alexa The in-between world of  little-known book editors - Daily Nation

The in-between world of  little-known book editors

Friday December 29 2017

Editors shape up and clean all the manuscripts

Editors shape up and clean all the manuscripts yet prefer to stay in the background, rarely mentioned by authors. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The other day, an acquaintance called me asking of a professional organisation that a book editor can join. Apparently, she had been invited for a job interview and feared that not being affiliated to a professional body could ruin her prospects in the interview. Although she has been an editor in the publishing industry for over 10 years, she has not heard of any professional club to associate with.

“Er…, um…” I mumbled and fumbled for an answer but soon realised that I, too, was in the dark. Look, is there an association of publishing editors any where in Kenya or in Africa? None that I can write home about.

According to, a professional body is an organisation with individual members practising a profession or occupation in which the organisation maintains an oversight of the knowledge, skills, conduct and practice of that profession or occupation.

Of late, it is the trend in the job market that employees and job seekers be affiliated to a professional body like that of lawyers, bankers, doctors and, yes, writers? Do they even need one? You see lawyers have their Law Society of Kenya, accountants their Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya and public relations practitioners their Public Relations Society of Kenya just as marketers have their Marketing Society Kenya. Even nurses have their Nursing Council of Kenya.

But editors inhabit the hidden world of books from which society rarely sees, let alone recognises them and their work. They eke out their living by reading between the lines of raw manuscripts to fashion a book.

Theirs is largely a solitary life where one is covered in pages and rarely looks up to be seen by readers. At book launches and other events, you hardly see them stepping forward to be photographed with the authors even as the very books they edited win prestigious awards.


Most editors are, however, content to remain invisible in order not to clutter authors’ and readers’ space with overbearing red pens.

American editor-turned-author, Robert Gottlieb, is reported to have once berated Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, after the latter credited him at a media interview for helping shape his novel.

Gottlieb is reputed for having edited some of the world’s famous writers like Doris Lessing and Bill Clinton. He was so furious at being mentioned in the newspaper interview that he called the author. He told him that readers ought not be told of editorial interventions in a book. Readers, he contended, “have a right to feel that what they are reading comes direct from the author to them.”

It was only after retiring and writing his own biography, Avid Reader, that he agreed to grant an interview to the media.

A few countries such as Canada and Australia have professional organisations for editors. The Editors Association of Canada, also known as Editors Canada, is an umbrella body of editors working in different sectors of the economy. It promotes professional editing as key in producing effective communication in various organisations (corporate, technical, governmental, not-for-profit and publishing institutions).

One may be overly accustomed to CPA (Certified Professional Accountant) or CPS (Certified Public Secretary) certifications offered by Kasneb in Kenya. But has anyone heard of such a thing as Certified Professional Editor (CPE)? Well, it is a highly valued credential given by Editors Canada after one has trained and successfully completed the following standard tests: Certified Proofreader, Certified Copy Editor, Certified Structural Editor and Certified Stylistic Editor.  

Similarly the world is awash with literary book awards recognising authors and publishers but nary a mention of the editors who fashioned them. The Institute of Publishing Editors (IPEd) runs almost a similar programme in Australia. It administers several prizes for editorial excellence. One of them is The Rosanne Fitzgibbon Editorial Award known simply as The Rosie.

Kerry Davies, the chairman of IPEd, says: “The Rosie (established in 1990) is a vital step towards greater recognition of editors and the value they bring to the written word.”

This year’s winner of the Rosie was Jacqueline Blanchard. She was awarded for her “a complicated yet seamless” editorial work in All Fall Down, final part of a non-fiction trilogy on entrenched corruption.

Marvelling at his editor’s deft of red pen, author Matt Condon said Jacqueline performed a complicated edit that whittled his 215,000-word manuscript into a fine 50,000-word gem. “Her work was so seamless that I barely recognised the cuts. To me, that’s a great and dedicated editor; it’s all in the alchemy of the hidden carpentry.”

The unobtrusive world of editors means that they have to grope in the dark for their professional skills and trends in the industry. There are not enough training opportunities and rarely does one hear of an editorial conference or seminar for editors. This could even be the reason for the disparate editorial quality of books in the industry.

In his book, Publishing in Africa: One Man’s Perspective, Henry Chakava, notes that the industry currently suffers from lack of trained personnel in vital areas such as editing, design, proof reading and marking up a book.

Dr Chakava suggests that even as Moi University’s Faculty of Information Science churns out editors for the industry, it will be necessary to have regular seminars and on-the job training for these and others entering the industry at some other levels.


The writer is an editor with a book publishing firm