An American Editor

October 10, 2014

Worth Reading: On Work

Occasionally, I read an article that I think is particularly enlightening. Today’s recommendation is such an article. It is a review of two books on the role of equity finance (or what we used to call LBO [leveraged buyout]) in the debasing of labor. It provides the first cogent explanation for the change that has occurred in the workplace from using/hiring employees to outsourcing to freelancers. More importantly, from my perspective, it provides an explanation of why I have been uncomfortable with Republican Party economic and government theories (not that the Democrat Party theories are exponentially better albeit they are better) and generally tend to vote Democrat.

The books and review also provide at least one explanation why freelance editor rates have stagnated since the mid 1990s, why offshoring became (and continues to be) the first choice among publishers, and why, for publishing, these phenomena are easily traced back to the consolidation by merger and/or acquisition of publishing houses that occurred in the late 1980s to mid 1990s.

The article is “Why Work is More and More Debased” by Robert Kuttner (alas, the article is locked and only a small portion is available for free online; if The New York Review of Books is available at your local library or bookstore, this issue — October 23, 2014 — has many articles that are is well worth reading); the books are The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad For So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It by David Weil and Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street by Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 17, 2014

On Mourning the Passing of Barnes & Noble

After this week’s news that Barnes & Noble has lost money yet again, I decided that perhaps I should begin thinking about writing B&N’s obituary. After all, I am a B&N member and I buy a lot of books from B&N and I will miss it when the last store and website is finally shuttered.

But I was told not to don my mourning clothes yet. B&N has a plan. Great, I thought, until I realized that the same people who have brought B&N to its knees are the ones with the plan to save it. Not very likely.

The problem with B&N is simple: management that cannot see even a baby step’s worth of distance in the future. There are any number of relatively simple steps that could bring B&N back from the precipice, but each would have to begin with a recognition that today’s management team needs to be gone yesterday.

Start with customer service. How poor can customer service be? I don’t know but B&N is surely leading the way. Consider what happens when you call customer service. If you are lucky, you get someone who speaks English like a native and without a thick brogue that makes them incomprehensible. You know you are in trouble when the representative calls you “Mr. Richard.” The reason this is a problem is that the reps do not understand the problem you are trying to convey and so insist on a solution that is no solution.

For example, I recently ordered a book from Amazon Canada. I had to order it there because neither B&N nor Amazon US was showing the book except in their marketplace and the marketplace pricing for a clean copy was double or more the price Amazon Canada was asking. (The book cost over $100 to begin with, even at Amazon Canada.) When I received the book from Amazon, it was the right book but not the advertised book. The advertised book was for the correct print year and did not state that it was a print-on-demand reprint; in other words, I thought I was buying an original copy.

I realized that because of the book’s age, all that would be available would be like this, so I wrote Amazon Canada and told them I intended to keep the book but that they should note on their website that the edition they were selling was a POD reprint. Within a few hours I received a reply thanking me, telling me that the information had been passed on to the appropriate people, and because I planned to keep the book, Amazon was refunding 25% of the price.

The book from Amazon was the first volume in a nonfiction trilogy. Volumes 2 and 3 were available from B&N, and so I ordered them from B&N. Volume 3 was just released, so it was not a problem. Volume 2 was released several years ago but not so long ago that I should expect a POD reprint — but that is what I got. So I called B&N customer service (sending an email is, I have found, an utter waste of time). I got one of the “Mr. Richard” representatives. I tried to explain the problem and explicitly said I planned to keep the book and that my only purpose in calling was so that they could adjust their website to indicate that it is a POD reprint. After all, this was another very expensive book and the website implies you are getting an original.

I might as well have been talking in a hurricane for all that the representative either understood or cared. The rep “resolved” the problem by ordering another copy be sent to me because he agreed that website did indicate it was not a POD reprint that was being offered. I tried to prevent this, but after a few minutes, I gave up. I received the second copy of the POD reprint and sent it back with a detailed note indicating what was wrong and what I thought they should do. And so the tale ends.

There was no follow-up from B&N and the rep didn’t understand the problem or the solution I was suggesting. (He did say that there was nothing he could do about the website. Apparently that includes notifying anyone of an error at the site.) Bottom line is that B&N customer service continues to be an example of what not to do and Amazon continues to be an example of what to do. This same complaint about customer service was made several years ago on AAE and elsewhere and the same management team continues to do nothing.

The second place for B&N to go is to improve the interaction between buyers and B&N. B&N needs to be innovative, especially when it comes to its members. How difficult, for example, would it be to let members create a list of authors in which they are interested and for B&N to send a monthly email saying that a new book by one of my listed authors has been announced; click this link to preorder.

Along with that, B&N should guarantee that the preorder price is the highest price I would have to pay (which it B&N already does do without saying so) but that should at anytime before shipment the price be less, B&N guarantees that the lower price will be the price I will pay. As it is now, because I preorder books months in advance, I need to constantly recheck and if a price is lower, I need to cancel my existing preorder and re-preorder. Can B&N make it any more inconvenient for the customer?

In addition, B&N should be sending me monthly emails telling me of upcoming or newly released (since the last email) books that are similar to books I have previously bought. I know they have the information because both online customer service and the local store management are able to peruse books I have bought. To entice me to buy from this list (or even to preorder), B&N should offer me an additional 10% discount on the listed titles, which discount is good until the release of the next email and the next list of books.

