Download the PDF
The complete book from our first book sprint, Beyond the Book: The Future of Publishing.
Download the PDF
Download the PDF
The complete book from our first book sprint, Beyond the Book: The Future of Publishing.
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:
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:
Will there soon be a GitHub for books? Will frustrated authors finally destroy the hegemony of Microsoft Word? What is the role of editing in a literary marketplace rife with self-published books? And most importantly, what does Michael Foucault think about all of this? Find the answers to these questions and more as our authors confront the future of writers and their editors:
Today is your last chance to join us as a co-author! This morning we’ll be tackling the the question, “What will the economics of authorship be in the future? In what new ways will authors engage with their readers?”
I hate Microsoft Word. I want Microsoft Word to die. I hate Microsoft Word with a burning, fiery passion. I hate Microsoft Word the way Winston Smith hated Big Brother. Our reasons are, alarmingly, not dissimilar….
Microsoft Word is a tyrant of the imagination, a petty, unimaginative, inconsistent dictator that is ill-suited to any creative writer’s use. Worse: it is an aspiring monopolist, having nearly 80 percent of the word processing field to itself. Such dominance has brutalized the minds of software developers to such an extent that few can imagine a word processing tool other than as a shallow imitation of the Redmond Behemoth. So what’s wrong with it?
I’ve been using word processors and text editors for nearly 30 years. There was an era before Microsoft Word’s dominance when a variety of radically different paradigms for text preparation and formatting competed in an open marketplace of ideas. One early and particularly effective combination was the idea of a text file containing embedded commands or macros that could be edited with a programmer’s text editor (such as ed or TECO or, later, vi or Emacs) and subsequently fed to a variety of tools: offline spelling checkers, grammar checkers and formatters like Scribe, Troff and LaTeX that produced a binary page image that could be downloaded to a printer.
These tools were fast, powerful, elegant and extremely demanding of the user. As the first 8-bit personal computers appeared (largely consisting of the Apple II and the rival CP/M ecosystem), programmers tried to develop a hybrid tool called a word processor: a screen-oriented editor that hid the complex and hostile printer control commands from the author, replacing them with visible highlight characters on screen and revealing them only when the user told the program to “reveal codes.” Programs like WordStar led the way, until WordPerfect took the market in the early 1980s by adding the ability to edit two or more files at the same time in a split screen view.
Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, research groups at MIT and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center began to develop the tools that fleshed out the graphical user interface of workstations like the Xerox Star and, later, the Apple Lisa and Macintosh (and finally the Johnny-come-lately imitator, Microsoft Windows). An ongoing war broke out between two factions. One faction wanted to take the classic embedded-codes model and update it to a graphical bitmapped display: you would select a section of text and mark it as “italic” or “bold” and the word processor would embed the control codes in the file and, when the time came to print the file, it would change the font glyphs being sent to the printer at that point in the sequence. But another group wanted to use a far more powerful model: hierarchical style sheets. In a style sheet system, units of text – words or paragraphs – are tagged with a style name, which possesses a set of attributes which are applied to the text chunk when it’s printed.
Microsoft was a personal computer software company in the early 1980s, mostly notable for their BASIC interpreter and MS-DOS operating system. Steve Jobs approached Bill Gates to write applications for the new Macintosh system in 1984, and Bill agreed. One of his first jobs was to organize the first true WYSIWYG word processor for a personal computer – Microsoft Word for Macintosh. Arguments raged internally: should it use control codes or hierarchical style sheets? In the end, the decree went out: Word should implement both formatting paradigms. Even though they’re fundamentally incompatible and you can get into a horrible mess by applying simple character formatting to a style-driven document, or vice versa. Word was in fact broken by design from the outset – and it only got worse from there.
Over the late 1980s and early 1990s Microsoft grew into a behemoth with a near-monopoly position in the world of software. One of its tactics became known (and feared) throughout the industry: embrace and extend. If confronted with a successful new type of software, Microsoft would purchase one of the leading companies in the sector and then throw resources at integrating their product into Microsoft’s own ecosystem, if necessary dumping it at below cost in order to drive rivals out of business. Microsoft Word grew by acquiring new subsystems: mail merge, spelling checkers, grammar checkers, outline processing. All of these were once successful cottage industries with a thriving community of rival product vendors striving to produce better products that would capture one another’s market share. But one by one, Microsoft moved into each sector and built one of the competitors into Word, thereby killing the competition and stifling innovation. Microsoft killed the outline processor on Windows, stalled development of the grammar checking tool, stifled spelling checkers. There is an entire graveyard of once-hopeful new software ecosystems, and its name is Microsoft Word.
