Wait, Could Editors Be the Saviors of Book Publishing? (A Self-Interested View)

Pictured above: Maxwell Perkins

Yesterday I took part in a Digital Book World conversation with
Debbie Stier, the director of digital marketing at HarperCollins, with Guy Gonzalez moderating.

There
was a moment of conversation that felt like a real light bulb going off:
the role of editors in championing their authors.

Traditionally, aside
from nurturing authors and producing a quality book, an editor’s role
has been to champion an author’s book to internal sales and
marketing departments—to rally support and enthusiasm at a publishing
house. Much of the work editors do in this regard is invisible
to both authors and the readership.

At F+W, editors have been
tasked with serving as a more active and public participant in a book’s
marketing—and to some extent, to serve as a face or personality for the
publisher. This makes sense for us because we publish in special-interest
areas. You can see examples of it here, here, and here.

But let’s
take this a step further—editorial marketing is smart, but only works
insofar as the target readership knows the editor, trusts the editor,
and feels like they know what to expect from that editor in terms of
quality, sensibility, and value.

So, wouldn’t it make sense for
editors to go beyond playing a significant role in marketing, and establish a “brand” (for lack of a better word, but what they stand for) that’s
prominently and publicly known to a readership, and not tied to a
specific publisher?

As Guy commented during our session, if Chris
Anderson left Wired magazine, it would be significant breaking media
news. But when a major editor departs a book publishing house (e.g., Bob
Miller from HarperStudio last month), it often goes unheralded, known
only to those who read Publishers Marketplace.

Editors ought to start
taking the advice they give authors: build a platform, gain visibility,
and look at the long-term trajectory of your career outside a specific
publisher.

Given the pace of change nowadays (e.g., Shaye
Areheart, an imprint of Crown, closed up last week, and HarperStudio right before that),
editors’ job security is more or less nonexistent.

Editors who
depend on the publisher to provide the credibility and authority for
what they do feels like a model that must change—and fortunately it can
change, if authors value them.

As far as I can tell, authors
still want (and will always need):

  • Quality editing to help create a
    quality book, which often only happens when a quality editor is involved
  • A good ear (Menaker would say a therapist), with advice/insight
    from someone who’s head over heels in love with an author’s work, and
    wants to support an author’s long-term success
  • Nurturing and perhaps a little
    hand-holding
  • An affiliation/partnership with someone or something that speaks to
    quality and
    authority in a specific community

Can editors be known for a certain kind of quality
or sensibility an author wants to be associated with—beyond the
publisher they work for? Can readers be expected to follow an editors’ work? Is it a pipe dream?

For instance, does
my advice/sensibility carry any weight outside of the Writer’s Digest
brand, or does the Writer’s Digest brand hold the power? (Certainly it holds the marketing power.)

Does Debbie
Stier’s sensibility or Guy Gonzalez’s sensibility have any value
outside the brands/publishers they work for?

From a human standpoint, I’m sure we’d all say that we value ourselves for who we uniquely are rather than the specific place we work. (I’ll reference Dan Blank’s post yet again on this topic.)

BUT again: Can readers can
learn to recognize the quality or sensibility affiliated with a specific
editor’s “brand”? Would they care?

What if editors uncovered and offered a reason to
care?

And how would publishers feel if their editors
were establishing a platform and presence that they could take with
them? (At the Digital Book World keynote, Shiv Singh addressed this
issue. Go see a recap.
)

Ami Greco noted that if we’re not doing
things that could potentially get us fired, we’re not taking
enough risks
.

Seth Godin has a similar message in Linchpin. (Here’s a good summary.)

I hope
to see a movement—a revolution!—of editors who are willing to
stand up and be known for something, who create
communities of their own, maybe even form their own independent publishing
operations.

Isn’t this, in some ways, how many publishers got
started? The superlative taste of a single person? This is another
potential future every editor ought to consider for themselves.

