An American Editor

October 26, 2011

How Do You Do It? Amazon vs. Editors (II)

My previous post discussed the problem publishers are facing with Amazon’s stepping into the role of book publisher rather than just bookseller. On October 17, 2011, one New York Times front page headline read “Amazon Signing Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal.”

Read a bit further into the article and one discovers that Amazon isn’t talking about the number of editors it is employing (if any). One also discovers that Russell Grandinetti, a top Amazon executive, says, “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader. Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.” Note no mention of editors.

So where does the professional editor stand? To paraphrase an editorial colleague, Amazon pays editors as if the editor lived in a third-world country. The truth of the matter is that the ground is shifting yet again for professional editors.

The standard practice for many editors has been to try to work either in-house or freelance for publishers. We have seen many of those jobs disappear as publishers have found it cheaper to outsource editorial tasks, and the globalization of our profession has caused a lowering of wages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is forecasting no growth in jobs for the editorial profession for the next decade but a significant increase in competition for what jobs exist.

I don’t have the magic bullet that will cure this problem, but I do have an observation. When I discuss book buying with editorial colleagues, the standard response is that they buy from Amazon. It is like feeding the mouth that bites you. Because we can save a dollar or two, we buy from Amazon. Perhaps that isn’t such a smart idea as it reinforces Amazon’s belief that it is right.

I recognize that many of the books professional editors need are not inexpensive. I also recognize that professional editors probably read more books for pleasure in the course of a year than does the average reader. And I recognize that each dollar saved counts. But perhaps when it comes to Amazon, this is wrong thinking. Amazon is not my friend.

It is important to note what the Amazon model is: a willingness to have very thin margins. Thin margins do not leave a lot of money to be spent on what is considered an intangible, such as editing. I do not expect to suddenly see a rash of jobs for freelance editors at decent pay spring forth from the bowels of Amazon.

We editors can follow the path of publishers; that is, we can shake our heads in worry, wring our hands, and do nothing for fear of what effect our doing something might have on our future. But our future is already insecure.

Everything we have traditionally seen and done as professional editors is changing. I expect that in a few years the only editors still able to get work from publishers will be those in groups, not solo editors. This will be a fundamental change in how editorial work has been done.

An even more fundamental shift that I expect to see is that increasingly less work will come from publishers and the burden of hiring an editor will fall on the author. Should that occur, it will be disastrous for the author, for the editor, and for the reader. Experience so far with authors is that few are willing to invest the necessary resources for professional editing in the absence of pressure from a third party, such as pressure from a peer-reviewed journal. The gamble is too great and the value of editorial services is too ephemeral, not readily seen.

As I wrote earlier, I have no panacea for the troubles the editorial world will shortly begin facing. We didn’t face the original offshoring of the early 2000s very well, so I expect we won’t face these changes well either.

Yet one thing is certain: Editors who continue to buy from Amazon are only helping to bury themselves. Perhaps supporting Amazon is not the smartest idea editors have ever had and one that should be rethought.

12 Comments »

  1. I can’t help but think you worry too much. It doesn’t matter what some MBA at Amazon says about the need of an editor. With the fall of the publishing gatekeepers, tons and tons and double fist-fulls of burgeoning new authors are trying their hand at novel writing. Even if only one in ten has enough of a clue to obtain an editor, that is still going to represent a huge increase in the demand editorial services. Saying a writer doesn’t need an editor is like saying a musician doesn’t need a producer. It is true only if the musician intends to stay in his garage or sing at the karaoke bar.

    OTOH, what you say about the services being provided under a group model has merit. That’s just good business sense. If an editor is marketing his services, doing his own accounting, designing his own web interface, and other minutiae, he’s not editing. Better to walk into your office (virtual or meat) and get to work. Leave the minutiae to the MBA’s.

    Comment by Justin Timer — October 26, 2011 @ 8:47 am | Reply

  2. If editors stopped buying books from Amazon, the boycott wouldn’t even show up on Amazon’s radar. Why even bother? Amazon isn’t being mean out of spite. They’re just responding to market forces bigger than themselves.

    Smart authors know they can benefit from good editors. Maybe editors just need to do a better job of explaining to new authors how they (editors) can add value. Have you noticed the ads explaining how realtors add value (so you shouldn’t try selling your house on your own)? Why not do something like that?

    Comment by Troy McConaghy — October 27, 2011 @ 1:45 am | Reply

    • Why bother, you ask. I guess for the same reason that I would stop someone from hitting a child even though I know it won’t stop people from hitting children — because it is the right thing to do. Besides, there are, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 200,000 editors in the labor force (I admit I’m not sure how the BLS counts). If 100,000 stopped buying from Amazon and started buying from B&N, Amazon would notice. Every “movement” starts small. If no one bothered because it would have no immediate effect, the U.S. would still have separate and unequal education and lack civil rights progress.

      Comment by americaneditor — October 27, 2011 @ 6:02 am | Reply

  3. Amazon is merely acting rationally. They’ve found, empirically, that they can sell books, and lots of them, even if they don’t pay editors well, even if many of the books have no editors at all.

