years of toil, tricked out in brilliantly coloured illuminations, gold leaf, boards encrusted with plaques of precious metals and bulging with gems.

Certainly, this flagrant display of power was exercised liberally by the likes of the 15th century figures of the Duke of Burgundy and Lorenzo de’ Medici.

That this volume costing a lifetime’s wages for the average labourer was also filled with unedited and uncensored marginalia, often ribald, frequently politically rebellious, rife with liberal interpretation of the original text, was an all-too-common occurrence. Either there were no proofreaders or editors, or they ignored political and heretical statements, and for the most part sank back into the anonymity of their orders and their monastic lives.

But then, indeed, there was Gutenberg, and after 1436 everything changed. Books could now be produced in multiple copies in a short period of time, and in order to standardize and economize the process, the first protocols of grammar, spelling and format quickly came into existence, and along with that standardization, the need to template production. So it was manuscripts came before the eye of a proofreader, an editor if you will, who set about creating uniformity in spelling and grammar for the typesetter. How words were spelled, and the conventions of grammar, often varied from press to press, thus creating what we now term today a house style guide.

The evolution of editorial process saw its own renaissance during the 18th century as the middle class rose, and with that accumulation of wealth, and thereby leisure. And hand in hand with that change were the social reforms which mandated children receive education, albeit more for the males than females. With a more educated populace, the rise of the novel as well as broadsheets followed.

Now educated individuals were employed by newly established publishing and news houses to ensure uniformity of style, and consistency of spelling and grammar, in order to create a quality, consumable product for their customers, customers who themselves had the benefit of education and a desire to explore ideas, concepts, and often simply to escape into the dream-world of literature. And among these houses, and their editors, a broader convention of grammatical uniformity came into existence.

In those days an editor’s job was primarily to satisfy a customer base, and in doing so selected or commissioned manuscripts which met that house’s own particular brand. While that branding may sound familiar and modern, it was a new industry and profession in the 18th century. We, as editors, firmly established ourselves as the gatekeepers and arbiters of literary style, not just conventions regarding uniformity in how language, literature, and information was presented, but of content. It is we who decided what we’d print and sell, and what we wouldn’t.

And so our job description expanded, as did the categorization of various facets of editing. There were those who acquired and edited. And there were those who proofread.

One could also say these early houses were also the original vanity presses, because a segment of their custom were individuals who had written a book or novel, collected recipes, ventured into poetry, a travel treatise, a political, scientific, philosophical essay. The writer often sought patrons to offset the cost of printing, when the house was reluctant to take a financial risk on the acquisition of the manuscript, not unlike today’s Patreon, GoFundMe, or other such platforms. Such is the case with Hannah Glasse, an English cook most regarded for her book, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which went on to become the best-selling recipe book of the 18th century, and remains in print today. I own one such copy. Fascinating stuff.

And it was these early houses and their editors who set the standards upon which modern publishing was built, part of which was the imperative to turn a profit in order to keep the house, its employees, and content creators in coin.

The rise of publishing in the 19th century saw likes of editors such as Harriet Farley, the American writer and abolitionist who was also editor of the Lowell Offering, a monthly periodical of poetry and fiction by the female textile workers of the Lowell Mill.

John Lovell was another of the 19th century’s editors, printers and publishers, who established the Canadian Times and Weekly Literary and Political Recorder in Montreal and later the Literary Garland, which was the first successful literary magazine in North America, and the first to pay its contributors.

Forward then into the 20th century and the likes of Frederick Warne & Company, who published Beatrix Potter’s books. And Richard Bentley who published Susannah Moodie’s Roughing it the Bush, still considered today an insightful memoir of Moodie’s pioneering experience during the 1830s in what is now the Peterborough region of Canada. It is interesting to note Charles Dickens was then editor at Colburn and Bentley — Moodie’s publisher — overseeing the well-known periodical Bentley’s Miscellany.

Thereafter the role of editor became firmly established, with the position primarily encompassing acquisition and copy-editing.

It wasn’t until the 21st century that editors took on the role of developmental editing, mentoring if you will, or as we term it today, writing coach, with the likes of Edward Garnett (for D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and Joseph Conrad), Pascal Covici (for John Steinbeck), Anne Olivier Bell (for Virginia Woolf), and Max Perkins (for Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.)

