An American Editor

June 27, 2012

The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting

I recently received an e-mail from a long-ago client who lost my services when they lowered their payscale to substarvation rates and began offshore outsourcing nearly 100% of their production process, the exception supposedly being proofreading, for which they paid sub-substarvation prices. Their e-mail stated:

We are a new team with a new process, but still need qualified readers for our books, so I hope you don’t mind that we are contacting you at this time.

We now do all of our composition and copyediting in India. However, we do put all of our books through a cold read using US-based freelancers. Our readers work on first proofs (PDFs)….

The assignment involves checking grammar, style (APA 6th Edition), punctuation, consistency, and poor phrasing. Rework awkward sentences only if confusing or very awkward. Feel free to query the Editor or Author. We realize there will be a lot of questions  with this test and perhaps the first few assignments. When in doubt – make the change and add a query. We want to see your “stuff.”

Needless to say, the rate of pay is very-very-low. They attached a PDF “test,” which they would pay me to take at the lowest rate they offer. The former client deserves a few kudos for at least offering to pay for the test taking.

This is an interesting ploy for obtaining copyediting from American-based editors. Calling it a rose doesn’t make it any less copyediting. It is worth noting that by requiring it be done using PDF rather than in Microsoft Word, the client is implying to most editors that it is not copyediting but proofreading, because experienced editors will tell you that the trend is to do proofreading in PDF. Very few publishers, especially when dealing with book-length projects, will ask for copyediting to be done using PDFs. It is much more difficult to edit a PDF than it is to edit a Word document, as many of the tools that editors use in the editing process are simply unavailable, including specialty spell-checking and the myriad macros that editors use.

The attached “test” was a PDF of composed pages. But if it was already satisfactorily edited (which I would assume because why would a publisher knowingly send manuscript out for editing to incompetent editors?), the “cold reader” — also known as a proofreader — should not be checking “poor phrasing” or “rework[ing] awkward sentences.” Those are editing tasks; they require decision-making skills, knowledge of grammar, and specialized subject-matter language, all of which are why the editor creates a stylesheet that is supposed to accompany the manuscript when it is sent for proofreading.

But call it what you want — rose, stinkweed, proofreading, cold reading — it doesn’t matter: The service they want is copyediting and they want it at substarvation pay.

The e-mail follows a recent trend among publishers. The trend is to offshore outsource copyediting and then ask the local people who the publisher previously hired to do the editing, to “proofread” at a rate that matches what the publisher is paying its offshore editors while simultaneously demanding that the “proofreader” correct all of the errors not fixed or introduced by the offshore editors. Publishers are squeezing local editors by taking away the work and then trying to get the same work after the fact under another guise, one that has always commanded a lesser fee.

In an attempt to lower costs, proofreading is now the new copyediting and copyediting is now the new typesetting/composition. Yes, I know that traditionally typesetting/composition meant simply putting the tendered manuscript into a WYSIWYG form that was called pages, and for the most part, that is what is happening with outsourced offshored copyediting. Publishers are banking on the local proofreaders to do the copyediting.

Not only is this sneaky, but it is also difficult to do well. Traditional proofreading meant comparing the typeset pages to the edited and coded manuscript that had already been copyedited, developmental edited, reviewed by in-house production staff, and reviewed and approved by the author to make sure that the typesetter didn’t introduce new errors.

Much of this changed when publishers switched to electronic editing, as electronic editing reduced the likelihood of typesetting errors. Such errors weren’t eliminated, merely exponentially reduced. With today’s bean counters unwilling to assign much value to editorial skills, publishers are trying to squeeze more editorial work out of freelancers for less pay. As many authors have complained in recent years, this is a recipe for editorial disaster.

Copyediting (along with other forms of editing) is a skill set that becomes honed over the course of years. One doesn’t simply hang out a shingle calling oneself an editor and suddenly become a highly competent editor. As with other skills, copyediting is a collection of myriad skills learned and honed over years of work and learning. It is not a wholly mechanical process; rather, it requires educated judgment calls.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that causes books that have been edited to seem as if they have never met the eyes of an editor. It is this loss that distinguishes a professionally edited, well-edited book from the amateur editor who is doing the editing for a neighbor as a favor.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that publishers seek to regain at a cheaper price by renaming the service they want as “cold reading” rather than copyediting. You can call a rose by another name, but it is still copyediting. It is this ploy that editors need to be aware of and need to say thanks, but no thanks to the “opportunity” being offered — especially if the opportunity is to do the editing in a software program that is really not designed for the task, such as editing in PDF format/software.

As the competition wars heat up, by which I mean as the ebook world with its lower profit margins overtakes the pbook world with its relatively higher profit margins, this ruse by publishers will gain momentum. The result will be increasing numbers of published books that make the literate reader grimace, with yet further squeezing of profit margins as readers rebel at paying high prices for poorly edited books.

Although bean counters have yet to grasp the notion, long-term the survival of publishers will depend as much on quality editing as on changing strategies to deal with ebooks. Editors do provide value but need to receive value in exchange. Smart editors will just say no to opportunities disguised as roses that are really stinkweed.



  1. I work as a copy editor in India and the situation is much the same here. BTW, what might be the “specialty spell-checking and the myriad macros” that are used”


    Comment by Surit Das — June 27, 2012 @ 6:21 am | Reply

    • The specialty spell-checking is a reference to spellcheckers like Stedman’s Medical Spellchecker, which are add-in programs that supplement the normal spellchecker that comes with Microsoft Word. The myriad macros is a reference to macros that an individual editor may develop as well as to programs that can be bought such as EditTools (, Editor’s ToolkitPlus (, and PerfectIt (, to name three.


