An American Editor

October 22, 2012

The Business of Editing: On My Bookshelf

One of the things that editors don’t often discuss is what’s on their editorial bookshelves. If someone asks for a recommendation, say for a grammar book, editors chime in with their favorites, but the overall bookshelf, the tomes they rely on in their daily work, are rarely discussed.

Knowing what’s on an editor’s bookshelf is like having a window into the editor’s “soul.” Okay, perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but only a bit.

I remember hiring a freelance editor years ago and when I received back some edited chapters for a medical project, I was concerned by the spelling errors that remained. I inquired whether the editor used medical spellcheck software as an initial screening tool, and was surprised to learn the editor did not. The editor was an experienced medical editor and had a related medical background before becoming a freelance editor. The editor told me that he/she did not use medical spellcheck software because he/she didn’t trust it and believed his/her background was sufficient and he/she could do much better without it. Alas, the fruits of the editor’s efforts didn’t support that belief.

I know I am limited in what I can require freelance editors I hire to use and own. It is a fine line between freelancer and employee, and it is a line that cannot be crossed without financial penalty. I can recommend but not require. However, I do inquire before hiring.

(Just as having the right resource materials handy is important, so is it important to have the right tools handy. Although I cannot require the freelance editor I hire to own and use EditTools or Editor’s Toolkit Plus, or PerfectIt, or any other piece of software — Microsoft Word being the sole exception — owning and using these tools, and others, would improve the editor’s accuracy, consistency, and efficiency, and increase their effective hourly rate. It seems to me that it is to the freelancer’s own benefit to buy and use these tools.)

Knowing what resources an editor uses other than the Internet gives an insight into the quality of the editing I am likely to receive. It is no guarantee, just an insight. Too many editors, I believe, rely too much on Internet sources, and do so to the exclusion of local resources. I know of editors who do not own a dictionary, for example, because they can use the Internet. I suspect that in another decade or so, online-only resources will be the accepted norm. My problem with it (well, I really have several problems with online-only resources, not least of which is reliability) is that when an editor tells me that they rely on online-only resources, I cannot get a feel for how competent an editor they may be. The Internet is so vast and the quality of the resources so variable, that it doesn’t give me confidence. Consequently, I want to know about local (as opposed to Internet) resources that the editor owns and uses.

It is not that the local resources need to be exhaustive; rather, they should reflect the editor’s sense of professionalism and be geared toward the focus of the editor’s work. For example, if a medical editor tells me that they use only Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, I wonder why they do not also have and use Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, which is the other leading medical dictionary in the United States. And I also wonder about them when they tell me that they are using Stedman’s 26th edition instead of the current 28th edition, or Dorland’s 31st edition when the current edition is 32. (In my library I have the current editions of both dictionaries as well as the past three — or more — editions. Sometimes it is important to check past usage as well as current usage. And sometimes words get dropped from dictionaries.)

Specialty dictionaries are important but are insufficient by themselves. We deal with languages that are ever-changing and no single dictionary or usage guide is always and forever sufficient. So, I also like to know what primary language resource books the editor uses. I find that I often have to go to more than one dictionary to determine whether a word is used correctly (see, e.g., the discussion on ultramontane in which Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th edition did not have the sense that fit the author’s usage but The American Heritage Dictionary 5th edition did).

And as the fact of specialty dictionaries implies, the more general dictionaries, such as The American Heritage Dictionary, often lack field-specific terms, or, more importantly, do not accurately reflect what is the standard in a particular field. So additional supplemental dictionaries are important, such as the APA Dictionary of Psychology. And authors love to use popular phrases, which makes resources like the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying, & Quotation, the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, the Dictionary of Modern Slang, and The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase & Fable, and thesauruses valuable.

What do you do when faced with a word that you cannot locate? Authors love to “create” a word by combining forms. Do you immediately reject the combination? This is not an unusual occurrence in medical writing (which is why I prefer character count to word count for determing the manuscript page count). Resolution of the problem is not always easy, but I have found Brown’s Composition of Scientific Words, The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations, and Sheehan’s Word Parts Dictionary to be invaluable. Also useful, albeit for a different purpose, is Bothamley’s Dictionary of Theories. It provides a capsule way to determine if the author’s use of, for example, “paradoxical cold” or “paralanguage” is appropriate.

Which brings us to the base issues of editing — usage and grammar. I like to know what usage sources an editor owns and uses. It is not enough to make a decision about grammar, an editor must be able to defend it and to be able to defend it, an editor must have some sources to consult. Many editors have a single source; some rely solely on the grammar sections found in various style manuals. But usage changes over time and I think a professional editor has to follow those trends and have the local sources to do so. I, for example, use H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (4th ed revised with supplements), Garner’s Modern American Usage (as well as its two predecessor editions), Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, Good’s Whose Grammar Book Is This Anyway?, The Gregg Reference Manual, and Burchfield’s Fowler’s Modern English Usage, as well as several other usage and grammar guides, in addition to the sections on usage and grammar that appear in various editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, The Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format, and the APA’s Publication Manual.

It is not unusual for me to have several of my resources open on my desk as I compare and contrast the views of each before making a decision. The books I named above are only a small portion of my local resources. As an editor, I believe it is important to also be able to trace the etymology of a word or phrase, so I have numerous etymological books handy.

