An American Editor

June 3, 2015

Going, Going, Gone…

Recently, what many consider a very mediocre Picasso painting sold at art auction for $179 million, setting a new record for a single painting. In the art market, bidding raises the price and reflects perceived marketplace value, at least to a degree. Contrast this to the editorial market in which bidding lowers the price, reflecting perceived marketplace value.

In both markets there is a glut of “artists”/“editors” but a dearth of “collectible”/“quality” “artists”/“editors.” Yet each market responds differently. Therein lies the tale of perception: a Picasso is considered valuable regardless of its quality simply because it is a Picasso; the quality adds to the value, but the “painted by Picasso” establishes that the price it will command will be higher, not lower. In contrast, editing is viewed as the “anyone can do it” skill and thus not worth much.

What perplexes me about the editorial market is that there is one at all. In the case of collectible art, there are two markets: the auction market and the retail market. In the retail market, if a painting is deemed worth collecting, then the artist’s price (or something close to it) is paid; if the painting is not considered collectible, it is ignored — it is not purchased because someone says “Well, people need to have this painting.”

In the editorial market, the service is thought necessary to have but only at the lowest possible price. Better to have someone wholly unskilled in editing edit a manuscript than to have the manuscript professionally edited at a higher price. The logic eludes me.

I was always taught that if it is worth doing, then it is worth doing well; if it is not worth doing well, then it is not worth doing. That concept contravenes the philosophy of the editorial market, which can be summed up as: editing is worth doing only if it is done very inexpensively. Editors have failed to justify their value in the marketplace.

Books are the primary means of communicating complex ideas from person to person, generation to generation. Even politicians who rely on visual communication to spread their message among voters write books to explain their thoughts and background in detail. A “sound bite” is important but the foundation of civilization is the written word. More information is communicated in one day in writing than is communicated in one year in movie form. Yet editors are less valued than actors.

With our reliance on written communication, I would think that editors could command prices that better reflect their skills, but that is not how the market works. It is clear that the primary factor in deciding whether to hire an editor is price, not skill and not need.

Discussions with colleagues about pricing usually ends with the lament that the price we can charge a client today is the same price we were able to charge that client in 1995. Factor in inflation and you soon discover that editors are being paid less today than they were paid in 1995 but that the work we are expected to do for that pay has increased. At minimum, if our services were valued, we would have kept up with inflation.

Interestingly, this flatlining of fees seems to apply across the board; that is, it doesn’t appear to make a difference whether the client is an individual or corporation. I suspect that a good part of the reason for this is the ease of entry into the profession, which has led to a significant increase in the number of minimally qualified editors who are willing to work for ever lower amounts.

I began this essay by comparing editorial bidding to art bidding. There is a significant difference between the two that needs mentioning: When you bid on an artwork, you see the finished artwork in all its glory or lack of glory — the point is that the bidder gets precisely what she sees. In contrast, the user of editorial services contracts for those services in the hope (expectation) that what he will receive after completion of editing equals what he hoped (expected) in terms of skill level.

The rejoinder that editors make is “I can/will provide a sample edit.” Unfortunately, sample edits are not all that editors say they are and they do not consider the likelihood that the recipient of the sample may not really be capable of judging the quality of the editing. The problem is that editing is fluid. The art world often can agree on a painting’s quality, even if its value is the subject of a war of words. Even those of us whose knowledge of art is minimal can agree, for example, that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is an outstanding painting or that Michaelangelo’s David is a magnificent sculpture.

Editing is different. How do we judge whether it is good editing or bad editing or indifferent editing to use since when because is meant or use about when approximate is meant or when the serial comma is omitted? How do we determine in advance that editor A will catch all misspellings but not all cliches whereas editor B may catch fewer misspellings but has the ability to turn uninspired prose into memorable prose consistently?

