Transcript: The New Editors

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Interview with Michael Greer

Recorded at the 2013 PubWest Conference, Santa Fe

for podcast release Monday, January 6, 2014

KENNEALLY: At the annual conference of PubWest, the organization representing many publishers around the West and across the United States, this is Chris Kenneally for Beyond the Book. Joining me, as he does almost every year now – it becomes a pattern – is Michael Greer, senior development editor for Pearson Higher Education and instructor at the department of rhetoric and writing for the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.

Michael, it’s great to see you once again this year, and I want to pick up our conversation where we left it off last year, talking about some of the changes going on in the publishing world at large. You know it particularly well from the educational publishing side of things, but you were part of a roundtable discussion at PubWest that brought up some themes that I guess you recognized in your own experience, even though many of them are coming from the trade publishing world. Let’s talk about them. One of the first is the whole changing role for editors, something near and dear to your heart.

GREER: Yeah, what we did was we had an opportunity to really take the pulse of the room, and we had about 20 editors in the room, and we asked them what concerns and what challenges are facing you today? One of the biggest ones was the sense that what is an editor? What does it mean to be an editor anymore, in the sense that the job description is shifting, morphing, and growing larger?

Editors tend to have responsibility for more parts of the publishing process, more different phases of the editorial process. What we saw was a greater emphasis on design, that editors are spending more time working with designers, and a greater emphasis on technology, that they’re having to learn things about e-book formats and e-book publication and different ways to use technology to facilitate manuscript development, manuscript delivery, author communication, and transmitting manuscripts and information to the editorial and production staff.

KENNEALLY: Were you able to discuss what’s driving all that? I would think one part of it is consolidation, so there are fewer people doing more work, in a way. The other part is that technology kind of flattens the world for everybody. In the past, people would’ve been in silos, and now as an editor, you have a view into all manners of worlds within the publishing business.

GREER: And downsizing. They’re having to wear more hats within their companies. Along with that goes the need to collaborate virtually with team members that may be around the country or around the world. You might have an editor in one city, designer in another, an e-book vendor in a third. So you’re almost a team manager, or sort of a virtual leader, as the editor of a product or a publisher. You’re working across platforms, across teams, across time and space, using these various virtual collaboration tools to really build a sense of community and build a sense of a project.

KENNEALLY: Did people talk about how well this is all working out for everybody?

GREER: I think people are beginning to get ahead of the curve. We really tried to focus on solutions, and a lot of people have begun to discover various tools and ways of working with authors. One of them was different ways of using Microsoft Word and importing the files into InDesign to change the workflow. Authors seem to be pretty attached to using Microsoft Word. Some publishers would prefer that they not, that they use a different format because of various issues of the embedded code and various problems of importing Word.

But in general, people have begun to find cheap solutions – Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive. There are various tools out there that even small publishers, or even self-publishers, can use to build a little website or a little FTP or a shared folder, where you can have an author, an editor, and a designer accessing the same file at the same time and being able to work on it and keep track of who’s done what on which file.

KENNEALLY: That brings up another theme that came out, which was the whole workflow collaboration aspect of this. Maybe the weak link in the chain is the authors. They aren’t so tech-savvy as you are, because you live with it daily. Talk about that.

GREER: That is one of the biggest issues, is author education and author training, and teaching them to not be afraid of the tools and the technology, and to be able to let them let us work with their files in certain ways. Generally, most people were reporting progress along that front, that the authors are willing to listen and take advice and take directions.

It varies from author to author, of course. Some people just are set in their ways and still insist on supplying hard-copy manuscript with a rubber band around it and drop it into FedEx, and you have to mark it up on hard copy with Post-it notes and send it back. There are people that still work that way. But increasingly they recognize that you can save paper, time, money, and jet fuel by FTP-ing files and doing things electronically. There’s a sense of, I think, progress along that front, that people have begun to find solutions and workarounds that are workable for the authors.

KENNEALLY: How well are editors controlling that process? There’s version control issues which go back quite a ways, probably back to the print days or the paper days as much as in the digital days. But editors have to, as you say, manage these teams. They’ve got to work with authors who may or may not be part of the 21st century with them. Is making the workflow efficient and effective – is that something which editors are being successful at, at the rate they would like to be successful at it?

GREER: Well, I think the driving force behind it is velocity and speed. I think people want to be able to compress the production schedule. The book production schedule used to be nine months. When I first started in publishing, my production manager used to tell me it takes the same amount of time to make a book as it takes to make a baby. It takes nine months, Michael, you can’t speed it up.

Well, now we’re trying to speed it up to six months, or even six weeks, by using a more nonlinear workflow. Instead of doing the manuscript, and then the design, and then the production, you’re doing them all at the same time. There’s an attempt to collapse that and develop a more nonlinear workflow, which sometimes solves problems and then spins off other problems, one of those being third-party rights and permissions.

