Let me begin with an assertion: Literary editing is both profession and practice. I use the word literary but I mean this in the broader categorical sense, rather than the bookshop genre sense. I say profession because it is a job: an editor works, usually, in exchange for some sort of wage. But it is also practice because it involves creative work, too. The editor works in service—to the author, to the publisher, to the reader. At the same time, editing involves its own sense of artistry. Plenty of others before me have written about the various characteristics of this artistry, and editing practice in general—especially its invisible, self-effacing nature and its likeness to certain types of care labour. So I will try not to cover too much well-trodden ground.
What I want to highlight at the outset is two things. One, that editing requires a high level of technical knowledge: of language and grammar conventions and style, and how to work with an author specifically, but also knowledge of the publishing process, and what is involved in a book’s making, which includes knowledge of other roles that participate in the its production. The second thing is that in some instances editors also acquire a manuscript. But today I am interested primarily in the editor who does not acquire the manuscript they work on. The broader topic for tonight’s talk is the future of editing, but in order to approach this, I will be focusing on the work of the editor, on work itself, and how this informs our thinking of the future of editing.
I must confess something. I am not the biggest fan of capitalism. But I work in an industry that produces commodities (i.e. books). And I happen to love these particular commodities. So I come to my work with two things in the back of my mind: firstly, that for all the artistic and cultural merits that books provide us, at the end of the day they emerge from systems of production and circulation that are definitively capitalist. They are created out of intellectual, artistic and emotional labour as well as physical labour, and the end product is a commodity that is exchanged on the market.
Books of course predate capitalism—the printing press was invented centuries before the industrial revolution and forms of books predate the printing press. But contemporary books have long been part of massive chains of production and distribution since the advent of capitalism, and we can think about some Marxist concepts to help illuminate what’s going on. If we think of a finished book, published and in a bookshop, where do we find the value? What, exactly, makes it valuable? In fact, what made it a book in the first place? We started with raw materials: draft manuscript, blank paper, unprinted cover stock, etc. Something happens to these raw materials. The thing that happened to the raw materials was labour. In other words, by inserting labour, by doing work on this, an object was created that could then be realised in its full potential through exchange (that is, in exchange for money). Labour is where value is created. This is not just books; this is the commodity form under capitalism.
So that is the first thing in the back of my mind: that books are commodities, and they are created with labour power to be exchanged in the market. The second thing in the back of my mind is: What do these markets do? A business is required to make money, and companies that make books are businesses. These markets provide the space for this money-making objective to take place. I am emphatic about this not because I want to downplay the important role books play in how we grow as a society, but because I think that we cannot separate this from the conditions that produce them. Especially because these are works that come to define, inform, entertain us. And this, by necessity, means they are informed by our experiences under capitalism.
Labour power is also one of the big costs of production—for books as well as other commodities. Capital has the tendency to try to squeeze these high costs and reduce the amount being spent on the production so that when it sells, or exchanges, the item, it can increase the potential for growth of profit. So we see across industries that the drive is to get workers to make as much as they can as fast as they can, by the absolute minimum amount of people required, paid the least amount realistically possible.
In thinking about the way editing has developed as a profession over the years, we might also note that as a job, it has historically been one tied up with technological change. The nature of this work is that it is closely linked to the way the product is manufactured. We might also notice the ways that certain technological changes in this field are designed to reduce the time it takes for certain editorial tasks, and how this has changed the way we edit. We can think especially of more recent examples such word processors, digital typesetting, on-screen editing and proofing. These developments can be seen in different lights depending on which way we look at them. But these technologies are themselves produced under capitalist relations, and their purpose is not always immediately visible; they are often introduced as triumphant moments of societal advancement or convenience. This technology is often a form of automation, and ostensibly introduced to save time, and to reduce human error, both of which are qualities of any commodity production that requires human labour power. To give a non-book example of this we can also look at the early industrial revolution and the cotton mills in England, where machinery was implemented to automate parts of the manufacturing process and reduce the amount of workers required, therefore slashing jobs and wages.
There have been bleak cries of warning over the years, almost since publishing itself has existed as an industry, about the ways changes to editorial practice via technological advancements damage the quality of work that is produced. Editing and writing is slow work. It is at odds with the speed of production that is required to create commodities at the ideal rate to produce maximum profit.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the capitalist mode of production places restrictions and demands on the way books are produced that can often create a conflict for the kind of labour that is required to make them. Editing as a practice, though, is resilient. Despite the high volume of books being produced, and the increasing pressures to produce them as quickly and cheaply as possible—and of course to sell as many as possible—editing itself remains a profession and practice that calls for great skill and care. Great books continue to be written, and edited, to a very high quality.
