Departments 1: Editorial

by Richard Grossinger on March 14, 2010

Chapter Thirteen
Departments 1: Editorial

Large portions of the next four chapters have been adapted from our Guidelines for Authors, where they fit better than in this narrative.  I did not write all of the material, but I am trying to integrate it into the press history, as part of the purpose of this “book” is to help people understand the publishing process and the overall industry.  Because publishing has changed so much in the last two years, the last five years, and the last ten years, a surprisingly large portion of this material has become merely historical or totally obsolete.  I have removed some of that or changed the verb tenses where possible, but I have left most of it in for the perspective that it gives and because the general principles have not changed.

A. Developmental and Line Editing

The editorial sphere encompasses the selection and textual preparation of manuscripts for printing and publishing and, as such, overlaps with design and production tasks in the transformation of text into books.  A well-written, well-presented book is essential, as it defines formal professional publishing by comparison to vanity or desktop publishing.  After all, it does not require a publishing business to make a viable book that can “pass”; any skilled individual or team of amateurs can do it.  However, a publishing company must pass high enough over the minimum bar to create consistent belief in the product in the market to be taken seriously as an imprint.

North Atlantic started out (initially as Io) by publishing enthusiastic, even influential, makeshift books, some of them done on typewriters, most of them containing typos, other errors, and violations of professional convention (ragged-right prose, different amounts of text on facing pages, and arbitrary changes of fonts and font sizes among many others).  We gradually progressed to a generic quality-control line of books; for instance, distributable a few decades later by Random House without a blink.  But we didn’t start there and we had to advance step by step, first to the more modest editorial and production standards set by PGW.

From the beginning of our book development until the arrival of Kathy Glass in 1989, I did almost all of the title selection and most of the hands-on editing, and Lindy did the rest.  During the eighties into the early nineties, when a higher-quality North Atlantic template was emerging, I still carried out massive but essentially amateur and inconsistent editing of books, titles as diverse in content and style as Animated Earth, Rio Tigre and Beyond, Aikido and the New Warrior, Homeopathy: Medicine for the Twenty-First Century, and Monuments of Mars. Lindy worked on some of the same books and also took on others herself like Heartsearch: Healing Lupus, Healing With Whole Foods, and Nuclear Strategy and the Code of the Warrior. Except for occasional proofreading from interns and designers, I can’t remember anyone but Lindy or me working hands-on with manuscripts.

We each fell somewhere between “okay” to “great,” at least at the macro level of turning rough ideas and textual scaffolding into solid books.  We could alter and complexify the basic shapes of manuscripts and write new material in authors’ voices, while rearranging older text around the inserts, as these were the working skills of undergraduate English majors who were also writers.  At the micro level, however, we missed a fair number of inconsistencies and contradictions, as well as scores of grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors, plus we added our own inconsistencies and errors.

Kathy Glass started her editorial career with us as the proofreader of In Search of the Warrior Spirit. Not only did we have no idea of her high skill level or sense of detail orientation then, but we knew so little about the scope and acuity of a competent editor’s repertoire in perfecting a book that I initially thought the legions of mistakes and flaws that she found in Warror Spirit—two or three per page—were a fluke and endemic only to this one book.  Her second and third “proof-reads” of other titles revealed that virtually every project needs this level of attention.  Every manuscript is filled with both blatant and near-invisible errors.

Kathy changed our approach to publishing as much as Paula Morrison did years earlier with her first book designs.  She provided substantial and necessary textual assistance such that we began to hire her for virtually every book thereafter, originally in the office and then as a freelancer.  Her work exposed that Lindy and I were only developmental editors, self-anointed-ones at that, who were not trained in line editing and did not standardize usage and spelling and/or correct punctuation successfully and globally.  We were kidding ourselves that we were doing publishing-level work, though it passed at North Atlantic’s level then.  Our goal was content more than form.

Kathy had raised our consciousness on editing and made herself indispensable.  But for another four or five years, we continued not to perceive the need for “managing editors.”  We collaborated instead with Paula and Kathy to get books to the printer on a piecemeal or spot-check basis.  Without a regularized process for reviewing our own work and that of others, we were still flying by the seat of pants.  For instance, we didn’t check authors’ responses to edits or double-check each others’ work.  Strange and startling things happened as a result: some authors added and subtracted major items from their books without our finding out about it until well after publication—and then only if we ran across the intervention by chance.  One author reversed most of his edits in proofs, and the typesetter simply followed his instructions.  The result was an irreclaimable disaster of a book lacking all of the improvements that I had put in to bring it to minimal publishing standards—unsuspectingly published anyway!  I was astonished not long after publication while reading a chapter in what was intended to be a kind of narcissistic enjoyment of my improvements, and suddenly I couldn’t find them and was driving instead on a road with potholes.  When confronted, the author said he decided that, even though our version was clearly better, livelier and cleaner grammatically, it didn’t sound like him and he couldn’t relate to it, so he changed things back.  Fair enough, but you could have told us!  Then we would have at least fixed the punctuation and typos.

Because of our early experience with literally everyone and her sister wanting to edit under Dave, we were reluctant for a long time to pay in-house people to work at their desks on the content of books—or even to check others’ editing and layout—preferring to do it (or not) ourselves, using Kathy and occasional others as freelancers.  We needed to make a committed internal shift away from the events of 1992-1993 to be able to tell ourselves that such activity could take place without an employee being fake busy-work or featherbedding.  Until then we operated on the premise that “editor” was a specialized and optional job and, unless we found another Kathy in terms of skills and willingness to work at our pay scale, we would use her alone and only on designated projects.  Thus, many books still went through our system both unedited and unmanaged.  It took us midway into the nineties to hire personnel and initiate check-and-balance processes to prepare books in a conventional accountable manner.  It was a big step.

The change occurred not because of mistake-filled books or self-critique but from an incidental occurrence.  In 1995 another local press encouraged us to unburden them of an employee who had burned her bridges there.  At the same time, they wanted us, in a sort of package deal, to take on a recalcitrant author with whom they had fallen out but had a contract.  We did the book, to our subsequent dismay, but that is another story[1].  The publisher’s rap about their employee was: “She’s a brilliant, hard-working editor, but she can’t get along with anybody here and nobody can get along with her.  We’re too small to have someone that angry all the time in our office.  Maybe you can offer her a job that will make her happy and maybe also you have enough staff to absorb her personality.”