Members of B&N are the prize for B&N. Members are likely to be those who buy exclusively or primarily from B&N and not Amazon and are the people who are more than casual readers. If you buy 1 or 2 books a year, you wouldn’t pay for a membership; it is people who buy a large number of books who pay for membership (e.g., just before writing this essay, I preordered 1 hardcover and ordered 2 others). So why not reward members based on their buying? For example, buy 15 books and beginning with the book 16, you will get overnight shipping or an additional 5% discount or something. Buy 20 books and get a gift certificate. Think up rewards that encourage more buying and offer those rewards to members. Make membership valuable. It isn’t rocket science.

Much (but not all) of B&N’s problems are from a mismanaged ebook division. Even though ebooks aren’t the bulk of sales, B&N should not be conceding the market. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how to improve sales or get more Nook loyalty. A simple way is to make it so that when a person buys the hardcover they can get the ebook for $2 more if they would like both options. Buy the first ebook in a trilogy and if you buy books 2 and 3 at the same time, you get book 2 for 50% off and book 3 for free. Maybe these won’t work but they are worth exploring and cutting special deals with publishers to make them happen.

The publishers have an interest in B&N remaining afloat. Should B&N shutter its brick-and-mortar stores, publishers will lose showrooms as well as major sales outlets. Publishers should create special editions available only at B&N. They should make shopping at B&N and at brick-and-mortar stores worthwhile. Make these deals available only through physical stores.

There are a lot of things that B&N — and publishers — can and should do to rejuvenate B&N. Unfortunately, these things require imagination, something B&N has in very short supply. Consequently, because I do not expect any miracles at B&N, I will continue to prepare its obituary. Maybe I’ll be fooled and my masterpiece will never see the light of the Internet; if so, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. But until B&N calls me and asks me for my ideas and calls other members and asks for their ideas, I won’t get my hopes up.

What would you do if given the opportunity to turn B&N around?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 23, 2014

The Business of Editing: An Editorial Code of Professional Responsibility

Recent discussions about ethics made me realize that I have failed as an editor and writer. I meant one thing, Erin Brenner and the American Medical Writer’s Association meant something else. This became obvious in private correspondence with Erin wherein we used the same term, ethics, but meant different things. As Erin noted in our correspondence, there are two definitions of ethics: “the rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession” and “the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy” (see The American Heritage Dictionary); I meant the first and she meant the second.

Why is this important? Because of the reference to the American Medical Writer’s Association’s Code of Ethics. What I see as necessary is less an abstract code of ethics than a concrete code of professional responsibility. The difference can be like that between night and day. AMWA’s is a code of ethics because it states unenforceable and undefinable ideals. To say, for example, as AMWA Principle 3 says, “Medical communicators should write, edit, or participate in the development of information that meets the highest professional standards…,” is a wonderful aspiration, but it is only an aspiration because “highest professional standards” is undefinable. Ask 25 people to spell out exactly what is meant by that aspiration and you will get many different “definitions.” In this regard, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders’ Code of Practice, is much closer to what I think is needed, although it is only closer, not quite there.

A major failing of the AMWA code, and perhaps even of the SfEP code, is the lack of interpretive, published decisions and public enforcement. In contrast to aspirational ideals, a code of professional responsibility lays out definable, graspable, and, most importantly, enforceable rules of conduct; it also usually has a body of interpretive opinions so that adherents know what is expected in defined circumstances. Enforcement means that there is a public penalty for ignoring the guidance. Think of it like a judicial opinion. A court opinion has no value if no one knows what the facts are that led to the opinion and what the parameters of the opinion are. The idea is for those bound by the code to understand their obligations and modify their behavior accordingly. It is the seeking of a behavioral consensus.

Codes of professional responsibility usually have mechanisms by which a person bound by the code can submit a scenario and receive guidance on how to behave. For example, an editor could ask: “I was told the client had a budget of $1500 and I agreed to work for $50 an hour. But the work is not complete after 30 hours. Can I just keep working and bill the client until the work is done?” and receive a guiding opinion that lays out what the correct action is under the group’s code of professional responsibility. The question and response would be published so all editors would receive the same guidance.

Assume that the response is “No, you cannot continue to bill. You knew what the budget was and by agreeing to undertake the job implied to the client that it would not take more than 30 hours to complete. It is your obligation to complete the work at your expense.” (I know there are lots of missing facts and lots of other appropriate answers. This is just for illustrative purposes) When published, other editors would see what is expected under similar circumstances and would be expected to conform their behavior in the described situation to the guidance.

More importantly, the answer would act as guidance for the client–editor interaction. If the editor ignored the decision and continued working and billed for the additional time, the client would be able to point to this decision as justification for not paying above the budget. Whether that would stand in a dispute resolution action is a different matter, but at least for widely accepted codes, such as in medicine and law, such a decision would have significant weight in the dispute resolution proceedings. The fact that there is a decision that is attuned to specific facts gives guidance to both editors and to clients. Both know what to expect and what needs to be done.

And, importantly, if properly constructed, there would be interim guidances and final guidances, with the final version not being settled until community comments were considered.

Ultimately, the question comes down to what is the advantage to having a code of professional responsibility and published guidance interpreting the code’s canons in various circumstances? The answer is that it raises the status of the profession in the minds and eyes of all interested parties. And for those who voluntarily agree to adhere to such a code and to the interpretive decisions, it gives them increased standing within the editorial and client communities. Perhaps, most importantly, it instills in clients a sense of confidence in the professionalism of the editor.

