Conference 2007: Learning Is Always in Season

Page owner: Conference director

Reports from the 2007 conference at the University of Sussex, Brighton

Workshops and seminars

These edited articles first appeared in the conference supplement of the November/December 2007 issue of Editing Matters.

Whitcombe Lecture: Seven ages of a book

Andrew Franklin, managing director, Profile Books

Reported by Fiona Eadie

Drawing inspiration from Jaques' speech in As You Like It, Andrew took us through the seven stages of a book's life.


Little has changed in this most fundamental stage of publishing. Like editing, it is largely a solitary activity, requiring a huge sustained effort for little reward …

Authors have always had bad reasons for writing and the idea that everyone has a novel in them is anathema to Andrew. In his opinion, joint authorships generally fail and even Wikipedia entries tend to retain the expertise, imagination and style of one person.

Andrew spoke with some disdain about two changes in the process of authorship that have developed in recent years. One has been the advent of blogging – taking the place of five-year confessional diaries! Many 'authors' now want to write more and more and read less and less. The other is the self-publishing phenomenon – a corollary of blogging with the same lack of controls. We are now in the situation of having more publishers (176,000) than books published each year, and the majority of these are self-publishing authors.

Commissioning and contracting

It is now easier than ever to be published. Authors can publish themselves on the internet and it is not difficult to find a good publisher. In the UK, 117,000 books were published in 2006–07.

This poses the question of whether publishers are being less selective. Andrew emphasized that the quantity of good books – published by Penguin, OUP and others of that ilk – remains the same each year. 'The morass', as he referred to most of the remainder, are self-published texts.

The disappearance of the 'slush pile' is one the biggest changes to have occurred in commissioning and contracting. Today, no fiction or mainstream non-fiction comes to a publisher's attention in this way. It is all filtered via literary agents who have become indispensable as publishers have lost any direct link with potential authors. Authors, for their part, prefer to go through literary agents and be assured of a decent contract. Some literary agents now have larger lists than publishers.

Andrew finds the enormous growth in celebrity books a depressing trend. Ghost-written and generating enormous sums of money for the celebrities concerned, they are not, however, indicative of a deeper malaise in publishing but rather in the world outside books.

At the other end of the scale, academics will often sign contracts for no advance at all because of their need to be published. Somewhere in-between, the average advances paid to an author have risen in recent years and Profile now generally pays an author between £7,000 and £15,000. (Random House paid Dan Brown an advance of £10 million for his next book.)

'The first duty of a publisher is to remain solvent.'

Stanley Unwin, The Truth about Publishing

Editing and design

It is the 'value added' that differentiates real publishing from self-publishing or blogging. It includes the rest of the publisher's list, professional editing and design, and the publisher's marketing/selling expertise.

The relationship between the editor and the author is irreplaceable. Andrew feels that the editor's role has a secure future but how it develops from this point on depends on supply and demand. Profile receives seven or eight letters a week from prospective editors. In terms of sourcing editorial services abroad, he does not believe that someone can edit well in their second language.

On the question of whether standards are falling, Andrew found it hard to be conclusive. When he worked at Penguin, all books were proofread twice, which does not happen today, but on the other hand, he recently read a book from the 1960s that was very badly edited and proofread. The university presses have certainly maintained their standards over the years, even though the cost pressures are high for them as for all publishers.

Good design is a vital element in the production of any book and lack of it is one of the main ways of identifying a self-published work. Andrew pointed out that designers tend now to have art school training and a recognized career hierarchy. They have embraced technology, and the amazing work possible with a Mac means that the innovation and creativity in this field is greater than ever.

Production and printing

This is the area in which the biggest changes have occurred, e.g. the shift from letterpress to electronic data transfer in the last 20 years. State-of-the-art printing companies can now change plates in 1½ minutes and complete a reprint in five days!

As far as production standards are concerned, these have fallen in some parts of trade publishing because of corner cutting on, for example, paper quality. In part, this is due to the supermarkets continually driving down the retail price of books. Perfect binding, on the other hand, has improved and books now take far longer fall to pieces.