The point is that a professional editor relies on much more than just a single dictionary and a single style manual. A professional editor has and uses a library of resources because language is constantly changing and because no single source covers it all. I grant that the Internet has made more resources available and accessible, but it is not always easy to determine the reliability and accuracy of online information. Print publications rely on reputations earned over decades. When I hire a freelance editor, I want to know that the editor has and uses resources in which I have faith.

Do you agree? What’s in your professional library?

April 20, 2012

Worth Noting: One Bookseller’s View of Amazon as a Soul Sucker

Filed under: Worth Noting — americaneditor @ 7:49 am
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Thanks to Nate Hoffelder’s blog The Digital Reader (one of my favorite blogs), I came across Matt Blind’s article at The Rocket Bomber blog, “Amazon is a soul sucking leech on the book business.” This is one bookseller’s perspective on the value of the physical bookstore and the problems of competing against Amazon. It is worth reading.

February 27, 2012

The Business of Editing: Are Editors to LinkedIn Like Oil is to Water?

Today’s guest article is by Ruth Thaler-Carter. Ruth is a freelance writer and editor and is the owner of Communication Central, which sponsors each year a fall multiday conference for freelancers.

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The Business of Editing:
Are Editors to LinkedIn Like Oil is to Water?

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

I spend a lot of time – some colleagues would say too much time – participating in more than a dozen LinkedIn discussion groups, as well as several e-mail discussion lists — the Copy Editing List (CEL), a Google Group for freelancers that I manage, a Yahoo Group list for DC-area publishing professionals that I co-own, the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) members-only list, all of which are pretty active, and a few others that are more sporadic or occasional in nature. Not to mention Facebook!

I’m not sure that the relationship between an editor and such online activity is the same as that of oil and water, but they do mix, even as they also can separate.

I could easily spend entire days doing nothing but reading and responding to online discussions. I’ve joked with my husband that these groups make it much too easy to stay glued to the computer, even when my better instincts and extrovert nature say to get off my duff and out in the real world, or at least get a little exercise.

In some ways, social media are like reading the newspaper, both in (some) content and how they become part of a daily routine. My husband is retired and gets up later than I do, so checking e-mail and social media sites is my first-thing-in-the-morning routine these days; I read the newspaper with my second cup of coffee, when he’s up, and the rest of it still later in the day, when we have dinner together; anything I haven’t finished by then, I read in the evenings.

From a business perspective, my online activity has two sides. The negative is that it can be a timewaster or distraction — it takes time away from consciously and organizedly prospecting for new clients; it could take time away from doing work; and it could be considered economically foolish, because I’m giving advice or answering questions without getting paid for doing so.

The positive side is that I’m increasing my level of visibility and status as an expert in writing, editing, proofreading, and freelancing in general; I’ve gotten some new, well-paying clients through my activity in most of these environments; I’ve made wonderful friends and gained valuable colleagues; I’ve learned a lot, especially from CEL; I’m usually up to date on breaking news, both in my profession and in the world at large; and I like to think I’m helping people do things better and more professionally than they might otherwise. That’s a mitzvah — a good deed, a service to other people — and I do believe in networking from a helping perspective, not just for promoting or getting something for oneself.

The important thing is that I don’t let this activity interfere with actually getting my work done, no matter how much fun, and occasionally how rewarding, it is to participate in these online communities. Work comes first.

I do get frustrated at some LinkedIn discussions. So many of the people in these groups aren’t at a level of expertise, experience, skill, or professionalism for me to consider them as equals, but that can make someone with actual editorial experience and knowledge an important member of a group. And it can be annoying to see the same questions and comments come up again and again and again. It is incredibly frustrating to see accurate information be argued against by people with no training who have no idea what “professional” means in terms of writing, editing, proofreading, or other aspects of the editorial business, much less what it means to be a professional freelancer.

A recent LinkedIn discussion, for instance, started out by posing this question: “Would I be burned as a witch if I were to posit that all style guides are worthless?” and added: “Especially since I’m not a professional in the field of publishing?”

For one thing, you get burned at the stake for fiercely upholding a conviction, and somehow this scenario doesn’t fit (I can’t quite pin down why the image doesn’t work; I just know it’s off somehow). For another, and more importantly, why is someone who isn’t even in publishing pontificating about whether style guides are worthwhile? And — perhaps even more importantly — why should those of us who are in publishing care what someone like that thinks or says?

It seemed worth responding if only because style manuals are so basic to our work as editors that their role and value should be defended whenever and wherever possible. The asker might be one of the thousands (millions?) of people who want to publish their precious ideas these days and considering whether to hire an editor, so it could be worth trying to make him understand why a professional editor would use a style guide. Most of the other participants in the discussion agreed that style guides and manuals are important to professional-level writing and publishing, especially in nonfiction work. It became clear that the original poster really didn’t want to be convinced or educated, though, and I finally left the discussion in annoyance at myself for spending more than five minutes’ time and one answer on it.