Is it difficult to create such a code? Not really. This is the type of endeavor that needs to be done by consensus. A small group of editors could easily begin by reviewing codes from various disciplines, including law and medicine. Once a basic code was created, it could be published for feedback from the editorial community. Ultimately, once adopted editors will agree to be governed by it when they see it is in their best interests. To bring such a code about is just a matter of will and interest within the editorial community. Additionally, once such a code and body of interpretations were created, it would be easy to create standardized certification courses that demonstrate ethical competency.

What do you think? Are you interested? Would you agree to be bound by such a code? (Are you ready to volunteer to start the process?) Or do you think that a code of professional responsibility is not needed for the editorial profession?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 16, 2014

The Business of Editing: I Got Rhythm!

To put us in the proper frame of mind, here are The Happenings, a 1960s rock group, singing George Gershwin’s Depression-era song “I Got Rhythm”:

Life is a river of rhythm. Everything is to some kind of beat. I’ve heard musicians say they are inspired by nature’s rhythms; I know painters certainly are. And so are editors, albeit in perhaps a different manner.

Years ago I edited journal articles as well as books. What I found was that, for me, individual journal articles were a money-losing proposition. The reason was that I no sooner found the “rhythm” of the article than it was finished and I had to go to a new article and master a new rhythm. Books, I found, were different.

I know that you will point out that many books are written by multiple authors or are collections of articles. True. I work on large books, often running thousands of manuscript pages (e.g., I am currently working on a book that has 720 chapters, each written by a different author or group of authors, that when finished will have run more than 20,000 manuscript pages). But that book has an overall rhythm.

I have found that a key to improving my effective hourly rate is the ability to find and work with a book’s rhythm. In the case of the collaborative book, that rhythm may be that of the book editor(s), such as the editor’s preference for certain types of phrasing. It is also found in the style, such as the publisher’s preferences.

Most importantly, every author has a rhythm and most of the books I work on have long chapters (one chapter in a current project, for example, runs nearly 350 manuscript pages; more typically, chapters run 50 to 75 manuscript pages), which gives me an opportunity to join with the author’s rhythm as I edit. The rhythm of a project lets me discover the language choices that the author makes. For example, some authors always use “due to,” almost as if they are afraid to commit to a more specific alternative such as “caused by”; some authors consistently misspell a word (e.g., “casual” when they mean “causal”); some authors consistently fail to define necessary comparative measures (e.g., always write “1 in 100″ but never define 100 what); some authors clearly have a gender bias in their writing; some authors regularly mix singular and plural, present and past in the same sentence; and the list goes on.

Every author, like every editor, has identifiable language foibles or traits that we generically call style. In editing, quickly identifying the author’s style or the style of a book, regardless of the number of contributors, is a key to getting into the manuscript’s rhythm. And when an editor can merge into the manuscript’s rhythm, the editing rises to a higher level.

Editing is an art and is no different from any other art. Successful editors have mastered not only the foundation techniques of editing, but have learned to merge into the rhythm. We all know that some editors are better editors than ourselves. As in all art endeavors, there is always someone the artist admires as being better than they. It is because we recognize a higher skill level. From my observations, I think that higher skill level comes about from being faster at finding, understanding, and mastering the rhythm.

Rhythm is important at several levels, not least of which is that finding it enables us to preserve the author’s voice while editing. When I read author complaints about how an editor destroyed the author’s voice, my first thought is that the editor didn’t find the rhythm. We speak in rhythm, we play music in rhythm, we dance in rhythm, we walk in rhythm — we do virtually everything in rhythm. Consequently, we need to be aware of competing rhythms.

When we think of editing in terms of rhythm, we recognize that our rhythm competes with the author’s rhythm. If we let the rhythms compete, we distort the author’s tone and message because our rhythm will dominate. But if we make an effort to discover the author’s rhythm, we can adopt it as our own for the editing process.

Rhythm doesn’t only refer to beat, which is often how we think of rhythm in music. Rhythm refers also to flow. We think of certain books as masterpieces, literary classics. That is because we can identify and flow with the rhythm of the book. The language choices and arrangements make up the rhythm and when an editor can identify that rhythm, the editor can maintain and even improve it; when the editor cannot identify the rhythm, the editor is more likely to destroy it.

All of this is important to an editor because it is a reason why an editor’s education concerning words and language should be ongoing. I know editors who last bought and read a book on language decades ago. Consequently, when they edit today, they apply the thoughts and concepts they learned decades ago; they are unable to compare yesterday with today to determine which better serves their client because there is only yesterday.

I am currently reading The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham. What is relevant to our discussion is that Joyce’s brilliance (although I admit I do not particularly like or think highly of Ulysses) was recognized by only a handful of his contemporaries, primarily Ezra Pound and Margaret Anderson. Those who saw Joyce’s brilliance as a writer were themselves trying to move literary thinking from the early 19th century to the 20th century. They were obstructed by those who believed that the golden age of literature was the late 18th–early 19th century and were determined to make Joyce’s writing conform to that “golden age.”

Editors and publishers who saw Joyce’s writing insisted on rewriting and cutting because what he wrote they couldn’t understand (or accept).

