All About Editing

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Editors and publishers are the victims of their own success. Or rather, the victims of our own good works.

The “Open” advocates welcome a flood of material. They imagine tearing down the gates, letting everything through.

Sounds good–maybe–in theory. But what they don’t see: All the bad stuff they’re welcoming in. They don’t see all the excreble “writing” passing through writing seminars and slush piles. They don’t see the stuff that editors never read past the first page. Even with science and academic work, they don’t see all the papers sent back for revision. And they don’t see these things precisely because editors reject them.

It seems to me that those attacking the gatekeepers come from two camps. On one side, those actually building business models aimed at competing with–maybe replacing–the traditional editors. The idea–massive content bring massive eyeballs–and with less paid human labor (i.e., no editors, content made for free by amateurs)–supported by advertising. And the economics only work by removing the editorial labor–the most expensive part of publishing.

The other camp: The people who can’t get through the gates. Same market traditionally targeted by the Vanity Press industry; only now they can vanity publish at a much lower cost.

Seth Godin (a member of the first camp–and, disclosure–I wrote two pieces for a book he packaged in 1991) has suggested that writers should give their work away for free; that writers should not expect to be paid for their work. And he uses poetry–where, according to him–most poets aren’t paid–as an example.

But if you can’t get paid for writing–or any other creative endeavor–you can’t do it full-time. If you can’t do it full-time, you can’t get good (or expert) at it (see: Malcolm Gladwell: ) Which means, without full-time professional writers, the writing we’ll get will, well, it’ll suck.

Which brings me to poetry. Godin suggests that other writers should be like poets–get read, don’t get paid. Except there are two problem with that. The first is that the unpaid poets in the little magazines don’t get read, either. As literary journal editors will tell you–they have many, many more submitters than readers. This is not, I think, the model that even Godin has in mind. Secondly, though, there are poets who do get paid–quite a lot–for their writing. Usually, they set their words to music. And that I would suggest that the poets writing words in broken lines without rhyme or rhythm–they’re not read, and they’re not paid, because they’re not good.

Which brings me back to the second group–those who want to get their work out, without taking the judgment of professionals that maybe their stuff isn’t ready for prime time. (And I say this both as someone who hasn’t himself sold a story although I’ve been a contest finalist, and as an editor.)

So one might even argue that the Godin approach might in the end prove the value of editorial work. After the deluge, the backlash. Readers overwhelmed with masses and masses of bad writing may in time–and sooner rather than later, given Internet speed–will turn back to editorially-curated and developed content. Hopefully, though, there will still be employed, professional editors and writers, when they do.

About Scott Epstein

I've consumed science fiction for as long as I can remember. I've written it since age 8. I founded and edited Proteus Continuum, a Science Fiction magazine, at Tufts University from 1990-1992. Professionally, I've worked in professional publishing for more than 17 years, in both editorial and marketing functions.
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