Monday, November 16, 2009

What's the Value of an Editor?

Trevor Dolby, publisher of Random House UK’s imprint Preface, wrote on BookBrunch the other day about the undervaluing of editorial talent around the industry: the failure of big houses to nurture their best editors. He makes an essential point: publishing is a creative business, and a publishing house is only as good as its editorial staff. Dolby is writing of the UK specifically but one could argue we have a similar problem here.  True, we celebrate some veteran editors with distinguished track records (and deservedly so—see my post from last Thursday). And from time to time a younger one earns public attention—whether it’s a Gary Fisketjon inventing Vintage Contemporaries or an Elizabeth Schmitz seeing the promise in a partial script of Cold Mountain. But as a whole it’s a weakness of our trade that we don’t do as well as we should at spotting, training, or retaining the talented editors of the future.

One of the problems is that the criteria by which editors are judged are fuzzy in the extreme. It might seem horribly crass to evaluate editors purely on the financial results of their acquisitions, and few houses do so. At a few places—the most sensible ones in my opinion—editors are judged partly on their dollar contribution, partly on more subjective measures such as the quality of the titles they have published or whether they have developed authors with future promise. But at many houses, no consistent analysis of editors’ value is ever done. Editors are expected to “bring in big books,” and they go off, lunch furiously, and bring them back as ordered, but what this means is they’re rewarded for huge, splashy acquisitions that frequently turn out to be economic disasters for the company.

Lacking a rigorous method, or simply the habit, of determining which editors are really valuable, management sometimes seems to conclude they are fungible. So some really bright younger ones—or “expensive” older ones—get scythed when it’s time to downsize, as we have seen this year.

And it’s not just the young talent that we find ourselves missing. I remember the downturn of the early 90s, when it seemed a whole generation of veteran editors, along with many of my junior peers, were laid off. Literally hundreds of years of publishing experience and institutional memory walked out the doors of Publishers Row. A great many of those editors are working full time as freelancers today—supplying editorial skills that the houses who fired them found they needed after all.