Whether one likes where language is going or not does not matter. What does matter is that we editors need to grasp and understand the rhythm of the manuscripts we work on and we need to continually educate ourselves as to where our language is going so that we help the author rather than hinder the author. We need to be able to say, “I got rhythm!”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 11, 2014

Trigger Warning: This Essay May Cause Mental Disturbance

I have always thought that a good education was one that caused the recipient of the education to think. As part of that process, reading saccharine, as opposed to bitter-herbed, books was not a way to stimulate thinking. After all, if a book simply reinforces what you already believe, what have you gained from it? What will it cause you to think about?

In some online forums, some discussions are segregated in the sense that there is a warning and you have to take affirmative action to access those discussions; they are not part of the discussions that you normally see after logging in to the forum. Usually they are discussions centering on politics, religion, sex, and violence. I agree that if you are joining a forum to learn how to edit a book or run a business, you do not expect to have to deal with discussions regarding why American politicians make Satan look like the leading contestant for the person of the year award.

But what about in the classroom? I do not mean in the primary and secondary classroom; I mean in the college classroom. Or what about in a forum on books — not on book production but on the books themselves and their literary value? Should books and reading assignments carry “trigger warnings”?

For those unfamiliar with the trigger warning controversy, let us step back a moment. A trigger warning warns a prospective reader that the book the reader is thinking about reading (or has been assigned to read) contains material that someone (such as the reader), somewhere, might somehow, someday, in some state of mind, find offensive or, worse, traumatic to read or discuss or think about or be challenged by. For example, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice would carry the trigger warning that it is anti-Semitic; Darwin’s Origin of Species would carry a warning that it contravenes the Bible’s creationism; Twain’s Huckleberry Finn would carry a warning that the book could be considered racist; Bahn’s The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art would carry a warning that it contains depictions of zoophilia; and on it goes.

The idea of the trigger warnings is to alert the reader that a book contains something that might trigger a harrowing memory, for example, of a sexual molestation, of a difficult event from the reader’s life, or cause the reader anguish (perhaps trauma) over something that affected either the reader or someone the reader knows. Basically, trigger warnings are intended to prevent traumatizing the reader by the book’s content.

I can remember reading William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” at a very young age and how that book affected me. To this day, the book is on my “books that I hope to never read again” list. I also remember the first time I read a nonfiction book about the Auschwitz concentration camp and saw photos of it and its victims — those dead and those who survived; I was deeply affected by the cruelty we can so callously inflict on each other. So it is not that I am unaware of the impact that a book can have on a person.

But what is the purpose of a college education if not to expose us to those things that make us intellectually uncomfortable? What is life without some trauma? What label could we devise that would cover all the possibilities? Why is it that we need a label, rather than to recognize that in any book there is likely to be something that will offend or cause discomfort. Consider the mainstay book of western civilization, the Bible. It includes the gamut of things that disturb most of us — rape, murder, starvation, cruelty, tyranny, savagery, and the list goes on and on. If we were to label the Bible, all we would have is a book of labels; there would be no space for the words themselves.

Coming round again to the college classroom, would we want to make education so saccharine that no book could be read unless it was a Dr. Seuss book because there is no book that isn’t offensive or traumatic to someone? How would you design a course that avoided all controversy and yet fulfilled what many believe is the function of college: teaching one to think and understand?

It seems to me that a book that causes no reaction from a reader is a book not worth reading (except when you have had a bad day dealing with cantankerous authors and seek something to read that goes in one eye and out the other without making any impression whatsoever). Such a book does not make one think about the surrounding world. Nor does it cause one to reconsider beliefs and positions fervently thought immutable. A book is a mini-university, or should be. It should include new ideas for the reader to contemplate; it should cause the reader to reevaluate long-held beliefs.

A book that carries trigger warnings would fail to fulfill the promise of education because a warned person is not only wary but takes steps to avoid what makes the person uncomfortable. We all do this, even if unconsciously, because none of us like to relive painful times in our lives. Trigger warnings carry, however, the mark of the censor. A trigger warning says that we are not mature enough or sophisticated enough to deal with life in the absence of a “parent” (“authority” figure) to guide us.

Of course, I am addressing the matter from the adult reader perspective (I do consider college students as adults, even if adults of limited experience). Once the issue is raised in the context of children and adolescents, the issue becomes less clear-cut. Yet, again, I would worry that trigger warnings would be used to censor and to prevent children and adolescents from reading books that they should read and discuss. Consider Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″ or John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me.” Think of the warning trigger labels these books would carry. Shouldn’t these books be read by adolescents? Don’t these books raise issues that should be discussed by adolescents (and adults)?

Ultimately, the issue of having or not having a trigger warning is one that questions the abilities of individuals to determine for themselves what is to be read. How much parenting do we really need? Unanswered and unaddressed in the debate are issues such as: Will trigger warnings be required of all books? Who will determine what warnings a book requires? More importantly, how will that be determined? And the list goes on.

The how question is most intriguing. Many books are subject to library banning based on rumor — some parent, somewhere said something negative and the wildfire started. Rarely has the book to be banned been read by each of the people demanding the banning. Somewhere along the line someone will have to read the book to determine what warnings need to be applied. What about that reader’s trauma quotient?

Perhaps it will be another job for editors. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 4, 2014

Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing

I am currently reading David Edmonds’ Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong (2013). The book focuses on what has become known as the trolley problem, which goes like this (the following is a summary of Phillippa Foot’s original thought experiment from the 1960s, which subsequently morphed into the “Fat Man” variation, as well as other variations):

The trolley is coming down the track and you are standing by a switch. If the trolley remains on the current track, it will kill five people who are tied to the track and cannot escape. If you throw the switch, the trolley will veer onto a spur on which one person is tied and will kill that one person, but the five people will be saved. Do you/should you throw the switch?