We did for a while, until the legendary “It’s My Party, and I’ll Cry If I Want To” Incident” after which she disappeared from our lives (see previous chapter).   Even though we learned to live with her distinctive blend of grumpiness and condescension, apparently she was too pissed off at us or maybe the world in general to tolerate an intimate professional relationship long-term.

During her stay of almost two years, she did extensive in-house, hands-on editing, project management, and book-checking, including the successful creation of whole books from mere transcripts and notes.  But rather than recognize her work as a new necessity, we chose to treat her contributions as a luxury.  After all, we had hired her only because someone else had asked us for a favor.  When she left, it was easy come/easy go.  We didn’t think to replace her in the sense that we didn’t go right out and corral another in-house editor.  Kathy continued to carry the lion’s share of the load, which meant that many titles still went unedited.  When Kathy couldn’t handle a book, getting it from manuscript to the printer fell to some combination of Lindy, Paula, and me, so a lot of books went to press pretty much on a lick and a promise.

We heard from more than one outraged reader about the errors in Doug Lytle’s memoir of the Czech revolution, Pink Tanks and Velvet Revolutions, and that was hardly our only debacle, just the main one that comes to mind because of the reams of corrections submitted by customers.

Our attitude on this matter changed only gradually, partly because of the inefficiency of our improvised processes, partly because of glaring errors, and partly because—as the list increased—even with around half the books left unedited, the load became too great for our team.  Initially we tried other freelancers.  That meant greater oversight in general, but none of the freelancers (other than Kathy) lasted.  Lindy, Paula, or I invariably found flaws in their work.  As time passed, we saw that they usually either underedited or overedited.  It was many years before we created an inventory of successful editors beyond Kathy Glass.

B. Good and Bad Editing

The biggest misjudgment that untrained freelancers make in their hasty career choice (“Earn big dollars without leaving your house!”) is that, because they are literate and educated, they know how to edit, water off a duck’s back.  Not so.  Kathy ran the full gauntlet of a tough curriculum of professional editing courses in college and graduate school at the University of Missouri in order to learn how to do what she does, plus she has an unusually astute detail orientation and sense of order and consistence.  She is almost a magician in being able instantly to spot something on page 189 that contradicts something said on page 11.  This is a sixth sense that is hard to cultivate.  Add academic training, and you have someone far ahead of even the most educated amateur.

Competent professional editors must undergo training in line-editing and copy-editing.  Your average college graduate who reads avidly, or even your average college professor who grades and marks up student papers, is not going to be able to edit books at the level of open observation and critical intelligence necessary for publication.  We found this out many times the hard way with new editors that looked or sounded great before we tried them.

Whenever a new freelance editor handed in a manuscript on which either Lindy or Paula or some other designer found significant remaining errors, there would go that freelancer.  On occasions when we got charged in the hundreds of dollars on up over a thousand dollars for only a smattering of red marks here and there—there would go that freelancer.

There are, of course, such things as near-perfect manuscripts, and it is not the fault of an editor if he or she can’t find errors that aren’t there.  That person legitimately still has to be paid for the time and effort involved in carefully reading and considering an entire manuscript.  Yet there is a difference between a clean book by a skilled author and an unprobed mess, rubber-stamped by a lazy or cursory editor.

The truth is: almost no books need just a simple trim and shave.  Or, if they do, a good editor will demonstrate that a book is relatively clean, either verbally or in a convincing cover letter praising the author.  A bad editor will simply send the raw manuscript back with meager markings and a bill.

Most freelancers, even highly touted ones, while doing either too little or too much, charge a sum incommensurate with their real impact on the book.  Kathy was as unusual as Paula in being appropriate in judgment, reasonably priced, and still thorough.  It was incredibly fortunate that both of them simply fell into our laps in our early years.

All categories of books should be edited to the level at which they are conceived and written.  Even very skillful overediting is as much a failure as incompetent underediting.  Publishers aim for a high level of written English and accessible style, but not at the expense of the personality inherent in a manuscript.  An editor must assess a book carefully and decide the amount of editing necessary, in regard to budget and, at the same time, in respect to appropriateness.  Editors working for North Atlantic are instructed not to meddle with the spirit of books and to do only what is needed to bring the manuscript to its own standards in a credible, publishable form.  We try not to employ insensitive hacks who impose rigid rules on books and change or butcher their style.  We mean to maintain and, ideally, enhance the inherent integrity of manuscripts put in our care, not to transform them into performing dogs at the wrong show.

This tricky balancing act may be more or less attainable on a book-by-book basis, but it can at least be the publisher’s intention.

We made a landmark mistake in the early nineties by letting an earnest editor, eager to prove her mettle, go at Architects of the Underworld without an explicit enough briefing.  Bruce Rux’s potpourri of science fiction, conspiracy theory, forbidden archaeology, and urban legends masquerading as science and political muckraking needed either everything or nothing; e.g., it needed simple proof-reading because everything else was unaffordable.  Very detailed instructions and guidelines should have been given beyond my likely vague, trusting instruction of “Don’t overedit because it’s not at a level of fact checking or literary style to merit it”—which is what I meant to convey.

By the time I encountered the consequences of my inattention, this woman had run up $3500 in hourly expenses, as she was in the library on the meter daily, trying to research every cryptozoological reference and wild claim that Rux made as well as cobble style somehow into his words.  It was like trying to reconcile Bigfoot, E.T., and the Loch Ness Monster with the Kennedy assassination, the New Yorker style sheet, and the proceedings of the Society for the Advancement of Science.

Big rule: never hire anyone—a printer, editor, designer, translator, or publicist—without a mutually-agreed-upon budget and rules of engagement: a shared understanding of the basis and scope of the task.  Any job can be almost as big as the universe itself if allowed all its logical extensions and ramifications.  Everything in the cosmos is connected, by gravity as well as meaning, to everything else.

It is more important to keep a project cohesive than to belabor fixing up or adorning one isolated aspect of it.  Yeah, you can sometimes beat the odds and turn the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse.  Since purely from a conceptual standpoint any book can receive almost unlimited editing, as noted, knowing where to stop for aesthetic as well as financial reasons is a critical talent in an editor.  There is no practical or artistic reason to edit the life out of something or create an artificially sanitized product.  Roughness is beautiful (or, at very least, acceptable): wabi sabi in the Japanese aesthetic.  Many books written in an informal, “hey, you out there” voice should stay that way.  If that quality is laundered out of them, they don’t automatically improve.  They suddenly have no voice at all and read as though generated by a robot—mere inert jargon.

