Editing has come a long way, baby! All the way from being a local skill set to an anywhere-anytime-anyone skill set. How many times has a neighbor said to you: “I just finished reading XYZ and spotted 3 errors. I could have been an editor!”? That the neighbor missed 200 other glaring errors is beside the point — that everyone thinks he or she can be an editor is the point. And that publishers think that anyone anywhere can edit a book for a local audience is also the point.
No matter where you go in this world you will find the same two editorial classes: those who can edit and those who can’t. Pick a country — doesn’t matter which one — and you’ll find the two classes. So the problem isn’t that the local country has a monopoly on good editors; the problem is more intricate than that.
Editors are a reading class, or a class of readers. Editors tend to be book lovers — why else would one want to wade through some of the drivel editor’s see? As book lovers, editors (as a class) tend to spend a larger proportion of their earnings on reading material than noneditors (as a class). But as editors’ incomes decline, so does the amount of money that they can spend on reading material. And let’s face it — no matter how you slice and dice it, an editor in Ukraine is unlikely to be a large consumer of books for the American audience, just as the American editor is unlikely to be a big consumer of books for the Ukrainian market.
How, you ask, does this relate to offshoring? Think about the books we buy in the United States. When a book refers to “Appalachian-level poverty,” the U.S. reader understands the metaphor. Would the Indian or Australian reader understand its symbolism? (Yes, we can all point to the one or two U.S. folk who wouldn’t understand and to the one or two Indians or Australians who would — let’s not get quite so picky.) Would the Indian or Australian editor understand the connotations of equating living in, say, Los Angeles with living in the Mississippi Delta?
This isn’t a one-way street. There is much I wouldn’t know or understand about a metaphor relating to a French or German localism that the French or German reader and editor would understand immediately. And offshoring affects the German editor, the Australian editor, the British editor, as much as it affects the American editor. The Internet has made us all vulnerable to offshoring. Also remember this: Today’s offshore choice is likely to find itself scrambling within a decade as some other place becomes the new cheap heaven.
When a publisher offshores editorial work, the publisher not only raises editorial problems because of localisms but also deprives a portion of its audience of the means to buy the book. It is a circle of quality plus buying power. It is true that publishers offshore to save immediate costs but at the penalty of lost future sales.
Of course, those of us who earn our livelihoods as editors know that when the publisher offshores, the publisher really is not offshoring a single part of the editorial and production cycle. What the publisher does is offshore the whole editorial-production package to a “packager.” The packager then re-offshores the editorial work by trying to hire local editors, that is editors local to the country where the book will be published.
The problem isn’t the offshoring to the packager who then re-offshores back to the local country; the problem is that the packager has cut a deal with the devil in order to get the original work. The publisher offshores to cut editorial-production costs; the packager promises reduced editorial-production costs; the packager cannot provide the editorial part in its own locale so it re-offshores the editorial work. But because of the promised savings, the packager has to short-change something and so it short-changes editorial.
Editors in the United States saw this in practice not too many months ago when a mass e-mail was sent by an offshore packager looking for experienced STM (science, technical, and medical) editors to edit book and journal manuscripts, saying: “We’re dealing with International clients only so they need very high standard of Quality and on time delivery so there will not be any compromise on these front. [sic]” In addition to the “high standard of Quality” editing, the packager required “a Non-competent [sic] agreement between us.”
A high-quality edit of STM material is time-consuming, and experienced STM editors know that such a requirement means a churn rate of about 5 manuscript pages an hour. Add in the requirement of a noncompete agreement and an editor would think the fee would be a reasonable one. Alas, this packager offered “Copyediting – $0.80 per page,” which meant that the editor would earn $4.00 an hour, slightly more than half of U.S. minimum wage.
This packager’s pricing was a bit extreme but not by much. This was my — and every editor who received the e-mail’s — Appalachian-level poverty moment.
I don’t know how many U.S. editors this packager ultimately was able to hire at this rate, but if I were a publisher who cut the deal with this packager, I sure would wonder about the work quality and the skill set of the hired editors. Of course, it also makes me wonder what the rate would be for nonspecialty editing or for inexperienced editors.
Offshoring of editorial functions to packagers because of a combined low package price is problematic on multiple levels. If publishers indirectly cause the demise of the local editorial class, they are also causing the demise of a significant segment of their buyers. If the editorial quality remains consistently poor, something we are seeing in ebooks, and which is creeping up in pbooks, people will ultimately become so frustrated with the reading experience that they will rebel at paying for it. If I have to suffer through a poorly edited book, I may as well suffer through one that cost me nothing — something that is increasingly seen with ebooks. Publishers and authors can protest low pricing claiming their products are valuable, but the marketplace, as offshoring of editorial work continues, may well view the products as worth nearly nothing.
I am reminded of what happened after World War II with the rise of the Japanese economic empire. Made in Japan became synonymous with very cheap and mediocre to poor quality; made in America was equated with expensive and high quality. But books in American English don’t carry a label that says “edited in Somalia” so readers assume — often incorrectly — that the editing — good, bad, or indifferent — was done by local editors (assuming it was edited at all). Perhaps books should be required to carry origin labels just like other products.
Books aren’t like TVs. Book editing requires a more intangible skill set than does assembling a TV; it requires knowledge and decision-making prowess. It is not repeatedly putting the same part in the same place. Although some aspects of editing can be automated, there still needs to be a decision maker who can decide between “know” and “no.”
Offshoring affects editors everywhere because economies rise and fall and today’s cheap labor becomes tomorrow’s expensive labor, so today’s editors who receive the offshored jobs will tomorrow find their jobs offshored. It also affects publishers everywhere. It is their need to produce localized books to sell to the local market at a price the local market will bear for quality that the market expects that is being jeopardized.
There is no easy answer, but with book prices climbing, editorial quality needs to keep pace. Perhaps the answer is to standardize the world’s languages into a single language with no localisms permitted.