These editors, and others like them, played a seminal role in what the general public were reading, adjudicating style, art, and content. They helped to shape voices, bring what is now legendary content to the public, and create the architecture of what was to come.

From there forward the role of editor changed dramatically, creating several levels of editing we still employ today in mid to large publishing houses:

  • ·         Copyeditor
  • ·         Acquisitions Editor
  • ·         Developmental Editor (Writing Coach)

This was the golden age of publishing, with editors playing roles of greater importance in not only curating what a publishing house would release to the public, the conventions of language, grammar and spelling, but in shaping the craft of writing.

It is that latter role, that of the developmental editor, which requires a deft hand, because go too far, and the editor has indelibly imposed their creative vision upon a writer’s art. Become too restrained, and a writer may become blinded by their love of language, as was the problem with Thomas Wolfe.

It is as a developmental editor the role of mentor very much comes into play, requiring not only an intimate knowledge of the art of literature, but of effective communication, of developing a relationship of trust with the writer, and acquiring a broad understanding of the world, material culture, societies, and more, in order to inform editorial decisions.

In my experience as an editor of some 30 years, there are many aspects of the profession I have come to regard as paramount.

One of my first experiences was as an assistant editor with a country lifestyle magazine in the 1980s. The senior editor, who was also the publisher, wasn’t particularly organized, nor an effective communicator. It fell to me to develop a publishing schedule for the quarterly magazine, and I was instructed to comb the filing cabinets for stories which had previously been submitted in order to come up with content for forthcoming issues. What I found were articles which were sometimes years old, no correspondence, and a publisher who felt it was perfectly acceptable just to simply publish these articles without consultation with the authors. If the authors couldn’t be contacted, then we were to publish the article under a pseudonym. When I started muttering about good business practice, and copyright infringement, the response was: no one cares about that.

Well, I cared. And from there forward I established open, honest communication with the journalists we published, created an editorial lineup, and assigned articles for themed issues. No more stolen articles. No more ad hoc publications.

It was also under my direction that articles were fact-checked, something which to my horror had never been previously undertaken.

All of these aspects of being an editor are simply part of the job, and part of good business practice. And frankly were all part of the role of editors in the 20th century.

My time with the magazine provided invaluable lessons I carried with me throughout my life as both an editor and a writer, and later as a publisher. During those decades I witnessed significant changes occur in the industry, not only in what was expected of editors, but of what was happening to publishing. I will address some of those changes in a moment. But for now, allow me to relate more personal experiences with regard to editors and their role.

By the turn of the 21st century, self-publishing had lost some of its stink, and technology was such that instead of a frustrated author having to face enormous expenditures in bringing their book to print, it was possible to do so on a small budget, with relatively easy to navigate technology. Indeed that catalyzed my own foray into self-publishing, and being aware I should exercise due diligence, I employed the services of an editor, someone with letters, apparently knowledgeable, allegedly credible.

When the edited manuscript came back to me, I was a bit surprised. There were several text changes and queries which very much spoke to a lack of understanding on my editor’s part of historical material culture — all aspects any editor would either research to verify facts, or know because of a broad acquisition of knowledge. And then there was the slavish adherence to grammatical conventions — conventions it should be noted which are important — but also without regard to artistic literary license. Imagine what would have happened if e e cummings’ editor had insisted upon capitalization? Or more currently if Michael Crummy’s or Ondaatje’s editors became slavish about using quotation marks for conversation rather than em-dashes — a modern aesthetic, I should note, I do not find palatable.

As to the edit I received, I’m afraid I erupted into laughter. Call it hubris: I ignored the edit.

And once again, experience informed my approach to editing when I established my own publishing house, a house which went on to publish roughly 100 books by 32 authors. That experience as a writer particularly influenced my approach when I worked with an author about a subject about which I was not well-informed, or an artistic structure which required broader thinking on my part. I took it as my responsibility to learn about that subject, to query the author about anything I was unsure about in a non-confrontational, relationship-developing manner. Always better to assume it is your lack of knowledge first, acquire the required information, and then make a decision.

But that was then. This is now.

As with publishing changes which occurred at the turn of the 20th Century, so there have been profound changes in this 21st Century. Two changes of significance to consider are:

  • Capitalism
  • Technology

So let’s deal with capitalism, or better known as: Bigger is better; more is more.