Editing is not a stage on which an editor performs; it is a pragmatic exercise and an art.

A good editor judges where the law of diminishing returns hits a failsafe point and he or she does not indulge in editing beyond that.  If the style of a book is at the level of a second-hand Chrysler, edit a Chrysler.  These kinds of vehicles are fine; they run and get you there.  If you start sticking in Mercedes parts, it will look like a cyborg and sound terrible.  It is overkill to try to turn a text on fascial anatomy or karate moves into Hemingway or even Michener.

Another big question for an editor is: how likely is the audience to care?  The attention range of the book’s readership must be taken into account.  It is much more important to craft and fine-fune a literary memoir or cultural polemic than an osteopathic manual or homeopathic materia medica. Only the rare martial-arts practitioner wants to pay extra for a book to have it made more literary.  As long as the damn thing is readable and accessible, he is good to go.

I have occasionally debated this point with Kathy Glass, as she is an unrepentant perfectionist, and we have accepted books that were too messy for her to fix at anything like a reasonable cost, e.g. a sum that could be recovered by moderate sales.  She often became frustrated or outraged (or both) and even worked off the clock, despite our reassurances that her first pass was fine, to bring something up to her own personal standards.  That is what makes her a great employee and an unusual editor.  That plus the fact that, per every hundred or so books Kathy edits, there is maybe one whining author, maybe not.   Most of the rest send her “thank you” notes and sing her praises back to her or us—for finding obscure errors and textual inconsistencies that they missed, for polishing their style and logic.  She has gotten tips, perfume, and flowers.

Then there will always be a “David Jubb” who wants to change the basic rules of grammar and punctuation (remember, no negatives or passives—see Chapter Ten), and then Kathy (or some other beleaguered freelancer) will be driven half-crazy.  Jubb may have been the most extreme and exasperating of all authors, but he was at least cheerful in his intransigence.  Subtler and meaner versions of narcissists cling to pomposities, malapropisms, caprices, and variances like some proud dictator.  We have had plenty of quirky, stubborn, imperial authors with limitless such bees in their bonnets.

I asked Kathy recently who else beside Jubb had been really hard over the years, and she remembered three or four swains whose identities I won’t reveal.  I will mention only Leonard Orr (Breaking the Death Habit) because, if played in some imagined movie by Harry Dean Stanton, he would smile knowingly and invoke divine powers.  Of him Kathy said simply, “It’s hard to edit an incarnation of God who is in the process of defying physical mortality.”

That is a good metaphor for just about all our authors who think they are above any editing at all and that their stylistic quirks should be immortalized.

When author yelps over a perfectly fine and necessary editing job, it is often because his or her sense of personal vanity or pride has been wounded.  He digs in his heels and, at the proof stage, restores pretty much everything the way that he wrote it (as narrated above).  We developed, more or less, a standard letter for that:

“Although mistakes and misjudgments occur, editing is expensive and time-consuming, and we do not have books carefully edited for authors then to ‘unedit.’  While we expect you to make sure the book is your own and that nothing has been done to damage its integrity or change the meaning of your words or consistency of your style, we do not want you to assume that if the text has changed from what you handed in, it is automatically worse.”

We win some and lose some in this arena.

There is another side to this matter:  Sometimes a manuscript is truly misunderstood and/or butchered in style or meaning, or both by an editor.  The hiree may be over-exuberant or lacks perspective or is unprofessionally insulting in his or her margin notes and comments.

If an editor that we hire misses an author’s intent and meaning, the author is absolutely within his rights to challenge the changes—all the changes.  In fact, we hope that authors will alert us that way to poor editors, as pretty much the only way that we warrant good freelancers is by trying them out on real books.

Another view of the editorial phase of publishing is that all editing is relative.  There is no need to get stuck in a compulsive goal of perfection, because something will always be wrong.  No matter how much checking and rechecking are done, there will forever be mistakes and typos. They are probably inserted by typo gremlins after the doors are locked and the lights turned off.  These should not ruin the author’s or readers’ enjoyment of the “final” book.  It is virtually impossible to create a perfect, mistake-free icon.   In fact, the goal itself is bogus; almost no one cares—plus usually anything can be fixed in a reprint.  And if there is no reprint, it means the book has stopped selling; sadly the error is locked in for posterity.

A book is just a convention anyway, a temporary freezing of a creative process as a transient, perishable, recyclable document.  I have remarked to authors—and I think I am correct on this—that, as time passes, they themselves will evolve and change such that other, presently-opaque flaws will come to light in their own book, misjudgments that are far more substantial and damning than a mere typo or two or five, and these will disturb them far more over time.  Assorted technical errors—a word with its letters transposed, a missing comma, a double “the,” a non-agreeing verb, a repeating line; in general, those things that are also hardest to catch—will seem trivial compared to the bigger philosophical and meaning shifts that someone will be tempted to impose six months later, a year later, five years later, etc.  Lives change, and so do perspectives on a book.  It may be a fixed document, but none of the trajectories around it are similarly stagnant.

Technology may freeze a thought process at a particular point, but the living process will go on in the author’s own mind and body, and he or she will always imagine improvements and better versions of old published thoughts.  As time alters the way that a book is read, typos become adventitious glitches compared to suddenly-revealed conceptual warps or dated conceits at the core of a book’s meaning.  The passage of time reveals a great deal of subtext, some of it brilliant but much of it silly, wrong-headed, and/or embarrassing.  The old masters survive, back to Shakespeare and before, partly because their subtext is at least as interesting as their text.  History cannot anachronize them.

Even while an author is talking about a book soon after publication or lecturing on it while doing proximal publicity, he may be startled (and bitterly disappointed) to find that he is saying his stuff better than he did in the book.  No surprise—thinking evolves.  This is not a problem, but an opportunity.  At some point he may choose to write another book, perhaps a sequel.  He may be able to add a chapter in a revised edition, in which case the whole project will be redefined and resold to the marketplace as a new book.  (This is one of the generally-unknown tricks of the book business, one of the trade secrets of publishing:  You can make a book new in the market and have it get the same treatment as a truly novel book simply by revising it, changing the ISBN, and reannouncing it.  The changes don’t even have to be more than fifteen percent plus or minus or both.  The book will get a whole new advance sale and virgin placement again.)

