According to The Guardian, editors are either invaluable professional bookworms who can quote Ulysses from memory or self-important pedants who intrude in the space between author and reader. So which argument is right? Neither, I think.
The article conflates the job descriptions of publisher and copy-editor under the broad title of ‘editor’. In publishing, ‘editor’ can mean just about anything from grammar champion to project manager to talent spotter.
But if we are talking about copy-editing here, then Robert Gottlieb is wrong to dismiss it as ‘simply the application of the common sense of any good reader’. Good copy-editors are highly trained and work in a methodical, structured way to spot factual inaccuracies, grammatical errors, and inconsistencies both within the book and with other titles across a series or imprint. (The latter point would not occur to most authors, who would see his or her work as a single intellectual unit rather than one of a range of works within a list.)
Copy-editors also work unseen to remove aspects of the author’s manuscript that might be incompatible with desktop publishing software (e.g. bespoke footnotes and referencing systems, missing accents, symbols that are lost in conversion). With the advent of ePub, many copy-editors now tag each and every element of the text too.
A good copy-editor transforms an author’s draft into a work that is fit for publication. Some authors say ‘well, I could have done that myself’. But the point is that authors are usually too close to the text, and can’t meet the publisher’s editorial or technical demands (a self-published author makes this very point here). That’s why both publishers and authors need copy-editors.
Have a look at the Society for Editors and Proofreaders’ website for examples of the value that a copy-editor can add.