Environmental concerns also play a part. In the US, the university presses are using acid-free paper and, in the UK, publishers are increasing moving to 'green' paper that comes from managed forests.

The future will see an increase in short-run printing, which is already proving economical for university presses. It is even possible to print on demand and produce one book at a time – Cambridge University Press already does this. In the US, bookshops have machines in place that will print out the book of your choice. Although we will no doubt follow suit, it will not necessarily prove a success. E-books are another option – no fun and no good as presents.

Retailing and selling

This area of publishing has also seen enormous changes, and there are more to come – not necessarily all for the good. A decade ago we lost the Net Book Agreement (which still operates in most of Europe) and this has had major knock-on effects:

  • Amazon and the rise of internet book selling – currently accounts for 15% of Profile's business
  • Independent bookshops – these account for 10% of the market, but despite the demise of the Net Book Agreement, things are looking up for them
  • Chains – Waterstones, Borders, WHSmith, etc. are suffering the worst. Ottakers was sold last year, Borders is up for sale to the Pizza Express group and WHSmith is having a bad time.

The main problem for the chains and the independent bookshops is the rise of the supermarkets. They are able to sell books at prices with which no other seller can compete – often cheaper than they can get them from the publishers. Supermarkets are as troublesome for small publishers as they are for small farmers, demanding books at 60–70% discount as well as a payment for 'putting them on the shelves'. Set this against the fact that Tesco sold 100,000 copies of Profile's Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze? last year.

Supermarkets do not sell a large range of titles. This widens the gap between best sellers and other titles, as well as making it harder to launch new books. In addition, it seems likely that we will lose sales representatives as more and more outlets buy from a central sales department.

Internationally, globalization is good for all our book publishers. The UK has the greatest volume of sales into export – far more than the US – and draws on the huge strength of English as the global second language.


As far as we can tell from book sales in the UK – which have gone up 2–3% for the last three years – reading is increasing. People buy books to read themselves and to give others, with Christmas gifts accounting for 14% of annual sales.

The big titles continue to be read by more and more people – Harry Potter 7 sold more than Harry Potter 6 or 5 … why? … would you read 7 if you hadn't read 6? The volume of sales for small titles is going down.

Libraries will always require books, although many people now turn to the internet for reference purposes and the Encyclopaedia Britannica has gone bankrupt.

Afterlife of books

It is frequently suggested that new technology will mean the end of books, but the same was said of CDs, videos and audio tapes and it hasn't happened!

Books endure and make a lasting contribution in a way that no other media do. Great books endure for ever and we should never lose sight of this.

The changing role of the commissioning editor

Gill Davies, Senior lecturer, London College of Communication

Reported by Paul Crabb

Gill Davies delivered her talk with an engaging mixture of authority, directness and humour. (I particularly liked her determination to avoid corporate buzzwords.) Her authority derived not only from her personal style, but also from her own record in the publishing business.

Qualities and behaviours

Most of us already knew that the publishing business had toughened up, but Gill gave us details of the context in which commissioning editors now have to operate, of the qualities they need and the behaviours they must engage in.

In the past, they were the most important people in a publishing house; their word was law. And they were as passionate about long, liquid lunches as they were about authors and books. Nowadays they are obliged to be team players, particularly in that they have to consult, plan and work closely with sales and marketing, who are vital in ensuring the necessary focus on profitability.

They must have good commercial judgement, a deep understanding of the other functions in the publishing house, a desire to make profits, knowledge of international markets and the ability to manage authors to ensure not only that their manuscripts arrive on time and to agreed length, but also that they do not defect to other publishers. It is no longer possible to retain authors simply by being nice to them; they need to be constantly enticed with rights deals, promotional packages and the like.


Editors must also constantly think ahead (three years at least) and take financial responsibility for their books. That involves understanding the cost implications of book production and marketing plans as well as publishing books that will go to reprints, where the profits are maximized. Value in a publishing house generally resides in good lists – not least because their marketing costs are lower – and building them has become a priority for editors, whatever the temptation to publish 'any old thing' that catches their eye.

