Why Children’s Publishing Needs Freelance Editors Now

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We’re in high demand right now for a myriad of reasons that go far beyond book doctoring and editorial guidance.

Editorial by Emma D. Dryden

I’m one of a new sort of unaffiliated editors available to the children’s book industry, with allegiance only to the best practices involved in creating and offering the best books for children.

Throughout the earth’s history tectonic plates have either fused onto other plates to form larger plates, rifted into smaller plates, or been crushed by or subducted under other plates — or indeed have done all three. As we ride the rifting, drifting and shifting tectonic (or ought we to call them tech-tonic?) plates of the publishing landscape, there’s been some notable transformations taking place among many editors in the children’s book industry. As more editors are leaving long-time positions with companies, due to budgetary lay-offs, burn-out or life changes of various kinds, we’ve witnessed a rise in the number of highly skilled freelance editors available to the writing population.

As one of these editors, freelance after 25 years with various companies, what impresses me is not just that there are so many of us out there, but how extremely busy we are and how varied our work has become. We’re in high demand right now for a myriad of reasons that go far beyond book doctoring and editorial guidance.

I’m being hired by authors at the beginning of their careers who know they need to polish their work before it can be represented or sold; by authors (both agented and unagented) in the middle of their careers who are struggling to stay relevant and marketable and want a new career strategy; by agents seeking an impartial perspective on the changing marketplace; by publishers in need of concentrated editorial support for an intense project because they don’t have editors available; by editors craving advice about best practices and some form of mentorship because publishing houses don’t put stock in the value of mentoring as they once did; by authors weighing publishing options — from self to indie to “legacy” — in need of help to make smart decisions for their work and their goals; by start-up e-book and/or app publishers who want expert input about the content and the market; by a library exploring how they might become a publisher for local writers; by a major book review source interested in hearing about the digital marketplace.

My skills as a former publisher are informing my freelance work just as much as my editorial skills right now — and to be of service to this array of clients, I’ve found it necessary (and interesting!) to stay informed and abreast of the myriad of options authors and illustrators have (traditional, digital and otherwise). The result is that I no longer bill myself as just an editor, but rather an editorial and publishing consultant.

I suppose I ought not to be surprised by any of this — overworked editors are being reprimanded by their companies for “wasting too much time editing books” (an exact quote, I promise!); agents are grappling with manuscripts that editors won’t acquire unless they’re nearly print-ready and they don’t have time to research all of the possible indie, small venues and platforms that could offer the best publishing experiences for their clients. So many companies affiliated with children’s publishing are scrambling to incorporate bits of the new with the old; many individuals at these companies, though, are unable to focus and just don’t have time to adapt new skills or process all the input, to pay attention to what’s going on in the digital arena, to explore new options, to experiment — they’re turning to anyone who has some breadth of knowledge of the business as well as some handle on what the shifting of the plates might mean for the future, and they’re looking outside of any one company or organization, into the rich fields of the freelancer.

The word freelance comes from the knights whose lances were free for hire, and originally meant a free companion or person free of occupational or political party obligation or allegiance. I’m one of a new sort of unaffiliated editor available to the children’s book industry, with allegiance only to the best practices involved in creating and offering the best books for children. As I edit, I do so wholly and completely, without distraction by corporate initiatives, meetings, P&Ls and mandates, thereby providing an author or illustrator a more in-depth and pure assessment of their work, craft and process. At the same time, I also provide a market view not colored by any one company, but that encompasses a far broader perspective. Such services, I find, are not only providing authors, illustrators, agents and other industry clients support and guidance, but information and perspective, all of which seem to be in somewhat spare supply in the current upheavals of the business.

What’s not changed, and this seems to me to be at the heart of what’s driving the freelance editor’s and/or consultant’s business right now, is the importance of story. Our industry’s story is undergoing some major revision right now and it’s not going to be finalized any time soon, if ever. Our own life stories change every day, leading us down paths we may not have expected. Where books — delivered by any means, on any platform — fit into all of this, particularly for young readers, is to provide us with whatever we need to feel moved, entertained, not so alone, empathetic, hopeful, engaged and better equipped to face the journey.

The Latin verb root of the word “editor” is edere — to bring forth, to bring about. It strikes me that it’s perhaps this new crop of editors of which I’m so proud to be a part — the editorial and publishing consultants whose allegiance is only to story, who are poised to truly fulfill the mandates of bringing forth, bringing about; while helping to bring forth the story editorially, simultaneously bringing forth clarification, information and guidance on a broader scale; while assisting in bringing about the story, also assisting in the bringing about of change.

Emma D. Dryden is a children’s editorial & publishing consultant with drydenbks LLC, a firm she established after 25 years with major publishing houses. On the board of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, she lives and works in New York City.

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.