Erik Hayden at The Atlantic has the round-up.
Molly Fischer at New York Observer:
After agent Andrew Wylie announced his plans to do ebook business directly with Amazon, Macmillan CEO John Sargent snarked that Wylie seemed to fancy himself a publisher.
But if agents do begin filling some of the roles traditionally played by publishers, what new skills will they need to learn? What resources will they require?
The first order of business, it seems, may be finding some good copy editors.
Yesterday, agent Robert Gottlieb of Trident posted a 480-word response to the Odyssey Editions news on Publishers Marketplace. By our count, it featured at least 10 typos or other errors. Excerpt:
It is one thing to advise a client as a traditional agent it is another to be in business with the client where their can be a conflict in interest. I can invision litigation between author and agent/publishers down the road. It is the nature of the times we live in today. 4. I don’t think giving any publisher/retailer exclusive rights to books serves the authors interest. From B&N to Walmart and the smaller shops authors works need to reach the widest available reader ship. . . . I like the way they are constantly looking to inovate. We are all living in exciting and challanging times in our industry and we are all going to see a lot more inovation and new ideas.
A corrected version is up now. Learning curve!
Gene Weingarten at Washington Post:
My biggest beef with the New Newsroom, though, is what has happened to headlines. In old newsrooms, headline writing was considered an art. This might seem like a stretch to you, but not to copy editors, who graduated from college with a degree in English literature, did their master’s thesis on intimations of mortality in the early works of Molière, and then spent the next 20 years making sure to change commas to semicolons in the absence of a conjunction.
The only really creative opportunity copy editors had was writing headlines, and they took it seriously. This gave the American press some brilliant and memorable moments, including this one, when the Senate failed to convict President Clinton: CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR; and this one, when a meteor missed Earth: KISS YOUR ASTEROID GOODBYE. There were also memorably wonderful flops, like the famous one on a food story about home canning: YOU CAN PUT PICKLES UP YOURSELF.
Newspapers still have headlines, of course, but they don’t seem to strive for greatness or to risk flopping anymore, because editors know that when the stories arrive on the Web, even the best headlines will be changed to something dull but utilitarian. That’s because, on the Web, headlines aren’t designed to catch readers’ eyes. They are designed for “search engine optimization,” meaning that readers who are looking for information about something will find the story, giving the newspaper a coveted “eyeball.” Putting well-known names in headlines is considered shrewd, even if creativity suffers.
Early this year, the print edition of The Post had this great headline on a story about Conan O’Brien’s decision to quit rather than accept a later time slot: “Better never than late.” Online, it was changed to “Conan O’Brien won’t give up ‘Tonight Show’ time slot to make room for Jay Leno.”
I spent an hour coming up with the perfect, clever, punny headline for this column. If you read this on paper, you’d see it: “A digital salute to online journalism.” I guarantee you that when it runs online, editors will have changed it to something dull, to maximize the possibility that someone, searching for something she cares about, will click on it.
I bet it’ll read “Gene Weingarten Column Mentions Lady Gaga.”
Chris Rovzar at New York Magazine:
The headline that Weingarten says he carefully crafted for his column (appearing this weekend) was, “A Digital Salute to Online Journalism.” Online, it reads, “Gene Weingarten Column Mentions Lady Gaga.”
Michael Scherer at Swampland at Time
Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic:
Every writer and editor I know really liked an essay published this week by Paul Ford called “Real Editors Ship.” Of course we would: it makes the case for our value in our economy. Here’s the nugget of his thought.
Editors are really valuable, and, the way things are going, undervalued. These are people who are good at process. They think about calendars, schedules, checklists, and get freaked out when schedules slip. Their jobs are to aggregate information, parse it, restructure it, and make sure it meets standards. They are basically QA for language and meaning.
In other words, editors do the things for text that designers did for visual products. They standardize rules; they enforce consistency; they provide the key for the map; they make things right.