This is the conundrum of right and wrong, which underlies most religious and moral beliefs.

Reading this book made me think of editing ethics. I grant that the decisions we have to make are not of life and death, but still, they can be weighty and certainly raise the specter of morally and ethically right and wrong behavior.

Is the absence of the conundrum equivalent to saying that there is no ethical or unethical behavior, there is just behavior? Is this a conundrum for philosophers to quarrel over but that has no particular value outside the philosophical debates? As with most philosophical questions, there are only philosophical answers, any of which can be correct at a given moment in time.

I think few of us would say that editing (of all stripes, including proofreading) raises such philosophical conundrums that we grind to a halt as we consider them and discuss them with colleagues. Over the past 30 years, I have had editing-related “philosophical” discussions with colleagues only on a handful of occasions, and those discussions were rarely earth moving.

I suppose our initial foray into the conundrum is whether we are competent to handle the project being offered. This is not about our competency in general as an editor, but our competency specifically for the project in question. For example, we work alone, there are 3,000 manuscript pages to be edited; they require a “heavy” edit; the subject matter is a sub-sub-subspecialty area of nuclear physics, an area with which we have no familiarity; the manuscript is heavy in math, which we know is a weakness; the schedule is six weeks and cannot be extended, which means we would have to edit 500 manuscript pages a week, yet the best we have ever done is 300. The project is for a long-time client who pays very well (more than any other client we have) and will pay double our usual rate. Finally, if we do not accept this project, we currently have nothing else to fill the time, although it is always possible for something to come along. Also, the project still will have to be done by someone — and that someone might be even less qualified.

What do we do? Some of us will immediately decline, outlining our reasons for the client. Some of us will accept and hope that we can convince the client to extend the deadline. Some of us will simply accept and hope that we do a satisfactory job. Some of us will accept and try to find colleagues to work on the manuscript with us. Regardless of which path we take, I suspect that most of us would think more about the practical problems than the philosophical problems associated with the project offer.

But should we be so focused on the practical problems, or should we have already had a philosophical discussion about such a situation and have our moral and ethical compass already set to give an answer to the offer? My thinking tends toward the latter.

The job offer raises many of ethical questions. Should an editor accept work in unfamiliar subject areas? What makes up an unfamiliar subject area? How much depth of knowledge in a subject area does an editor need to accept an offer? (For example, do we need to have studied Jewish writings regarding the Talmud for years to be able to edit a book on Jewish philosophy that arises from the Talmud? Do we need to be able to cite the German order of battle before we agree to edit a book on the German offensive in World War I? Should we have at least a nursing degree before we edit a medical text intended for nursing students?)

Should our decision be based on schedule and our past history with regard to schedule? That is, if the schedule requires 500 edited pages per week but the most we have ever done is 300, are we morally obligated to turn down the project because we have never accomplished that speed before? Or is this one of those ethical considerations that need to be given some weight, but not much weight because we can find techniques that will speed up our editing? Which raises the question of whether we would be substituting technique for skill.

Let us not forget the money part. The offer comes with more money than usual — a doubling of our normal fee. Why? Is it not the client’s recognition of the difficulty of the project and the client’s method of incentivizing us to undertake what appears to be a difficult project? How much should the fee offered govern our decision-making process? If we were to prioritize elements of the offer, where would we place fee?

I know that some of us would say that before approaching these or any other question about the offer, they would insist on seeing a few chapters to make their own decision about the project’s difficulty. Even if chapters are chosen at random, how much can we learn from them? The two or three chapters randomly chosen could be the most difficult to edit, the longest, the shortest, the easiest to edit, or something else that would unduly influence a positive or negative reaction. Such a review could (and likely would) divert us from addressing the more important underlying ethical and moral questions.

In a sense, that is exactly the problem: We editors do not have a universal code of morality or ethics that serves as a guide to any of the editorial decisions we make, which range from whether to accept an offer to whether to bill the client for hours we didn’t actually spend on the project because we were more efficient than the client calculated we would be (in other words, the project took us 50 hours but the client expected it to take and budgeted for 75 hours. Do we bill for 50 hours or 75 hours?).

In the absence of such ethical codes, editors tend to approach the job-offer problem from the practical side rather than the philosophical side. Granted, in our instance, unlike in the trolley problem, there is no balancing of life versus death(s). And I also grant that in the trolley problem the dilemma has a cultural/religious element (substitute for the trolley problem the abortion problem and its variations) that editing will rarely face (an exception being, perhaps, the offer to edit a virulently anti-Semitic book that calls for a new genocide). Yet I think we — and our clients and profession — would gain greatly were we to have this discussion and come to a consensus on what constitutes ethical and moral behavior for an editor and what doesn’t.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 2, 2014

B&N in a Fantasy World

The Amazon versus Hachette stories in the newspapers and the blogosphere started me thinking about Barnes & Noble yet again. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Amazon–Hachette dispute, it boils down to this: In a few months, the prohibition against agency pricing that came about as part of the settlement agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the big publishers expires. Amazon is trying to get Hachette to agree to a new division of fees — Amazon gets more, Hachette gets less — as a sort of preemptive strike to stop the reimposition of agency pricing. For the first time in its history, Amazon is under pressure to produce large profits and it sees as one avenue to doing so receiving a larger discount from publishers. Although the fight is currently over print books, most commentators see it as a proxy for ebooks. The speculation is that if Hachette succumbs, the other publishers will follow; if Hachette prevails, agency pricing is likely to be reinstated by all of the publishers.)

