|From Planning to Editing: Essential Points for Editors
The following article was compiled from a lecture by Mr. Masaaki Oe, delivered at the 2001 Training Course on Book Production "How to Produce Environmental Education Materials" organized by ACCU, held from October to November 2001, with some additions from the lecture in the previous year.
There are many publishing companies in Japan, and most have a staff of five
or less. The company I run, which is called Commons, has only two permanent
employees including me. Obviously my job is not restricted to bookmaking. I
am responsible for a broad range of tasks, including selling our books to bookstores
and organizations, advertising, managing inventory, and securing warehouse facilities.
Commons publishes books on issues in five main areas: the environment, food safety, agriculture, Asia-related topics, and local autonomy. We selected these issues because we are convinced that they represent central themes for Japan and the world in the 21st century.
Let me explain as concretely as possible the process of making an environmental book.
Everything begins with how you plan a book. The first step is to decide the
main theme and the author or authors. As the editor, the key point at this stage
is your own environmental awareness. Every book is published within a certain
historical period and therefore you must firmly grasp the domestic or global
themes pertinent to the times. One of the gravest environmental problems today,
for example, is global warming, and as editors we must consider how to convey
its urgency in an easy-to-understand manner.
Of course, there are many other pressing environmental issues. A compact summary of these is presented in Chikyukankyo yoku natta? (Has the World's Environment Improved?), a book published by Commons. The title poses a question and is followed by the subtitle "21seiki shimin ga kensho" (An Appraisal by the People for the 21st Century). The phrase "an appraisal by the people" is highly significant because books are not made solely by experts or university professors. About thirty people, the majority of them active NGO members, were involved in writing this particular volume. NGOs in Japan have developed a great deal in the last 20 years and many now have their own experts and global databases on each issue. This book distills the wisdom of their members.
Another key issue is human lifestyle as a major cause of environmental destruction. Excessive consumption is a serious problem in both Japan and Western countries. When focusing on environmental problems in Japan, we must not only convey to our readers what is happening to the environment at home and abroad, but also reassess our lifestyle and production methods. The focus will change, however, depending on the country. As an editor, you must accurately identify the issues that are pertinent to your nation at this moment and appeal to your readers with this as your principal focus.
Your own involvement in the particular environmental issues highlighted by the book is also a decisive factor. You must consider your own actions. Of course, it is impossible to do everything but I believe that, as an editor, I must decide what steps I can take to change my lifestyle and contribute to eliminating environmental destruction. For example, Japan has the second highest per capita paper consumption in the world. We consume twenty to thirty times more paper than India and one hundred times more than Cambodia. Japan obtains 80 to 90 percent of the paper it uses in books from foreign sources. Obviously, there is an intimate relationship between my work as a publisher and the destruction of the earth's forests, so when I make a book, I try to use as little paper as possible.
When choosing a theme, fieldwork is essential. There is a huge difference between information gleaned from books or informants and that gained from going into the field, witnessing with your own eyes and engraving that experience in your mind. Many people mistakenly believe that editing work only involves sitting in front of a computer in an office. I am not denying the importance of the computer. I am merely pointing out that when collecting material, you can only discern the accuracy of certain information or the gravity of a particular problem by verifying it with your own eyes.
Finding Information on Your Theme
The next point is how to find information on a particular theme. Personally,
I think that articles in newspapers, magazines and mini-communications published
by various NGOs are invaluable for this purpose. I clip out and file any articles
I think are necessary. At Commons, we have separate files for each of our five
main themes and also make new files whenever a significant topic arises. Recently,
for example, we began a file on "mad cow disease" (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy,
BSE). Although we also search the Web for information, I think that it is still
important to file things in paper form.
When making a book, I take out whichever file is pertinent to the theme. Very often I am able to pick out whom to contact for more information or a good author directly from the file, which shows how useful such files are for both planning content and choosing writers. I usually keep them for three years after which point the information becomes too outdated to be meaningful.
NGO newsletters are another valuable source of information because they carry the latest news, reporting on new developments a considerable time before they appear in newspapers and magazines or on television.