And yet, in recent years, they’ve seemed expendable, perhaps because they were still around. Now, though, they’re disappearing. Text goes online with less editing than it did at magazines or newspapers. More and more of us writers are working without regular editors. More and more people are writing without ever having been edited. Maybe now people will realize what editors did: their presence will be felt in their absence.
Here’s my analogy. We take good roads for granted in the US; our highway system just works, so you start to think of it almost as geology, almost immutable and close to eternal. But if you take a drive on the backroads of the Yucatan, the forest encroaches, large potholes appear out of nowhere, and the signage is indecipherable, regardless of your level of Spanish.
The Internet can feel like a jungle, and journalists are in the business of providing paths through the territory. Writers might blaze the trails, but editors maintain the roads. The vines are creeping and the potholes are growing. And maybe letting the road deteriorate is really the only way to make audiences and media companies realize the value of those whose names do not appear underneath the headline.
Update 12:32pm: This article has been updated to fix a couple of typos that only served to reinforce my point.
Meenal Vamburkar at Mediaite:
We don’t realize what we’ve had until it’s gone. In this case, it’s edited and polished prose. Editing is necessary in the same way that fact-checking is — yet in the 24/7 news cycle, it’s often overlooked in order to save time. Perhaps it’s because publishing something online feels less concrete than ink on paper, but that’s hardly an excuse. Just as this post will be edited before it is published, it makes sense that others should be too — even if they’re only online.
People often think that editors are there to read things and tell people “no.” Saying “no” is a tiny part of the job. Editors are first and foremost there to ship the product without getting sued. They order the raw materials—words, sounds, images—mill them to approved tolerances, and ship. No one wrote a book called Editors: Get Real and Ship or suggested that publishers use agile; they don’t live in a “culture” of shipping, any more than we live in a culture of breathing. It’s just that not shipping would kill the organism. This is not to imply that you hit every sub-deadline, that certain projects don’t fail, that things don’t suck. I failed plenty, myself. It just means that you ship. If it’s too hard to ship or you don’t want to deal with it, you quit or get fired.
I recently left zineland and did a bunch of freelance work and hooboy do people not know how to ship. A three-year project that yielded only 90-second page load; or $1.5 million down the drain with only a few microsites to show. And I’ve started to find myself going, God, these projects need editors. Editors are really valuable, and, the way things are going, undervalued. These are people who are good at process. They think about calendars, schedules, checklists, and get freaked out when schedules slip. Their jobs are to aggregate information, parse it, restructure it, and make sure it meets standards. They are basically QA for language and meaning.
But can they deal with character encoding issues when the parser breaks? Not really. They’re often luddites of the kind that calls the mouse a clicker, even the young ones. That said, I think there’re weird content times afoot. Google just acquired MetaWeb, which is not user-generated as much as user-edited content. (C.f. the Shakespeare page). Wolfram Alpha is purely about curating data sources and then calculating atop the restructured data. Wikipedia growth is slowing, but editing and tagging continue; the infoboxes are a wealth of semantic data. Meanwhile F——b—— and Tw—— (I can’t bear to write those words again) continue to dump forth information by the gallon, now tagging their core objects with all manner of extra metadata. Everything is being knit together in all sorts of ways. User-generated content is still king, because it generates page views and inculcates membership (the concept of the subscription being dead, the concept of the membership being ascendant) but user-edited content is of increasing importance because of what I call, having just made it up, “the Barnes & Noble problem.”
Until I was about 26 almost everything I wanted to read was in Barnes & Noble. Eventually they had less and less of what I wanted. Now B&N’s a place I go before a movie, and I get my books anywhere else. I’m increasingly having B&N moments with full text search ala Google. It’s just not doing the job; you have to search, then search, then search again, often within the sites themselves. The web is just too big, and Google really only can handle a small part of it. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s a hard, hard problem.
