An American Editor

June 29, 2011

The Editorial World — Will it Pass Editors By?

In a few months, I will be presenting again at a Communication Central conference, Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century, which is scheduled for September 30-October 1 in Baltimore, MD. This year, I not only speak about making money as an editor and marketing, I also am giving the keynote address, which is a prediction on what the editing world will be like in 2015. Knowing that I have committed myself to speaking, I have begun thinking about how my editorial world continues to change and whether I and my colleagues are cognizant of the changes going on about us and are adapting to the changes.

The true impetus for my giving thought to this question was an article in the May 7, 2011 The Economist titled “A Less Gilded Future,” whose theme, interestingly, was repeated in a June 3, 2011 New York Times article “Where Lawyers Find Work.” (As an aside, although the New York Times’ article contents are identical, the titles are different for the print and online versions. I have used the print title.)

Editors have been facing the outsourcing problem (in which outsourcing = offshoring) for years now; doctors have been facing the phenomenon in recent years; and now lawyers. Offshoring seems to be moving up the food chain. Of great interest to me is that the offshoring for each of the three markets is to the same geographic area, largely India.

If doctors and lawyers are facing this phenomenon, what hope is there for editors to reverse the longstanding offshoring trend? I guess we could become plumbers and electricians because you do have to be on the spot to fix a plugged toilet or wire a new wall outlet.

As with all major problems, there is no easy solution. Entry to the medical and legal fields is, relative to entry to the editorial field, very difficult — perhaps comparable to a climb up Mount Hood versus a walk across an open, flat meadow. The ease of entry into the editorial field compounds the offshoring problem for editors. After all, what does it really take to hang out a shingle and say “I’m an editor and open for business!”?

(For some interesting data regarding editors in the United States, see Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2010: 27-3041 Editors from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

The freelance editorial profession — developmental editors, copyeditors, technical editors, proofreaders — in the United States has multiple failings as regards self-preservation. One, of course, is that there is no organization that looks out for the political and financial interests of editors (this was the subject of an earlier article, Who Speaks for the Freelance Editor?), a lobbying group dedicated to improving the business life of the freelance editor. The organizations that do exist are socially oriented, generally of local interest, not well-managed, and the core members who exert control are rarely interested in looking out for the political and financial welfare of the profession as opposed to having a social outlet for themselves.

The consequence is that freelance editors think and speak the party line of having become a freelance editor to be free of corporate bondage, to be able to set one’s own work hours and schedule, to live free and work free — and all of the other trite pap that we can think of as justification for working outside the corporate box. Oh, I hear you screaming at me already — “Trite pap! How wrong you are.” And the reasons follow.

Alas, it is pap unless you are one of the fortunate few who can view working as a freelance editor as a hobby — the extra income is nice but not really needed. It pays for a fancier vacation or car, but is not necessary for putting bread on the table or for paying bills.

I’ve been in the business — and yes, freelance editing is a business and needs to be treated as a business — since 1984, although some days it seems like forever. In my case, editorial work was/is needed to put bread on the table and to pay household bills. It wasn’t/isn’t supplemental income, it is primary income — always has been and always will be — which means that I need to watch trends and adapt my business to those trends, or see my business shrivel and die.

Because my editorial business is my primary income, I cannot emulate the ostrich and hope that today’s negative trends will suddenly reverse themselves and become positive trends for me on their own. If anything, I need to push them in the direction I want to go and if I can’t do that, then I need to rework my business to account for the trends.

Most editors don’t view freelance editing through the same lens I view it. Most editors I know will defend until their economic death the status quo, the idea that they chose to become a freelance editor to be free of all corporate bonds, to be wholly independent, to be … whatever. I think that to survive one needs to alter how one thinks about freelance editing.

The result of offshoring has been a depression in freelance wages and jobs for the homegrown freelance editor. Jobs haven’t wholly dried up; rather, they have changed and the source of the jobs has changed. Whereas in 1984 domestic publishers needed freelance editors and hired them directly at a relatively decent rate of pay, in 2010 most of those domestic publishers have been absorbed into a few mega corporations who are outsourcing (offshoring) editorial work because they view it in the same global dimensions as they view accounting. The accounting thinking is that rules of profit and loss are the same regardless of location.

Unfortunately, that global accounting thinking is also being applied to editorial processes. It is true that at some level one can think globally about the editorial process, but it is not true at most levels. Although English is the most universally used and taught language, it is not a universal language in the sense that, for example, rules of grammar, spelling, conventions, and idioms are universal. Yet publishing conglomerates act as if English is no different in Britain than in Australia, in America than in India. And this hurts local editors by denying the editors opportunities to ply their trade.

The result is that accountants cannot see the value in hiring local when hiring nonlocal can be so much less expensive. So the editorial work is farmed out to nonlocal low bidders who now have to hire local talent to fulfill the contract but do so on a depressed wage scale. It is the imposition of the nonlocal wage scale on the local talent that ultimately is the problem, and most editors simply throw up their hands in surrender to “the inevitable.”

And this why I wonder whether the future editorial world will pass editors by. Adaptation to the current offshoring and its depression-level economics is not a viable solution. A viable solution would be one that makes it uneconomical to offshore what should be local, just as it is uneconomical to hire a nonlocal plumber to unclog your kitchen sink. Will editors come up with such a viable solution or will the editorial world pass us by? That is the question that must be answered in the near-term by local editors everywhere.

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