An American Editor

May 10, 2010

eBooks & the Future of Freelance Editors

Here’s the tough question: Is there a future for freelance editors in the ebook Age? To which we can add this question: If there is, what kind of future will it be?

There are few things that freelance editors can be certain of, but here are some of those few things:

  • Every day our numbers increase as increasing numbers of people turn to freelance editing as either a full-time career or for a second income
  • Every day colleagues, including those with years of experience, are trying to find in-house work and give up freelancing
  • Every day there are fewer jobs available for a larger pool of editors
  • Every day another author or publisher decides that editing can be bypassed because readers simply don’t care
  • Every day another editor lowers his or her price, reducing the value of professional editing and making it harder for the professional editor to earn a living wage

We also know that there is no true professional organization for freelance editors that is actively seeking to lobby on our behalf or to find new employment opportunities for us. And we also know that computers were the first modern revolution in our business, the Internet was the second, and ebooks will be the third.

We’ve got trouble right here in edit city!

eBooks are bringing a new kind of revolution to freelance editing as a consequence of the direct-from-author’s-computer-to-Internet model that some publishers and many authors are adopting.

Editors have always faced the problem of authors and publishers being unwilling or unable to pay our fee and of authors and publishers doing without our services, with authors instead asking friends and neighbors to give the manuscript a once-over. But his has become more common and more problematic with the advent of ebooks and the proliferation of the belief that anyone can be an editor (and anyone can be an author).

The underlying problem, I think, is acceptance of the good-enough standard for publishing in lieu of the much higher threshold that existed when I first began my editorial career more than a quarter-century ago. This lower standard is a combination of industry consolidation, ease of access via the Internet, increased competition, and a desire to lower costs, with intangible costs, such as editing, being a prime target for cutting. I’ve even heard one publisher say that paying for editing is a waste of money because most readers don’t know the difference between whole and hole. Based on some of the ebooks I have read, I’m not sure that publisher doesn’t have a point (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!).

The good-enough standard is rapidly becoming the de facto standard for editing. When I started as an editor, my role was strictly limited to editing. I was expected to be careful and thorough and focused like a laser on copyediting. As time passed, the laser focus became more of a shotgun focus and other jobs became part of the expectations. And then came the need for speed. Not only was I expected to do more work for less money, but I was expected to do it faster. Where at one time a page rate of 3 to 4 pages an hour was the expectation, today the expectation is often 10 to 12 pages an hour, sometimes coupled with the request for a “heavy edit.” And where in the beginning I could expect a yearly increase in my fee, now many publishers are unwilling to pay more than they paid in 1995, yet demand more work be done for that pay than they demanded in 1995.

The good-enough standard is both the rationale and the justification for bypassing the editor. As this becomes the actual standard against which an ebook is judged, the expectations of the reader also become less — soon the reader accepts whole when hole is meant, seen when scene is meant. And as this happens, authors and publishers sell their work for less, almost as if dumbing-down readers and lower pricing are handcuffed together.

The ripple effect is that as reader quality expectations decline along with a concurrent lowering of price, there is both less need and less money available for editing, which ripples into less editing being done and declining work for editors. Admittedly, the other scenario is that more authors and publishers will have money available for editing and will want editing services but at a price that parallels the sales price of their ebook. This is equally devastating to freelance editors because there is a point at which one cannot afford to work as an editor.

eBooks are the great field opener for authors and publishers but, I fear, they will be the harbinger of doom for freelance editing as a profession for skilled editors. It is a never-ending downward spiral whose downward thrust is reinforced by the incessant consumer demand for lower pricing.

I’m open to suggestions on how to reverse the trend, but I think the future for freelance editors in the eBook Age — at least from the current view — is bleak. The need for ebooks to be professionally edited isn’t changing (see, e.g., Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1); Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2); For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed; and other related articles under the tag Professional Editors), only the opportunities for professional editors to do that work and earn a living wage.

11 Comments »

  1. I think this is part of a greater trend. The current state of the art of ebook conversion technology, coupled with lower expectations spread by the prevalence of texting, etc, is removing many of the aspects of written communication which we have come to expect, and I think that the concepts of spelling, punctuation, syntax, and grammar (the four horsemen of the writer’s apocalypse) are among these aspects.