The work of editing requires time and skilled labour, which bumps up against even the most persistent efforts by capitalism to streamline and squeeze labour power for maximum profit. And we can admire the fact that for all the technology and automation that comes our way, the core of editing and writing is human: there is something to this job that requires a human mind. That’s not to say people aren’t still trying to find ways around the human mind, but we also see that for now, because we still have, and require, writers, we also require editors. The service that the editor provides here, to the author, is not one that can easily be replaced by a machine.
Whatever our vision of the editor looks like: either harrowed genius there to save authors from themselves or gentle, maternal guiding angel (yes these are entirely gendered constructs, but they’re not my own, and they’re a little bit exaggerated), the uniting element is that the editor is an individual. They form a special relationship with a writer, a close one, a secret one in many ways, because the work of an editor is not visible to anyone else, let alone visible in the final version of the commodity.
This brings us back to the work of editors. Earlier I mentioned the cost of labour power. This cost is wages. But we all know that the wages in publishing, and in editing work, are abysmal. See, for example, the recent surveys and reports on wages and conditions in Books+Publishing. Editing and publishing is made up of mostly women, mostly on laughable salaries, especially considering the amount of experience and skill that is brought to the role, the unpaid overtime demanded of them and the relative value they bring to the products that are sold as commodities (this value of course is high partly because of those low wages). The men who do work in publishing will often, still, earn more than the women. And we don’t have the space here to cover the racial makeup of the industry, but that’s not to say this is unrelated.
I am now pointing out what many others before me have before. It has also been said before that one of the reasons for low pay and poor conditions is that it is an industry that more people want to work in than there are jobs available. There is a brilliant Jacobin article by Bethany Patch and Joshua Barnes that goes into this in great detail. The glamour is not nothing. And the glamour is the part to hold on to because the actual making of books is not always glamorous itself. But there have been changes in the industry in recent years. Last year Penguin Random House editorial and publicity staff voted up a collective bargaining agreement via the MEAA (Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance) that made clear and transparent grading structures, pay increases and formalised time in lieu, recognising the usually unpaid overtime required of editors and publicists, whose work is often driven by demanding schedules and deadlines. This was a result of serious solidarity and organising, but it’s solidarity that I want to turn to, because it is solidarity that I believe is potentially the way to start rethinking how we conceptualise our future as editors. Not just as individual editors, but as editors who form part of this collective literary landscape.
Solidarity is not a word without baggage. It has a history in broader left struggles, and I don’t want to suggest that what I’m talking about tonight is on the same scale, but I want to centre this word because when I think about some of the problems we face with editing working conditions, and how we imagine our future in this industry, I keep coming back to this word.
So, there are a number of blocks or barriers to solidarity when we think of editing and the publishing industry more widely. One of these barriers is the nature of the market itself, that is, the market in which the commodities, the books, are exchanged. This puts publishing companies in competition with each other. And as a result, editors and writers are forced to compete with each other too, because that is what the market demands, and that is how the publishers must act. These are not necessarily choices, either, but the ways the capitalist market governs our relations. But it means that where we might find comrades, in our own or rival publishers, we instead find competitors. Another component of this is that within publishing there are different roles and departments, and there can be tensions that arise as each role must do its work for the book but often these feel like competing interests. In a slightly related sidenote, many publishers in Australia share a distributor whose workforce is unionised, but there is little interaction between these different arms of the business, and so we lose another opportunity for solidarity.
That idea of editing and writing as slow work bumps up against the need to get materials out fast and early in order to create competitive advantages in the market. Another barrier is that because editing involves care: often for authors and their books, organising can sometimes feels like a risk because withdrawing labour, one of the main tools of an organised workforce, can be tricky. To draw a broad comparison, we might look at teachers, nurses and other sectors of care workers. Each of these are workforces where care is central to the work, and withdrawing labour must be done carefully to avoid people’s lives being put at risk. Books are not people of course, but the essence of care is that we can’t not care, when it comes to the books we work on.
