Don't Sing the Blues for the Blue Pencil Yet

A Column by Sarah Vogelsong

Publishing is in transition, but it’s too soon to excise the editors

New York’s book publishing houses will soon be mausoleums and their editors so many mummies wrapped in decaying pages.

Or so say the national news media, who every few months issue dire warnings about the impending demise of the book industry and the death of the editor. The second conjecture has become more common in recent years, likely because publishing has refused to die. (Despite a 2.5% decline in print sales, the industry still reported $27.2 billion in revenues last year.) In the face of this resilience, editors have increasingly come under attack.

In an industry built so much on predicting people’s future tastes, the line between blind hazard and educated guessing can sometimes seem uncomfortably fine. Certainly book publishing is undergoing a period of flux not seen since the 1970s. But are editors really going the way of the independent publishing firm or the linotype machine? Is it, as writer Blake Morrison claims, “a black day for the blue pencil”? Are we really in the last days of the roman empire, or, as with Mark Twain, have reports of editors’ deaths been greatly exaggerated?

Any argument about the declining role of the editor is also an argument about the literary agent’s growing stature. In this line of thinking, editors, besieged by marketing demands, have ceased to edit and become more concerned with profit margins than with prose. As they have shifted toward the business end of publishing, agents have filled the gap, replacing them as the primary relationship of an author’s life.

It sounds reasonable. But how much of it is true?

To answer that question, I spoke with four agents and editors with years of experience in the business. As industry insiders free from heavy corporate constraint, agents are particularly well poised to observe the changing role of editors and the publishing business at large.

William Clark, a former editor and the founder of William Clark Associates with 20 years in the business, says that one of the reasons that “the agent has become the continuity in the author’s career” is because “editors move from house to house.”

Mobility hasn’t always been a hallmark of book editing. During the 1970s, the majority of publishing houses were sold to media conglomerates whose primary concern was revenues. As companies became more corporate, editors were often caught between competing demands. Many found that they could advance more easily by moving from company to company rather than climbing the ladder within a single house.

“At that point, editors really lost their sense of loyalty to their employers,” says Russell Galen, a founding partner of Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency with 35 years in the business. “One thing that has really changed is the idea of an editor staying at one house for their entire career. That never happens anymore.”

The conglomerate business model has fostered an environment in which editors are constantly under pressure to produce the next bestseller.  

Deborah Grosvenor, a former acquisitions editor and the founder of Grosvenor Literary Agency, points to publishers’ more stringent profit requirements as a driver of change during her 25 years in the industry.

“Unless a book sells 15,000 copies, it hasn’t done well,” she says. “That’s changed since I first got into the business—profit expectations were not as high.”

Those demands have created significant friction. Authors and readers dissatisfied with the state of the industry often accuse publishers of referencing books with wide commercial appeal over more “literary” works and refusing to acquire books not guaranteed to be a surefire success. Editorial quality, these people say, has declined in the face of an obsession with sales.

Several of the industry players with whom I spoke acknowledged that the pool of books accepted by publishing houses today has narrowed in terms of variety.

“I see a lot less risk taking by publishers,” says Clark. “Right now, the changes happening in trade publishing have created no small amount of fear about what will survive of this unique collection of industries known as ‘publishing.’”

Nevertheless, all of the agents and editors rejected an overwhelmingly pessimistic outlook, painting a more complex picture of an industry struggling to balance the demands of art and business.

“My impression is that editors have less time to edit,” says Grosvenor, “because they’re under other pressures—pressure to acquire, more pressure on the bottom line, less tolerance for midlist books.” But then again, she adds, “I don’t know any editor who doesn’t edit. I certainly deal with a number of editors who are unbelievably hands-on.”

Similarly, Galen firmly denies that either the editor’s role in shaping books or editorial quality has diminished in recent years.

“Editors want to be editors, and they manage to do it, in some ways every bit as superbly as previous generations did,” he says, “but man, they’re under enormous pressure. I think it’s a false cliché that there are more unedited books going out there than there were years ago.”

Chuck Sambuchino, a writer, editor of Writers’ Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents, and the man in charge of the popular Guide to Literary Agents blog, believes that industry change is less a matter of decreased editorial quality and more a question of new structures.

“The process of getting in the door is changing, but once you get a book deal and your manuscript is in front of an editor, they’re going to bust out the scalpel and make it better—same as they did five or 15 years ago,” he says. “Editing is editing.”

Neither Galen, Grosvenor, nor Sambuchino see the agent’s role as usurping the editor’s traditional role.

“It’s a different relationship,” Grosvenor says. “The agent is a spokesperson, an ally, someone they can call for anything. Most authors have close relationships with their editors, but not all do.”

Clark, however, notes that agents are now taking on certain responsibilities that have historically belonged to editors. “Since editors have assumed an increasingly acquisition-focused role and publishing houses are looking for projects that can be put into production sooner than later,” he says, “agents now work with authors to develop and refine new ideas in the same way that developmental editors have done in the past.”

To Galen, the substantial variation within the industry is key: “These are writers, they’re the most colorful people on earth. There’s no way to generalize about them.” Nevertheless, he says, “I don’t think the rapport between editors and authors is any different now.” And, as an agent, his approach to relationships with authors hasn’t changed over his career. “When you take a writer on, you expect it to be for life,” he says. “It’s like romantic relationships. You assume it will be till death do us part, and you make your plans accordingly.”

So if editors are still basically editors and agents still agents, what has changed?

The answer seems to be technology. With the growth of e-books and electronic publishing, the responsibilities of both agents and editors have increased exponentially in terms of production, marketing, and the sale and management of rights.

“The agent is now immersed in so many different things for [a] client that it does involve a level of time and investment and involvement that I’ve never seen before,” says Galen. But, he hastens to add, “I don’t think it’s a cultural change, I think it’s a technological change.”

Reflecting the ever-growing diversity of tasks that occupy agents, Clark sees his role as more that of a manager with additional editorial involvement. And although Sambuchino observes that some agents “take a hands-on role in suggesting changes to tighten up a story or nonfiction book proposal,” he believes that the primary responsibility of the agent remains not editing, but selling books.

Editors—and publishing—are clearly in flux. But there’s no reason to give up hope yet.

“There’s always something to make you think that publishing is about to fall off a cliff,” says Galen. “Thirty years ago, all anyone talked about was how publishing was in its dying days. There wasn’t a Golden Age.”

Return to home page