An American Editor

February 5, 2014

The Business of Editing: Worth in the Decision-Making Process

Within the past few weeks I had a single experience that was an initial up and a subsequent down. It is not that I haven’t had this type of experience before; rather, this time I had a little bit more information and so the experience registered with me at a different level of consciousness.

In the beginning…

I received a call from a publisher who was having a very unhappy experience with the editing of a series of books. The final straw had arrived, and the publisher called me to ask about my availability. The deal was somewhat typical of many of the convoluted deals I experience in today’s global editing world.

  • The publisher was not actually doing the hiring; its packager was responsible for the editing (and composition).
  • The author–series editor was unhappy and had been unhappy with the editing of the past several books in the series and wondered why I hadn’t been hired to do the editing. (I had edited the first book in the series and the author–series editor was pleased with my work on that first book.)
  • The publisher intended to strongly suggest to the packager that it hire me for this book, if I was available.

I advised the publisher that I would make myself available and would be interested in the project as it fit within my specialty of large projects. Consequently, the publisher made the suggestion to the packager and the packager contacted me.

The packager made an offer, which was not acceptable. I advised the packager of the terms under which I would accept the project, which terms included payment, schedule, page counting, and fee. The initial stumbling block was the fee. The packager’s offer was too low. The packager said it would contact the publisher because the amount I was asking was more than was authorized. We never got past the fee.

Eventually, the packager notified me that the publisher would not authorize the increased amount and so I would not get the project. As far as I was concerned, that was not a problem and it even worked out well as not an hour later, I was contacted by another publisher offering a larger project at a higher fee. But back to the original tale…

Because it was the publisher who originally contacted me, I kept the publisher in the loop by sending blind copies of my correspondence with the packager to the publisher. As it turned out, the publisher had authorized the increased fee. How do I know? Because the publisher called me, told me so, and asked if I would still be available if the miscommunication with the packager was straightened out. The publisher expressed surprise that the packager had made the decision on its own.

In the end, I did not get the project — to the publisher’s surprise, the packager told me no and immediately found someone else to do the project without consulting the publisher — but I did come to realize how differently various parties to the decision-making process view the worth of editors and editing. It is likely that the tale would have been simpler had the publisher originally set a price for editing that was commensurate with both the needs of the job and what the publisher wanted and needed both editorially and politically. In such event, the publisher would have had the packager contact me and the price would already have been “agreed to.”

But pricing is rarely set by those on the frontlines. The price decision is usually made by someone whose only contact with the project is a balance sheet. Although there may be flexibility in the price decision, it requires back-and-forth communication and justification, causing delay, which also affects other project aspects, such as schedule.

Yet it also raises another possibility. If the intermediary can obtain services for less than the approved price, who, if anybody, reaps the benefit of the difference between the accepted price and the available price?

More importantly, it raises the question of worth. What role does worth have in the decision-making process? For example, what is it worth to have a happy author? Or to know from experience with a particular editor that if you pay a little more you are unlikely to have to spend money fixing erroneous editing or consoling an irate author?

Worth is a two-way street.

Worth is not only involved in the question of how much should be offered to the editor, but how much should the editor require. I knew that the packager would have no problem finding an editor who would jump at the opportunity to do the project for the original price. I also know that at the original price and the level of editing required and the schedule to be met (remember that I had already done one book in the series), the editing could not be high quality — the combination of factors simply prohibits it; if it didn’t, I would have said yes immediately.

Which makes me wonder what is the worth of editing to editors?

If we value our services too cheaply are we not perpetuating the low-pay plague that has befallen editing as a result of globalization of editorial services and the rise of the transformative packaging industry? At what point does editing become a mere commodity, where an oversupply of editors forces the cost of editing downward because “editing is editing”? Unlike the maple syrup market, there is no market based on gradations; rather, “editing is editing” and all that matters is cost and speed as there is nothing to distinguish grades of quality.

