New Technologies Can’t Displace Essential Work of Book Editing

May 1, 2000
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New Technologies Can't Displace Essential Work of Book Editing

Editor Jason Epstein Speaks Out In New York Review of Books

Former Random House Editor Speaks Out on Technology

The recent investment of major booksellers and publishers into large online vanity publishing organizations strikes a passionate chord among those who have spent their lives in publishing for the sake of literature, rather than money.

Former Random House Editor Jason Epstein sees the transformation of his industry as both promising, and "in need of much improvement." In a comprehensive article for The New York Review of Books, titled, The Rattle of Pebbles ( http://www.nybooks.com/nyrev), Epstein has this to say (in part) of the vast publishing transformation, brought about electronic technology.

"These new technologies will test the human capacity to distinguish value from a wilderness of choice…"

"These new technologies will also test the human capacity to distinguish value from a wilderness of choice, but humanity has always faced this dilemma and solved it well enough over time. The World Wide Web offers access to any would-be writer who may or may not have something to say and know how to say it. Several literary websites that have so far emerged are in effect vanity presses, willing to publish anything, regardless of quality, provided the author pays. It is highly improbable that from this clutter works of value will emerge. But proven talent will coalesce in particular venues as it always has.

Distinguished websites, like good bookstores, will attract readers accordingly. The filter that distinguishes value is a function of human nature, not of particular technologies."

"New technololgies…will not displace the essential work of editing and publicity."

Epstein goes on to say: "New technologies will radically change the way books are distributed but they will not displace the essential work of editing and publicity. Manuscripts are turned into books only by hand, one step at a time. This work may take years so that when the book finally appears—if it does: some never do; the process is fraught with hazards and disappointment—the editor’s emotions are almost as much committed to the outcome as the author’s. For books of lasting value there is no use hurrying this work for the sake of a schedule or a budget. Profits and orderly procedures, to the extent they can be achieved, are essential to the work, but they are not its purpose any more than breathing is the purpose of life or a scorecard is the purpose of a tennis match."

"Except for the questionable advantage of computers over typewriters and inkhorns, new technologies will not simplify or enhance this process, which is often as improvisational as writing itself, " Epstein writes.

" The decision to accept or reject a manuscript, the strategies of revision and publicity, the choice of art work and typography when a satisfactory manuscript is finally produced, the emotional and financial support of authors: this can be done only by human beings endowed with the peculiar qualities that a successful publisher or editor needs, no matter how the technological environment transforms the rest of the publishing process…."

His entire article can be read on The New York Review of Books site at http://www.nybooks.com/nyrev/WWWarchdisplay.cgi?20000427055F

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