By the time Western society was protesting the war in Vietnam, celebrating the miniskirt, sexual freedom, calling on a second wave of women’s rights, the publishing industry had hundreds of houses, and scores of major houses. Books were more about blockbuster bestsellers, with acquisitions editors now under pressure from boards and shareholders to sell millions of copies of a single publication where before thousands had been a bonanza. So it is an editor’s role as a mentor — or to use current vernacular, a writing coach — diminished to a great extent. And it was then the role of the agent came to the fore, replacing editors in major houses as gatekeepers and curators.

However, that shift also gave rise to the vibrant community of medium and small presses, where the role of an editor still retained the responsibility of mentor and curator. That, also, was about to change.

Why? Technology. Or put another way: we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

By the time 2001 swept in, there were seminal technologies which would forever change the culture of publishing, and the influence of editors. Those technologies had to do with quality, rapid print-on-demand processes, and a distribution system which was affordable, expansive, and inclusive. No longer did an author have to run the gauntlet of agents and publishers, of fighting for royalty statements let alone payment. In those early days, for an extremely modest fee, often under $100.00, an author could bring a book to print, and then achieve distribution to major book chains, through the services of forward-thinking enterprises such as Lulu — which was a forerunner — then Amazon, and for the more enterprising, Lightning Source Inc, among others. All offered global distribution, some of those to booksellers outside of their corporate empire.

Editor? Many authors didn’t bother, mostly because of cost considerations. That still remains true some 20 years later.

Then add into that mix the rise of e-book publishing, and the resulting wave of consumer acceptance, followed by audiobooks.

And while all that was going on in the book industry, there was another fundamental shift which occurred mostly because of digital technology, and that’s in periodicals and newspapers. We became a culture of free. And if it wasn’t for free, there were digital hacks so you could read whatever you wished for free, listen to whatever you wished for free, watch whatever you wished for free. Why pay the corporation? And that mindset completely ignored the creators at the other end who were left out of any financial return on what was often years of work.

The resulting shockwave is still being felt. All those shifts resulted in a new geography. It meant periodical media faced severe loss of sales and profits. That meant all the freelancers and staff writers faced successive rounds of firing squads, and along with them went the editors for the most part. No longer were articles carefully scrutinized by a copyeditor, and for the more sensational of periodicals even fact-checking by staff editors became an unaffordable and irrelevant luxury.

Small newspapers and magazines were bought out by the juggernaut of big business, which further reduced the requirement for writers and editors by syndicating content, much in the way every large retail chain has the same canned music in the background, all curated to deliver a point of view or result. We’re seeing that happen now in the music industry with platforms like Spotify, Amazon, and Google. But it could be argued publishing was the first creative industry to be hit and forever changed by corporate agendas.

Very likely there are many such former periodical writers and editors sitting in on this session, all of whom attempted adaptation by freelancing editorial services, riding on the wave of small and medium publishing houses, and the explosion of self-published authors.

Which brings me to the self-published authors. At exactly the same time print-on-demand, and digital self-publishing technologies rose, those large publishing houses started morphing under the demands of shareholders who insisted upon increasing returns. It’s pretty much the same in any industry: doesn’t matter the product, or what the actual market dictates, shareholders often refuse to accept reality and insist on ever higher sales and returns expectations. I’ve seen it happen over and over again, especially with start-ups who seek investment capital, and then find themselves chained to unrealistic shareholder expectations.

In the publishing industry, that meant reducing overhead, cutting the midlist, and feeding the very monster that is killing them. According to industry statistics, and as reported by Rob Errera, there were 1.5 million new titles published globally in 2021, with sales of $92.68 billion. And yet that industry only employs 315,731 people globally. The major houses went from the Big Five, to the Big Four, and it is rumoured to become the Big Three if lawyers can find a way around monopoly restrictions.

Where do we as editors fit into all of that? Not sure. History and my own instincts tell me we had better have a sound boat and navigation ability in order to be able to sail these waters, because relying upon traditional strategies isn’t going to work. One need only look at any of the myriad job postings for editors on platforms such as Linkedin. Many of those firms are in fact looking for content creators, not editors, and most of those at some very entry-level remuneration.

