Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Should Book Editors Get Royalties?

At Publishing Perspectives this week, the veteran editor and publisher Ann Patty has written a provocative post titled "The Future for Book Editors: Royalties?" Ann, who was a colleague and then my boss at Crown, worked in corporate publishing for decades, acquiring, publishing--and editing--an impressive string of fiction authors. Now a freelance manuscript editor, she wonders aloud whether, in the dawning new world of publishing, what editors do may be valued more highly--perhaps highly enough for an editor to receive a share of royalties. She writes,
enough lamentation! We all know the publishing industry of yore is long gone. What about the future? In the Internet free-for-all book editors may become more, rather than less important. The editor is the author’s interface with the world at large; the other roles in publishing houses, as they are now configured, may become obsolete in the digital future. Publishers may devalue editors, but writers and agents don’t. As business models change, it’s time that book editors reclaim their essential place in the publishing process, and be appropriately compensated for it. 
Ann's piece has generated a lively, not to say brawling, comment thread, well worth reading. Several editors, and a few authors, have said "right on!" Many other posters have said, more or less, "No way!" A couple of the critics suggest an editor's contribution is unimportant compared to the author's. Some point out quite rightly that while editors may provide invaluable help to a writer, they are salaried employees of the publishing house and don't assume the risk, or make the investment of time, that an author working on her manuscript for months or years does. One author pointedly noted that a writer's royalties are small enough to begin with; peeling them away to pay an editor adds injury to insult. 

My first reaction to Ann's suggestion was knee-jerk disagreement. I do edit manuscripts, and carefully, but that's part of what Bloomsbury pays me for. While many things about publishing have changed in the past century, it still seems to me that working with an author to shape the manuscript is a basic part of the editor's job. I don't necessarily feel that doing so (even for a book that, as Ann hypothesizes, becomes a commercial winner) entitles me to extra compensation. If my titles are successful, presumably that will be reflected in what I get paid next year. 

But on further reflection my reaction was more nuanced. After all, freelance editors like Ann are already receiving, in some cases, royalty shares just as co-writers often do.  Authors accept such arrangements--again, occasionally--without seeing them as an injustice. And in a few cases, as Ann's post notes, editor-publishers who head imprints (myself not included) have some profit participation, though on the basis of imprint results, not individual titles. Furthermore, at some houses a significant share of editors' compensation comes in the form of a bonus, which is almost always related, partly or wholly, to the sales of their books. It's not a share of royalties as such, but it amounts to something similar. (These bonuses usually include other benchmarks including company or division-wide performance.) In textbook publishing this practice is more common, I think, and I know of at least one textbook publisher where as much as a third of an editor's pay came in bonuses. 

There are problems with pegging editors' pay to numerical indices, but it's not wholly unreasonable. As I have written here before, I believe one of the problems of big corporate publishing is that editors' performance is often valued in arbitrary and haphazard ways, which leads to poor decision-making. I'm not ready to advocate Ann Patty's proposal, but if publishers do value editing--and want to tout it as part of their "value added" to authors, her idea would be one way of putting their money where their mouths are.*

* In which case, any editor-royalty should come out of the house's share of revenue (and of course, wouldn't be payable when the author's advance--which the editor negotiated--is unearned).