What Do Editors Need to Know Now?

[This post was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of the Editors’ Association of Canada.]

The volatile state of the publishing industry today — and, by extension, the editing profession — can sometimes feel pretty daunting.  Digital disruptions to the book, magazine, and newspaper segments of the industry, in particular, are like an ongoing series of earthquake tremors beneath what previously felt like steady ground.

Technological innovations have brought new forms of reading and writing, new file formats, new production workflows, new types of publishers, new industry economics — new everything, it seems. So what about new kinds of editing skills and knowledge? What about new kinds of editors?

Wanted: New skills and knowledge

Let’s take the book industry, for example (if there even is a book “industry” much longer; some experts say book publishing will become a core function within multiple industries as opposed to an industry unto itself). As if she had heard me ask the question “What do editors need to know now?” from the other side of the world, Australian editor Agata Mrva-Montoya recently gave a presentation entitled “Editing Skills in the Era of Digital [R]evolution” at the Institute of Professional Editors conference in Perth, Australia, in April. When I contacted her, Agata generously sent me a copy of the research paper upon which she based her conference presentation.

In the paper, Agata suggests book editors need to upgrade their skills and knowledge in the following areas to remain central figures in the evolving publishing landscape:

  • Form. The standard print fiction or non-fiction book are familiar forms; e-singles, mobile phone novels, interactive enhanced ebooks: these are just some of the new forms gaining traction in the digital age. Editors need to understand the possibilities and constraints of these and as yet unimagined new forms for the content they are editing.
  • Workflow. The pervasive Word > InDesign > print-ready PDF workflow that many editors play a role in today is inefficient for producing content in multiple forms. As publishers experiment with form-independent workflows, editors must be willing and able to work with new authoring and production platforms and grasp the basics of XML, HTML, XHTML, and CSS. (And if these make some of us say, “huh?” that’s exactly my point.)
  • Communication with new publishing participants. Coders, programmers, game and app developers, web designers, interactive usability experts: these are all new participants in the book publishing biz, and editors will need to know how to communicate and collaborate with them.
  • Discoverability. In the crowded, noisy websphere, editors need to understand metadata, tags, links, and other aspects of online discoverability.

As if that isn’t enough, editors increasingly need to help authors and publishers establish their brand and promotional platforms. In a session at Digital Book World 2013 called the “Changing Role of Editors,” a panel of editors spoke about becoming copywriters to promote their authors’ works, participating in or even leading social media activities, and coaching their writers on new ways of connecting with readers.

All in a day’s work.

Becoming editors plus

Regardless of all the changes going on in the publishing industry, Agata and the Digital Book World panelists agree that the core editorial skills we all know and love will remain essential. But if editors today, and especially tomorrow, need to be editors plus form chameleons, techno geeks, taxonomists, and social media whizzes, is our professional development preparing us adequately? Are we paying enough attention to acquiring and honing the new skills and knowledge we need to remain relevant?

Over the next few years, I, for one, am considering attending or otherwise tuning in to conferences like Books in Browsers, Booknet Canada’s Technology Forum, or Digital Book World to beef up my understanding of the evolving industry in which I earn my keep.

How about you? How do you see the editor’s role changing in the publishing segment(s) you work in? And what are you doing to stay ahead of that change?