I also use the Internet to search for related items. Depending on the topic, however, the volume of information obtained can be enormous and not all of it is correct. Newspaper and magazine reporters generally have a certain amount of knowledge and training, which means that the content of articles is relatively reliable. This is not always true of the Internet. Often amateurs with only a rough understanding of the topic provide the content, which may be completely erroneous. Accordingly, editors must have the knowledge and wisdom to judge whether or not information is correct. In order to use the Internet effectively, you must already have your own organized information.
One final source of information crucial to editing is a network of contacts. Information gained directly from knowledgeable contacts has great significance. Most of the thirty or more people who worked on the book I introduced earlier are part of my network. We work on a book together only once every three or four years at the most, but I speak with them on the phone or meet with them at least once every few months to exchange information.
Although editors must deal with diverse issues, they can never become expert in all of them. Consequently, establishing a network of experts is an important part of editing, a prerequisite of making a good book. An editor's relationships with such people determine the quality of his work. Too many contacts, however, can interfere with actual editing, and each individual must find the right balance.
Choosing an Author
The fourth point is how to choose an author. My foremost concern is to avoid
choosing authors solely on the basis of their credentials. There are a number
of publishers who favour university professors as authors. There is no guarantee,
however, that such people will be able to convey the latest information on a
certain topic in an accessible fashion. Academic disciplines and fields of research
in Japanese universities are finely subdivided, a feature which seems to be
common to many other countries in the world. In many cases, active members of
NGOs or people who are directly confronting a particular problem in the field
are more knowledgeable and have better proposals for solutions than university
professors. My basic policy is to select people who can suggest solutions as
I also try to select people who have pursued an issue continuously. Fads occur in the world of publishing, too. Some journalists and university professors tend to pursue issues that are trendy. To me, however, the number of copies sold is not as important as whether a book is read for a long time, continuing to move people or inspiring them to change. We should be striving to make long-sellers rather than bestsellers. Even if 100,000 copies are printed, usually 30 to 40 percent are returned unread, only to be shredded and discarded. As you can see, aiming for long-sellers rather than bestsellers is actually much better for the environment.
A third factor in selecting an author is to seek the opinions of many different people concerning the book's theme before choosing. As editors, we are not experts and therefore we may make the mistake of believing only one person's opinion to be correct. Although it would be impossible to actually interview many people for their opinions, we can gain sufficient information by reading magazines and newspapers. When we do so, however, we must retain that information and consider carefully which opinion is most accurate or which direction is the most appropriate from our point of view. If we fail to perform this task properly, the result may be a very one-sided book.
A fourth decisive element is selecting a good combination of experts, choosing someone strong in the natural sciences, another in sociology, another in history, etc. I believe we can more clearly convey environmental issues by using such a comprehensive approach. In addition, male writers have tended to predominate in this field in Japan. In consideration of gender equality and of the fact that in most cases men's daily lives are segregated from their professional lives, this situation needs to change not only in Japan but in other countries as well. We must fully utilize the abilities of women.
How to Make a Book
Now let me describe how to make a book. There are two possible scenarios:
making a book you have planned yourself and making a book someone else has asked
you to plan. Both are important methods for the editor.
I would like to speak about the former using the book on mad cow disease which I planned as an example. In this case, there are two possible methods. One is to make the book very quickly in about two months. In fact, there are already several publishers preparing such books on this topic. They consist of a simple introduction to BSE in foreign countries, Japan's response and criticism of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. But is that really the function of a book? Personally, I think magazines are more than adequate for that kind of content.