    Let’s try an analogy. Suppose you own a widget factory and you do an experiment to see what happens if you cut the pay of your widget inspectors in half. After five months, you look at your sales data and you find that sales only fell slightly, but those lost sales were more than made up for by the money saved via the pay cut. In other words, it’s more profitable to keep the pay cut in place.

    The widget inspectors might decide to stop buying widgets from your factory, but that won’t solve anything. All other widget factories will cut their inspector pay in half as well (because it’s more profitable to do so), except maybe for one premium widget brand which only has about 5% of the market because they charge twice what everyone else charges for their higher-quality widgets.

    To carry the analogy further, widget factories are now being replaced by individuals selling their custom widgets direct to buyers (via sales channels like Amazine, Looloo, Blurp, Smashwarts, Etsee, the iBakestore, etc). Some of those individuals could really use some help improving their widgets, even if they don’t know it yet. The widget inspectors might be able to help, but they’ll only get asked to help if the new makers know they exist.

    Comment by Troy McConaghy — October 27, 2011 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

  4. I think we should judge Amazon by BOTH its words AND its actions. The result is different than just listening to the spin.

    So Amazon says only the reader and writer are needed YET:
    1) It has invested huge resources in building, developing, rolling out and marketing a publishing platform and a reading device (KDP and Kindle)
    2) It invested resources in selling ebooks (both by selling them below cost when publishers wouldn’t play ball and by promoting them in premium page space)
    3) It has hired serious editors and publishing types to acquire and edit books (and there are ample stories online about those hires)
    4) It has acquired serious (and well paid) writers of various genres

    Amazon’s words say one thing but it spends its money like it BELIEVES that there is room for more than one kind of model. Amazon SPENDS ITS MONEY like it believes in various forms of mediation between author and reader. It SAYS it doesn’t believe in anything other than Author Reader to scare the crap out of everyone else and draw attention from the fact that it is building a platform to provide really good publishing services to authors and really good reading services to readers.

    Eoin

    Comment by Eoin Purcell — October 28, 2011 @ 4:42 am | Reply

  5. [...] posted this as a comment over at An American Editor who has an interesting piece on Amazon. I thought it was worth putting it here [...]

    Pingback by A Little Thinking About Amazon « Eoin Purcell's Blog — October 28, 2011 @ 4:46 am | Reply

  6. Only an anecdotal finding; but the number of typos and just plain errors I find in Kindle versions of current (chargeable, not heap or freebie Gutenberg classics) fiction, tells me that Amazon does indeed under-rate the value of editing and proofreading services.

    Comment by michaelmac43 — October 28, 2011 @ 5:37 am | Reply

    • Many of those errors are in books from big publishers. I’d say there’s enough blame to go round on that front!

      Eoin

      Comment by Eoin Purcell — October 28, 2011 @ 6:19 am | Reply

  7. … and the fact that I typed “heap” when I meant “cheap”, tells me that I too need a proof-reader.

    (I’m pretty good at proof-reading other people’s work; but it’s harder to spot errors in one’s own work, as we all know)

    Comment by michaelmac43 — October 28, 2011 @ 5:41 am | Reply

  8. Writers who haven’t had the benefit of professional editing don’t understand what it is, or why they should pay for it. Most don’t understand the difference between the sort of work a commissioning editor might do and a copy editor or proof reader. It’s the same with cover design, typesetting – everything! They assume that because the software is available to all, all can edit, design etc to professional standards, therefore why should they pay? I would imagine that most of those at Amazon have come from areas other than publishing, so they feel the same. It’s not good news for the quality of what we read.

    Comment by Sarah Duncan — October 28, 2011 @ 7:00 am | Reply

  9. [...] American Editor views Amazon through different lenses. The blog perceives Amazon as a threat to the once [...]

    Pingback by 2 Views of the Mountain | Truth in Sentences — October 30, 2011 @ 11:13 am | Reply

  10. Most writers these days have not been professionally trained. If you go on any writer’s forum you will find lots about doing the whole project themselves including the front cover. This is because most writers have not worked in an industry that has specialist to do specific jobs and have not worked within a team of people putting forward, news, features, etc.
    I am writing my first book and my first stop is to find a book editor because all my life as a journalist I had a sub looking over my work and I was but part of a team and would never assume to take on other’s jobs. Maybe I need to be hauled into the 21st century?
    My problem is where to find a book editor in an industry I know little about. I have lately sent 5,000 words to the writers service in the hope that they will be the right people to help me.
    Writers do not know 1) the importance of a book editor 2) where to find one 3)bulk at spending over £1,000 plus on something they’ve written in their own time, at their own expense and presently has no returns.
    I agree that it has many many writers all under the same umbrella. Some who just want to write their book regardless of the end product to the really proficient writer who has a chance.

    Comment by Anne Glover — February 10, 2014 @ 1:32 pm | Reply


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