Yes, writers can totally freak out of because of an error as if it were a bit of smeared paint on a canvass of an otherwise pristine landscape.  But writing is an organic process, and the universe itself is imperfect and unfinished.

We encourage authors to find any way they can to set their minds at rest.  Errors do not mar or ruin a project.  It is an illusion about the nature of life and the permanence of reality to get trapped in any transient formality of printed and bound words.  Few authors are not shocked to re-read a book ten or twenty years later and find that it has not evolved with their own thought process, as absurd as the notion is.

Someday all books may be digital and correctable or revisable in online templates, so subsequent versions of a title may continue to alter, even daily—even in the form e-books in the hands of customers who are in the process of reading them.  Mid-sentence, a reader may be hijacked by an author’s sudden change in intent, in a phrase.  And, guess what: some readers may find it an improvement, while others may find it makes the passage worse, misguided tampering with what was already perfect (wabi sabi) or at least good enough (and better than what replaced it).  The hypothetical range of possibilities contains a reductio ad absurdum that speaks to the whole underlying paradox of editing and perfection.

C. Bearing the Responsibility and Cost of Editing

The nature and cost of editing can be a highly contested area with authors.  Controversy centers around two basic themes: how much to edit and/or change a book, and who will pay for this whole affair.  The former is generally the simpler topic insofar as we don’t get involved with a book in the first place if we don’t like it, and we also usually tell an author in advance, before a contract is signed, what editing we think needs to be done.  Yet we occasionally miss the boat on any or all of this and run into later disputes and unplanned loggerheads.

Books that we publish fall into three rough categories vis a vis their need for editing.  The first of these is the kind of book that defined North Atlantic Books in its early years: a literary work created by a committed writer with a sense of not only grammar but style and aesthetics.  Even where such an author makes seeming mistakes of spelling, grammar, or punctuation, these should not be routinely corrected.  In fact, it can be hard to distinguish intentional and creative violations of the norm from real errors.

Literary books essentially get no editing—proofreading maybe, occasional queries when something looks wrong.

A genre-defining example of an “uneditable” book was one that we didn’t finally publish.  Your Name Here by avant-garde novelist Helen DeWitt (cowritten with the mysterious Ilya Gridneff) was executed in multiple languages including German, Finnish, and Arabic, not all of which the author could even read, and it was also constructed mostly of emails with typos.  How can you proofread Arabic if the author herself can’t read it?  How can you tell an aesthetic typo from a conventional “oops!” typo?  Sadly for our foray to this particular fringe of the avant-garde—but happily for our editorial sanity—Ms. DeWitt decided that a more literary press was a better match.

Years earlier we struggled with Susan Howe, author of My Emily Dickinson, around similar but less extreme issues and took the opposite approach.  We corrected misspellings and punctuation errors with the author’s blessing, though years later, after she got more famous, she became nostalgic for her original flawed text.  This was her first book and, as decades passed, she became far more iconized, hence confident, as a thinker and unadulterated literary stylist.  Then she figured that we had edited the personality out of her book, and maybe we did.

A side tale: New Directions published pretty much all Susan’s subsequent books and in time came to want this one too, so they wrote us periodically and imperiously over the years, petitioning, as if by some sort of divine sanction, the rights to the Emily Dickinson book.  We always refused to sell it, at least in part because New Directions was offering a token payment, a pittance.

Finally they hired a lawyer and tried to break our contract with her by claiming the book was not in print—exactly the sort of thing they would have hated to have done to them by a larger press.  We held fast, and they eventually backed off and agreed to a decent purchase fee—so we sold it, and now all Susan’s books are together under one imprint.  I don’t know if New Directions restored the text or, for that matter, if Susan still had the original with its quirky grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  But she is happy, and we are not unhappy.  We put the money into another project and parted with friendly words.  We are not that much of a literary publisher these days anyway, and New Directions is the right repository for all of Susan’s Howe’s work.

(Then there is the irrelevant underground rumor that Susan is Samuel Beckett’s illegitimate daughter: her mother was one of Beckett’s lady friends at the time, and Susan does bear a physical resemblance to the novelist, a look she fashionably cultivates these days.)

The second category is the basic expository book.  When North Atlantic departed from the pure literary sphere to publish general trade titles and no longer did only writerly books, spelling and grammar fell into much disarray, becoming a critical issue—and so did cost.

Through the entirety of eighties and nineties into the early aughts I tended to decide—sad to admit—who would pay for his or her edits based primarily on what the traffic would bear.  If an author could afford the cost or expressed willingness to pay (along with passion for an improved book), we charged him or her the full or partial amount, either upfront or, more often (and by author’s preference), billed back against royalties.  If some author clearly could not afford editorial fees and we still wanted to publish his or her book or thought it had commercial potential that overrode the bump in cost from editing, we posted either all or part of the sum against royalties or, if even that was protested vehemently enough, we simply absorbed it.  As I said…whatever the traffic would bear.

If a practitioner was renowned and/or impoverished enough, we created a book for him or her on our dime in expectation that we would recover the money and more from the project.  This is the way that much publishing worked, back in the day, even with the Thomas Wolfe, P.D. Salinger,and their genre of writers.

We also have created whole books for quite literate authors.  For instance, our in-house editor manufactured two whole tomes from Andrew Harvey’s lectures: the first on Rumi, the second on the Divine Mother.

Although not a real or lasting resolution to the dilemma of the high cost of preparing a book for publication relative to what can be recouped from its sales, charging editing back against royalties was and still is an ameliorative and diplomatic stopgap and compromise.  We front all the money, and the author has to pay nothing out of pocket but, once the book is in the market, its earned royalties reimburse us before the author gets a penny and, if the book does really well, we can recover the whole editing cost, even if that is thousands of dollars.  At very least we get something back, and yet the author does not have to ever reach into his or her pocket or bank account.  For many books, charging back editing to royalties has been the sole margin of our breaking even.

