Latest figures on the e-book revolution show some slowing of the exponential rate of growth, but surely that’s to be expected when the base-line was so recently zero. The numbers are still rising substantially, and the devices are in a healthy clash of heads with serious new entries still arriving and on the horizon. And Amazon has yet to leave Barnes & Noble for dead. In part because the mighty river of e-commerce decided to take on at the same time the big six US publishers; sort of like Hitler doubling down on the Eastern front while he was still trying to knock out Britain. Not perhaps a good idea. This piece, however, is not about the fight between Amazon and the rest of publishing. That’s being covered by many others.
What got me blogging this time is the notion of editing, and how it’s related to the e-book bestsellers lists now showing up regularly in the major papers. That topic comes up all the time when novelists – fiction dominates the e-book scene – discuss indie publishing, i.e. going it alone and maybe giving up a substantial advance to do so.
The items that make the checklist, the things the publisher normally does for the ms that the indie writer will have to do for herself, are editing, cover art, marketing, and of course distribution. Well, the argument goes, distribution is what the e-book removes from the equation. That really is easy now. Marketing, on the other hand, demands very hard work, but publishers have never satisfied 99% of their authors in this area. Self-marketing is an author responsibility whether the book is traditionally published or an indie. And, the argument goes, I can hire all the rest. If I’m willing to spend a few bucks backing my own career, I’ll get the same top class professionals who work for the legacy publishers.
That’s probably true for the cover. In the matter of editing I submit it is not. I’m convinced you cannot get the same results even if you’re willing to pay a top line-editor the going rate – which will certainly be in the mid to high four figures. Maybe more. (You can get first-class copy editing for considerably less, but that comes later in the process and it’s not what I’m talking about.) The reason is that there’s a very real difference when you’re the one writing the check.
Brilliant editing – and if you’re a writer worth anything you pray for nothing less – involves tension and abrasion and maneuvering. It flows from the fact that in a subtle way you and the editor are on different teams. In some measure your role becomes protecting your vision of the novel; your way of interpreting these characters you’ve created and the things that happen to them. Your story. Your plot. The editor’s job is to push back, to insist that you make it clearer, write it bigger, eliminate superfluous scenes – maybe characters – and add those that the reader must have if the whole thing is going to make sense. It’s the editor’s job to push you to the edge of a cliff, and make you brave enough to jump off.
A process of that nature inevitably brings a writer to the point of wanting to write STET in big red letters on every page. The time will come when that’s exactly what you have to do. But if the editor works not for you but for your publisher, and probably a good chunk of your advance depends on the two of you agreeing that the ms is as good as it’s going to be, you will think long and hard before putting your foot down. That, I submit, is not being abjectly beholden to the almighty dollar. It’s going through the crucible of the creative process; aware always that the editor can identify the problems, but only the writer can fix them. At the end the pair of you will have created something infinitely better than the original – even though it was probably your fifth or sixth draft, and good enough to attract the publisher in the first place.
Good – sometimes great – editing, I submit, is why those e-book bestseller lists are so overwhelmingly dominated by the digital version of books traditionally published rather than indies. And that’s one reason why getting an agent still matters.
*For those who may not know, Maxwell Perkins was the publishing legend who edited the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. A. Scott Berg’s wonderful Max Perkins, Editor of Genius is must reading for any novelist. It is happily available in e-book format as well as paperback.