This planned obsolescence is of no significance to most businesses, for the average life of a business document is less than 6 months. But some fields demand document retention. Law, medicine and literature are all areas where the life expectancy of a file may be measured in decades, if not centuries. Microsoft’s business practices are inimical to the interests of these users.
Nor is Microsoft Word easy to use. Its interface is convoluted, baroque, making the easy difficult and the difficult nearly impossible to achieve. It guarantees job security for the guru, not transparency. For the zen adept who wishes to focus on the task in hand, not the tool with which the task is to be accomplished, it’s a royal pain in the arse and a perpetual distraction. It imposes its own concept of how a document should be structured upon the writer, a structure best suited to business letters and reports (the tasks for which it is used by the majority of its users). Its proofing tools and change tracking mechanisms are baroque, buggy and inadequate for true collaborative document preparation; its outlining and tagging facilities are piteously primitive compared to those required by a novelist or thesis author; it’s macro language (a descendant of BASIC) is an insult to the intelligence of the programmer, and the procrustean dictates of its grammar checker would merely be funny if the ploddingly sophomoric business writing style it mandates were not so widespread.
But this isn’t why I want Microsoft Office to die.
The reason I want Word to die is that until it does, it is unavoidable. I do not write novels using Microsoft Word. I use a variety of other tools, from Scrivener (a program designed for managing the structure and editing of large compound documents, which works in a manner analogous to a programmer’s integrated development environment if Word were a basic text editor) to classic text editors such as Vim. But somehow, the major publishers have been browbeaten into believing that Word is the sine qua non of document production systems. They have warped and corrupted their production workflow into using Microsoft Word DOC files as their raw substrate, even though this is a file format ill-suited for editorial or typesetting chores. And they expect me to integrate myself into a Word-centric workflow, even though it’s an inappropriate, damaging and laborious tool for the job. It is, quite simply, unavoidable. And worse, by its very prominence, we become blind to the possibility that our tools for document creation could be improved. It has held us back for nearly 25 years already; I hope we will find something better to take its place soon.
In his classic essay “What Is an Author?” Michel Foucault offered an analysis of authorship that questioned received ideas about authorial authenticity and originality.
His essay describes authors not as persons but as a “function of discourse,” whether historical, social, or technological (124). Really, his essay ought to be called “What was an Author?” since he ends by saying that “We can easily imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author” (138). You can’t help but suspect he’d prefer to live in such a culture.
This is an alienating way to think of authorship, partly because the figure of the author turns out to be not someone who writes but rather someone who is, in a sense, written by circulating social discourses. Your former illusions of writerly mastery turn out to be an effect of your context. A lot of working writers might not find imagining such a world as “easy” as Foucault does.
This way of talking may be less jarring if you realize that you, as an aspiring author or working author-function, are always also contributing to those circulating discourses. So it might be more accurate to say that the author doesn’t disappear in Foucault’s account, but in some sense gets smeared across a variety of locations, persons and institutions, joining a good old-fashioned cybernetic circuit.
Which brings me to the question of my title. The first step in figuring out the future of the editor is to ask a prior, more important question. What is an editor? The editor, like the author, is also a function of discourse. But the editor also has a function. The editor’s job is to be a switching station, a resistant medium through which the writer’s message travels en route to readers (where we understand that reader and writer refer not to persons but to functions).
Without the medium of transmission, communication isn’t possible. Without editorial friction or resistance, writers and readers instantly disappear. Writing wouldn’t be communication but instead be a sort of telepathy or merging of minds. So editing is an ineradicable part of what any author tries to do. It’s not only a good thing that editors exist, but logically necessary that they do.
So the real question of the future of editing is the question of who will edit (not whether someone will edit). Online, writers get to be self-editors, and readers, via various channels (comments, click statistics) also act as various types of editor. The writer’s fantasy of escaping editors is just that: a fantasy. You are always being edited, always self-editing. The question isn’t whether you’ll be edited, but by whom and how. What future platforms will editing happen on? What forms of editing will these platforms encourage and discourage? How will editing be visualized, communicated, and incorporated into new drafts?
We might be able to imagine a culture without authors – though I admit I find it hard too – but in any culture with authors we’ll never eliminate editors. Which is a good thing. We should, instead, celebrate them. And pay them, while we’re at it.
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.
