In the news in recent days have been articles about worker problems at Foxconn’s China factories (where Apple and Dell products are made) and about Chinese workers striking for better work conditions and pay — something one would never have expected to read about following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. More recently, there was an article about the inability of Chinese factories to hire younger Chinese workers who prefer not to work than to work for “slave” wages and under “slave” conditions.
Although not directly related to editing or to American editors, I do think these are a precursor of what we will see in coming years in other rapidly developing countries, such as India — the places to which publishers are currently flocking to get editorial and production services at significantly lower costs. I think that the financial class divide that exists in these countries, which is what enables the significantly lower prices, is rapidly being threatened by the interconnectedness that the Internet Age has brought to the world.
Although today is not a great time, compensation wise, to be an American freelance editor, the tides may be turning. I’ve noticed an increase in complaints about editing quality and an increase in requests from offshore book packagers to hire American editor services for American book projects. Counterbalancing this trend, however, is the increase in people who are claiming to be professional freelance editors and who are willing to work for the 80¢ a page that is being offered, for what amounts to a developmental edit rather than a copyedit (for a discussion of types of editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor).
Recently, this was brought home to me as I was hired to reedit a project that supposedly had been edited by a “professional” editor. The client ended up paying twice for the same work, and although the client got a bargain with the first editor — at least fiscally for editorial services — it turned out to be not much of a bargain when my fees were added to the pile.
But, as I began this post, the awakening of other editors around the world to what constitutes a fair wage can only harbor good things for American editors. Although we have lost our price competitiveness in recent years, the cycle is changing.
I was reviewing my company’s financial history a few weeks back in preparation for a discussion I will be participating in, and was struck by how price conscious publishers have become as a result of consolidation in the publishing industry. In the early years of my 26-year career, I could bank on a yearly fee increase; perhaps not a large increase, but an increase nonetheless. That seems to have ended in the mid-1990s.
I think the culprit is consolidation into megapublishers whose tentacles reach worldwide. The accounting departments, which justifiably look to the bottom line, see that they can pay an editor in country Y $1.50 a page and thus think that editors in country Z who want $3 a page are overpriced. There is little recognition of the differences between Y and Z and no consideration of the experience and knowledge of the individual editor.
The other trend, besides no fee increases since the mid-1990s, is the pressure to lower prices. Publishers seem to need (or want) to increase profit margins at the expense of editorial, probably because they think — and perhaps correctly — that most readers won’t notice if editing is lacking, but it is harder to do away with the typesetting and printing.
Of course, as with everything else there are countermeasures to each of these trends. The question becomes, however, how willing are freelance editors to take those countermeasures. From what I have seen so far, few are willing to do so, preferring to complain and struggle than to find a workable solution.