Critical re-thinking

There’s nothing like reading your own obituary to give a journalist a wake-up call.

Last month, The Bookseller editor Philip Jones published a lament on the demise of literary editors and, as one of those he mentioned—I edited the Independent on Sunday’s books pages from 2009 until the paper’s closure in March—I share his fears. Book reviews sections “are in mortal danger”, he wrote, “and . . . once they are gone, we will marvel at what we have lost”.

Unsurprisingly, I agree. While there remain some magnificent books sections that I cherish, the disappearance of any medium is a loss. Not only did the Independent on Sunday help to discover fledgling writers (Sarah Waters, David Mitchell, Tasha Kavanagh, Hanya Yanagihara . . .) and champion well-known ones (we published new writing by A L Kennedy, Louis de Bernières, Fay Weldon...), it did so while campaigning for gender equality in children’s books and against the monopolisation of the industry by Amazon, and while maintaining a balance of male and female reviewers (an impossible task, according to some other publications). Until the end, we insisted on paying reviewers.

Professional reviews by accountable, named reviewers are more important than ever in a world where every anonymous sock-puppet and their mother are imploring readers to shell out £18.99 on the latest five-star hardback. I recently spoke at a seminar for authors, where one told me that his publisher insists he asks all of his friends and family to review him online. The magic number of reviews is 50, apparently, to trip some sort of algorithm.

There are, of course, some fantastic online reviewers, but doing a proper job is hard work. In May, the blogger Bookslut hung up her keyboard, admitting, “Running it takes a lot of time, and it makes no money . . . and when I realised the sacrifices I was going to have to make in order for it to make money, it wasn’t worth it.”

To a literary editor, that sounds familiar. In the seven years I did the job, my budget was cut by more than half. Book lovers complained about online clickbait, while even some publishers begrudged buying a copy of the paper for their office. As Jones noted, publishers seldom advertise in books sections. They told me that a review or interview was worth far more to them than any amount of advertising in the same space. An author friend confided that her publisher would rather pay for an intimate lunch for key critics than advertise in their publications. One such lunch would cost more than my entire weekly budget.

The closure of newspapers and books sections spells trouble for publishing, then, but I can see one silver lining: all the brilliant people who are now available for work as editors. Publishers ought to snap them up, because a former literary editor is exactly the person to help you make great books and sell lots of them.

We know about books (most of us received about 200 of them per week, by the sack full) and we have a nose for a story. As journalists, we know how to spot the next big thing, not just copy the last one.

We’ve already got to grips with “online”. We have, in a pile of scruffy reporters’ notebooks, an extensive network of contacts who can write. We’ve spent years meeting interesting people and hearing their stories (and ideas for books), and of course we have good friends in the media. We wouldn’t claim that we can do the publicity department’s job for them, but we can help.

What we’re really good at, though, is editing: thoroughly, sensitively and in a hurry, whether the writing is by a Booker Prize-winning author or an unheard-of amateur with a good idea.

We can do all of this with a tiny, shrinking budget, and we never, ever miss a deadline. And you know that we’re not in this business for the money, the glamour or the easy life; we just get a kick out of getting good books to happy readers.

Fortunately, literary editors are not quite dead yet. But publishers would be wise to invest in them, one way or another.

Katy Guest is the former editor of the books pages of the Independent on Sunday.