Publish and perish

The demise of Key Porter set off a brief flurry of anguish that another Canadian publisher had gone under. The more protracted debate has been about the general lack of good editors at publishing houses.

Indeed, Key Porter is a sad tale. They published my most recent book, BlackBerry: The Inside Story of Research In Motion. The Fenns, Harold and Jordan, deserved a better fate. So did Anna Porter, a co-founder, who sold them the business but left her name on the door. Anna ranks among the best in the business as do Doug Gibson and Phyllis Bruce, all three of whom I’ve worked with, but not for a while. Anne Collins, who regularly is mentioned in despatches, I knew at Maclean’s in the early 1980s, but have never been published by her house.

But here’s the thing. All this caterwauling about editors at publishing houses being replaced by freelance editors is a tad behind the times. Russell Smith wrote about this in The Globe today as if those talented gurus actually existed until just recently. There might be a few left somewhere, but I’ve published more than a dozen non-fiction books over nearly thirty years, and the last time I had either a substantive or a structural edit was at McClelland & Stewart fifteen years ago. My manuscript for Who Killed Confederation Life? went through not one, but two, in-house edits. Pat Kennedy did the structural edit and another woman did the copy edit. I regret to say I cannot remember her name.

But I do remember the two of them discussing at some length the proper placement of a semi-colon. I thought to myself, “If they care this much about these words, I’m happy to sit here forever.” They made many other far more thoughtful suggestions and the book went on to win the National Business Book Award.

I’ve always taken the view that every writer needs a good editor. When I wrote 5,000-word magazine pieces in the 1980s, I was again fortunate to be edited by the best: Barbara Moon, Barbara Czarnecki, and Gary Ross. I don’t write those articles any more, but I still write books. If I want a structural edit, I hire a freelancer out of my own pocket. Publishers will pay for a copy edit, but that’s it. As for ideas about how to improve a manuscript, you might get a brief email with a few thoughts.

For all the lamentations about e-books, freelance editors, and the lack of government support, the main point is being missed. With the exception of the aforementioned bright spots, the Canadian publishing industry has been in decline since the mid-1990s. The wails you hear are for a time long gone.

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