An American Editor

May 21, 2014

The Business of Editing: Does the Trend Ever Go Up?

Let’s set the stage with the following two music videos. They aren’t really on point, but they do broadly cover the theme. First up is “Money, Money, Money” by Abba.

Next up are Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in the classic “Money” from the film Cabaret.

Now that the stage is set, let’s talk money.

I was contacted by a potential new client recently (for ease of writing, I will refer to the company as if it is a client). The client needed a couple of large medical books edited and wondered if I would be available. After saying that I would be available depending on schedule and other terms, we started discussing terms.

The client indicated that a new process would be inaugurated with these books. No longer would the editor do any type coding or deal in any way with references. In addition, the editor would not have to convert any words from British spelling to American spelling (or vice versa); the client would have someone else deal with these “mechanical aspects.” The editor’s sole role would be to provide a “language” edit.

Consequently, the client believed that the following should be agreeable:

  1. The definition of a page could be changed so that more data constituted a page; and
  2. My usual fee could be reduced by more than one-third.

Needless to say, we hit a snag immediately.

Our competing definitions of what constitutes a page were not so divergent that we could not eventually come to an agreement. Truly, we were very close. But the reduction in fee was another matter.

I wish I could say that this was the first client to think this way; unfortunately, it seems to be a trend. There is something amiss when clients think that not requiring the editor to type code (or apply styles) amounts to a significant amount of work savings. I tried to explain to the client that in a 500-page manuscript, the type coding could be done in about an hour and often less, especially with the use of Code Inserter in EditTools (or, in the case of styles, Style Inserter, which is now in beta testing).

It is true that if an editor does not have to format references that could be a significant timesaver, but that depends on many factors, including how many references there are. More importantly, however, as I explained to the client, if the editor does not have to deal with the references, then the references are not included in the page count calculation or, the if fee is hourly, in the number of hours spent editing. In other words, it is no different than if the manuscript has no references.

But this “new” process leaves a lot of things undecided. For example, if the author uses “recognize” five times then uses “recognise” once, who changes the British spelling to American spelling? If it is not the “language” editor, then how does the “someone else” find the incorrect version? Similarly, if the editor is no longer responsible for determining head levels, how does “someone else” determine whether a head should be a primary or a subsidiary head?

As for references, if the editor is no longer responsible for them, who determines whether the reference is called out in the text, is complete, or is appropriate to the material at the callout location?

The list goes on.

There seems to be a misunderstanding, perhaps, a willful one, about what an editor does and what it takes to do certain tasks in the editing process. For example, an editor doesn’t willy-nilly assign head levels. The editor reads the material and determines its rank in the scheme of the manuscript. It is not possible to determine a head level without having read the preceding and following explanatory material. So, unless the author has marked the manuscript, someone has to read it to determine head levels. And what about whether a list should be bulleted, numbered, or unnumbered, or material should be quote indented, or myriad other things that can only be determined by reading the manuscript.

Yet the client thinks that these are “just mechanical” tasks that can be separated from the “language editing” and because the editor is no longer responsible for those tasks, the editing is much easier and thus worth less.

I have always viewed the editor’s role as primarily that of “language” editing. The editor needs to help an author with message delivery. Yes, the editor also does some mechanical things, like type coding, but they are incidental to the editing, not a major (or perhaps even significant) part of the editor’s job.

Thus, I explained to the client, although the editor is relieved of some rote work, the relief doesn’t amount to a great deal in terms of what the editor does. A professional editor is hired not to type code or look up references for missing information, even if the editor does that work. The professional editor is hired to police the language of the manuscript, to help the author deliver his or her message clearly and accurately. Consequently, the editor’s fee is not based on whether a job includes or excludes type coding, but on the editor’s language skills and experience.

Alas, increasingly I am seeing these arguments fall on deaf ears. Publishers and packagers have learned and taken the wrong lesson from the offshoring of editorial work. The lesson learned is that editorial work can be done more cheaply; the lesson not learned is that there has to be a balance between fees paid for editing and the quality of the editing. The lower the fee paid, the lower the quality that should be expected.