The idea of posting editing charges against royalties originates from another common trade practice, going back half a century or more, of publishers doing exactly this sort of thing with indices.  Charging back the cost of an index to the author’s account is a traditional feature of mainstream publishing.  While an author is rarely asked to front the cost of an index, he or she is generally dunned for it insofar as an alphabetical coding of proper names and general concepts is considered an essential and inseparable part of the basic manuscript itself, at least for those manuscripts that require an index.  That is, as a unique integrant in the book’s content rather than a mere artifact of production, an index is an author obligation and expense.  A back-end charge tends to defuse the issue, and that’s probably why it was instituted at Viking, Doubleday, Random House, et al.., decades ago.  We have, in effect, transferred this “indexing” methodology, less conventionally, to editing—from the standpoint that, just as an index is part of the manuscript and the author’s responsibility, so is a publishable text.  More on the logic and ethics of that decision later.

A back-end editing charge does not always remove the controversy.  A number of authors who were happy to the point of ecstatic to get rid of the editing fee on the front end (it seemed like a great luxury to have their words pampered in style for no money down) yelped good and loud when their first royalty statement came.  There are always those for whom money in the abstract or as a mere future numerical calculation is not real, but when they see it in black and white, draining directly out of a corresponding, adjacent notation of cash they would have received otherwise, their recognition factor and outrage to through the roof.

In more than a few cases an author considered that we had played a trick on him or her by charging back edits, not our intention—but people hear what they want at the time, before the book is published and the world looks different.  Sometimes this misunderstanding arises because an author assumes on the front end that his or her book won’t sell enough for the editing ever to come back to bite them in the derriere— they expect to receive virtually no money anyway.  Then their book sells surprisingly well, which should make them happy, but when editing charges cancel out the initial earnings, they suffer “buyer’s remorse.”  Apparently unaware (or forgetful) that the charges were being logged in the first place, they want their earned money, former expectations and the unpaid portion of editing debit notwithstanding.  (This can also be true of advances.  Authors forget that they were already paid and want their royalties anyway without deduction.  I will discuss this particular fallacy in Chapter Fifteen.)

Even in the best of systems, differences of viewpoint and opinion will arise.  We try never to charge authors for editing that does not, from our standpoint, absolutely need to be done and should have been done in advance by a minimally skilled writer.  Sometimes editing a book is a prerequisite to our being able to publish it at all, and we hope to have the author’s full cooperation in the rehabilitation process, not only during the time of editing but subsequently when he or she receives his royalty report and discovers charges on it.  Hopefully author and publisher are in the fire together, compromising and collaborating every stage along the way.

The third category is those books that are just a potpourri of fragments and notions—so we have to create the book wholecloth.  These kinds of books almost always require the author to take economic responsibility for the editing.

Such titles are more common in our company than most because we publish a goodly number of people not because they know how to write well or a book is in their blood but because they are excellent practitioners with a reputation and with followers who will buy anything they write, an opportunity too good for either them or us to pass up.  Many of these “authors” are marginally literate at best—bodyworkers, martial artists, psychics.   The editorial mission is not conceptually so much one of copy editing as having someone ghost-write most of the book.  That is why it is the author’s charge—again because the creation of a publishable manuscript is at the author’s end of the publishing contract.

For t’ai-chi practitioner Ron Sieh, somatic innovator John Upledger, and rebirther Bob Frissell (among many, many others), we turned mixtures of transcripts and journal writing into books.  In a few cases that I won’t name (but some of which might surprise you because the author has a literary and/or academic reputation), we were presented a heap of illiterate sentence fragments and disconnected ideas and expected to weave a book out of them.  So we did, and I must say, in some of those instances they got style points and even awards afterward.

Computers by the way have tended to make fractured and inept documents much worse than they used to be.  By using the cut-and-paste function, careless or amateur authors accidentally tend to place the identical sentences and paragraphs throughout their books in multiple forms and then begin to rewrite each version independently without cognizance of the repetition.  I found up to seven such “pastings” of the same basic paragraph in one book of less than 100 pages that I edited in 2006.

In the early nineties we crafted an attempt at self-explanation, publishing rationale, and diplomatic dialogue in our Guidelines for Authors. My discussion of the cost of editing back then is a pained mixture of lucidity, sincerity, and insightful historical analysis entangled with rationalization, sophistry, and arm-twisting.  I tried to comprehend, by thinking it through aloud, how I had worked myself into such an untenable pretzel of inconsistent positions.  Here it is as it was originally put, with related topics mixed in:

Responsibility for the work of editors is a matter in transition in the publishing world.  We would love to reinvent the publishing business of the 1950s with its intellect, charm, and patronage of authors, but we do not operate in that milieu, nor do we have the means.  We have no corporate superstructure to absorb losses and are constrained in how much money we can invest in producing and selling your book.  We must be efficient; we cannot spend thousands of extra dollars on keyboarding, developmental editing, special paper, extravagant design, or risky marketing.  We realize how personal a book is for its creator, so we publish with integrity and care.  Yet we never just throw money at problems.  Our resources go into the hard cores of books, not trimmings and by-products.

Our contract with you calls for your book to be submitted in ‘publishable form.’  This means that it should require only light copy-editing.  Light copy-editing means minimal rewriting and comprises mainly attention to punctuation, consistency of style, headings, spelling, and word spacing.

We also expect books to be on readable disks, ready to go into production with a minimum of computer conversion.

Sometimes a manuscript needs more careful developmental editing and line editing than we are willing to pay for.  The manuscript may be overly long and repetitive, levels of sub-heads may be confused, and/or there may be fundamental organizational difficulties or problems at the sentence level which need rewriting and line-editing.  You may even need new sections composed by a professional.

If a book is filled with misspellings and inconsistent punctuation and an editor must clean all of that up, then we expect the author to pay for the entire expense.  If a book needs to be rewritten on a sentence level and reorganized by one of our editors, we expect the author likewise to pay the editor or reimburse us.

In all of these cases we ask you to pay for an editor whom (ideally) we recommend.

Typically, our own freelancers’ editing charges on moderate-sized books don’t exceed $800 (and are usually less).  Books that are not close to publishable as submitted and that require complete rewriting have rarely exceeded $2500.

It is not that your own editor might not do an excellent job, but we have received books in the past that have been fixed by so-called ‘professionals,’ at considerably higher rates than our editors charge, and they were as far from publishable as an unedited manuscript would have been and sometimes farther because of an unsophisticated or biased editor’s inappropriate choices.  Not all those who hang out an editing shingle are subtle or discriminating or sensitive to tone.  There is no licensing board for such a thing, and many publishers are less picky than we are about matters of organization and style.

