An American Editor

April 30, 2012

Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations

A couple of months ago, I was hired to edit a new medical text. The publisher estimated the manuscript to be 2500 pages and wanted a 4-week turnaround with a medium-level edit. When I received the files for the entire project, I did a page count; the client had greatly undercounted the manuscript size. Instead of 2500 ms pages, the actual count was 5300 pages. (Why the disparity? Because, for example, in the original manuscript figure legends were in 7-point type and chapters had 70+ legends; tables and references [of which there could be several hundred in a chapter] were in 8-point type; paragraphs were single spaced.) In addition, it had to be conformed to AMA style; almost nothing conformed to AMA style as presented.

I advised the client and suggested that a 10-week schedule would be more appropriate. I was told to start the editing and the client would get back to me about the schedule.

In 2 weeks, I was able to edit nearly 1400 ms pages, but even at that rate, an 8-week schedule would be needed and it assumes that the initial pace could be maintained.

At the 2-week mark, I was told to stop work on the project. Instead of being edited locally, the manuscript would be shipped overseas (i.e., outside the United States to India) for editing because (a) the budget was based on 2500 ms pages and (b) there is insufficient flexibility in the schedule to extend it to 8 to 10 weeks or longer. The client was assured that both its budget and schedule could be met in India.

I was not overly concerned about the loss of this particular project; I had others waiting. But I was concerned about how realistic client (not just this particular client, but clients in general) expectations are when it comes to both price and schedule; more so schedule than price. I wonder how Indian copyeditors — let alone copyeditors from anywhere — will be able to do a medium edit on a very technical medical textbook in 4 weeks. I am not questioning the Indian editors’ editing skills, as I do not think this is a question of skills. I do understand how the price can be met in India, but not the schedule or the required editing level.

More importantly, it worries me what is becoming of the publishing industry. The upheaval caused by ebooks is not being well dealt with by anyone yet. One of the outstanding negatives to ebooks is the ease with which poor quality books can saturate the marketplace. Too many ebook authors are writing as if they were Georges Simenon, an author who once stated that he was able to turn out a new novel every 21 days. (Simenon was prolific and I particularly enjoyed his Inspector Maigret novels.) But unlike Simenon’s novels, which were well-written and well-edited, many ebooks are neither.

At one time readers could feel assured that the pbook they were buying that was published by a traditional publisher also was well-edited. Publishers devoted the time and the money to ensure a minimum quality.

Yet that seems to be changing today. In the case of the books I work on, which are medical texts written by doctors for doctors, I am concerned that unrealistic expectations will cause a decline in quality in books that can have serious implications for the well-being of consumers. If a novel tells you that the Taj Mahal is in Tibet, no harm is done to the reader, only to the author’s reputation. But if a medical text tells you to remove the left lung when it should be the right lung, the potential for harm is present; you have to hope someone catches this error before you are operated on.

Again, the question is not so much that of competency of the editors as it is the compression of the schedule. Editing a 200-page novel in 4 weeks is not wholly unreasonable; errors that slip by are not likely to be catastrophic except possibly to the author’s reputation. But to edit a 5300-page medical text in 4 weeks strikes me as unreasonable, even if the editorial work is divided among numerous editors. I suppose the question boils down to how many editors are used, but as the number of editors used increases, the greater the likelihood of inconsistency and the greater the variation in skill level among the editors.

I know that publishers are increasingly being run by the “bean counters” who take steps to reduce editorial costs because there is no readily visible-to-the-consumer effect of an editor’s work. Editors are the invisible people who can make a good manuscript better. Publishers are increasingly competing with the self-publishers and so must mimic the self-publishing way to final version, which is little to no editing and/or the least expensive editing possible combined with a compressed production schedule in order to get the finished product to market more quickly.

I wonder if, in the end, this will be good for the industry as a whole; that is, not just for the traditional publisher but for the self-publisher, too. In the attempt to get to market sooner and to publish as quickly and as often as possible, are publishers of all stripes sacrificing too much? Will the result be a changed literary landscape that would not be recognizable to a reader who grew up reading the Hemingways and Steinbecks of an earlier era?

Perhaps more importantly, in the case of nonfiction, is this compulsion to reduce costs and speed up production dangerous for the reader and consumer? Is our insatiable appetite for instant gratification and cheap pricing going to boomerang?

How do you give a high-quality edit to a highly technical manuscript of 5300 pages in 4 weeks without making any significant editorial sacrifice? Are client expectations becoming increasingly unreasonable? Something to ponder, I think, and perhaps even to worry about.

