Editors say they love words, with finding just the right phrase for the context, but, ironically, they can only fail with two terms critical to the world of publishing: “editor” and “author.”
When someone says she’s an editor, you have no idea what she does. Is she the editor of a newspaper or a magazine, commissioning articles and deciding on content? Is she the editor of an anthology or a collection of essays, selecting the contributions and writing the introduction? Is she the acquisitions editor, managing editor or production editor for a firm? An illustrations editor? Or a text editor for web or print? If so, is she a cracker-jack copy editor, citing Chicago by chapter and paragraph? Or a developmental or substantive editor, shaping the organization and presentation for the intended reader? Or a stylistic editor, transforming halting prose into sentences that are clear and a pleasure to read? Without further explanation of the word “editor,” we just don’t know.
The word “author” is equally fluid in meaning. Most people regard an author as a creator, especially in the literary world — the writer of a book, poem, essay or report who decides on the concept and expresses it in words. The editors or translators who follow are seen as auxiliary professionals in the publication process. But “author” also means the originator of an idea or a plan — and that’s where the confusion lies. In the art world, for instance, the person who designs the object is called the sculptor whether or not he carves the wood or welds the metal. In this definition, only the concept is regarded as a creative act; the skilled handwork involved in realizing it is but a craft.
Similarly, individuals who become subjects of books can be designated as authors. We see this with “celebrity books” about athletes, performers, politicians, astronauts and others, most of which are written by “ghosts.” These writers may not be acknowledged, even though skilled authors or editors themselves: one told me recently that she had three books on the Globe and Mail’s bestseller list but was mentioned in none.
People who initiate ideas for books — and most likely finance them to some degree — can also be called authors, whether they are transparent or not about who actually wrote them. These books are often gorgeous art or illustrated books that traditional publishers find too expensive to originate on their own, but they are happy to buy into them as packaged books once the person or the group behind them has arranged for the research, writing, editing, permissions and possibly also the design and production. When the volumes appear with the publisher’s logo in place, they are indistinguishable from other books from the firm.
Readers don’t seem to be interested in the story behind these books. As one renowned ghost explained to me: “People want to believe that the celebrities they admire have written every word.” For similar reasons in their own interest, the publishers and the “authors” keep silent. Does it really matter, then, who wrote the text? Should we judge a book only on what we find between the covers? Personally, I like to know the story behind what I read, but I realize that may not be possible. Only the author — whatever that means — knows for sure.
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