Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Does Conventional Publishing Deserve to Survive? I

At the RNA Novel of the Year Awards party I asked my editor - who is very senior in the Headline chain of command - why publishers were letting on-line retailers such as Amazon present themselves as goodies and the publishers as baddies when it would be easy for the Big Six publishers to mount a campaign of their own demonstrating the reverse. She agreed that publishers were being slow to show what they added to the publishing process.

So, what do they add? And can it be done by someone else - the author, or their agent, for example?

1. Editing
There are two sorts of editing and they often get mixed up. A copy editor will check for mistakes such as typos, grammatical errors and repetitions. They'll also point out mistakes like the heroine's eyes being blue on p36 but brown on p85. Publishing houses usually employ freelances for copy editors, so that's an option open to any one - author, agent, whoever.

But there's another sort of editor, who is usually an employee of the publishing company. This editor - usually a commissioning editor - looks at the bigger picture. They tell you if your main character is getting irritating, or if the middle section is going on for too long, or if you need more here. They don't copy edit. It's wonderful to work with a good editor: they enhance and strengthen your story and make you the best writer you can be. It's a real skill, and one that should be appreciated by all writers.

This sort of editing is, frankly, hard to get. The closest is the services offered by a book doctor. I used a book doctor for the first draft of my first book. It cost about £250, and about two pages of the seven page report were specific to my book. When I did the finished version (90% had changed) I got 15 pages of notes from my editor about the book - and that was after she'd bought it. I think that was the first of about four exchanges. My current editor also sends pages of notes, and we talk things through over the phone. Sometimes it's about small stuff, other times it's major. And the great thing is, all the time you're talking, you know that their sole interest is in making the book as good as it can be; there isn't a meter running.

Real editing is a skill that appears to have been undervalued by a lot of senior people in the publishing world so they have only themselves to blame if people outside publishing are hardly aware of the difference between a commissioning editor and a copy editor. One of the reasons cited by Amanda Hocking for accepting a print deal was she realised she needed better editing. She'd employed freelance editors on all her books, but the results were "shitty" - her word. I suspect she'd been using copy editors, rather than commissioning editors or book doctors.

2. Gate keeping
Yeah, yeah, I know this is contentious. But there is a lot of bad writing out there. I've read some of it. A friend told me recently that in his first year in publishing he read over 2,000 manuscripts that had come in from the slush pile. Only one was worth publishing. Another friend told me that a lot appeared as if the author had started on p1, got to The End and then never gone back to check over what they'd written, just bunged it in the post.

Watch any talent show, such as the X Factor or Britain's Got Talent. There are some really good people out there, and there are some horrors. Those are the ones we see on the TV because they make the best television, but what about all those thousands of people queuing up we don't see. They're the good but not star quality, the better than average, the middle ranks, the OKs. They're probably the best in their immediate circle, but can't compete on a national stage. A friend told me about being a brilliant runner at school. He won everything locally. Then he went up to county level and discovered he was average.

Not everything that gets published is great, but it's usually effective - and better than what didn't get chosen. It has to be said that over the past ten years, publishers have devolved a lot of the gate keeping process onto agents. That may turn out to have been a mistake if Joe Konrath is to be believed.

Part II tomorrow - Marketing and Career Sustainability

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


Karen said...

I read so much these days about the possible demise of traditional publishing, it's nice to read a post defending it :o)

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

This is such an interesting and helpful post. I know I am right to keep swallowing the bitter pills of rejection until my manuscript passes quality control inspection. My instinct is not to self-publish unless I really can't succeed the traditional way, because the traditional methods apply the rigour. In this post you explain why the rigour is necesssary.

Liz Fielding said...

I've had some fabulous editors over the course of my published life. From the guys at D C Thomson who were talking about five sentence picture stories to the great editors at Mills and Boon. Without them I wouldn't be an author.

Phillipa said...

I totally understand about the diff between structural edits and copy edits. I wept when I got 16 pages of edits on one of my early novels and felt like a failure - but hearing a great writer like you say you have embraced this scale of edits, makes me feel that it was a Very Good Thing. May I also shout out for good agents. Mine was a senior WF ed and I couldn't manage without her input.

Writer Pat J said...

Here here!! I absolutely agree - and I am not a traditional published author. But I do so wannabe... I too paid for a an edit ( book doctor style) and got pages of notes that made me feel a complete failure but when I calmed down and looked at things objectively he was right. I made changes and the book was 100 percent better for it. If only I could see the same things for myself!*##

Sarah Duncan said...

We need the outside eye that good editors provide, objective but supportive at the same time. I think if you possibly can, it's worth hanging on in there for the experience.

Phillipa, I was so excited at being described as a great writer in your comments, I had a real Tolstoy moment. Then I had to take the dustbins out and become me again, but thanks. It's not true, but thanks all the same.