Often it now takes longer to clear rights on your third-party art illustrations, photos, and text than it takes to produce the book. So you’re ready to release to the printer, but you don’t have permissions on all of the items in your book yet. It’s because the permissions process often can take six to nine months. That seems to be the drag on the system for many publishers now is clearing rights for third-party content in their materials.

KENNEALLY: That’s interesting to hear, because of course at Copyright Clearance Center, we know about that issue, and indeed we’ve put a new program in place, our republication licensing service, that’s trying to address that, so that publishers have kind of a one-stop shop to get those rights when they need them and clear them and move on. That would seem to be pretty important. But workflow and the pressure to speed things up, it would have a positive result in that it’s really encouraging the collaboration that’s going to make for a better book at the end of the day.

GREER: We hope so, and that was the upside of it. The downside and the potential concern, and the highest level of anxiety that I heard in the roundtable yesterday, was this feeling of what’s happening to quality standards, particularly around copyediting? This concern that is real copyediting becoming a lost art?

Many of the people were nodding their heads, saying, I’m afraid it is. That when we ask for a heavy copyedit, what we really get is a proofread. The copyeditors either don’t have the time or don’t have the training to really engage the manuscript at a deep level, query the author on this sentence doesn’t make sense, I lost the flow of the argument here, and really engage the manuscript at a deep level in a way that would help the reader make more sense of it. That’s the potential downside, is the loss of good copyediting and the loss of the traditional quality assurance that editorial has always been about.

KENNEALLY: Which is an interesting part of collaboration. That copyeditor was an essential part of the workflow at one point.

GREER: Absolutely. And I think now what we’re seeing is authors, acquisitions editors, development editors, and copyeditors are all having to take joint responsibility for that. Many of us have to sort of get back in touch with our inner copyeditor and remember the rules of commas and semicolons and how to mark up manuscript and really think about that, because there isn’t any backstop anymore. There’s nobody out there who we can wait and say, oh, the copyeditor will catch that later. Because very often they won’t, or they just won’t have the time. They might have 48 hours to turn around the whole manuscript.

We’ve all had to begin to recognize the importance of that. One of the practical solutions we came up with was an attempt to begin to build a shared workspace around the PubWest website, where we would actually talk about best practices and maybe begin posting some documents and share some information. Several publishers recently moved, one in particular, and they have 22 new staff members who are new to the organization and new to publishing.

So the idea of training and mentoring and supporting those people and teaching them the standards – we were talking about, is there a way to really do this on the Web, where we could share information as an organization, as PubWest, and make that kind of training and mentoring part of our mission, because there just doesn’t seem to be time for that to happen on the publisher side.

KENNEALLY: A great ambition, and much needed, it would seem. Finally, one of the other themes you identified is print to digital transformation. My question is are we still talking about that?

GREER: Yes and no. There doesn’t seem to be the same energy. There doesn’t seem to be the fear that print is going to die. That feels very different this year than it has in the past couple years. There seems to be a new sense of clarity. We saw some data from the BISG, the Book Industry Study Group, at our luncheon speaker today, and the rate of change from transformation from print to digital has decreased, in part because you’re getting a maturation in the market.

There are some clear patterns emerging of what types of books are selling best in e-book versus print. Trade adult fiction and young adult fiction are selling very well in e-book form. Some of the educational texts, cookbooks, and others. It’s fairly predictable. So there’s a sense that we’re beginning to see some patterns emerging. There’s also just a sense of comfort, that people have been dealing with these issues and wrestling with them for a while, and we’re beginning to see some things work better in print, some things work better in digital, some things you need both. I think there’s less of a fear factor and more of a, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work really sorting this out at a nuts and bolts level, which I think is encouraging.

KENNEALLY: Could I ask you something? There was a headline that caught everybody’s attention just a little while ago. It said that college-age students prefer print over digital. At least a majority preferred it over digital if they had the choice. How do you respond to that? Are you surprised by those kind of findings?

GREER: I am surprised by those, because I’m the kind of technology person – I imagine myself in college with an iPad, and I would have loved an enhanced e-book with videos and all that stuff. I don’t understand the resistance. But I think a lot of it has to do with the economics of being able to buy the book, use it for the semester, and sell it back. That’s harder for students to do with the e-book. So I think there’s some money issues. I think there’s just inertia. Universities don’t change as fast. I think professors tend to communicate to their students what they’re comfortable with.

There’s a number of factors that I think are involved there, and I think that as the technology improves, and as the publishers get better at really designing and delivering digital material for an iPad or an iPhone, students will embrace that. Because we know that they’re plugged into their iPhones and their smartphones all the time. If we can find a way to really make that content work in that medium, I think we’ll probably shift and find a tipping point and move into a greater level of acceptance and a faster adoption rate.

KENNEALLY: Well, the quickest way to a student’s mind is through his or her iPhone, it would seem to me. Michael Greer, senior development editor for Pearson Higher Education, and an instructor with the department of rhetoric and writing at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, great to see you again here at PubWest 2013.

GREER: Thanks very much. It’s always a pleasure talking with you.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at the Copyright Clearance Center website, copyright.com. Just click on Beyond the Book. Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.