Print May Be Dying, But Old Age Isn’t Contagious

I’m a book editor by trade. Print books, that is. I began my career almost thirteen years ago at the tender age of twenty-two, and boy, if there’s ever an argument for not listening to your just-out-of-university idiot self, it’s ending up in an obsolete profession before the age of thirty-five. Let me explain.

We’re all aware of the problems that the publishing industry is having right now with the advent of ebooks, unlimited free content on the internet, multimedia and its many delivery systems, Google putting copyrighted books on the web for free like a bunch of douches, general publishing industry malaise, reactionism and mismanagement . . . the list goes on. Exactly why the industry is having so much trouble adapting to this changing world is a debate for another time, but for now let’s just suffice it to say, ‘shit be broke’.

So some editors (comme moi) might be looking for a way out. If the industry is sinking, why go down with the ship? There are loads of digital lifeboats hanging from the sides of this Titanic failure, and editing for the web must be similar enough to print that someone with at least a decade of book editing experience should be given one of the last lifejackets in the boat, right? I mean, same language, same grammar, same need for clarity and concision, information and entertainment. Makes sense, no?

Well, no, it doesn’t makes sense. At least, not to the people who work in digital content and who are hiring digital content editors and creators. I can’t say this is absolutely true, but I have this theory that editors with print experience are placed somewhere on the evolutionary ladder between the extinction of the dinosaurs and the Bronze Age collapse* (I have quite a few reasons to support this theory, but they’re long and boring and industry-specific, so I won’t enumerate them here).  It seems that these finely developed language and communication skills, honed over years of print publishing when the Word was king, are considered obsolete. If this is true, I’d like to disabuse all y’alls digital whippersnappers of a few myths about print editors:

1. Print editors use computers. Like, a lot. They rarely edit on paper anymore; almost all editing work is done on screen, often directly into whatever Adobe software the company or freelance designer happens to be using at the time. We use the internet too, quite often, and not only to look at cat pictures, although that’s been known to happen. If an editor can figure out how to use InDesign in a day with no training and then manage to buy it on a cut-rate wage (don’t even ask me about how freelance editorial rates haven’t changed in at least twenty years), I’m pretty sure she can get her head round your content management system. She probably already has experience with it, if not CV-worthy experience.

2. The internet needs experienced editors. NEEDS them, like a drunk needs malt liquor or a dying man needs a shot of morphine. Like I need a shot of morphine to kill the pain of obsolescence. One of the great things about self-publishing and the internet in general is that anyone can publish a book or set up a blog and start writing away, with very little (if any) financial outlay. One of the worst things about self-publishing and the internet in general is that anyone can publish a book or set up a blog and start writing away, with very little (if any) editorial or writing experience. Editors can not only make you look like a better writer, they can teach you to BE a better writer. These skills come from experience, regardless of the delivery system. We can help stop language abuse!

3. In publishing, a book ‘editor’ does not just edit. She commissions, develops, project manages, hires, fires, manages, adapts, budgets, negotiates, presents, sells, markets, line edits, copyedits, proofreads, rewrites and often just writes. Are these skills not transferable to the digital landscape?

4. The question I get asked most often when I tell people I’m a book editor is, ‘So, do you just fix people’s spelling and grammar like Microsoft spellcheck?’ If this is the popular conception of what a book editor truly does, than it’s no wonder we’re considered useless outside of print publishing. But this is not what we do. See point 3.

I’d like to hear some thoughts on this rant from people in digital content. Am I way off base, or close to the mark? Either way, giz a job.


*Stay tuned for more on the Bronze Age collapse in a later post. Exciting shit.


Mark Gatiss Is My Nemesis

The BBC have been pretty lax with their ghost stories in the past decade or two; after a boom of televisual rediscovery in the 1960s and ’70s, we’ve only had a handful of M.R. James adaptations since 2005’s ultrabland A View from a Hill, with each one proving just a bit lousier than the last.*

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the BBC, and Mark Gatiss is the sun.  BBC Two recently announced that Gatiss will be adapting the James story ‘The Tractate Middoth’ (it’s a good ’un) to be part of the channel’s Christmas programming. I have above-average hopes for this: while I think Gatiss, with his League of Gentlemen and Crooked House credentials, is well-placed for a decent and creepy but (one hopes) non-psychosexual retelling, BBC adaptations have always been problematic, even when made by self-confessed James fanatics. The creators stray too far from the original stories, attempting to make their own marks as writers and directors, ultimately going so far as neuter the stories of their only purpose for existing in the first place—to scare people. I also found Crooked House’s narrative a little bit clunky and confused, but this time Gatiss is starting off with excellent source material. And, you know, Sherlock.

Gatiss will also be conducting a documentary on James called Ghost Writer, in which he ‘will try to solve one of the great literary mysteries: how this donnish Victorian bachelor, conservative by nature and a devout Anglican, created tales that continue to chill readers a century on.’ Good luck with that, Mark. I did nine months of academic research on the life and work of James and I still have no real clue, just a few theories.

(Which is also why I’m pretty annoyed no one called me about this. I mean, we’re still friends BBC, but don’t expect a birthday message from me on your Facebook this year. Same goes for you, Gatiss. But I suppose I can’t stay mad at you, because, you know, Sherlock.)

I suspect Gatiss will find, as I did, that there’s no definitive answer to that question, and that ultimately it’s less an all-consuming mystery than a mild curiosity.

Of course, if you’re at all interested in M.R. James’s stories and the man himself, my Curious Library ebook will be out in Spring 2014. I’ll be sharing some of my own flights of fancy about James with you, although I expect much of it to be damned lies (the best kind).

* I fucking love footnotes! Find out a bit more on James and the BBC’s adaptations in my Electric Sheep magazine article, ‘M.R. James’s Christmas Ghosts’.