An American Editor

February 25, 2013

Veterinarian or Editor?

The New York Times had an interesting article on February 24, 2013: “High Debt and Falling Demand Trap New Vets.” The article made several points that surprised me.

First, the profiled veterinarian had $312,000 in student loan debt solely from veterinary school. Second,

This would seem less alarming if vets made more money. But starting salaries have sunk by about 13 percent during the same 10-year period, in inflation-adjusted terms, to $45,575 a year, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Third, that fewer vets will be needed in the future and that new vets can expect to see further erosion of starting salaries. And, finally, fourth, that  a vet who is paid $60,000 a year is considered to be well paid.

I know that I spend a small fortune every year at our veterinarian’s office for our dog and cat, let alone the fortune I spend on the food they eat. Had I been asked to guess at the starting salary for a vet, I would have guessed $85,000, and for the median salary, I would have guessed $115,000.

If one of my children had asked me whether they should be a veterinarian or an editor, from the strictly income perspective, I would have said veterinarian. Not after reading this article.

Interestingly, what is being seen in the world of veterinary medicine is also being seen in other fields. Going to law school or obtaining an MBA from a business school, although it resulted in high student loan debt ($150,000 to $300,000), meant a good chance at a high-paying career. But not today. Today, law school graduates are struggling to find jobs and those they do find pay $40,000 or less. The same is true of those with an MBA degree. The only ones making money are the schools that offer these expensive programs.

I look at all this costly education and wonder why anyone would choose such a career path — especially when an editor can earn significantly more than these new lawyers and vets and MBAers — only to put themselves in a position where they can never get out of debt and never enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The job market is changing drastically. Consider this article from the February 19, 2013, New York Times, “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk.” As noted in the article,

Even the office “runner” — the in-house courier who, for $10 an hour, ferries documents back and forth between the courthouse and the office — went to a four-year school.

What will that mean for editors?

I think we will see, in the not too distant future, many universities and colleges offering “advanced” degrees geared to editing and we will see publishers and authors demanding that editors have such an “advanced” degree — even if the degree is really meaningless. After all, what will the editor study to warrant the cost and time of an advanced degree? We know that the schools will insist on it being at least a 1-year, if not a 2-year degree.

More importantly for editors, I think we will see a glut of new editors and a further depression of fees based on a tiered system (see my earlier article, Does the Future of Editing Lie in Tiers?). Those editors with just B.A. degrees will be paid less than those with the advanced degree, even though those with the advanced degree will not be paid very much because of the glut of editors.

As it stands now, editing can be a very good profession economically, even with the depression of fees. But newer and younger editors do not seem to be doing so well in today’s editorial market, or at least not as well as those of us who have been in the profession for a decade or two (or more). I am constantly amazed at for how little new editors are willing to work.

In a way, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Everyone in the “food” chain seems to devalue editorial skills. Authors and publishers will someday face the problem of a shortage of capable editors. The shortage will be the result of the penurious approach to paying for editing skills that is in force today. Just as fewer people are thinking of entering the legal profession, fewer people will think of entering the editing profession, if barriers are raised.

These barriers to the editing profession will be the need for advanced degrees and the simultaneous depression of pay. Younger generations are much smarter than my generation when it comes to the need for the cost of the education to balance against the financial gain that can be expected as a result of incurring that cost. In my college days, cost was a secondary, if not a tertiary concern — getting the education and degree is what mattered because the more advanced the degree (generally speaking), the higher the income earnings would be.

Can editors still earn the “big” bucks? I’d like to think so, but I’m not really in a good position to know, because my earnings are derived from a combination of factors, not least of which are 30 years’ experience as an editor and consistent application of business principles to what many colleagues consider a craft.

Would I recommend to my children that they become editors? It depends. It depends on how they would approach the profession, how skilled they really are, and what their expectations are.

Would you recommend editing as a profession to your children? Would you do so if an advanced degree were required?


