E-books and editing–opportunity and hazard

Way back in the last century when word processing was hot new technology I knew nothing about I became a footnote in Australian literature – but I did learn a thing or two about publishing and editing. As I wrote back then:


If you have enjoyed this first issue of Neos as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to you, then our aims are achieved. We have had to select from material at hand; we hope you, our readers, will become contributors, widening the range on which we can draw. Yet we have been able to give you, in this initial sample, work in whose quality we believe…

We do not have rigid preconceptions concerning what and how you should write. But if we were to offer advice, it might be that of Ezra Pound*:

Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something. Go in fear of abstractions… Use either no ornament or good ornament… If you are using a symmetrical form, don’t put in what you want to say and then fill up the remaining vacuums with slush… the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object, … if a man use “symbols” he must so use them that their symbolic function does not obtrude; so that a sense, and the poetic quality of the passage, is not lost to those who do not understand the symbol as such, to whom, for instance, a hawk is a hawk.

Advice we aim at; we do not always succeed.

Second, expect to discover things as you write: that is the joy of writing, as Australian poet Robert Gray observed in Island Magazine (June 7 1981):

All those details [in the poem "Telling the Beads"] which sound as if they’re the record of an experience I’ve had of walking into a garden in the morning are things that actually I never knew I’d observed, and when I sat down with a white sheet of paper those things came into my mind like a new experience. They’d obviously been things I’d encountered somewhere, in some form, but then I really saw them for the first time on the white page as I wrote, which is one of the reasons one enjoys writing so much.

Third, revise what you’ve written. Of this Robert Gray said:

I keep the drafts, and I just trust to my response to know if and where I’ve overworked it, but usually I haven’t. To me, to write well is to have the exact word. It’s absolutely essential to choose only the words that are appropriate and nothing else… I just try to always work for the feeling of clarity… I think if you’re going to say something, if you’re going to open your mouth at all, you have to be prepared to really examine and define and refine what you’re talking about until you get it right.

If then we decide to use your work, you may get from us some suggestions for further revision. This is not meant to discourage you. Rather, see us not as “experts” (which we’re not) but as your writing partners, dedicated to bringing out as well as possible what you want to say.

* Charles Norman (ed), Poets on Poetry, NY, Collier 1962, pp 320-333. John Hawke reminded me of Pound’s important statement. Robert Gray became a regular reader, I might add, and a keen supporter.

And later on I found myself editing – at his request, mind – Frank Moorhouse and then Rob and I found ourselves editing – virtually rewriting a sentence or two – Les Murray. Why? Because even truly accomplished writers — if in a hurry as were both, I suspect, doing guest pieces for us – can nod off. “Les Murray is Australia’s leading poet and one of the greatest contemporary poets writing in English. His work has been published in ten languages.”

So what happens with eBooks?  One prompt for this post was The Diary in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.


MAINSTREAM publishing houses are colonising new territory in the next stage of an e-book revolution that is changing not only how we read, but what we read, forever, The Guardian reports. After the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which started out as an e-book series posted on a fan site by its author E L James, and which has become the world’s fastest-selling book, publishers are circling the thriving online platforms serving unpublished writers. Last week Pearson, the owner of Penguin Books, bought one of the biggest grassroots publishers, the American company Author Solutions, for £74 million ($111 million). The idea is that Pearson will no longer have to rely on spotting e-book successes early on; instead, they will own a new author’s work from the first moment it appears online. Last week the Glaswegian crime writer Denise Mina said she believed e-books would soon radically alter the publishing industry. After receiving a British crime novel of the year award for The End of the Wasp Season, she said: ”Nobody knows what sells. More so now because the market’s changing so fundamentally because of Kindle and electronic publishing … It’s going to change the sorts of stories that we hear, which is amazing.”

So we all know the potential even if we really have no idea yet where this will all end up. And of course the opportunities for young – and not-so-young—writers are just mind-blowing. What would Neos look like today? Well, go to Smashwords and you will find out: there are quite a few journals, some of them excellent, available there free! And some of them are edited – by which I mean the copy has passed before human eyes and informed brains before you get to see it. Sadly, however, there are plenty of cases where this doesn’t happen.

Writing isn’t easy and no writer, bloggers excepted perhaps, inflicts first drafts on his or her readers. Most writers would rather no-one except themselves and their editors ever saw their first drafts, let alone publish them. And yes, this is a first draft though it will get edited if I spot something really wrong with it. But then this is a blog, not a properly published piece of writing.

Sometimes the lack of editing leads to absurdities like these, from a book I am now reading.

“This belonged to my granddad” said George, “your great-grandfather. He was fighting the Japanese over in the Pacific during the war. When he died he passed the medal over to his son, my Father passed it down to me on my eightieth birthday. I was saving it for your eightieth. But being that you’re already on the way to become a man, I’ve decided to give it to you now. I hope you like it. This became a lucky charm for me. It helped me through many hard times, I can tell you. I hope that it will help you in the same way it helped me”

Context makes clear that should be “eighteenth” and a good editor and/or proof reader would have spotted this in a trice. And one more:

Ross’ room was jam-packed with cupboard boxes.

Oh the curse of the spell-checker! I will let you work that out.

If such things were infrequent I wouldn’t really complain, as I am not all that much of a pedant. Trouble is some published eBooks are so littered with such solecisms and worse – mangled sentences are worse—that one really does start to choke on what one is reading.

Now my two examples are from a good young writer from England – potentially a very good writer indeed. So apologies, really, to Nathan Davey (b. 1993).


