The editors’ bottom line

Societies of editors in each Australian state last week voted on a motion to dissolve the individual branches and form one cohesive, national organisation. Whatever the outcome (and the Victorian tail would wag the dog) some questions remain: what is the value of such a collective? Who benefits most – editors themselves, publishers, writers or readers? And why?

Any discussion of what the Melbourne-based society of editors can do for writers and publishers should take into account that this is just one of six state branches operating under a single constitution and an umbrella organisation known as the Institute of Professional Editors Inc. (IPEd). The value of any of these groups to writers and publishers becomes apparent more through their interaction with individual active members of a branch than with the incorporated body itself.

Editors Victoria — and likewise all state branches, to the extent that their membership makes possible — provides the means for its members to polish their craft and to apply this knowledge to their dealings not only with authors at the start of the publishing line, and publishers at the end, but with all stations in between.

Editors can enhance and streamline the entire publishing process, making the efforts of the writer, the designer and the publisher worthwhile. To get this message across to those whose communications would benefit by an experienced editor’s quality control — and whose would not? — is the aim of the state societies of editors.

Editors Victoria holds regular dinner meetings with guest speakers, and freelance editors’ lunches, both open to the public and at a discount for writers’ groups and students.

With partners such as the Australian Publishing Association and the Victorian Writers’ Centre, it provides experienced practitioners for a variety of training sessions including specialised sessions for editors of financial, statistical, scientific or mathematical data.

Participants who apply what they learn to their own field may in time present a specialist lecture themselves. Members support the society by serving on committees, maintaining the webpage (, compiling a monthly e-newsletter and producing books related to editing and publishing.

Contact with writers and publishers is maximised by the Victorian branch’s participation in the many writers’ events and festivals for which Melbourne, recently dubbed a City of Literature, is now renowned.

Members with IT expertise demonstrate the latest computer publishing programs or electronic technology. This in particular furthers their own and members’ professional development and boosts their value to potential employers, be they authors or publishers. In this way everyone benefits from the corporate efforts of the society.

Evidence of professional development is required for the renewal of an editor’s accredited status five years after passing the national editors’ accreditation examination conducted by IPEd.

This competently organised examination that has set the industry standard for editors is the high point in a history that began in Melbourne in 1970. The inadequate working conditions of publishers’ editors and the desire for writers to recognise their services prompted two editors, Janet Mackenzie, of Melbourne University Press, and Ruth Dixon, at Oxford University Press — both still active members of the Society in 2015 — to establish an association of editors.

‘We narrowly avoided calling ourselves The Galley Slaves,’ says Mackenzie (Mackenzie, 1996, p. 101) later a recipient of the George Robertson Award for services to publishing. Her second edition of The Editor’s Companion, updated to deal with the digital revolution, was launched in August 2011.

Mackenzie was also instrumental in the work of IPEd and the new accreditation standards. Government departments assessing tenders involving editing and publishing are finding them a useful benchmark for selection, as are the publishers who submit the tenders.

Back in the 1970s, publishers seemed interested in training only their own poorly paid editors in-house, while editors wanted the bargaining power of professional status before joining a publisher. Negotiations with the then Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to teach editing came to nothing. (Norton 1980, p.114).

Ten years on, Hilary McPhee wrote in the Australian Book Review:

There is almost no recognition of the need to develop editors so they are responsible for their own lists with all the management and entrepreneurial skills such responsibilities entail…. Very occasionally as a kind of fringe benefit an editor is allowed overseas, but rarely to buy rights, rarely to clinch deals, usually as a handmaiden to some bloke in a pinstripe suit. (McPhee, 1986.)

It was easier to help writers than publishers who seemed not to recognise the untapped commercial potential of external training in book editing, nor to see, as the presenter of ABC radio’s First Edition program, the late Jill Kitson, warned, ‘that ultimately a publishing house’s reputation depends on its editors’ judgement.’ (Kitson, 1991, p.91)

Perhaps it was because almost all the CEOs in the Australian Publishing Association then were commissioning editors or managing editors, all with hands-on editing experience. Among them were George Ferguson, of Angus and Robertson, Andrew Fabinyi, of Cheshire, and Frank Eyre, of OUP. (Hudson, 2010, p.10).

With unique insight, John Hooker, a long-time publisher with Cheshire, Penguin and Collins,who in later life turned to writing, observed that publishers could not understand ‘just what writers do and how they underpin the entire structure of the publishing process.’ (Hooker, 1984, p.44).

Editor Jill Kitson understood: ‘Editors are mediators. We mediate between the author’s idea, their words, and the mind of the reader. ‘ (Kitson, 1991, p.92).

Also under the aegis of IPEd is a two-yearly national conference of editors, hosted in rotation in each state capital by its local Society of Editors. High-profile keynote speakers are engaged, and invitations to submit abstracts go out to editors, researchers and others involved in current and upcoming areas of communication with links to editing. The 2011 IPEd conference in Sydney had included a meeting of the Style Council which handles the content of the government Style Manual, soon to undergo revision, and e-books and the latest electronic wizardry were hot topics when the Victorian branch played host in 2013.

There is no rule that says an editor must be a writer, but it seems self-evident that an editor who is also an accomplished writer will be a better editor. Hilary McPhee’s view was that ‘it helps if editors are frustrated writers and can sympathise.’ (Falla, 1986, p. 209). A story has a long way to go before it is ready for copy editing and proofreading, and this is where the utmost tact is necessary. A mutually respectful rapport is the ideal editor-author relationship, so an editor’s training includes how to relate encouragingly to writers to help them produce their best work.

