Ebooks are no longer the novelty they were only 2-3 years ago, but the publishing industry is still experiencing massive disruption from the effects of the digital revolution. Recently considering three different aspects of today’s publishing landscape, I came to one conclusion: the role of the editor is paramount and likely to increase in importance.

The increasing complexity of ebook production

Book production has become exponentially more difficult in the digital age. Jean Kaplansky’s article on Digital Book World outlines the multiplicity of fixed layout ebook formats and the associated complexity in ebook production. While Kaplansky provides useful information, as I read the piece I wondered why anyone would go to such lengths to satisfy so many requirements only to recreate print layouts on-screen. It was gratifying to read in the article’s comments that Anne-Marie Concepcion was thinking along the same lines:

I think, though, that there are too many fixed layout EPUBs out there that shouldn’t have been. Books with dense passages of text, multiple columns of 10 or 12-pt. type such as is found in \scientific, technical, and medical textbooks,\ or even verbose cookbooks, are almost impossible to read for longer than a few minutes even on a relatively large screen like an iPad; and so are little more than a curiosity for the reader and a pretty showpiece for the publisher. Instead they should be redesigned for the medium (there are some great reflowable cookbooks and travel guides out there;) or sold and distributed as a PDF from the publisher’s own site, until a better solution is found. [emphasis added]

Matching content with format echoes views I have expressed in different contexts, for example on book apps:

If you want readers to engage with your content in a reasonably traditional linear narrative fashion, then perhaps an app’s features will be more distraction than enhancement. But if your content lends itself to interactivity, hyperlinking, embedded multimedia and so on, then the flexibility of an app may be better than the limitations of even the most enhanced ebook readers.

The effort in producing fixed-layout ebooks seems disproportional to the rewards, when redesigning the content to suit a reflowable format will yield so much more. At this point, I wondered whether it is laziness or lack of skills on the part of the book designers that makes them wedded to fixed layout. But then I thought, should book designers be re-organising content? Isn’t content selection, organisation and mark-up the role, indeed the forte, of the editor? This is of course a point I made some time ago on the question of ebook conversion or production:

… the production team should be working on the ebook formats simultaneously with print formats, and talking to the editorial or content development team about the impact of digital delivery on aspects like structure and style.

In other words, editors are best placed to decide on content organisation and presentation, and to advise designers accordingly. This only works, of course, if both editors and designers are aware of what’s possible, what works and what doesn’t, in the digital production environment.

Digital production skills 

Competent ebook designers currently need coding skills in the same way that web designers in the 1990s needed to be able to code in HTML. The absurdity of this situation is elegantly outlined in Baldur Bjarnason’s article “The end of ebook development”. Bjarnason outlines a vision for the future in which ebook developers code tools and functionality for ebook apps, but don’t do visual design coding, which is handled by in-built templates and themes. Think WordPress or Joomla for ebooks. I think Bjarnason is right, and it will be left to the content creators to select the appropriate theme or template and its application to specific content. Bjarnason doesn’t address who will be assembling the ebook content in these new tools, but it makes sense again for content organisation and selection to be handled by those experienced and skilled in this area: editors, or authors assisted by editors.

The rise of self publishing

Authors are already taking advantage of lower barriers to publishing and ebook production to self publish, and if Bjarnason is right, the means will only become easier. This third aspect of the digital revolution also highlights the increasingly important role of the editor.

Although some self-published books turn into runaway successes, these are still the exception. Too many suffer from poor writing, poor organisation, and so many typos that they get in the way of the story. These mistakes are editorial mistakes analogous to those on a website. You can accept some flaws on an amateur website – heading fonts that don’t quite work, a typo here and there – as long as the navigation is clear and the content accessible. A site that is riddled with spelling mistakes, is poorly structured at both site and page level, and is impossible to navigate, will soon see you leaving, never to return.

The case is even stronger for books. Good writers still need editors, and in my experience are more likely to appreciate the value an editor brings to their work. Bad writers need editors even more, whether they know it or not; the unfortunate thing about self publishing is that there is no built-in review process that alerts the author to the level of editorial work needed, from light copy editing to complete rewriting. Publishers rely on editors to assess a work – not only its quality but the amount of work needed to bring it up to publishing standard – before taking it on; with the rise of self publishing, good authors, or those who at least respect their potential readers, will increasingly seek out editorial services. We can only hope such services are honest as to the quality of the work!

Editorial skills in the digital age 

Today’s editor needs the same skills as yesterday’s editor:

  • a thorough knowledge and love of language
  • the ability to structure and organise content at both macro and micro levels, for both text and illustrations (whether graphic, tabular or other)
  • contextual and style knowledge in their special field(s)
  • attention to detail
  • desire to do the best job possible for both authors and readers
  • a working knowledge of production processes – once this was only print but now it encompasses digital formats.

I’m not convinced that editors need to learn to code, but it can be a useful skill. A good editor shouldn’t be daunted by code: it’s mostly words after all. Coding involves syntax, semantics, hierarchies, elegance of expression, macro and micro structural organisation, attention to detail to the point of pedantry and some understanding of the domain (context). Editors have more in common with coders than anyone likes to admit. In any case, learning to code for EPUB, which is quite simple, does not mean learning Java or C++ for software development. A working knowledge of XML code for EPUB is useful for editors so they can eliminate content that will throw up issues in ebook reading devices or apps, or to alert their ebook developer or designer to potentially awkward content that needs special treatment, or to troubleshoot issues that get through the production phase.

Whatever else happens in the digital revolution, the future is bright for skilled editors willing to adapt and learn.

© Copyright Linda Kythe Nix 2012. All rights reserved.