What Are Editors For?

Allen Mikaelian, February 2013

My first mentor in publishing, hearing of my desire to be an editor, suggested that I read Clarkson N. Potter's Who Does What and Why in Book Publishing. Skipping to the section on editors, I learned that "What an editor does all day and why he does it is usually a mystery to an author and just as much of a mystery to most of the people inside a publishing house." I read on, only to find that "The editor is thus often seen by insiders as a pleasant flimflam artist without any professional standing." Less a literary midwife, more of a Don Draper figure, but on a much lower pay scale and with not nearly as much charm. What a thing to aspire to!

I thought about this passage at several points during the annual meeting, and I was reminded that editors during Potter's era (he started in 1950) managed to mask the real dangers of appearing to be such a flimflam artist. Today, the editorial profession is much more fragile. Being perceived as not having "any professional standing," in today's publishing environment, means risking having no standing at all.

In conversation with journal editors at the annual meeting I repeatedly heard that academic journals have to do a better job of explaining what it is they do. In the session on "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers," I heard it again—that editors and publishers have not made the case for their professions and institutions. In both cases, the value of the author and his or her products wasn't the thing being challenged. The question was why, in a digital age, we still need the elaborate mechanisms of editorial or peer review, collection, aggregation, and dissemination under a single institutional banner.

Editors—be they editors of books, academic journals, newspapers, or magazines—have customarily hidden what they do. From the reputation-saving fact check to the massive rewrite to the light polish, editors conceal their textual alterations from public view and promote the idea of the author as a solitary genius. This hampers the ability of editors to explain what it is they do, and few editors would have it any other way. What would be the point of polishing a work, if in the end we put on display all that we didn't want the readers to see in the first place?

But beyond that professional aversion to showing the public how the proverbial sausage is made, editors should not rely merely on the changes they make to text to maintain or define the profession. It's too easy to dismiss. Many writers simply don't need much editing, many others fool themselves into thinking they don't, and others would be perfectly well served by hiring a skilled copyeditor or sending the manuscript to friends and colleagues.

Anthony Grafton, defending peer review at an AHA annual meeting panel, compared it to Jeeves in a Wodehouse story, suggesting to his boss that he might not want to go outside wearing magenta-colored socks. There is much more to Grafton's take on what reviewing is and does, but that's the comment that has been passed around via Twitter, and it's a good reflection of the widely shared perception of the review process (whether done by editors or peers), that the main function of editors is to catch mistakes and save authors from embarrassment.

But there are other ways editors can add value to a work, and not just by excising what's mistaken or by achieving that editorial gold standard of finding and furthering the author's own voice, ideas, or what they "really" wanted to say.

An editor can enhance a work, even a work that needs little editing, by placing it in conversation with other works. Any good author will already have an idea of where the work fits in with his or her own field; it's an editor's job to expand that field and expand the conversation. Where does the book, article, or essay fit in with current discussions happening in print, in social media, within a particular publication or discipline, on broadcast media, or in political discourse? How far can we expand the discussion? How many conversations can the piece spark and in how many isolated silos?

This may not sound all that different from the dream of marketers everywhere—of finding the crossover product with broad appeal—but I hope that what I'm proposing is different. Where a marketer attempts to target and expand audiences as passive consumers, I think we can aspire to a collaboration between editor and author that emphasizes conversations rather than mere consumption, and cultivates an active, participating audience that responds to the work.

For me, this is more an aspiration than an accomplished fact—something I'd like to do more of and something I'd like to see for Perspectives on History. The challenges ahead are clear: It means that editorial work on a particular article is not done when the piece is published. It has to be continually revisited and promoted as opportunities arise. It may have to be revised and edited again to meet new and changing contexts. The vision for Perspectives has to be clear and continually communicated. More time out of the day will have to be spent on social media and in the blogosphere. And these conversations that Perspectives hopes to spark can obviously go awry, as discussions on the Internet so often do.

Still, Perspectives on History has incredible potential for those who want to converse with others who have "an abiding interest in history," as the AHA puts it, but who work in very different professional settings. As AHA President Kenneth Pomeranz points out in his column this month, the need for extensive discussion on a wide variety of topics relevant to the discipline as a whole is urgent.

What Perspectives would like to offer, moving forward, is something beyond mere publication. We would like to offer authors a chance to collaborate on finding points of entry into wider conversations, finding unexpected conversations, promoting our authors' work through our large and growing social media presence, and devising ways to give the article a life well beyond the monthly issue. We hope in this way we will be more than editors who merely "put forth," as the Latin root of the word would suggest, and become editors who help start and mediate discussions of interest to the discipline as a whole.

Allen Mikaelian is editor of Perspectives on History.