The sample edit makes certain assumptions, five of which are: First, that the material chosen for the sample is the best material to demonstrate the editor’s editing skills. Second, that the person reviewing the editor’s work is knowledgeable enough to know whether the editor has improved or not improved the sample. Third, the editor is actually demonstrating the skill set that the reviewer seeks to test or that the reviewer is seeking to test a skill set that is actually appropriate for the type of editing being performed. Fourth, that both the reviewer and the editor define the editor’s role similarly. (How many times have you been hired to do a copyedit but what is really wanted is a developmental edit?) Fifth, that the sample is, in fact, representative of the problems the editor can expect to encounter and address should she get the editing job. Sample editing makes additional assumptions about the editor, about the reviewer, and about the project, but the foregoing five assumptions illustrate the problem and why sample editing is not always an indicator of the quality of the services an editor will provide.

This is the conundrum editors have faced for decades: How do we get clients to recognize in advance the true value of the services we will have rendered when editing is complete? What is your solution?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. My solution is, in fact, the sample edit. I do not possess the salesmanship skills to persuade prospects that my work is worth their money; but when I show what I will do to their prose, then they can judge whether they want to pay for that. Once I started offering sample edits as part of my quote process, my success rate in landing new work jumped exponentially.

    Sample edits are for indie prospects; editing tests, for publisher prospects, serve the same purpose. You show your skill and style in their frame of reference, and pass muster or not. In the process, you get a sense of what the work will be and how the people will be to work with before anyone signs any contracts.

    It’s not the best way to guarantee mutual satisfaction, but it’s the only one I know of, and has saved me and my clients a lot of grief.

    On a different point raised above: “I was always taught that if it is worth doing, then it is worth doing well; if it is not worth doing well, then it is not worth doing.” This is an excellent goad for people to pursue quality and integrity in their chosen endeavors. However, taking it literally creates a black-and-white outlook that excludes much of the population, who are not capable of doing things at high level. There are many things they want or must to do regardless of how well they can do them; should they not act at all if they’re not any good? The world would not go around if that were the case. As for editing in particular, we wouldn’t have a job if all authors wrote well.


    Comment by Carolyn — June 3, 2015 @ 6:06 am | Reply

  2. The general trend toward lower pay is not unique to the editing profession. It’s endemic in U.S. society and is part of the decades-long trend of income disparity here, meaning the gap between the income of middle-class people and ultrarich people. My book group just watched and discussed Richard Reich’s documentary “Inequality for All,” which I highly recommend. (Not a book, I know; our sight-impaired member chooses a video once a year. Audiobooks take a longer time to “read” than print books.) I knew that this was happening, but this documentary really lays it out well.

    I fight against it in my own way, but I’m getting tired of it. I’m tired of explaining that an editor with more than 20 years experience and a high skill level in my fields of expertise can and should command more compensation than a newbie. I’m tired of *some* institutional clients who want ever increasing busy work from the copyeditors and then get mad when the CEs miss things like putting a period at the end of a sentence and subject-verb agreement, because they’ve gotten so caught up in, for example, formatting just about every other character. (I didn’t miss those things on the job I’m referring to, but got the general email that some of the CE “team” were.) I had to give up that contract work, which was to go from March to at least August, because all the busy work was causing me repetitive motion symptoms. Data-entry-type work is not what a CE should be doing; anyone without the slightest bit of editorial skill could be trained to do that sort of work. The client could have had all the busy work done by the typesetter, who would have no doubt charged for this work, but it’s cheaper to throw it at the CEs who were working at fixed page rates!


