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21st-Century Editing with The Book Oven

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By K Sawyer Paul

In the last ten years, almost every aspect of publishing words has been modified – often painfully – by the advent of several new technologies. The Internet has given anyone with a connection the ability to become an author, to quickly and easily publish any amount of words on any subject they like. It’s increasingly easy to design pages that look nice, too, with aesthetically pleasing fonts and images. We’ve come a long way from green screens and monitor flicker. Companies such as Amazon, Sony and Apple have entered the publishing industry, with the result that magazines and books are beginning to be distributed electronically. Technologies such as Adobe Air allow publishers to craft digital magazines that feel and look like the real thing. And yet, over in the corner office sits an editor. Editors are editing books to be professionally published, and they are charging huge fees, operating under the same rules as the people who edited Hemingway, still clutching their red pen and Manual of Style. We’ve upgraded the publishers and distributors and, in many ways, even upgraded the author from recluse typist to social media magnet. What is to be done about the editor?

The first argument is that very little needs to change. The editor’s job is a sacred one, and the publishing industry’s move to digital in every other area means little to grammatical and style corrections, let alone suggestions on pacing, voice, architecture and the dozens of other editorial remarks a book must clear before it can be considered consumable by a general public. It’s easy to forget the importance of editorial voice, as editor's names rarely appear on the front page. This is largely because the work isn’t sexy, especially in comparison with the slick new options available to everyone else involved in the modern publishing process. The fact remains, however, that editors are possibly the most important hands a piece of writing must pass through on the way from the author to the reader, and perhaps editors may one day earn the same credence as directors or cinematographers. One must only read a few collections from the McSweeney’s imprint to see how editorial voice can affect an entire series of authors (I would be curious to see what many of those stories looked like before they passed through that particular factory).

Nobody denies the importance of editing. But is the job description immune to the digital shift? It certainly hasn’t hurt the freelancing editing business. It’s easier than ever to collaborate with editors who might live halfway across the world. With scanners and screen-and-document-sharing programs, it’s never been easier to work on the same document simultaneously. Marketplaces such as Lulu’s Pre-Publishing Community have given freelancers opportunity to advertise their abilities online. Only fifteen or so years after the mass adoption of home computers, an editor never needs to leave home to find work. But will new web initiatives spell the end of editing as we know it?

The Book Oven is a website built by publishing pioneers Hugh McGuire and Stephanie Troeth. If McGuire sounds familiar, it’s because you’re aware of his other mega-project, Librivox. Librivox is a collective of volunteers who audibly record classic, copyright-free works. The goal is to create audiobooks of every classic publication, and they are well on their way. The philosophy of the Librivox project is open and free collaboration: build it and let them come. It’s a valuable resource and a powerful example of mass collaboration working on a purely good project.

The Book Oven looks to twist the Librivox concept slightly: instead of classics, users submit their unedited drafts of new work; instead of audio recordings, they receive single-line edits from the masses. The idea behind this project is to “wiki” the editing process in a way that’s controlled and fun.

And it is fun. The Book Oven has tapped into the same habitual tic that feeds video games like World of Warcraft and Farmville: it’s incredibly addictive to slowly hack away at a problem, one bit at a time. The actual act of reading a single out-of-context line from a rough draft and being able to change anything in the sentence gives the exact same sense of middling accomplishment. Fix twenty lines, and the effect begins to be really noticeable. The website keeps score, and you get a proofreading ranking of accepted/denied edits. You’re wasting time on the internet, and you’re helping.

I talked to Stephanie Troeth of The Book Oven over the phone, and she had this to say about the idea behind the website:

What if we could mashup the idea of everyone doing a little bit of work for something that is not easy? Proofreading is a hard thing to do. The simple act of even looking for a typo is not so easy because you end up reading the content. So what if we change the way we do proofreading, which is only a small part of the process, but how do we make it fun and easy?

To that effect they have succeeded. It’s infinitely easier to look for typos and grammatical mistakes when there are only twelve words on the screen as opposed to an entire manuscript. It also helps that The Book Oven is a beautiful website, unlike the majority of publishing-related online destinations.

So what threat does a site like The Book Oven pose to the traditional editor? At this point, it’s no fight at all. Actually using Bite-Size Edits, the section of the Book Oven dedicated to out-of-context, single-line editing, is a crapshoot: because anyone can edit your work, you have no idea if they know what they’re doing. I uploaded a short story of my own and received a few edits of questionable quality. It’s a subjective game on the back-end. Whatever edits you make may appear to be genius fixes at your end, but to the author looking at your changes, placed back in the context of the piece as a whole, they may well be wastes of time. But that’s part of the game, and I found it to be quite enjoyable – if not entirely helpful – to see what entire strangers did to my work.

The obvious criticism is an extension of my experience: while a real editor will bring his or her own voice to the project, Bite-Size Edits gives you a cacophony. The worst-case scenario becomes evident if you receive a good many single-line chunks of proofreading advice and don’t know who to trust. Accept everyone’s advice, and your book could lose its narrative flow. It’s the too-many-cooks argument remixed: what is the point of having an author at all if we’re just going to change things around en masse?

The other obvious flaw in the system is that point-hungry web addicts could simply suggest ridiculous or perfunctory changes in hopes of getting their score higher than others. Though, in a “game” where there is really no winning other than improved verse, the chances of it attracting that sort of troll is low.

The threat that The Book Oven poses to traditional editing is that Bite-Size Edits – which now has its own stand-alone site – is just phase one. Stephanie hinted at future plans in our interview, and the first expansions of the site occurred in February, when they upgraded the infrastructure with more social networking components. Now, if you particularly like what a person has done to a few lines of your book, you can contact them and possibly hire them to work on the rest. Smart freelance editors would do well to join services like this and treat it like fishing – not phishing – by editing a few lines, you’ve reached out with a proof-of-concept business card.

What new services like the Book Oven mean to the editing game is that editing may finally be evolving along with the rest of the industry. Authors and small publishers have had opportunities to carve out new fame, and editors are now being offered these same avenues. This means the gifts and curses are much in line with what we’ve seen in 21st-century authorship: greater independent risk, greater independent reward. Abandoning the physical red pen and printed manuscript, charging variable fees based on new variable projects and solid justifications for prices currently charged are all on the horizon as serious considerations for editors. If anything, The Book Oven shows us that the new wild west of digital publishing affects all aspects of the game: editors aren’t exempt from the rising, shifting tide. Becoming aware of these shifts will mark the difference between savvy 21st-century editors and the soon-to-be dinosaurs.

And that may be the entire threat boiled down. Traditional editors have been able to coast on reputation and previously won merit. Future editors may need a service like Bite-Sized Edits in order to sell themselves to an increasingly knowledgeable customer.

K Sawyer Paul

K Sawyer Paul is the author of No Chinook and several short stories. He blogs and podcasts about the publishing industry at his own imprint, Gredunza Press, at www.gredunzapress.com. You can read almost everything he's ever written for free at www.ksawyerpaul.com and follow him on Twitter @ksawyerpaul.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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