An American Editor

November 14, 2011

Does the Future of Editing Lie in Tiers?

One of the things that struck me about the “saving” of the American auto industry was the new union contracts that created two wage tiers. The idea of tiers is also invading public employee contracts.

Then a new project came to me that was conditioned on my accepting a lower per-page rate than I customarily charge. The tradeoff was the size of the project and the extra long schedule. Yet that made me wonder: Does the future of editing lie in tiers?

We have already seen the changes in pay that were brought about by globalization of the editor’s job. Whereas when I first started in editing, 28 years ago, I had to overcome publishers wanting editors who were very local, that is, editors who could pick up and deliver the hard copy manuscripts, today I have to overcome publishers who are price focused and globally oriented. That global orientation has already caused a depression in rates that publishers will pay.

I thought that the rate pressure had hit bottom until this project was offered. Now I see it hasn’t and that it may be taking a more insidious form — the form of tiering.

I called the client to discuss the pricing and discovered that the rate they were offering was their new top-tier rate given only to very experienced editors and only for the most problematic projects. I was informed that most of the freelance professional editors who worked for this client were in one of two even lower-paying tiers.

I understand the pressure that publishers are under. Competition is getting keener with agents starting their own presses and with booksellers venturing into the publishing end of the book process. Yet the race to the bottom means everyone loses.

Right now the bulk of the competition for American editors lies in India-based editors and in newly minted American editors, both of whom are willing to work for low wages (i.e., low based on the American lifestyle). Newly minted American editors think that taking a job at any price is better than not having any work at all and also that it gives a foot in the door. That was reasonable thinking a few decades ago, but not today with globalization and with publishers viewing editorial services as being of questionable value for their bottom lines.

Alas, although such thinking is no longer reasonable, I am unsure what reasonable thinking is when it comes to pay. I am also wondering what the effect would be should I decide to accept this project at the proffered price. I am weighing multiple factors as I consider the effects.

First, even at the proffered price, the project would be profitable to me. Because of efficiencies in how I run my business, the proffered price is not a breakeven or worse price, yet it is not as good a price as I expect for a project with the problems this one has.

Second, I wonder if acceptance would set a precedent. Would I be more willing to accept lower-paying projects in the future? Will this client expect to pay even less next time?

Third, I wonder how this will impact other facets of my business. Will I be able to accept projects from other clients or higher-paying projects while working on this one? How will it interfere with work over the next few months (the proffered project is expected to last 6 or 7 months of near full-time editing).

There are other concerns but perhaps the most important concern is this: Is this project a portent of the future of editing in which low and tiered pay will become the norm, with editors having no control over the tier to which they are assigned? This may seem farfetched now, but the future is not so far away that we can ignore what is or may be coming. The time to plan counterstrategies to these possibilities is now; waiting until they are universal is too late.

It is at times like these that I lament the lack of a useful, viable, forceful national association for professional editors that is something more than a social club. The one lesson that publishers have absorbed, and that freelance editors shore up by their actions, is the divide-and-conquer lesson. American editors stubbornly refuse (generally speaking) to coalesce into anything that smacks of giving up some independence. Ultimately, that reluctance to give up any of our freedom will be our downfall.

Sadly, I think tier pricing for editors will be the norm in a few years, not a few decades. I think when that occurs, it will be too late for editors to join together to fight it. The ease of entering the field — all one need do is hang out a shingle that proclaims he or she is ready for work — and the very minimal financial investment needed to do so, works against us in this time of globalization, just as it worked for us when we started our own careers.

How many of us would choose this career path today should we be given the opportunity to restart our career lives? I know I would have to think carefully about my choice.

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