A professional editor knows that she must earn a certain amount per hour in order to make ends meet and produce a profit. This is a fundamental rule (equation) of all businesses: it is not enough to have work, the work must be profitable. If you cut my fee by one-third, how many more pages must I churn per hour in order to make up for that cut? Presumably, the uncut fee level represents the amount I must earn to be profitable.

I find this mindset difficult to change, although I keep trying. It is worrisome to me that the trend is to bring more work onshore because of perceived quality problems yet to offer editors the offshore price, with the thought that the client can receive onshore quality for offshore pricing. That is a no-win formula for both the client and the editor.

Just when I thought it was getting better for professional editors, the trend downslope returns.

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. An interesting piece, Rich. I recently had a similar experience with regard to a potential proofreading job. The author wanted a “quick punctuation check – it’s mainly my comma usage that’s the problem, I think.” After further discussion, I gave him an approximate idea of how long the work would take, and the price that would accord with this, based on my average proofreading speed, so that he had a ballpark figure to work with. “Will it really take that long? I don’t need you to actually read it. I just need you to check the punctuation. Surely this will speed things up and reduce the price.” I had to explain that in order to make good judgements about the punctuation I did indeed need to read the text – like your example with the headings, my punctuation decisions would not be willy-nilly. They would be made in the context of understanding the language and the meaning. We couldn’t agree on terms and I wished him well in his search for an alternative supplier. Underlying this was a poor understanding on the client’s part of even the basic requirements for a satisfactory job and the incorrect notion that some perceived mechanical problem could be dealt with in isolation from the work as a whole.


    Comment by Louise Harnby | Proofreader — May 21, 2014 @ 7:51 am | Reply

    • I don’t understand how a writer thinks someone can correct punctuation without reading the whole manuscript. That makes no sense. Does he think an editor only needs to search for sentences with commas? That leaves out sentences that need commas. Shaking head.


      Comment by janarzooman — May 22, 2014 @ 7:28 am | Reply

  2. Perhaps if enough of us turn down work for ridiculous fees (and keep trying to educate clients on what a real edit or proof really is), the trend might slowly inch up again …


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — May 21, 2014 @ 9:07 am | Reply

  3. great piece. has anyone on this blog ever discussed, or does anyone know, what the familiar phrase “mechanical aspects” actually means? in 30 years of copyediting i have yet to get a clear answer from any publisher or figure it out.


    Comment by aletheia33 — May 21, 2014 @ 1:49 pm | Reply

  4. I’ve worked on journal articles that have had “time-saving” software applied to them — and the results often look like no human was involved in the process. Sometimes they use software that automates reference checking and styling. I always have to check and style the references again anyway, often redoing things that the software had done erroneously (like missing mismatches or incorrectly flagging something as missing when it was just a spelling or year error and should be queried appropriately). I use all the time-saving software and add-ins that I can, but I use tem as tools that I control, not simply blunt instruments, as some clients do. Even when there is a human involved, it is often an editorial assistant who was just hired or an intern — in neither case as familiar as I am with the work! I once had to redo a style sheet that a publisher had helpfully sent me. My contact at the publisher had questioned some of “my” choices on my style sheet, and I told him that those were just carried over from the list he had supplied to me. He said an ed. asst. had created the list, and I should disregard it from then on! At least this client appreciated the fact that, after working on their books for several years in a niche field, I was more familiar than the ed. asst.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — May 22, 2014 @ 12:39 am | Reply

  5. I’ve had better luck with rates from clients who have never offshored work. They’re usually smaller publishers and other types organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit. They’re looking more for quality and are willing to pay for it, because their own clientele are apparently willing to pay as well. It’s always a risk spending time on price negotiations with a new client. I’ve tried to streamline the process and do sometimes spend time educating clients. It recently worked when I won a bid job with what was not the lowest bid. What I learned from that is that it is sometimes worth the time, but even better to streamline my estimating process so I can respond and if necessary do some negotiating without taking undue time away from ongoing work. Always a balancing act.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — May 22, 2014 @ 12:50 am | Reply

  6. Anybody who wants to “offshore” anything should first try to deal with “offshored” Customer so-called Assistance. I’m reminded of what happened with some of the cheaper paperbacks shortly after the introduction of the spell checker. Often hilarious, but…


    Comment by anansii — May 27, 2014 @ 12:06 am | Reply

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