In a LinkedIn group for self-professed “grammar geeks,” some discussions answer grammar and usage questions accurately and interestingly, but many of the responses are from people who know even less than those asking the questions. It’s especially funny — albeit a little aggravating — to see non-native speakers of English present themselves as experts and give erroneous answers to fairly basic grammar questions. I chime in to make sure no one takes such answers as gospel. Someone has to provide accurate information.

One LinkedIn irony of the past week was seeing someone called a “top influencer” and knowing that was because she was unusually active over several days with increasingly incoherent and inflammatory posts complaining about being moderated (censored, in her words) in several groups.

Answering questions in various online forums often does help me fine-tune my own thinking about a topic, and has given me ideas for articles to write and conversations to have with my real peers – colleagues at CEL and my Google Group e-mail and Yahoo e-mail lists, and members of the EFA, American Copy Editors Society, Society for Professional Journalists, American Independent Writers, etc. I much prefer e-mail lists for discussions of the editorial profession and the freelance life, but LinkedIn adds a different dimension — and can be a good way to reach and educate people who need either editors or insights on how to be better ones.

The trick to making smart use of these online forums is to use some discipline. I have colleagues who are also active in discussion lists and online groups, and many of them find the volume of messages overwhelming. They are time-takers, even when they provide useful information.

Some people set aside certain times of the day to participate in online conversations – first thing in the morning, last thing in the evening; I like to start the day by clearing out the overnight accumulation of forum and list messages, but will post responses only if I’m not on deadline for a current assignment.

I have a sorting process: First to be read in e-mail are messages from real people — clients, colleagues and friends; then my various discussion lists; then, and only then, LinkedIn; Facebook once in the morning and then at the end of the day or in the evening.

Some colleagues only check on e-mail at certain points during the day; I keep my e-mail program open throughout the day in case some of my on-call clients want to reach me for fast-turnaround assignments, but I’ve trained myself to take a quick glimpse at incoming messages and not respond to them if I’m in the middle of a writing, editing, or proofreading project, because work comes first. If I’m immersed in a project and need a short brain-break, though, I’ll stop and respond to a couple of list messages or group posts as a way of refreshing my brain — after I’ve gotten up and jogged around the apartment for a few minutes, that is.

It’s tempting to receive discussion lists as individual messages, because then you get to be the first person to answer someone’s question. However, constant individual messages from a busy list are overwhelming, so I receive my livelier lists in what’s called digest mode — batches of messages that arrive together a few times a day, instead of dozens or a couple hundred that flow in individually throughout the day. That’s a good way to manage the influx of information and messages.

As long as I can enforce some discipline on myself, I’ll stay involved with my online groups and lists with the goals of adding to my client list and making the world a better place for editors and those who use us. For this freelance writer/editor, LinkedIn, other online activity, and editing do mix like oil and water — in a good way!

November 23, 2011

On Books: The Shine of the Internet in the World of eBooks

As all of An American Editor book reviews (which are listed at the end of this article) imply, the Internet has opened reading vistas for me that otherwise would never have happened. I find that as a result of the Internet and places like Smashwords, I am being exposed to authors and stories that would not otherwise have been available to me. This has been the blessing of the Internet for readers, especially with the advent of ebooks.

The dark side remains the lack of gatekeeping and how finding worthwhile books to read is increasingly difficult. The easier it is for “authors” to find an outlet for their work, the harder it is for readers to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, although this problem has been discussed several times over the course of the past two years, no real solution has been forthcoming. I doubt there really is a single, good solution to the gatekeeping problem, except, perhaps, to not pay more than 99¢ for any ebook from an unknown author.

Even at that price point, I find myself waffling about whether to buy or not. That’s because my to-be-read pile is already several hundred books, nearly all of which I obtained free, and it keeps growing with free ebooks. I am unlikely to live long enough to celebrate the demise of my TBR pile even should I stop adding to it now.

Regardless, the rise of the Internet and the (relatively) recent rise of ebooks has worked wonders for multiculturalism. Exposure to literature from other continents and countries has broadened my perspective significantly. Previously, my exposure was to North American and West European literature. The geographical limitations imposed by contract between publisher and author limited opportunities to expand.

That geographical limitation combined with publisher gatekeeping, which had at least one eye, and perhaps more than one eye, focused on the bottom line, meant that exposure to other cultures was limited. (Of course, it doesn’t help that I am monolingual, which imposes its own fence.) As each day passes, the geographical and gatekeeping limitations fade a little more and increasingly seem to be only relevant to ebooks published by the big six publishers.

For all of this, the Internet should take a bow. The Internet shines at making what was previously unavailable available, and I, for one, am trying to take advantage of that ready availability. Alas, as noted earlier, that Internet shine does have a darkening tendency as well.

The ease of access has caused the lack of effective gatekeeping to cast its net much wider than just the Internet. Increasingly, traditional publishers seem to be publishing whatever they can get their hands on and in whatever condition they grabbed the book. The dark side of the Internet is the lowering of quality acceptance/expectations and the increasing demand for lower prices. This is not to say that as price increases, quality increases; there is definitely no upward correlation between the two as the Agency 6 prove on a regular basis. However, there is a correlation between lower price and lower quality — absent sufficient revenue, essential production services, such as editing, are bypassed. (Yes, I, too, can point to examples of outstanding quality ebooks that are free; yet being able to do so doesn’t negate the validity of the statement when discussing the broader ebook market.)

The lesson is that we need to work harder on figuring out a way to correlate price and quality and find that sweet spot that satisfies both. I expect that within the next few years we will come close to resolving the matter even though I currently have no idea as to what is a practical solution.

A large number of ebookers believe that publisher gatekeeping can readily be replaced by crowd gatekeeping. I wish this were true but the evidence so far, at least to my eye, indicates that too many of the crowd gatekeepers base their gatekeeping on factors other than quality of writing and quality of story. We still see all-too-many reviews in which price or geographical restrictions or some other unrelated-to-writing-quality criterion plays a role in deciding whether an ebook is a 2-star or a 5-star ebook.

In addition, I have found it difficult to find reviewers whose reviews I can consistently trust. (Part of the problem is that too many reviews are written by unidentifiable reviewers. Who is TommyGumChewer and why should I value his/her opinion? See Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust for an earlier discussion.) Many ebookers have developed their own criteria for evaluating reviews (e.g., dismissal of all 1-star reviews), which may work well for them, but leaves me unsatisfied. I have grown too accustomed to reviews like those in The New York Review of Books to find many of the reviews on the Internet helpful.

In the end, what I do is take advantage of what the Internet does best — make information available to me — and I “buy” ebooks whose descriptions interest me. I read (or try to read) those ebooks and act as my own gatekeeper, as inefficient a process as it is in this era of self-publishing. And, thus, what I “buy” is largely free, because with all the ebooks available, it would be very easy to spend a small fortune to find only a few excellent ebooks and authors.

How do you gatekeep?

(For those who are interested, the following are reviews I have written for An American Editor in order of newest to oldest:

I believe that covers all of the reviews on An American Editor. Happy book hunting!)

October 5, 2011

Privacy in the World of Silk

One of the things I dislike most about Facebook, and a primary reason why I am not on Facebook, is the necessity to check privacy settings nearly hourly. Even then, I’m not convinced that Facebook is really adhering to any policy that affords users even a modicum of privacy.

That disease of controlling information keeps spreading. Now with Amazon’s new Silk browser, which is part and parcel of the new Kindle Fire, the stakes have perhaps gotten higher. This may well be the first salvo in the conversion of Kindles from local control by the user to remote control by Amazon. I expect the day will come when to use an Amazon device, the device’s wi-fi/3G will have to be on.

Silk, which is the Amazon-designed Internet browser that the Fire tablet uses, may have serious security and privacy issues. Silk pipes the user’s online access — and cloud access — through Amazon’s servers. There is no way to access the Internet without going through Amazon. This gives Amazon the capability to follow user Web clicks, buying patterns, and media habits.

With this capability, Amazon now has what every retailer lusts after: knowledge that cannot be gotten any other way. Silk and Amazon servers will enable Amazon to watch where you shop and what prices you are offered.

I know that many Amazon fans think they will welcome this capability because it may well mean lower Amazon prices or an instant special offer from Amazon to beat a competitor’s price just for you. But is that what we really want? Do we really want Big Brother watching our every online move?

Our response appears to be a generational one. The younger the user, the less concerned about privacy the user is. This has become evident by who is exposing what on places like Facebook. Many people of my generation are aghast at the willingness of younger people to expose everything online. Younger users appear not to be overly worried about who will see their escapades or the ramifications their actions.

The lack of privacy seems to expand daily. Is there a line that cannot be crossed with impunity? By forcing users to the cloud, Amazon is saying there is no privacy line that cannot be crossed. I keep seeing visions of Minority Report with Amazon and Facebook in the role of the precogs except that unlike the precogs, their role is not for the social good.

I admit that until Amazon starts gathering the data and begins using it, we do not know how far Amazon will go or whether Amazon will misuse the data collected. Amazon fans will jump on this to downplay privacy concerns.

But the real issue isn’t whether Amazon will misuse the data; rather, should Amazon be collecting the data in the first place? Why is it that we will protest warrantless searches and seizures by the people we hire to protect us from evil, but not a similar, if not same, disregard for our privacy by outfits like Amazon and Facebook? I find it troubling that we think we are able to create a distinction that is meaningful to us between the two. Corporations are as ruthless in the pursuit of power and money as are the politicians and police forces we hire to safeguard us.

Sadly, it is nearly impossible to teach someone the value of privacy until they have been the victim of a privacy abuse. Experience is the only acceptable teacher. But now that we are beginning to see corporations creating methods of stripping our privacy bare, perhaps we should think more about what limits there should be. The longer we permit ourselves to be stripped, the more difficult it will become to correct course.

And that is the problem with Amazon’s new Kindle Fire and its Silk browser: The process of privacy intrusion will be slow, deliberate, and evolutionary. By the time we recognize how invasive the process is, we may no longer be able to do anything about it. Isn’t that the case with Facebook? Will that be true, too, of Amazon? No matter how much we like the bargains and service Amazon provides, we do need to step back and consider the ramifications of Amazon’s moving millions of people to its cloud, enabling it to data harvest without impediment.

