Here’s the tough question: Is there a future for freelance editors in the ebook Age? To which we can add this question: If there is, what kind of future will it be?
There are few things that freelance editors can be certain of, but here are some of those few things:
- Every day our numbers increase as increasing numbers of people turn to freelance editing as either a full-time career or for a second income
- Every day colleagues, including those with years of experience, are trying to find in-house work and give up freelancing
- Every day there are fewer jobs available for a larger pool of editors
- Every day another author or publisher decides that editing can be bypassed because readers simply don’t care
- Every day another editor lowers his or her price, reducing the value of professional editing and making it harder for the professional editor to earn a living wage
We also know that there is no true professional organization for freelance editors that is actively seeking to lobby on our behalf or to find new employment opportunities for us. And we also know that computers were the first modern revolution in our business, the Internet was the second, and ebooks will be the third.
We’ve got trouble right here in edit city!
eBooks are bringing a new kind of revolution to freelance editing as a consequence of the direct-from-author’s-computer-to-Internet model that some publishers and many authors are adopting.
Editors have always faced the problem of authors and publishers being unwilling or unable to pay our fee and of authors and publishers doing without our services, with authors instead asking friends and neighbors to give the manuscript a once-over. But his has become more common and more problematic with the advent of ebooks and the proliferation of the belief that anyone can be an editor (and anyone can be an author).
The underlying problem, I think, is acceptance of the good-enough standard for publishing in lieu of the much higher threshold that existed when I first began my editorial career more than a quarter-century ago. This lower standard is a combination of industry consolidation, ease of access via the Internet, increased competition, and a desire to lower costs, with intangible costs, such as editing, being a prime target for cutting. I’ve even heard one publisher say that paying for editing is a waste of money because most readers don’t know the difference between whole and hole. Based on some of the ebooks I have read, I’m not sure that publisher doesn’t have a point (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!).
The good-enough standard is rapidly becoming the de facto standard for editing. When I started as an editor, my role was strictly limited to editing. I was expected to be careful and thorough and focused like a laser on copyediting. As time passed, the laser focus became more of a shotgun focus and other jobs became part of the expectations. And then came the need for speed. Not only was I expected to do more work for less money, but I was expected to do it faster. Where at one time a page rate of 3 to 4 pages an hour was the expectation, today the expectation is often 10 to 12 pages an hour, sometimes coupled with the request for a “heavy edit.” And where in the beginning I could expect a yearly increase in my fee, now many publishers are unwilling to pay more than they paid in 1995, yet demand more work be done for that pay than they demanded in 1995.
The good-enough standard is both the rationale and the justification for bypassing the editor. As this becomes the actual standard against which an ebook is judged, the expectations of the reader also become less — soon the reader accepts whole when hole is meant, seen when scene is meant. And as this happens, authors and publishers sell their work for less, almost as if dumbing-down readers and lower pricing are handcuffed together.
The ripple effect is that as reader quality expectations decline along with a concurrent lowering of price, there is both less need and less money available for editing, which ripples into less editing being done and declining work for editors. Admittedly, the other scenario is that more authors and publishers will have money available for editing and will want editing services but at a price that parallels the sales price of their ebook. This is equally devastating to freelance editors because there is a point at which one cannot afford to work as an editor.
eBooks are the great field opener for authors and publishers but, I fear, they will be the harbinger of doom for freelance editing as a profession for skilled editors. It is a never-ending downward spiral whose downward thrust is reinforced by the incessant consumer demand for lower pricing.
I’m open to suggestions on how to reverse the trend, but I think the future for freelance editors in the eBook Age — at least from the current view — is bleak. The need for ebooks to be professionally edited isn’t changing (see, e.g., Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1); Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2); For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed; and other related articles under the tag Professional Editors), only the opportunities for professional editors to do that work and earn a living wage.