The Future of Editing: Beta Readers and Agile Publishing


Perhaps it is my personal history as an editor that leads me to believe that no computer or algorithm can successfully replicate the role and work of a professional development or content editor. Regardless of how publishing changes, editors who offer valuable editing and feedback will always be in demand, at least until such a time that telepathy or brain downloads are invented.

That said, there could be considerable transformation in what it means to be a “professional” editor. With the rise of self-publishing (a 60 percent increase in 2012 alone, according to Bowker data), we’ve only seen the demand for editors increase, with authors more acutely aware of the need for some level of assistance in rewriting and polishing their work. But very few authors can afford professional-level, deep editing. Given how writing processes are evolving – with more online and collaborative work, more serializations and more works-in-progress being undertaken – one can envision a world in which smart readers serve as an author’s first editors.

While some career authors – who likely had to improve on their own and struggle for approval from the gatekeepers – may believe that emerging authors are publishing too early and too quickly without regard for quality, a new model is emerging that allows for those first manuscripts to be published, and for authors to improve as they go, with the feedback of beta readers.

We see this model already in progress in the fan fiction communities. The bestseller 50 Shades of Grey started as work-in-progress within such a community, and was a riff on the Twilight series. Wattpad, with more than 18 million users, provides a sandbox for many authors to experiment, practice and gather early readership. (Even Margaret Atwood is giving it a shot with zombie fiction.)

As authors gain experience and titles under their belt, they may progress from beta readers to more formal, paid editing teams, which may consist of trusted content editors, copy editors and proofreaders. In some community and digital publishing models that already exist, editors are rewarded by receiving a percentage of book sales, which presumably makes them more invested and incentivized to do their best work.

Another possibility, particularly for nonfiction, is crowdsourcing as a replacement for some level of development and content editing. Sourcebooks, a trade publisher, is experimenting with this type of authoring and editing process, which they call their “Agile Publishing Model.” People coming from the technology world would be very familiar with this type of iterative process and framework, which makes content available faster, gets real-time feedback from the target audience and shapes the final product based on collaboration. CEO Dominique Raccah says, “The traditional publishing model – long schedules, creating in a vacuum, lack of involvement with the readers of the end product – drives some authors crazy. This model is a great fit for experts who are highly immersed in their field and where the field is evolving rapidly” (“Sourcebooks Announces”). (Hopefully it’s not lost on readers of this essay that the very thing being read right now is a collaborative, multimedia project that is iterative and crowdsourced, and similar to the agile model used by Sourcebooks.)

A final thought: Future editors may struggle to hang onto their gatekeeping role, and only remain tastemakers if their name carries currency with readers, meaning they become brands that signify something important to both authors and the target audience. Are editors open to marketing and publicizing themselves as brands? It may be a difficult future for today’s editors to accept, since the predominant view in publishing is that good editors “disappear” and are not spoken of; the attention goes to the writer.