Book editing, a fading art
There are more books, but fewer editors for them.
Readers are noticing the typos
By Doreen Carvajal
N.Y. Times News Service
NEW YORK — When Wally Lamb typed the last period of his manuscript “I Know This Much Is True,"he slumped to his knees, touched his forehead to the floor and, he recalled, tearfully thanked “whatever had allowed me to finish the story without killing me first.”
By the time his novel hit the nation’s bookstores, Lamb, a best-selling author, had recruited a freelance editor, hired a personal copy editor and turned the work over to his editor at a top publishing house, who was so preoccupied with other sales and marketing that she confessed she longed to quit.
“It’s all become a big, fat, screaming, mean, vicious, greedy, rude and crude fest,” said Judith Regan, Lamb’s editor and publisher at Regan Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. “So little of your time is spent doing creative work that I’m seriously considering leaving.”
These days, an editor’s sharp pencil can be a luxury in the consolidating industry of large trade publishing houses, which have undergone a significant contraction in their editing staffs. These are the editors who shape, tighten and polish American literature and the copy editors who detect grammatical gaffes and rescue writers from creative spelling.
Since the early '90s, the work force of book publishing professionals in New York, who are largely editors, has declined by 16 percent, to 2,714 from 3,218, according to data from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
But at the same time, the number of books published in the United States has surged, and so have the complaints about the quality of books carefully bound for posterity with dangling modifiers, typographical errors and misspelled words.
With publishing cycles compressed, leaving less time for editing, and editors distracted by other corporate duties like acquiring new titles, writers are increasingly recruiting hired pens—independent editors who sharpen text or copy editors who correct grammar, inconsistencies and spelling errors for fees ranging from $1,000 to $25,000.
“I see every level of error: typographical, syntactical, factual and lack of internal consistency,” said Elizabeth Sifton, a veteran editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who worries that old-fashioned practitioners of the art of editing are coming to be regarded as woolly mammoths.
The decline of editing standards in American literature is an enduring lament, one that tainted even Maxwell Perkins, the celebrated editor of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1920, he published “This Side of Paradise” with so many errors that a newspaper columnist made a parlor game of spotting mistakes.
And some publishers speculate that today’s complaints are simply a subtext for deeper fears in an industry that has been roiled by consolidations like the merger of Random House and Bantam Doubleday Dell by the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann and the breakup and sale of Simon & Schuster’s educational division to Pearson PLC.
Stephen Rubin, the president and publisher of Doubleday, said that some prominent authors resist editing, which affects the quality of the outcome. “I think that clearly we’re in a period of momentous change on various levels, and I think people are terrified of change,” he said. “And when they start whining, they’re throwing editing into it. In some cases they’re justified, and in some cases they’re not.
The staffing level of editors is not a topic that large publishing houses dwell on, with few ever publicly revealing cutbacks. For example, Bantam Doubleday Dell does not disclose employment figures. Stuart Applebaum, a company spokesman, said he could not recall a period of deep reductions among the industry’s ranks of editors and suggested that the editing staff might actually have expanded at his company.
That view, however, is not shared by many writers and agents. Although complaints about editing may be as old as clay tablets, there is a new edginess, which has inspired counterstrategies.
Authors with a yearning for the romantic ideal of an editor as confessor and critic are recruiting informal editors to shape up their manuscripts before submitting them to publishers—a defensive effort to prevent early rejection or late cancellation for unsatisfactory work.
Literary agents are also beginning to offer the services of in-house editors or are urging clients to hire their own editors. And the top publishing houses are continuing their practice of contracting with independent editors when their employees are too busy to do the work.
Speeded by computer technology, manuscripts that were more leisurely published in a standard nine months after submission are now edited, corrected and printed in as little as four to six months. (Authors are encouraged to submit manuscripts electronically, which accelerates the process.) Editors are expected to improve prose, acquire books and shepherd titles through meetings on marketing, sales and publicity.
“There’s much more pressure,” said Peter Gethers, an editor at Random House. The window of opportunity for editing has shortened.
Lamb, the author, hired a copy editor at the suggestion of his literary agent, Linda Chester, who estimates that almost 60 percent of her clients have hired their own editors.
“If it’s not 100 percent, I bring in an outside editor,” Chester said of the quality of manuscripts. “Publishers should be allowing clients to do the best possible work that they can so that their books can be read for generations, but what’s happening is that publishers are concerned with getting the book out in the right period to maximize sales.”
Complaints about editing come from a range of writers—from a best-selling author who is reluctant to talk publicly about her hired freelance copy editor to a first-time biographer like Bob Thomas, who spotted 14 errors in the final production stage of his manuscript, some of which made it into his book about golfer Ben Hogan.
Thomas said his book, “Ben Hogan’s Secret: A Fictionalized Biography,” had been shifted among at least four editors at Macmillan before its publication in 1997.
John Michael, a former executive editor at Macmillan, did some of the editing and then departed to take a new post before the book was published. He is frank with his authors about what they can often expect in the current publishing climate.
"I tell authors that there will always be 1 or 2 percent of errors that get in,” said Michael, who added that editing had deteriorated over the years, but so gradually that “it’s like dirt on your glasses: it starts out a little bit at a time and all of a sudden you take them off and think, “How could I see?’”
Readers are also weighing in with withering criticism of flaws that could have been corrected with editing. Some posted reviews of Toni Morrison’s novel “Paradise” on the Amazon.com Web site complaining about tangled plot lines, undeveloped characters and confusing passages.
Morrison was unavailable for comment, her assistant said. But in an interview in U.S. News and World Report, she responded to general criticism about “Paradise” by expressing the desire for more time to “step back” during the period between submitting the manuscript and final publication.
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