One more barrier is the nature of editing, which is an individual task in many ways, between the editor and author. There are good reasons for this: editing is a subjective form, and it has that artistic element I mentioned earlier. And this work still requires a respect for the author, whose writing is part of the raw materials, and whose work it ultimately is. This also means that it’s not only the editor doing work at this point, but the author too, which I want to note insofar as we’re thinking about solidarity. So it is a tightly bound-up part of the process that is squirreled away within the overall production of the book in a way that is not like, for example, the printing process or the distribution to warehouses and then retail from there.
I’m using print examples, though we could also do a similar mapping for digital publications. But this relationship might feel like it can work against solidarity, because trust and discretion are central to the work of editing. And transparency is central to creating solidarity. We see this time and again in wages, and the way that workplaces discourage and sometimes ban workers from discussing their salaries with each in order to keep collective action or bargaining at bay. So to have a publisher that has committed to this transparency through a formalised workplace agreement is a huge deal. And while this year has thrown everything in flux, I’m hopeful that we can see the importance of collectively defining our workplace conditions, which includes safety. The law and the industry will offer the bare minimum but this is not enough. But yes, the actual process of needing to collectivise through unions is a barrier. Many in the industry are not aware of what union they would fall under, whether and how they can join, and how safe it is. Because general anti-union sentiment can lead many to believe that the union is harmful, rather than an avenue for workers to come together and advocate for themselves. Companies, too, will spend big on anti-union consulting firms and lawyers in order to prevent and bust any beginnings of unionising, as well as directly intimidating workers against organising.
We know the literary world is full of communities, and that when we want to, as humans, we can connect to each other despite the atomisation and alienation that capitalism imposes on us. What I see is potential here. Community is crucial and special. I am part of a few communities that are important to me as an editor and as a person—communities of editors, communities of people of colour, women, my poetry community—and these provide space for safety and knowledge-sharing. These communities exist within the industry. That is, industry contains communities, but they are not the same thing. And maybe this sounds contradictory: I’m calling for solidarity, but I am acknowledging that community is strong and important for editors and writers and the wider literary sphere. But the distinction is, I think, an important one. The distinction is political. Community predates capitalism and will exist after it.
Community in our current world is a way of coping with capitalism. But solidarity offers us a way out of it. So while community, knowledge-sharing, support and advice are all helpful and necessary, we as editors, and writers, and as people in this industry, need to start thinking about the transformative ways we can bring about the future we envision.
Perhaps this sounds grandiose and a bit overly optimistic. I don’t think we need to worry about being too optimistic, though. The problem I have seen, and the barrier I haven’t yet mentioned, is that there is not enough optimism. Changes happen incrementally and are sometimes barely perceptible. But organising and advocating for better working conditions is exhausting, and when companies decide to clamp down on it, it’s not entirely pleasant. We might see some of the glow of the job disappear. The work in itself leaves us at constant risk of burnout. The low wages and barriers into gaining employment in publishing makes for a potentially homogenous group. As we see more and more conversations about diversity in publishing lists, judges’ panels, and inside the publishers and literary organisations that make up the industry, we need to ensure that fair wages and conditions are part of these conversations. The fairer and more transparent the working conditions, the easier it is for those outside typical backgrounds to find their way into publishing.
I began with some thoughts about the nature of editing work: the way it is shaped by technology, the pressures put on it by the forces of capitalism, but to me the urgency for the future will come down to how we think about organising and solidarity.
As a freelancer, I no longer have colleagues, so this solidarity is a challenge for us. We are increasingly forced to compete against each other for work, but at the same time, we are a community. So my hopes in this space are that we can find ways to resist the capitalist relations that have forced us into certain modes, and to find alternative ways beyond competition and individualism.
Capitalism itself is not going anywhere anytime soon, but even now there are alternative models for publishing that haven’t been explored. What would it mean, for example, to have a workers-run publishing collective? What would it mean to do the same sort of work, but not with the purpose of creating profit for a business owned by someone else? These are hard questions, and this is hard and slow work. And I don’t know if I have a clear vision of how it might happen. Besides, it’s not up to me. The point is that it would be collective. I would like to think of a future of editing where we can continue to work with writers, and do what we love, and create objects that are of and for this world, to create books and written works that add to the human experience. But I would like to see this in a space where profit and competition are not the driving forces behind what we make.
This is an edited version of a presentation made to the The Editing Micro-Festival.
Elena Gomez is a poet and editor living in Melbourne. She is the author of Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt (2020) and Body of Work(2018).