An American Editor

March 8, 2017

The Decline & Fall of Editorial Quality

Three events occurred in the past several weeks that started me thinking about the decline and fall of editorial quality. One was a job offer I received; the other two were book reviews I read. I begin with the book reviews.

The first review was in The Economist (February 18, 2017, pp. 69–70). It was a review of the soon-to-be-published biography Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel by John Stubbs (W.W. Norton, 2017). What alarmed me was this:

However, Mr. Stubbs’s account has a few surprising factual errors — the battle of the Boyne, arguably the best-remembered event in Irish history, is dated as 1689, a year early, and the medieval town of Kilkenny is placed “60 miles to the south-east” of Dublin (which would put it smack in the middle of the Irish Sea). [p. 70]

A few days later I was reading the essay “Can We Ever Master King Lear?” by Stephen Greenblatt (The New York Review of Books, February 23, 2017, pp. 34–36), which was reviewing The One King Lear by Sir Brian Vickers (Harvard University Press, 2016). Greenblatt wrote:

…But perhaps something else is occurring here, some dark nemesis signaled in this book perhaps by the absence of a bibliography, or by the scanty index, or by the startling number of errors made by someone who excoriates careless printers and proofreaders. Why did no one catch “schholar” and “obsreved”? Who allowed the book’s stirring peroration to assert that Shakespeare “had no reason to go back to his greatest pay”?

These typos, like tiny pebbles, are foretastes of the rocks that have come crashing through Vickers’s glass walls. For three weeks last May, Holger Schott Syme, a professor ay the University of Toronto, undertook…a detailed scholarly critique of The One King Lear….Syme’s appalled accumulation of entries…details an array of fundamental contradictions, misstatements, and errors throughout the book, including a disastrous miscounting of the number of pages in a text Vickers trumpeted as one of his crucial pieces of supporting evidence for Okes’s paper crisis. [p. 36]

On and on the review goes, highlighting the editorial problems.

The third event, the job offer, was a request that I personally edit a 3500-page medical manuscript that requires a “very heavy edit” and that I do so for less than 75% of my standard rate, calculated in a way that reduces that 75% to closer to 60%, and that I meet a tight deadline that would require editing 300 to 350 pages per week. (I suppose I should add that I was also required to typecode the manuscript and that there were lots of references, nearly all of which were in the wrong format and often incomplete, thus requiring me to look them up.) Of course, there was the admonition that I was “being asked to do this job because a high-quality edit is required” and the claim that the proffered fee was a “premium” rate.

I do not understand the thinking. Here are three separate events, three completely separate publishers, and three prestigious projects — two of which have editorially failed, the third of which will be an editorial failure. Thousands of books are published each year; only a handful are reviewed by The Economist or The New York Review of Books, both selective and well-respected book reviewers. The importance of these books to the literature of their fields is emphasized by their selection to be reviewed. The medical book, when published, will be a very costly book to buy and will serve as a reference for the subject matter area. All three books deserve and even require professional, high-quality editing, yet none received (or, in the case of the medical book, will receive) such editing because of the deadly combination of inadequate pay (which makes it difficult to hire a cream-level editor), too short a schedule (which pressures an editor to edit speedily, which means sacrificing quality; the shorter the schedule the greater the required quality sacrifice), and too many mechanical requirements that have to be performed by the editor, along with the editing, within the too short schedule and for too low pay.

What I don’t understand is why otherwise savvy business people are unable to grasp the idea that a high-quality edit is no different from any other high-quality artisanal job that cannot be performed by a robot or computer: to get a high-quality result you have to pay a fee commensurate with the quality level desired and allow the time needed to reach and maintain that level. In addition, you need to let the artisan focus on the quality edit and not sidetrack the editor with nonartisanal requirements.

Of particular concern, however, is that one of the problem books is from Harvard University Press. I have purchased books from Princeton University Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, to name but two university presses, that I have thought greatly overpriced for the poor editorial and/or production quality of the books (imagine, e.g., a $50, 168-page [including front and back matter] hardcover that comes without a dust jacket, along with other problems), but I also thought the books were outliers. Yet I am discovering that the more “prestigious” the university press, the more careful I need to be when buying a book published by that press.

