An American Editor

June 3, 2013

Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (III)

In the prior two articles on this topic (see Part I and Part II), the discussion centered around the what (what it means to be a solopreneur or a company). As one commenter pointed out, the reality is that even a solopreneur is a “company” with the solopreneur being an employee of that company. But the difference for our discussion lies less in the taxing authority definitions than in commonly understood definitions.

What was missing from the earlier discussions and needs to be addressed is what the future looks like. I’ve written on this topic before (see, e.g., Does the Future of Editing Lie in Tiers?The Future of Editing: Group Sourcing?, and Is There a Future in Editing?), but our discussion of solopreneur versus company prompts me to write again.

To see our future as editors in the context of solopreneurs versus company, we need look no farther than the changes that have come about in the legal and medical professions. Professions like plumbing are not good comparisons because both the worker and the work have to be local; it would be pretty difficult to hire a plumber located in San Francisco to fix a leaking faucet in an apartment in Los Angeles, much less one in New York or Bangladesh. But the limitation faced by the plumber, and at one time thought also to apply to doctors and lawyers, doesn’t apply to doctors and lawyers in the global economy. It certainly doesn’t apply to editors.

True there is still a “thriving” solopreneur approach to law and medicine, but if you watch the trends, you will discover that, whereas 90% of doctors and lawyers were once solopreneurs, today that number is rapidly approaching less than 25% with no end in sight as to the decline.

That there will always be some solopreneurs is really just an excuse. What doctors and lawyers have discovered is that solopreneurship is generally not economically feasible. Back in the days when I practiced law, the movement was toward two-person offices. It wasn’t long before it was a movement toward three- to five-person offices, and the trend has continued. Globalization and insurance and lack of insurance have made the change happen.

The discussion of solopreneur versus company, when phrased in terms of personal preferences, ignores changing economics — it misses the foundational point of the discussion: survival in one’s chosen field; in our case, the field of editing. To choose between solopreneur and company, one needs to answer this question: Am I earning the net amount of money I want or need each year in my current form? If I am, then nothing more needs be discussed. But if I am not, then one of the several things that needs to be thought about is whether I am in the correct “form” to survive.

Another question that has to be asked and answered is this: Where do I fall on the bell curve of working life? For example, in my case, I am on the downslope side; although I continue to work, I am eligible to retire. Consequently, my approach to the solopreneur versus company question is different (or should be different) than that of someone on the upslope side. If I were on the upslope side and not making the income I wanted, I’d be looking at what changes I can make to get me the income I want.

I don’t disagree that it is important for an editor to be comfortable in his business model. What I do disagree with is the idea that one needs to sacrifice income for comfort. Each of us has our own strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are better editors than others; some are better businesspeople than others. Some are better editors than businesspeople and vice versa. The idea of collaboration — or a company — is to take advantage of the strengths of each of the people who collaborate (make up the company).

I understand the reasons for solopreneurship but I do not understand making it a god so that one clings to it even in the face of not making a sufficient income.

When it comes to professions that are reluctant to change, I think editing is one of the most reluctant. We tend to cling to what has worked because it has worked, even if it hasn’t worked for us or it once worked for us but no longer works for us. Many of us still edit as if we are editing using paper and pencil — even though we are editing using a computer. (I even know a few editors who still refuse to edit or proofread except on paper — and they have clients who agree!)

The Internet has brought a sea change to editing. Before the Internet, we knew our competition. With the Internet, our competition is anyone and everyone, and that competition has acted as a brake on pricing. The other sea change has been the number of people who want to become editors to supplement their income or because “it looks easy to do.” These “editors” also are a brake on the professional editor’s income.

When we think about solopreneur versus company, we need to think about these economic factors, how they affect us, and what model — taking into account our business skills and interests — will best serve to maximize our incomes and best be able to deal with the sea changes of the future. Just as lawyers and doctors have realized that, to correct the mismatch between their income expectations and income realities, they have had to move away from the solopreneur model, editors, too, may have to come to that realization.

It is not enough to say that there will always be a place for the solopreneur editor. Although true, it fails to account for the ease of entering the profession and the growing number of people who are competing for that same group of clients. It also fails to account for the growing globalization of editing.

The most important thing is not to be quickly dismissive of the company model. Your future may be at stake.

May 13, 2013

The Crystal Ball Says . . .

The May 4, 2013 edition of The Economist reported that the British Research Councils will begin requiring taxpayer-funded research to be published in journals that make the research available free within one year of publication, if not sooner (“Academic Publishing: Free-for-all”). This mirrors the White House’s executive order to the same effect and a bill in Congress that would set the time limit at six months. Not to be left behind, the European Union is moving in the same direction

The crystal ball sees these as a positive trend for taxpayers, but a worrisome trend for authors and editors, especially when you realize where this leads: to the extension of self-publishing to research papers.

