An American Editor

January 28, 2010

Publishers vs. Editors & the Bottom Line: Readers are the Losers

In 1966, William Baumol and William Bowen described the economics of the performing arts. The point of their study was that some sectors of an economy have high labor costs because they tend not to benefit from increased efficiency. Baumol and Bowen illustrated this proposition using a 1787 Mozart string quintet: that quintet required 5 musicians and a set amount of playing time in 1787 and today still requires 5 musicians and the same amount of playing time.

Like Mozart’s quintet, there is a limited amount of efficiency that can be gotten in the editorial process. A 500-page manuscript still needs to be read page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word, when edited.

Years ago the reading was done on paper with pencil and editors used a limited number of markings to signify elements of the manuscript, such as a chapter title or a bulleted list. Today, the coding has become more complex and most manuscripts are read on a computer. But editing is still as labor intensive today as it was 25 or 50 or 100 years ago. Perhaps even more labor intensive as editors have assumed responsibilities that they didn’t have back then, such as removing author inserted styling. And some publishers now want editors to use XML codes and advanced, expensive software like InCopy. Editors are now doing much of the work that typesetters did as near ago as the 1980s, in addition to dealing with issues of grammar, spelling, syntax, and organization. (For a discussion of what an editor does, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.)

Yet, unlike other labor-intensive professions such as nursing, garbage collection, and teaching, wages for editors haven’t grown; instead, they have declined. (Imagine paying a nurse or a teacher today what they were paid in 1995, let alone what they were paid in 1985 or 1975.) In fact, in contrast to what would be expected in the normal course of events, publishers have decided to make editors their sacrificial lambs on the altar of quarterly profits and are now paying rates that are the same as they paid in 1984 or, in some cases, less, while demanding that more work be done in a shorter timeframe.

One book packager (a packager is a company hired by a publisher to handle most or all aspects of the editorial and production phases of publishing a book) recently solicited experienced American editors to do high-quality editing (and wanted a no competition agreement, too!) in the medical field. High-quality medical editing is slow and careful, with editing at a rate of 3 to 5 manuscript pages an hour the norm, especially if the mansucript requires a “heavy” edit. In exchange for the editor’s effort, the packager offered a rate of 80 cents a page, or $2.40 to $4.00 an hour — not even minimum wage let alone a wage commensurate with the skill and knowledge levels required for this kind of editing. Would you want your doctor to rely on such a low-quality book to prescribe your medications?

Not all publishers or packagers pay such a miserly sum, but this packager doesn’t stand alone.  In fact, this packager is surrounded by myriad other packagers and publishers who pay poverty-inducing wages. Such low offers are increasingly being seen by American professional editors.

Who loses when editors are hired at such poverty-inducing rates? The book buyer loses because it means that an unskilled editor will be hired to do a very cursory editing job. When you buy a book that is riddled with errors, an increasingly common occurrence these days, put the blame squarely where it belongs: on the shoulders of the publishers who have lost any sense of pride in the quality of their books.

As with any profession, editors deserve a fair wage for their skill and knowledge, with specialized skills deserving higher compensation. Publishers have lost the book buyer’s trust because of high price with low quality. One way to regain buyer’s trust is to raise quality. To raise quality, a publisher needs to hire experienced, skilled editors at a fair rate of compensation.

The hue and cry for quarterly profits doesn’t mean that costs should be contained regardless of what is sacrificed. Rather, it means that publishers must change their business model and become more efficient in those areas where efficiencies can be obtained. Editing is not one of those areas because a lower price for editing does not equate with higher efficiency or quality. Editing is labor intensive — a computer cannot take over an editor’s work. Someday publishers and packagers will realize that false economies are a sure path to extinction.

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