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Interview: Harrison Demchick on Changes in Publishing

Harrison Demchick of Bancroft Press in Baltimore, Md., agreed to be interviewed about publishing and editing, his current job and his new adventures.

His new Really Good Editing business is up and running for writers looking for a personal touch from an editor — the Website will be up soon.  Until then, you can check out his work through the icon and link to his Facebook page.  Also, feel free to email (reallygoodediting AT gmail DOT com) him if you are interested in his editorial services.

Without further ado, here’s our interview:

1.  Tell us a little bit about your publishing work and how you got started with the small press, Bancroft Press.

I started out at Bancroft Press as an intern in the summer of 2005. I was heading into my senior semester at Oberlin College and looking to get some editorial experience, and I couldn’t have found a better place. By the end of the summer, I was working on book-to-film adaptation and editing novels, and when I graduated in December, I knew Bancroft Press, and more broadly the publishing industry, was where I wanted to be.

I am extraordinarily proud of the work I’ve done at Bancroft. I’ve been lucky enough to edit all sorts of novels for all sorts of readers, most of which have been well-received, and I’ve had opportunity after opportunity to hone my skills as an editor. I can’t forget that I’m one of the lucky ones—I’ve been in a position to do what I love since the day I graduated. And I’ve learned a lot in the process.

2.  How has the publishing industry changed and what fears/concerns has it raised for you on a personal and professional level?

It’s difficult to tell sometimes where the publishing industry has changed and where it’s only my perspective that’s changed. Other times, there’s no doubt. My time in the industry has happened to correlate with the rise of the eBook, which has had a drastic effect on the industry. Every publishing house is struggling to adapt, and Bancroft Press is no different.

The way I see it is this: There have never been more ways for a writer to get his work out there. eBooks make self-publishing incredibly easy, and for a very select few, incredibly profitable. And the simultaneous rise of social media means there have also never been more ways to generate free publicity. But on the flip side, that means the industry has never been so crowded. The majority of eBooks, which don’t require the filter of publisher or editor, are inevitably going to be terrible. The new status quo doesn’t make things easier. It makes them harder.

I am very nervous about an industry that seems increasingly focused on marketing over quality. To create a hit book, more than a great product, you need a great campaign that makes optimal use of social media, and the right combination of print books and eBooks. As someone who has edited a number of books that have been genuinely terrific, it’s extremely frustrating to fight that marketing battle. Authors are told now that they need to spend two years building up their audience before their book ever comes out. That shouldn’t be. Authors should simply be able to write great books and have them succeed because they’re great.

But that’s not the way it works anymore. Maybe it never worked that way. But I’ve seen marketing become a greater and greater part of my job, and it’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to see the publishing industry reward popularity over creativity. Perhaps more than any other business, this is supposed to be a meritocracy.

Naïve? Definitely. But that’s how I feel.

3.  Rather than begin a freelance editing business, why not transition the publishing house to e-books?  Or is that also a consideration; if so, what challenges have you found in that transition process?

I don’t think going eBook-exclusive is the way to go. Understanding of the print book market is one of the critical advantages traditional publishers still have, and for all the upheaval and transformation, I don’t believe print books are dying. They’re just reaching a new equilibrium. That said, I’ve certainly been working hard these last couple years to help Bancroft Press adjust to the new reality. Figuring out new media has been a major challenge, especially seeing as we’re not natural marketers here at Bancroft. We’re book people.

Launching Really Good Editing simultaneously is far more of a personal decision. The part of this job I truly love is editing, and working with writers to make their work as wonderful as it can possibly be. Marketing is nothing but stress for me, but editing? Editing is pure meditation.

I wanted a job that would remove me from the parts of the job and the industry I don’t care for and zero in on what I really want to be doing. And that’s not to say starting a new business doesn’t also require marketing. Why, I’m marketing right now! And that’s also not to say that I don’t help my clients think about how to market their books. But primarily, I’m focused on the editing in a way I can’t be at Bancroft.

4.  What makes your freelance business, Really Good Editing, different from your competitors?  Is it lower rates, personal attention, something more?

I like to say that I write the longest and most detailed editorial letters known to man. Actually, this is probably true, but it also points to the distinction, which is that I’m a complete developmental editor. I don’t fix spelling and grammar and add the right punctuation—or, well, I do, but that’s not the main thing I do. I examine character, logic, and story. I diagnose what isn’t working in a manuscript, determine why it isn’t working, and explain to the author how it can work.

My goal is to teach an author how to make her work better. I don’t think most editors do that. I don’t think most editors know how. One of the most common responses I get from the authors I work with is that I haven’t just made their manuscripts better. I’ve made them better writers.

