The Art of Editing (and how I set up a small press)

ArtLast time, I talked about my somewhat roundabout route to becoming an editor, at the end of which I promised I would delve into how Spectral Press got its start and how I learnt the art of editing. And that is exactly what I will be writing about this time.

The first question I should answer is: ‘who in their right mind would want to set up a small press in the first place?’ After all, it’s a time consuming exercise at the very least and it involves a great deal of work, with things like attempting to get people interested (authors AND readers), sorting out issues such as finding a suitable and sympathetic printing company, and raising capital with which to finance the whole operation, just for starters. Plus, there’s the sometimes quite mind-numbing realisation that you will be in competition with hundreds, if not thousands, of other outfits vying for punters’ money, and it becomes something of a mammoth undertaking. It’ll take up great chunks of your free time as well, something you might not be able to afford easily with a family, for instance.

In my case, it was simply because:

a) as clichéd as it undoubtedly sounds, I wanted to give something back to the genre I’ve derived a lot of reading pleasure from and

b) there are a lot of very talented authors out there whose work I wanted to showcase.

A simple enough premise, one might assume, but the problem then was deciding in which format to showcase these talents – that was solved when I was handed a couple of Nightjar Press chapbooks at FantasyCon 2010. Whilst reviewing them for a website, it hit me that they were a perfect way to show off writers’ works, with the added benefit of being relatively ‘cheap’ to produce and distribute, meaning that I could keep the price reasonable for readers. The one thing I was not prepared to do, however, was compromise on quality – one of the other aspects of pitching yourself into the publishing industry is that you should at least attempt to offer something new to the paying audience, and simultaneously offer value for money.

Physical quality isn’t the only issue when it comes to an imprint, of course – being able to spot a good story and tight editing are also essential prerequisites. You can have the most amazing-looking volume ever, but if the story isn’t on a par with that attention to physical detail then people won’t buy into the ethos behind the imprint. Spelling and grammatical mistakes are an absolute no-no, as they’re an enormous turn-off (I’ve been known to stop reading a story which has too many typos and mangled English in it). Knowing a good story when you come across one isn’t just a matter – at least in my view – of personal preference (although it does play some part), but also knowing what elements go into creating a successful tale. That can only be learnt through wide reading across all genres, not just your favourite one, so you can pick up the rhythms and pacing necessary to what makes a particular story work and what doesn’t, for instance. There are some stories you might not like on a personal level, but which nevertheless scream out quality and readability.

Editing, in my case at least, I learnt through a combination of reading extremely widely through all forms of literature (non-fiction as well as fiction, lit-fic as well as genre offerings and classic as well as modern) and common sense (plus a dose of reading online interviews with several eminent editors). It also helped that my parents were avid readers themselves who were always encouraging my voracious reading habits. I also particularly loved English in school. A lot of my editing is as much intuition as it is consciously knowing what constitutes a story that will enthral readers –for instance, I have sometimes ‘felt’ that just by moving one passage somewhere else or omitting it entirely would improve a story immeasurably yet, on a conscious level, I couldn’t have told you why. It just felt right.

There are correspondence courses available out there which, I would think, at least teach you the basics of what editing involves. However, I also think that there’s an element which goes beyond the mechanics of the editing process, which I can only describe as a natural affinity or talent for editing – that intuition I talked about above. I’m not saying that correspondence courses are unnecessary, not at all – I can see them being extremely useful, especially if you’re looking for a career within the publishing industry itself. However, I liken it to music: you can be taught how to play an instrument and read music, but it takes a particular talent to push beyond that into musicianship. However, it is also true that you need to know the basics in order to become a musician.

I didn’t do a correspondence course because I couldn’t afford it and that’s the only reason. As Stephen Jones, one of the horror genre’s pre-eminent editors said to me, “you learn editing by doing it”. So that’s what I did: threw myself into the thick of it by actually starting an imprint, inviting writers to submit their stories and then editing those submissions (and working closely with the author – another essential prerequisite). I can proudly say, however, that not a single typo has crept into any of the Spectral Press chapbooks or the sole novella I’ve issued. But that, I believe, is what makes the difference, paying such close attention to detail – to do otherwise is ‘commercial’ suicide. People will take notice of your mistakes and will let you know by taking their custom elsewhere.

Next time, I will go deeper into the elements of editing, so stay tuned for the next episode.

SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

Simon Marshall-Jones is the editor/publisher at British Fantasy Award-nominated Spectral Press, and is also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger.

If you would like a free no-obligation quote about Simon’s freelance editing services contact him on spectralpress@gmail.com.

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