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

_________________

Other essays of that may be of interest:

15 Comments »

  1. A timely read for me Richard as I am nearly one year into the editing business. The challenges are considerable and though I have established some solid client relationships, finding sufficient quantities of projects in the early stages, coupled with reasonable compensation, I wonder if serving in pub establishments might yield a greater return! When a client publicly and privately comments “what would I do without you” it all seems so worthwhile and rewarding. Your perspective is most interesting.

    Like

    Comment by Don MacIver, RPA, Writer, Editor, Author, Poet — March 18, 2015 @ 5:02 am | Reply

  2. The editor’s life is not unlike the writer’s life, artist’s life, musician’s life, scholar’s life — anyone trying to make it professionally in the arts or humanities in today’s world is likely to have a tough time. There will always be a low percentage who make it to the top, and some who manage to survive and endure, but always a high percentage of those who struggle and fail. Editing is definitely not a profession to choose any more without “eyes wide open and for the right reasons.”

    Best advice I would give a wannabe editor (writer, artist, scholar, etc.) is to marry well, first; or have an established, reliable income before starting out. The ideal many of us followed early in life — do what you love and the money will follow — remains an ideal, not a fact, but it’s an ideal worth pursuing if you can manage the economics of the choice. These days, assertive marketing, rapid work pace, performance quality that supports a high rate, and an arsenal of software tools are key factors in earning a living as an editor.

    Like

    Comment by Carolyn — March 18, 2015 @ 6:36 am | Reply

  3. Another great article full of wonderful insights from you Richard.

    Like

    Comment by Vivek — March 18, 2015 @ 6:57 am | Reply

  4. […] 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 e…  […]

    Like

    Pingback by So, You Want to Be an Editor — Why? | Edi... — March 18, 2015 @ 7:14 am | Reply

  5. I’m new to American Editor — lots to learn here, thanks

    Like

    Comment by Rick Subber — March 18, 2015 @ 7:16 am | Reply

  6. I live in a rural area where commuting can be difficult in the winter. So I took up freelancing because it allowed me to work without commuting. The pay was low, but so were my living expenses, and, believe it or not, I was inspired by an account by poet Hayden Carruth in a book called “Working for Yourself.” He spent a couple of years on a big project that paid $1.25 an hour, but it was steady work and kept his family fed. I followed a similar path, at slightly higher rates (I think the first project paid $7 an hour, which seemed wonderful after newspaper work paying about $4 an hour), but I don’t like hustling to find clients, and by doing good work at less-than-stellar rates, I was able to call up a big client when I sent a project back and get a new one by return mail. My biggest expense was getting a fountain pen (McGraw-Hill had you edit with green ink and use ink eradicator, aka Chlorox, to make changes).

    However, with time, the work became less and less editing and more and more mechanical. Today’s editor has to be good with computer software as well as with language, in addition to the fact that cheap editing seems more important than quality editing, and I find this less appealing and am glad I’m retired from editing. I recently read the Amazon reviews of a book that was self-published, and some readers said it was so poorly edited that they had difficulty following the logic, but most of them apparently didn’t notice and raved about the great writing. This is the problem. Most people accustomed to communicating through Twitter don’t know what good editing is.

    Were I 30 today, I don’t know if I’d want to get into this business at all.

    Like

    Comment by Gretchen — March 18, 2015 @ 8:34 am | Reply

    • Oh, I know! I’ve purchased several Kindle books that clearly had not been read by a single human prior to being published and sold. One I read recently would have been a great mystery novel, had it not been riddled with typos. My usual rule with reviews is “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”, so I haven’t written a review for Amazon. I don’t want to be the reason the book fails, yet it would be good to let others know what a mess it is. One of the ironies of the changed editing environment is that even if self-publishers can’t (or won’t) hire an editor, there are still software tools they could use to catch typos and inconsistencies. That so many don’t even do that suggests they’re either terribly arrogant or appallingly oblivious.

      Like

      Comment by Karin — March 19, 2015 @ 1:09 am | Reply

      • Sometimes those negative reviews have value. My best client published his first book via Smashwords, and even though he took reasonable care with its presentation, and the story got rave reviews, it also garnered many criticisms about sloppy editing and proofreading. So he went editor shopping and came upon me. We work together so well he wants to give me all his novels — two series of at least ten volumes combined. And that ain’t just talk: in eighteen months, I’ve already seen three of them, and they keep getting better.

