An American Editor

October 26, 2011

How Do You Do It? Amazon vs. Editors (II)

My previous post discussed the problem publishers are facing with Amazon’s stepping into the role of book publisher rather than just bookseller. On October 17, 2011, one New York Times front page headline read “Amazon Signing Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal.”

Read a bit further into the article and one discovers that Amazon isn’t talking about the number of editors it is employing (if any). One also discovers that Russell Grandinetti, a top Amazon executive, says, “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader. Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.” Note no mention of editors.

So where does the professional editor stand? To paraphrase an editorial colleague, Amazon pays editors as if the editor lived in a third-world country. The truth of the matter is that the ground is shifting yet again for professional editors.

The standard practice for many editors has been to try to work either in-house or freelance for publishers. We have seen many of those jobs disappear as publishers have found it cheaper to outsource editorial tasks, and the globalization of our profession has caused a lowering of wages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is forecasting no growth in jobs for the editorial profession for the next decade but a significant increase in competition for what jobs exist.

I don’t have the magic bullet that will cure this problem, but I do have an observation. When I discuss book buying with editorial colleagues, the standard response is that they buy from Amazon. It is like feeding the mouth that bites you. Because we can save a dollar or two, we buy from Amazon. Perhaps that isn’t such a smart idea as it reinforces Amazon’s belief that it is right.

I recognize that many of the books professional editors need are not inexpensive. I also recognize that professional editors probably read more books for pleasure in the course of a year than does the average reader. And I recognize that each dollar saved counts. But perhaps when it comes to Amazon, this is wrong thinking. Amazon is not my friend.

It is important to note what the Amazon model is: a willingness to have very thin margins. Thin margins do not leave a lot of money to be spent on what is considered an intangible, such as editing. I do not expect to suddenly see a rash of jobs for freelance editors at decent pay spring forth from the bowels of Amazon.

We editors can follow the path of publishers; that is, we can shake our heads in worry, wring our hands, and do nothing for fear of what effect our doing something might have on our future. But our future is already insecure.

Everything we have traditionally seen and done as professional editors is changing. I expect that in a few years the only editors still able to get work from publishers will be those in groups, not solo editors. This will be a fundamental change in how editorial work has been done.

An even more fundamental shift that I expect to see is that increasingly less work will come from publishers and the burden of hiring an editor will fall on the author. Should that occur, it will be disastrous for the author, for the editor, and for the reader. Experience so far with authors is that few are willing to invest the necessary resources for professional editing in the absence of pressure from a third party, such as pressure from a peer-reviewed journal. The gamble is too great and the value of editorial services is too ephemeral, not readily seen.

As I wrote earlier, I have no panacea for the troubles the editorial world will shortly begin facing. We didn’t face the original offshoring of the early 2000s very well, so I expect we won’t face these changes well either.

Yet one thing is certain: Editors who continue to buy from Amazon are only helping to bury themselves. Perhaps supporting Amazon is not the smartest idea editors have ever had and one that should be rethought.

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