An American Editor

August 11, 2011

Is There a Future in Editing?

When I began my career as a freelance editor 27 years ago, the future of editing looked bright with possibilities. Twenty-seven years later, I’m not so sure that editing isn’t the incandescent bulb of publishing; that is, on its way to extinction.

Those of us who are editors daily receive mixed messages from the publishing industry. One message is that publishers, who cry wolf much too often, are in significant trouble as a result of the rise of ebooks. Yet nearly every publisher is reporting rising sales as a result of ebooks.

A second message is that yes, publishers and authors want their books properly edited, but the price for that editing needs to be what it was in 1990, not what it should be in 2011.

A third message is that editors who want work need to be prepared to offer additional services gratis. Sure you may be hired to do a copyedit, but while you are at it, you should also do a developmental edit at no charge. (See The Changing Face of Editing where I discussed this phenomenon.)

A fourth message, this one coming from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, is that editing suffers from two significant problems: first, it is a very-easy-entry profession that beckons to a lot of people, and second, that job opportunities for editors are declining as the number of people entering the field is increasing. The logical conclusion to draw from that dynamic is that there is more competition for the available jobs and thus downward pressure on the fees paid/earnable.

Those who we would think of as our natural allies, authors, face similar problems. Here is Harlan Ellison on paying authors (warning: if you are highly offended by “4-letter” language, you might consider bypassing this video):

The most significant point Ellison makes, at least to my way of thinking, is that those who are asking us to do free work are themselves unwilling to do the work for no compensation.

Yet the free problem is a problem that stares us in the face. Consider this: In recent articles I have stated that nearly all of the ebooks I have “purchased” in recent months have been free. There are so many free ebooks available, that I cannot see why anyone would pay money for an ebook. How much more short-sighted can I possibly be?

If I want to be hired for my editorial skills and I want to be paid for those skills, the person hiring me also needs to be — and should be — paid for having written the book. Once the “pay me” chain is broken, it cannot be repaired.

When I address my colleagues, as I will be doing at the upcoming “Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century” conference (see Worth Noting: Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century) and have done at earlier conferences, I usually point out how myopic we editors are when considering where we fit in the scheme of things and when thinking about our business. We much too often think about today and tomorrow but not about next month, next year.

I believe the cause (not necessarily the sole cause, but certainly a major cause) of this myopia is that we are solo freelancers. As such, we have a lot of things we need to worry and think about, many of which affect us today and tomorrow, leading us to put off worrying about next year or 5 years from now. Which brings me circling back to the problem of ebooks for us editors.

An ebook is just like a pbook when it comes to editing. An editor’s tasks are the same and the approach is the same. Manuscripts we receive for editing look the same whether the ultimate destination is pbook, ebook, or both. The primary difference I’ve noted between a pbook edit and an ebook edit is the coding to be used, but even that is often the same.

So it isn’t really the skill set an editor requires that is the problem of ebooks. The real problem is that the explosive growth in publishing, which is occurring in ebooks, is occurring in those self-published ebooks that are priced so low (and more often than not free) that the expected revenue generation is insufficient to justify the hiring of a professional editor before publication. Which means that the author undertakes to self-edit. (I have discussed the problems of self-editing in several earlier articles. Two examples are On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! and The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud. For one author’s perspective, see The Editor: A Writer’s Fairy Godmother or Ogre?)

What we have is that endless cycle of no one wanting to pay for anything. Although an author who writes to satisfy a personal need rather than trying to make writing a full-time job that pays the bills can “afford” to publish his or her book at a nominal price point, the professional editor cannot similarly offer his or her services for little to no compensation.

All of us are being myopic. The author should not undervalue his or her work; it takes a great deal of time and skill to write a book that captivates an audience. It also takes the skills that professional editors have to fine-tune the author’s draft. We should all be looking at a much broader and more long-term relationship, one that fairly compensates all parties and ensures that a polished, well-written book reaches its maximum audience. Just as the author should not undervalue his or her book, we editors should help authors earn a decent return on their investment, encourage authors to purchase our services, and perhaps suggest to authors who offer their book for free not to do so.

I recognize that this is living in a universe that is different from the one I am currently planted in, but if we do not move toward that alternate universe, there may be no future in editing.

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