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17 thoughts on “Wait, Could Editors Be the Saviors of Book Publishing? (A Self-Interested View)

  1. BubbleCow

    My worry is that it seems very easy to establish a brand. The problem as I see it is that it is very easy to make a splash with social media, but very few people are turning this splash into meaningful and measurable results. Seth Godin’s Linchpin is a great example. You read his book, listen to what he says and think yeah I am a Linchpin – but ten minutes later you are back to fearing change. Godin is saying very little different to that suggest by Napoleon Hill all those years ago and most of use are still not applying the rules.

    So in theory I am your biggest supporter in this, but in reality I feel most editors lack the skill set (and time) needed to develop a writer’s online brand.

  2. Tim Barrus

    Good piece. Especially in a perfect world. It can never happen. Editors can dish it out, but they can’t take it. Personally, I’m going to start publishing on the Internet every mean-spirited, vile, spitting, hissing, nasty, clawing, stupid letter I get from editors (and agents) everywhere. The fundamental assumption here is that editors care about writing and writers. This in the face of evidence that strongly suggests otherwise. I can’t even tell you what these arrogant people care about. Nothing comes to mind except the word indifference. I am going to fight back and dish it right back to them everywhere I can. In fact, it’s my mission in life. I want them to read a taste of their own hatred. In the past, they were relatively faceless. I never understood that. But I do now. The Internet has altered that anonymity.

    What? They’re not going to publish evil me? They may not publish Tim Barrus (Attila the Hun), but they publish his Other Personalities all the time. Tim is just the one with the fingernails. The Alters only exist to put food on the table. Their mission is to simply give them what they want — like the way porn is written. Question: if editors were going to save publishing, then why haven’t they done it. Don’t we have to look at their track records before we make the assumption that the most pompous, vicious people to ever write an email could save, what, publishing? From itself?

    The dinosaurs have been around for a long time. They haven’t saved anything. Not writers. Not literacy. Not print. Not half of what could have been published; what should have been published. But no. Their very whims seem to have mainly emanated from one more lunch with one more agent. In fact, how are the very people who are the PROBLEM going to save anything until every last one of them is fired.

    "Oh, he’s just an angry, rude writer."

    True. But I have also been a book editor and a magazine editor. To marginalize me and my ideas is what they DO.

    Because they are not to blame. For anything. Ever.

    The theory that if we can just change their focus just doesn’t hold water because the very premise of the paradigm is one where they can’t (and won’t) make a single decision without a middleman who supposedly represents the writer. It’s a closed shop. New Media, too, is just another schmata put on old media’s corpse. The idea that these are the people who will come to old media’s camouflaged rescue ignores the fact that most of these people are still a part of a system where the majority of them have never even so much as met the writers they supposedly champion. I wouldn’t want one to champion a pit bull in a dog fight. These are the people who DEPEND on the very person (the agent) who disingenuously maintains they represent one end of the spectrum (oh, we make the writing better, right) when, in fact, they represent the interests of publishers. Question: how many publishers can an agent afford to antagonize. Answer: Not one.

    We need an entirely new paradigm. These are the very people who have failed and failed and failed and failed. These are the people who can’t make it as writers. But they’re IN CHARGE of other people’s work. It makes no sense that they would be able to change colors and become the saviors of a thing they have run into the ground. Steve Wasserman’s whine that we need gatekeepers is patently absurd. We do not need editors. I can decide what to read for myself. The day will arrive when digital publishers are going to have to look around to see who they can axe, and it’s going to be editors.

    I would argue that the only way to get a new paradigm is to burn the old one to the ground even if the resulting smell will be awful. We’ll show him. We will never publish him — that heretic. Yada. Yada. Yada.

    Tim Barrus

    Cinematheque Films

    Paris

  3. Susan Mary Malone

    Tongue in cheek or not, editors have always saved publishing–we’re the backbone of great books! I love what you’re saying here. And most editors do specialize, although we wear so many hats. Yes, we do all the numbered points while working with writers. And, we DO champion our edited books. We believe in them, which is often what launches a writer. This post is great, Jane!

