An American Editor

December 10, 2010

Missing the Editorial Boat

Here’s the question of the decade — at least for us editors: Are editors missing the editorial boat?

I can hear you mumbling “what in heck is he talking about?” I’m talking about the changes that have occurred in editorial work between the 1970s and the 2000s and whether editors are still stuck in LP mode while the rest of the world has moved to CDs and MP3s.

In the 1970s (and before, as well as into the early 1980s) most of the larger U.S. publishers were American owned and had a stable of freelance American editors that they called on. In addition, the Internet was still being birthed and the world was a far away place. This invited and encouraged many of us to give up corporate jobs, especially low-paying publishing jobs, and become our own bosses. And many freelancers touted on any number of forums that they were free and would never work for someone else as an employee again.

Yet the world moved on. Many of the American publishers bought other American publishers and eventually were absorbed into even larger conglomerates who were based in Europe. These American publishers now had different masters with different outlooks. No longer was the outlook American centric; it became global and increasingly driven by the need to increase short-term returns for global investors.

Many experienced editors who have worked through these decades have commented on the changes seen in editorial quality as the push came to lower costs and increase profits. Where American publishers hired American editors at reasonable rates in the beginning, the pressures created by bottom-line thinking changed that so that publishers increasingly were no longer hiring editors directly but outsourcing the complete production cycle. The rise of the packager.

Packagers, who now dominate the editorial process, get their business by providing a low-price bid to a publisher that includes the complete production package — editing, composition, and even printing. Yet these packagers usually only do the latter two functions in-house; they outsource to freelance editors the editorial aspects.

All of this is OK until one thinks about how the packager’s bid is aligned. If the packager outsources the editorial function but keeps in-house the rest of the production process, the packager, like other businesses, wants to maximize the profit of the in-house work and minimize the loss of the outsourced work. Yet the packager has to create an attractive price to win the publisher’s work. So the method is to externally provide a bundle price but internally separate out an allocation to outsourced and the in-house functions.

The result is that minimal sums, as minimal as can be gotten away with, are allocated to the outsourced editorial function. And of the sum allocated, the packager keeps a portion as its profit, as packagers are unwilling to either take a loss or simply break even on any facet of the work.

So with this going on in the background, what changes have been seen in the world of freelance editors? As I look at my colleagues, what I see is exactly the same approach to business today as was the approach in the 1980s. In this regard, I think editors are missing the editorial boat.

Yes, we have changed in that we now work using computers rather than editing on paper, but that really isn’t much of a change. It’s like changing from goose quills to ballpoint pens — the tool has changed but not the approach. But even that change is only a partial change. Most freelancers have rudimentary knowledge of the tools they use and refuse to spend any money on tools that are not absolutely required.

The largest hurdle that freelancers have to surmount is the idea that working alone is the way to work. Packagers have gained their stranglehold because they offer a single stop for a publisher. The publisher’s costs are reduced because the packager handles all of the production aspects and the publisher no longer needs to maintain high staff levels. Freelancers need to learn and adopt the packager lesson: Freelancers need to think in terms of working as a group and offering their services as a competitive group. Freelancers need to make themselves attractive to publishers by becoming low cost-low maintenance yet high-quality service providers.

If freelancers think downward price pressure is a burden now, the further behind the editorial boat leaves us, the greater the downward pressure will become, especially as editorial skills are increasingly thought of as a commodity.

Something to think about as we contemplate our editorial futures, and something to address in the new year.


Blog at

%d bloggers like this: