Abigail Nathan has a background in copywriting, sub-editing and legal editing, but has been a freelance editor for eight years. She works with various publishing houses, including HarperCollins, Random House and Hachette, and also works with emerging and self-publishing writers. Abigail is the managing director of Bothersome Words Editing and Writing Services and the website manager for the Society of Editors (NSW).
As well as working with some of the major publishing houses, you also provide editing services for self published writers. Do you think that there is a difference in perception of the role of an editor, or their importance, by those involved in traditional publishing models and self published writers?
I want to avoid generalising here because, well, I don’t want to get lynched! But mainly because I’ve worked with people with all sorts of different publishing backgrounds, experiences and views. I’ve worked with self publishers who started out in traditional publishing, and authors from both fields with either no experience or extensive experience.
I do think self publishers and traditionally publishing authors often view editors and their role differently, but I also think it’s important to keep in mind that these authors necessarily also have slightly different relationships with their editors and with the publishing process, and they will have different considerations that will affect their perceptions.
A traditionally published author usually comes to editing through a publisher (although yes, they may have hired an editor to polish their original manuscript for submission). The editing process is provided for them – and forced on them, really; they might retain the right to refuse certain changes or resist editorial suggestions, but there’s no way they’re getting published by a traditional publishing house without being edited. Even if the manuscript is squeaky clean and the story engages every person who reads it, it will still go through the editing process.
By contrast, a self publisher could publish their first rough draft if they wanted to. If they don’t want to, if they want the services of a professional editor, they have to pay for those services. With traditional publishing all those editing costs (whether they’re in-house or outsourced to freelancers) and any delays resulting from this process are swallowed by the publishing house. For a self-publishing author those costs and delays are personal. A self-publishing author has to decide, at every step, whether they can afford to pay for another round of editing – and whether or not it is worth it to them, to their project, perhaps even to their writing career, to do so.
So I think self-publishing authors and traditionally publishing authors come to their editors with different values, ideals and requirements. I do get the impression most authors, once they have been through the editing process – no matter whether they self publish or go through a trade publisher – understand what an editor can bring to their work. All those queries and track changes and pencil marks have to be worth something, even if the authors don’t agree with any of them!
As a general rule I find the traditionally published authors I work with, particularly if they have been doing this for a while, expect a lot more nitpicking – they will want to know any errors and expect to be pulled up. (Although they might still complain about the harsh edit afterwards!)
My work with self-publishing authors is not so very different in terms of the actual editing except that, as a freelancer, I rarely work directly with authors who come to me via a publisher – there’s usually another in-house editor, or even the publisher, in between. When I work with self publishers I am more likely to work as a sounding board and give advice and some level of mentoring. Often self-publishing authors are surprised by the level of detail an edit can go into and I suspect many of them have editing confused with proofreading, even when the process is discussed up front.
It seems to me that while a traditionally published author will weigh an editor’s value by how engaged they were with their book and whether or not they really connected and gave relevant advice and feedback, a self publisher will often then weigh all that against costs. I’ve heard a lot of self publishers say that a few typos, or errant commas, or even awkward sentences, are unimportant in the grand scheme of things; as long as the manuscript is in reasonably good shape and the reader can understand the story. Sometimes they’ll mix and match professional editing with the volunteer services of eagle-eyed friends to keep the costs down.
There seems to be a growing trend in self publishing to hire editors and then promote as a sales point the fact that a work has been professionally edited, so obviously there is a certain perception of value there. However, equally, I see a lot of people querying the value of paying for such a service when self-publishing itself is so cheap and editing, by contrast, perceived as so expensive. I’m interested to see how all this shakes out in the long run.
And of course, all this is simply my perception, as an editor, of how others perceive editors. So… I feel I should really have handed out grains of salt for people to hang on to while reading this!
How did you develop the skills and knowledge required to be an editor? Are there any courses or resources you would recommend to aspiring editors?
I studied English, among other things, at university. (Step one to becoming an editor: learn All The Things – I think I took courses in nearly every discipline except Maths. Every topic I studied has come up at least once in my editing career.) After that, I managed to get a job as an editorial assistant and have since worked as a copywriter, magazine sub-editor, legal editor and now freelance editor.
Most of my editing skills I learned on the job, in-house – there is no better way to learn. Every magazine I have worked at as a sub-editor has been fast-paced, with a high volume of copy to get through every day. I can’t think of a better training ground, and magazine editing is always a lot of fun. I’ve worked at two legal publishers, which understandably had very exacting standards. They provided intense editorial training that was regularly updated and this was a great place to hone accuracy and proofreading skills.
As a freelancer I frequently take courses and workshops, and of course I’m always reading up on grammar and language. Current to-learn is ebook editing. Freelancers have to keep themselves on top of industry changes like this even faster than in-house staff, but we have to seek out our own training.
