An American Editor

May 5, 2010

Thinking About Pay: Is a New Model Needed?

The current method by which book editors, designers, and illustrators, for example, get paid is hourly, by the page or illustration, or by the project. In other words, do the work and get a check.

And as the economy contracts, and as the traditional publishing world contracts, an increasing number of people join the ranks of freelance editors, designers, and illustrators, making their services available and putting additional strain on the pay scale because of their willingness to work for significantly less just to get work.

As wonderful a system as the free enterprise/freelance system is, the living wage pay scale has been put under pressure by publisher cutbacks and offshoring. Increasingly, editors, designers, and illustrators find more competition for less work at a lower rate of pay. I read recently where a person had graduated law school and when asked about job prospects, replied that he wasn’t worried because before becoming a lawyer he became a plumber. As he noted, you can offshore a thinking job, but it is hard to offshore a hands-on job like plumbing.

That got me thinking. I’m too old to start a career as a plumber, so perhaps a different pay model is the answer for intellectual endeavors. What if instead of a one-time payment for our work, editors, designers, illustrators — the whole intellectual and creative supply chain — received a “nominal” fee plus a percentage of sales?

The problem is that sales could be Harry Potterish, in which case I could be a millionaire, or it could be more typical  — less than 5,000 copies, perhaps even less than 500 copies, in which event I would starve. And if the freelancer’s focus was on specialty nonfiction, the freelancer could be in the same bind as scholarly publishers — seeking a way to keep the lights on.

eBooks exacerbate the problem to the extent that ebooks let anyone with a computer become an author-publisher, that is, someone who goes direct from computer to Internet. That route bypasses editors, designers, and illustrators. The usual reason given for that direct-to-reader approach is cost — and that is wholly understandable: How may authors are willing to gamble their own money on their own book’s success? For us service providers, the answer is too few.

And gambling it is because it is difficult to get noticed when your book is just one of 1 million. As is true in most of the creative arts, few artists (used broadly) earn enough money from their artistic endeavors to give up the day job. Yet for us freelance service providers, whose day job is editorial and production services, there is a large untapped market just waiting — and desperately needing — our skills.

It is this problem — How do I connect with those who have need of my skills but who are reluctant to pay for them from their own pocket in such a manner that the connection benefits both of us? — that forces freelancers to be creative and flexible in how they get paid. I grant that I have yet to come up with a good solution, but there has to be a better one than none.

If we do not find a solution, eventually we may find ourselves without work altogether. As is true of tossing a pebble into a pool of water, failure to find a solution has rippling effects.

One of the ripples will be the acceptance of “good enough” as the standard for a book. As it is, too many ebooks are poorly written from nearly every perspective — grammar, spelling, plot, characterization — and working downward toward the good enough standard will make these poor ebooks the norm and the expected. Once it is accepted that misspelling (e.g., making brake and break synonymous) and bad grammar do not matter as long as the book is priced right and can be waddled through, authors and publishers will decide to save costs by doing nothing more than is necessary to meet the good-enough standard.

As noted earlier, we are in a race to the bottom in terms of fees. Yes, some of us continue to earn high fees for our services, but that number of us is declining. As our ranks swell with people willing to work for decreasing amounts of money, those who continue to earn higher fees will be under pressure to lower their fees. It’s simply a truth of the free market in which price dominates all else — experience and skill take a backseat to cost containment. But if we could find a new way to be paid for working with independent authors, we could open a whole new world of clients while helping to stave off the collapse of spelling and grammar.

So how do we compete in a very competitive world? There must be a model that would work well, providing publishers, authors, and us with incentives and rewards. I just don’t know what it is. What ideas do you have?

1 Comment »

  1. […] and production services to publishers and authors. This is reprinted, with permission, from his An American Editor […]

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    Pingback by Thinking About Pay: Is a New Model Needed? | The Digital Reader — May 6, 2010 @ 12:25 pm | Reply


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