Calling All Blue Pencil Dinosaurs!


To understand what will become of editors in the digital future, we need to understand editors’ roles int he context of a traditional publishing house. I use a trade publishing house as an example, where, back in the 1970s when I started out at Little, Brown and Co.,  “editors” had the following roles:

  • Acquisitions Editor — Selects the one book manuscript from the many, publishes a list of authors every year
  • Substantive Editor — Work closely with the Author to realize the book’s potential, focusing on the Big Ideas in the book
  • Manuscript or Line Editor — Pay close attention to the prose, help the author finalize the manuscript on a line-by-line basis
  • Copy Editor — Fine tune the prose, focusing on grammar, consistency, prose, and integrating all the parts (captions, index, etc.)

Working with such editors is how authors like Norman Mailer, J. D. Salinger, Gore Vidal, William Manchester for published at Little, Brown. Editing was a process of refinement, so that readers, when they saw the “LB” logo on the spine of the book, could trust that the prose inside was close to the author’s vision or truth. Publishing was a linear, collaborative,  and analog process, person-to-person, requiring sustained attention by many editors over a period of approximately 9 months. This process has not yet been mapped to the digital world of publications, and rarely exists any more in the world of publishing conglomerates.

In addition to the editors names above, outside of the trade discipline, and into peer-reviewed scientific publications, one needs also to consider peer review editors, who read colleagues’ work and recommend it for publishing or not, usually in a “blind” process where the reviewer is unknown to the author. Again, these editors are part of a larger system, a publishing house, with their goal being to ensure that the resulting publication is as close to the truth as possible.

For independently produced, digital multimedia, kinetic books of the present and future, will there continue to be one single umbrella entity, like LB Co.,  providing a quality control process, funding and distribution for publications produced by editors practicing such roles, plus all the new editing roles — link, video, translation, and display editors for example?    I doubt it.

Roaming about the digital plains today we find many editors of all stripes — most of them freelancing as book doctors or consultants, outside of publishing houses. Who if anyone will harvest their knowledge and skills in author support, in book enabling in this new age? And who will train the generation of editing people and programs to come? Will readers be able to continue to rely on traditional publishers’ logos to ensure that what lies inside a book’s covers is true?

We digital publishers are akin to the first amphibians flopping on the beach, gasping for air as we emerge from the sea of traditional, paper- and product-based publishing. Our old analog ways of doing things, like editing,  do not map to this new world of immediate creation and publication, of living out loud. We see the Tower of Babel rising before our eyes, self erecting. Our search for answers happens urgently, in real time. Thanks to ASU & FBF for leading the industry to define and assume its role in the new world.

See als, from the early days of online publishing: