An American Editor

September 12, 2011

The Blurring of Roles and the Downward Pressure on Price

When hired to “edit,” are you hired to be a developmental editor? A copyeditor? A proofreader? A compositor? Is what you are being paid commensurate with what you are being asked to do?

Today, many clients are using the term proofreading as an all-inclusive term, one that incorporates the “whatever is needed” concept. The problem with not clearly separating and defining the various tasks, and clarifying with the client precisely what they want, is that most  publishers pay a lesser fee for proofreading than for editing. By not establishing the parameters, you give away your skills. Clients expect it, but I am not yet prepared to do that.

What is happening in our editorial world is that globalization has combined with the quartet of recession, consolidation, rapid growth in freelance editor ranks, and lack of in-house jobs to put downward pressure on pricing. Consequently, instead of price rising with skill level and experience, we see it flattening or declining as a result of our need to compete with colleagues around the world. This is a significant change from when I first entered this world of editing 27 years ago.

More importantly, this globalization + quartet downward pressure on pricing has also led to the blurring of roles. I have found that the younger and less experienced the in-house editor I deal with is, the more blurry the demarcation. I have discussed this several times in recent months (see, e.g., Is This the Wave of the Editorial Future?, Is the Editorial Freelancer’s Future a Solo Future?, Worth Noting: A Report on Overseas Outsourcing of Editorial Services, and Is There a Future in Editing?). Sadly, as the number of freelance editors grows, which happens on a daily basis, so grows the competition for editorial work. With that growth in competition, we see a “class” division between older, more-experienced editors and younger, less-experienced editors, with the former trying to unblur the roles and distinguish via price the different skills required for the different roles, and the latter accepting the blurring of roles and the accompanying lower price in exchange for work.

This downward pressure, however, has moved editorial work into the technological age, something that was actively and vociferously opposed in my early years by many of my colleagues. Now, to make a good living from editorial work, we must incorporate things into our work efficiencies that can make parts of our work less labor intensive, such as macros (see, e.g., Macro Power: Wildcard Find & Replace and the articles cited), using multiple monitors, and other labor-saving devices.

Yet even increased efficiencies and greater use of technology can only go so far. The real battle, the one that needs to be waged but isn’t, is establishing a minimum worth for each of the different roles and insisting that the meaning of “edit” be clearly defined and appropriately compensated. Unfortunately, this is not a war that an individual editor can fight and win; it requires a group effort, and an organized group that speaks for freelance editors regarding work issues doesn’t exist (see Who Speaks for the Freelance Editor?).

The difficulty is that the people doing the hiring do not understand the different roles and their parameters. They do not understand the differences in skills required or the value of experience. They are bound by imposed financial limits that compete with project needs; for example, they have a $1,000 budget even though it is clear that the project requires $3,000 worth of skilled labor. In the end, they compromise by hiring less-skilled editors who are willing to work for the budgeted price, knowing that they will not get all of the needed work done at the needed level of expertise. These same editors are willing to do editing work — sometimes substantive work — at proofreading prices, just to get any work or pay at all.

Unfortunately, the ramifications of this “dumbing/pricing down” extend far beyond the borders of traditional publishing and into nontraditional publishing. Editors who work in traditional publishing become acclimatized to this blurring and price pressure and begin to accept it as “normal” or “standard.” This acceptance then does become the standard and so is extended to all facets of publishing, cheapening the end product. All that everyone is interested in is the financial bottom line; lost is the idea of product quality or any differentiation in skills between editing/levels of editing and proofreading.

Editorial work, like authorial work, is labor intensive. Labor-intensive products, unlike mass-production products, see a degradation in quality as price lowers (interestingly, it does not necessarily see an increase in quality as price rises; it appears that quality and price are only linked in the downward spiral). The acceptance of the financial bottom line as the paramount concern, however, means that quality has little to no role to play.

I think it will be interesting to see how low the editorial bottom line will go in future years and how we will react to that lowering. I’m certain of one thing: Were I to be starting my career path today, I would think long and hard about choosing this path.

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