      Comment by americaneditor — June 27, 2012 @ 6:54 am | Reply

  2. I received the same “invitation” from the new team, although I’d never done any work for the company.

    My impression matched yours, & I replied that their rates were beneath consideration. Checking the bibliography alone is worth more than the amount offered.


    Comment by Maureen Haggerty — June 27, 2012 @ 7:26 am | Reply

  3. Bravo, Rich. I’m sharing your post far and wide.


    Comment by kokedit — June 27, 2012 @ 11:15 am | Reply

  4. I’ve been a copyeditor since about 1975 (Good grief!) and I’m having the same experience. I’m a writer/editor in a highly specialized subject area. I have exactly the life I always dreamed of—Social Security to cover shelter and utilities, work I dearly love, part-time hours working at home—except that the wage is so low I’m never sure I can make it through the month. The irony, it burns.


    Comment by g2-4b687e0cb42891b5c6c0f4619246498b — June 27, 2012 @ 2:15 pm | Reply

  5. For a select few clients, I offer what I call my Final Eyes service, which is a cold read of PDFs. I charge my usual (high end) editorial fee. The client is paying for my professional experience, education, and judgment as well as my time. Regardless of what the client calls it, the job is not trivial and should not be paid peon wages. Tell the client what you do, what you charge, and what he can do with insulting offers like the one Rich quoted.


    Comment by The Book Doctor — June 27, 2012 @ 2:20 pm | Reply

  6. As usual, Rich is right on target. This kind of work offer is ridiculous. If publishers would use truly skilled editors at reasonably professional rates, they wouldn’t have to do extra pseudo-proofreading steps and the quality of their publications would improve.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — June 27, 2012 @ 4:01 pm | Reply

  7. Your line: “The result will be increasing numbers of published books that make the literate reader grimace” made me laugh, as this perfectly describes what I’ve been doing today. I’ve been reading an ebook by an author I like, but when she advises that authors must make sure their ebook “is readable and looks professional prepared”, it does grate. I don’t understand why the skills of editors are so undervalued, and I applaud those who ‘just say no’ to these kinds of ‘offers’. Thanks for the post.


    Comment by JC Gan — June 28, 2012 @ 4:53 am | Reply

  8. I’ve experienced this firsthand. Several years ago I was working in a very low-paying copy editing job when I and my fellow copy editors were laid off. I heard they were outsourcing the editing to India and expecting the layout artists to do more proofreading. A few months later I saw a job listing for a copy editing job at the same company, though the new position was only part-time and paid even less than before. I guess they learned that they needed an in-house copy editor, though I don’t think they really learned their lesson.


    Comment by Jonathon — June 28, 2012 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

  9. Excellent article. Exactly my experience in Australia. Clients want a proofread but what they really want is copyediting and sometimes structual editing. No matter how low I go in pricing, it never is low enough. Result is I am only doing copyediting work and I have picked up copywriting as I can charge more. What a shame but I have to eat.


    Comment by Rosemary Osborne — July 3, 2012 @ 10:08 pm | Reply

  10. Thank you for posting this. I got the same e-mail and put it aside for the time being. I was almost tempted to do the test and send it back, but I think now I will not.


    Comment by Leilani Lee — July 5, 2012 @ 11:50 am | Reply

  11. […] For the average citizen, the difference is meaningless. Most of us who have to pay taxes consider ourselves as being penalized (thus tax = penalty) and don’t worry about the fine distinction made by lawyers and judges. But the difference does matter and choosing the right word equally matters: Obamacare would have failed if the mandate was a penalty, and succeeded because the mandate is a tax. (The importance of using the right word is reinforced by efforts to call copyediting proofreading and pay less for the service, as discussed in The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting.) […]


    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Words Do Matter! « An American Editor — July 16, 2012 @ 4:02 am | Reply

  12. […] publisher who wants copyediting but calls it proofreading in an attempt to pay a lower price (see The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting). In my own business, I have been under pressure to reduce my fee or see the work […]


    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Killing Me Softly « An American Editor — July 25, 2012 @ 4:04 am | Reply

  13. […] publisher who wants copyediting but calls it proofreading in an attempt to pay a lower price (see The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting). In my own business, I have been under pressure to reduce my fee or see the work […]


    Pingback by Book Editing In The Age Of Ebooks. The Problems Of Editing | — July 26, 2012 @ 7:06 pm | Reply

  14. […] publisher who wants copyediting but calls it proofreading in an attempt to pay a lower price (see The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting). In my own business, I have been under pressure to reduce my fee or see the work […]


    Pingback by Book Editing In The Age Of Ebooks – A Look At The Problems | Ebooks on Crack — July 27, 2012 @ 12:30 am | Reply

    • So what would a fair price per page be?


      Comment by Steve M — July 28, 2012 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

      • The answer depends on a lot of factors. What type of editing is wanted, what skill level is required to do that editing, and the editor’s experience are typical factors that should come into play. For example, do you pay the same rate for a fiction editor doing copyediting only and who has 1 year of experience as you would pay the editor who has 25 years of experience and is doing a developmental edit?


        Comment by americaneditor — July 29, 2012 @ 7:12 am | Reply

  15. […] Freelancers” on @Copyediting (Tooting my own horn, twice.) My version of… would be “Heh, heh. Nice try. Wrong-o! This cheapening will be your downfall, […]


    Pingback by Links roundup, July 2012 » — July 31, 2012 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

  16. Good article, thank you. (FYI, typo in last para: *the long-term survival.)


    Comment by margieschulz53 — July 28, 2017 @ 7:45 am | Reply

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