2014 columns, Books

Giving voice to a silent profession

by Carody Culver , June 11, 2014Leave a comment



Some would say that behind every good book is a good editor; and while this might not always be the case, the role editors play in the process of ushering new writing into the world – whether it’s from new or established writers – is both vitally important and strangely overlooked. So when this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival program included an entire day devoted to the editing profession, those of us who spend much of our working time detecting and correcting inconsistencies in written work engaged in some silent fist-pumping: finally, a chance to discuss the intricacies of what happens on the other side of the page or screen and spend time with people who legitimately enjoy discussing things like the Oxford comma.

It’s not that editors necessarily crave more explicit acknowledgment – few of those wishing to enter the profession are doing so for glory and accolades, and anyone who does won’t be labouring under that particular misapprehension for long. However, beyond postgraduate university courses, there are relatively few opportunities for new or aspiring editors to network with existing professionals or get a leg up in an increasingly tough industry.

‘Editing as a profession has traditionally been an apprenticeship relationship, and these days people have to be extremely generous with their time to work with emerging editors and give feedback on your editing outside of a formal educational environment,’ says Emerging Editors Coordinator Fiona Dunne. It seems that it’s becoming harder and harder to earn a decent living from editing (or writing, for that matter), as publishing houses tighten their belts, the government slashes arts funding and growing numbers of students enrol in university editing courses only to graduate and end up competing for a handful of jobs.

But the conversations had at Emerging Editors – where panels covered topics such as how editors discover writers, the world of online editing and how editors shape cultural and political debate – indicated that this kind of negative attitude isn’t entirely warranted. No, editors won’t be sleeping on beds of money anytime soon (‘no one gets into editing for the big bucks,’ observed Affirm Press’s Aviva Tuffield, one of the day’s panellists), but that doesn’t mean anyone wanting to become an editor faces insurmountable obstacles.

It’s still likely to be a tough journey – the ‘Going Solo with Start-up Publications’ panel, in particular, which featured Robert Skinner of The Canary Press, Amy Middleton of Archer Magazine and Mitchell Oakley-Smith of Manuscript, made it evident just how tight profit margins are for those wanting to strike out on their own, even if – as with all three panellists – they’re making sales and establishing strong reputations. Nonetheless, there was also a real sense that Australia is producing some damn fine writing, and editors have a huge part to play in discovering new voices, fostering existing talent and helping shape a constantly evolving – but still robust – publishing landscape.

Dunne feels that Emerging Editors was ‘quite a strong day overall, and I’m extremely glad that [EWF Director Sam Twyford-Moore] recognised the need for highlighting the work of editors and publishers in the community/industry. It’s incredibly important to invest in talented writers, but to have a healthy literary community, it’s just as vital to strengthen the skills and networks of editors, designers, publishers and everyone that contributes to the publication and surrounding debate of Australian work’.

And as recognition for editors and their work grows, so too will professional opportunities for those starting out: last year, for the first time, Seizure – a self-described ‘launchpad for Australian writing’ – opened its annual Viva la Novella competition to editors as well as writers, offering a fantastic career milestone opportunity to four editors, myself included. The winning writers were revealed at EWF last week at ‘Night of the Living Novellas’, during which Sam Twyford-Moore took the opportunity to (wisely) suggest that someone should start a #paytheeditors hashtag – as Kill Your Darlings’ own Emily Laidlaw remarked during the festival, ‘the #paythewriters discussion often seems to forget that a lot of editors are working voluntarily too’.

Could we soon see this change? The success of Viva la Novella and EWF’s Emerging Editors day can, at the very least, make people more aware of what editors do and give some much-needed hope to those wanting to wield the red pen for a living. And while that doesn’t mean that anyone’s getting a pay rise just yet, creating further professional development opportunities for editors (notwithstanding any further lacerations to our federal arts budget) is arguably just as important. Emily Stewart, another one of Viva la Novella’s four winning editors, noted during EWF that the fates of writers and editors are ‘twinned’ – and for the sake of the publishing industry’s survival, we’d do well to keep that in mind.

Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based freelance writer, editor and part-time bookseller. 

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