For Labor Day, an appreciation of unheralded literary labor

For Labor Day, an appreciation of unheralded literary labor
The Los Angeles Times presses in 1937. (Los Angeles Times)

The other day, I exchanged emails with a self-published writer. Discussing Amazon’s dispute with Hachette, he argued that books are overpriced and what traditional publishers have to offer isn’t worth the high price they charge for books.

What about the cost of editors? I asked. Proofreaders? Book designers? All overrated, he said. “For better or worse, in the online era editing in general and proofreading in particular are becoming less and less important,” he wrote. Readers just don’t care anymore about typos, he said.
Well, I beg to differ. Writers may be inveterate loners, but what great author has ever brought a work into the world — whether written on parchment, paper or digital devices — without the help of a publisher and the craftspeople publishers employ? Indeed, even many self-published authors reach deep into their pockets to pay for the services of editors and proofreaders.
On this Labor Day, I would like to celebrate the many kinds of labor upon which our literary culture is founded. I grew up in a family where everyone worked with their hands; my grandfather was a bricklayer, my father a bus boy on the day I was born. Perhaps for that reason, when I became a professional journalist, and later an author, I appreciated the fact that it took a vast division of labor to bring my words to print.
In my first days at the L.A. Times, deadline was at 5 p.m. My words were edited by an assistant city editor, who inevitably made my muddled, hurried prose more precise. My editor’s boss, the city editor, might make a suggestion too, even as the story moved on to the copy desk (to be proofread) and then to a copy-editor supervisor known as “the slot.” If a story was especially important or sensitive, other editors might weigh in. All the while, the copy desk would be designing the page, working with the photo editor, who in turn worked with the staff photographer who had been assigned to the story alongside me. (Even in the online era, we still work with a similar division of labor.)
By mid-evening, my story would be headed off to the printing press. For a writer, a printing plant is a beautiful sight: a factory designed for the mass production of your words! The first time I gazed upon the Times presses, I took in the smell of ink, the splotches that smudged the uniforms of the press operators, and the man-sized rolls of paper. More teams of men and women labored there to produce hundreds of thousands of copies in a few hours, and to send them out across the city by early morning. Finally, distributors (very often Spanish-speakers) delivered them to homes and newspaper racks and other places. This massive operation was funded, almost entirely, by the work of people who labored in parts of The Times building I never visited: the advertising and circulation departments.
Book publishing is basically the same process in slow motion. A newspaper follows the rhythms of the day; my newspaper stories would hit the streets 12 hours after I finished them. Book publishing follows the rhythms of the seasons; my books usually reached bookstores a year after I completed them. The gestation of a book is slower because the average book is about 100 times longer than the average piece of journalism. A book editor wades through the veritable library of manuscripts that have been submitted to the publisher. I visited a publisher in Germany once, and saw a three-foot high stack of paper on an editor’s desk; a mere week’s worth of reading, he told me.
Once a manuscript is chosen, editing it is by definition a labor-intensive process. Imagine reading the same 100,000 words three or four times, from one draft, and then page proof, to the next. I’ve published four books, and the laboriousness of the process never ceases to amaze me. My editors have helped rescue me from my foibles. They’ve encouraged me to excise weaker passages, and have noted incongruities, grammatical mistakes, and inconsistencies (a character who is brown-eyed on one page, hazel-eyed on another). A good editor helps guide an author to the completion of his or her mission — the creation of a work that captivates a reader for the many, many hours it takes to reach the final page.
Book designers give both the outside of the book, and its interior pages, a distinct look. Publicists work to get their authors’ work appreciated and reviewed. Agents advocate for their authors—even for those who make little money. I’ll never forget my first agent’s angry scribbles on the publisher’s draft of the contract for my first novel. (“No, no,” she wrote over some obscure clause. “A thousand times no!”) Works that are produced in foreign languages have to be translated, and translators are the great, underappreciated and underpaid heroes of publishing. Most translators speak several languages and take jobs in academia and elsewhere to make ends meet, their work often subsidized by nonprofit foundations.
The people who work to bring the words of writers to readers are a mostly invisible bunch to people outside their industries. There’s no Pulitzer for the attorneys who pore through soon-to-be-published prose to protect authors and journalists from potential lawsuits; no National Book Award for the people who make sure poets get paid their small but precious royalties; and no Nobel for the men and women who keep the shelves stacked with books by García Márquez and Steinbeck and as-yet-to-be-honored winners of literature’s greatest prize. But their labor is essential too, and I’m grateful for it, as an author and journalist, and as a lover of books and words.
To all of you, I say, Happy Literary Labor Day!

Hector tweets about topics literary on Twitter as @TobarWriter