The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The anarchy of editing
Magic touch

You should have absolutely no illusions. Editing, which means reshaping, revising and rewriting, simply does not exist in Indian publishing houses any more. There are two basic reasons for this lack: first, even the best houses do not have experienced editors and if they are still there, they are under far too much pressure. And the reason why reasonably well-informed editors no longer enter or stay on in publishing is that there are better opportunities in the media; or, simply even the best qualified are not really interested in reading — the corporate world offers so much more. So what happens inside editorial departments and what should authors do to ensure that their books are free of errors'

The answer to the first question is: not much. What editors (actually copy-editors) do is they check out the literals — spelling mistakes, make the spellings uniform, as also the dates, legends to illustrations and so on. But copyediting is an arduous job that requires a sharp eye for a great many details that have been spelled out in two classic works, The Chicago Manual of Style, and Judith Butcher’s Copyediting, that is more accessible and more frequently used.

Our editors know some of the rules of the game but nowhere near how much there is to be done to make the book “consistent” in every respect. What good editors learn is to “fact-check”, or put check marks along the margins of the copy to check out facts. Sadly, very often these are wrong because the well-known author believes that the pulling powers of their names would see the edition through, any way. So why bother!

This is the nub of the problem. Authors are selected more and more for their celebrity status in the belief that the authority of their names would quash any criticism about the book. So what does the copyeditor, who is usually a fresh graduate, do' He is overawed and starts to believe everything that is written in the manuscript. In course of time, they just let it pass with only a perfunctory glance at the manuscript.

It is embarrassing to mention names because many of the big boys are still around, but a classic case was Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Thy Hand, Great Anarch. The editor wanted to cut; Niradbabu said “not a word.” So the publisher let it pass, sold the bulk at greatly reduced prices to the Indian market, remaindered the rest in Britain — which found its way back to us! A ridiculous situation arose: there were two editions in the market, the official and the remaindered with a price difference of over Rs 75. Such situations have arisen often because the minutiae have not been taken care of and the Western market, fastidious as it is about details, rejects the entire lot at the first complaint by a reader.

Given the ground realities, authors should take care of details themselves, possibly with a little help from professional free-lance book editors. If they find this burdensome, they should remember that authors are expected to shoulder more responsibility today than ever before: from the presentation of a near-perfect copy in a floppy to book launches and marketing. The author has become, as an advertising agency put it, “a part of the product sales.” If authors want their books error-free, they must do their “bit”.

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