I am back in my glorious home town of Manchester for some Family Time, and took the opportunity to catch a couple of events at the Manchester Literary Festival. First up: ‘Is the Editor Dead’: a panel discussion with Michael Schmidt (editorial director of Carcanet Press and PN Review), Lee Brackstone (Faber Creative Director), Peter Hartey (founder of Poetic Republic), John Mitchinson (co-founder of Unbound, the UK’s first crowd-funded publishing house).
It was an excellent line up, and everybody was extremely convincing on the importance of the editor. Lee Brackstone summed up the role of the editor as ‘adding value’. It was also interesting to hear him talk about how after a long career as an Editor, his latest job title has dropped the ‘Editorial’ aspect not because that ‘adding value’ aspect has gone from the job, but because he sees its practice as so fundamentally different now to how it was when he started in the industry; editors now need to be more creative than ever in finding ways to engage readers.
John spoke of the role of editors as tastemakers and curators of books, rather than gatekeepers. I think that’s how most people perceive the archetypal editor, but he went on to elucidate some of the problems for that editor in today’s industry, where retailers detail what thy want and publishers try to make a square book fit these round holes. He described the dispiriting experience of working with an author only to find that WHSmith say ‘books about China don’t sell’ or something else depressingly general. As he rightly pointed out, this isn’t a model that encourages innovation, and his new start up/upstart Unbound aims to redress that balance, allowing readers to pay for books that they want tone written. There is still an editor, so there’s an element of curatorship, but the retailer is taking a back seat.
I hadn’t always been convinced by the concept of Unbound – to me it seems that you still have the problem that the author who is best at selling their proposal via various online media is the one who will do well, rather than an interesting proposition for a well-written bit of fiction. Unbound has a number of well-known personalities doing projects with them including Monty Python’s Terry Jones and Robert Llewellyn (Kryten off Red Dwarf) and I wonder whether the Unbound model needs that level of celebrity to encourage interaction from readers. Would they be as generous to somebody they’d never even heard of? Still, it’s definitely an interesting experiment, and lord knows the editor needs more of those.
Michael Schimdt was in danger of sounding a bit like the voice of the Old Guard when he attested that he would prefer to be edited by Virginia Woolf, sell only 80 copies a year in the first 3 years, but his book would be Ulysees, than be ‘Top of the Pops’ (oh yes I quote) for a couple of months. But he’s not wrong that the kind of trend-led publishing that at its most extreme has led to black and grey erotica all over Waterstones is anathema to innovation. Furthermore his point that publishers used to be smaller and more specialist meant that you were able to have diversity in literature even while you retained the model of an editor is almost exactly what Lee suggested in his way. There is space for specialism. If you wrote scifi, you’d go to one place, literary fiction another, women’s fiction another still, and in that way you weren’t sending out 93 manuscripts and basically waiting for a trend to hit.
It was only really Peter who proposed an alternative, very bravely putting his head above the parapet to argue that as people are increasingly moving online to discover what to read next (in part driven there by the homogeneity of contemporary publishing) the the algorithm, rather than the editor, is going to have a bigger part to play in matching reader interests with available writing. But of course, this isn’t a wholly democratic process, with those controlling the algorithms being able to control what gets recommended to whom. A request from the floor to expand on this process further didn’t really get to the bottom of how this process was open to abuse, but the various small-scale furores around amazon reviews and goodreads ratings are a flavour of it.
So is the editor dead? Despite essentially asking 4 editors, the jury still seemed to be out. Everybody was united on their desire for this notion of ‘curated content’, but the truth is that has already rather gone out of the publishing window. As John said, if you’re going to work for one of the Big 5 publishing houses, your job as an editor is essentially to find and make best sellers for retailers. I think the panel were right to suggest that this does create a space for somebody else, whether that’s online communities or smaller independent publishing houses, to come in and offer that curatorship, but so far there haven’t been many out-and-out success stories of this actually happening. In fact, given that these were all smaller(ish) publishers speaking, it would have been interesting to hear from an Editor at one of the Big 5, to see whether they feel ‘dead’ in that more commercial atmosphere. At the end of the evening, I definitely got the feeling that nobody wanted the editor to die…but nobody reassured me that it wasn’t on the cards. And in fact, it seems like this editorial death might be what the industry needs to revitalize itself in smaller, and more diverse forms.
(I was going to work in a Lion King analogy with Mufasa as the editor that teaches our young Simba reader the skills he needs, but it takes his death to makes him realise the importance of Mufasa/the editor, then the self-serving 50 Shades phenomenon of Timon and Pumbaa come along and suggest that maybe books don’t need to be cared for and curated, but then he sees the error of his ways, but I ran out of time and energy, and that picture made me sad. Still, The Lion King as a publishing industry allegory. I think you’ll find it’s pretty powerful.)