IPEd National Editors Conference 2013

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In April this year, I was lucky enough to attend the 6th IPEd National Editors Conference, courtesy of Pearson Australia. For two days I stayed at the lovely Esplanade Hotel in Fremantle and got to rub shoulders with other editors from around the country, and listen to a variety of guest speakers from the publishing industry, academia and beyond. The broad theme of the conference was 'editing across borders', and the borders in question were cultural and technological, as well as geographical.

Despite popular opinion, an editor's conference is not all about people in cardigans sipping tea and discussing where to put commas, or whether to spell organisation with a z or an s. Well, not totally, anyway. Here are a few of the 'learnings', or at least interesting opinions, I took away from the conference.

Nury Vittachi, journalist and author of The Feng Shui Detective novels, entertained us with lots of photos of those funny signs you see in China or India that have translations into bad English. While we were all chuckling he made the sobering point that Asians are the largest group of English speakers in the world, and asked us to think about who will really 'own' the English language in the next few decades. Get ready for the Asianification of the English language, isn't it.

Don Watson also entertained us, but this time with examples of the dreaded 'weasel words' or 'management speak' that he so detests, and which he argues is a deadly virus, infecting everything it touches. Beyond the reach of grammar, impossible to translate, it paralyses thought. He made the serious point that if we are not clear in our language, we run the risk of not being able to think clearly.

The function of modern management speak, he argues, is to put people to sleep, and to create a sense of boredom and futility in the listeners. Examples include deaths in hospitals being referred to as 'negative patient outcomes'. On a more serious note, he referred to the authorities' lack of ability to describe to people what the Black Saturday bushfires were going to be like, despite the fact that there had been fires on a similar scale in 1939. The authorities this time around had been trained in management speak, and were unable to adequately describe the nature and urgency of the emergency.

There were quite a few presentations focusing on digital technologies, from the detailed to the philosophical. Dr Agata Mrva-Montoya (Sydney University Press) made the apt observation that interactivity shouldn't just be a distraction, or busy work. It should be immersive, non-trivial, and a natural extension of the reading experience.

Other speakers were very excited about changing book publishing from a very one-way interaction (from publisher to reader) into an interaction that could involve the reader in various ways. Selena Hanet-Hutchins discussed how ebooks and other technologies make interaction with the reader possible, through reader feedback, fan fiction, and 'gamification' of the book. A great example is the free DIY online ebook app called The People's eBook (in progress), which would allow the user to drag and drop content into an online template, creating ebooks with the same ease as fanzines or handmade books produced using photocopiers.

Angelo Loukakis, the executive director of the Australian Society of Authors, was a little less enthused with the idea of the self-published ebook, saying that it leads to a lot of work that is badly written and rarely edited.

Professor Roly Sussex OAM of University of Queensland's Centre for Educational Innovation and Technology talked about open information being the next 'killer app'. He was referring to the recent trend of universities in the USA and elsewhere offering large amounts of their course material online for free, without counting towards a qualification. The idea that publicly funded institutions should make their data available free is a growing one, and has the potential to challenge traditional providers of educational content. One example is Coursera, an open courseware consortium of more than 60 universities world-wide (including The University of Melbourne). Their motto is “Take the world's best courses, online, for free”. At the time of writing, they offered 338 courses and had 3,322,038 registered participants. (Make that 3,322,039 ... no, 3,322,041 ...)

Finally, there were several sessions on blogging and tweeting, mostly by freelancers who found that social networking could help to raise their profile. Several speakers, including Dr Katy McDevitt, noted that it was challenging for large organisations to have a personal voice on social media channels, and that most don't have the same air of personal authenticity that smaller blogs have. Katy mentioned the following blogs by editors:

Liz Broomfield, Libroediting
Louise Harnby, The proofreader's parlour
Abigail Nathan, Bothersome words
Desolie Page, Perfect pages
Katharine O'Moore-Klopf, EditorMom
Barbara Sjoholm, The editor's POV

An overriding message that came out of many of the presentations was that with all the technological and linguistic changes occurring, with the plethora of ebooks and self-publishing, the work of editors is more necessary than ever. But I guess those editors might live in New Delhi.

Steve Dobney