An American Editor

October 14, 2013

What is Editing Worth?

As with all such speculative questions, the answer to “What is editing worth?” depends on who is answering. To me, it is worth many times what I am paid because my efforts help bring focus and understanding to those with whom an author wishes to communicate.

Ask an author, and the answer may well be different. It certainly is different if you ask a publisher, especially a very large publisher. But the answer that surprises me most is that of some academics.

In the past month, I have been asked by three academics to edit their manuscripts. Once the discussion veered toward the money, the jobs were lost.

In each case, the manuscripts were very important to the authors. In one case, it was to be reviewed by the retention committee to determine whether the professor’s contract would be renewed. In a second instance, it was to be reviewed by the tenure committee as part of the process of deciding whether to recommend tenure for this professor. In the third case, the professor was anxious to have the book published by an academic press because the publication would enhance the professor’s career.

In all three instances, it seems to me, quality should be the number one concern. Yet, it wasn’t. The number one concern was cost.

After I made my bids, I was told that my price was higher than that of already-contacted editors who were not hired because of price. As we discussed in “Business of Editing: ‘I Can Get It Cheaper!‘,” I suggested that they keep on searching but lower their expectations.

I also said that it is clear that they think editing has some value, so why, I asked, do they place the value so low? None had a true answer; they had never thought about it in terms of value.

I tried to get across to them the value of reaching the prize each was aiming for– retention, tenure, career enhancement. For each, the prize was very valuable, yet they saw no real value in professional editing help. There was no equilibrium in their calculations. What they saw was that their goals were worthy and valuable and editing was of middling importance compared to those goals. They did not equate quality of editing with achievement of goal.

It is that disconnect that editors fight daily. Novelists often think that self-editing or group editing that costs nothing is sufficient. Few ever think about the books that end up being better sellers and about why they are better sellers. True, a lot more goes into the mix than the editing, but little or bad editing can negatively impact sales, especially with ebooks where a potential buyer can read a sample.

As the professors said goodbye, I asked them to think about the relationship between their manuscript and their future. Although it is true that no editor can guarantee that as a result of the editor’s efforts the author’s goals will definitely be achieved, it is almost certain that in the absence of professional editing the goals will not be achieved. In terms of career and money over the course of the expected career, how valuable is it to achieve tenure? Would you spend the money for an attractive new suit for such an interview or would you wear the jeans and sweatshirt in which you painted your bedroom? Why is editing any different?

Few people argue with the auto mechanic over the cost of installing new brakes when new brakes are needed because the value of having new brakes installed by a knowledgeable mechanic is perceived to exceed the savings that would occur if one were to do the installation one’s self. Most of us view the price for brakes as both worthwhile and nonnegotiable. But having one’s career-forming document edited is viewed differently.

I suspect that much of the problem is the failure of editors to communicate the value of editing well. Certainly, it is a problem that there is no concerted effort to educate people about the value, much like Coca-Cola educates consumers about Coke.

Editors walk the marketing world with their eyes shut. Few editors have ever deeply thought about the Amazon approach to consumerism, yet Amazon has valuable lessons to teach those willing to learn. Amazon spends a lot of money “educating” consumers about its eco system. Ask someone where they plan to buy a book and the answer often comes back as “Amazon.” Even though the same book can be bought elsewhere for a similar price, Amazon is the draw. Why? Because Amazon has, over the years, hammered home that it has the best shopping experience, even if the same item can be found elsewhere for the same or slightly less.

Editors, on the other hand, have not taken the lead and created a “campaign” that has our audience asking first about what matters most: quality. Instead, we have been led by our audience so that cost is the dominating factor in the decision to hire or not hire us. We are not asked to compete on quality but on price, and through our own inaction, we have let others direct the discussion.

As a group, editors have failed to make the case that if a manuscript is important to an author’s career, quality should be the primary, if not the sole, criterion whether or not to hire a particular editor. If we knew we had to take a 3,000-mile drive and that to do it we needed to buy a new car, we would not buy a car because it was the cheapest; we would look for a car that gave us the confidence that it could make such a trip comfortably, safely, and reliably. That is how an editor should be hired; cost should not be ignored but it should be secondary or tertiary to quality.

How do you convince a potential client that quality should be the number one factor in the decision to hire an editor, especially when the material to be edited will impact the author’s career?

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