I consider it good fortune to both write books and work in publishing. Although both jobs are arguably part of the same profession, one can also say that being an editor at times stands in opposition to being a writer. By this I mean that the editor is in the role of deciding what to publish, often disappointing a writer whose creative job ironically gives reason for an editor to exist. In the world of publishing editor and writer must coexist; however, due to the marketplace and the evolution of other forms of entertainment, this relationship has been forced to change.
Forty years ago publishing decisions were often made on the quality of a book relative to its genre. A “mystery”, for example, might not have been deemed as literary; however, if it were finely executed it was published and whether or not it found an audience made it “hit” or “miss.” Now a well-written mystery needs to fit a niche and editors and agents will pass on good manuscripts if they can’t easily identify one. This happens because publishing has become more competitive in the sense that the sheer volume of product has increased exponentially—without even mentioning the surge in self-published books that are flooding the marketplace, books with good production values and catchy promotions that are becoming more and more indistinguishable from books brought out by a conventional publisher.
Beyond this, due to the highly competitive game that publishing has become, name-brand authors with built-in audiences now have more of a guarantee of being published irrespective of the quality of their work. Many publishers, not wanting to give up a money-making author, will go to great pains not to turn down work by these authors; and the result can be a book whose overall execution is weakened by lack of revision suggested by editors who are afraid of alienating a cash cow.
All of this is ironic in light of the increasing number of books being written. One would think that fiercer competition would by necessity weed out weaker books. But in fact, because the marketplace of entertainment in which books now compete with high-quality television (and in which one can indulge in an evening of high-brow binge-watching), the common denominator of quality has gone down. To compete, books have had to become noisier (a description that hardly implies of higher quality), and now the most common term used to reject manuscripts is that they are considered to be just too “quiet.”
If enjoyed this post then you may also enjoy the post on Editing Greatness – some thoughts on the editing of a book.