As many of you know, I buy a lot of books through B&N. In May alone, I received eight hardcovers from B&N and preordered several more. In looking at my list of preorders, I find that I currently have 11 preordered hardcovers and 18 that I am thinking of preordering. (I do not preorder ebooks. I only preorder books that I want in hardcover.) Since January 1, I have purchased (and received) another 21 books from B&N.

In my fantasy world, B&N cares very much about me as a customer. In the real world, B&N cares for me as much as Amazon does, which isn’t a whole lot. Yet with the Amazon–Hachette dispute, B&N has a golden opportunity to strike a blow for its own special relationship with its customers. Alas, if history is any guide to the future, this will be another opportunity that B&N misses.

So let’s look longer term than what B&N could do tomorrow while the Amazon–Hachette dispute festers. What is it that I, as a regular customer of B&N, would like that would entice me to spend even more money at B&N (and also might be appealing enough to draw in new customers)?

A fundamental rule for all businesses is that to survive and grow you need not only new customers, but you need to retain existing customers. B&N doesn’t do a great job at either.

Both Amazon and B&N use some algorithm that, when you buy a book, says “customers who bought this book also bought”. Who cares? I don’t care what someone I don’t know bought, especially when the suggested books are so unlike what I did buy. To me, it is like the anonymous reviews or the reviews by IAteMyTongueYesterday.

Instead, I would like to be given opportunities to (a) have forthcoming books by the author automatically preordered for me with (b) a guarantee that I will pay only the lowest price at which the book is offered by B&N and (c) with the opportunity to cancel the preorder before the book is shipped. This would be particularly valuable because customers would no longer need to remember to keep checking to see whether an author has a new book coming out.

I would also like to be able to create a custom newsletter that would keep me abreast of new releases in particular areas. Now I can sign up for broad categories but I want to be able to narrowly focus. I want to be able to say, for example, “World War II history, European theater” of “Fantasy but no vampires or time travel.” I also want to be able to set the frequency. Personally, I would opt for once a month; weekly is far too often for me.

It happens that I am also a member of B&N. With the number of books that I order, it is worth the $25 annual fee to save on the shipping. But except for the shipping savings, being a member is a pretty useless thing at B&N if you shop online. (It isn’t that valuable if you shop in the stores, either.) There area no member discounts or specials online; just the saving of the shipping charges and the getting of “express” shipping, which isn’t all that express.

Now, while Amazon and Hachette (and subsequently the other big publishers) fight over terms and Amazon cuts access to Hachette books, B&N should enhance its membership — give inducements to become a member and to shop at B&N.

I recommended a long time ago that B&N cut deals with publishers to offer a very significant discount on the ebook version of a book if a customer buys the hardcover version. Or, twist it around and offer a significant discount on the hardcover version to the ebook buyer. That’s one inducement that would work with someone like me. But there are a lot of people who are uninterested in having a second copy of a book, even if in a different format.

Perhaps the way to do it is to give members reward points. One point for each dollar spent on books and ebooks, with the points redeemable for a B&N gift card or as a discount on a future purchase.

The point is that B&N needs to quickly figure out some way to immediately take advantage of the Amazon–Hachette spat. It also needs to come up with some ways of inducing book buyers who are currently buying from Amazon to buy, instead, from B&N. Although B&N will not move those who are in lock-step with Amazon, there are a lot of book buyers who are open to shopping elsewhere.

And B&N has to move because its big box competitors, like Walmart, are attempting to woo those same Amazon customers with steep discounts on Hachette books. The odds are long — very long — against B&N doing anything but blowing this opportunity, but one can hope.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

 

May 28, 2014

On Books: Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business

What is the one thing that every freelancer needs to do but most don’t do? Self-marketing!

Many freelancers have websites or participate in social media, but their marketing efforts are more passive than active. We are uncomfortable with active marketing largely because we do not know how to do it.

Years ago I taught marketing to editors and writers. It was an all-day course and I was surprised at how few people attended and, in follow-up, how few of the few who did take the course actually implemented what they learned. I suspect that in those pre–social media days, we believed that our community was small enough that personal relationships were more important and “marketing” was an unnecessary evil. (This view was often stated on editor forums.)

I admit that my view was different and for many years, I dedicated at least 10% of my gross income to marketing my services. My experience convinces me that smart marketing was and is necessary. Over the years I would read in online forums complaints from colleagues about having too little work, too long between jobs, too low an income, etc. These were phenomena with which I was unfamiliar and I attribute that to marketing. But I was preaching to the deaf.

It appears that the new generation of freelancers recognizes the need to market but needs direction on how to do it. At long last, there is a starting point for learning how to market. Louise Harnby has written Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, a guide for freelancers through the labyrinth of self-marketing.

Harnby’s book is not perfect and I have some disagreements with some of her statements, but then I look at marketing through much different glasses. For example, early in her book (p. 6), Harnby writes: “The truth is this — there are no rules.” Yes, there are rules. What there aren’t are limitations to what can be done — marketing is limited only by your imagination and pocketbook. But there are fundamental rules to successful marketing.