It doesn’t take much effort to recognize that a journal cannot survive if it is paying all the costs of production and marketing but cannot charge for the content. Publishers, being businesses, would have to shift the economic burdens, and the only place to which they can be shifted is onto author shoulders.

It is true that, now, many researchers hire editors at their own expense to help them prepare research articles for submission to journals. The authors see this as an investment because they are trying to be published in journals whose reputations will boost the authors’ reputation — the honor and prestige of being published in a journal known to reject 90% or more of submissions is calculable in the academic world. Getting published by Nature or Science is an academic plum; the same cannot be said for articles published in PLoS, which accepts 80% or more of the articles submitted to it.

The future seems to be that authors will not only have to bear the burden of the editorial costs, but also the production costs, which will be wrapped into a publication fee: “Want to have your article published in our journal? You need to pay us $x.” In other words, the vanity press model of publishing is the likely model that publishers of journals will adopt. As long as you are willing to pay to be published, you will be published.

Setting aside the ramifications such a system has for the reputation of the open-access journal and, thus, the reputation of the author published in the open-access journal, and setting aside the potential benefits to society of researchers having full access to these research articles, we need to consider the impact it will have on us in the performance of the work we do as editors and authors.

The boom in self-publishing of ebooks has not transferred its momentum to either editors or to authors. Although some editors have seen an uptick in work received from authors, most editors have not; many editors have seen, instead, a decline. More importantly, perhaps, is that editorial standards have declined as authors increasingly decide they can self-edit or that having their nephew’s kindergarten teacher (or the nephew himself!) do the editing for free or minimal cost is sufficient. Of course, it does not help that readers are buying error-riddled ebooks and often are unaware of the errors. (It is hard to convince someone who believes gr8 is an acceptable spelling of great that gr8 is erroneous.)

This momentum toward self- and nonprofessional editing also puts downward pressure on professional editors fees. We are in the race to the bottom!

A bright spot in editing has been academic editing. It hasn’t been financially bright but work-wise it has been shining when compared to the offshoring of “standard” editorial work. But that is because there have been several parties who were interested in achieving excellence, an excellence that is not represented by either most self-editing efforts or editing by nonprofessionals.

Yet I foresee a coming change as a result of the open access requirements. Researchers who are already hard pressed to financially support their research and who now pay for a preliminary submission edit, knowing that if accepted the journal will provide additional editing, will be rethinking whether to self-edit or have a nonprofessional do the editing, and whether to put pressure on professional editors to reduce fees, all because these authors will have to pay publication fees to the journals in addition to those fees they have already been paying.

According to The Economist article, the journal Nature claims it costs $40,000 per published paper to cover all of the production and review costs. I have no reason to doubt the number, but it makes me wonder who will bear — and pay – such cost in the open-access model of publishing? How many authors would willingly pay even 25% of that cost? How many authors could afford to absorb such costs?

If the journal is not absorbing the cost, then the ripple has to move downstream. It has to keep moving until it is finally stopped at the place where the cost is absorbed or until it no longer has momentum because either the costs to be absorbed have greatly diminished or no longer have someone to absorb them. How much of that ripple will editors have to absorb by way of lower prices?

(Something to note: “Lower prices” doesn’t necessarily mean reducing, for example, an hourly rate from $45 to $35. It can also mean leaving the rate as is but increasing the scope and amount of services provided. The effect is the same in both instances: it is a lowering of price.)

I also wonder when we will see this open-access publishing model extend to all of academic publishing, not just to journals. I expect that publishers, once they wrap themselves in open-access publishing and see that charging a fee to be published can be profitable, will apply this model to academic books. University presses are already financially in trouble; the open-access model of having the author pay the costs could reduce their financial stress. However, it would also mean less opportunity (or less money) for professional editors as authors strive to reduce their cost burden.

I think the future for authors is one of more costs and less prestige. More costs because the financial burdens will shift from journals and university presses to the authors. Less prestige because the quality of presentation of the research will decline and because a pay-to-publish scheme will reduce the selectivity of the journals and publishers — as long as you can pay, you will be published.

I think the future for professional editors is one of lower prices and less work. Lower prices because authors will pressure for lower fees, or a broadened scope of work, or both, and editors will not be able to resist that pressure because it will come from all directions. Less work because as the costs to publish rise, authors will try to self-edit or find colleagues or students or friends or relatives or other nonprofessionals to do the editing as a way to reduce their financial burden, with the result that there will be less work for professional editors.

My crystal ball says authors and editors need to begin thinking about how they will adapt to what the future portends.

February 4, 2013

Is Editing a Future Safe Harbor?

One of the newspapers I read had an article discussing the future workplace and what kinds of jobs will be lost to technology. The article pointed out that both white-collar and blue-collar jobs are subject to loss as technology advances and gave some examples.

One example it gave was the truck driver. As automated cars and driving are perfected, will there be a need for the truck driver? The article concluded no, but I’m not so sure. Perhaps there will be no need for a person to actually do the driving, but there will still be a need for someone to make sure that the items are delivered correctly. In other words, the role may change but the need for a real person may not.

The article got me thinking about editors. I know we’ve discussed the future of editing before (see, e.g., Is There a Future in Editing? and The Business of Editing: Will the Tide Turn for Us?), but not from the perspective of technological advances.

With each passing year, computer software gets smarter. Increasingly, the tasks that editors perform are being performed by software. Consider just spell-checking and grammar software. I remember when the software first appeared and how limited it was. Now it offers suggestions that were unimaginable 15 years ago — and it is increasingly accurate when it suggests whom instead of who.

It wasn’t so long ago that spell-checking software was only found in word processing programs; now programs like Acrobat and InDesign include spell-checking software and third-party vendors sell enhanced versions.

I don’t want to get hung up on a particular type of software because what editors do is so much more than just spell checking and grammar. Yet the issue remains: Do editors face technological extinction?

I think that if we do, it is yet many decades in the future. It is not because our routine skills cannot be emulated by a computer, but because of nuance. If the only thing that mattered was that there are no spelling mistakes in a document, editors would be far down the path to being jobless. But the real key to being a successful editor is nuance competence, that is, the ability to understand the subtleties of language and language choice and what those subtleties communicate.

Consider this example: “Up to 20% of fractures are missed on plain film.” Both the spelling and the sentence are correct and so should pass muster if the a computer is evaluating it. Yet an editor should note a problem: What does the sentence really mean? It simply isn’t clear. Does it mean that the radiologist will miss these fractures even though they appear on the plain film or does it mean that the imaging technique itself doesn’t display (i.e., misses) these fractures? The difference is one of nuance but is also one of great importance.

If it is the radiologist who will miss the fractures, then it is one type of problem that needs resolution. Perhaps better training or perhaps a second or third set of eyes to review the film or maybe something else. If it is the imaging technique that misses these fractures, then what other technique should be used either instead or as supplemental to the plain-film technique or is there no technique currently that will image these fractures? In both instances, questions of treatment are raised. This is a nuance that only a human (at least for now) can provide.

Consider this second example: “Left-handedness, above average weight and height for age, family history and spondylolysis or spondylolisthesis are associated with Scheuermann disease.” Again, nuance is important. The editor should be asking whether family history of or family history, and is meant. Each is a possibility and each leads to a different conclusion and perhaps affects treatment. How likely is it that computer software will be able to identify the problem and ask the pertinent question?

Because editing is more than just rote spelling and grammar, because it involves nuance and understanding of possibilities, it is likely that for the foreseeable future that editing will be a safe harbor while technology advances. Although some forms of white-collar work will disappear as technology advances, even some of the functions that editors currently perform may fall to technological advances, it is likely that editing as a profession will remain viable.

A companion question to viability, however, is whether potential clients will believe that there is a need to go beyond what computer software can do. This problem is one that editors face today. A goodly number of publishers and self-publishing authors believe that Microsoft Word’s built-in spell-checking and grammar software are all that is needed; the eye of the professional editor can be bypassed.

I recently received an “ad” from a new author for his new fantasy ebook. Although I found the summary in the notice a bit confusing, I decided to look at a sample of the ebook. Perhaps the summary got garbled but the ebook was fine. Within the first three pages I discovered a dozen problems, so I privately wrote to the author and mentioned a few, suggesting that it would be worth his while to hire a professional editor. The response I got was that he would take care of the problems himself.

My thought was: If you didn’t catch these types of error before you published the ebook, what makes you think you will find them now?

His response is the response I increasingly see as publishers and authors fall into the trap of believing that technology is the savior. Increasingly, no one thinks about the nuances of language. The consequence is that the story is not well communicated and readers (and authors) are made poorer for that lack of communication.

To combat the rise in reliance on technology, editors need to discuss nuance and to focus prospective clients on the nuances of writing, the things that technology is not adept at finding. This is truly our value. I expect that in the not-too-distant future software will be able to accurately distinguish between the proper and improper use of, for example, your and you’re, but not the nuances that choosing one word over another may entail. This is the editor’s strength and what should be pushed as we fight to maintain our relevance in the future.

December 10, 2012

The Decline and Fall of the American Editor

In past articles, I have bemoaned the decline in language skills that I see in many younger editors and in authors. My bemoaning was revitalized by an article in the December 1, 2012 issue of The Economist (“Higher Education: Not What It Used to Be,” pp. 29-30), which said:

For example, a federal survey showed that the literacy of college-educated citizens declined between 1992 and 2003. Only a quarter were deemed proficient, defined as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals and toi develop one’s knowledge and potential.” Almost a third of students these days do not take any courses that involve more than 40 pages of reading over an entire term. Moreover, students are spending measurably less time studying and more on recreation. “Workload management,” however, is studied with enthusiasm–students share online tips about “blow off” classes (those which can be avoided with no damage to grades) and which teachers are easiest going.

(Emphasis supplied.) Only 25% of college-educated U.S. citizens are literate! How depressing is that? The article went on to note that “[a] remarkable 43% of all grades at four-year universities are As, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960,” which means that students are being rewarded for being illiterate. Makes me wonder if their professors are literate.

Unfortunately, a confluence of many factors is resulting in the dumbing down of the editorial and authorial classes in America. The decline in newspaper readership is but one symptom of this decline. It is not enough to say that readers are getting the same information from sources other than newspapers, unless you can also say that the information that is contained in a multipage newspaper article is equally comprehensively conveyed by a 140-character twit.

Discussions that I used to have about current events with neighbors have hit a dividing line. Those of my generation still engage in detailed discussions regarding topics of local interest and are informed about those topics; those of the younger generation can only discuss, at most, the headline.

eBooks are both a blessing and a curse as regards promotion of literacy. That anyone who has access to a keyboard can suddenly become an author is a curse; that readers pick up and read a lot of the produced drivel is a curse; that these same readers and authors do not recognize the difference between, for example, your and you’re is a curse; that readers are more interested in being distracted from reading than from actually reading is a curse.

On the other hand, ebooks make material to read more accessible to more people at a lower cost, definitely a blessing. In addition, because ereaders offer such things as instant dictionary access and online access to websites like Wikipedia where more information is available about a topic, ebooks can be viewed as spreaders of knowledge, which is also a blessing.

Alas, for the blessings to truly be blessings, the reader has to be open to taking advantage of them. With the trend of using nondedicated ereaders to read ebooks, however, combined with the trend to read only a very few ebooks during the course of a year, it is difficult to get the blessings to outweigh the curses.

The more insidious trend that ebooks promote is the acceptance of incorrect language use. The more often a child sees “while your driving the car,” the more ingrained it will become that your is correct. The fewer authors who hire qualified professional editors to fix grammar errors, the more standard becomes the misuse of language and the more such misuse is learned and accepted.

Compounding the problem is the discouragement qualified professional editors receive from authors and publishers. There is no reward, only punishment, for being a qualified professional editor in today’s market. The punishment is on several levels. On the most basic level, it is the downbeating of pricing. Authors and publishers rarely accept the pricing that a professional editor would charge were the editor’s services valued. Rather, the mantra is lower pricing. And to force the market to lower pricing, authors and publishers too often search the Internet for best pricing, rather than best editing.

The consequence of this downbeating of pricing is that those of the younger generations with the requisite language skills to provide topnotch editorial services do not enter the profession, or do so in a very limited way. That means that the ranks of editors are being filled by those who lack proficiency in the very skills they seek to provide. When an author whose ebooks is riddled with homophonic errors tells me that the ebook has very few such errors because they paid to have the book edited, it tells me that both the author and the editor lack necessary and fundamental language skills and that neither can recognize that lack, so both accept substandard work as standard. If you are a young learner and are subject to reading hundreds of such substandard books, you soon begin to believe that they are correct and replicate the errors in your own writing.

If you do not think repeat exposure to erroneous language use will lead to that erroneous use becoming accepted as correct, look no further than the argument regarding the age of Earth (6,000 years of age vs. millions of years of age). Or consider how advertising works (repeat exposure to a message is designed to get a viewer to believe the message’s verity; this is most clear when looking at political advertising).

The illiteracy noted by The Economist above bodes ill for American editors becoming or remaining a valued profession. It is difficult to uphold high values when you cannot recognize high values. When America’s most educated class — its university graduates — are reading challenged and language challenged/deficient, how much expectation can there be for the proficiency of those not in that “educated” class? (And think about those of the “educated” class who become the teachers of our children. Considering where most teachers are in class standing at university, how likely is it that your child’s teacher will be one of the literate 25%?) Considering that professional editors today generally come from the university-educated class of workers, how likely is it that the literacy level demanded of the printed word a few decades ago will survive to future decades? When the income levels of qualified professional editors are in a state of perpetual decline and when authors increasingly avoid using qualified professional editors, preferring to self-edit or to have “beta” readers provide the editorial review, how likely is it that the high editorial standards of past decades will carry forward to future decades?

Will we soon be reading The Decline and Fall of the American Editor in twittese? What do you think? Are you concerned?

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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