An American Editor

August 1, 2011

The Changing Face of Editing

At one time in my career as an editor my function was crystal clear: everyone understood and agreed on the role a copyeditor played in the publishing business. But as the years have passed and the traditional publishing industry has consolidated into six megacorporations whose decisions are made based on bean counting, what was once clearcut has become fogged.

(For an overview of the various editorial roles, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.)

This was brought to mind the other day when I was contacted by a client to copyedit a new medical book. The client’s inquiry included these points:

<Name> has recommended you for a new title, which requires copyediting, and we need someone who is a subject matter expert in physiology with a strong science background to copy edit this book, as some sections may need to be rewritten.

Language edit required: Yes (Many of contributors are not English speaker so will need copy edited pretty closely for language, especially for the chapters written by a non English speaker)

(Emphasis supplied.) The project was approximately 600 pages and needed to be completed within three weeks. The client estimated that the editing could be completed in 92 hours. The fee? The standard copyediting fee.

I declined the project for several reasons. Here is my written response:

I appreciate you and <name> thinking of us for this project, but I don’t think we fit your needs for three reasons. First, none of us are subject-matter experts in physiology. We are very experienced medical copyeditors, but that is not the same as having expertise in a particular subject area.

Second, you mention rewriting sections. That is the job of a developmental editor, not a copyeditor. Although we can do developmental editing, our fee is significantly higher for doing so, especially if English is not the native language of the original authors. Copyeditors work under the guise that the project has already been developmental edited and although they may change a sentence or two for tense or ease of reading, copyeditors do not rewrite paragraphs and sections.

Finally, if a project needs developmental work (again, especially if English is not the original authors’ native language), I think the schedule you propose is too tight for normal working hours. I’m not clear on how you came up with your estimate of 92 hours being needed to do the job, but that equates to approximately 6 pages an hour (using your stated number of pages as 549; we always reserve the right to verify the page count based on our agreement with <client>), which, in my experience over 27 years of medical editing, is much too high if rewriting is required (again, especially if English is not the original authors’ native language). Rewriting work under such circumstances more often than not works out to an editing rate of 2 to 3 pages an hour.

I didn’t bother emphasizing that the fee was inadequate for a developmental edit, which clearly was the level of editing expected. And it also needs to be remembered that in addition to doing the editorial work — grammar, spelling, syntax, etc. — the copyeditor also needs to code every element of the manuscript for typesetting, often by applying a template and tags.

This request is typical of the inquiries I am receiving (and have been receiving for quite some time). It is not enough for editors to be proficient in the tools of editing; editors are expected to rewrite and to have subject-matter expertise.

I have edited thousands of books over the course of my 27 years as an editor, but I don’t believe that turns me into a subject-matter expert. True I have greater familiarity on a broad level with the subject matter, but expertise is gotten by a combination of specialized training and practical experience, not just reading: Simply because I have edited hundreds of medical books does not qualify me to be a doctor.

The demand for greater expertise and for higher-level service is a result of bean counting. When I began my career, publishers had a budget line for developmental editing and a separate budget line for copyediting. It was expected by everyone in the publishing loop that a project would go to copyediting only after it had been developmentally edited. But in the press to reduce costs and increase profits, the segregation of the tasks has slowly disappeared and now everything that can be called editing is bunched together under the name copyediting. (Worth noting is that copyediting is a less costly budget line than developmental editing, thus the merger of developmental editing into copyediting rather than vice versa.)

This merger by publishers is also reflected in dissatisfaction expressed by authors over the editing that is done. Authors see the edited manuscript either as proof pages or as marked up copy (usually using Word’s track changes). The real problem is when authors first see the edited version in proof pages, without the benefit of seeing all the work that the editor did clearly defined. Authors tend to see every error that remains as a major error and vocally complain. They forget that the purpose of proof is to catch the errors that slipped past during copyediting or that may have been introduced during the copyediting and typesetting processes.

The balance is off-kilter. The expectations of authors and publishers soar as the various editorial roles are blended, yet the output of the editors cannot keep up with those expectations for numerous reasons, not least of which are insufficient time allocated by the client to do the tasks and inadequate compensation.

It isn’t clear to me what an editor can do in the face of these changes. Today, editors are caught between the increased demands of clients and the increased competition among editors for work. The one thing there is no shortage of is the number of people who call themselves editors; the number of “editors” rises daily, and as that number increases, there is a downward pressure applied to compensation and an upward pressure applied to the number of tasks expected to be performed by the editor – too many editors are competing for that shrinking pot of available work.

Little by little the face of editing is changing. Whether it is really for the better for anyone — author, publisher, or editor — is questionable. Editing is a hands-on task that requires sufficient time and expertise to do competently, let alone well, yet all parties are losing sight of this, as the growing requirements with reduced time allocations attest.

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