‘When you encounter a truly great copy editor, they are worth their weight in gold. They were, and are, a rarity.’
–Carmen Callil, author, founder of Virago and former publisher of Chatto & Windus.
And a truly great copy editor would have changed that quote to ‘he is worth his weight…’
Reading through some old copies of the Guardian [don’t ask], I came across an article, ‘The Corrections,’ by Alex Clark [http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/11/lost-art-editing-books-publishing].
Clark takes as her starting point the scandalous version of Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom, which was published with so many typos he insisted that it be pulled from the bookstores and fixed. And this came from a mainstream publisher, in both the US and the UK.
Of course, this is not the first case of a major publishing house being less than obsessive in the copy editing and proofreading department. When Scribner’s published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Far Side of Paradise, in 1920, his editor Maxwell Perkins was in such a hurry to get the book out, the first edition was riddled with errors. Perkins was legendary as an editor who could find and nurture talent. But he was an even worse speller than Fitzgerald—who later recommended to Scribner’s a writer he heard about in Paris:
‘Hemmingway. He’s the real thing.’
Typos aside, Clark’s article makes some interesting points about the overall ‘decline in editing’ throughout the publishing industry. And she is talking about mainstream corporate publishers who should know better. Novelist Blake Morrison is quoted as saying,
‘There are still some brilliant editors in publishing today. But it’s harder for them to have the autonomy that, say, Maxwell Perkins enjoyed when taking on Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, let alone to spend the acres of time he did improving typescripts. The rise of marketing departments is often blamed for this…What has changed is that editors are no longer the people expected to identify and nurture a young talent. That role has passed to agents and, before them, to the creative writing tutors through whose MA programmes…the majority of today’s new writers emerge.’
NB: Wolfe studied playwrighting at Harvard, but neither Fitzgerald nor Hemingway ever took a writing class.
So what does this mean for those of you self-publishing? If the corporations with all the resources don’t have the budget to spend enough time on manuscripts to polish them, what chance do you have of turning out brilliant, error-free copy on your own?
A few years ago, someone in the publishing industry absolutely winced when I mentioned the self-publishing site Lulu to him.
‘Oh! Awful! I saw a book published there and it was filled with typos and looked terrible!’
I explained to him that any formatting or textual errors wouldn’t be Lulu’s fault. It’s up to you, the author, to create a perfect, error-free manuscript before publishing it on Lulu. And you do all the marketing yourself too!
All of this is designed to convince you that, whenever you are putting your work out there, it is worth the time and money to edit, proofread—twice–and have someone else look at it. Even if it’s just a blog post—run it by someone who knows his or her grammar. Choose somebody who went to Catholic school–Those kids really know how to spell…
And if you are going to invest in self-publishing, or putting up a website, or promoting your latest project, hire a professional.
If you would like to know more about Maxwell Perkins and his work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, here is a suggested reading list: http://suchfriends.wordpress.com/the-american-ex-patriates-in-paris/such-friends-reading-and-viewing-lists-f-scott-fitzgerald-his-scribner%E2%80%99s-editor-maxwell-perkins/ from my other blog, Such Friends [www.suchfriends.wordpress.com]
Honey—was that okay? [I always have my husband read through anything I’m going to post…]