20 Comments »

  1. Very interesting (and also shocking!) piece. As you discuss, the scope for errors, whether they be factual or grammatical, is huge with such heavy demands being placed upon an editor. It will be skim-edited, as oppose to the in-depth editing I’m sure you would have offered. I agree that the damage is likely to be with the author’s reputation though. In a way, this suggests a possible tiering system developing unintentionally; those that are professional enough to pay a little more and take a little more time to achieve professional results, and those that are trying to do things ‘on the cheap’. The ‘on the cheap’ brigade will stand out like a sore thumb IMO.

    It’s like Indie authors being all tarred with the same brush by some, who say that poor editing and unprofessional approach puts them off reading anything by an Indie. It means that, if like me, you’re prepared to put a painful amount of hours into the editing process to ensure that what you end up with cannot fall prey to such criticism, you may just have a chance of standing out from the crowd.

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    Comment by davidmcgowan — April 30, 2012 @ 4:23 am | Reply

  2. This is a horrible occurance for non-fiction (especially medical) books! Awful, awful news! I know that non-fiction authors/publishers are trying to cut costs with editing, but for them to sacrifice accuracy and quality that will impact readers (and assuming many will be medical personnel) – they are not thinking clearly. If I ever found out that a non-fiction medical book that I bought or that my doctor had as a reference was quickly edited in a foreign country, I would be SURE to complain to all (not just to the author and publisher – I’d make sure this was know to all of my friends, relatives and media contacts). What if editing mistakes caused medical errors/deaths? This would then result in lawsuits. This situation bothers me greatly.

    Lea Ellen {night owl in IL}

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    Comment by nightowlinil — April 30, 2012 @ 7:10 am | Reply

  3. The most important factor for a medical book is “Is this clear?” A lot of what a CE does is enforcing consistency and eliminating medical jargon. If the author writes “left heart” the CE should change to “left side of the heart.” But the reader probably mentally translates that back to “left heart.” It’s nice if you don’t see “5” in one sentence and “five” in the next. But does that really interfere with comprehension except in a subtle way?

    It used to be that some medical expert would write a text that became a classic and remained in print for years because research went slowly and publication of research results as well. So it made sense to invest a lot making sure that text was “perfect.”

    In today’s world in which any medical book is outdated within a year, maybe we need a new class of medical publishers and editors who would focus more on clarity and less on style. In today’s world, some publishers just want you to focus on style as they don’t pay enough that anyone with the background to understand the content in full would take the job.

    The reader who texts and write “RU” and numerous other shortcuts probably doesn’t care about consistency in texts.

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    Comment by Gretchen — April 30, 2012 @ 7:30 am | Reply

  4. Editing a 5,300-page medical text in 4 weeks strikes *me* as insane, no matter how many editors are used. I fully agree that, “as the number of editors used increases, the greater the likelihood of inconsistency and the greater the variation in skill level among the editors.”

    To me, the most important factor for a medical textbook is whether the information is accurate as well as clear; something can be clear as the proverbial day and still factually wrong, which is simply unacceptable in medicine.

    I wish I knew what it would take for publishers to care as much about quality as about cost. Maybe it will take someone doing serious harm to a patient as a result of using a textbook like this one.

    But good for Rich, and any of the rest of us who do this, for double-checking the true scope of the project before accepting it and standing up for a more reasonable schedule. That kind of checking is absolutely essential. I recently received an editing assignment that the client said was 200 pages; the real scope turned out to be 454 pages, because the ms. was in 9-point type and line-and-a-half spacing. The client – one of my favorites – wasn’t trying to skimp on editorial services but was just going by what she received to hand off for editing. Luckily (for me, future readers of this project and future patients of those readers!), especially because the project also was in the health field, my client was OK with whatever it took for me to do the work properly.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — April 30, 2012 @ 12:32 pm | Reply

  5. […] via The Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations « An American Editor. […]

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    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations « An American Editor « Longridge Editors LLC — April 30, 2012 @ 10:56 pm | Reply

  6. How do you define page? Is it that there is an industry standard ‘one page = x words’?

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    Comment by amlees — May 1, 2012 @ 5:36 am | Reply

    • The most commonly used measure is 250 words equal 1 page. However, there is nothing that requires you to use this formula. I prefer a character-based formula because I see an awful lot of words like proprioreceptors and antiinflammatory, and not a lot of the “smaller” words.

