An American Editor

December 13, 2010

Missing the Editorial Boat Redux

I received several private comments regarding my Missing the Editorial Boat article, with all demonstrating that the primary point is being missed.

What is it that packagers offer American publishers? They offer (1) complete (or near complete) production services at a price that is less than what it would cost the American publisher to do the same work in-house and (2) convenience. It appears that readers grasped the first concept but not the second, yet it is the second that is the most important for editorial freelancers.

Traditionally, an in-house production editor would have x number of books that he or she would have to shepherd through the production process in a year. As the publishing industry consolidated in the 1990s, the in-house production editor’s workload increased. Instead of having to occasionally hire a freelance editor, for example, hiring freelance editors became the norm, a necessity even — yet the in-house production editor had to monitor each hired freelancer’s work. What happened is that the role played by the in-house editor changed from editing to managing.

This workload increased greatly as the years passed and the demand for more profit by the parent company had to be met. It reached a point where the in-house production editor could no longer manage all of the titles for which he or she needed to be responsible in order to meet the corporate bottom-line goals, in the sense that the production editor could no longer properly manage all of the individual freelancers needed to be hired to get the work done. In addition, freelancer costs were rising.

The solution was the packager who offered to undertake the management burden as well as the production burden at a price that was often less than the publisher’s current costs. The packager’s lower cost came about in two ways: first, by moving the mechanical production outside the United States to developing countries where costs were significantly lower. And second, by putting the burden of meeting that lower cost on the freelancer; after all, the packager’s in-house costs, although less than that of the publishers it dealt with, was/is still a fixed cost. The cost of the freelancer, however, was/is a flexible cost.

Conversations with publishers tell me that the packager situation is less than ideal and that quality of output has declined, but there is no viable alternative for the publisher. Publishers are still being squeezed between costs and profit demands, so they are trying to publish more books with fewer in-house staff. And it certainly is less than ideal for editorial freelancers who get price squeezed. But the convenience factor, when added to the lower bid price of the packager, makes packaging a sensible choice for publishers. Take away the convenience factor, and the packager is not necessarily the best alternative.

Just so it is clear, the convenience factor is the convenience of having a third-party manage all of the freelancers the publisher needs to get the books edited. Packagers have undertaken the role of the in-house production editor in this regard, and now, when a publisher sends a book or several books to a packager, the publisher only needs to speak with one person even if there are 15 freelance editors working on the publisher’s books. This is convenience, as well as a lower cost to publishers.

The idea behind partnering is to level the playing field as regards convenience. There still needs to be price competition, but that is another matter. To get to that point, freelancers first need to overcome the hurdle of convenience.

Think about the editorial boat article in that light.


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