        I don’t charge him my highest rate because I did what everyone advises against: to secure the work, I quoted low, and now I’m stuck there. But at least it wasn’t scrape-the-bottom-low, and I won on the volume side. We both won, because the situation is mutually beneficial. In subsequent opportunities with new writers, I’ve quoted higher, but I am not getting those jobs more than half the time because of price.

        Like

        Comment by Carolyn — March 19, 2015 @ 6:13 am | Reply

        • Thanks Carolyn. Food for thought!

          Best wishes
          Karin

          Like

          Comment by Karin — March 19, 2015 @ 6:13 pm | Reply

  7. There are two separate topics here – becoming an editor, and being a freelancer. They’re often intertwined, but they can be discussed separately.

    Why become an editor? To make other people’s written work better and exercise any innate skill at doing so. That can be very fulfilling, and it can be done either freelance or in-house. Granted, the landscape for editing work has changed dramatically in recent years for all the reasons Rich provides, but there are still employers and clients who value skilled editing that makes their publications – print, online, internal, external, whatever – more accurate and readable. Being an in-house editor usually (but not always) means having more of the respect of the olden days.

    Being a freelancer is a whole other ball of wax. And trying to be a freelance editor without some training and experience, which we see a lot these days – well, people *will* do it, but they’re unlikely to succeed.

    Like

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — March 18, 2015 @ 11:11 am | Reply

  8. Thank you, Richard Adin, for continuing to tell the truth about what bottom-line corporatism and the clueless technocrats’ “vision” that “all content should be free” have done to bring about the current race to the bottom in book publishing, as in so many other once highly valued fields of occupation. Not to mention the dumbing down of academia, now stuck in its own race to the bottom.

    I don’t mind so much the lower level of literacy of the texts i’m getting to work on; after all, this problem is what my skills are needed for, and it’s just more of what my employment (freelance) has always depended on. What i have found shocking, however, is the expectations from book packagers to deliver good work in impossibly short times for inadequate pay while sorting out, for no pay at all, the administrative and editorial problems that arise from the dysfunctions of outsourcing and of the copyeditor being cut off from direct communication with publishers and authors.

    Honestly, I don’t understand how book packagers, especially now that there are so many of them, manage to be profitable at all, given that they constitute the introduction of another party into a system that used to involve only two–the publisher and the compositor. Do they really save enough simply by using only cheap foreign labor and domestic contract workers and forcing them to sort out among themselves issues that publishers used to sort out in house? Would love to read any thoughts from you on this question.

    Like

    Comment by aletheia33 — March 18, 2015 @ 2:12 pm | Reply

  9. I dabbled in a whole bunch of occupations for twenty years or so before stumbling into editing. Editing feels more like a vocation or calling than a job; it is something I feel compelled to do and find deeply satisfying. You’re right about the marketplace though. Even as a (mostly) in-house editor, I’m often required to do far too much work in far too little time. My employer – a large scientific research organization – tends to assume that editing is an optional afterthought to the writing process, rather than something that should be valued and budgeted for. Much as I love making others’ words shine, I’m grateful to have paid off my debts and saved for the future, as I’m not sure editing is the most sustainable of career paths.

    Thanks for this thoughtful article.

    Like

    Comment by Karin — March 18, 2015 @ 11:32 pm | Reply

  10. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I think you’ve done a very good job of outlining both the potential joys and rewards, and the challenges and frustrations of editing, in particular editing in today’s marketplace.

    Like

    Comment by Janet Hulstrand — March 19, 2015 @ 6:06 pm | Reply

  11. I think “eyes wide open” is the key here. I recall an early mentor saying she knew I would last as an editor when I didn’t run away screaming when she told me what the job entailed. She had talked to many people who thought they knew what she did. When they found out the truth of it, they changed their minds about a new career.

    You’ve done a great job educating people about the realities, and I think that’s what we have to do. It’s up to the experienced people to be up front about what this job entails. Because I love my job. I love being an editor and a freelancer, and I want others to enjoy their jobs just as much. If you enjoy the work, you are much more likely to find success, however you define that.

    Like

    Comment by Katherine Pickett — March 20, 2015 @ 11:40 am | Reply

  12. Reblogged this on Poundbury Editorial Solutions and commented:
    I am starting out as a proofreader and editor and this article has really helped to open my eyes to the realities of the publishing world. It hasn’t put me off, but it will help me to be realistic and expect a difficult first few months. Thank you

    Like

    Comment by Simon Speight — March 24, 2015 @ 5:48 am | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: