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Where have all the book editors gone? Add to ...

What did the most famous, sought-after woman of her time do in order to escape the limelight forever and basically cease to exist in the public eye? Simple: She became a book editor.

Only now, more than a decade after she died, is the world finally learning exactly what Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis did for the last 20 years of her life. All is revealed thanks to two books - Greg Lawrence's Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and William Kuhn's Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books - that this month joined the 80-odd other Onassis biographies currently in print.

But if the Queen of America succeeds today where she failed while alive - to make book editing glamorous - it will be thanks to nostalgia for yet another vanished Camelot. With the publishing industry in turmoil, beset by competitive challenges unknown a decade ago, the long-lunching gentlefolk who once managed the mysterious process of literary midwifery are being replaced by fast-paced production workers, paid by the paragraph and often operating from home. If Jackie O were still in the game, she would likely be outsourced.

Among the recognizable Canadian publishers that have laid off editors since the economic downturn are Penguin Canada, McClelland & Stewart and Key Porter, which stopped publishing altogether early in the new year. Even plucky Gaspereau Press, the Nova Scotia publisher that brought out Johanna Skibsrud's Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel, The Sentimentalists, has laid off its only full-time editor.

"We just couldn't afford it," said Gaspereau co-publisher Andrew Steeves, adding that he is happy to do the work himself. At the same time, he worries about the ultimate effect of industry-wide downsizing. "How do you cultivate a professional publishing ethic if you're farming everything out?"

Authors, finding today's downsized publishers increasingly unwilling to invest their own resources in the often laborious process of polishing rough diamonds into marketable gems, are now often forced to hire their own editors - before even before submitting their manuscripts for publication. Toronto literary agent Anne McDermid saw the landscape changing two years ago, when a publisher told her, "I cannot purchase a book I need to spend 40 hours editing."

As a result, McDermid added, "we are now advising our authors that the material they present has got to be closer to the final draft than it ever used to be." Sometimes the agents themselves act as pre-editors. "Or, for those authors who can afford it," McDermid said, "the biggest-growing sector in Canadian publishing is the freelance editor."

Along with booming self-publishing services that offer various levels of editing as value-added options, a cottage industry of independent contractors is quickly replacing the fabled tastemakers who once shaped literary destiny, and the effect on its quality is an open question.

Typical of the new trends is author Chevy Stevens, pen name of former Nanaimo real estate agent Rene Unischewski, who hired freelance editor Renni Browne while preparing the manuscript of her first novel. Successive rewrites for Browne, author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, landed the manuscript in the hands of New York literary agent Mel Berger. Successive rewrites for Berger promoted it to the desk of Jennifer Enderlin, in-house editor at St. Martin's Press. More of the same there resulted in Still Missing, an outstanding critical success and international bestseller.

Toronto's Barbara Berson, a former in-house editor at Penguin Canada who lost her job in one of the many waves of downsizing that has swept Canadian publishing in recent years, says she is now busier than ever as a leading member of what she calls "the editing diaspora" - with much of the new work now referred by literary agents trying to sell slightly lumpy manuscripts to noncommittal publishers.

"There was a time when a publisher would say, 'This needs a lot of work, but we're going to go for it,' " Berson said. "Now what I have observed is publishers are saying, 'This needs a lot of work, you take care of it.' "

Paying to have their work edited before banking an advance is undeniably rough on writers, Berson admitted. "On the other hand," she added, "I'm hopefully providing a valuable enough service that they then get a book contract. That's the goal."

Typically that means bringing manuscript to a certain level - and no further. "Because I'm not representing a publisher, I'm not always going to take it all the way," Berson said, adding she was once unsettled to see one such job - a literary novel - go straight into production. "It was very swift, put it that way."

Rewards can be tangible for writers lucky enough to find their work in the hands of an in-house editor willing and able to take it all the way. Year after year, literary prize shortlists are dominated by titles edited by handful of acknowledged stars -- all of them women -- led Anne Collins of Random Canada, Louise Dennys of Knopf Canada, Phyllis Bruce of HarperCollins Canada and Ellen Seligman of McClelland & Stewart.

"In the very old days it used to be a gentleman's game, then became a gentle woman's game," Bruce said. "Certainly it's less leisurely. The books must come out much more quickly."

All acknowledge the pressures. Although her company does not expect pre-edited manuscripts, said Nancy Flight of Vancouver's GreyStone Books, in-house editors now have much less time than they once did to work on books. "We have to do everything faster, so maybe that means there's a decrease in quality," Flight said. "I hope not, because we are trying to meet the same standards."

Faster doesn't necessarily mean worse, according to Bruce, one of the elite few whose names appear on the title pages of the books they edit. "Perhaps you don't spend as much time as you used to in the early stages of the book," she admitted. "On the other hand, the production time is cut about 50 per cent with the new technology. Some of that time is fed back into the editorial process."

Bruce is one in-house editor who welcomes pre-editing by agents and freelancers in some cases. "I don't really want to take on a 1,000-page novel," she said, but she will read it once reduced by two-thirds. "There are certain people who are good at that - lifting a smaller novel out of a larger one," she said. "I've known a number of freelancers to be involved in very big jobs - shaping a novel so it's manageable, before it ever gets to the editor."

Despite the paucity of full-time jobs, there are more trained editors entering the trade than ever before, with at least two Canadian universities and several community colleges offering programs in the art of finding and shaping potential bestsellers. With more than 1,600 members, the freelance-dominated Editors Association of Canada is "the largest membership organization in the Canadian arts community," according to executive director Carolyn Burke, with a certification program unique among English-writing countries.

"Our editors hold themselves up to very high standards and this is recognized in the rest of the world," Burke said. "So there's a comfortable flow of this service-based work into Canada."

Has literary quality suffered in the editing diaspora? If so, nobody has seen it, according to Bruce. "Canadians have had a pretty good share of international short-listings in the last 10 years," she notes. "Honestly, I think Canadian writing is getting better all the time."

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