The other method is to take time in making the book. In this case, the issue of BSE is not reduced merely to cows and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease which affects humans, but is closely connected to our diet and lifestyle and to issues in the Japanese livestock industry. Books have a crucial function in presenting such problems and issues to the public. The book I am currently making consists of five chapters. The first chapter describes BSE in layman's terms. The writer is a journalist I have worked with many times who has a strong background in science. The second chapter explains the response of EU countries and particularly the UK towards the disease and regulations. Although I have never worked with this writer before, he was introduced to me by a long-term member of my network. The third chapter is a detailed account of the situation in the Japanese livestock industry and particularly conditions concerning the issue of feed. The fourth chapter is a report on a different form of livestock farming in Japan, looking at several stock farms within the country that have self-sufficient supplies of safe feed. The third chapter is being handled by a journalist with a long career pursuing issues in the food industry. An author has yet to be selected for the fourth chapter. I am presently collecting information and thinking about who to ask. It is even possible that I will not find anyone. In that case, I will have to write it myself. At such times an editor must transform himself into a writer. Our main work as editors is to find appropriate writers and have them write appropriate content, but in my experience, this is not always the best solution. Sometimes the editor himself must be able to write.
I have trained myself to write about issues in two of the five areas that Commons handles. Although it is not good for an editor to be an expert, it is desirable for a writer to be one. An editor doubling as a writer must balance these two factors. I think it is preferable as an editor not to be able to write in every genre. Rather it is better to choose one or two themes from your knowledge of the issues or your own specialty and develop the ability to write about them.
The last chapter of this book concerns what we can eat. I suggested that we make a concrete comparison of the Japanese diet forty years ago and our contemporary diet. At times, it is important for the editor to throw in proposals concerning content in this way rather than leaving it entirely up to the authors. The writer of this chapter is a member of a well-established consumers' organization in Japan. She has been an active participant for the last decade while raising her children and I knew from the time I began planning this book that she would be the perfect author for this last chapter. We have known each other for close to fifteen years, meeting at symposiums, discussing various issues at meetings and otherwise keeping in touch. For this reason, we are both well versed in what the other's interests are. When she heard my proposal, her immediate response was, "That sounds very interesting. I'd like to do it."
I began thinking about making this book in mid-September and within almost one month had found writers for four of the five chapters. The manuscripts are presently being written and the deadline is December 15. If all goes according to the plan, the book will be completed and in the bookstores by March 2002. We have no idea what the situation will be at that time. But whether livestock have been widely infected or the situation has already cooled down, the contents of this book will still be meaningful because it questions existing conditions in the Japanese livestock industry, our diet and our lifestyle through the window of BSE. And I believe its contents are worthy of a long-seller. This is the greatest difference between short-term and long-term bookmaking.
Techniques for Making People Read
One of the objectives for making "Has the World's Environment Improved?"
was to attract readers who have no particular interest in environmental issues.
The Japanese population is drifting away from the written word, a trend that
has serious implications. Young people in particular do not read books. Although
they are relatively wealthy and willing to spend their money on cell phones,
they will not spend money on books. Nor have they had any training in reading
long passages. In order to convey to them the meaning of environmental issues,
the book is composed entirely of stories or sections that cover a page spread
or less. Each page has a diagram or figure because I believe this audience can
more readily grasp concepts through tables and graphs rather than through words.
I also placed about three headings on spread. Even if they do not read the contents,
I want young readers to at least look at the titles, headings and graphs. In
addition, each spread has a "lifestyle check." For example, one page contains
three concrete suggestions. Two, such as, choosing bottles over cans when buying
beer and asking manufacturers to make recyclable containers, can be implemented
by the individual while the third concerns the need for changes in legislation
and the social system. "Lifestyle checks" like this were included with each
of the over fifty items dealt with in the book, and all of them cover actions
at the levels of both the individual and society as a whole. A list of NGOs
active in environmental issues in Japan is included near the end of the book.
The title of this section is "What's Your Relationship to the Earth? Action
Hints." I want readers to understand environmental issues and to translate that
understanding into individual action. That was our objective in making this
It is actually very difficult to make books for people who are not experts in the field. The vast majority of people in the world, however, are not experts. It is important to appeal to this majority. Whenever I make a book, I do so with this in mind. And I work hard to give the reader concrete suggestions such as the "lifestyle checks" mentioned above. Some say that people will not change just from reading a book. In one sense, that may be true, but depending on how the book is made, it can become an important tool for action.
To conclude this lecture, here I will describe ten points that I believe from my experience to be the essentials of bookmaking for editors.
