The Digital Reader sends a link to An American Editor‘s post What one fool can do, which reports on a little bit of research into editing practice.
The lightning strike which brings Thomas Wolfe’s manuscript to Max Perkins, or Harper Lee’s to Tay Hohoff has perhaps a probability only slightly higher than the author’s actually being struck by lightning. Genius editors, like genius geniuses are thin on the ground. Most editors are pretty good at their jobs, but nowadays that job is mainly acquiring books, and the skills which go into judging what raw manuscript will appeal to a wide public are definitely impressive. Less and less does the job call for detailed work on the manuscript, and thus less and less is the ability to do so a requirement for the job. When I was an editor, we were told that we were expected to have read every word of every manuscript that went into production, or to have good reasons why we hadn’t. Not only was this a long time ago, when standards were stricter and through-put less (as well as being in academic publishing), but the second clause actually allowed for a lot of wiggle room. “I had to get the book out in time for Michaelmas adoptions” might well have been acceptable. Nevertheless acquiring editors back then were expected to do more work on their manuscripts than they are called on to do these days. Nowadays you might be more likely to suggest that this manuscript looks like it needs a text edit, rather than doing that yourself. This is a pity of course — perhaps even more for the editors than for authors — but we live in hard times.
Disagreement with editors is one of the commonly cited reasons for deciding to self-publish. Obviously editors are fallible, though professionals will tend to look to correct the same sorts of flaws — see the results of the testing reported in the “What one fool” link above. If you are going to get into “rewriting” the book, it’s obviously important to communicate with the author. Initially a list of suggested changes, followed by copies of changes, and ultimately, if you’re both “on the same page” a look at the complete reworked manuscript. Once upon a time I was caught out on this. The book was a translation of a French classic anthropology text. As these are both subjects on which I was at least formally educated, I took a swipe at improving the translation; something that was clearly needed. I did let the author know, and sent him samples. Now no editor has only one manuscript to work on, and as time went by my superiors suggested it might be a good idea to finish the work and get the book into production. Which I did promptly. I discovered years later that the author had written to the very boss who’d told me to get it finished, complaining about the unevenness of the editing of his book. The editing of the first half was excellent, but the quality fell off disastrously towards the end. I rather think that if I’d done nothing he’d probably have been happier. Even though what I’d done was an improvement, I guess it made him look sloppy in the eyes of his colleagues. Looking like a bad writer, but at least a consistently bad writer, would no doubt have been less damaging in the eyes of the academic world than being thought a careless one.