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.



  1. Dumb independent operator: ‘I’m a builder.’

    Savvy potential client: ‘That’s nice. So, rolled into one, you’re an architect, surveyor, quantity surveyor, plumber, brick-layer, joiner, roofer, tiler, plasterer, electrician and land agent? A dab hand at painting, glazing, garden landscaping and all the other stuff, too, I guess.’

    Dumb independent operator: ‘What’s the difference? I said I was a builder, didn’t I? It’s not like I charge the earth, eh?’

    Dumbing-down means exactly what the new term implies. I sympathise with the experienced and qualified Old School freelance in all fields.

    Luck and best wishes, folks. Neil Marr


    Comment by Neil Marr — September 12, 2011 @ 10:48 am | Reply

  2. What you are writing about, “be a developmental editor? A copyeditor? A proofreader? A compositor? ” is getting down to plain old fashioned MERCHANDISING! When new clients calls on you, they are entering your store looking for a product (among the different type os services you offer) that will fit what they believe they want/need. That they believe they want may not be what they need but they didn’t know they needed it. All stores do two things – present what they have to sell and then give their customers choices of what to buy. They want it to fit at a price they believe they can tell others about what fits for that price as a way to get confirmation or to justify their decision.

    Not everyone needs a custom made tailored suit but they need a suit. But, what they came in for is what they need for the occasion? One person’s inexpensive suit may be someone else’s very expensive suit but both have to go to the party properly dressed less they be criticized for not being as presentable as what they are presenting. So, too, with having a manuscript that reads or looks as good as the information in the manuscript is important. Hence, the need is just proofreading or it may take more.

    In my working with some “editors,” we set up matrix format that shows, up front, what the different types of services hence, they will know they may need more than what they thought. That’s what merchandising is all about – presentation and choices.


    Comment by Alan J. Zell — September 12, 2011 @ 7:02 pm | Reply

  3. Point taken, Alan. But there is honest and open first impression of what’s on offer and a veiled and misleading first impression that encourages the mistaken idea that there’s a catch-all low price. The effect of that sneaky merchandising technique on the fair and square dealing freelance is harmful in the extreme. I believe that is the sound argument in AE’s piece above. Potential clients without any great experience will inevitably first check out offers of editorial services according to ‘apparent’ price tag and, once hooked, be reeled in. Cashing in on gullibility in this way is sharp practice in my book. And, let’s face it, some freelance operators flooding the net with a diploma on the wall and no experience under the belt are often themselves unaware of the distinct differences in editorial levels of ms preparation. I’ve come across ‘editorial services’ offered by folks whose entire ‘qualification’ is a two-month internet crash course and a fancy emailed certificate that’s about as professionally meaningful as having read a few Enid Blyton Noddy books as a kindergarten kid. I’ve tested a few just for interest, and the result has ALWAYS been a disaster. Best wishes. Neil


    Comment by Neil Marr — September 13, 2011 @ 6:02 am | Reply

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  5. […] peers by not distinguishing between different editing roles when negotiating with clients, says a post on An American Editor. Younger, less experienced editors are accepting jobs without clarifying […]


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