In the ‘old days,’ mainstream publishers employed in-house editors and thus paid for any and all editing as a matter of course.  It was a different economic environment.

Most copy editors and developmental editors are now freelancers not on anyone’s payroll and are compensated on a per-job basis.

Back then, when there were fewer publishers, fewer authors, and fewer books, each of them captured and held a higher percentage of the market.  As desk-top publishing methods have evolved and publishing has become more do-it-yourself, publishers have proliferated, as have authors.  This creates a dilemma: there is less revenue generated by the average project to pay for its modicum of editorial perfection; yet somehow the book must be perfected.

There is often a further complication: books have become, for better or worse, as disposable as magazines once were, yet while retaining higher literacy standards (in order for them to be true books).   They are no longer conceived solely as works of literature, science, history, art, or general belles lettres. They have become data-bases, informational libraries, manuals, resumés, and calling cards for practitioners in nonscientific, nonliterary fields.  Many (especially first-time) authors are not foremost skilled writers of books; they are skilled in their own professional disciplines, and the writing and organization require big learning curves.  Higher percentages of contemporary submissions are in need of substantial editing help than were in such need twenty years ago.

The paradox is that, while publishers cannot craft each project because most books will not sell enough copies to pay for that level of workmanship, yet if books are not literary enough to be credible as books, they will suffer in the market too, and the publisher’s reputation will also suffer.  We have made both mistakes—cut corners to publish books before they were fully hatched and put much more money into perfecting books than their ensuing sales could support.  We have arrived at our present position vis-a-vis the cost of editing through trial and error.  It is part of the economic reality of publishing in the modern world and your own relationship to the goal of the relative perfection of your book and its appearance in the market.  Somewhere between your needs and ours, the book has to be made credible as a published artifact, and somehow the costs of that have to be distributed in a way that is equitable and represents each of our differential stakes in the product.

Even large commercial publishing houses no longer have huge blocks of uncommitted editorial time from in-house employees, nor will they expend expensive editorial time on a book beyond what can be recouped from sales.  They are business-savvy in order to survive in a difficult market.  If a book needs substantial developmental editing, they will either reject it out of hand or recommend that the author hire a professional editor.  Lists of such freelance editors are widely available, and, while ours are (as noted above) reasonably priced, many New York book doctors charge upwards of hundreds of dollars an hour or thousands of dollars a job.

With break-even margins thin (and getting thinner), publishers must make a distinction between a book that can be published after $300 of light line editing and a book that takes $2500 in editorial work and/or extensive rehabilitation of formatting and italics to be put into production.  It is not just an incidental and idiosyncratic aside for the decent publisher gracefully to absorb without burdening the author with the issue or its ambiguities; it is the central economic factor in book publication.

The difference between a book which is ready to publish and one which is not can represent more than the entire margin between profit and loss, or, conversely, $2.00-$4.00 more on the cover price to pay for clean-up and preparations.  A higher cover price is little more than a cosmetic resolution, for the customer knows what a book should cost and does not want to overpay.  Too high a price for a book package will depress sales.

We are not always willing to make up the difference ourselves or take a chance on editing a book at our expense and then overpricing it because it was not originally submitted in a publishable form (and thus risk the full increased financial stake of the editing expenses as well).

This does not mean that books are not edited today by mainstream publishers at their expense.  Those, however, tend to be the ones characterized in-house as highly marketable and able to return revenues far exceeding the cost of the editing.  We often pay for such titles to be edited too.

Although North Atlantic Books books has never based its decisions solely on pure bottom-line economics, we have remained in business because we have been prudent economically.  Although it would make economic sense to put editorial money only into our more commercially promising projects, our position has been not to show favoritism to books based on just their commercial potential.  We like to get all our books edited, and we ask authors to pay for any editing in excess of standardization of text (i.e., what traditionally falls under the phrase ‘light copy editing’).  Generally we also ask that the author cover the cost of editing at the time of the work (though variations of this are negotiable).  If they can’t afford it, then we will charge the sum back to royalties.

In recent years I have come up with another variation on this theme, and it has been popular because it offers a sort of casino:  We tell an author that we will pay either the first $500 (or some other agreed-upon sum) or, as an alternative, anything above $500—but not both—he or she has to decide.  An author who knows he can get his book clean will opt for the former, assuming he will have to pay nothing, and an author who thinks he has a mess of his hands will generally tip that off by going for the latter, thereby limiting his losses to $500.

D. The Editorial Staff

The way that North Atlantic has been organized for years, a staff-person, apart from freelance editors and designers or Paula, has the job of organizing projects through editorial and design/production phases and getting each book via our production manager to a printer.  This person is the author’s effective account executive, liaison, and advocate at North Atlantic, but also North Atlantic’s eye-in-sky and monitor.  The project overseer has to strike a delicate balance, representing the author and his or her needs and desires, issues and agendas, inside the press with other departments, while still defending our rules and protocols with the author and arguing and defending our position when there is a dispute.  The same person is the expedient choice to prepare megabytes of exhaustive and comparative title information (TIs) for the distributor and to write catalogue copy for our use.  Random House has far more extensive needs in this area than PGW ever did, and even PGW augmented its requirements from the mid-nineties up through the aughts.

Initially, as noted, the editorial overseers were Lindy, Paula, and me; then Kathy.  But as the staff on Fourth Street grew, we began to assign manuscript oversight to different so-called “project editors.”  The first such PE was the woman who departed singing “It’s My Party.”  After she bombed out, Lindy and I took the work, and Kathy sometimes put in long weeks in the office during the approaching deadline runs when PGW fact sheets were due for an entire upcoming season.

Finally we created a “project editor” position for on-staff editorial managers.  This went from a single half-time position—filled by Emily Weinert (who did publicity with the other half of her time)—to two people between 1998 and 2000, then to three for a few years before expanding to four in 2006 and then, in two bursts following the move to Random House in 2007, to the present six, down from a high of seven.