August 29, 2011

Clashing Perspectives: Coming Home to Roost

Ewan Morrison wrote about the future of publishing from the publisher’s and author’s perspectives. I somewhat share his bleak, perhaps apocalyptic, outlook for the future of the publishing industry (see “Are Books Dead, and Can Authors Survive?“; for “outsider’s” perspective, see Tony Cole’s discussion of Morrison’s article, “Can Authors Survive in the Age of eReaders and eBooks?“).

The mistake being made in publishing is, I think, one of clashing perspectives. People in the industry look at a book, regardless of its form, as simultaneously a commodity and something unique. The mistake is that it has to be one or the other; it cannot be both. It cannot be both because each perspective demands a different approach to the book and the two approaches are incompatible.

As a result of this clash, each step in the production of the book is degraded. The result is that, for too many authors, the only thing that matters is getting “published,” with the consequence of “free” being the optimal way to get noticed. With the growth of free, there has to be a decline in “not free.” Misbalance of free and not free is, in the end, the death knell of “traditional” publishing.

The interests are competing. Most authors and wannabe authors know that they will never be able to give up the full-time day job; they will never earn enough from book sales to consider writing as a full-time career. Consequently, pricing is not high on their priority list; free is acceptable. Yet a publishing company cannot accept free. Publishing companies have bottom lines, have expenses, have staff, have myriad things that require cash flow, which is not a synonym for free.

With free being unacceptable to publishers, they can preserve themselves only by getting as close to free as they can. Ultimately, the questions are (a) how close is close? and (b) is that close enough?

The degradation of the publishing industry has ripples. The Agency 6, with the connivance of Apple, “created” an agency pricing scheme supposedly to preserve the value of ebooks (Apple’s reasons were different: competing with Amazon, rather than preserving ebook value). The market response has not been preservation of value.

With free as the selling price, much of what traditional publishing provided has had to be put to the side. For example, editing and proofreading, services traditionally associated with book publishers as part of the package provided to authors, become nonexistent. With no income, it becomes unjustifiable to spend, and previously required and desired editorial services become options that the author can pay for or not, with not generally being the response. (See, e.g., the discussions in, Is There a Future in Editing?, Competing with Free: eBooks vs. eBooks, and The Changing Face of Editing.)

So the degradation cycle begins: author writes a book that a traditional publisher declines to publish; author now has decisions to make: (1) Should author self-publish? (2) If author self-publishes, what should be the price of the book? (3) Should author pay out of pocket for professional editing and proofreading services? Increasingly the answers to the three questions are (1) yes; (2) free or 99¢; and (3) no.

With the flood of self-published, free/99¢, unedited ebooks, consumer expectations are changing. Consumers increasingly are looking at ebooks as commodities; traditional publishers are fighting to keep consumers thinking that an ebook is something unique. As a commodity, consumers are not overly bothered by lesser quality; they view an ebook as a throwaway item and expect the price to reflect that throwaway “quality.” Publishers, on the other hand, want consumers to view ebooks as unique because uniqueness can command a higher price.

Alas, in this battle of perspectives, publishers are their own worst enemy. For years publishers have been chopping away at the quality concept by focusing on the bottom line at the expense of everything else. If a publisher cannot offer a quality differential, then all the publisher is offering is a commodity and consumers are following the publishers’ lead in rushing to the bottom line — consumers want ebooks priced at a point that is below what publishers need to survive and still offer author advances.

By focusing so fiercely on cost cutting, publishers produce ebooks that are virtually indistinguishable in quality from those offered by self-publishers. Publishers themselves are establishing ebooks as commodities — just what they did not want to happen. To consumers, a commodity is a commodity is a commodity, and consumers recognize the difference between commodity and unique. The high ground that publishers want and need is being eroded by their own machinations.

The worst part for publishers, authors, and editors is that lower expectations on the part of consumers means loss of income for publishers, authors, and editors. No one will spend to create quality when lack of quality isn’t noticed.

We have now come to the crux of the publisher-created problem: No one will create quality when lack of quality isn’t noticed. For too long, publishers have been focused solely on quarterly shareholder returns and what services to reduce to squeeze out more profit. It was this squeezing that led to declining emphasis on editorial quality. (Consider the effects of offshoring; see, e.g., Editors in the Offshore World.) Publishers have spent years conditioning consumers to consider lesser quality as the norm.

It was this conditioning by publishers that led to consumer acceptance of self-published ebooks, especially at very low (and free) price levels. It was this conditioning by publishers that led to the change in perspective by consumers, from seeing books as unique to seeing books as commodities. At the root level, the fall of the necessary supports for traditional publishers is directly related to actions taken by traditional publishers. Unfortunately, the ripple effect that such publisher actions have unleashed, affects the entire publishing chain and does not bode well for the financial future of publishing.

Ewan Morrison may have written apocalyptically, but he did so with foresight.

August 12, 2011

Worth Noting: A Report on Overseas Outsourcing of Editorial Services

In February 2011, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) published a report on overseas outsourcing of editorial work. The report is well worth reading and keeping handy. Unfortunately, the response to the Society’s questionnaire was small. From the report:

In 2010, the SfEP asked members to report their experiences of this type of editorial outsourcing. More than 40 replied, giving us perspectives from freelance project managers, proofreaders and in-house desk editors, as well as freelance copy-editors who have seen their supply of work dry up and their income dwindle. The relevant parts of their replies are quoted and commented on in this report.