Immigrant author and a long-time president of PEN Melbourne, Arnold Zable, told how grateful he was to his editors, Margot and Henry Rosenbloom, of Scribe Publishing, for ‘respecting his voice’. Sensitivity was ‘a major requirement for an editor working with an author who is writing a cross-cultural work,’ he said. (Longland, 1997, p.61.)

Lone writers suffer uncertainty about what editing principles to apply, write too much or too little, go off on tangents, have difficulty steering a story that has literally lost its plot, then, if by sheer grit they complete the book, despair of finding a publisher. On the other hand, the writer with an editor has a friend, a supportive mentor who can feel the flow of the story, advise on length and the contents of each chapter, who knows the market and can keep the work on track through writer’s block and family crisis.

Publisher Hilary McPhee told a Society of Editors dinner audience that in her eleven years’ experience, every author she had worked with had ‘gone mad’ at some stage in the process (Falla, 1986, p. 209).

Successful writers become very loyal to a ‘sensitive’ editor. They may acknowledge assistance in the book and even follow an editor to another publisher, although, says John Hooker, ‘The author owes something of an allegiance’ to the publisher (1984, p. 45). Would any publisher alert to the bottom line not show similar allegiance to such an editor?

Ways in which an editor might assist both writers and publishers are listed in a brochure entitled ‘Why Do You Need an Editor?’, produced by Editors Victoria.

In addition to the basic attention to grammar and spelling, and checking for factual errors, an editor may suggest – to name but a few – how to phrase a paragraph more persuasively; avoid defamation or breach of copyright; brief artists and graphic designers about cover art, illustrations, and textual elements; ensure consistency of style in multi-author documents; and standardise references, punctuation and formatting by creating a style sheet and templates to simplify the process for the author.

Authors should understand and select which of these services are necessary to produce an effective publication, because this decision will determine the contract and the fee, and to a large extent the quality of the product.

Societies of editors produce an annual online and print Freelance Register, indexed by name and specialisation – for example, agriculture or medicine, religion or crime fiction – for use by writers or publishers seeking an editor.

Editors working in thriving ‘small press’ or independent firms are exceptionally skilled, and while their publication output is necessarily limited, they are uniquely placed to offer their authors the personal nurturing and mentorship that a large-scale publisher has little time for.

When a major publisher hires an editor, the decision is more likely to be economic, for example, in order to avoid a lawsuit, to have someone brief a designer, to convert the manuscript to an e-book, but rarely because the publisher cares as passionately about the story and its presentation as the writer and the editor.

As Nick Hudson said in Editors Victoria’s 40th-anniversary address, we had seen two revolutions, the litho and the Mac that swept away hot press and typesetters, and now we were facing two more: the digital and the e-book which would end litho printing and slash print editions ‘but hugely increase the number of books written and published.’ (Hutton, 2010. p. 10).

It’s oddly comforting to read editor Paul Stapleton’s report of the prophetic words of then Hyland House editor Anne Godden to the Society of Editors (Victoria) in March 1980:

Ann [sic] believes that the 1980s and beyond will be a dreadful time both technically and socially, and only by acting now, or at least beginning to act, will the editors of today be able to participate in the electronic vision of tomorrow.

What she sees in our future is the book that is produced, stored and distributed electronically. The question is not how, but who will be putting these creations together. From past experience Anne believes publishers to be conservative and unwilling to accept new ideas: therefore moves must be made now to ensure that competent people, that is, editors, lead the teams of multi-talented people that will be concerned with producing the books.

The original purpose of this essay was to describe how a professional body of editors helps writers and publishers. However, asking what it does for writers is much like asking what it does for readers. The reader gains what the writer has learned from the editor, and so it goes around.

It will be a happy day for a new Australian Institute of Professional Editors and its national membership when the industry finally acknowledges that by whatever means or in whatever form books are read, in print or electronically, via audio or Braille, the most significant and vital contribution to publishers, writers and readers will always be the quality of their editing.


Constitution, Society of Editors (Victoria).
Falla, S 1986, cited in ‘Growing Up Authors: Hilary McPhee’ in J Mackenzie (ed.) At the typeface, p.209.
Hooker, J 1984, ‘Insights of a publisher-turned-writer’, in J Mackenzie (ed.) At the typeface, p.44.
Hutton, N 2010, 40 years of style: 40th anniversary celebration program, Society of Editors (Victoria) Inc.
Longland, A 1997, cited in ‘Writing across cultures’, in J Mackenzie (ed.) At the typeface, p.61.
Mackenzie, J (ed.) 2005, At the typeface: selections from the Newsletter of the Victorian Society of Editors, Society of Editors (Victoria) Inc.
McPhee, H 1986, ‘A sense of place’, Australian Book Review, May, cited in J Mackenzie (ed.) At the typeface, p.114.
Norton, A 1980, ‘A report from the training officer: Anne Norton’, May, in J Mackenzie (ed.) At the typeface, p.114.
Stapleton, P 1980, cited in ‘Publishing in the 1980s: Anne Godden’, in J Mackenzie (ed.) At the typeface.





About quillpoweronline

I'm an editor at Quillpower PR Publishing. Specialising in 'things that are lovely and of good report'. I work with writers to gently brush away irrelevancies to reveal the buried treasure, or chisel meaning from a block of text. As an accredited editor (Inst. Prof. Editors Ltd) with experience in advertising, public relations, news and feature writing and editing for all media I help communicators put a professional shine on their message. But here on the blog, it's after hours, and I may do an elongated tweet every now and then, point up an absurdity, or simply post one of my ancient scribbles before it and I crumble into dust. BTW, WordPress chooses the ads (if any) on my blog. Quid pro quo.
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