Book review: Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text

Too often we see book production as a sequence of tasks—writing, editing, design, proofreading—forgetting that behind these tasks are professionals who have to work as a team to make a book happen. Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text (edited by Darcy Cullen, published by University of Toronto Press) urges us to shift our perspective—not only towards the dynamic, social aspects of the production process that are so critical to its functioning but also away from the notion that an editor is “an invisible figure who must leave no trace of his or her presence or as a taint to be expunged.” (p. 4)

Darcy Cullen, an acquisitions editor at UBC Press, has assembled an impressive cast of contributors to this authoritative collection, including Peter L. Shillingsburg, author of From Gutenberg to Google, and Amy Einsohn, author of The Copyeditor’s Handbook. We hear from academic experts as well as editors and designers in a rich mosaic of experiences and complementary viewpoints. In short, this unassuming volume brims with wisdom.

Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text focuses naturally on academic publishing, but much of the insight and information it offers would also be useful to trade publishers. It divides its attention between scholarly editors (scholars who develop, curate, and compile) and academic editors (in-house or freelance professionals who acquire manuscripts, copy edit, and project manage), and although I found many of the former pieces interesting, I gravitated towards essays about the latter, which were both a mirror of my own experiences and a window into a parallel universe. Editors (and publishers) may operate according to the same set of best practices, but they all have different approaches, and it’s these details that intrigue me most.

To give a sweeping review of such a heterogeneous collection would be an unfair oversimplification, so my goal here is to hit what I considered the highlights, from my perspective as an editor, rather than attempt to be comprehensive.

Cullen’s motivation for bringing together these essays carries a subtle but definite tone of activism. Of the legions of books devoted to publishing, most are focused on helping authors get their manuscripts published or marketed, yet, writes Cullen, “the ‘middle’ part of the publishing process, sandwiched between acquisitions and sales, is often closed from view, or viewed as closed off, even though it is here that the manuscript’s metamorphosis into book occurs.” (p. 3) The shrinking-violet stereotype of editors must be abandoned because it perpetuates a certain self-marginalization that denies the important social contribution of an editor to the publishing process. Cullen hopes that “these chapters engaging the question of minority cultures and ethnicity in the spheres of scholarly and academic editing and scholarly publishing should serve as an impetus to editors who still invisibilize themselves, so that they acknowledge their place and position of influence as it extends beyond the chain of production.” (p. 12)

That thread is carried through Rosemary Shipton’s brilliant chapter, “The Mysterious Relationship: Authors and Their Editors,” in which she gives readers a most cogent description of the editorial process, comparing trade and academic publishing. “So long as the editors’ contribution to publications in all genres… is not given the recognition it deserves,” writes Shipton, “editors will remain vulnerable to low salaries and, in times of economic downturn, early layoff.”

The relationship an editor fosters with an author is key to a book’s realization—and it may play a role in a publisher’s ability to retain an author: “When the collaboration works well,” Shipton writes, “inevitably authors bond with their editors—they request them for book after book.” But “if the collaboration between author and editor does not work well, the author very quickly feels threatened and loses confidence in the editor.” (p. 51) As one of the founders of the publishing program at Ryerson, her advocacy for the editing profession is grounded in her belief in high standards and a solid foundation of editorial principles, as she warns, “The most common disputes arise when copyeditors lack training and experience.” (p. 45)

Shipton explains that whereas “most trade publishers know that, to make their books excellent and interesting, to attract good reviews and other media attention, to win book awards, and to get that word-of-mouth buzz that entices readers to buy, they really should edit at both the macro and the micro level,” (p. 50) meaning that manuscripts at trade houses go through structural, stylistic, and copy editing, “scholarly publishers do not usually do intensive substantive editing—and for many good reasons. Their mandate is to publish books that make an original contribution to knowledge; most of their authors are professors or researchers; the majority of their readers are academics and students; and the number of copies they print of most titles is small.” (p. 52) Because they write for an academic audience, says Shipton, scholars “know that these readers will understand the specialized jargon and the guarded, often obtuse long sentences in which they make their arguments.” (p. 52) (I haven’t worked much with textual scholars, but based on my experiences with scientific scholars, I couldn’t help wondering if scholars’ resistance to being stylistically edited or have at least some clear communication principles applied to their writing is a symptom of an academic culture that routinely conflates abstruseness with erudition.)

Shipton also touches on issues specific to legal editing and educational publishing, adeptly showing not only the peculiarities of each genre but also aspects of our work that unite us all as editors; as far as I’m concerned, her chapter should be required reading in all introductory editing courses. Veteran editors—trade or academic, freelance or in house—would also benefit from her wisdom.

Amy Einsohn’s piece, “Juggling Expectations: The Copyeditor’s Roles and Responsibilities” provides equally valuable information for both novice and seasoned copy editors, encouraging them to pull back and look at their own vulnerabilities so that they can become more effective in their work. “Conflicting opinions about what constitutes good or acceptable expository writing can be particularly difficult to negotiate. Because any sentence can be rewritten (and arguably “improved” thereby), copyeditors must learn to resist the impulse to tinker,” (p. 79) she writes, cautioning that copyeditors “labour in the presence of benevolent or fearsome ghosts: a high school English teacher, a freshman composition instructor, one or more publishing mentors, and the authors of favourite usage books.” (p. 69)

Copy editing is an exercise in juggling quality, collegiality, cost, and control, Einsohn says. And true to the book’s overarching message, she emphasizes the importance of the relationships built—largely through clear, respectful communication—between copy editor and author and between copy editor and press. Most importantly, she offers concrete suggestions to improve these relationships and improve editor retention, including checklists, sample edits, and style memos.

