Manguel on editors

The story has often been told of how Coleridge dreamt his “Kubla Khan” in an intoxication of opium, and of how, upon waking, he sat down to write it and was interrupted by “a person from Porlock,” thereby losing forever the conclusion to that extraordinary poem. Persons from Porlock are professionally employed by the publishing companies of the Anglo-Saxon world. A few are wise and ask questions that speed on the writing; a few distract; a few quibble away at the author’s vaporous confidence; a few destroy the work in mid-creation. All interfere, and it is this compulsive tinkering with someone else’s text that I have to question.

Without editors we are likely to have rambling, incoherent, repetitive, even offensive texts, full of characters whose eyes are green one day and black the next (like Madame Bovary); full of historical errors, like stout Cortez discovering the Pacific (as in Keats’s sonnet); full of badly strung-together episodes (as in Don Quixote); with a cobbled-together ending (as in Hamlet) or beginning (as in The Old Curiosity Shop). But with editors – with the constant and now unavoidable presence of editors without whose nihil obstat hardly a book can get published – we may perhaps be missing something fabulously new, something as incandescent as a phoenix and as unique, something impossible to describe because it has not yet been born but which, if it were, would admit no secret sharers in its creation.

—Alberto Manguel, ‘The Secret Sharer’
(collected in Into the Looking-Glass Wood)

My own comment:

The nihil obstat has been removed. The principal function of editors was never to edit books, but to reject them, and they rejected a lot of very good books because of their personal tastes, or their unsound judgement of what was and was not commercial, or simply because too many good books were submitted to them and they could not publish them all. Half the point of being independent authors is that when we write a good book, we can take it straight to the public without giving an intermediary the power to reject it. To replicate the editorial function of traditional publishing would not only be foolish, it would destroy our reason for doing business.


  1. cinda-cite says

    and i had a (brief) exchange about production values associated with POD self-publishing. seems to me that self-publishers have no choice but to sell poorly produced books at prices that well-made books bring in. i apologize for the off-topic, but am trying to wedge in something that might yield your thoughts on this dilemma., and if you or others know of POD possibilities with better values?

    • cinda-cite says

      that was the LJ user asakiyume in conversation with me about the production values.

    • I haven’t got much experience with POD, but I have noticed that POD books used to use inferior paper and rather shoddy bindings. Those problems seem to have been largely solved. The two books I have published in CreateSpace editions, if I may say so, seem to be about as well printed and bound as any offset-printed books I have seen in recent years.

      Of course, even a well-made POD book will look shoddy if the cover design and interior typesetting are bad. I am still using a POD template that I designed two years ago. It seems to hold up as well as it should, considering that it is based firmly on principles of book design first laid down about five hundred years ago. You can see my post about it here, if you’re so minded.

  2. cinda-cite says

    thanks for the additional post about templates. i haven’t read it yet. so answers may be in there. your /writing down the dragon/ book is beautiful. evidently Createspace does a good job, and these will be available for order elsewhere, because you own the ISBN. lulu is another matter. their values are not so good, perhaps, compared with traditional pub and even amazon. my main concern here was something not well expressed. that is, design is not the problem, it seems to me, but of what, and how, the books are made.

    • It’s true, there are good and bad POD suppliers; or at least, there are good ones now, and there were bad ones formerly – for all I know, the quality may have improved across the board.

      I have at least one POD book on my shelves that is thoroughly badly printed. The type is slightly crooked on each page, as if the paper had not been fed through the printer in a straight line; the binding is cheap and shoddy; the paper is thin and weak – it appears to be no better than standard photocopier stock. When I ordered my first proof copies of Writing Down the Dragon, I was afraid I might find something of that kind. It was a great relief to find that it was not so.

  3. Matt Osterndorf says

    As I’ve mentioned here before in slightly different terms, I do not even begin to approach writing professionally, and my experience is therefore limited to a fair bit of fanfiction.

    I’ve no idea how things work once you start scaling up output and don’t work from a common existing canon. So maybe I’m way off base here–but I should probably get to the point.

    In the community I’m involved with, it’s quite normal to have at least a couple different people look over your drafts prior to “publication”.

    I myself do “editing” work, which means that I’ll look through a document for grammatical errors, stylistic issues, inapt metaphors, etc., and recommend changes accordingly.

    I have much less natural faculty with the more fun parts of writing, so I’ve been lucky enough to encounter a few really good “prereaders”, who help me sort through the larger scale stuff: characterization, plot, pacing, and so on and give relevant advice (e.g. “This scene doesn’t work–character X wouldn’t respond like that, it’s too early”).

    The difference here is that editors and prereaders in that sense have no involvement with whether something will be published or not–they’re just there to help the author.

    I have no idea if this is even remotely relevant, or failing that, at least interesting, but figured that I’d put it up here.

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