An American Editor

August 31, 2011

What Should an Editor Do?

In her comment to my article, Is the Editorial Freelancer’s Future a Solo Future?, Cassie Armstrong asked:

How does what you suggest differ from the idea of a large publishing house? I see the benefit of working with a group, but perhaps you can expand on the idea. Should I then offer my services to other freelancers and suggest collaboration?

The questions are important and boil down to “What should an editor do?”; the answers difficult.

I don’t see grouping together in the manner of a large publishing house as the answer. The idea is not to offer a full panoply of services — the cradle-to-grave approach — but rather to offer more competitively specialized and focused services.

Currently, large publishing houses (and smaller ones, too) contract with book packagers to provide nearly all of the needed production services. The result is that freelance editors no longer work directly for the publisher; rather, they deal with a third-party intermediary, the book packager. How does the packager get the business? It offers a package price for all the services and allocates a portion of the bid price to various services. Consequently, the editorial services take a beating because they are the least fixed-expense category, largely because this is out-housed work even for the packager.

So where does this leave the solo freelance editor? In a very uncompetitive position. Because we freelancers are always scampering to find the next job to fill a schedule gap, we tend to react to and subsequently forget about solicitations from third-party packagers such as this one I received (errors are as appear in the original):

We’re a leading company in pre-press industry and have huge amount of work for copyediting and cold-reading on regular basis. I’ve got your brief details from web and would like to see if you’re interested to associate with us. The major subject would be Science, Technology and Medicine for Books and Journals. We’re dealing with International clients only so they need very high standard of Quality and on time delivery so there will not be any compromise on these front.

The proposed rates are as under…

Copyediting – $0.80 per page

Cold-reading – $0.50 per page

There will be a Non-competent agreement between us before starting the live project.

These proposals are take-it-or-leave-it proposals because if you don’t want the work, someone else will jump at the chance, even though the rate of pay is absurdly low. What other option, other than turning down the offer, does the solo freelancer have? The publisher has contracted with the packager to provide these services and the packager has a gazillion “professional” freelance editors to solicit, many of whom would jump at this offer.

Solo freelancers may reject the above solicitation, but what about a solicitation that calls for “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.” In addition, “[m]any 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.” (The quotes are exact quotes, errors and all.) The job is for approximately 550 manuscript pages and has to be completed in less than 4 weeks. The proffered pay rate is $3.50 per page.

This second solicitation, although labeled as one for copyediting, is really a developmental editing job, a different type of edit altogether (see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor for a discussion of developmental editing vs. copyediting). Again, because of the sheer numbers of competing solo freelancers, even if you would turn down this job, others would jump at it because they need the work.

The solo freelancer can’t bargain with the packager over the price for several reasons. Here are two: First, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of solo freelancers who would accept the job just to have a job, so you have no bargaining leverage. Second, the packager has already allocated money for the out-house editing and claims no wiggle room. (I once had a packager tell me that it not only had allocated the editorial budget but had also predetermined how much of that budget the packager had to retain because the packager’s editorial division had to show a profit!) Again, you are a solo freelancer in a sea of solo freelancers, and thus without bargaining power.

The idea of solo freelancers grouping together is to offer publishers an alternative, at least for editorial needs. As a group, the freelancers offer the same “advantages” that the packager does but put the group’s editorial skill level on the line. Sit back and think about what differentiates you as a solo freelancer from the packager who offers editorial services in the eyes of the publisher. It is in overcoming of those differences that grouping can offer.

Yet the solo freelancer needs to think carefully about the group concept. The idea is that the group needs to be fairly stable; you need to think and act long-term. You cannot assemble a group for one project then disband and form a different group for the next. There needs to be some permanence.

Perhaps more importantly, when forming a group, you cannot be stuck on the idea that every member of the group must do so many pages of editing every week. You need to approach the group from a more business-like perspective. Remember that the success or failure of the group is a combination of factors, not least of which is finding work for the group. Just like with law firms, the group’s “rainmaker” is as important as the person who actually does the editing work.

Cassie’s question was whether she should contact other solo freelancers and offer to collaborate. Although collaboration has been embraced by many (see, e.g., Ruth Thaler-Carter’s guest article,  Working Alone — Or Not?), collaboration is such a loose alliance that it won’t work over the long-term if the idea is to compete for work as a group.

Collaboration is designed for the individual project: A solo freelancer is offered a project that is too big for him/her to complete within the allotted time and so he/she needs project-specific help. The group, on the other hand, is designed to be ongoing and to solicit work based on there being a group of editors who can tackle a project on an as-needed basis and who are practiced at coordinating style amongst themselves.

The answer to Cassie’s question is not that collaboration is bad or should not be sought, but that it should not be the ultimate goal because it is not a method for obtaining work (which is the purpose of a group); collaboration is a method of completing work.

What should the editor do? What the editor thinks is best for the editor’s future.

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