On the Value of Editors

Recent debates about the value of e-books has brought to light conversations about what books are really worth, and what it takes to make them. Readers who argue that e-books should be cheap are thinking of them merely as bits of data, which suggests that the value of hard covers or paperbacks lies in the cost of paper and ink. All of this is ridiculous, of course, as the value of a book is determined by the work involved in producing it—the work of the writer, but also the work of the editors, proofreaders, and cover designers who contribute to the final product.

Last week in Salon, Laura Miller wrote about this issue in “The incredible vanishing editor,” an article that takes a look at what it means to have a great editor supporting a writer. Her points are directed toward the readers who might forget such editors exist: “It’s in the very nature of editing that the people who do it are doing it best when we forget all about them,” she writes. The value of an editor is perhaps even more important to writers who are just starting out in their careers.

Writers who pursue traditional publishing will hopefully end up working with both a literary agent and one or more editors who will shape and support their work before publishing. But what about before they even get to that point? Nowadays, agents expect the manuscripts that cross their desks (or computer screens, as it were) to be nearly ready for publication, and while they may require revisions they aren’t going to take on a book that requires significant plot or character development. This leaves young writers to search out critical voices—writing groups, friends, or freelance editors—for themselves.

For writers planning to self-publish, finding a great editor is even more important, since the freelance editor hired by such a writer might be the only person vetting the manuscript before it is published. As Miller points out in her article, readers notice when such editors fail, or when they aren’t brought in in the first place.