    Some years ago, my son’s eighth-grade English teacher rather haughtily explained to me that “We have learned that it is counterproductive to force a particular way of writing. It is better to simply encourage them to get their thoughts down on paper than to be excessively picky about outmoded rules.” This is why my son’s work was not being marked down in spite of the fact that it was rendered nearly unreadable by bad spelling, punctuation, syntax, and grammar. I think that the damage being done by the current wave of poorly designed, poorly executed ebooks is simply the next breaker rolling in on our shore.

    In a world where “sox” and “socks” are both good enough, where capitalization doesn’t matter, where “you” is routinely “ya,” where “all right” and “a while” are collapsing into single words, and no one cares, is anyone really going to care about a missing word, or a poor construction, or a badly written sentence? Part of me rebels every time I see a sign that says “Closed between 1:00 to 2:00,” or “From kids on bikes, moms on skates, to dads on motorcycles…” but I have to wonder if it’s really going to get any better.

    I believe the most odious task I take on in the preparation of a book for POD distribution is to de-widow the manuscript, carefully inserting page breaks, changing the paragraph styles, etc, to chase all the widows out the end of each chapter. Along comes the ebook revolution, and all of a sudden, you simply have to grit your teeth and avert your eyes, because widows abound and no one cares.

    I think that editing, careful writing, page design, and a whole host of other aspects of written communication, including fiction, are simply going to die unless we can educate a new generation of readers who care.

    Comment by levimontgomery — May 10, 2010 @ 7:26 am | Reply

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  3. I cannot disagree with you more. In fact, I have thought for a number of years that the one entity that will come out on top in the Internet publishing milieu is the freelancing editor. Why? Because there has been an exponential increase in the number of writers out there. And perhaps you’ve noticed, the quality of published books has gone down. In other words, what you’re saying about the editor being cut out of the publishing process is absolutely true. And the quality of published books is suffering because of it. Unfortunately, editors don’t get blamed for that because readers have no idea what an editor is. The writers get blamed for mistakes. And they should, they made them.

    Readers will never notice all the things a great editor notices, but they will notice obvious grammatical and spelling errors. And with commentary on the Internet becoming more strident every day, it will not take long before novice writers, i.e. those that think all it takes is a good idea to be a writer, before they are embarrassed into seeking the help of a professional editor.

    This is a golden time for freelance editors. Read the blogs, not just the ones you’re interested in, but ones you wouldn’t read in a million years. You will discover there is a need for great editors. Don’t bemoan the fact that writers today can’t tell the difference between a subject and a predicate let alone a split infinitive and dangerous new style. Don’t bemoan the fact, offer your services.

    Editors will have to do what writers do: go out there and shill. Wow, it makes me so glad to be able to shove this down somebody else’s throat for a while. The world has changed, son. “The days when you could simply go out and be the best you can be are over. Nowadays you must BRAND YOURSELF.” Moo.

    In all seriousness, I think you are dead wrong about editors being in trouble. There are legions of writers now thanks to the ‘net and cheap publishing. But quality in writing, whether it’s simply knowing the rules of grammar, or having a great and wonderful presentation of material, is golden now.

    My advice to you, don’t hold back. Bring up real world examples of bad editing when you come across. Educate people as to what editing is (No one wants to do it, so don’t worry about training competition.). Remind the novice writer that once it’s out on the Internet, it may very well be there forever. If someone really believes they don’t need an editor, have them check back to their own blog posts of about a year ago. They will beat down your door at that point.

    Comment by Sue Lange — May 10, 2010 @ 8:09 am | Reply

    • Sue, as I noted in my article, the need is there. On that we agree. And it isn’t as if there isn’t a lot of available work for editors — and there will be in the future. The problem is that available work doesn’t translate into living wage and unless work and living wage become equatable, the professional editor will disappear. Few of us are in the position of being able to edit for $4 an hour (or less) and it is the rare author who is willing to dip into his or her own pocket to pay for editorial services.

      Comment by americaneditor — May 10, 2010 @ 8:42 am | Reply

  4. I have no quibble with the general description of the downward spiral. (I’m living it!)

    But I would like to nitpick one sentence: “As [good enough] becomes the actual standard against which an ebook is judged, the expectations of the reader also become less — soon the reader accepts whole when hole is meant, seen when scene is meant.”

