Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

On quality in publishing

The issue of quality in publishing has been on my mind over the last few weeks, culminating in a short twitter debate I had with Mike Cane yesterday on editing. ‘Quality’ isn’t a simple subject:

O’Reilly’s notions of what’s NOT important for publishing were surprising to hear. They’re shaped by O’Reilly’s formative experiences in publishing. He claims to fight the notion that publishing is about quality. His first books sold even though they didn’t have an index or an ISBN, or even a spine. They didn’t have pretty formatting, but they had good information, and they paid attention to the things that mattered for the job they were meant to do. In a book about programming, the code samples needn’t look good, but they do need to be correct, without extra spaces that break syntax. They were selling books for $5, and people would call up from Europe asking them to overnight a copy.

(Go To Hellman: Philosopher Tim O’Reilly Lights Up Publishing)


Now we come to the heart of the minimum viable product issue: how can we build quality in if we do not yet know who the customer is? All of our professional standards that lead us to want to get it right the first time – all of them were developed originally in a non-startup context, one where the customer was known in advance. Startups are different, leading to this axiom: if you do not know who the customer is, you do not know what quality is. (Lessons Learned: Good enough never is (or is it?))

I’d like to repeat that last point: If you do not know who the customer is, you do not know what quality is. This ties in with O’Reilly’s quote above, as well.

In my earlier research note on incumbents versus innovators in publishing one point I repeated was that incumbents over-produce, they over-invest, over-engineer; they are tackling numerous problems and issues that have surfaced in the publishing process over the last few decades, some which may not be applicable any more.

The point there, and here, is that the incumbents will always dismiss the innovators’ products as rubbish, as being almost an insult to the customer, as something with no quality control or even intentionally ‘worse’.

Editing is one of the current bugaboos, it’s the incumbent’s shibboleth. The idea is being fostered, spread and promoted that nobody can or should get published without a one on one session with a professional editor; without the help of the high priests of publishing, the readers will hate you.

The problem with the ‘editing is a must’ viewpoint is twofold:

1. There’s no evidence that the readers care. The readers do care about sloppy formatting, crap designs, unusable metadata, missing covers and high prices, but judging by sales and online reviews, they don’t care about the editing. This is not a question of editing being an invisible art, but a question of obviously sloppy or non-existent editing in all major best-sellers (not a surprise) and in all major award winners (tripe like Franzen’s being the latest example) which aptly demonstrates the unimportance of editing. Having a book published with crap editing doesn’t lose you sales, doesn’t lose you readers and, as can be seen by the vast ocean of sewage that is literary publishing, doesn’t lose you the respect of critics or other writers.

Which brings me to the second half of the problem.

2. Critics don’t care. They love self-involved rubbish that wades around in the mulch of fleeting contemporary affairs, mayfly fashion trends, two-dimensional characters, and overwrought narrative structures, written in a language and style that only a creative writing professor can love. If this rubbish is the result of professional editing, the only sane thing to do is to gather up all those ‘editors’ on a desert island and nuke it ‘till it’s glass.

None of the above matters, it’s irrelevant because editing in its current form is going to go away, because you can’t have editing as a functional part of the publishing infrastructure and low ebook prices, both at the same time.

Cheap or edited, pick one, and the market has already chosen for you.

Economics, margins, market forces will mean that, as I’ve said before, quality will solely be determined by the writer’s ambition and efforts and the readers’ demands.

Mike Cane responded, I commented, and I figure I might as well add the comment here:

Don’t put words in my mouth. I don’t like most of the stuff published today, but I didn’t mention all of those in my post. I mentioned literary fiction for a specific reason: Their endemic flaws, structure, language, characterisation, are specifically the problems an editor is supposed to solve.

The point with the two quotes in the post, one from O’Reilly and one from Eric Ries on software product development is that “If you do not know who the customer is, you do not know what quality is.”

The discussion on editing in publishing and self-publishing centres on the idea that every book needs to be edited, that it’s a basic requirement of passing some sort of abstract bar defined by publishing incumbents.

But as the two quotes point, and as you point out, out the sole determinant of quality, of what is good, are the readers and their tastes.

And they plainly care less about it than they do other issues, metadata, covers, design, formatting errors, pricing, and such. I don’t see any evidence in the market that a book that has got the full editorial treatment is any more likely to be accepted as good by readers and critics than a book where the publisher spent most of their resources on PR, marketing and design instead. Which, incidentally, is cited as one of the reasons why Douglas Rushkoff changed publishers: Publishers weren’t doing any editing, so he decided to go with one that got the book to market quicker.

Final addendum:

First, I’d like to note that I’m specifically talking about fiction publishing here and the more wishy-washy kind of non-fiction (that is to say, most of it). I’m not talking about technical publishing which benefits enormously from detailed and thorough technical editing.

One thing people are missing is that I’m not just saying publishing won’t be able to maintain an editorial infrastructure when prices and revenue go down. One thing that appears again and again as I do my research into the business processes of publishing is that the value of the editorial infrastructure is largely unproven.

If neither critics nor readers care, and it has no proven ROI, then a new publisher who focuses their resources on PR, sales, marketing, error correction and design, will economically outperform the publisher who does all of those things as well as editing. They’ll have lower margins and make more profit on the same revenue as their old-style editing counterparts.

Continuing with business processes that have unproven ROI and a completely subjective impact on quality is nothing more than superstition, magical thinking of the worst kind. ‘Tradition’ isn’t a business-level argument, and sticking to it for its own sake will lead to nothing more than bankruptcy.

Of course, a lot of writers and artists recoil in horror and disgust when presented with business and efficiency arguments of any kind, and retreat to abstract, literary arguments, but that’s also the reason why publishers will continue to exist and why the future won’t be dominated by self-publishers.

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