The changing role of editors — An interview with Lane Ashfeldt
“We tend to associate independent publishing with early-career writers getting their first break, since this is the kind of story that has tended to grab the headlines. But another significant group of authors choosing to self-publish are mid-career writers whose contracts for certain titles have expired.”
We say on our homepage that our Reedsy professionals “know the publishing landscape better than a writer knows the taste of hot coffee”. So we like to regularly have their take on it. Today, we interview Lane Ashfeldt, a UK-based freelance editor who has worked both for a small press and directly with authors. She shares her insights on the ever-changing role of editors — whether in-house or freelance — and on the opportunity self-publishing represents for writers (even “mainstream” ones).
Hi Lane, great to have you here. You’re one of our fiction editors on Reedsy and have been freelance for around 4 years. How did you start your editing career?
Thanks for asking me Ricardo. I got into fiction by accident, planning to move on, but it stuck. For six years I edited short stories and novels for an indie press, in a variety of styles from crime to literary. I later started writing myself, and taught writing at a UK university.
What prompted you to go freelance as an editor?
When my book of my stories, SaltWater, was in edits I blogged about the process and some ex-students who had carried on writing after their courses got in contact asking if I’d look at their novels. I couldn’t say no.
How do you find having the writer as your employer?
I’ve never really thought of it that way. Reedsy refers to editing projects as collaborations and I think this hits the right note, though of course in this context the author is ultimately in control of the process. Which is as it should be - it is their book. I suggest edits, and explain why, but it’s up to the writer whether they choose to act on them. It’s a very cooperative thing. It’s also private. I don’t identify titles that I’ve edited freelance. (The titles on my Reedsy profile are from a regular job before I went freelance.)
Do you see any parallels between your freelance editorial projects now, and when you were a full time editor?
I enjoy working direct with authors, and this aspect is very similar. As a commissioning editor I’d meet authors and see their books through from manuscript to hard copy. Now it is more usual to work remotely via electronic means, and generally I only work on the text unless asked for input on submissions or electronic publication routes. One key similarity is, it’s very result-driven – it is all about finishing a piece of fiction, be it for print or ebook publication. Another aspect in common with my experience as a professional novel and short story editor is that over time you build relationships with certain authors and a knowledge of their strengths. It is rewarding when an author asks you to work on multiple projects as the dialogue becomes more fruitful.
You have taught creative writing. How does that compare with editing?
There is some commonality. But because advanced level university students need to write dissertations and conduct research, there’s a necessary interest, pedagogically, in the process of creative writing; this can distract from the task at hand, ie finishing the book. With project editing, the emphasis is not on “how to,” if you like, but on getting it done. To as high a standard as possible, obviously.
With the explosion in self-publishing, do you feel the role of editors is changing?
In the present era of publishing everything is negotiable. Some editors are strong on marketing, some act as curators whose job is to uncover the Next Big Thing in their sphere of interest, some are very much a cog working within the corporate constraints of a major brand. As a full-time editor, I worked with an indie press. Generally in smaller presses roles are more flexible. Editors may do both copy editing and commissioning — perhaps also have a say in the design, typesetting, marketing, and PR. Commissioning editors with bigger houses are rarely this hands-on. Often they operate more on the level of curators whose intake is limited to people they know and a group of agents their company has history with, taking on finished projects that someone else (an agent, a professor in creative writing, a literary consultancy, the author) has edited and polished. You could say they operate less as editors (in the conventional sense of the word), more as a gateway to the production and marketing machine behind their brand.
But with the increasing variety of publication routes open to writers, there is space for all sorts of editorial approaches to co-exist. Recent projects I’ve worked on as a freelance editor illustrate this - some went on to be self-published, others are taking the agent / traditional publication route.
Is it still possible to land an agent or publisher with an unedited manuscript?
I am sure there are examples out there. The best writers are excellent editors of their own work, and this was true even in the days when some of the editing processes took place heh-hemming over dictation to a secretary. But if hiring a freelance editor adds perspective and strengthens your writing, it is a step worth taking.
How do you see the publishing industry evolving in the next few years? Now that independent publishing has been established as a valid option, are more traditionally published authors going to try it?
Lots of traditionally published writers have already experimented with publishing their work independently. It skewed towards US-based writers to start with, perhaps because the terms offered to US writers were more favorable, but that is beginning to even up. Both European and US authors working directly with Amazon can now access a royalty of 70% of the cover price on their titles (as against c. 7% working through a publisher) which increases the chance that authors may choose this route.
We tend to associate independent publishing with early-career writers getting their first break since this is the kind of story that has managed to grab the headlines. But another significant group of authors choosing to self-publish are mid-career writers whose contracts for individual titles have expired. They are sitting on out-of-print (and professionally edited) novels that readers want to read - maybe even want to reread on ebook, having lost the hard copy - and it is not a lot of work to put up the files on self-publishing websites. A couple of examples: Philip Casey and Jeff Noon. Like Casey, Noon recently had new covers made for all his books and re-released them, along with his new ebook Channel Skin. No doubt there are others - perhaps especially writers whose ebook rights were never optioned first time around.
You are a published writer, so I expect you love writing. What is the best thing about editing?
For me, it is a similar buzz to writing. I enjoy editing. I love the intensity of it, the fact that you can lose yourself in the work, think about nothing else. Just words, and how they fit together. How they unfold to reveal a story.
Thanks a lot for your time, Lane!
Do you feel like the role of editors has changed? Is it worth it to work with a freelance editor before submitting your MS to agents and publishers? Leave us your thoughts, or any question for Lane, in the comments below!