The complete report can be found here: What Price Quality? Overseas Outsourcing of Editorial Services.

July 11, 2011

On Words & eBooks: Will We Never Learn?

I no sooner published On Words & eBooks: What Does It Take?, my last article lamenting authors ignoring the need for professional editing before offering their ebooks for sale to the reading public, when, lo and behold, along comes yet another glaring example of poor editing: Walker’s Revenge by Brad Chambers.

Unlike some other ebooks, Chambers at least got the title right. Unfortunately, that is all he got right. Consider his description of the book — the text that is supposed to induce a reader to plunk down his or her $2.99, which will cause, if enough people plunk, Walker’s Revenge to rise on the indie bestseller list:

Dean Walker finds things for people. It doesn’t matter what it is he can find it. He doesn’t like being hired with a knife to his throat but the money makes it worth while. Not to mention finding out who the beautiful woman holding the knife is. Searching for a necklace from a two year old robbery sounds like a normal job, but finding the girl wearing it isn’t

Chambers doesn’t appear to understand either the purpose of punctuation or why choosing the correct word is so important. Consider the very first paragraph of the ebook, a paragraph that is in desperate need of professional editing:

Water splashed away from Dean’s boots as he walked down the dark alley. He was filled with frustration and didn’t care that he was getting his pants wet or that the bottom few inches of his long coat were soaked. All he could think about was Eve and the way she had thrown him out. She had screamed, “I never want to see you again!” so loudly he was sure the whole building must have heard and he hated that. He was a private person and didn’t want the world knowing his problems. He reached the end of the alley and turned up the wet street. Raising his head a little so he could see more than three feet in front of him, he dumped water off his hat and it went down his back. Great that makes me feel better, he thought. All he had done was be an hour late for their date. So what if he had spent the time with a woman. It was business and he had to see her or lose a lot of money. He had found what she was looking for and he needed to collect the money. That was how he made a living. Finding things for people. And she was mad at him for making a living. It wasn’t his fault the woman had shown her appreciation with a kiss. He smiled. It had been a good kiss too. If he had just remembered to wipe the lipstick off, he would be on his way out to dinner with Eve now.

I’m sold — on not buying this book! I’m also sold on the certainty that this book needs professional editing.

I know it seems as if I’m crying (I am), but I find it frustrating that (1) authors whose primary job is to communicate don’t know how to communicate, and (2) the people to whom the communication is directed don’t recognize when the message is a misfire. It also frustrates me that (3) neither side of the equation grasps the notion that miscommunication leads to misunderstanding, making both author and reader losers, and that (4) although everyone thinks they can be a competent editor, not everyone can.

An author’s stock in trade is words. If an author cannot use words to create a picture for the reader, to communicate a philosophy, to explain a difficult subject, to engage the reader in discourse, then the author has failed. Similarly, an editor’s stock in trade is a grasp of grammar and all that grammar entails — syntax, punctuation, spelling, word choice, etc.

A basic requirement is that the author (and the editor) must him- or herself be literate. The idea that word processing programs give everyone a license to become a published author or a professional editor is false. To compound that erroneous notion with the belief that the spell-checker in a word-processing program is the author and editor’s vehicle to literacy — the vehicle that will ensure proper spelling and word use — is to live in a fool’s world.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Most authors — and I daresay that means 99% of authors — need the help of a professional editor before launching themselves on the public. I’ve also said many times that one needs to be more than well-read to be a professional editor. At least among discerning readers, which I would venture are the readers who spend the most money on books, the surest way to be dismissed as an author and cut short one’s career is to ignore the need for professional editing.

Authors need to absorb the relationship lesson of Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process. The editor doesn’t displace the author; the editor complements the author. To complement the author positively, the editor needs to be well-grounded in the fundamentals of language, a grounding that is one of the key differences between an amateur and a professional editor.

Sadly, distributors like Smashwords simply are unwilling and/or unable to undertake any gatekeeping role. This isn’t part of their business model. Perhaps it should be. The Agency 6 opposed the $9.99 pricing threshold that Amazon was promoting, arguing that such a price would devalue their books. What do they think happens when they put out sloppily produced and edited ebooks at high prices and when they do nothing to help indie authors at least put out literate tomes?

If the Agency 6 are really interested in preventing ebooks from devaluing books, then perhaps they need to undertake an education program — aimed as much at themselves as at the indie author — that explains and convinces indie authors (and themselves) that the failure to have ebooks professionally edited and proofread, combined with flooding the Internet with the resulting drivel, hurts everyone in the reading chain — the traditional publisher, the author, and the reader.

In addition, the Agency 6 should promote true literacy in the schools, beginning with the teachers. It is insufficient to push children to read more; children need to be taught spelling, grammar, syntax — all the parts of communication — which means their teachers need to be educated first. Teachers cannot pass on to students what teachers themselves cannot grasp, and the evidence keeps mounting that today’s teachers have an insufficient grasp of literacy fundamentals. The more I see published books like LaVall McIvor’s So Your Afraid of Dieing, Andrew Cook’s A Crown of Thorns, and Brad Chambers’s Walker’s Revenge, the more convinced I am that literacy is dying in our schools. It also makes me wonder who will be the editors of tomorrow.