When I started writing my first book in 2003, I’d been blogging for more than three years. I’d learned the value of a conversation with my readers. Most importantly, I’d absorbed the obvious truth that they knew more than I did. So, with the permission of my publisher, I posted chapter drafts on my blog. The result was a variety of comments and suggestions, some small and some major, that in the end helped us produce a much better book.
That process was an early stab at bringing the Internet’s widely collaborative potential to a process that had always been collaborative in its own way: authors working with editors. The notion of adding the audience to the process was, and remains, deeply appealing.
The tools of online collaboration are still relatively primitive, and often discouragingly awkward. But they’re improving, and I’m seeing glimmers of hope that in a few years we’ll have vastly more capable systems.
As Charlie Stross notes elsewhere in this book, Microsoft Word, ubiquitous today for authors and their editors, needs to be replaced. I rarely use it myself, but there are times when it’s the only way I can communicate with an editor. (I prefer to write in a plain text editor and then, if necessary, format in LibreOffice Writer; however, I find Writer even less stable than Word.)
The Track Changes feature in Word (and Writer) is, of course, a primary reason we all use it. Google Docs doesn’t offer this feature. It should. The closest thing I’ve found on the web for this kind of collaborative editing is Poetica, an early version of an editing tool that recreates much of the style – and I believe value – of traditional editing.
But we don’t do just text anymore. We “write” in mixed-media formats, incorporating charts, videos and more into our work, and e-book formats still aren’t supported as well as they should be. I’m still looking, for example, for a great EPUB-native editor. The open-source Sigil is a fine start, but also very much a work in progress.
Collaboration is going to get a lot more complex. The most famous Internet collaboration is the one almost everyone uses, at least as a reader: Wikipedia. Editing isn’t terribly difficult, though not nearly simple enough for true newbies. Even if it was, Wikipedia isn’t a book with an author’s voice, and isn’t meant to be. Yet it shows many of the ways forward, including the robust discussions in the background of the articles.
Wikipedia articles are also living documents, changing and evolving over time. Could books be like that?
They could in the editing process if we use powerful tools from the software world. I’m thinking here of GitHub, the version control system used by many software teams. What might a book look like created in GitHub? A team at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study has shown us with a dense (to non-mathematicians) volume called Homotopy Type Theory: Univalent Foundations of Mathematics. As Wired.com noted in a story about the project, this was more than just an enjoyable project for some reasonably geeky folks: “If they’d tried to write this book by emailing each other files or using something like Dropbox, it would have been a complete mess…. But GitHub made it fun” (McMillan).
At least one writer (with programming skills) is working on a project to make this kind of collaboration easier than it is with GitHub. It’s called PenFlip, and described as “GitHub for Writers.” I’m signing up for the beta.
If books are to become living documents after their original publication – and I believe they should in many cases – we have another major hurdle: the book-numbering system called ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, a unique identifier created for commercial purposes. But the Library of Congress insists that any significant change to a book requires a new ISBN number – and that system is controlled by a single company that charges extortionate rates for individual authors.
There’s actually a good reason for this. If we cite a passage from a book, we need to know what version of the book we’re citing, not just what page (or URL if it’s posted online). Wikipedia archives every edit made to an article, and you can cite any version of the article you choose.
It will get complex, fast, to apply this notion to books. But in an era where some books can and should evolve, we should try. We should hack ISBNs, with or without the Library of Congress’ help (preferably with), and create a system that lets us constantly update our e-books and print-to-order physical books in a way that doesn’t break citations even as it gives readers the most current versions.
Books will always be written by people. Whether by single authors, or by the contributing effort of many. I don’t think that a book can be like a video clip: an accumulation of small parts only related by the visual story it tells. A book has a direct link with the reader and need to tell a story. Even if edited by many – as you are now doing – the reader still needs to follow a story line.
Editing as we know it today employs both the heart and the mind. Perhaps for some non-fiction books, a robotic editor or some software program will be able to improve upon a writer’s work, but I doubt that any technical discovery can ever replace the human spirit. How an editor feels upon reading a book and how that translates into his or her critique will ensure their continuing employment. With the growth of self-publishing, we’ve seen too many books that have reached the public without being edited with disastrous results. The reading public has noticed and has become twice shy about self-published books. Because of this problem, I forsee a growth in this part of the industry.
The Editors will be able to know much more about the reader and his or her reading biography. Through analyzing the data that can be collected from e-readers, apps and online communities the editor can use that information to provide an enhanced and updated second or third edition.