Monday, June 16, 2008

So you want to be a book editor?

If you want to be a book editor then one of your jobs will be fact-checking. This includes making sure the writer has not misspelled any proper names, including place names.

For example, 'sienna' is the clay pigment used in oil paints; the colour comes in two varieties, raw and burnt. It is not the name of the beautiful walled city in Tuscany where they make panforte and have the annual medieval horse race. That is called Siena. (NB neither of these is to be confused with senna, which is a naturally-occuring laxative.)

Similarly, the boot-shaped peninsula in South Australia is called Yorke Peninsula, not York Peninsular. 'Peninsular' is an adjective, meaning 'peninsula-like'. Cape York Peninsula, without an 'e', is the big pointy one in Queensland.

These errors should not have made it past a first read-through by the author, much less all the way through successive MS drafts and proofs re-read by the author and two different editors into a finished book and a Penguin book at that.

It is your particularly bad luck if they happen to be two of the book reviewer's favourite places on the entire planet. And I'm only on page 125 out of 450; who knows what sloppy horrors are yet to come.

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat.


  1. Siena/sienna: as has been mentioned in Pavlov’s cat comments, is a bit obscure, 'York Peninsular': quite astonishing. I work as an editor and remember the words of a wise editing teacher who once mentioned that reviewers will notice glaring errors in the published copy (as they should), but no one will ever know how appalling the manuscript might have looked when it first reached the editor's desk, or whether the editor's job was mainly to prompt the author to submit their work on time. The fact is that editors working for major publishers nowadays in most instances do not have the 'leisure' they once had to work on manuscripts in a thorough dedicated manner. (I'm not sure what happens at Penguin, though.) Instead of thinking about a manuscript in an absorbed fashion, reading over it several times, looking through resources to check inconsistencies, propose alternatives, etc, we are now mainly valued for our ability to 'meet tight deadlines' (read: 'light edit', and once only), 'project manage', 'multitask', 'effectively prioritise a varied workload', 'meet publishing targets'. A lot has been said about the decline in literary publishing in Australia; perhaps the decline of editorial quality of published manuscripts is a function of the rushed circumstances in which these books are produced, and in which editors work. Many of us are exceedingly frustrated by this.

    I’d suggest an alternative entry ‘So you want to be a fiction publisher …’

    Anyone wanting to work as an editor should consider this: Will you effectively be a glorified secretary (i.e. manuscript work comes last on your list of duties or goes to freelancers)? Will ‘flexible work arrangements’ mean office hours 8.30 to 5.30 (and ‘OK, you can leave 10 minutes early if crèche really closes at 6.00 pm’)? Will your pay be below an average wage while requiring you to take postgraduate and computer/software loans? (Almost certainly.) Will the reviewers mention your name for sloppy manuscripts when your publisher should have known better? You bet.

    ‘Fact checking’? ‘Manuscript read by two different editors’? Must be in a dreamland I’ve never been to …

  2. I might've known this post would annoy editors and I do have a lot of sympathy, not least because I used to be one, of sorts. If 'a dreamland you've never been to' is the craft of book-editing as it existed a few decades ago then you are probably right. Every book I've ever read on the subject of how-to-be-an-editor has said to fact-check anything you weren't sure about. The writer whose book the post is about cites two people as editors on the acknowledgements page -- maybe the job got started by one and finished by another.