So, definitely, personal attention is a part of it. But I think the primary distinction is that I’m really, really good at this. I’m different because I’m the best. That sounds really egotistical. But it’s true.

5.  Has the decision to provide editing services been influenced by what some have noted as a lack of editing for some of the books coming out of the larger publishing houses?

It has not, but it’s definitely true that the major publishers no longer engage in real, in-depth editing. Some indie publishers like Bancroft Press still edit, but you go to Penguin and it’s probably not the case. They want the manuscripts they receive to be pretty much ready to go before they take them on.

So while it’s not a motivation for me that the big publishers behave this way, the fact that they do certainly suggests that writers need to invest in editors like me before they submit their manuscripts for publication.

6.  Do you think publishing books has become too much like a business and less about the art of writing and creating memorable tales and poignant stories about the human condition and society?

Absolutely. One hundred percent. I don’t know that stories need to be poignant and focused on the human condition necessarily—I’m not of the opinion that all fiction should be “literary fiction,” versus entertainment or genre fiction—but they should absolutely be stories that come from the author.

I hear about certain publishing houses where ideas come from the marketing department and are bandied about by editors before a writer is assigned to the job. That scares the hell out of me. And these books end up being insanely popular, yet they could not be more artificial.

Writing—fiction especially—is an art. And if the publishing houses that actually have the money and marketing might would use their strength for great books, and not just obviously popular books, I think we’d have a far healthier publishing industry.

7.  What are some of your personal obsessions or favorite reads from this year?

I’m rarely reading something new and popular. My bookshelf is filled with various books from various eras I haven’t gotten around to yet, and because so much of my job is reading, I so rarely do. I’ve just gotten back from vacation, during which I finally got some reading done. I read about half of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon before losing it (darn it), then read Eoin Colfer’s continuation of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, And Another Thing . . ., and finally started Stephen King’s The Shining, which I’ve always been curious about. (So far, it’s fantastic.)

As for personal obsessions, I’ve just spent Saturday at the Baltimore Comic-Con digging through thousands of comics searching for Spider-Man guest appearances. Does that count?

Thanks, Harrison, for answering my questions and for sharing your experiences.

This is a stop on The Literary Road Trip since Harrison works for a local publisher.

  • Amy

    Serena thank you so much for interviewing Harrison Demchick and thank you to both of you for a fantastic, interesting and informative interview!

    I love the story of how Harrison made a home at Bancroft and started his freelance editing business. I don’t know much about publishing, I wish I did.I often wish I had gone into the publishing end of the book business after college rather than law school…oh well, nevermind that!
    I have felt, for a while that the publishing industry was becoming more about the marketing of books and less about the well-written book based purely on some of the books published in the last few years. But not knowing much about thepublishing industry I didn’t have facts on which to base what I thought. I just knew I considered some of the books published the last few years almost embarassing.

    I have always thought part of the publishing experience for an author was their relationship with their editor. I love Harrison’t idea of helping his authors become better writers. I thought that’what happend as a book got published…the author learned about how to phrase and write things in a way that readers would like. I didn’t realize editing had fallen by the wayside, but it makes sense.

    And I hope Harrison is correct about print books not disappearing. I love “paper” books!
    Okay, I think I’ve written enough (Sorry!)

    • No need to apologize. I absolutely agree that I had noticed a decline in book quality from major houses in particular, and I did not have “insider” information at the time about the cutbacks in editing. Unfortunately, I think that decision has been detrimental to books in the last few years, with some really great concepts falling flat or feeling unfinished. A great editor could have helped with that.

  • Interesting interview! I can’t say that I have any experience reading e-books, but I can tell you that since they’ve become more prevalent, I’ve received more review requests…and many of those have come riddled with grammatical errors and don’t make me excited about the fact that just anyone can publish a book these days.

    • I haven’t read any ebooks on the kindle yet, so I wouldn’t know. I have noticed an uptick in ebook review requests as well.

  • Great interview — really fascinating. I love learning about about the publishing industry and the work it takes to finish a novel. (And I, too, have had problems with badly formatted ebooks, even from big publishing houses — v annoying!).

    • I’m so glad that you enjoyed the interview. I think editing is extremely important, though that might have something to do with the fact that I am an editor.

  • This was really interesting. My experience with ebooks has been that they’re poorly formatted, even when they come from big publishing houses.

    • I only have the kindle, so I haven’t noticed formatting issues, but then I have yet to read a book on it…other than listening to an audio book…I don’t think that counts.

  • Alexis @ Reflections of a Bookaholic

    Wow! Great interview. I feel like I learned a lot about the industry.

    • Glad that you got something out of the interview.