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.