Remember when everyone was into the idea that Google is a media company, back in 2008 when YouTube was two? Google is not really a media company as much as a medium company. Google creates forms—i.e. structured ways of representing data—and then populates them with search results. They’re the best at that. Google doesn’t do the best job making it easy to edit the nodes in every case (they can when they want, though—it’s easy to edit in Gmail, or upload a video), or even particularly want you to edit much of their data. Knol being the exception that proves that Knol is kind of eh. And I haven’t checked in on Orkut (the 65th largest website in the world) in quite a while.
Now, though, they’ve bought ITA (a very interesting company that has had tons of weird database stuff going on for a while) and Metaweb. So clearly structured—meaning edited, meaning user-edited—data is now going to be a big part of the web. There are going to be all kinds of new slots and tabs and links and nodes. And whether the users want this or not, it looks like they’re going to get it, and the state of NLP being what it is, not to mention NPC, humans will need to be involved. Unfortunate but true. (Then again I’ve been off in the high wilderness for five years; I have no clue what people think in Mountain View. I could just be blowing more smoke.)
The Semantic Web is basically the edited web, for some very nerdy take on editing. Which implies editors. Facebook has gone turtles all the way down. Django, Rails, and other frameworks make it possible to build custom-structured-and-semantic data acquisition tools with very little pain; Django’s admin, in particular, is optimized for exactly that sort of thing. Solr and related technologies make it possible to search through that structured information. And nearest to my heart there’s an insane glut of historical data, texts, and so forth, billions of human, historical, textual objects to come online from the millennia before the web. Plus a gaggle of history bloggers trying to contextualize it (the history bloggers are the best bloggers out there—but that’s for a different day). Dealing with the glut—and we must deal with this glut, because what is more important than sorting all human endeavor into folders?—will require all manner of editing, writing, commissioning, contextualizing, and searching. (Take a look at Lapham’s Quarterly to see one very successful approach, using paper and ink.) Fortunes will be made! Not mine, of course, because I lack the qualities that money likes, but someone’s. History is big business.
I see three problems with my idea. First, editors and journalists are mostly luddites, as already noted, and they don’t really hang out in places where you might think to hire them. (I think the Awl should have a jobs board; that would be perfect.) But I think this one can be solved: even my most technically mystified editor pals could be trained to use Freebase Gridworks. Add to that the willingness to schedule the living shit out of everything, the ability to see patterns, a total dedication to shipping, and willingness to say “no,” and you start to have this very interesting source of power inside your organization, especially given the changes coming in web content, where you need structure and connections in order to play with others. Editors can help you play nice. And they actually do understand standards, at least conceptually. If you tell them the line needs to end with a semicolon they will end it with a semicolon. Words into Type and ISO 8879 are of similar complexity.
Second problem: most editors want to be editing for print or broadcast, not for the web, which is still seen as slumming it. But that said more and more of the big-deal journalism is about aggregating data. Which means that more and more journalists are getting exposed to thinking in grids and bulk-editing and so forth. Or at least getting interns to do it for them. Which is interesting. Also, getting fired or taking a buyout helps people gain perspective on what they like doing; there’s that.
Third problem: I’ve worked on various big content engagements, and I’ve talked to a number of people with more big-content experience than me. And people agree that big orgs, even if they now have content problems, won’t hire editors, or enough editors, to manage their content. Think: museums, non-profits, giant corporations, government. I get very sadpanda when I see someone spend $500K plus deployment, development, and licensing costs on a Java EE-based multilingual platform incorporating a JSR-238 repository with a custom workflow/process approval engine. Because they could build out something for about 20 percent of that (or sometimes 1/2 a percent of that), and hire a few editors to wrangle the content. The content, were it approached strategically, could be of far higher quality—better SEO, more durable, consistent voice, vetted for legal compliance, primed for re-use. And you can make an end-run around workflow if you add versioning and reversion capability to your text fields (like Wikipedia), give most users the ability to edit, and give the editor full revert and publish privileges. Most CMSes are parasitic technologies dedicated to preserving the cultural and hierarchical status quo of their hosts no matter the cost, literally. People hear me whine about this and they say: Our case is different; we need to have a system that sends out seven thousand “todo” emails per day. And I grieve for the spirit of Work, killed by her evil child, Workflow.