We continued to expand staff-wise editorially, most urgently because our list has expanded, as we try to represent all our niches and themes and satisfy partners, but also because we transitioned to a bigger and more complex distribution and marketing system.  Random House transfers considerably more of the nuts-and-bolts work of data management back on the presses than PGW ever did; that’s one way they make external distribution economically viable for themselves at their scale and in their corporate model.  They sell more books and take a smaller cut of the revenues than most other distributors but, in exchange, we have to design and print our own seasonal color catalogues and enact our own title loads and management of stock on their portal, etc.  PGW did pretty much all the cataloguing and database management, though for a hefty built-in fee.

In order not to slide backwards, we need to keep publishing competitively in those areas that we have established and staked out over the years, and we have had to accommodate a wide range of unpredictably prolific copublishers and distributed presses that produce unexpected caches of books and then also vanish for long periods.  At the same time we are continuing to expand into literary and political domains while trying out new domains like green travel and ecological design.  I’m afraid the general capitalist rule prevails: if it were not an expanding universe, then it would be a contracting universe.

Once we were free of the limitations imposed by the PGW bankruptcy (see Chapter Twenty) and settled at Random House, we doubled the editorial staff within eighteen months, a dramatic increase that nonetheless was fueled in part by increased cashflow.  It was also inspired by having some remarkable job applicants whom we didn’t want to lose.

Although our in-house employees are technically “project editors,” not copy-editors or line-editors, and not developmental editors, their individual and collective skill level at our press has gone way up over the years, and most of the present crew can conceptualize projects structurally and do credible line-editing, and some of them do actually edit developmentally.[1] Two of the editors also participate in a new acquisitions board.

In 2010 and 2011 North Atlantic’s growth spurt stopped and began reversing itself, and editors were gradually being re-tasked.  Part of this was the economic downturn in general, affecting the book industry disproportionately.  Some genres of literature and political nonfiction has stopped selling in amounts above a hundred to three hundred copies per title.  This is one area where we pulled back.  As free information became more widely available on the Internet, whole topics dropped away as viable commercial books.  You could no longer conceive the same sort of artbook or informational guide if the images or facts were to be found painlessly on one or another website.  You didn’t need to own a hard copy.  In cutting away these topics, we reduced our list size by about thirty percent.

At the same time, the long-expected, late-coming, and then sudden explosion of e-books, especially for reading on Amazon’s Kindle, meant a whole new workflow in-house, for we now had to produce digital alongside print versions of most new books, but we had to begin to attend to the backlist and gradually begin to make e-books of legacy titles as rapidly as possible.

This also has raised the issue of e-rights for titles contracted before digital technology for publishing, and I will deal with this matter in subsequent chapters.

Nowadays we expect our in-house editors to scrutinize and participate in coding each manuscript, work with the designer on the cover and format, tell the freelance editor what to do to it as well as how much work to put in, and convey information about the book back and forth among production, sales and marketing, foreign rights, and occasionally even the contracts manager when there is an issue of interpretation of intent.  PEs also check edits, evaluate freelance editors and designers for future use, and move projects to and from design, checking those proofs too.

Editors on the acquisitions board must take the process back one step further in the process, using knowledge gleaned from handling manuscripts to selecting projects from the world at large on the basis of whether they are appropriate and ready.  Since they well know the consequences of our accepting titles for publication before they are ready, they are ideal for evaluating whether a submission is ready to go on a seasonal list.

Through 2009, Lindy and I still exerted the most influence over the content of the list, as we tried to maintain the press’s niches and open new avenues of sources and texts.  But, even when we did select and go to bat for a project, the acquisitions board still had to evaluate how viable the project was and whether it could be contracted and put into a future season in its present form; i.e., whether, from experience with prior books, it would cause problems because of its general state of development.   When Lindy retired in 2010, I also backed off acquisitions to a degree and left it more to group process.  In truth, North Atlantic is in transition from Lindy’s and my press to a different editorial institution.

We now have beginnings of a full collaborative process, an organizational set-up similar to others in the industry, although traditional houses, instead having multiple project editors, usually organize their lists under one or two managing editors with narrower job definitions.  They are real project managers and delegate much more of the editorial process.

Our six-person editorial department was reorganized in 2008 under an editorial director/managing editor, the first such position ever hired by North Atlantic, as for years Lindy held the portfolio on a semi-formal basis.  Jon Goodspeed came from the upper echelons at Penguin, and before that, Scholastic—the big leagues of commercial publishing—so he brought with him a sense of how things are done in the publishing world at large.  Here’s how he ended up with us:

As Jon was about move to the East Bay in early 2008, he was looking for a job.  Despite the fact that he had been in young adult and children’s book lines for most of his career and was not knowledgeable about most of our topics, he liked our list and the sound of our company.  Plus, he understood the basic universal publishing model; in particular, how to organize and run an editorial department efficiently and economically.  After all, the managerial process has virtually nothing to do with the content of the books, and it also doesn’t change drastically from company to company.  In addition, in the children’s and young-adult categories, Jon had extensive experience with branding and subrights.  Knowing his own specialties inside-out was not irrelevant either insofar as Walter the Farting Dog remains our most commercial title.  Under Jon we developed Ruby Roth’s children’s picture books, Why We Don’t Eat Animals and Vegan is Love, plus a Narnia-like young-adult fantasy series created by poet Patrick Dowd: The Winnitok Tales, a projected: The Hunt for the Eye of Ogin and The Mornith War being the first two volumes.

Jon was willing, in fact eager, to make the cultural and philosophical, if not quite the financial, shift from New York corporate publishing to independent publishing.  As for the latter, he admitted that our salary scale, though competitive for the Bay Area, initially gave him “sticker shock” (I’d call it “reverse sticker shock”).  A well-read, open-minded intellectual with a B.A. from the University of Vermont, he picked up our themes quickly.  It was also certainly appropriate for North Atlantic to hire an erstwhile Vermonter, having begun our imprint in that state.   [Mark Ouimet and Doug Reil, though both late of PGW, are New Englanders too, Mark from Holyoke (as I will discuss in Chapter Sixteen) and Doug from Old Lyme.]

With the switch to digital, however, we eliminated the position of editorial director as obsolete and hired Roslyn Bullas, formerly the director of Wilderness Press in Berkeley, as a director of publishing, to handle the full work-flow for production as well as editorial, and for both print and digital, including a variety of platforms and formats.  Lindy and I had known Roslyn on and off over the years as a mainstay of Bay Area publishing (she had formerly worked in editorial and production capacities for Lonely Planet and Peachpit) and, when Wilderness was moved out of state by its parent company, she became available.  The changes in publishing in the years from 2009 to 2011 were dramatic and, whereas in 2008 an editorial director seemed an obvious need, by 201o it had become dysfunctional to separate production from editorial, and it also made it impossible to establish a digital level to the workflow.