The decline of literacy in its multiple facets will continue as long as we sanction the idea that there are no minimal standards for authors to meet to be published — even self-published — and for editors to meet to be considered professional. As the availability of drivel increases, so will acceptance of drivel as the norm, until one day we realize that authors and readers are not only miscommunicating, but are not communicating at all!

June 29, 2011

The Editorial World — Will it Pass Editors By?

In a few months, I will be presenting again at a Communication Central conference, Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century, which is scheduled for September 30-October 1 in Baltimore, MD. This year, I not only speak about making money as an editor and marketing, I also am giving the keynote address, which is a prediction on what the editing world will be like in 2015. Knowing that I have committed myself to speaking, I have begun thinking about how my editorial world continues to change and whether I and my colleagues are cognizant of the changes going on about us and are adapting to the changes.

The true impetus for my giving thought to this question was an article in the May 7, 2011 The Economist titled “A Less Gilded Future,” whose theme, interestingly, was repeated in a June 3, 2011 New York Times article “Where Lawyers Find Work.” (As an aside, although the New York Times’ article contents are identical, the titles are different for the print and online versions. I have used the print title.)

Editors have been facing the outsourcing problem (in which outsourcing = offshoring) for years now; doctors have been facing the phenomenon in recent years; and now lawyers. Offshoring seems to be moving up the food chain. Of great interest to me is that the offshoring for each of the three markets is to the same geographic area, largely India.

If doctors and lawyers are facing this phenomenon, what hope is there for editors to reverse the longstanding offshoring trend? I guess we could become plumbers and electricians because you do have to be on the spot to fix a plugged toilet or wire a new wall outlet.

As with all major problems, there is no easy solution. Entry to the medical and legal fields is, relative to entry to the editorial field, very difficult — perhaps comparable to a climb up Mount Hood versus a walk across an open, flat meadow. The ease of entry into the editorial field compounds the offshoring problem for editors. After all, what does it really take to hang out a shingle and say “I’m an editor and open for business!”?

(For some interesting data regarding editors in the United States, see Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2010: 27-3041 Editors from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

The freelance editorial profession — developmental editors, copyeditors, technical editors, proofreaders — in the United States has multiple failings as regards self-preservation. One, of course, is that there is no organization that looks out for the political and financial interests of editors (this was the subject of an earlier article, Who Speaks for the Freelance Editor?), a lobbying group dedicated to improving the business life of the freelance editor. The organizations that do exist are socially oriented, generally of local interest, not well-managed, and the core members who exert control are rarely interested in looking out for the political and financial welfare of the profession as opposed to having a social outlet for themselves.

The consequence is that freelance editors think and speak the party line of having become a freelance editor to be free of corporate bondage, to be able to set one’s own work hours and schedule, to live free and work free — and all of the other trite pap that we can think of as justification for working outside the corporate box. Oh, I hear you screaming at me already — “Trite pap! How wrong you are.” And the reasons follow.

Alas, it is pap unless you are one of the fortunate few who can view working as a freelance editor as a hobby — the extra income is nice but not really needed. It pays for a fancier vacation or car, but is not necessary for putting bread on the table or for paying bills.

I’ve been in the business — and yes, freelance editing is a business and needs to be treated as a business — since 1984, although some days it seems like forever. In my case, editorial work was/is needed to put bread on the table and to pay household bills. It wasn’t/isn’t supplemental income, it is primary income — always has been and always will be — which means that I need to watch trends and adapt my business to those trends, or see my business shrivel and die.

Because my editorial business is my primary income, I cannot emulate the ostrich and hope that today’s negative trends will suddenly reverse themselves and become positive trends for me on their own. If anything, I need to push them in the direction I want to go and if I can’t do that, then I need to rework my business to account for the trends.

Most editors don’t view freelance editing through the same lens I view it. Most editors I know will defend until their economic death the status quo, the idea that they chose to become a freelance editor to be free of all corporate bonds, to be wholly independent, to be … whatever. I think that to survive one needs to alter how one thinks about freelance editing.

The result of offshoring has been a depression in freelance wages and jobs for the homegrown freelance editor. Jobs haven’t wholly dried up; rather, they have changed and the source of the jobs has changed. Whereas in 1984 domestic publishers needed freelance editors and hired them directly at a relatively decent rate of pay, in 2010 most of those domestic publishers have been absorbed into a few mega corporations who are outsourcing (offshoring) editorial work because they view it in the same global dimensions as they view accounting. The accounting thinking is that rules of profit and loss are the same regardless of location.

Unfortunately, that global accounting thinking is also being applied to editorial processes. It is true that at some level one can think globally about the editorial process, but it is not true at most levels. Although English is the most universally used and taught language, it is not a universal language in the sense that, for example, rules of grammar, spelling, conventions, and idioms are universal. Yet publishing conglomerates act as if English is no different in Britain than in Australia, in America than in India. And this hurts local editors by denying the editors opportunities to ply their trade.