Isn’t this what the indie author market has been telling editors since the explosion of the ebook and self-publishing market? That editing is editing and only price matters? Isn’t this what is both put forward and reinforced on forums like LinkedIn where editors are told they charge too much and too many are not good editors or don’t understand editing and the sacrosanctness of the author’s words as written and misspelled/misused; that authors can do better by self-editing or peer editing; that “I lost [dislike] my job and so am thinking of becoming an editor.” And let us not forget those editors who move us along that path by proclaiming to the world that they will provide not only a “perfect” edit, but do so for as little as 25¢ a page.

Increasingly, editing is viewed as having little financial value (worth). Increasingly, editors are shoring up that belief. It becomes particularly troublesome to me when I see that the ultimate client (in my tale, the publisher) is willing to extend itself but the intermediary is unwilling to take advantage of that willingness and is unwilling to provide the service that the ultimate client wants.

The problem of worth is hydra-headed; the solution requires cooperation of a type that will never be in the passionately independent world of editing, which world also suffers the plague of easy entry. I have my own solution: I provide high-quality editing in a form that allows me to specialize. As a consequence, although clients pay me more, they save other expenses that they would have to otherwise incur, and so find in my services that balance of cost and worth.

Where are you in this editing world?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. […] The problem of worth is hydra-headed; the solution requires cooperation of a type that will never be in the fiercely independent world of editing that also suffers from the plague of ease of entry….  […]


    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Worth in the Decision-... — February 5, 2014 @ 7:20 am | Reply

  2. AE asked us: “Where are you in this editing world?”

    I am eight years into crawling up from the bottom and still formulating my niche in order to attract and appropriately serve the best clients. Effort and perseverance have gotten me to the point where I can finally turn down some work, and win some of the better-paying jobs, but my ultimate financial goal still eludes me. I may never get there, but giving up is not an option. I found my ideal career just as the industry started to collapse and reinvent itself, which hurts and angers me. However, that emotional response doesn’t change things, so Cope We Must.

    I have split opinions on the “worth” issue, because I’ve faced it from different directions. For instance, as a writer, I can’t afford me as an editor! But to make a living as an editor, I’ve had to take work for lower pay just to survive. I therefore resent the continual blaming of people who accept less as the cause of rate deflation for everyone. Too many causes are at play.

    To get where I am now, I had to start somewhere, and the lower tiers gave me that place to start. If all editing opportunities were high-pay with no established and regulated entry path, then yeah, it would knock out a lot of people now cluttering the field — but it would also create barriers for others who should be there.

    Since we don’t have the academic and licensing or apprenticeship channels that winnow out the underqualified as in other occupations, we have a free-for-all jungle that creates its own tiers. Work opportunities exist across a broad range, with more on the low end, which I believe will always be true. Conversely, editing is and always will be a value-added service and thus in competition with higher- and lower-priced vital services.

    When I got laid off from the job that launched me into freelancing, “value added” was the reason. I had the skills to perform four people’s jobs in one package, which I thought would make me economically desirable to the company; but it chose to keep those four people instead, because they provided core functions that contributed directly to the company’s revenues. I was a pure-overhead luxury item that the bean counters couldn’t justify, because the customer base was not complaining about the quality of our print product. They cared about the quality of the tangible products they sold, which they marketed to the customers via the print product.

    Now working in book land, I still am a luxury service and will remain so, regardless of my personal opinion about the gross decline in quality of language and presentation, and demand for same. Ergo, the challenge for editors, as AE has often pointed out, is to create and sustain our own value in a hostile economy.

    Had there been an academic/licensing/apprenticeship path available, I probably could have gotten my ex-employer to pay for it as part of compensatory retraining. Lacking that, I had to either change careers at 50 or drop into the freelance pool at the deep end and swim or drown. The folks we all complain about who are devaluing the field inadvertently did me a favor: They created a background for me to shine against in contrast. And the explosion of publishing venues, and people pumping content through them, have created an enormous pool of opportunity to swim through.

    At this point I believe it’s our job to find and earn what we want from those opportunities, making our value worth it to our clients.


    Comment by Carolyn — February 5, 2014 @ 7:57 am | Reply

  3. I think the indie market has been saying that editing is unnecessary because only cost matters, even though readers often find that to be a fallacy.

    I find Rich’s recent experience fascinating because it’s illustrative on several levels. The main point to me is that the packager used someone else – even though the publisher wanted Rich’s services and was willing to pay for them as Rich required – and lied to Rich about the matter. If I were that publisher, I’d fire that packager. Not only was the packager not providing the quality the publisher and authors desired, but the packager both lied to Rich and went against the publisher’s wishes. This isn’t so much a matter of an editor’s worth as a matter of honesty and good business practice by a member of a team.

    As for demonstrating or proving, and being paid for, our worth, I agree that it’s getting harder to do all the time. It’s the same on the writing side of the coin. A local magazine that had been paying 45 cents/word for writing (which isn’t great, but was the best local market in town) just started paying only 15 cents/word because a new competitor has entered the market and is only paying 10 to 15 cents/word. Both are fun to write for. Neither is paying what a truly professional writer feels is appropriate. There no longer is the leverage of the 45-center to use with the 15-center because now they’re both 15-centers.

    I don’t know what we can do about any of this other than continue to look and work for clients who value our skills and pay us decently. Those clients are out there, but they’re getting harder and harder to find.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — February 5, 2014 @ 9:49 am | Reply

    • “Not only was the packager not providing the quality the publisher and authors desired, but the packager both lied to Rich and went against the publisher’s wishes.”

      Yeah, I thought that was interesting, too. I used to work for packagers, and they were always adamant about not being able to negotiate rate, blaming it on the publisher. Never dawned on me that they might be lying. Now my trust factor has been damaged; are all of them doing the same thing?


      Comment by Carolyn — February 5, 2014 @ 10:01 am | Reply

      • No, not all of them are like that. I work with one packager whose praises I cannot sing often enough. They are great to work for, they do not mislead, and will even go to bat for an editor. As with everything else, there are good and bad. You just have to ferret out the bad, which isn’t always easy to do.


        Comment by americaneditor — February 5, 2014 @ 10:09 am | Reply

    • I do not think the publisher should fire the packager unless the editor the packager hired proves unsatisfactory. Remember that the responsibility to choose and hire an editor was, by contract, with the packager; all the publisher could do was suggest that I be hired and agree to pay my additional fee. If the editor hired by the packager does a good job, then all is well and the publisher should have little complaint; should the editor not do a good job, then the publisher should not use the packager again.


      Comment by americaneditor — February 5, 2014 @ 10:06 am | Reply

  4. I find this a very timely discussion because yesterday I was offered a job from a packager that I found insulting. It was a scholarly book for one of the world’s top academic presses. The book is more than 100,000 words, has hundreds of footnotes, and a complicated, multi-page bibliography. The packagers sent me two style guides totaling more than 100 pages to use in this project. The project manager told me I was expected to contact the author directly, send him all my edits and then incorporate all his replies before sending the manuscript back to the production editor. Then an index would be created using keywords and I would be expected to edit the index. All for a penny a word!

    I have edited and will continue to edit for a penny a word if it is feasible to make a decent hourly rate. But there is no way I could do that on a manuscript this complicated, particularly if I am expected to do the back and forth communication with the author. What really upset me about this offer is that I know this press does not sell cheap books, and I know the author most likely spent years of his life researching and creating it and is excited to have it published by this prestigious press. But I can’t imagine he will have a well-edited book. And it made me start to wonder whether the press knows how much the packager is offering for the editing. I’m certain the author doesn’t.

    And that seems like it may be the place to start in this process, at least in the scholarly publishing field. If authors who have poured their hearts and souls into these books start complaining about the editing, then maybe the press will have to listen. And complaints should also be coming from the end users, who have likely spent hundreds of dollars, or asked their students to spend hundreds of dollars, on a particular text. I think right now authors and readers just blame the editors for being not very good. Most of them still believe their editors are employees of the publishing house. They have no idea that the prices being paid for editing are driving skilled editors out of the field.

    It’s up to us to let them know.


    Comment by Tammy Ditmore — February 5, 2014 @ 10:58 am | Reply

  5. […] And last, but not least, Rich Adin of the An American Editor blog (another great one to subscribe to), writes about how we and others see the worth of editors and editing. […]


    Pingback by AfterWords Editorial – Partnership, Indexing and Taxonomy — February 5, 2014 @ 2:07 pm | Reply

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