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Hidden in plain sight: Jane Curry on the role of the editor

Ventura Press founder Jane Curry explores the role of the editor.

‘Who’s the editor?’ I have only been asked this question once in my career and it was by a very savvy US fiction agent who really knew how to assess a manuscript with forensic precision.

It is very rare for an editor to receive credit for their work on a book or get a mention in the sales points. Any appreciation shown is usually from the author, tucked away in the acknowledgments. And yet at the very core of our industry is the quality of the writing.

How has the role of the editor become hidden in plain sight? Time and money are the main culprits. Ever since the 1980s, when the consolidation of small companies into large multi-nationals began, the need to feed the engines of turnover has seen every publishing schedule reduced to the fastest turnaround. The pressure is on from payment of the advance to the pub date: to be first to market, make the catalogue deadline, make the budget, maintain market share, impress investors, sign the next book, publish simultaneously with other countries.

Commercial imperatives are the antithesis of good editing because editing needs time: time for re-reading, re-drafting, reflection and discussion. At Ventura, for example, debut novelist Craig Ensor has been working with his editor on The Warming for well over a year. What came to us as a brilliant novella has been reworked into a full literary work. We allowed him this time but we can make our own rules as a small press and not every publisher has that luxury.

Of editing’s three distinct stages, the most satisfying for me is the structural edit where the book is reviewed as a whole, with the characters, narrative, timeline and length all assessed for their credibility and contribution to the overall work. To do this properly the manuscript needs to be read and re-read—with the money clock ticking.

After the structural edit comes a thorough copyedit, and the manuscript is then typeset before the third editorial stage—proofreading and taking in corrections—takes place. The three stages of the editorial process each need extraordinary expertise and experience—and time.

Compounding the issue of editors’ work hiding in plain sight is the fact that managing directors—the corner office folk who set the corporate culture—most often come through the ranks of sales and marketing, and very rarely come from the editorial side. Our best editors may rise to become publishing directors but they usually stay there. Most often the people who call the shots have never edited a book.

American publishing is a wonderful exception to the ‘hidden editor’ rule. US authors are very close to their editors and often move with their editor if the editor changes house. Editors are more highly valued as a result because they are seen as profit centres—they keep the big authors on the list. You will often see a US editor given their own list (a great way to keep them in the tent).

But in Australia we have seen a curbing of the editor’s power, not only because of commercial factors but also because editing has become gendered. It is now seen as a female profession and, like nursing and teaching, it is undervalued as a result. Editors may ‘lean in’ in terms of commitment and skill but they certainly don’t get valued for these attributes on payday.

Of course the converse is often true too. An editor or publisher with the Y chromosome is seen as a serious thinker. They are seen as adding gravitas and depth to the same job, rather like a dad getting brownie points for doing what mothers do every day.

I was as guilty as the next publisher of treating editing as something that could be minimised or rushed—trying to squeeze another book into the month or onto the Christmas list—but I have changed my ways since working with the wonderful Zoe Hale, who joined Ventura as managing editor a few years ago.

Thanks to Zoe’s gentle yet firm professionalism, we have instituted a minimum turnaround of nine months from receipt of manuscript to release into bookshops.

I am soundly rebuffed if I say we can move a pub date forward—a decision that I respect as I know it is right. And Zoe also has power of veto over our marketing material so I can no longer make ambit claims on ARC covers!

Our list has matured and our reputation has grown as a direct result of putting the editorial process at the centre of our company. I hope it heralds the start of a ‘slow publishing’ movement where we can pursue both editorial excellence and commercial success.

Jane Curry is the founder and publisher of Sydney-based Ventura Press


Category: Features Opinion