Most people unfamiliar with publishing have trouble understanding exactly what an editor does. Likely, in their minds an editor is just a glorified proofreader who can easily be replaced by the spell-check function in MS Word. While this kind of thinking is understandable, it is not at all correct. Yet, it can be difficult to explain what an editor does with any clarity, as most often an editor’s work is defined by what one does not see, rather than what one does see. A properly edited text will not contain typos, spelling errors, and misused punctuation. It will not be disorganized, incoherent, and lazily written. A properly edited text is one where your mind can absorb the contents without focusing on the writing.
This does not tell the whole story, however. The best way of understanding what an editor does is by looking at editorial work from the viewpoint of the stakeholders–the people most affected by the editorial process–and seeing how the editor works to satisfy their often competing claims.
More than anything else, an editor is in the risk-management business. Every time something is published, the publishing house’s reputation is on the line. If the work is shoddy, then its reputation suffers. If the work is full of factual mistakes, plagiarized material, IP violations, or libelous assertions, then the publisher may face lawsuits or worse. It is the editor’s job to minimize the risk to the publisher. Since most publishing projects do not make much money for the publisher, an editor is usually not as concerned with profits, though there is always the hope that things will go well. However, he or she will be quite concerned about protecting and enhancing the publisher’s brand by publishing the best work possible.
Just as important as an editor’s obligations to the publisher are his or her obligations to the author. And, an editor seeks to protect the author from risk and enhance the author’s brand in nearly the same way as he or she does for the publisher. However, the author is not an employer, but more of a client. With this in mind, an editor works as a sounding-board for the author, reviewing the author’s work, and making suggestions for improvement. While it is often hard for an author to accept editorial advice, the most important goals of the editor are to help the author become a publishable writer and increase the market potential for the author’s work. In a very real and important sense, the editor and author are not enemies, but allies. It serves both of their interests to have a product that the publishing house is willing to publish, and the public is eager to buy.
What is the use of publishing a product that no one wants to read and no one is willing to buy? Ultimately, publishing is a service industry: It seeks to serve different sectors of the public. The service it provides may be informational, inspirational, or entertaining, but it is a service nonetheless. A good editor will always have the publishing house’s mission statement in mind, and will be asking if the material being edited really serves that mission. If not, then the editor will insist on revisions to the material so that the goals of the publishing house will be met.
The Marketing Department
More often than many people realize, new publishing projects have their origins in the marketing department of the publishing house. Nearly always, new publishing projects are reviewed by the marketing department, which makes its own tweaks or suggestions. Many editors therefore have to work hand-in-hand with the marketing department to make sure that its demands are met, and that the marketing and sales force have a product they feel comfortable selling.
The first modern editors were typesetters, in the sense that typesetting and publishing were more often than not nearly identical professions. Later, they began to diverge. Nevertheless, the first real style manual was written–not by an editor or publisher–but by a typesetter, and the contributions of typesetters to editing cannot be ignored. It was the typesetters more than anyone else who standardized English punctuation and spelling, and who insisted upon concise prose as a way to save money on typesetting and printing costs. In short, typesetters do not want to print slop. The most obvious job for the editor, then, is to make sure that the product is ready to be typeset without any further changes needed, and then to review the work after it is typeset to make sure that there are no mistakes (proofreading). This is the mechanical kind of editing that most people associate with the profession.
The last stakeholder is the editor him or herself. If an editor has done a good job, you will rarely if ever see his or her fingerprints on the work. What you should see is the author’s voice, enhanced and uplifted with the editor’s help. Having said this, an editor is hired for his or her insights, judgements, and skills. These will all find themselves reflected in what is published. And it should be this way, as publishing is an art practiced by human beings, and not an engineering project overseen by robots. It may have been the author’s voice, but it was the editor’s choice to hire the author, and the editor’s judgement that guided the project. While an editor does not and cannot take credit for the writing, an editor’s own efforts and skills will ultimately be seen in the finished product. The editor thus has his or her own reputation to guard.