One such rule is that to be successful you must repeatedly market to the same audience. You cannot, for example, send an inquiry once to a prospect and leave it at that, even if the prospect says no or ignores you. If you want to work for that prospect, you must repeatedly remind that prospect of your interest and availability. Harnby both makes and skirts this point in Chapter 10, “Regular Marketing.” She emphasizes the need to keep marketing but doesn’t point out directly the need to keep marketing to the same group.

One of the great strengths of Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business is its “case studies.” I wish more detail was given in some instances, but every case study was enlightening. Importantly, the case studies reinforce the idea that what Harnby suggests is both doable and worthwhile. I particularly liked her sample marketing plan. If you read nothing else in the book, you need to read this because it is a good introduction to preparing a marketing strategy.

Another exemplary chapter is Chapter 20, “Going Direct.” When I worked in advertising and marketing in the very early 1970s, going direct was a cornerstone of a marketing plan for a small business. With the growth of the Internet and social media, going direct declined greatly or turned into spam. Harnby explains both how to go direct and why to go direct, making the case for its use even in the age of social media.

Not talked about in the book, but something that should be included in any revision, is the marketing calendar. Creating and maintaining a marketing calendar is important and a key to marketing success. Marketing is about timing as well as content. Great content that is used at the wrong time loses impact. A marketing calendar lets you focus on creating a marketing tidbit around a specific time or event. For example, I used to send out special gift packages for Halloween with my marketing pitch, which pitch was also Halloween oriented. Next up on the calendar was Thanksgiving. Because I kept a calendar, I knew when I had to prepare the material for each of these marketing events and when I had to mail the items. It would do little good to send something for Thanksgiving and have it arrive after the holiday or when no one was likely to be in the office to receive it. In addition to the detailed marketing plan that Harnby discusses, the detailed marketing calendar is also important.

Another item that should be included in a future edition is the marketing budget. How to create one, how to fund one, how to spend one — these are all important issues that need addressing when dealing with any marketing effort. For example, an issue that would fall under the budget category is should you design your own website or hire a professional? How do you make the budgetary analysis?

Harnby’s book, Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, demonstrates that any of us can do successful marketing. All we need is a little help and guidance, which Harnby’s book provides. It is the first book on marketing for freelancers that I would whole-heartedly recommend. It covers the essentials in sufficient detail for any freelancer to start a successful marketing campaign.

Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business is a must-have book in my library. I learned quite a bit that I was unaware of and that I am not taking advantage of in my marketing efforts, which I will think about rectifying. I am convinced that freelancers who follow Harnby’s advice — and persist in their marketing efforts — will ultimately find themselves overwhelmed with offers for work. For more information about Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, click this link.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 14, 2014

Are University Presses Missing Out on Sales?

I recently bought a half-dozen hardcover books published by university presses, such as The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 by Lisa Tetrault (University of North Carolina Press) and Confronting the Good Death: Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953 by Michael S. Bryant (University Press of Colorado). I considered buying several more books published by university presses but didn’t, and it is the reason why I didn’t and the reason why I didn’t buy the books I did buy directly from the presses that is the topic of this article.

(On the off-chance someone from a university press is reading this essay, let me say that the way I found some of the books — both those bought and those I thought about buying — is from ads in the New York Review of Books or their being reviewed or mentioned in a review in the NYRB.)

What would have induced me to buy the additional books even though the cost was high?

As is typically the case with university press books, they are expensive and only slightly discounted (usually 5% to 10%) by booksellers. Consequently, I think carefully about whether to buy a book. The other problem is that although I want to buy the hardcover for my library, I would prefer, in many cases, to read the book as an ebook. Some of the books, like the two I identified above, are not available in ebook form; others that I did consider buying but didn’t buy are available in both print and ebook formats.

And that is where the university presses are failing in their sales pitch. Why not make their books more attractive by including a free ebook version to anyone who pays list price? I know that rather than save 5% on a book, I would rather have a free ebook version, and I am confident that there is a group of consumers who think the same.

I grant that many of the books published by university presses are of interest only to academics. I own several that I would be surprised even if fellow academics found comprehensible, but which I bought because I am interested in the topic. (Alas, these books are so dense that years later they are still unfinished, although they do look nice on my library shelves.)

I understand that an ebook is not cheap to produce. However, if properly planned for during the production stages of the print book, the cost is significantly less than if the job had to be tackled from the beginning. If done simultaneously with the print version, the cost is very minimal today.

The idea of buying the hardcover version and getting a free ebook version is not new but it is an idea that has yet to be implemented fully by university presses.

The logistics are not all that difficult. More difficult is getting people to part with $60 for a book, even with a free ebook. University presses charge such high prices because sales are expected to be very limited, in some instances at most a few hundred books. But I suspect that their books would have increased sales with the ebook sweetener. Perhaps not lifting a book into six-figure sales, but perhaps into five-figure sales.

Yet it is not enough to have such a program in place; it has to be advertised. If I were running the university press, I would start by advertising that for a limited time, if a reader buys the book directly from the press, the reader will also receive the free ebook. Eventually I would expand the program so that booksellers could also offer the free ebook.

Once I started advertising the buy-with-free-ebook scheme, I would be certain that I did at least two things: First, I would be sure to add purchaser names and addresses to my mailing list so I could notify them of new releases and deals. Second, I would track sales carefully to try to determine whether the bonus ebook increases nonacademic sales.

