An American Editor

August 19, 2010

Great Expectations: A Recipe for Disappointment

I once had a client who would take my copyedited manuscript and re-copyedit it, send it back to me with marginal notes about “mistakes and errors,” and a demand that I re-re-copyedit the manuscript. Back then — which was a very, very long time ago, when I was in my editing infancy and didn’t know better — I did as I was asked (which was expected by the client to be at no charge) only to have the client send me another missive, complaining about my “corrections” to the client’s “errors and misses.”

I learned very quickly that this was a client meant for someone else, not for me, perhaps for an editor with a masochistic streak. The problem was that the client had great expectations, a tiny budget, and an inability to clone — a clear recipe for disappointment. In addition, the client assumed, and incorrectly in this instance, a superior knowledge of the rules of grammar and spelling. It also didn’t help that many of the “errors” about which the client complained were either judgment calls or problems of development that a developmental editor should resolve, not a copyeditor. (For a discussion of the differences between development editing and copyediting, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.)

The issue comes to the fore again because of a recent discussion I had with a colleague about editing quality. My colleague’s view is that regardless of how little one is paid and regardless of the parameters of the job one is hired to do, it is the editor’s responsibility to provide as near to perfection an edit as possible — doesn’t matter if you are hired to copyedit; if the manuscript requires a developmental edit, then that is what you are supposed to give it. My colleague’s clients have come to expect this extraordinary level of work from him, and thus when he submitted an edited manuscript that hadn’t reached that level, he received a negative missive from his client. Yet, if you looked at his work in light of the pay he received and the parameters of the job for which he was hired, he actually gave them better than should have received.

There is a disconnect between clients and editors that seems to be growing. Client staff are often less experienced and less-well trained as editors than the editors they hire. Their roles, too, are often significantly different, with the in-house person being primarily responsible for project management, not for actual editorial work. But expectations of in-house staff are often unrelated to the editor’s business realities. (I should note that the client could just as easily be an author rather than a publisher and my comments should be viewed as applying equally to both.)

Everyone involved needs to sit back and rethink their expectations. Everyone needs to recognize that there is no such thing as “perfection” in the editing world. Each person who reads a manuscript will read it differently and find different errors. Every hand that touches a manuscript will fix some errors and risks introducing new errors. It’s all because we are human and come to these tasks from different perspectives. It is also because of phenomena like the WYSIWYG conundrum (see The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud) and differences in how completely an editor adheres to rigid rules of style (see Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance).

To say that the rate of pay isn’t an influence is to view the world through blinders. The editorial product is really no different from any other commodity in the sense that the more you pay the better quality you get. How can one realistically expect “perfection” at a less-than-minimum-wage rate? (See Publishers vs. Editors & the Bottom Line: Readers are the Losers and I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors.)

Pay is a real problem in the editing world. Because no one ever remarks (except an editor) after reading a well-written, well-edited book, “the editor must have been fantastic” (instead, the comment usually is “what a great author”), but does remark after reading a poorly written/edited book, “didn’t they hire an editor” or “what a lousy editing job,” clients tend to pay little respect to the editing process, which lack of respect is reflected in the race to the pay bottom. Consequently, problems such as those discussed in On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! occur.

Editors are in business to make a living (read “profit”) and so must balance client expectations against real-world realities. Clients, on the other hand, are focused on their own profits, which can be affected by poor craftsmanship, and thus want the most bang they can get for their buck. And that is where the disconnect is: the editor’s balance versus the client’s bang for the buck — they are not in equilibrium.

This disequilibrium is now beginning to hit the publishing world in great force. eBooks have become a great leveler. eBooks make author work more quickly and readily accessible to a larger audience, which makes editorial errors more glaring and noticed by an ever-increasing number of readers. Books that might have sold 100 copies in print can easily sell thousands as low-cost ebooks. Where the audience of 100 may have been forgiving of error, if not oblivious to it, within the audience of thousands there will be some who are less forgiving and more vocal about errors.

Somehow the disequilibrium between the editor’s balance and the client’s expectations must come into balance and it needs to be done sooner rather than later. Clients need to recognize that to get better editing, they need to hire better editors and that better editors, as is true in all professions, command higher prices. Clients need to rethink the idea that one price fits all, and learn to balance their expectations against what they are willing to pay. Otherwise, their great expectations will continue to be a sure recipe for disaster.

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