But in an age when practically the only major brands in publishing (with the notable exception, perhaps, of Penguin) are those built around authors, achieving an enduring – and well developed – list requires a delicate balance of resources against the aims and objectives of the house, the ability to find (good) authors who understand the market and the acuity to distinguish real growth areas from mere fads.

A fundamental shift

Gill identifies the main causes of this shift of focus on:

  • competition from other media
  • the growing influence of marketing
  • cultural changes such as the 'thrill of the new', which means, for example, the replacement of perfectly good and recent textbooks with newer, 'shinier' ones.

Her view is that the increased pressure on editors to deliver the financial goods is rooted in a shift in the fundamental economic background of the publishing business. Not only are powerful retailers demanding ever larger discounts, but the changed patterns of ownership of publishing houses now mean that there are shareholders to be rewarded. That, in turn, draws the close attention of (risk-averse) pension fund managers and merchant banks, especially when something appears to go wrong.

The problems are confounded by widespread failure to rationalize the new, enlarged organizations that result from international mergers and acquisitions. That failure often leaves authors foundering in a fog of confusion, and it is the editor's role to help them find their way in this international bazaar.


So, who wants to take on this increasingly demanding role? It is still someone who is passionate about books, who likes and encourages authors and who wants to publish only the best. But they must be tough enough to handle the financial and organizational pressure.

Get the basics right, and they might be allowed to take the odd publishing risk, albeit knowingly rather then recklessly. Oh, and while long, liquid lunches don't fit with the new ethos, you should see these people making up for it in the pub after work.

Finance for freelancers

David Rice FCA

Reported by Shelagh Aitken

Most of the group were new to freelancing as well as proofreading and editing.

David defined self-employed versus employee status. This is not straightforward, and the government, it appears, is doing its best to make the waters murkier. Employees work in an environment where someone else controls what they do. If you are self-employed, you are in control.

As well as lower National Insurance contributions, there are tax advantages to being self-employed. Allowable expenses for an employed person are defined as 'wholly and exclusively incurred', while those for the self-employed are 'wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred', thus allowing travel expense claims, for example.

Forming a company

David said that, until you are earning enough to start thinking about registering for VAT (the limit is £64,000), there probably isn't much point setting up a limited company. More agencies, however, are insisting that people on their lists work as limited companies.

Most freelancers work on short-term contracts, informal or formal, and many work for a number of clients. A problem arises, for example, if someone is made redundant, forms their own company and is rehired to work exclusively for their old company. Another grey area is the full-time contract that is temporary but relatively long term (perhaps a year or two).


Asked about informal partnerships, where the individual is responsible for their own tax return, David was adamant that the best course was to find an adviser and declare the partnership, submitting partnership accounts and tax returns. It is easy, he pointed out, to reach an agreement when you are friends. It's too late when partners fall out.

His final advice was as you would expect: if you have any doubts, talk to an accredited accountant.

Development editing

Jane Ward

Reported by Sarah Patey

Is it a proofread? Is it an edit? No, it's 'super-edit' – in other words, it's 'development editing'. Jane Ward showed us what this might mean and, by the end, enabled us to feel at least some degree of control over a text that for most of us was well outside our comfort zone.

The presenting problem: an author is producing a text (because he's been invited to by his friend the series editor, because he's the world authority on the subject) and, let's face it – it really isn't good enough.

Exercise 1: A health information leaflet – the kind of thing you pick up at the doctor's. The patchiness betrayed the different agendas of the two authors.

Solution: Select the most useful and digestible information. Leave out unnecessarily scary details, best addressed in consultation.

Exercise 2: A textbook wildly different in presentation from the book setting the style for the series. The sample chapters held the right information, but the jazzy presentation was space-hungry and inappropriate.

Solution: Tactfully say to the author, 'There's a lot of good material here,' and then work on reshaping. This process is key to the production of a good book and happens early in the writing process. Having worked with the author on the initial chapters, Jane wrote a clear brief, and the (dozens of) remaining chapters, when they came, needed far less editing time.