10 Qualities Essential in an Editor
(1) Strong Determination
The principle of my publisher is to think about daily life and environment, and our objective is to convey easy-to-understand, high-quality messages on our 5 specialities. This is our strong determination and we produce books based on it. I think the most important thing in book production is not to be influenced by fashion or best-sellers. If we were, it would not be possible to publish environment-related books in Japan.
(2) Delicacy and Perseverance
There are 2 views as to what makes "good editors" in Japan. One type is someone who can take any theme and make a good-selling book out of it. For this, the beliefs, objectives, and policies of an editor do not matter very much. What matters is financial resources and marketing ability. I, on the other hand, think a good editor is one who can reflect the current situation into a book, someone with skills and determination to convey some critical messages that readers may not want to hear.
This is the policy aspect of an editor. An editor needs both his/her own policy and practical knowledge. This is what I mean by delicacy and perseverance. The task of an editor is detailed and inconspicuous, not glamorous. Editors' work is not to write their own text, but to check others' writing. As a first time reader, an editor checks the facts in the writing. He/she must check the numbers and figures in graphs and charts often found in social science and natural science books. Sometimes, the writer is mistaken, and the charts he/she used may be inappropriate. This checking task is vital for an editor, and forms the basis of the writer's trust. Of course, an editor is responsible towards the readers as well.
Proofreading is an important task also. An editor must check for printing mistakes or inappropriate expressions at this stage. I usually proofread the manuscript 4 times. I also check if the content follows my requests. If not, I ask the writer to re-write it, giving specific reasons. If there is no obvious problem, I read it very carefully. I check for passages that seem questionable, or those that need clarification, and ask the writer to re-write those parts. Then, I turn over the manuscript to the printer. The third time, I read the proofs. I check for parts that are difficult to understand and parts that need more detail, and return it to the printer for the second proof. This time, I check for typographical errors. No matter how many times I check, typographical errors always occur, especially because I have checked for content errors previously. I read letter by letter, word for word.
This is how a book is produced. I believe only 5-10% of all editors in Japan take this much care in the editorial process. Even with this much effort, it is very difficult to produce a book with no errors. It is the editor's job to keep the errors to a minimum. This ability can be built up in the course of experience.
(3) Ability to Discriminate between Specific and General; Minor and Major
An editor should have an area of specialization. Without it, he is just a do-it-all generalist. The interesting part of an editor's task is to propose his/her own ideas to the writer. An editor could suggest an angle to take on the subject-how we can tackle environmental problems, how we can raise awareness of citizens, etc. To be able to do this, he/she should have some specialized knowledge. On the other hand, the editor is not a scholar. He/she should possess the viewpoint of the ordinary person.
For ordinary conversational topics, there will always be an audience. A famous editor once said that the secret of his success is to be half step behind the latest fashion. He was an editor of a magazine at a big publisher. In case of large-scale publications, one step behind the fashion is too late, and one step ahead will confuse readers. In my case, I try to be a half step ahead of the trendﾑnot in fashion or music, but in social issues.
When I was still at a different publisher, I wanted to make a book on one of the 3 unmarketable topics (Asia, agriculture, environment). So, I first edited an essay book on popular culture and society in China, a theme with a moderate level of interest among Japanese. Contrary to expectations of the publisher, the book sold well, allowing me to make 1 or 2 books on Asia per year. Thus, I can say that the order of events was very important. Doing what one wants to do from the beginning would not create regular audiences. Here is where the editor's ability to discriminate comes into play.
I also produced several books on social issues, a topic of little interest in Japan. Unfortunately, these books did not sell well-only about 2,000 copies each. However, there are things that should be discussed without regard to sales.
A group of 20 publishers have formed a group called "Asian Book Group." There are several of these publisher's circles in Japan. Independent companies form loosely knit circles around common themes, for example, jointly producing publication catalogues, organising book fairs at book shops, lectures on Asia by researchers. The reason I can continue to make books on Asia is because of the build-up of activity from the '80s. Working on the same theme for many years makes our viewpoints sophisticated and gains the authors' trust.
