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Book Editors


The origins of the publishing industry probably began soon after people developed written language, perhaps in Sumer in approximately 4000 B.C. After it became possible to record information in writing, somebody had to decide which information was worth recording. Technically speaking, the first record keepers were the first publishers and editors. Some of the first things deemed suitable for publication were accounting records, genealogies, laws, and religious rituals and beliefs.

For thousands of years, European books were produced by the laborious process of hand copying—first by the slave-secretaries of ancient Greece and Rome, and then by the monks of the medieval world, whose busy quills preserved both sacred and secular texts. Editors ensured that errors did not creep into the manuscripts—a critical task, when the words on the page were those originally written by the fathers of the Church, or were considered to be handed down by God. The works that were published were intended for the small, elite group of educated people who could read and who could afford to buy books. For the most part, these people were clergymen and members of the upper class who had intellectual interests. Books of that era generally were written and edited in Latin, the common languages of the educated classes in Europe.

The first printed books in the West were produced in the Rhine Valley by Johannes Gutenberg in about 1440. Gutenberg's press, adapted from the wine press, began the first revolution in information technology. Over time literacy spread and newly affordable books on all sorts of subjects began to be written in the languages of the countries in which they were published. In addition to setting the author's words in type, printers also often performed what we would now call editorial tasks. Having a book printed was often a risky business venture, often financed by the author himself.

Beginning in the 19th century, the various tasks performed by publishing concerns became more specialized. Whereas in early publishing a single person would often perform various functions, in later publishing, employees performed a narrow range of tasks. Instead of having a single editor, a publication would have an editorial staff. One person would be responsible for acquisitions, another would copyedit, another would be responsible for editorial tasks that related to production, and so forth.

Editing has also been powerfully affected by technology. Printing came into existence only after Gutenberg had adapted the necessary technology, and it has changed in various ways as technology has developed. The most important recent developments have been those that have made it possible to transfer and edit information rapidly and efficiently. The development of the computer has revolutionized editing, making it possible to write and rewrite texts electronically and to transmit corrected texts almost instantaneously from one part of the world to another. This article, for instance, was written on one computer, e-mailed to the publisher, sent out to a copy editor, and then uploaded back to the publisher, and then sent with others to the designer for electronic typesetting.

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