Anonymity And The Copy Editor: Is It Time To Be Recognised?

hidden, anonymous, sculpture, book, editor, copy editor

As an editor I often like to remain anonymous.

As a copy editor I feel that I’m just polishing the author’s intentions and getting their ‘real’ story out there. We all know what it’s like to be tongue-tied, that feeling that you know what you want to say but you just can’t get it out. That’s what I’m helping with. As a copy editor I know the constructions, the words and the layout. I know how to help. As that’s my job I usually don’t see the need for acknowledgement in a book I’ve worked on.

Sometimes this is because I feel I’ve done my job, been of help to a lovely author or publisher, and I prefer the anonymity.

Sometimes it’s because so little had to be done to the text that I feel an acknowledgement isn’t necessary.

Sometimes it’s because the book isn’t in my normal scope so professionally I don’t need the acknowledgement (it might dilute my public professional goals).

Sometimes, very rarely, it’s because the job was a nightmare and I don’t want to be acknowledged for fear it will impact negatively on my professional standing. Examples are when the budget or timescale was so tight that only triage editing was possible and left behind a lot that I felt needed addressing. Or perhaps the author decided to ignore my suggestions. Or even added stuff to the final edited version after my input was finished (oh yes, it happens). It’s very easy for an editor to be ignored and yet have their name on a final product that falls way beyond their normal standard.

And yet, most of the time, acknowledgements are not needed because I’m an editor, that’s my job and as long as I have done a job well I am happy with my lot.

anonymous copy editor

But I’m beginning to wonder if the anonymity of editors is becoming a problem.

I’ve seen this with my base profession. I trained as a librarian and information specialist. I spent my professional working life as an academic librarian explaining to people that no, I didn’t just stamp books. A librarian is so much more: we train; we handle budgets; we collate, curate and keep vast collections; we deal with the public, students and academics; we disseminate information; we are academics, counsellors, psychologists, analysts, shopkeepers, managers, lifelong learners and gatekeepers of the world’s knowledge. No, we don’t just stamp books.

And yet, librarians are a dying breed. Due to their anonymous nature, and the belief that now the world has Google anyone can be an information professional, librarians are no longer seen as vital. Library assistants are now running libraries. The librarian as we know it is endangered, as are the libraries they once ran and cherished.

library, books, reading room

And the same thing could soon be happening to editors. Because many of us don’t feel the need for acknowledgement, either through author acks or being noted for our role somewhere in the book, the world is beginning to forget why we exist.

The market is saturated with books. How many of those publications are self-published without editorial help? We’ll never know because copy editors are barely mentioned. The editor thanked profusely by the author in a traditionally published book is usually the publication editor who steers the project, the copy editor remains largely invisible.

I decided to pick ten random books from my shelf, to see if I was perhaps barking up the wrong tree. They are a mix of factual non-fiction, biography and fiction:

Two had no acknowledgements at all.

One praised an editor for meticulous and insightful editing.

One, a massive historical tome, mentions everyone except the editor and indexer, both of whom must have worked their fingers to the bone.

In one the proofreader was thanked, but not the copy editor.

A design book gave thanks to designers but not the editorial staff.

One thanked the publishing team as a whole, so that’s ok.

The last three gave no mention of the editorial staff at all.

 

That’s 1/10 giving acknowledgement to the editor, two if we’re feeling generous.

blank books on a shelf

 

But how much of that is down to the copy editor saying no to being acknowledged, or not having any relationship with the author at all? And is it really cause for concern? Are book acknowledgements that important anyway?

Just like the internet quietly brought down librarians, it is potentially doing the same for copy editors. I’ve come across conversations where self-publishing authors have said they don’t need to pay for editorial help when they have Hemmingway, Grammarly and spellchecks to do the job for them. Don’t get me wrong, these are wonderfully useful, but you can’t slavishly follow them, and using them instead of a professionally trained human editor is asking for trouble.

So we come back to anonymity, and we have to ask ourselves these questions:

Are copy editors anonymous because

  1. they really don’t need to be acknowledged,
  2. they don’t feel the need to be acknowledged,
  3. they’re rarely asked if they want to be acknowledged,
  4. they don’t want to be acknowledged,
  5. acknowledgements are personal for the author?

Should editors:

  1. make acknowledgement part of their contracts,
  2. broach the subject of acknowledgement with each new job,
  3. ask to be acknowledged,
  4. ask not to be acknowledged,
  5. expect to be acknowledged.

shy editor

And how should we move forward as professionals doing a job where many of us prefer to stay in the background?

I expect that as time goes by, if we are to survive as a valued profession, we need to uphold professional attitudes, become ambassadors for plain, good quality written language and champion excellence wherever possible.

We may need to step out of the shadows and shout about what we do and why it is valuable before, like librarians, we are sidelined and people settle for ‘good enough’.

 

What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments whether you’re an author or editor, let’s get the dialogue started.

18 thoughts on “Anonymity And The Copy Editor: Is It Time To Be Recognised?

  1. I don’t expect to be acknowledged for the work I do for businesses, not-for-profits, government or NGOs. They pay me well and I’m happy to be ‘behind the scenes’, making them look good. Academic theses sometimes require editorial assistance to be acknowledged, so my name has appeared in a few PhDs. As far as book editing goes, I have only been acknowledged in one so far. Some books I would prefer not to be associated with, either because despite working hard to make them the best they can possibly be, they just aren’t very good books, or because the client was one of those ‘tinkerers’ who made further edits after I had finished working with them (I don’t want to be blamed for errors I didn’t introduce). Writers I am pleased to work with have written lovely testimonials, which appear on my website, they have written reviews on my Facebook page, and their books are selling quite or very well. For me, that’s all the recognition and thanks I need.