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — June 3, 2015 @ 9:23 am | Reply

  3. I don’t know what the solution is. I make a point of looking for and working with clients who already understand that editing is valuable and worth paying a decent rate for, but it isn’t easy to find such clients.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — June 3, 2015 @ 10:34 am | Reply

  4. I try to do the same, Ruth. I’m working on a project right now with a new client, a professional society, and the project manager is great to work with and values my work. But I find that I’m increasingly having to deal with the other type of clients, per my comment above, and either try to make such projects pay, bow out gracefully, or not take them at all.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — June 3, 2015 @ 10:59 am | Reply

  5. I do think that freelancing is complicating the matter, and I say that as a freelance editor. Even while professional organizations try to set prices that come close to accurately valuing the work of professional editors, the diverse array of entrants into the market, and the low barriers to entry, mean that you can always find someone willing to do it cheaper. It’s an uphill battle to get people to see the value in invisible work. If the majority of humans believe that anyone can write, because most of us write something every day, how much harder is it to convince them that editing is a professional set of skills?


    Comment by Richard B — June 3, 2015 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

  6. Well, this is depressing. Sometimes those irritating (disrespectful), low-paying clients make me want to ask why they don’t just run the spell check and be done with it. If it’s so easy, their computers should be able to complete the job successfully. Unlike with an electrician’s or plumber’s job, an author can’t immediately see the benefits of a competent edit. What’s the solution? National certification? Sales training for editors? Maybe we should start an Angie’s List for editors instead.


    Comment by Carla Lomax — June 4, 2015 @ 10:52 am | Reply

  7. I’m a tyro who is working very hard (as my instructors, classmates, and family can attest), and spending as much as I can afford, to learn how to provide high-quality copyediting and uphold the standards of the industry. It’s difficult to enter the field as a newbie, especially at a time when freelancing is the best option for work. This blog posting highlights the conundrum I face: I can’t charge as much as an experienced copyeditor; but if I charge the value of my novice services, I’ll lowball those who can (and should) charge more. Yet I’m banking on the chance I’ll be able to get work, despite my inexperience, because of my lower prices. The paradox makes me lose sleep.

    I’ve wondered if one solution might be an apprenticeship requirement in which veterans mentor and teach newbies before we’re unleashed on the writing public. All business would flow through the established copyeditor, who would oversee the work of the apprentice and pay the fledgling a percentage based on completed editing. After a certain number of words successfully edited by the apprentice (a bit like flight hours logged?), the veteran could issue a stamp of approval that would entitle the new copyeditor to fly solo—and to set a higher value for subsequent copyediting services.


    Comment by Ranee Boyd Tomlin — June 4, 2015 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

  8. Are there any courses in editing that people can take off or on-line. If an editor can show that he has finshed and passed such a course, it would help with job interviews – but I’ve never heard of such a course. Maybe there are coures in grammar etc. Does anybody know, as I would like to take a course to improve my editing, which I have been doing for 10 years now, as still some of my clients ‘double-check’ my editing by giving a few pages that I have edited to someone else to check. The results of such ‘double checking’ and the comments the ‘new editor’ suggests is that I take a full day just replying to the comments in order to defend myself – double checking different grammar rules etc on the interent, and often just adding that each editor has her/his own style. Does anyone have any idea about courses I could take, please?


    Comment by um Abdullah — June 5, 2015 @ 3:26 am | Reply

    • There are many such courses out there. Here are two resources, among many: The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) has an education program and offers a variety of course several times a year ( You don’t have to be a member of EFA to take a course, most of which are online. The University of California – San Diego has a certification program in copyediting. Erin Brenner, one of the guest bloggers here, is an instructor in that program (

      Google on “editing courses” or “copyediting courses” and look for the ones that sound most reputable — those that colleges or universities or established organizations offer, and look at reviews of the programs. There might be a hefty investment of money involved, so shop carefully. You may or may not be able to gain the skills that you need for free.

      For self-study, you could ready Amy Einsoln’s excellent book, The Copyeditor’s Handbook, and, of course, the style guide that many publishers use, The Chicago Manual of Style.

      Hope this helps!


      Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — June 5, 2015 @ 11:10 am | Reply

  9. Reblogged this on ijaz5.


    Comment by ijaz5 — June 6, 2015 @ 6:12 am | Reply

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