  4. Debra Marrs

    It’s interesting that you bring this up, Jane, because I’ve been observing your savvy platform building over the past year. You walk the talk of an editor who is "out there" as a resource agent for both readers and writers. And part of that seems to be advocating for authors.

    If there’s one additional mission you’d like to take on, being the champion, the model, and the instructor to other editors who don’t get this concept of advocacy yet, you’d be offering both readers and editors a huge benefit. As both a reader and a freelance editor (perhaps an industry insider), it just seems so natural to me to "follow" what other editors are doing, who they are championing, etc. because it leads me to great reads, great talent I want to know and follow, and just more juice in my reading repertoire.

    Your choice of editor Maxwell Perkins for the photo to accompany this article is appropriate since he was a pioneer in championing his writers’ successes, and readers followed whatever he had his imprint on.

    I’m 100% onboard with this idea. Let’s make it happen!

    @DebraMarrs (on Twitter)

    P.S. To Christina Katz: I see another platform building book ready for the writing!

  5. Toni Sciarra Poynter

    Fascinating, provocative post. Thank you for it! It will be interesting to see how the growing numbers of editorial talent working outside of corporate walls, combined with the new worlds of social networking and self-publishing, will change the climate as regards visibility for editors. There is so much editorial talent available to authors who would like help in evaluating and shaping their work for optimal impact in the marketplace. I know editors who are helping authors have a better self-publishing experience, editors who are helping authors prepare their work for pitching to agents, and editors who are assisting authors under contract to polish their work so it sails more expeditiously through the publishing process. One challenge is helping authors find that talent. Another is cutting through the huge amount of misinformation and substanceless cheerleading that passes for writers commiserating and attempting to encourage each other. The heart is in the right place, but it does little actual good. You are doing a great job of seeking to inform. My editors’ group, The Consulting Editors Alliance, has started a blog to add our voice to the conversation (http://consulttheeditor.blogspot.com/), and I am valiantly tweeting to my still-small but (I hope) growing list of followers on publishing topics and subjects reflecting my interests as an editor (http://twitter.com/tweetsbytoni). I hope these and others’ efforts will bring to light the real benefits and passionate dedication that editors have always brought, and will continue to bring, to authors and their work. Thank you.
    Toni Sciarra Poynter

  6. Ann Marie

    My goal when editing is not to display *my* voice, but to help authors with theirs. When my voice comes into play is as an advocate for the authors and for books (or reading) and for access.

    Am I being too retrograde in my view of my mission? On the personal side, this is because I’d rather have job security than a brand. More generally, it’s because of editing’s role in a book: editors may clarify, they may even be inspirational, but they don’t do the heavy lifting.

    Where I do feel underused is as curator: I’ve read a lot of books, many of them very good. I have some sense of history in the industry and in some content areas. I’m not sure what to do with this beyond recommending titles for people. Another question would be how to monetize that.

  7. Christina Katz

    We’ve all noticed, no doubt, that publishers have been following in the footsteps of well-platformed authors and expanding their offerings (Writer’s Digest included). And now, as you have so aptly stated here, Jane, I believe it only makes good sense for editors to do the same.

    I hope every editor out there is listening…

  8. Jane Friedman

    Appreciate everyone’s take so far – thank you so much for commenting.

    I should point out, especially for Diane, that my "save publishing" claim is quite tongue in cheek. I agree with you and others that there is no magic bullet here, and what readers want and are willing to pay (and can get for free) is a huge driver.

    However, I don’t believe finding a solution to piracy or copyright infringement is the No. 1 problem, or even top on the list of considerations.

    There are many other things publishers (and authors/editors) can do that are highly valuable — related to scarcity, engagement, curation, community — that can be part of the new business model and don’t depend on eradicating piracy.

  9. Robert Sindelar

    This is an important and timely topic. The analogy to Chris Anderson should be looked at a bit more closely. Chris is a name or a brand partially, if not mainly, because he delivers regular content to his magazine as well as editing it. He is also a public face, appearing on shows like Charlie Rose and Stephen Colbert. Editors could create that kind of brand only if they are willing and able to put themselves out there.

