An American Editor

October 3, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Blame Game

I’ve always thought that the person who makes the decision should stand tall and accept the blame for anything that goes wrong as a result of that decision.

Consider, for example, where an author uses both ton and tonne in a book. If I were to decide to change tonne to ton on the (shaky) grounds that ton is the American spelling, who should accept the blame for having made the decision should it turn out to be a poor one? Usually, I would say me because I made the decision. But suppose I hadn’t made the decision; instead, those who hired me instructed me to make the change, and I did as I was told. When the author rightfully complains about the decision, who takes the blame — me or the person who gave me the instruction? I would have said that the instructor, not the instructed, should accept responsibility, but I am discovering that just as the chain of command has changed in publishing, so has responsibility.

The ton/tonne example is a good — albeit simplistic — example. Both are correct American English spellings because they represent different things: tonne is the equivalent of 2204.6 pounds (or 1000 kilograms), a metric ton, whereas ton is the equivalent of 2000 pounds for the short ton or 2240 pounds for the long ton. (Generally, in American English, ton means the short ton; if the long ton is meant, it is specified as the long ton.) Neither the short ton nor the long ton is the equivalent of the tonne — one is too light, the other too heavy. Of course, tonne could be changed to metric ton, but why is it better to use a word’s definition than to use the word itself?

To blithely change tonne to ton because ton not tonne is “the American spelling” in a book that uses both terms is inviting trouble, especially as both are correct American spellings, just with different meanings. And an instruction to make that change will inevitably lead to shifting of blame to the end of the chain, the editor, and is likely to result in the editor’s loss of a client.

Why does this happen? What can the editor do in this unfair situation?

Unfortunately, once the blame game has started, the editor rarely has a clue that it is on. The revelation comes when a source of work dries up. The cause of the blame game is the change in how publishing produces books. When I began my career, my dealings were with the publisher’s in-house production staff: the chain, in its simplest form, was

author > publisher > independent professional editor

In this chain, the in-house production staff and the professional editor were in constant communication, and decisions like changing tonne to ton were discussed and mutually decided. But the chain, too, has undergone change. The usual chain today is

author > publisher > packager > independent professional editor

When this chain was born, packagers were less confident and often relied heavily on the professional editor to make editorial decisions, even to provide the packager with guidance. But with the passage of time that changed. Packagers increasingly turned inward for advice.

As every professional editor knows (and hopefully would admit), professional American editors are more likely to have fluent command of American English than Indian editors, just as Indian editors are more likely to have fluent command of British-Indian English than are American editors. This is not to say that a professional editor cannot be strong in multiple versions of English, just that most editors are not. Consequently, using our ton/tonne example, for a book that is to be conformed to American English, it is more likely that a professional American editor will make a better-informed decision about replacing tonne with ton than will an Indian editor. Yet an Indian packager is more likely to ask for and accept a language usage decision made by in-house staff without consulting the American editor. And thus the problem arises.

Should the author complain about the substitution, the author’s complaint will be made to the publisher, who will then complain to the packager. But there the trail will stop because the packager already knows that if the editor is asked, the response will be “You [the packager] instructed me to make the change.” So why ask the editor? Instead, blame the editor, because blaming the editor is politic if the packager wants to keep the publisher’s business.

To minimize this blame shifting, which can have negative economic impact on the editor, the professional editor can only marshal her arguments against making such a change and hope to convince her client, the packager, of the rightfulness of her position. If unable to do that, the editor has little recourse, as someone has to be the scapegoat when authors start complaining.

The more distance there is between the professional editor and the ultimate client (the author), the greater the possibility of trouble. Unfortunately, in the current publishing model the editor has no assured position. As editors who work directly with authors know, the direct relationship doesn’t eliminate the blame game. When a negative review comes out, it is not unusual for an author to blame the editor for not recognizing and dealing with the problems raised in the review. Quickly forgotten are the instructions from the author that narrowed the editor’s role and said that identifying and correcting the problems noted in the review were outside the editor’s remit.

What all this means is that to be a successful editor, the editor needs to develop a thick skin, to understand the dynamics of the editor’s place in the chain, and to be prepared to gain and lose clients. The best safeguard for the editor is to actively market herself, knowing that while most of the time everything goes smoothly, sometimes the editor becomes a victim of the blame game.

Richard Adin, An American Editor


  1. In the case of the specific example here, I do see that in my work on engineering and other technical texts. I know that ton and tonne have different meanings, so I query whether the author wants to change it to metric ton or ton, or leave as is, though it is a nonstandard spelling in AmEng. A copyeditor who doesn’t know that there is a difference or that tonne is not simply a misspelling of ton should look it up before making a change. I see a lot of interesting spellings of terms in my work and usually end up going on the internet for help.

    But if the CE just changed tonne to ton, it still would ultimately be the author’s responsibility what is in his or her book. During the author review after the CE stage is the time when the author can accept or reject or question changes, whether the CE is working directly with the author or through a publisher or a packager. If the publisher or packager takes too many shortcuts and pushes the manuscript to publication without the author looking at it at all after the CE stage — I’ve never heard of this being done — then the publisher/packager has to take responsibility, though I can see how such a sloppy publisher/packager would want to blame the CE for any and all shortcomings in such a book. More commonly, I’ve seen the publisher/packager who is in a hurry bypass the proofreading stage, which is of course a big mistake. But I’ve never heard of a publisher/packager who would not have an author go over a manuscript at some point after the CE and before the book is published.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — October 3, 2016 @ 10:29 am | Reply

  2. I treasure my direct-contact publisher clients. I have five active right now, and two of them (new clients in the last year) also have me liaise with the author directly for review and cleanup. Just one current client uses packagers, in a hybrid fashion, as I get the job from the packager but I can directly contact the publisher during the editing process (for house style, invoicing, and such) — but when I do outreach for new projects, I need to contact the handful of packagers they use, not the actual publisher. Packagers . . . vary. Some are strictly business; others are personable and wonderful. I’ve had only one serious clash, many years ago. It was one of those hellish jobs — as soon as I reviewed the received files, art log, and brief, I thought *I’m not getting out of this one alive.* Sure enough, after my edit the packager castigated me for trivial issues that had “shaken the author’s confidence in us,” which shook my own self-confidence as a competent editor (with dozens of books edited for that client at that point). Soon afterward I discovered that a fellow editor (a well-known and respected expert in our field) had had a nearly identical experience with “Evil Packager.” Having a solid networking community really helps as we adapt to industry changes.


    Comment by Kristi Hein — October 3, 2016 @ 2:10 pm | Reply

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