University presses serve a very important function in publishing. The question is for how much longer will they be able to survive and fulfill that function in the absence of increased sales. Because their function is to publish academically worthy books rather than “bestsellers,” profits and sales numbers — although important — are secondary considerations. But at some point, as some university presses have already discovered, they become primary considerations.

Few university presses are prepared for that moment when profits and sales numbers become primary considerations; it goes against the primary purpose of the press. But thinking about how to increase sales, making plans to do so, and implementing those plans is something every university press should do. For buyers of university press books like me, one answer to how to increase sales is to include a free ebook version of the hardcover book. I know that had at least several, if not all, of the books I considered buying but decided not to buy had included the free ebook, I would have bought the books.

Would a free ebook version induce you to buy a book?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 30, 2014

Editing for the Message or the Language?

I was reading a review of a book about Stefan Zweig, an author who is obscure today but was quite famous in Central Europe and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s when this question occurred to me: Do professional editors edit for the message or for the structure and language of a manuscript?

I realize that in the abstract the answer can be “both,” but the reason this question came to mind was because of Zweig’s history. Zweig was one of the founders of the formalist school of writing and subsequently came to be viewed as its leader.

The question I ask does have some parameters. For example, message means the politics, philosophy, or “religion” of the manuscript, whereas structure and language refer to the specifics of the manuscript. For most of us who are asked to edit on tight deadlines, I think the answer is clearly that we edit for the structure and language, not for the message. For us, the message is incidental except for how clearly and coherently it is expressed. It is because of this that we see the discussions about the ethics of turning down work on a manuscript whose message we personally abhor.

But the article on Zweig got me thinking about editing and its role. Perhaps this question best sums up my wondering: Is editing literary criticism just in another guise? If editing is literary criticism, then we need to be concerned with the message. If editing is not a form of literary criticism, then we need only be concerned with the formalism aspects of the manuscript.

Zweig’s world divided editing into formalism and symbolism. Under formalism, the concern was with repeatedly seeing and “enforcing” across manuscripts the same literary style and approach. Formalism determined that there is one way in which to present a genre and all manuscripts had to conform to that one way.

Although I am sure there will be a rush to dismiss the strictures of formalism in today’s editing, I am not convinced we can so easily dismiss formalism as a product of a bygone era that no longer has life. After all, isn’t the approach of the style manuals a formalism approach? When we ask what “Chicago” says about compound adjectives or when we are told by a client to adhere to the APA style manual, are we not practicing formalism? Maybe we are not so rigid that every plot is identical, but are we not rigid enough to require that every manuscript we edit adhere to certain predetermined rules and if it does not, we make it conform?

The formalism school goes much deeper than (perhaps) copyediting today goes. For example, formalism allows the same basic story to appear in multiple cultures at varying times using different words but the same fundamental story. In other words, the details and the evolution are the same just with different words. And formalism requires the stories to start at similar places and end in similar places, having crossed similar places and themes getting from beginning to end.

Editing as often practiced today is a search for patterning. We know that certain formulaic presentations work and others do not for today’s audiences. There are rules — express or implied — of which editors are cognizant, consciously or subconsciously, and which we apply in the guise of “improving” a manuscript, either at the request of our client or because, in the absence of client direction, we choose to “apply” a particular style.

Which leads me back to what I consider the most intriguing question: Is editing a form of literary criticism? If we get past the formalism approach and, instead, work on the message of the manuscript, there is a chance that our work as editors could rise to the level of literary criticism. I would consider that a worthy goal, especially today when literary criticism, as practiced in the early and mid twentieth century, seems to be a lost art.

A knowledgeable editor could easily be a literary critic. With the ability to call upon multiple sources as well as to discuss the more formalistic aspects of a manuscript, the editor can provide invaluable insight. Alas, that would amount to volunteer work because it is clear that few publishers and authors are willing to pay an editor for the time necessary to think about a manuscript’s message.

Today’s professional editor is much different than the professional editor of 30 years ago, when I first entered editing, and certainly much different than the editor of the 1950s. When I began editing, one of the things I was asked to do was to give a critique of the manuscript. The critique was to be emphasize any structural issues and, more importantly, any message issues. Was the message coherent? Was it understandable? Was it sustainable? How did it fit, if it fit at all, with similar topic manuscripts?

The in-house staff asked me what books I was reading (in those days, my to-be-read pile was never more than two or three books) and I often was given a manuscript that fell into the broad field of what I was reading. The publisher wanted to know whether the manuscript was carving out its own place in the field or simply mimicking what was already there. If it was mimicking, did it do a better job of communicating?

What was wanted was literary criticism, which made editing exciting and intellectually stimulating (and provided a great excuse to buy books for my library). Unfortunately, it was not financially rewarding.

Today, most clients, if not all clients, want and expect the formalism approach to their manuscripts. For the most part, editing lacks the literary criticism component. I do not expect to see a revival of the literary criticism approach to editing.

Today, I think, most professional editors edit for the structure and language of a manuscript, not the message. This is what clients want and also reflects the skills and mindset of many editors. Fewer and fewer editors have been exposed to or educated in literary criticism; the description of editing has changed over the decades.

What is most fascinating to me is that 100 years after the rise of the formalism approach of Stefan Zweig’s era we are participating in its rebirth. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen; that it is what the market wants seems obvious.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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