05 October 2013

In Defence of the Editor

This piece first appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine.

As an undergraduate student of literature, I remember a fit of excitement when I came across a Tom Stoppard lecture that made mention of the fact that an entire act was edited out of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest by the play’s producer, George Alexander. The 2002 film adaptation of the play incorporated the edited scene and it – I say this with a sense of poetic justice – was the dullest part of the movie. Wilde may have been the genius, Stoppard says in the course of his brilliant lecture on pragmatism and technique at the New York Public Library in 1999, but it was Alexander who was the technician of that genius. To this day, it remains true (and it seems likely that it always will) that genius will need a technician.

The direst fear that any professional in any field can have is the looming possibility of becoming irrelevant. As publishers navigate the very frightening sea of changes in the industry, it is a good idea to step back and define our roles in the book-making process: are we passive middlemen who simply transport from author to reader or are we active agents who transform with our involvement?

Curatorship of any art form is an enormously subjective task. Patterns of choice depend heavily on personal, social, and cultural history and conditioning. Matters of taste and aesthetic preference cannot be deconstructed and neatly catalogued. This is where the sentinels of taste play the one card that will ultimately matter: discrimination.

The shrinking newsroom has resulted, for example, in a frightening level of information overload, and what suffers is credibility. Everyone has access to information, but that also means that everyone has the capacity to provide information. Without a regulatory authority that performs the basic function of quality control, any industry suffers. This is especially true of creative industries like publishing, where the responsibility is so much more: less like a gatekeeper and more like a guide.

While words like “discoverability” and “metadata” are bandied about in the publishing world, the real problem is one of too much discoverability. The problem of choice is something that has, in recent times, been analysed and documented in great detail. Immigrants to Western countries often talk of being paralysed in grocery stores, with a staggering array of colourful boxes and brands to choose from in every section. These are relatively small and insignificant decisions to make, as decisions go, but these are the times when one wishes for the wisdom of a knowledgeable curator. In one sense, this is a role played by criticism. But at a far earlier stage, this is a role played through astute jurisdiction, i.e., the publisher who commissions and acquires and edits.

Publishing is going through the most dynamic phase of its entire history, thanks to the possibilities and options afforded by new technology. The absence of fixed pricing in most countries, combined with dwindling margins and floundering retail channels, has positioned the traditional publishing industry very precariously. That e-readers offer more instant access and wider options than traditional publishing can ever hope to is fantastic news for every stakeholder in the publishing process. But it also opens up a world of options to the author, the most obvious being self-publishing, a model that is fraught with editorial peril. As long as publishers appear to offer little more than printing and marketing services, the author is perfectly justified in seeing the publisher as an unnecessary broker. But the real responsibility of publishing is less in marketing than in editorial curatorship. Publishers are potent intermediaries between writers and their readers because they help readers negotiate the world of content around them. So, really, it is the packager’s role that devolves mightily into redundancy, and not the editorial process.

If this is a conservative way of looking at the dissemination of art, it is certainly meant to be. In a changing milieu, we’re seeing, in many ways, a return to old methods. The much-touted e-book revolution is no longer a revolution, it is reality. This is so true that the term digital publishing has almost become obsolete in industrial parlance, now simply referred to as “publishing,” an umbrella that brackets both print and digital variants. This is almost exactly the same way that paperbacks revolutionised the industry and are now solid, important agencies in the circulation of literature. Social and online recommendations are powerful tools for any publisher; book trailers and viral videos exert extraordinary influence on readers. In a sense, we are returning to a world where word-of-mouth is the most persuasive instrument in the publisher’s arsenal, just like in the good old days. Even within these evolutionary patterns, it remains true that content is paramount, whether we’re receiving literary sustenance and recommendations from re-tweets or the New York Review of Books.

For every runaway success within the self-publishing model, there are thousands of books that languish into nothingness. This is not problematic except in the case of books that might significantly benefit from a few strokes of the blue pencil. A book’s shelf-life can best be lengthened in the good-old fashioned way of improving its quality. This leads one to wonder how many geniuses we may have lost due to the absence of strong technicians. All other things remaining constant, a paperback is likely to have no greater longevity than an e-book. It is not e-publishing that threatens to swallow our world, but the very absence of a cogent filter between writer and reader. These are the days when an author may post a novel online and watch it generate revenue without involving the messy intermediations of big profit-making conglomerates, but that only makes it harder to find the needle in the haystack. If we acknowledge the existence of a vibrant, diverse, and culturally important space like the internet which embraces democratic expression and promulgation, then we must also be cognizant of its weaknesses.

The way forward for publishing, then, is to talk more seriously and sincerely about the advantages of having good editors, not publicists, distributors, or printers. When we, as publishers, begin to position ourselves as custodians of literature itself, rather than merely as its medium, we place the onus for content upon ourselves and we begin to generate finer work, we begin to seek undiscovered beauty, and we take responsibility for making it available and accessible and important. It is a way of taking our readers more seriously, of letting them know that they deserve the very best.

We’re shaping the texture of the future of publishing by the decisions we make today. Even as we map consumption habits, decode reading patterns, and study the import of technological advancement, and even as we channel our content in new and innovative ways, we must appreciate the very specific distinctions within the industry. If our independent bookstores go the way of record stores, and if our libraries go the way of video lending services, we may rest assured that literature has disappeared from our lives no less than music or cinema has. But if we look at ourselves in the publishing industry as purveyors of these quantifiable services, we are in for a world of trouble, for how is one to slap a value on the effect that the editorial eyes of Ezra Pound had on the poetry of T. S. Eliot, or the way Max Brod’s publication of Kafka changed literary history? These are the invisible hands, necessarily picking and choosing and kneading and assembling; they are the difference between a first draft and a first proof. We must recognise that while the medium of dissemination has already changed, the art of it hasn’t. For the sake of leaving a valuable literary legacy for our future generations, we must hope that it never will.