That’s it. This of course is already too long because I don’t have an editor.
Mike Taylor at Mediabistro:
Without debating the quality assurance – related merits of dedicated style police, we can say that the forces governing the current state of media — limited budgets and the rapid-fire demands of Internet publishing — continue to work against the droves of unthanked and underappreciated guardians of syntactical propriety. Nevertheless, it’s comforting to know that the copy editing discipline is dormant rather than extinct.
Lori Fradkin at The Awl:
The word is douche bag. Douche space bag. People will insist that it’s one closed-up word—douchebag—but they are wrong. When you cite the dictionary as proof of the division, they will tell you that the entry refers to a product women use to clean themselves and not the guy who thinks it’s impressive to drop $300 on a bottle of vodka. You will calmly point out that, actually, the definition in Merriam-Webster is “an unattractive or offensive person” and not a reference to Summer’s Eve. They will then choose to ignore you and write it as one word anyway.
I know this because, during my three-plus years as a copy editor, I had this argument many, many times.
When I left to take a non-copyediting position at another company, I sent an e-mail to some of the editors telling them to spell it however they wanted going forward. I no longer cared. Which was kind of the case to begin with. I never had a personal investment in that space between the words, but as part of my job, it was my duty to point out that it should exist. It was a job that suited my tendency to worry about details, but one that also forced me to engage in unexpectedly absurd conversations.
I pretty much knew I wanted to go into journalism since I served as an editor on my high-school newspaper, the Three Penny Press, but what exactly I wanted to do changed throughout the years. Initially I thought I wanted to work for People, but then I realized that I am way too shy to approach famous people and ask them about their personal lives. Also, my desire to be their best friend would likely interfere with my ability to do objective reporting. Then I decided I wanted to work at a fashion magazine, a dream killed by The Devil Wears Prada, a friend’s internships in the industry and the acknowledgment that I’m not very good at putting clothing combinations together. (I like dresses for a reason.) But starting at some point in college, I aspired to one day, fingers crossed, work at New York magazine. I was a faithful subscriber, despite living in Evanston, Illinois.
It was my one-day-if-I-work-really-hard goal, but when I did the requisite round of informational interviews for jobs in New York, I paid a visit there as well. I was introduced to the copy chief, who oversees fact-checking and copyediting, and I mentioned that I was far more interested in the latter. The former, with its inherent asking-questions-of-strangers, makes me incredibly uncomfortable, even when it’s just “Are you still located at 123 Some Street?” Plus, I’d always had an eye for error: When one of my best friends in elementary school asked her mom what “f-u-k” meant because she’d seen it on the door to the bathroom stall, I helpfully jumped in: “I think you mean f-u-C-k.” You’re welcome, Friend’s Mom.
All of this is to say that I never necessarily aspired to be a copy editor. I enjoyed the experience—seriously, your job is to sit and read articles—but when my day-camp counselor asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did not tell her that I hoped one day to correct who-whom mix-ups or determine whether “faucetry” was a real, dictionary-approved word. I told her I wanted to be a princess.
The job has its perks—an accumulation of random knowledge, for instance—but it also has its side effects when you unintentionally drink the copy Kool-Aid. Once you train yourself to spot errors, you can’t not spot them. You can’t simply shut off the careful reading when you leave the office. You notice typos in novels, missing words in other magazines, incorrect punctuation on billboards. You have nightmares that your oversight turned Mayor Bloomberg into a “pubic” figure. You walk by a beauty salon the morning after you had sex for the first time with a guy you’ve been seeing and point out that there’s no such thing as “lazer” hair removal, realizing that this may not be the best way to get to have sex with him again.