An American Editor

March 18, 2015

So, You Want to Be an Editor — Why?

A few times a year I am asked, “How can I become an editor?” or something along those lines. It is usually a college student who thinks being an editor has a certain amount of mystery and prestige or a person who has lost her job and is looking to make a career shift for whom the idea of working as a freelancer has some mystical appeal who is doing the asking.

I struggle to give an answer that isn’t flippant. I have learned — 31 years later — that being an editor is neither glamorous nor mysterious nor prestigious nor just about anything, except that I love what I do and can’t imagine going into another career. But the key here is “31 years later.” The answer that I need to give has to relate to now, not then.

It is true that I am successful, that I have developed a certain level of reputation for highly skilled, high quality work. But I began my career in the dark ages of editing, when the market was country-centric not global, when consolidation among publishers was still a gleam in corporate accounting’s eye, when pay was actually enough to give you a middle class life, when clients cared about quality and were not hesitant to return a manuscript riddled with questions for the editor.

Today everything is different. Why would you want to become an editor today?

Nothing about freelance editing is easy today. When I started, I was able to get work from a half dozen publishers within an hour and turn down work from another half dozen. Not today. When I started, packagers (i.e., providers of complete services) didn’t really exist. They were starting their birth but they didn’t dominate book publishing like today. In those days, the king of the hill was the typesetter, and the typesetter rarely hired freelance editors. A typesetter might recommend an editor to a publisher, but that would be the extent of it. Today, publishers contract with packagers and basically wash their hands of the production process except to praise or complain.

When I started as a freelance editor, I was contacted by a wonderful woman who was production supervisor for a long-ago-bought-out publisher about doing some medical copyediting. I told her I had zero experience; I was a lawyer by training and experience and my experience in editing was primarily in legal books. She told me not to worry; she would teach me what I needed to know about editing medical books. So I started and never looked back.

That is highly unlikely to happen today. Today, you need to be experienced in the area; no one has time to teach you because in-house staff is overwhelmed as it is. And pray you do not make too many errors today, regardless of the reason. Too many errors (quantity unknown) means you are never called again. In my early days, it was understood that in medical publishing, for example, an experienced editor could give a high-quality edit to three to five pages an hour; today, that is not only not understood, but the demand is for closer to 20 pages an hour and the editing had better be darn close to perfect — and you are to do it for a price that is less than what editors were being paid in 1995.

In those olden days, the in-house editors I worked with understood the concept of “fast, good, cheap”: They understood they could have two of the three but not all three and they chose the two they wanted. What was important was that they didn’t blame the editor for any failings that occurred as a result of the choice they made. Not so today. Today, when errors occur as a result of the demands being made and when those errors are compounded by the bypassing of proofreading, it is the editor who is blamed. Too much is at stake for the client to accept any responsibility.

Also in those olden days, I knew my work was going to be evaluated by someone who actually had command of both the subject matter and the language. If I made a change and was questioned about it, there was no trying to obfuscate my reasoning: I had to be able to defend my decisions because the person asking the question had herself done this type of work for years before becoming a hirer of freelancers. If I am lucky, I will have that same experience today, but the more usual experience is that the person hiring me has had no experience as an editor; they understand the production process thoroughly, but not editing or the subject matter or language (and often their command of the language is poor as it is not their primary language). Consequently, it is difficult to defend a decision because they understand that in some other book some other editor did something else and therefore I must be wrong.

Perhaps even more frustrating is when the client, today, has decided that something must be done a particular way and wants me to confirm that what they want is correct, even though I have told them it is not. The shifting game (i.e., the shifting of responsibility for an editorial decision) is common today. It commonly happens after the fact; that is, I have submitted the edited manuscript and unbeknownst to me, the in-house person makes changes that result in errors, and when the author or ultimate client complains, blames my editing. I’ve had that happen several times in the past couple of years; fortunately, the ultimate client contacted me and I was able to provide a copy of my submitted edited manuscript. But should I have to do this? No.

Of course pay is another stumbling block, especially for new editors. I try to tell editors that you cannot be profitable or earn a decent living by working for a wage that is less than your required effective hourly rate. But it is like talking to a brick wall because they see postings all over the Internet of editors charging very low sums or of editors saying it is better to have poverty work than no work or of “suggested” rate guidelines from pseudo organizations. The rate guidelines are the most difficult obstacle to overcome because some “editorial” organization has published them; consequently, new and wannabe editors think they are the gospel without inquiring as to the data behind them.

But the problem with pay ultimately comes down to the “I can get it cheaper” syndrome, making it a race to the bottom. New editors run that race and lead the pack when they do (although there are any number of “experienced” editors who run that marathon, too).

Finally, there is the matter of prestige (little to none, today) and respect (sometimes even less than none these days). The glamor days of editing are gone. Today, client demands leave little time for an editor to help a promising author achieve stardom. Our job is much more mundane; there is little to no time to nurture an author.

So, you want to be an editor. My question is: Why? If you understand the problems and can articulate the why, then this may be the profession for you. Editing can be a wonderful profession if you enter it with eyes wide open and for the right reasons. Today’s global marketplace has changed the world of freelance editing.

Richard Adin, An American Editor


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