    • Same here. I hate being acknowledged and prefer a good old testimonial (but they’re pretty difficult to get on some projects, many of mine are confidential).
      This article came about from quite a few conversations and postings. I realised I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here to an extent … having seen my first chosen profession slowly, quietly die I can see it happening to the editorial profession. It’s scary.

  2. I recently came across this very thing. I work for a nonprofit, and over the past 8 months, I have copyedited extensively for a particular project within the organization. The project’s funding ended yesterday with the final report. I received two thank you’s via email from two of the project leaders, but when I looked in the acknowledgements section of the final report, thanking all the staff who contributed to the project, my name wasn’t there. I have been included a few times with other projects, but mostly, I am not mentioned in the products. And in nine years, I have had only a handful of clients email me after the edit to say thank you or well done. Like you, I see my role as helping writers communicate their message, teaching, etc., in the best possible way. While I don’t expect recognition, it’s nice to receive. In my career as an editor (24 years) working in nonprofits, I have had to show (prove) that my services were necessary, valuable, and worthwhile. My first editor told me that being an editor was a thankless job. Yet, I am still glad that I chose this profession.

    I think your concern about copyeditors is valid. I think we have to continually be educating writers, authors, department heads, company leaders, and the like that we improve their products, which in turn improves their reputation and credibility with the public they’re trying to reach. It is a good fight because we do make a difference.

    • There’s nothing quite like the feeling of a job well done, but I am worried that however much some of us dislike being named publically, if we don’t become more visible we will disappear.

  3. Librarians are NOT a dying breed and libraries are not just book repositories and warehouses for books. Libraries provide a community space for people of under served populations, programs to grow literacy among children, training for people needing jobs, safe spaces for the downtrodden and maligned and free access to books and information for everyone no matter their socioeconomic status. I use my library all the time and it is always busy and full of people. Anyways, I’m also a librarian so I’m pretty passionate about this subject. 🙂

    • I was a librarian too, and believe me, they are dying out. As librarians we know how valuable they are, but more and more libraries are shutting or being brought in with other services. They need championing and protecting before they go completely. They’re in a transition phase. I sincerely hope they don’t die out.

      • Oh no I don’t think so at all. I’ve worked in public libraries since the recession and it’s a valuable resource for any community. Our programs were always used and hopping. Even when I worked at a library in Frisco TX, at one point I did five story times a week and had an average attendance of 50-250 people in each program. Families and children really support and value the public library.

      • Hopefully it’s just a difference in our countries then. Here in the UK funding for libraries is constantly being cut, and while they are still the hub of the community most are run by assistants. Professional librarians are undervalued and overworked now.

      • Ah it could be. There is that issue here in the US as well. I have been lucky enough to live in states and communities that value libraries. Here in Washington near Seattle they are seen as a valuable resource. Tho librarians are likely underpaid. It seems like people in education typically are.

  4. An acknowledgement from the author is excruciatingly hard to ask for, but I have done so on several occasions where it was a major work and I was really proud of my involvement in it. It’s very hard otherwise to prove my right to include that book in my CV/resume. (And I’ve had a couple where, for various reasons, I’ve asked not to be named.)

    One of the publishers I do freelance editing for has begun naming editors on the imprint page, which is a nice low-impact way for editors to get that CV mention without an author having to know them personally. I’ve just used the same idea for a couple of my self-publishing clients where I’m managing editor, so that my copy editor can get some CV mileage out of her work.

  5. Another wonderful and thought-provoking post, Sarah. I suppose the answers to your questions vary widely from project to project and editor to editor, but it does seem that writers, publishers, and even readers value skillful editing less these days. It’s especially sad to spot an typo or malapropism in a venerable publication such as the New York Times. I do love your call to action, though, that, “… if we are to survive as a valued profession, we need to uphold professional attitudes, become ambassadors for plain, good quality written language and champion excellence wherever possible.” I hereby pledge to join you in doing my best!

  6. Yes. Just to back up what you were saying about librarians in the UK. At my local library whenever they advertise for new staff they’re simply asking for customer service workers.

  7. I believe that the penchant for anonymity is a big part of why budgets for copyeditors are being slashed in book publishing, journal publishing, and newspaper publishing: The accountants for these organizations don’t know what it is we do and how valuable it is. That’s why I make sure to get an acknowledgment in whatever I work on, unless it’s a horrid triage project. (But I haven’t done one of those projects in a very long time.)

    I used to *ask* my journal authors’ permission to include me in the acknowledgments section of their manuscripts. I no longer ask. I just plop this (without the quotes, of course) in place in mss., and generally it ends up in print:

    “Medical editor Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, ELS (East Setauket, NY, USA) provided professional English-language editing of this article.”

    That gets me inquiries from new-to-me authors who read the published articles.

    Here’s a primer on how to build good editor–author relationships to keep our profession from disappearing:

    http://www.asbpe.org/blog/2014/12/17/why-editors-should-build-relationships-with-authors-and-how-they-can-do-so/

    • You’re right … the less we are seen the more likely it is that people don’t know what we do. If they don’t know what we do, they won’t know how vital our services are.

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