It seems almost ludicrous there are more books being published in any format than any time in history, and yet writers are making less money, and along with them the industry supporting the literary arts. That means in part us: the editors.

And this shift in the industry of creators affects the arts across the board, not just writing, but graphic art, music, and to a certain extent actors being replaced by CGI. We live in a world which is morphing into something ersatz.

Scrying the Future? I’m afraid my attempt to find a path which includes the health of our positions as editors isn’t optimistic. Now, along with the rise of all manner of AI technologies — just look at what Google is rolling out by way of believable and realistic AI narrators for audiobooks, at the moment for free — so it is editing software is now commonplace, often available for free, and becoming more and more intelligent to the point a writer can enter a concept, and the software will suggest story avenues to follow, and correct grammar and spelling along the way.

There are a plethora of sites listing the best 10- or 12-word processor alternatives to MS Word, all of these being freeware packages offering built-in spelling and grammar features.

What’s more there are now AI driven script and story generators which will essentially write a story, and even spell and grammar check. Deepstory is just one such platform.

Why require an editor? For that matter, why require a writer?

As a mentor, a writing coach? There are templates for that. And let’s face it, quality of writing is no longer a prerequisite for sales, as long as what an individual puts out to market fits within the top-selling categories, and the algorithms in that marketing strategy maximize exposure to potential readers. I know of one particular self-published author who actually does pay the bills from what they write, but it also means they churn out a minimum of a novel a month, all of the novels following a formula designed to put their many pseudonyms in front of readers, and not one of those novels has had the eyes of an editor. It should also be noted that they’re very canny about what name they use on what social media platform, in order to further game the system.

So, it’s not about quality, or hiring an editor. It is about maximizing exposure and sales. Sort of the mini-version of what the Big 4 are doing.

According to US industry statistics from 2020 for sales by genre:

  • ·         Romance/Erotica ($1.44 billion).
  • ·         Crime/Mystery ($728.2 million).
  • ·         Religious/Inspirational ($720 million).
  • ·         Science Fiction/Fantasy ($590.2 million).
  • ·         Horror ($79.6 million).

And that’s in an industry where total net revenue in US book sales was $25.71 billion USD, of which $1.3 billion was audiobooks, and $191 million was ebooks. If self-published books are included in those statistics is hard to say, but I expect not, as there is difficulty collecting that data.

However, exercising an educated guess, I would hazard to suggest a staggering proportion of sales in those genres are by self-published authors, most of whom don’t employ editorial services outside of the software they use.

And many of those authors are very canny about stacking algorithms in order to maximize exposure for their titles, as I have already said, because in the end, for them, it’s all about income, not about a quality product, and that is not to say many of those authors have become editors in their own right.

Where does that leave us as editors? I’m not sure. Many of us left the sinking ship of periodical writing and editing to become freelance editors. Now it would seem our services as editors are becoming obsolete, much in the way many trades faded from existence like the cooper, the fletcher, the rag and bone collector, even the typesetter.

Will there still be work? Yes. But less of it, with less remuneration, because there are more of us, and competition for those editing gigs is going to become brisk, or replaced by some form of AI. It is perhaps rather telling that many of the literary award winning, much acclaimed writers are now offering writing workshops, or bringing to market their own books on how to write, and even offering editorial services. So, do you want to stack your exposure against the likes of Joseph Boyden?

Again, using an example from my own community, there is one young author of my acquaintance, only 26, who has had their first novel published by one of the subsidiaries of the Big 4. One novel. And now they’ve hung out their shingle as an editor. Because having edited your university newspaper, and published one novel, qualifies a person as an editor.

What does that say about the industry as a whole? There are definite signs of what being editor has, and will become when you look at job listings for editors. Those listings are really looking for content writers who can self-edit, willing to work for low wages. I’d suggest everyone involved in the arts is scrambling to adapt to this new world. Yes, there are mores sales, but those sales are being shared by a larger population of content creators. Bigger pie; smaller slices. So, if you’re not looking for lucrative employment, but instead a sideline which may, from time to time, throw up some income, then stick with editing, especially into retirement. But as my parents, and those before them used to say: don’t go into the arts; there’s no money in it.

And that concludes my oh-so-cheery keynote address at this your 2022 conference. Given the message, I’m glad this is virtual, because messengers are often executed.