Going out of style

This post also appears on The Editors’ Weekly, the Editors’ Association of Canada’s official blog.


“It’s house style.”

I don’t think I fully appreciated the power of that sentence until I could no longer use it. As editors we’re constantly striving to balance the needs of the publisher, author and reader, but with the growth of self- and custom publishing, the needs of the publisher are becoming irrelevant in more and more projects. You’d think having one less item for editors to juggle would make our lives easier, but upholding certain editorial standards can get tricky when the author is the publisher and the client.

As much as we’d love to believe that all parties in the traditional publisher–editor–author relationship are equal, in reality the publisher holds the bulk of the power, as the one who signs the editor’s paycheque and decides whether an author’s work will make it to market. I’ve leveraged that tacit hierarchy (which is particularly apparent in academic publishing, where production efficiency is a priority, and corporate publishing, where brand building is important) when working with authors: in some cases it has allowed me to build a sibling-like rapport with them. We understand that we’re both answering to “Mom,” and when I invoke house style, I’m pretty much saying, “Mom says you need to go mow the lawn. Sorry.” I’m not that sorry, of course: I know that following these house rules will, in general, give us an ultimately stronger, more consistent text.

In the editor–self-publishing author dynamic, however, the concept of house style is meaningless, and because the author’s the one paying the editor’s invoices, the editor has to be prepared to bend. As Amy Einsohn advises in the The Copyeditor’s Handbook, “For the working copyeditor, deference is the better part of valor: if the author’s preference is at all acceptable, it should be respected.” (p. 336) The author insists on uppercasing all corporate titles? Well, okay. The text might look a bit funny, but readers probably won’t get confused. But what if an author wants to do something so unconventional that even a casual reader would be baffled—and responds to “But The Chicago Manual of Style says…” with “I don’t care!”?

When editing sans publisher, other instruments of persuasion in our usual editorial toolkit can also lose their power. Even “I’m concerned that this editorial approach will hurt your sales” doesn’t always work, because many self-publishing authors either won’t have thought that far ahead or won’t believe you. I’ve had more success with “Your readers won’t be used to seeing that style; they’ll think it’s a mistake, which might affect your credibility,” but when that strategy fails and the author really digs in his or her heels, I have to take a step back and remind myself whose name is on the book.

Of course, I’m by no means suggesting that editors should blindly follow house style even when it is available; in many cases doing so would be to the detriment of the text. What I am saying is that I miss being able to lean on house style—and other aspects of a publisher’s editorial vision—when the publisher is out of the picture, and I have to admit that those situations leave me feeling a bit more vulnerable in my dealings with the author. But with that vulnerability, I suppose, comes a creative freedom that may allow this minimalist publication team to produce some truly innovative work.

What strategies have you developed to persuade your self-publishing authors that your style choice is in the best interest of their text?

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