A lot of the universities offer courses specifically in editing and publishing – I know Macquarie and RMIT do. The state editors societies all run regular workshops, which are great for brushing up skills, and often the local writers’ centres run longer courses on editing, too. Plus there are various private colleges, schools and centres that offer courses. Get hold of The Style Manual, The Editor’s Companion and Strunk and White and read, read, read. Also edit, edit, edit – because while a course will teach you a lot, the absolute best way to learn is to edit every day – look out for opportunities to volunteer your services and if you can “shadow” another editor, or get a look at some marked-up manuscripts or documents, do so.
If you could pick any author, living or dead, to work with, who would it be?
This is a horrible question, right up there with “if you were going to be stuck on a desert island and you could only take one book with you…”. In all honesty, I work with some incredible authors. I have to pinch myself sometimes when I realise that a latest release by a favourite author is something I actually worked on.
It’s really tempting to name someone like Douglas Adams or Oscar Wilde but I’d be far too intimidated, even in an imaginary scenario!
At the risk of outing myself as a telly addict and fence-sitter, can I cheat and change that to “writer” and then say I’d love to work on a TV series as a script editor? I’m not going to be specific about which one* because there are some amazing shows around at the moment, written by some people I truly admire and would sell a limb to meet, never mind work with. But sometimes the inconsistencies and lack of continuity make me want to cry.
Right. That sounds like a horrible and arrogant reason to want to work on such a thing. What can I say? I love stories whether they’re on screen or on paper, and the editor in me can’t cope with plot problems in either.
(*Because there are several that make me shout at the screen.)
What Australian works have you loved recently?
The biggest problem with editing is that it leaves me so little time to read not-for-work books! Particularly since I often work on series, so I spend a great deal of time doing pre-reading. Which, I hasten to add, fulfils my original dream career goal of “working with books and being paid to read”, so that is by no means any form of complaint.
If I avoid bias by leaving out anything I’ve worked on/any author I’ve worked with, and interpret “recently” as “recently read by me” rather than “recently published”…
- I am currently halfway through Glenda Larke’s Watergivers series, which is full of the most wonderful worldbuilding.
- I’m also enjoying Trudi Canavan’s The Traitor Spy trilogy. I absolutely adored The Black Magician series and got my entire extended family addicted. These books are all on my comfort-read shelves.
- Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels was incredible. The darkest “fairytale” with such base horror. That stayed with me a long time after I finished.
And then there’re the 500 books on my To-Be-Read shelves. And the other 400 on my To-Buy list…
Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think are some of the biggest changes to the Australian Spec Fic scene?
I don’t think it’s specific to spec fic, but there’s definitely been a rise in self publishing. Without a doubt, I hear from a lot more self publishing writers these days than I did even a year ago. And a lot of them have a lot more of an idea what they’re after these days.
I also get the impression there’s more knowledge about spec fic in the wider world – largely because of various supernatural and fantasy television shows that have taken off, which have in turn encouraged people to seek out relevant reading material. Certainly a lot of my previously anti-fantasy/sci fi/whatever friends have happily watched shows such as True Blood and Game of Thrones and have consequently called me up, demanding book recommendations.
It seems to me there are a lot more fantasy/paranormal/science fiction based YA and children’s novels around now*, and more often lately I’ve seen books I’ve worked on as “adult” novels, being reviewed or categorised as YA, which is an interesting trend I first heard mentioned during WorldCon.
Having said all that, the publishing industry itself is going through a tough time at the moment for all kinds of reasons, and as a result I’ve heard both writers and publishers/editors discussing the fact that actually getting published, at least traditionally, is a lot harder right now.
Obviously ebooks have taken off in a big way in the past few years. One of the things I am really thrilled to see is that Momentum, which is currently doing all sorts of interesting things in the digital world, has taken on and is publishing, or republishing, lots of spec fic. Given there are so few publishers who do take genre fiction, it’s really exciting to see a new publisher so open to genre. Long may it continue!
(*Okay, I know there are. Just today I was in a bookshop and in the children’s and YA section there was a sea of black covers, nearly all spec fic, and tucked in between a collection of different vampire novels were some hardback collectors’ copies of…Winnie-the-Pooh.)
This interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Aussie Spec Fic Snapshot. In the lead up to Continuum 8 in Melbourne, we will be blogging interviews for Snapshot 2012 conducted by Alisa Krasnostein, Kathryn Linge, David McDonald, Helen Merrick, Ian Mond, Jason Nahrung, Alex Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Tehani Wessely and Sean Wright. To read the interviews hot off the press, check these blogs daily from June 1 to June 7, 2012.