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      Comment by americaneditor — May 1, 2012 @ 6:13 am | Reply

      • Thanks. Someone sent me two whole research papers by way of a test and they said they’d pay $3 per msp, and defined the msp as the number of pages in the paper, even though the words per page were considerably more than 250, but I was sure there was a standard. (I said no; it didn’t sound like somebody I wanted to work for). I can read a long word as easily as a short one, so I don’t mind counting words, but I do object to counting undefined pages.

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        Comment by amlees — May 5, 2012 @ 2:52 pm | Reply

  7. Perhaps the client outsourced the project to a **company** in India. The company could use many editors to complete the project. That is one way the project could get done in time, without cutting corners or sacrificing quality.🙂

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    Comment by Aruna Panangipally — May 1, 2012 @ 8:04 am | Reply

  8. I hope you don’t mind me posting this here!

    You’ve been nominated for The Versatile Blogger Award!
    http://davidmcgowanauthor.com/2012/05/01/the-versatile-blogger-award/

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    Comment by davidmcgowan — May 1, 2012 @ 11:34 am | Reply

  9. Reblogged this on Project Chiron and commented:
    h/t Copyediting.com

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    Comment by Project Chiron — May 3, 2012 @ 8:20 am | Reply

  10. Thanks for the interesting post. I’m adding you to my to read list (which unfortunately gets longer by the day). Quick question, you did not clarify if you were paid through the 2 week period of working. I assume so but just wanted to see how you handled the “business” side of editing. I work in a Latin American country and often the relationship is prized higher than the work done. Did you eat it?

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    Comment by Stephen C — May 8, 2012 @ 8:48 pm | Reply

  11. Another interesting, albeit gloomy, post. As an editor, I find it far more frustrating and upsetting to work to a too-tight schedule than to be underpaid. I care deeply about the quality of my work and appreciate having the time to “get it right”. (I have shared this blog on my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/WendyMonaghanEditingServices and via Twitter.)

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    Comment by Wendy Monaghan — June 1, 2012 @ 9:13 am | Reply

  12. Without a doubt some clients are becoming quite unreasonable in the demands placed on their editors these days. Fortunately not everyone does this, but there are certainly a few that seem to hire you for one thing (i.e. editing), only to demand a million other quite unrelated things or in a worst case scenario like you mentioned, just pull out completely after you have already begun working.

    Great post though. May I have permission to link to this post from my editing services blog?

    Like

    Comment by Stickler Editing — January 31, 2013 @ 10:53 pm | Reply

  13. […] discussed the problem; see, for example, Business of Editing: Workdays & Schedules and Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations. All I can do is hope that I am making the right business decisions. My data say I am, but the […]

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    Pingback by The Businesss of Editing: An Embarassment of Riches | An American Editor — March 26, 2014 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  14. I can’t agree more about the disservice being done to writers and their readers done by publishers who find it profitable to abandon their traditional role as standard bearers for good editing. Of course they will deny that they ever owed a duty of care to literacy, but they were the gatekeepers for an increasingly literate society that looked to them to keep it so. So much of our quality of life and education has already been sacrificed to the bottom line that it is becoming acceptable to say that if something cannot make money it’s not worth saving: cut corners or pass the costs on. There are still some publishers worth their salt who won’t pass the editing back to the client or hire a novice freelancer who will work for a pittance to get a start. Memories are short and culture is the status quo, but some of us would like to play Canute.

    I know there is no such thing as the perfect edit, but would an efficient editor want to put their name to anything less than their best shot, especially if the book acknowledges their work?
    For editors who take pride in their work, it must be a mixed blessing to negotiate the fee or the timeline downwards by cutting corners on the job. Whatever of the structural editing, formatting, proofreading or creative input is left to the client or a third party may — and inevitably will — result in errors for which the acknowledged editor will be held to account, not the author. People who wouldn’t read a book with an index aren’t going to blame an author for anything but tedium or lack of sex scenes. Those who find the index one page out because of layout creep will blame the editor. If the work is one of a series, it is difficult to avoid this dilemma. The acknowledged editor is over a barrel to either spend more time on the job than the budget allows or refuse to be acknowledged. One way out might be to stipulate that all editors be acknowledged and their particular involvement identified.
    Am I being too precious about upholding a standard of literacy? I’d be interested to read comments on this.

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    Comment by quillpoweronline — March 31, 2014 @ 3:37 am | Reply

  15. […] discussed expectations before (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Expectations, Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations, and Great Expectations: A Recipe for Disappointment) and that is what shopping is based on: the […]

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    Pingback by How Much Is That Editor in the Window? | An American Editor — August 6, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply


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