Book review: 'What editors do: the art, craft, and business of book editing' edited by Peter Ginna (June 2018)

by Rory J Cole

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Editors, authors and readers alike often view the publishing world through the lens of their own personal experiences, so I can't help but do the same in writing this review. In What editors do: the art, craft, and business of book editing, Peter Ginna has compiled a collection of case studies and reflections on the industry from 25 editors.

The book offers an ambitious overview of publishing and the editor's role in it, as seen through a kaleidoscopic lens to explore the myriad roles editors play in bringing books to people's shelves. It covers considerable ground – everything from the technicalities of punctuation to publication – and scales from the macro to the micro, from the corridors of the largest publishing houses to the experiences and offices of freelancers.

If all books tell the story of their character(s), then the genius of this collection is in the anthologised narratives of its many contributors. At times it feels like we're walking in the shoes of an editor on any given day, and at others we're transported back decades, and placed in the office of a young editor just beginning their career.

We're offered the opportunity to peer behind the curtains of the big publishing houses and the many departments and individuals who play a part in bringing books to the world. Michael Pietsch (CEO of Hachette Book Group) speaks of the importance of knowing each department, and particularly the ones in charge of the money (production editors). He highlights (to paraphrase) just how many hamsters there are in a publisher's wheelhouse, and makes note of the importance of editors in those big publishing houses knowing who those people are, and their roles, schedules and priorities.

But what stands out to this editor/writer/reviewer most is the passionate advocacy for the industry that every editor brings to their position. Repeated throughout the book is the notion of love for the industry and individual projects that an editor must have and maintain.

With a foot in both worlds (as a freelance editor and writer), I see the arguments for and against editors from fellow writers every day, and the weighing of the costs for self-publishing authors against the gains and returns. There are advocates on each side of the discussion, some arguing that editors aren't needed for self-publishing (that beta readers will suffice), while others adamantly argue that an author is doing themselves and their books a disservice by not having a professional edit done.

Furthermore, there is an ongoing and divisive debate about what's best for an author, self-publishing or the traditional route. Editors can sometimes be perceived as gatekeepers still, and a barrier to an author's success or expedient turnaround. But in an age where books and an author's every word must compete not just with other books but with other forms of entertainment, perhaps slowing down to ensure your story is the best it can be is the wiser move.

We no longer live in a time where an author needs permission to publish, and the effect of this on the traditional publishing houses isn't overlooked. Jeff Shotts (executive editor at Graywolf Press) speaks of this eloquently in his chapter, 'The half-open door: independent publishing and the community'. Here, Shotts speaks of how commercial publishing has, in effect, handed the baton of fiction and most authors' careers to independent and self-publishers, which has in fact helped keep the industry alive. The ease of self-publishing has, in my opinion, been a boon to the industry and has, in turn, kept the careers of self-employed editors afloat. I am one of them.

What editors do is a sprawling book that speaks of publishing's history and possible future, and the symbiotic relationship between authors and their editors. If you're looking for a book that will teach you the mechanics of any one editing role, this may not be it. But for a book that offers an overview of the many different hats an editor may wear, this is a good one to start with. Overall, the 25 chapters demonstrate the passion that each type of editor brings to their role and profession, whether it's winning over the marketing department or the roadwork of filling in the myriad of plot holes from an emerging writer.

But most importantly, What editors do positions the editor as a champion for stories and their successes, and a champion for the author to enhance their work to its most polished and effective form. And it's a tribute to the symbiotic relationship between the authors who write the stories and the many parts editors play when both authors and stories succeed.

What editors do: the art, craft, and business of book editing, edited by Peter Ginna, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Rory J Cole is a freelance editor and owner of Novel Fixation, offering editorial services for speculative fiction authors.