(4) Ability to Construct and Adjust Human Relationships
A book is made by many people. Someone with a lot of knowledge but not good relationships with people will not be able to do good work. Some books are written by multiple authors. In Japan, there are cases of a book having 5 or even 10 authors. Coordinating many people, dividing up the task to suit the ability of each person is another job of the editor.
So, someone who does not get along with people will not be a good editor. An editor has to know many people. From the pool of available authors, we need to decide to give person A one theme, person B another theme. Often, researchers are not on good terms with one another. An editor must get along with both of them if they are good researchers. Even if we dislike some people, we may have to ask them to cooperate in our work. Creating good relationships with many people is an ability that will slowly grow. So, someone who just likes reading a lot will not make a good editor. Reading is one necessary quality, but it is not the only one.
(5) Appropriate Interference with Discretion
Interfering in an author's work, in a good sense, is important. It is rare that the author's manuscript can be used with no changes. The editor is the first reader of the manuscript, with a bit more knowledge than the ordinary reader. If the editor finds the content too theoretical, the general public will not understand it at all. Therefore, the editor needs to make suggestions to the author. Often times, the author is asked to add specific examples, or numbers and data, or case studies in a different country. Of course, the author has more knowledge in the subject. Taking this into consideration, the editor should think about how to convey the message as simply as possible to the readers.
Some may worry that authors will get angry if editors interfere too much. It may happen; but in my experience, these are only 1% of the total, so we do not need to worry about it too much. Many authors welcome the comments and make changes. Book publishing is a joint production between the editor and the author. The author alone cannot make the book. I try to express my ideas as much as possible to the authors.
(6) Sense of Companionship Shared with People Who Devote Themselves to Making
Some people forget that a book is not produced by editors nor authors alone. A book cannot be published without printers, binders, and paper manufacturers. In Japan, editors tend to have a higher education level, giving the impression that editing is a more prestigious job, but I think this is wrong. Sometimes, editors may take the attitude that printers are not on the same level as them.
Bookstores are another necessary element. The cooperation of many different people is needed until the book reaches the reader. An editor should work with a sense of togetherness with people of different occupations. A large publishing house has many different sections, so a close relationship between printers, binders, and editors may not grow. On the other hand, in a small publisher like ours, we have to do everything ourselves, including dealing with printers and binders. Often, the author does not finish the manuscript before the deadline; this is when a strong relationship between editors, printers and binders will be useful.
(7) Managing Ability from Strong Will (Business Minded)
The editor should also think about how the book will reach the audience. In a publisher, there are editors and salespeople. The editor will discuss the marketing plan with the salespeople, but he/she should also go to big bookstores, symposiums, NGO lectures, etc. and sell the book there.
There is an added merit that people will become familiar with the name of the publisher. We can listen to the lectures and study the issue, publicize our name, and earn some money.
(8) Physical and Spiritual Strength (Decision and Ideas)
An editor needs physical strength. Editing is a busy job, involving not only deskwork. Editors may sometimes need to work overnight. We have sleeping bags at our workplace. In larger companies, there are beds. I sleep in the office about twice every month. Decision-making skill is also important. The editor needs to discuss with the manager the book's content, how many copies to sell, what price, etc. Printing too many will leave many copies unsold. Too high a price will not induce sales; too low will not make a profit. We need to see the society's trends and make decisions.
(9) Ability to Look Objectively at Reality (Bookshops, Distribution, World),
without Being Distracted by the Surroundings, and to Create Alternatives
I do not think about the profit from each book, but think in terms of one year's worth of work. Some books should definitely be published even though it will obviously not sell. It is necessary to publish what the world should know, what we want people to know. This sort of attitude has supported the Japanese publishing industry for many years.
(10) Several Specialized Fields of His/Her Own as Well as Intellectual Curiosity
As mentioned in the above
(translated by Cathy Hirano and ACCU)
Born in 1957. Graduated from Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University. After working for editing and planning of the book for 15 years at a publishing house, he founded Commons in 1996. He has written and published many books in fields of his interest.
Editor-in-Chief, Commons, 1-5-10-1002 Shimoochiai, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 161-0033,
Japan, phone: (81) 3 5386 6972, fax: (81) 3 5386 6945,