Diplomacy is essential, but editorial instincts must be held in check. It's a waste of time to edit (typos, grammar) when text may end up on the cutting-room floor. So you have to focus on the big picture. You may be involved further, and a good 'development edit' can set up a straightforward copy-edit. On a fixed fee, that could work to your advantage.

Grammar grumbles

Lesley Ward

Reported by Mary Murphy

Lesley came armed with a list of topics garnered from the session application forms – commas, that/which, joining sentences, may/might, collective nouns, the changing use of all/none, and the flexibility of English or how far grammar is a question of style. These she duly dealt with but, along the way, touched on numerous other topics – too many to mention here.


Regarding flexibility, the style of the language depends on the use to which it is being put, opposite extremes being represented by, say, legal formal English and dialogue in fiction. A scientific undergraduate textbook by a younger author might well be looser and chattier in style than one by an esteemed elderly professor, but both would be right. The Economist Style Guide's statement that 'there is no Economist style' underlines that, in most cases, editors should not seek to impose their idea of 'correct' style willy-nilly.

Other points were:

  • journal publishers may be more rigorous in maintaining house style
  • a publisher's house style may be technically wrong, but if that's their style, it should be followed
  • the lingua franca of science is bad English.


'Latin' rules such as 'Thou shalt not split an infinitive' or 'Never end a sentence with a preposition' have no real basis in how English works and, except in very formal writing, are now style choices. However, if you apply one of these rules, you should apply them all.

Perhaps in the end we worry too much about grammar and not enough about allusion – for example, the 'Prides and prejudice' headline on an article about lions would be unintelligible to a disgruntled Japanese reader. Clarity and lack of ambiguity should be paramount.

In conclusion: Language is used in different ways in different contexts and English is now very flexible. You can let it wear you down or you can enjoy it.

Editorial outsourcing

Richard Lawrence, editorial project manager, Bestset (Hong Kong) and Meg Barton, Blackwell Publishing

Reported by Alice Yew

In the first part of this seminar, Richard Lawrence gave a historical overview of how copy-editing, typesetting, proofreading and project management evolved into distinct functions, and how these tasks shifted between printer, publisher, typesetter and freelancers.

He observed that typesetters are increasingly being expected to handle all facets of production. In response, some typesetting companies have created their own editorial teams, while others place work with freelancers. The pressure to cut costs and reduce production times, as well as the ease with which electronic files can be transferred, have also led to more and more work moving overseas.


Richard's own experience reflects the trends he described: after spending more than two decades working in publishing houses, he is now a project manager with a Hong Kong-based typesetter.

When he mentioned the outsourcing of much STM journal production to China, a spirited discussion ensued about the quality of such work. The impression was that, for many learned societies with limited funds, editing for good English in their journals has come to be viewed as non-essential; the service delivered by Chinese copy-editors is therefore quite adequate.

XML tagging

All of this sounded rather bleak, but the subsequent account of the growth in XML usage indicated new opportunities that UK-based freelancers could look into, and highlighted some of our strengths in relation to overseas suppliers.

As XML gains in popularity among publishers, post-processing of typeset files to add XML tags is giving way to new workflows in which the XML coding occurs at the beginning. Such 'XML-first workflow' introduces a 'pre-editing' stage during which certain mechanical aspects of copy-editing and the majority of XML tagging are done.

Richard commented that this development might free copy-editors to concentrate on language and sense again. He also predicted that pen-and-paper editing could make a come-back (because working with hard copies of pre-edited files is economical, apparently). He ended by summarizing the implications of outsourcing and XML-first processes for UK editors, and suggesting some ways in which we might adapt to these changes.

Issues of XML-based texts

Meg Barton, who presented the second part of the seminar, has worked on various kinds of electronic accompaniments to books (CD-ROMs, PDA content, etc.) and treated us to a clear, stimulating tutorial on the basics of XML. We saw examples of files 'pre-edited' under an XML-first system compared with 'post-processed' files where XML tags had replaced typesetting codes. Meg also explained some of the issues specific to editing or proofreading XML-based texts such as e-books.

I, for one, came away feeling encouraged to learn more about XML and electronic publication formats. This seminar was very interesting overall (though depressing at times), and provided much food for thought.