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Rosemary Shipton

There’s No Clarity With Editors or Authors

Copyright: aniwhite / 123RF Stock Photo

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.


Previous post from Rosemary Shipton: Editing Is Lifelong Learning.

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About the author

Rosemary Shipton

Rosemary Shipton edits trade, scholarly and art books as well as commission of inquiry reports. From 1990 to 2007 she was the founding academic coordinator of the publishing program at Ryerson University in Toronto.

6 Comments on “There’s No Clarity With Editors or Authors”

  • Frances Peck


    How’s this for a complex “who’s the author” question? A couple of years ago, I was hired to re-ghostwrite a ghostwritten book on financial planning. The “co-authors,” whose names are on the finished product, were unhappy with the manuscript their first ghostwriter produced, so they hired me to (1) structurally and stylistically edit (and often rewrite) the nonfiction material and (2) rewrite from scratch the fictional story that runs through the book. Thus, on any given page, the reader is treated to a ragout of content cooked up by two of us based on a recipe designed by the co-authors.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      Complex indeed, Frances. I hope said book sold in the thousands, so the “co-authors” earned back their investment in all the ghosts!

  • All points well taken, Rosemary and Frances. And to add another layer to this confusion, don’t forget the sound and film editors.

    We cannot be surprised that new freelance edit clients require education about what we editors do.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      Oh yes, they do. And not just indie authors but many managers in government and corporations who suddenly find themselves in charge of a publishing project. Authors with a book or two or a few articles behind them may also need “educating” when they move from a publisher or editor who provided only copy editing to a new environment where substantive / stylistic editing is part of the process.

      For us editors, it’s all part of the variety – and the challenges – in the work we do. Every project is different.

  • Anita Jenkins


    My completely unscientific survey of Editors Canada members suggests that a large percentage are copy editors. I base this conclusion on a) the great enthusiasm for discussions about rules (and how they should not be allowed to change) and b) the excitement when someone from the Chicago Manual of Style is the keynote speaker at a conference. Do we have information about what sort of work our members do?

    • Rosemary Shipton


      I suspect your hunch is correct, Anita. Unfortunately, many people don’t know the proper meaning of “copy editor” as we do, and they think it’s the correct term for everyone who edits documents or texts. When they become our clients, they may ask for “copy editing,” but what they really mean, or need, is a full edit – substantive, stylistic, and copy. It’s up to us to educate them on the distinctions and to offer the kind of editing they need.

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