Whereas Einsohn’s contribution focused on text, Camilla Blakeley revealed through a case study of an award-winning project of hers, The Trickster Shift by Allan J. Ryan, the complexities of editing an illustrated book. Tactfully mediating a relationship between the author and designer, securing permissions within a specified budget, coordinating captions and credits, and taking into account the effect these added tasks have on the project schedule are some of just some of the considerations for illustrated books, and, again, communication is paramount. On this project, Blakeley set up a meeting with the author and designer at the very early stages, which the designer, George Vaitkunas, credited with making the project particularly rewarding. Blakeley notes, “early communication makes the job not only easier but more pleasurable. This is significant.” (p. 156)

One point of hers that caught my attention was that “while an experienced scholarly editor knows that a table or a graph requires as much editing as a narrative—often more—most of us have no training in how to look at photograph.” (p. 165) She points to a positive editor–designer relationship as an opportunity for editors to educate themselves about these kinds of issues so that they can better serve the author, designer, and, ultimately, the book.

Blakeley’s contribution is packed with examples from The Trickster Shift—of such details as art logs and schedules—that are useful not only because they inform readers about the anatomy of an illustrated book project as it evolves but also because editors can easily appropriate and adapt these documents for their own use.

Blakeley does a tremendous job of giving the designer on her project a voice, but what sets this book apart is that we get to hear directly from designers themselves. Learning from designer Richard Hendel, for example, about not only how designers fit in to the book production process but also how designers view editors (both flatteringly and unflatteringly) can be an important step to better communication and a more effective workflow. Hendel stresses that “The designer cannot properly address a text until an editor has understood and clearly dealt with the physical aspects of the content: how chapters and chapter titles are arranged, how subheads are dealt with, kinds of extract, and the like.” (p. 175) Referring to English typographer John Ryder, Hendel writes, “Ryder felt that editors should be more critical about how something in the manuscript will eventually appear in the printed book—the need to edit visually before the design process even begins.” (p. 176)

In her chapter, designer Sigrid Albert looks at the evolving role of the designer and the changing relationship between editor and designer as the publishing landscape adjusts to accommodate ebooks and other technologies. “The traditional printed book as a highly crafted cultural object, whether in a humble, low-budget or a luxurious, highly produced format, is the goal of the editor and designer. At the highest level of the book production process, the editor has shaped a piece of history, and the designer has shaped a piece of art,” writes Albert, in one of my favourite quotes from the book.

Whereas the traditional book all but demands a strong, communicative relationship between editor and designer to transmit a single vision, digital books have meant that content and form are separate: “book content is increasingly being stored in databases and tagged with content-related markup—such as chapter titles, subtitles, subheads, extracts—by the editor, while the visual design is controlled by a separate style markup—such as margin widths, font, font size, font weight, colour, or line height—delivered by the designer.” (p. 184) Albert wonders if the relationship will only grow further apart as designers eventually stop designing single books and instead create digital templates that they license. Yet, Albert says, “From the designer’s point of view, the design process, despite the technological advances, still requires a synthesis of information and a variety of visual choices to form an aesthetic unity.” (p. 193)

Yuri Cowan (“Reading Material Bibliography and Digital Editions”) and Darcy Cullen (“The Object and the Process”) also explore the implications of a workflow that incorporates digital outputs, with Cowan taking a more theoretical approach and Cullen sharing the triumphs and growing pains of UBC Press’s first steps into the realm of digital production. Writes Cowan, “our editors can inform their theoretical approaches with recent scholarship in the sociology of material texts, creating a model of readerly engagement and a generation of reader/editors who will be neither overawed by the authority of print nor seduced by the hyperbolic claims made for the electronic edition.” (p. 236)

The book’s other contributors—Peter L. Shillingsburg, Alexander Petit, Peter Mahon, and John K. Young—offer scholars’ perspectives on various facets of the academic publishing process, and although these chapters are all worth reading for the sake of interest, I believe that the general editor-reader will find the essays I’ve mentioned most engaging and directly relevant to their work—and it’s to this specific but vast audience, editors of whatever genre and whatever experience level, that I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Freelance editors who have never worked in house may have the most to gain from this insiders’ view. As Amy Einsohn writes, “Some presses make an effort to train, coach, and acculturate their freelancers, but most freelancers have few opportunities to learn about the publisher’s activities, customs, and mores,” (p. 69) and being informed about a publishing house’s inner workings helps editors anticipate what may be expected of them.

UBC Press—and hence Cullen’s book—specializes in the social sciences, but I would be intrigued to see how the processes described in Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text compare with the workflow and author–editor relationships at academic presses focused on the natural sciences. Most of those authors probably will not read this book, and perhaps even most social science scholars hoping to get published would not think to read it. In many ways, it is much more information than they need to play their roles in book production. Yet, I hope that some academic authors choose to hear what Cullen’s roster of experts have to say. This book beautifully humanizes the publishing process in a way that could only foster mutual respect between professionals—ones with the common aim of producing great books.

2 Responses to Book review: Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text

  1. Thanks for this review, Iva. My copy of the book arrived a month ago, but I haven’t yet begun reading it. Your posting makes me eager to get started!

  2. This book sounds fascinating Iva — and perhaps even germane to technical publishing, esp. the Rosemary Shipton essay. I shall have to try to get my hands on a copy. Thanks for drawing it to my attention.

    Also, gotta love the fact that it has apercus from George Vaitkunas. I always liked working with him at D&M. He is a gentleman and a scholar. (the latter figuratively, anyway!)

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