  1. This came up on an editing list recently, and the majority who participated in the discussion seemed to feel that an advanced degree offered no advantage — indeed, a disadvantage in terms of return on investment, just as your article discusses.

    Were I to do it all over again, I would have gotten a bachelor’s degree in some form of communication — I have no degree, and think that would have helped me during earlier years, especially since I started into editing late — but still would likely not go for an advanced degree because of the ROI. And if my child wanted to be an editor, I would advise him or her to start early, get a solid liberal arts education, including basic business courses, and prepare for a lifetime of restricted income. Or else concentrate intensely on a high-tech niche and become a specialist.


    Comment by Carolyn — February 25, 2013 @ 7:07 am | Reply

  2. I find the most important skills the editor brings to the table are organization, humility and “Life” — Organization so they can be the lion over the field at the same time they are the field mouse in the thick of the grass; humility so they can be good with the fact that their best work is only to make someone else look good; and “Life” so they might know the difference between “raising” a building and “razing” one, and that when a character goes to see the Christmas tree in NY they are at Rockefeller Center and not Times Square. I sincerely wish there was a way to train editors that was more efficient that an apprenticeship, but I don’t know of one.


    Comment by conciergemarketingandpublishing — February 25, 2013 @ 10:17 am | Reply

    • I’ve taken on two Linguistics graduates as apprentices last year, but they lacked commitment as they were starting out in their careers which was not related to publishing. My challenge is now finding people who are interested in editing and are willing to commit their time to learning what I’ve learnt.


      Comment by Pauline — February 26, 2013 @ 9:09 am | Reply

      • I’m tempted to edit my own comment. Should not have rushed to post it – saw at least two typos when I hit the Post Comment button :p


        Comment by Pauline — February 26, 2013 @ 9:40 am | Reply

  3. If I had children, I would recommend editing as a profession if they had the interest and the necessary eye for detail, consistency and all the other factors that make up a well-written piece of writing. I would urge them to study what interests them and find either work-study editing opportunities/training or certificate programs in editing to hone that skill. If advanced degrees in editing became the norm, I might suggest getting one, but I wouldn’t make a big deal of it unless I could see that it had become necessary.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — February 25, 2013 @ 10:27 am | Reply

  4. I believe that much of the problems with editing/editors being undervalued in the industry — most of my experience over the past
    3 decades has been in newspaper/magazine rather than book — can be traced to the factors you and respondents cited about
    salary, certainly. However a more overarching issue is that increasingly editors (speaking again of newspapers, magazines)
    are chosen from the ranks of business. X knows how to make money — make him/her publisher or editor in chief! Some of these
    people have never been “in the trenches” as journalists, have never filed a story on deadline or even know the requirements of
    the industry, much less had any academic training as journalists. Many are MBAs with no liberal arts backgrounds — and it shows in the end product. When as the above writer noted, people (including bosses) don’t know the difference between “raze” and
    “raise” or allow stories to report (as one leading daily recently did) “Car could have went over dam” or “they collected stuff animals,” etc., etc. we see the clear results of cutting staff because after all, copy editors aren’t that important….!

    As an editor/GM I’ve had the opportunity to recruit/hire/mentor some great young journalists. The best, as noted, had
    journalism degrees and a solid liberal arts background — familiar with great literature, religions, philosophy. I avoided like
    the plague applicants who instead studied “Communications.” My experience with the latter was that they studied such
    a smorgasbord (film writing, radio, online content development) that they could write sound bites but not be able to correct
    a badly crafted sentence or paragraph, or spot errors in general.

    I think the editing profession will survive and thrive when the colleges and universities are again allowed (by finances)
    to provide that sound and so-necessary liberal arts education, instead of just cranking out degrees that allow the
    graduate solely to earn as much money as he or she can.

    That’s my great hope!


    Comment by Patricia Lynn Morrison — February 25, 2013 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

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