An American Editor

January 30, 2017

The Cusp of a New Book World: The First Day of Creation

The world of business is an ever-changing world. When I began my publishing career, offshoring was not in the business vocabulary — publishers looked for local-market solutions to local-market problems. Of course, helping to maintain that local tether was that most editorial problems and solutions were paper-based — copyediting, for example, was done on a paper printout.

The general course of events went something like this:

  1. The paper manuscript was shipped by the in-house production editor to the freelance editor for copyediting;
  2. After copyediting, the copyeditor shipped the marked-up physical copy to the in-house production editor for review;
  3. After review, the in-house production editor shipped the finalized version of the marked-up manuscript to the typesetter; in some procedures, before shipping to the typesetter for setting into pages, the edited manuscript would be sent to the author for review and approval of the editorial changes. Which fork was taken depended on the publisher and on the author;
  4. The typesetter created a master copy of the final edited version and produced physical page proofs for author review;
  5. The authors received as little as the page proofs or as much as the page proofs, the original unedited manuscript, and the finalized copyedited version of the manuscript to review and make any final adjustments that were needed, especially the addressing of any queries;
  6. The author then returned the manuscript to the in-house production editor who would review the author changes, do any final accepting or rejecting, ensure that all queries had been addressed, and then send the manuscript to the typesetter for creation of a master file for printing.

Not mentioned in the foregoing are the rounds of proofreading done by freelance proofreaders, which also added to shipping costs.

Of course there was some variation in the foregoing procedure, but there were two notable things that did not change regardless of the exact procedure: (a) the process was very labor intensive and thus very expensive and (b) the process incurred a lot of shipping costs — somehow the physical manuscript had to get from person to person in each step.

For some publishers the answer was local-local; that is, if you wanted to be hired as a freelance editor, you had to be able to come to the publisher’s office to pick up the manuscript and return it the same way. In my earliest days, for example, Lippincott’s New York City office would not hire a freelancer who wasn’t a subway ride away from its offices. The problem the publishers faced was that book sales were growing and the way to earn more money was to sell more books, which meant more books had to be published, which meant more editors were needed. The solution was hire more editors but you had to have a labor pool from which to draw, so even companies like Lippincott had to broaden their geographical boundaries.

The other labor-related problem was that even the best editors had weaknesses and even the worst in-house production editors had weaknesses. These weaknesses were minor stumbling blocks in the early years of publishing, but then authors became less “wowed” by editorial expertise and publisher demands and began asserting their ownership of their words. It is important to remember that most books in the very early years were “owned” (i.e., the copyright was in the name of) the publisher. That put publishers at the top of the power chain. There were always authors who retained copyright, but for most authors, giving the publisher the copyright was an acceptable trade for getting published. The tide began changing after World War II but accelerated in the 1970s with the instant megahit authors; ultimately, what started as a gentle wave of change became a tsunami until the moment when calm returned because it became standard for authors to retain copyright.

But during this changeover, which occurred over decades, costs began rising. Where before publishers simply absorbed the costs, now the pressure to increase profits required an allocation of costs between those who caused the costs to be incurred. Thus the assigning of “fault” became more important — the assigning of something as a PE (printer error), AA (author alteration), or CE (copyeditor error) became an important tool in deciding who would be responsible for the cost of correction once the manuscript had been put into master proofs. A certain number of errors and changes were expected but once that number was exceeded, the costs were allocated and the responsible party was expected to “pay.”

The author usually had a “debt” deducted from royalties earned; the copyeditor, if the number was large enough, “paid” by not being hired again; the printer (typesetter or compositor) paid by not being able to bill for the costs incurred to make the fixes necessitated by PEs. Yet this was where the weakness of the system stood out.

We have had discussions before about grammar, copyediting, what is or isn’t error, the “authority” of the “authoritative sources,” and the like. What I consider to grievous editorial error, you may well think is so minor that it isn’t even worth mentioning. Which of us is right? The answer is that we can both be right, we can both be wrong, or one of us can be right and the other wrong — it all depends on the standards to be applied, who is to apply them, and whether the foundation of the standards is recognized universally as strong, weak, or crumbling. This is the discussion we often have as regards the authoritativeness of books like The Chicago Manual of Style and Garner’s Modern English Usage. It is the traditional argument whether prescriptivism or descriptivism should dominate.

And that was the problem of the AA versus CE assignment of fault. More importantly, it was even more so the problem of the world that had but three possibilities: AA, CE, and PE. There was no possibility that the error was an in-house (IH) error, because just as some editors today always respond with “Chicago says…” or “Garner says…” and whatever Chicago or Garner says is inalienable, unalterable, infallible, so it was true of in-house staff. At no point was there a discussion regarding why the CE was not a CE; it was marked a CE and so it was a CE — now and forever.

There was another wrinkle to this process. Quite often the initial designation of CE, AA, or PE was made by the freelance proofreader, who often was a copyeditor who was doing this particular project as a proofreading job rather than as copyediting job. This, of course, meant that what we really had was a spitting contest between copyeditors. Once again, there was no designation for proofreader error because the proofreader couldn’t make an error. By definition, the proofreader was supposed to only correct and mark objective errors such as a clear misspelling, or the failure to have sentence-ending punctuation, or other indisputable errors. And so that was true on the first day of creation, but by the third day the role had expanded and proofreaders expanded from pure proofreading to a hybrid proofreading-copyediting role. This became by creation’s fifth day the expected standard.

And so we have come full circle — it was not unusual for a strong copyeditor to find that she was being “graded” by a weak proofreader or in-house production editor. As between the proofreader and the copyeditor, both were trying to impress the client with their skills because they both were freelance and both dependant on gaining more business from the client. The in-house editor had to assign fault because accounting demanded it. In addition, the IH was becoming swamped with work and so had to increasingly rely on the proofreader’s judgment calls.

All of this worked because everything was kept local, that is onshore as opposed to offshore, because it was a never-discussed-but-well-understood system, and, most importantly, because once the book was published, there was no customer complaint system. How many readers (or reviewers, for that matter) were concerned with the finer points of editing and the production process. Rarely was a book panned because of poor editing as opposed to poor story, dull writing, factual error — none of the things that those outside the production process would ever associate with poor editing.

This world began changing not long after I became a freelance editor with the introduction of computers, word-processing programs like XyWrite, Word, and WordPerfect, and, ultimately, globalization — the material for the second part of this essay, “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Fourth Day of Creation.” (The third part of the essay is “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation.”)

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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