In addition to in-house staff we now employ about a dozen competent freelance editors (with Kathy Glass still at the head of the list), plus one in-house line editor, Anne Connolly, who came aboard in 2008 as the first in-house line and developmental editor at North Atlantic in twelve years. 

Here are our present editors with their specialties and areas of interest:

•Elizabeth Kennedy is a senior editor specializing in literary prose, gender studies, and pop culture, though she does oversee a lot of other topics, including the above-mentioned That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals and The Hunt for the Eye of Ogin.  A Bennington MFA graduate, novelist, chess fanatic, athlete, pit-bill rescuer, and reviewer for Library Journal, she is now also head of acquisitions.

Elizabeth additionally has worked with live-food and art books and is the acquisitions editor who found and developed the 2008 ecology/food book Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time by Casson Trenor.  She also developed a book of Iranian expatriate poetry, Belonging edited by Niloufar Talabi, a long-time colleague of hers, which we published in Farsi and English in 2008.

•On her second stint with North Atlantic after leaving for the holistic-health-dotcom/Elephant Pharmacy roller coaster, Emily Boyd (Emily Weinert during her first go-around) is a senior editor specializing in health, diet, and alternative medicine, the subject on which she wrote her M.A. thesis (specifically, alternative cancer therapies).  She has also served also assistant acquisitions editor and assistant managing editor and organizes the work of interns.

•Making a transition to the trade from ESL publishing at McGraw-Hill after public-school teaching, Jessica Sevey came to us initially as a bilingual editor to help proof-read the Spanish version of Healing with Whole Foods that we finally published in 2005 after almost a decade of development.  She replaced Yvonne Cardenas, our prior Spanish expert who had moved to New York and Other Press.  Yvonne, who herself replaced Brooke Warner, handled somatics and also specialized in cultural studies.  Jessica’s combination is more Brooke’s old combo: somatics and psychology.

Erin Weigand replaced Anastasia McGhee who replaced Jess O’Brien as martial-arts editor.  A former progressive journalist, she is our political and environmental editor and is also the North Atlantic house editor for Evolver Editions.  Her initial contribution upon hiring was to head us off a dubious book on terrorism and, soon thereafter, to oversee a new book by Kim Chernin on Israel and Palestine.  She was also the project editor for the anthology Hope Beneath Our Feet.

Anne Connolly, also on the acquisitions board, is our most recent hire.  She started out as a freelancer working with our Gary Null title Living in the Moment, a manuscript that she somehow converted from a 1000-page muddle into a credible 200+-page book.  She was formerly an editor at Avalon, at Harper/San Francisco for five years and, for the five years before that, a zen monk at Tassajara.  Though she has no distinct specialty, her assignments have tended toward live food, nutrition, religion, and countercultural lifestyle.

Hisae Matsuda is a committed spiritual practitioner and a devotee of Amma.  The daughter of Japanese professionals living in England, she grew up bicultural and bilingual.  After getting her degree at the School of African and Oriental Studies at the University of London, she volunteered in India for a year where she met her husband, an American, and then moved to the States.  She brings mindfulness and compassion to the job, and her specialties include New Age, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

At the time of John Rush’s Twelve Gates, his book illustrating The Egyptian Book of the Dead on his own flesh, we were down to two competing candidates for an editorial opening, and I favored Hisae who seemed to me a better choice.  She had international experience and great affinity for our books.  But the committee selected, to my dismay, the other woman (whom I will call Bridget) because she had worked professionally in New York for a travel imprint of Random House.  By contrast, Hisae’s publishing experience had been mainly translating professional Japanese documents.  Yet Bridget had little knowledge of or interest in our books.  When she was given Twelve Gates as her first project, she grimaced at the pictures, then declared, “Yuck, gross.”

Meanwhile we hired Hisae anyway, part-time to do special projects and, when Bridget left a few months later because her boyfriend’s green card expired, her understudy got the job.  When Hisae inherited the pictures of John’s tattoos soon afterward, she said, “Amazing!  How wonderful!”   A few days later she brought in photographs of herself meditating in a Shinto ceremony in an ice cave in Japan.

That gave me an opportunity to get on the soapbox and be a bit self-righteous and irritating, especially to those on the committee: “Next time that we are hiring.” I declared by email, “we should take the ice-cave candidate over the corporate one, always.  That’s who we are at North Atlantic and who our authors are.  Anyone who meditates in ice caves and edits Shinto precepts is going to have no trouble with a dude who covers his skin with Egyptian death tattoos.”

Philip Smith, a former editor, moved from the editorial department to reprints, archiving, e-books, and general production.  Although no longer in editorial, as a member of the acquisitions board, he handles Western occult, avant-garde poetry, yoga, and novelty items.  A former editor at Dover and University of Chicago Press (in astrophysics no less), he has a quirky polymath intelligence ranging from metaphysics to conspiracy theories to obscure rock ’n’ roll and country music (he put me onto Dick Curless, the Mainer, as well as some lost Gene Pitney demos).  Having been a rare-book dealer, he knows the publishing business well.  He came to us originally, in fact, as Philip Smith Books, looking for old Ios, posters, and manuscripts, as he specialized in, among other things, Io and the early literary phases of North Atlantic.  He specifically found Mark Stephens’ Teaching Yoga and rescued it from the slush pile, and he brought it Shadow Yoga and Perdurabo (the Aleister Crowley biography) on his own.

Philip did major spontaneous in-house editing and computer design of some very large and/or complex books under his management as PE, including The Gods’ Machines, Fearsome Farting, Origins of the Tarot, Superfoods, and Crop Circles: The Bones of God.

Chapter 14: Departments 2: Production and Accounting | Table of Contents

Footnotes

[1]
We ran into the same problem that they did: the author insisted on inserting precious, irrelevant material into her book and was bizarrely stubborn on this point, refusing even rational dialogue. Less purist than our fellow press, we finally indulged her whims to get the matter over with.
[2]
In fact, we changed the name of the position from PE to just “editor” in 2008.

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