Do editors need government subsidies?

Most of an article in today’s Age by Michael Heyward, the head of the critically and commercially successful Text Publishing, shows how well the Australian book industry operates in the market.

On Heyward’s figures, 60% of books sold in Australia are published in Australia, which if true is remarkable given the range and quality of imported books (of course some of the 60% would be overseas-authored books for which local publishers have bought the Australian rights). According to Heyward, our mix of bookshops is better than those in Britain, the US or Canada. Australians, he says, are near the top of the list for book consumption per capita (though on actually reading books we are typical of the Anglosphere, according to this recent Morgan Poll).

The only statistic he can find to suggest, in his view, that there is anything wrong is the number of books published per million people, in which we ‘lag’ behind other countries – but this is surely in the worthless factoid department since what is the possible rationale for yet more books when not even the most dedicated reader could get through the 8,602 titles that were published in Australia in 2003-04? (And most of the countries he mentions are not English speaking, and cannot use foreign publishers in the way Australians can).

But Heyward is determined to find something for the government to spend our money on, and it is editors. He not-very-plausibly suggests that more editors might mean more Australian books being published, but more plausibly implies that the standard of editing in Australian publishing isn’t what it could be. His most specific proposal is for a $1 million a year to help publishers hire and train a dozen editors

While perhaps editors could be better trained (and the government does already contribute to this via university subsidies), I don’t think the quality of editing is a major source of problems in Australian publishing. While even very good writers can benefit from editorial advice, there is only so much an editor can do. If something isn’t already of a high standard when it arrives in the editor’s in-box, it is very unlikely to be more than ‘good enough’, no matter how skill the editor has or how much time the editor spends on it. One of the frustrating things about being an editor is that you get most praise when you have done the least work, as the best things you publish rarely require more than a little polishing.

So more important than better editing is better initial writing. These days, most writers will have been to university, and that’s where they need to learn about writing. Many US colleges and universities have ‘writing and composition’ courses. I expect they are of variable quality, but I’m sure they must contribute to the significantly higher standard of writing found in US books and magazines compared to their Australian equivalents.

It’s tempting to dismiss Heyward’s suggestion as just shameless rent-seeking. It is that, but I think there is more going on here. To Australia’s state-loving artists, writers and intellectuals, there is something special about government money. To them, it is not just finance, it is recognition of their importance. The phrase ‘public support’ of the arts captures both aspects of what they want: cash and credit. It is not enough for Heyward to be a successful in the market; he wants to be worthy in the eyes of the state as well.

7 thoughts on “Do editors need government subsidies?

  1. Yes there seems to be a body of opinion that a dollar that has passed through the hands of the government to some worthy cause like education is somehow better than a dollar spent on the same thing by a voluntary buyer. Very strange!

    On writing among uni students, from my limited experience of uni teaching some of the students were barely literate and when I spent a little time talking to each of them one on one it appeared that this was the only input of that kind that some of them ever had.

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  2. Andrew, I think you’re misreading Michael Heyward. I don’t detect any celebration of government funding for its own sake.

    Rather, he’s raising a possibly legitimate case for business development, citing the success of the book industry in Australia and Canadian successes in aiding the editing role. His case is probably at least as good as that for other bodies that enjoy substantial government support, including Invest Australia, NICTA, the tourism industry and overseas branches of universities.

    Also, he seems to be talking about editors in the sense of those who find and prepare good work, rather than people who finalise work for publication. Again, the focus is on business development and expanding markets.

    I think this also raises an interesting question about ARC funding. A significant amount of so-called research these days is pretty dubious, especially in fields like “new media” and “creative industries,” and even in areas that probably seem more respectable, such as information systems.

    It would be appropriate for some of that funding to go into proven successful sectors, instead of pretentious projects run by academics.

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  3. Tony – I was reading things into Heyward’s article, based on many years reading of similar requests for cash. The feds don’t support overseas branches of universities, though they do assist with international marketing. I don’t support that, but as with tourism there is an argument that if we are selling ‘brand Australia’ there will be no one commercial operation in Australia with sufficient incentive to fund it, and therefore there is a case for government funding.

    As an editor myself, I think the part of the job relating to finding and preparing good work, to use your expression, is the part that is very hard to train anyone to do – and what works overseas may not work here. Around the world, a small minority of books generate most of the profit for publishers, so even those who are good at ‘picking winners’ are likely to get it wrong much of the time. By contrast, finalising a work for publication involves technical skills that can be taught, and presumably are taught in editing courses at universities.

    I agree re ARC.

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  4. This is a very ‘producer-orientated’ approach. What he is saying is Australian book consumers should substitute local reading material for whatever it is they currently read. As a reader, I prefer to read the very best the world has to offer, not just local. My leisure reading is science fiction and the best work (IMHO) at the moment is coming from British authors (Banks, Hamilton, Mieville, Morgan, Reynolds). I can imagine that my purchases of Australian published books will decline over time. Why wait 30 days and buy it from the local book store when Amazon can deliver close to the international publishing day?

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  5. Well it’s the right time to try and get your snout in the trough – an election coming, with a cashed-up goverment behind in the polls and having a well developed instinct for the pork barrel.

    He needs to find some editors who live in Coalition marginal electorates, though. And he should claim that they’re all conservative family men (sexism is alive in the Coalition) on AWAs.

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  6. “I’m sure they must contribute to the significantly higher standard of writing found in US books and magazines compared to their Australian equivalents.”

    Perhaps, but I also suspect that a bigger contributor is the fact that the US is 14 times the size of Australia, so its top tier in almost any field will likely be better than ours.

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