The result is that accountants cannot see the value in hiring local when hiring nonlocal can be so much less expensive. So the editorial work is farmed out to nonlocal low bidders who now have to hire local talent to fulfill the contract but do so on a depressed wage scale. It is the imposition of the nonlocal wage scale on the local talent that ultimately is the problem, and most editors simply throw up their hands in surrender to “the inevitable.”

And this why I wonder whether the future editorial world will pass editors by. Adaptation to the current offshoring and its depression-level economics is not a viable solution. A viable solution would be one that makes it uneconomical to offshore what should be local, just as it is uneconomical to hire a nonlocal plumber to unclog your kitchen sink. Will editors come up with such a viable solution or will the editorial world pass us by? That is the question that must be answered in the near-term by local editors everywhere.

April 11, 2011

On Words & eBooks: What Does It Take?

In past articles, I have spoken of the need for indie authors to use professional editors (see, e.g., On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)). Alas, there is always an excuse for not using them. A little more than a year ago, in On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! I talked about the problems that readers often face when confronted with an unedited or nonprofessionally edited book. This topic has been repeatedly discussed in numerous blogs and on numerous forums — almost discussed to death.

Yet, here we go again.

A few days ago, I was looking at what new-release ebooks were available at Smashwords. I found a couple of doozies. Try this one, first: So Your Afraid of Dieing by LaVall McIvor, for which the author wants $4.99, and which the author describes as follows:

Everyone dies, what happens after we die. Is that the end of who and what we are? I have had two NDE’s and I can tell you there is more to ‘us’ than just the physical life we live on this world. I only lay out my experiences, what you believe to be true concerning an afterlife is up to you to decide.

Setting aside the “your” problem, does “dieing” mean dying as in death or dyeing as in coloring? OK, I get the gist and realize death is meant, but why should I have to guess or assume?

So I checked the sample to see if the title was an anomaly. Here is the first paragraph of the book:

Probably the single most commonality of all of us, is knowing that someday in the future this physical life will end. But what happens when we die, are we just consumed by the elements, is that the end of it? If you are a religious person, you have been ‘taught’ that if you live a good life doing no evil, you (your soul) will be rewarded with eternal life in ‘Heaven’. If you are an atheist, you may believe there is no ‘afterlife’, that when your body dies, that is the end of who and what you are. I was of the latter persuasion until I had two NDE’s (Near Death Experiences).

Then, as I was reeling from the title, the author’s description of the book, and the first paragraph, I came across A Crown of Thorns by Andrew Cook, for which the author wants $2. Cook describes his book as follows:

When the Spencer’s arrive at Millbridge, Virginia meets Rector Byrnes, beginning an emotionally charged and passionate relationship. Rev Byrnes is in a vulnerable position struggling with his wife’s inner demons, and his own loss of faith, and with no one to confide. Virginia is consumed with hatred towards God but they find comfort in each other’s weakness with dramatic consequences.

Tell me: Is the location Millbridge, Virginia or is it Virginia who arrives at Millbridge? No matter because within the first few paragraphs of the book, we find this:

The reason I am writing this is because I want to remember all my thoughts this morning, for it is remarkable to me that it should be this morning that I was again allowing myself the shameful thoughts of death, my own death in fact, while appreciating at the same time the pleasure and beauty of life. The green rolling hills that overlooked the cemetery and continued for miles, the bright blue sky as though painted that morning by an artist, devoid of cloud, the flowers dancing in the breeze celebrating the arrival of spring. It was a day to celebrate life, not to contemplate death. But perhaps I was not considering death in the physical sense. There are many types of death. This morning I once again felt as though my soul had died and I had paled once again into insignificance. If one died emotionally, what would be left? Without love people wither like flowers starved of water.

I am afraid to venture further into either book.

Tell me, what does it take to convince authors that there is a reason why professional editors exist and why they are hired to go over a manuscript before it is published? Would you willingly pay $4.99 or $2 for either ebook?

What these two ebooks vividly demonstrate is that the combination of the Internet Age and easy self-publishing — without any gatekeeping (i.e., vetting of the manuscript, which is the role agents and traditional publishers have played) — has turned everyone who wants to be an author into a published author. Yet too many of these wanna-be-published authors are unwilling to accept the responsibilities that accompany publishing, particularly the hiring of a professional editor.

Sadly, I expect both of these authors to sell copies of their ebooks. Even more sadly, I expect that those who buy their ebooks won’t (and don’t) recognize the grammar and spelling problems that are in the ebooks, nor that the ebooks have not been edited — professionally or otherwise — by someone with at least minimal competency.

Companies like Smashwords have done a great favor to both readers and wanna-be authors. They make distribution to the normal book-buying channels possible. Yet, at the same time, they fail both readers and wanna-be authors because they do no vetting of manuscripts at all. These distribution platforms do us no service when they reinforce illiteracy, which is the effect of making such drivel widely available.

I realize that we are early in the evolution of ebooks, but the time to address basic issues is now, not later when the problems become so entrenched that they are insurmountable. Although the distributors need to share in the blame for permitting this drivel to see daylight, those of us who are professional editors also have a responsibility to reach out and educate authors. In this endeavor, we are failing as evidenced by these two ebooks and by the overall decrease in grammar and spelling skills in younger generations (see The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills).

Professional editors need to better explain our role to authors before we have no role to play at all (see Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process).

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