The substantive editing gap at university presses

university libraryAs a freelance copy editor for a university press, I’ve received the occasional manuscript that needed a substantive or structural edit – a depth of editing that copy editors are not paid to do. Copy editors are expected to do a combination of copy editing and stylistic editing, known in the Canadian market as a “copy edit plus.” At the copy-editing stage, the time for reshaping and revising the content is long gone.

How, then, did these books slip through?

It happens, I think, because acquisitions editors at university presses don’t have time to read the entire manuscript. They have to bring in 20 to 25 manuscripts a year, evaluate proposals, coordinate peer review, apply for funding, make sure that the author has obtained the necessary permissions, complete a lot of paperwork, attend meetings and conferences, and keep up with current publications in the fields they acquire in.

So acquisitions editors largely rely on peer reviewers – academics with expertise in the subject matter of the book – to flag structural problems and make suggestions for revision.

“The involvement of the editor varies,” says Emily Andrew, an acquisitions editor at Cornell University Press. Speaking to academics at Queen’s University, she explained,

At Cornell, the editors read a couple of sample chapters before sending a manuscript to peer review. They need to know that the topic is good and so is the writing.

Reliance on peer review is closely tied to the purpose of university presses, which exist not for commercial but intellectual gain. If the peer reviewers agree that a manuscript makes a meaningful contribution to a field of study, it will be published, regardless of the sales potential (although university presses are increasingly conscious of the bottom line). Peer review distinguishes scholarly publishing from all other types of publishing.

The acquisitions editor sends the manuscript to two peer reviewers with a list of questions along these lines:

  • Is the research up-to-date and of good quality?
  • Who is the audience?
  • How important is the work?
  • Is the book well organized?
  • Is it well written? How accessible is the writing?
  • Would it benefit from being shortened?
  • Are there any inaccuracies or omissions?

The reviewers write a “reader’s report” that can be several pages long. They recommend:

  1. publish as is
  2. revise and resubmit, or
  3. don’t publish. (If the reports disagree, the acquisitions editor will send the manuscript to a third reviewer.)

revise and resubmitThe second scenario, known as R&R, is the most common one. The reviewers recommend publication provided that the author heeds their suggestions for revision. The acquisitions editor helps the author to interpret the reports and gives advice on how to implement the changes. The author, of course, has to be willing to accept criticism and maybe even to rethink the work from the perspective of the reviewers and potential readers. The editor has to be firm but at the same time show that he or she is on the author’s side. This is where the author-editor relationship comes into its own.

When the author sends the revised manuscript, the acquisitions editor will check to see that the changes have been made, but it seems to me that something could be missed at this stage. Maybe the editor, having put in the time and effort to secure an $8,000 grant from the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program as well as funding from other sources, just wants to move this project along.

James MacNevin, a former acquisitions editor at McGill-Queen’s University Press, spoke at an Editors Kingston meeting last year. He said that “a full substantive edit rarely occurs, and if it does, the author pays.” I imagine that the acquisitions editor would have to be pretty firm about insisting on a structural edit, as the author would not be happy about paying a freelancer and rewriting.

Given the acquisitions editor’s heavy workload, it’s remarkable that only the occasional manuscript with serious flaws finds its way to the copy editor. But what if it does?

First, discuss it with the managing editor. He or she will be able to give you some insight into the acquisitions process, because each manuscript is thoroughly discussed at a transmittal meeting, where the acquisitions editor hands the project over to the managing editor.

Don’t do substantive editing without the managing editor’s approval. And if you get approval, don’t expect much more than an honorarium in return for all the hours you give. The press just doesn’t have the wiggle room to increase the budget for a book. According to an excellent course on scholarly publishing that I took at Ryerson, most university presses operate at a loss.

Basically, you have three choices: put a lid on your perfectionist tendencies and restrict yourself to a copy edit, suck it up and do your best work for minimum wage, or persuade the author to pay.

If you freelance for a university press, I would very interested to hear about your experiences. Have you ever received a manuscript at the copy-editing stage that needed a substantive edit? What did you do?





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