Editing Across Continents

Publishing internationally can be tricky. A manuscript can take years of dedication from one team in one publishing house to edit, promote, and publish. Now imagine what happens when that same manuscript is being worked on by two separate teams across the ocean from each other. Each side has to try to keep track of changes being made by the other, and in some cases changes in vernacular or slang terms are made deliberately to maintain meaning across regions.

Books published in the United States and the United Kingdom are not always different, but there are a number of reasons they might be. Changes might be made on either side to relate better to their audience, such as changes in vernacular. Differences might also be the result of delays on one side or the other, or simply a lack of communication. These changes may be as little as changing out “mom” for “mum,” or “trunk” for “boot.” Small differences like these can add to the ease with which a reader follows the story and are typically made intentionally. Perhaps one of the more common examples of intentional changes is the Harry Potter series. Depending on the copy you pick up you might read the word “biscuit” instead of “cookie.” These changes might be made to avoid misunderstanding if a word or phrase carries a different connotation or meaning for the region in which it is published.

The differences between versions may extend to the main title, which is the case for the first Harry Potter book. In the United States we know the beloved book as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but in its country of origin it is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Another good example of different titles is The Golden Compass, or Northern Lights, as it was titled in the UK.

Occasionally differences are not quite intentional. Sometimes changes get made on one side of the ocean that the other side never learns about. Delays and a lack of communication on either side can lead to differences. This might be simply a word or phrase here and there, or differences so widespread that the tone of the book is different between versions. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas has been studied and analyzed in classrooms around the world. Professor Martin Paul Eve at the University of London noted the differences between his UK paperback and his digital US edition of Cloud Atlas when he was unable to find a phrase in one that he remembered from the other. Eve went on to study the different versions carefully and interviewed Mitchell to try and figure out how the two ended up so different. To pull a quote from Eve’s article Mitchell stated, “It’s a lot of faff—you have to keep track of your changes and send them along to whichever side is currently behind.” Editing is not a simple process. Typically you have at least three people engaged in a dialogue of editing a manuscript: the editor, the copy editor, and the author. Add another set of editors into the mix and they have to try to communicate not only with the author, but also their counterparts across the ocean. Things understandably get a little complicated.