By Richard Curtis
The paternalistic treatment of authors by editors in earlier times, however, produced its own set of inequities, for publishers took advantage of many authors who were too ignorant, shy, or well-bred to demand good terms of their editors. Knowing that most authors write for love, publishers tended to assume that they didn't care about writing for money.
Resentment toward publishers over their exploitation of authors created the conditions for the rise to power of literary agents, and though new authors today are still at a disadvantage, the balance eventually shifts when they engage agents and become more successful. Good agents often insist on a large measure of control over the author-editor relationship, holding authors at arm's length from their editors to protect them from being taken advantage of. And what has happened in the four or five decades since this transformation occurred is that the agents have begun to take over the role formerly played by editors.
Today's agents nurture authors, work closely with them in the development of their work, perform a great many editorial tasks, and lend strong emotional and psychological support. And, perhaps most important of all, in a turbulent world of publishing mergers and takeovers and editorial musical chairs, agents have become the islands of stability and reliability that were once the province of editors. So, if the importance of editors in this respect has diminished, the loss has not necessarily affected authors for the worse.
Or, take the tasks of copyediting manuscripts and proofreading galleys. Although these still fall upon the employees of publishing companies, the high costs of running businesses have caused a shift from in-house line editing to freelance work done at home. Many copyeditors are former employees of publishers who have managed to adapt their responsibilities to their domestic schedules. But the pressures of producing large numbers of books annually have forced publishers to overload editors with work or to seek less experienced people to do these highly demanding jobs. Some publishers just can't afford the time or expense to train copyeditors, supervise them closely, review their work, and instill in them a grasp of house style, a knowledge of company tradition, and a sense of pride. English is not even the first language for many copyeditors. And those who are fluent in English may not have the patience, precision, and skill to be good editors.
Whether we like it or not, the responsibility for well-edited books is shifting to authors. Actually, they have always borne much of that burden. In hardcover publishing particularly, most authors are given the opportunity (if not the contractual right) to review copyedited manuscripts and to proofread galleys, and if an author doesn't care enough to double-check every fact, every dubious grammatical construction and spelling, indeed every word of his manuscript and galleys, he has no one to blame but himself for a flawed product.
It is harder for authors to control errors in paperback originals and reprints, however, because tight publication schedules often make it prohibitive for publishers to furnish galleys for review by authors. Also, authors rarely get to see galleys of paperback reprints of their hardcover books. But authors and their agents can and often do demand the right to examine galleys in exchange for a promise to turn them around promptly. Thus, even paperback authors have a chance to bring out unblemished books.
The development of computerized editing and word processing hardware and software promises to eliminate many problems for authors and editors. Although numerous technical, financial, labor, and other obstacles have impeded the automation of some important editorial functions, I'm reasonably certain that these will be overcome in the foreseeable future, making clean copy in both manuscript and galley an everyday occurrence. The same is true for style, design, composition, and other aspects of the publishing process that are now in the hands of a diminishing number of expert craftspeople. In short, emerging technology will replace a good deal of the mental and manual labor involved in producing books.
What do all these changes leave for editors to do? The answer is, just about everything. Unlike those of the older generation, today's editors must master an entire gamut of disciplines including production, marketing, negotiation, promotion, advertising, publicity, accounting, salesmanship, digital technology, psychology, politics, diplomacy, and - well, editing. But into that last designation goes a bewildering variety of activities, many only remotely connected with the stereotyped one of a tweedy pipe smoker sitting in a monastic office hunting for typos.
The dizzying pace and complexity of modern publishing makes it neither possible nor desirable for editors to sit all day reading or conversing with authors. They must be worldly and sophisticated, capable of shepherding the projects they sponsor through a gauntlet of technical, financial, political, and other hazards. Though editors are often criticized for being corporate animals, in this respect at least we should thank our stars that they are. For they and they alone understand how to work their systems, to maneuver, coax, and sometimes ram their beloved books - our beloved books! - through the corporate obstacle course. Today's editors are professional company men and women, and if they don't have a problem with that characterization, I don't see why we should.
There are many editorial qualities that are irreplaceable. Among them are taste, discrimination, personal emotional response, a sense of order and organization, determination, devotion, pride, and tender loving care. In these respects, no one has discovered anyone or anything that can remotely take the place of an editor. Agents can't do it because they're outsiders. Computers can't do it because they're heartless.
But none of those virtues means anything if editors are lacking in courage. The biggest threat to the health of our industry is not mergers and acquisitions. It is failure of nerve on the part of its editors. The evolution of publishing from a profession run by individuals to a business managed by committees has created a population of editors preoccupied with holding their jobs. The pressures they live under are constantly forcing them to lower the common denominator when selecting the projects they wish to sponsor. This means that it is easier to say no than yes.
The way that this attitude manifests itself for me is editors' resistance to acquiring books that are even slightly flawed. It was not long ago that the prevailing attitude among editors was, "This book has some problems, but the author is so talented that I'd like to buy it and work with him." Today such words are rarely heard. A book with problems is a book rejected, and more and more one hears editors say, "Let the author revise it, then we'll decide if we want to buy it." Many of them have confided in me that they would love to buy the book, but the prospect of bucking the system is simply too daunting.
When I asked an agent colleague of mine whether she thought editors were necessary, she quipped, "Of course they are. Who else can take agents to lunch?" If editors are to remain more than entertaining luncheon hosts, if they are to be not merely necessary but indispensable, they will have to continue resisting the pressures toward homogeneity and mediocrity that are arrayed against them by the monolith of Big Publishing.
Maxwell Perkins would understand that.
This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
Richard Curtis is president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., a leading New York literary agency and founder of E-Reads, a leading e-book publisher dedicated to bringing out-of-print books back into electronic and printed forms as well as publishing new titles. He is an author, as well as an author advocate and writes a blog on the future of publishing, Richard Curtis on Publishing in the 21st Century.