Nathan Davey

He has two books out there: Dust in the Wind and Aaron Connor.   Of these Aaron Connor is far and away the better. On Dust in the Wind I agree with a very thoughtful review on Amazon:

Ok… the good, the bad, the confusing…

The good: Ross and his friend Beth are truly nice kids. Their dialogue and interaction in the beginning of the book is very realistic and rather heartwarming… you can actually relive the nervousness of your first date and your first kiss.

Ross’s feelings for his family – especially his little sister. The emotional trauma and feelings that Ross goes through while trying to rescue his family, his reactions to what he sees "above" and his memories of better times before the nuclear bomb hit LA.

The secondary characters: General Gardner, Nick Beat, and how they meet Ross and Beth and the ties that are formed.

The bad: Maybe "bad" is a harsh word – instead, let’s call it "breaking out our inner child and suspending all belief" that the government could actually build an entire underground city and more importantly, would have enough moving vans and "helpers" to load everyone’s entire household on the same day and then convoy it down to their identical houses (and streets) below…

In my opinion, the author is truly talented – I just think he needs to pick a target age group and write consistently for that age. And, based on what I read, he would be successful at whatever that targeted age group would be.

I would still recommend this book and look forward to reading more from the author as I feel he is truly talented!

I think he is truly talented too, and Aaron Connor shows this, though even there I just don’t buy the ending… The nearer Davey writes to his experience and his genuine concerns, the better he is.

I have a little secret to tell you about Teachers. They don’t care about you. The only reason they want your grades to be high is to make the school look good. They don’t give a toss about your well being or about your future. To them it’s just a job, which is a bugger as their job should be helping you get a job. Of course, like everything these days, money always comes first doesn’t it? When will we all learn that it’s just paper? Life’s too short to be worrying about little pieces of green paper!

I mean, Teachers are dicks aren’t they? I can’t imagine why these people, who are meant to determine our future, could be such horrible people. Every Teacher I’ve ever come across has been a patronising, horrid, vile, smoke stinking, whiskey swilling, pompous, stuck up and arrogant old psychopath! They find joy in making you feel insignificant.

If you’re bullied, they don’t do anything useful to stop it. All they do is “have a word with them” which makes the bullies beat you up even harder for snitching. I bet there are good Teachers out there somewhere, it’s just a shame that I had all the nutters.

I and Teachers have never gotten along. Do you really want to know why? Because they blamed me for everything! If anything anti-social happened at the school, it always seemed that the finger was pointed at me, whether I was involved in the event or not. I never did stuff like that, but that didn’t stop the Teachers from assuming that I was the guilty one.

Just because of how you look or act they make assumptions about you. It’s so contradictory, as they spend entire assemblies going on and on about treating everyone as equals, when they themselves are the most judgemental sods I’ve ever known! If they smell cigarette smoke on the playground, they search for the first bloke in a hoodie they can find and punish them accordingly. No evidence, no jury, no plead for innocence just straight forward punishment. It was like being stuck in a George Orwell book!

Mr Bertgill was the worst of those judgemental horrors. I wasn’t particularly smart. That’s all there was to it. It wasn’t that I didn’t pay attention in class because I bloody well did. I took notes and asked questions and everything. The information just didn’t go into my little brain box. It went into one ear and then buggered off out the other.

That didn’t matter though. Mr Bertgill uses my dress code and background to create his own story in his head. In his head I’m a delinquent who disturbs classes, talks back to Teachers and plays games on his phone during lessons. He believes that I’m not even bothering to learn but that’s not true! I want a future as much as anybody!

There are some great chapters set in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. Given that the Youth Theatre Group Davey has been associated with was there in a production not a million miles from the one described – well, one hopes there is a strong dash of poetic licence happening…


From an actual Youth Theatre production in Edinburgh in 2009

based on this

The children were dressed in striped uniforms. Their hair was completely shaven, the hair they had before must have been wigs of some sort. They were marching in a lined procession up the street, led by several boys dressed as Nazis. The boys dressed as Nazis were goose-stepping and had their hands rose in a Hitler salute. At the back of the procession were two people, who were holding up large banners brandishing the swastika. Joe was at the back as well, holding an amplifier which was plugged into his MP3 player. From the MP3 player, Joe was playing Adolf Hitler’s Rally Speeches at full blast. The man with the monk haircut was whipping the young actors with a fake rubber whip, while singing the German national anthem.

The one thing that Joe hadn’t counted on, was a large group of German students and tourists being on the Royal Mile that day. If they had done this on a day in which the street was occupied by British people alone, all they would have got was a fair amount of tutting. Instead they got a massive backlash of hatred from the crowd.

One German man with a grey beard came out of the crowd, grabbed the amplifier from Joe’s hands and smashed it over his head. Joe went tumbling to the ground, as bits of broken plastic fell all over the cobblestone street. There was a massive cheer from the crowd.

Even though I shouldn’t have done, I smiled at the sight of it. Serves you right I thought, you insensitive bastard!

Interesting to see what Davey has been reading. (Amazing thing, this Internet!) There is something there I may follow up on myself.  Russell Brand.

So what of eBooks then?  I am rather glad to have had the opportunity to read a very promising writer fifty years younger than myself who lives on the other side of the planet. Not before eBooks would this have happened so readily. Still, I do wonder where editors, proof-readers and publishers will end up – and whether there may be a considerable loss there in the world of writing, or quality writing.