    I’m not sure the reader truly “accepts” this sagging of standards. Rather, the reader is probably disgusted, but what can h/she do about it?

    I don’t see the reading public ever banding together to deluge publishers with irate letters, or to boycott bad books, or to protest the demise of the editorial function; ergo, the problem will continue. Most readers, I suspect, however disgusted they might be, will dismiss quality loss in books as part of the overall downgrading of quality products and education in the U.S. if not the world.

    In publishing, the syndrome has been going on for a long time. It’s not limited to e-books. I have in hand a hardback novel published by Doubleday in 1977 that is loaded with typos! And it’s not alone. I read fiction from the 1930s to today, and while the number of typos in today’s books definitely exceeds that of earlier books, there’s a definite trend starting in the ’70s. Which happens to be the time, IMO, that the public education system began to decline.

    It’s educated readers who notice and bemoan the quality downturn. They are steadily becoming outnumbered by undereducated readers — who increasingly comprise the players in the workforce. That workforce comprises publishing companies and all the components that are dragging down quality and price. Editing is becoming devalued because the language is changing because the people who use it are changing it. And those of us in freelance editing will be forced to change with it or change our occupations.

    Comment by Carolyn — May 10, 2010 @ 8:31 am | Reply

    • The reader can stop buying as many books, or be much more selective! That would be my form of protest.

      As for “editing is becoming devalued because the language is changing because the people who use it are changing it,” language has always been changing. This is not a bad thing. Our job as editors isn’t to stop change — it’s to help people make as clear a statement as they can given the current state of the language. Many of us are out of work because of the economy, not because “they” is now acceptable as a non-gender-specific third-person singular pronoun.

      I do see what you’re getting at, though.

      Comment by Benjamin Lukoff — May 11, 2010 @ 2:15 am | Reply

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  6. You once again take a pessimistic view on what can be a great opportunity. Check the statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes273041.htm). Now take into account that with editing ebooks all you need is a computer, an internet connection and some software. Editing in the digital world is a go anywhere business. The software can weed out many of the obvious mistakes, and experience can get the rest.

    The question really comes down to what you consider a livable wage. Even at the low end of the wage spectrum $28,000 is not a lot, but it is certainly livable (depending on where you live). I will reiterate that where you live is no longer static. I should venture to guess that a good editor in the freelance world should be able to bring in $50,000 a year; that is certainly enough to live on.

    The problem really is the editors. If you are willing to adapt your business model to the changing environment, notice I didn’t say your standards, you can continue to make a “livable wage.” Even with my and my wife’s school loans, medical insurance, and retirement account I am still able to put over a $1000 a month into savings while earning $26,000 a year. May-be you should consider a personal financial management course at your local community college.

    My point is simple. You can live off a lot less than you think you can. My wife and I drive two reliable vehicles, we go to movies, eat out once in a while, and buy nice clothes. We have a TV, two computers, video game systems, and more. You don’t need some organization lobbying for you. Your not entitled to work, or a livable wage. You need to earn it!

    People in this industry that are unwilling to adapt and change deserve to be out of work!

    Comment by David — May 10, 2010 @ 6:20 pm | Reply

  7. David said: “People in this industry that are unwilling to adapt and change deserve to be out of work!”

    Ouch — that’s a little harsh! IMO, nobody deserves to be out of work just because they have a hard time adapting. It takes a while to change one’s ways and one’s outlook, especially when the need to change comes on fast; and especially when, after rumination, one decides that the best course is to change occupations. It’s a tad difficult to make such a switch quickly. In the process, you can find yourself out of work.

    Comment by Carolyn — May 10, 2010 @ 7:07 pm | Reply

  8. We’re in the middle of a revolution. I am a former journalist with a Master’s degree and 15 years of experience on a daily paper. But that industry is in an upheaval. So I am learning internet marketing, blogging and how to create information products. I am not earning a livable wage yet, but my hope is to find solutions to some of the problems writers face.

    We all have to take responsibility for driving the change. The world needs writers and editors. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t value what we do. However, copywriters who can link their income to their results are faring well. So we have to find a way to make our skills pay.

    Comment by Marcia Ming — May 11, 2010 @ 7:10 am | Reply


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