  10. Jevon Bolden

    Yes! Yes! Yes! This is so good on so many levels. These very thoughts have been swirling in my head for some time now. I’ve made some decisions about my career that I feel are necessary for me to continue doing what I love for however long I want to. I’ve been working on this very thing for myself–building a brand, connecting with readers, and championing my authors, and I not only hope that it helps me, but I also see it as a chance to add value and increase my company’s visibility in the market. I haven’t thought so much about editors saving the book industry as a whole, but we do have a critical role and such a distinct vantage point that our stepping out more into the public eye and interacting with authors, readers, and other peers could really cause a major shift in consumer awareness. Who knows the implications of this? It’s pretty exciting. All and all, this just confirms that I was thinking on the right track. Thank you so much, Jane! You’re insight is invaluable!

  11. Robert Lee Brewer

    I think smart editors are trying to accomplish this sense of branding already. Or at least, I hope they are. This is a great post, because the fundamental structures of publishing really seem to be in transition at the moment. How things are organized now are not what they were 10 years ago, and it’s very unlikely they’ll be the same in another 10 years (or even five).

  12. Diane

    There are many popular editors on twitter that share their expertise. I do appreciate their time, and the things I’ve learned from following their conversations. The reality is no single handed effort is going to save publishing. Editors can’t save a sinking ship if there are boulder-sized holes in the bottom of the boat. The crisis isn’t that people don’t want to read books, they do. The problem is that there’s a growing number of people who don’t want to PAY to read books. All the dialog I see going on in reference to saving the publishing industry either glosses over this or ignores it outright. I see publishing companies jumping to embrace marketing schemes. Or digital media. Editors are pushing for it as well. All this is a band-aid over a gaping wound. Nothing is going to change the downturn as long as they bury their head in the sand when it comes to piracy. No one wants to discuss it in the same conversation because I don’t think they have a clue how they’re going to deal with it. I just hope the publishing industry doesn’t wait until they have no other choice but to approach congress to save them, like the automotive industry had to do, before they take the depth and seriousness of what they’re facing into real consideration. If they do wait to that point, and I do believe they will, the industry they DO manage to pull out of the trenches will not be the same one we know now. These old models of publishing don’t work any longer, because they are dependent upon readers to go to bookstores to buy books. We don’t live in that world anymore. And window dressing isn’t going to fix the problem. No matter how much money and ingenuity goes into plumping up publishing, until the major publishing houses get together and embrace the changes in the READERS themselves, and seriously address the issues of copyright infringement, torrent sites and illegal file sharing, they are going to continue to see the industry sink, and their profit margins drop along with it.

  13. Al Katkowsky

    A critically important part of the conversation was when Guy interjected that not all of what you see authors doing is necessarily done without support. He used the example of Gretchen Rubin to illustrate how a publisher can team up with an author that already understands what needs to be done, and then enable them with resources, etc.

    Great session.

  14. Lee Wind

    Jane, I think you are so right about this! Especially with there being more books published with self-publishing and print on demand and ebooks that look just like traditionally published books, some kind of vetting of an individual title becomes more and more important (pub weekly reported there were nearly 1 million books published last year!) Editors with a strong following could help their author’s books cut through the clutter and noise. One challenge will be how an editor distinguishes their editorial "voice" – especially with wide-ranging projects. But to some extent, that’s what a good agent already knows, right? So it’s just expanding that brand and making it transparent to the end users who buy and read the books.
    Great insight!
    Thanks for sharing,
    Namaste,
    Lee

  15. dirtywhitecandy

    Terrific post, very thought provoking. At the moment, many editors in big publishers are too much at the mercy of sales departments who think they know what the reading public want. But an editor who adores good and interesting work and can nurture it in the right way is what old-fashioned publishing is about. They will shape the tastes of the book-buying public and will build literature for the future. They need to be seen as heroes.

  16. Lauren

    What a fantastic article. If only everyone would be so human and compassionate in the publishing world, then perhaps writers wouldn’t worry so much when sending out queries.

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