An American Editor

December 2, 2015

Market Magic: The In-Tandem Duo — Declining Price & Declining Quality

There is a disconnect in the editorial marketplace. The disconnect occurs at several levels but is most prominent when a publisher outsources production and editorial work to a single provider (a packager), often an offshore provider, that promises to deliver high-quality editing at a price lower than the publisher itself can get directly in the editorial market it wants tapped (e.g., a U.S. publisher wanting a U.S. editor).

The disconnect occurs because the packager has not first determined that, when tapping the publisher’s desired editor market, it can obtain and deliver the promised quality for a price even lower than the price it promised the publisher. The disconnect also occurs because the publisher has misbudgeted for a manuscript’s editorial work on the basis of the packager’s representations.

There is a line below which quality and price decrease as one, and packagers have been embracing that downward trajectory for short-term gains, at the expense of long-term survival and growth. If the reports are correct, many packagers are facing revenue and growth problems — the long-term penalty is now starting to be paid for their having focused on the short term. They have entered that cycle in which they must continue to promise low editorial costs (sometimes even lower than previously promised) in exchange for more short-term business. However, the packagers increasingly find that they cannot hire the better editors and so return to the publisher lower-quality editing (often, much lower quality) than was promised. The editorial members of the publisher’s staff are unhappy, but the accounting staff remains unmoved.

As a result, the publisher continues to budget low prices for high-quality editing because the packager continues to represent that it can provide that level of editing using the publisher’s preferred editors at the lower price, a price that the publishers themselves cannot get in the editorial marketplace for high-quality editing. (One publisher, for example, budgets $1.25 per manuscript page for high-level editing and lesser amounts for “normal” editing; a second publisher budgets less than $1 per page based on promises from its packagers. In both instances, the publishers have expressed their dissatisfaction with the quality of editing their books have received, making the relationship with the packager less secure than the packager requires, and sometimes the publishers will insist that the editing be redone at the packager’s expense using specifically named editors.)

What the publisher ignores is that if it pays the packager $2 per page for editing, the packager pays the editor significantly less as the packager retains some of the price for its own coffers. The publisher also ignores that it has required the packager to hire skilled editors from a certain editorial marketplace. For example, it is not unusual for a U.S. publisher to insist that “a U.S. editor” be hired, without considering whether a U.S. editor who delivers the level of editing quality the publisher wants can be hired for the amount that the packager will offer to pay. (A companion problem is that publishers will tell a packager that a particular manuscript requires a “high” or “medium” edit “by a U.S. editor,” but neither the publisher nor the packager adjusts the editing price so that it matches the editing expectations.)

The result is that between the packager’s actions and the publisher’s acquiescence in and promotion of the packager’s actions, neither the packager’s promise nor the publisher’s expectation of high-quality editing comes about. As the price paid to the editor declines, so does the quality of the edit. (We are addressing just the effect of pricing on quality and ignoring the effect of scheduling.)

Recently, I was discussing future projects with a publisher. The publisher needs — not just wants — the particular manuscripts to receive a high-quality edit. The problem is that we are a universe apart on fee. The budgeters at the publisher have become accustomed to the prices paid to packagers and have decided to reduce those already low prices by 15% as part of a cost-saving measure. Apparently, many of the packagers they work with have agreed to that price lowering. The result is that while the publisher is willing to pay me more directly, its “more” is what it was paying the packagers before the new lower fee. The budgeters consider those rates the “standard.” They are immune to complaints about the poor editorial quality from in-house editorial staff and from authors and purchasers of the publisher’s books.

The packagers have set marketplace expectations without having determined beforehand whether they can deliver. Those expectations have leaked so as to infect relationships with nonpackagers, and when publishers deal directly with editors so that they can ensure the quality they want and need, they are unprepared to face the cost.

Unfortunately for packagers, the expectations they have created are beginning to harm their businesses. In discussions with colleagues, I find that many of the better-skilled editors are resisting, preferring to pass on work that is too low priced. This is, I think, a result of editors becoming more businesslike and actually understanding what they require to run a profitable business. Over the years, packagers have been both a bane and a boon to editors: a bane because of the high demands for low pay, but a boon because they have forced editors to increasingly recognize that they are a business and must act like a business.

I am finding that packagers are increasingly, albeit slowly, becoming flexible about editing fees — although the range of flexibility is not wide — as long as the majority of projects are still undertaken at the “standard” price. But that there is any flexibility speaks volumes about the long-term problems of the packager industry’s business plan; not so long ago, a packager faced with a demand for higher pay would simply say “no” and move the project to another editor. What they have found is that, as with all things in life, some editors have better skills than other editors and are more appropriate for a particular project; that is, editors are not wholly interchangeable — an experienced medical editor is likely to do a better editing job on a medical tome than an editor whose experience has been primarily in historical romance fiction. Both may be excellent editors in their genres, but poor choices outside their genres. And within genres, there are levels of editors, levels based on experience, learned skills, editing methodology, education, and so on.

I have suggested many times to packagers that it is smarter, thinking long term, to take less profit and deliver higher-quality editing than to focus on the short term and seek higher profit at the expense of editing quality — a short-term focus may lead to having nothing on which to make a profit long term. The message may finally be getting through. It will be interesting to see which packagers survive. My bet is that the packagers who revert to more realistic pricing for high-quality editing, thereby changing unreasonable and unrealistic expectations, will be the survivors. They may struggle in the beginning, but survive in the end.

Do you turn down work because of price? Are you finding that packagers are making changes for the better in your relationships with them?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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