Is it that these presses have grown too large and are under pressure to produce a profit as a consequence of their growth? When I first joined the editing ranks, university presses paid editors roughly 15% less than the commercial publishers paid and expected a higher-quality edit than the commercial presses. The lower compensation was balanced by a looser schedule and a true commitment to quality. In those days, editors sought to work for university presses because editors were more concerned about the artisanal aspects of editing than about the financial aspects.

That outlook changed as commercial publishers consolidated and began lowering/stagnating their fees and university presses tried to maintain the fee disparity. Editors by necessity became more oriented to business and less focused on being artisans. Where before an editor might edit three or four commercial projects followed by a university press project, as fees equalized (or came closer to equalization), the financial ability to take on university press projects lessened — the fees earned from editing commercial press projects no longer could carry the lesser fee of the university press because the spread was no longer sufficient.

We are beginning to see the fruits of these trends as an increasing number of error-riddled books are being published by both university and commercial presses. We are also beginning to see editors who have calculated and know their required effective hourly rate, and because they know their required rate, are turning down editing projects that do not offer sufficient compensation to meet that rate. Unfortunately, we are also seeing a parallel trend: the number of persons calling themselves editors is increasing and these “editors” advertise their willingness to work for a rate that is far too low to sustain life.

For publishers — university or commercial — this increase in the number of “editors” willing to work for a life-denying wage creates a problem. The problem manifests as a conflict between the requirement to minimize production costs — especially of “invisible” tasks like editing — and the desire to produce a high-quality-edit product. The conflict usually resolves in favor of cost-cutting, which will ultimately hurt the publisher’s bottom line, especially if the publisher begins to develop a reputation for poor-editorial-quality books, as the pool of book-buyers grows smaller and more discerning.

As long-time AAE readers know, I buy a lot of books (for an idea of how many I buy, take a look at the On Today’s Bookshelf series), but I have become wary of buying books from certain presses. Because of poor editorial quality, I certainly won’t be buying Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel or The One King Lear. Would you buy books from publishers known to skimp on editorial quality?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. Bravo! I’ve had this conversation recently with fellow writers and editors. There is that old saying, “You can have it fast, you can have it cheap, or you can have it good, but you can’t have all three.” Today, clients seemed overly focused on fast and cheap, at the expense of good. We must fight back against the seeming acceptance of mediocrity!

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Susan Milstrey Wells — March 8, 2017 @ 7:22 am | Reply

  2. I second the bravo! Totally on target! Thank you for this, Rich. We who love language and our profession need to remember this, especially when it seems we’re surrounded by
    a rising tide of not only mediocrity in writing and editing but major factual errors, serious grammatical and syntax errors, etc. I can’t help but wonder if the third- grade reading level news
    we’re subjected to on TV/online isn’t contributing to this pollution of print. In the last week I cringed (and actually yelled at the TV set) when a news anchor said, “he could have went,”
    mispronounced the names of two NATIONS (!) and “BoGOtuh” (Colombia) and the entire news staff routinely mispronounces the local Catholic cemetery as “Cavalry.” I try to politely
    bring this to their attention; at best I get a pat on the head (you old schoolmarm) or am told the station no longer employees copy editors or headline writers and thus reporters (presumably
    college graduates and media professionals) are often writing their own copy, with no checks and balances. With that kind of mindset in the major media in print and online, who needs editors for books, right? Sad, but let’s keep fighting the good fight. When I find a book similar to what Rich describes, if there are editorial gaffes and factual errors, it goes in the recycle bin very quickly and I too will be very hesitant to purchase a title from the publisher again.


    Comment by Patricia Lynn Morrison — March 8, 2017 @ 9:38 am | Reply

  3. I remember my proofreading days at Colonial Press–how careful we had to be on every single job. We had prestigious publishers such as Harvard; Yale; Houghton Mifflin; Little Brown; and countless others. Proofreading was done with a proofreader and copyholder for each job. No computers then. However, spelling errors pointed out by Dick could have been detected by spellcheck. Just run it after the job is finished. Factual errors were the editor’s responsibility. But if we proofreaders noticed any, we queried them.


    Comment by Cecilia E. (Davitt) Thurlow — March 8, 2017 @ 11:17 am | Reply

  4. Rich, I hope that you copied and pasted the review excerpts (rather than risk a typo yourself), because this one is rather too delicious an example of Muphry’s [sic] Law: Who allowed the book’s stirring peroration to asset [sic] that Shakespeare “had no reason to go back to his greatest pay”?

    But to the point of your essay, I date the decline of quality to the wave of leveraged buyouts and other corporate shenanigans that began in the 1980s. Publishers were mostly privately owned companies before that, and while the owners were happy to make a nice living, they were people who had gotten into the business because of a love of books. Quality mattered. Today’s publicly held publishers have lost all connection to the founding families. They are managed by MBAs whose only duty is to maximize shareholder value. The only books they are actually interested in are the ones their accountants show them every quarter. The product is sausage, as far as they are concerned. And if they can make the sausage cheaper, they do so.

    The same mentality, unfortunately, seems to have infused the university presses. Universities themselves are being managed as businesses, and their press arms are seen as profit centers.

    I don’t pretend to have a solution. All I can offer is that there are still craftspeople out here anxious to do a great job, and for the publisher who wants to put out a high-quality book, good people are for hire. The publishers who seem most interested these days, are the independents and the self-publishing authors (some of them, anyway).


    Comment by Dick Margulis — March 8, 2017 @ 12:30 pm | Reply

    • Dick, I have to accept responsibility: “asset” should be “assert” — that is my typo. But the rest is typed correctly. Interestingly, I had to fight with WordPress to get it to accept certain misspellings. WordPress kept autocorrecting and I couldn’t find a way to turn it off.


      Comment by americaneditor — March 9, 2017 @ 3:02 am | Reply

  5. I don’t know how this has evolved or what to do about it, but I write to the publishers of any book I buy with such egregious factual and language errors in it. I also would write to the publishers of Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel and The One King Lear, and tell them why you won’t buy those books. It can’t hurt, and it might help.

    I do fear that those of us who care about and notice errors, whether in fact or usage, are an increasing minority in both the world at large and that of publishing. It’s scary, and frustrating.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — March 8, 2017 @ 1:17 pm | Reply

  6. Which is why this:


    Comment by karincather1 — March 8, 2017 @ 3:46 pm | Reply

    • (Okay, so you can’t edit these comments.) My blog post is about the certification of editors. Because this blog post came along with an offer to edit a novel for .012 cents a word. Not 1.2 cents per word, but .012 cents per word.


      Comment by karincather1 — March 8, 2017 @ 3:48 pm | Reply

      • But $.012 is 1.2 cents a word, and a significant number of people in our business have trouble with decimal points. So maybe it’s worth verifying that the offer actually meant what it said. Because 4 cents a page seems lower than anyone anywhere would offer. Well, except for neophyte novelists who want us to work for free, that is.


        Comment by Dick Margulis — March 8, 2017 @ 4:24 pm | Reply

        • And of course I meant 3 cents.


          Comment by Dick Margulis — March 8, 2017 @ 4:26 pm | Reply

        • Yes. I did. They did not mean 1.2 cents per word, which would still mean that someone did the equivalent of offering me $960 to edit an 80,000-word novel. Pigs would fly first. I’m doing a LOT better than 1.2 cents per word. And yes, they were trying to offer me less than a hundred dollars.


          Comment by karincather1 — March 8, 2017 @ 4:29 pm | Reply

          • Well, I had to ask, because it seemed so totally implausible. But yeah, that doesn’t even rise to the level of insulting; it’s just sad that someone can be that ignorant.


            Comment by Dick Margulis — March 8, 2017 @ 4:50 pm

  7. If the editing leaves things to be desired, the poor old indexer is often expected to mop up and correct the damage because they are the last person to see the text.


    Comment by icemaiden1964 — March 9, 2017 @ 6:06 am | Reply

  8. I am not an editor, but I follow your blog because I would like to transition into the editing profession at some point. I was so glad to read this post because it validates my own thoughts on the matter. More and more, I find myself reading books (fiction and non-fiction) that contain multiple typographical and grammatical errors. Some of them are egregious, in my opinion. For example, reading about a “school principle” (sic) in one book last week made me cringe! I recently read one work of fiction that had so many errors, I actually went back and highlighted them to ease my own frustration. All in all, I found 19 errors in a 220-page book. It’s such a shame because what could have been a very enjoyable story became a personal challenge to find errors. I’m sure this is not what the author intended.

    I love the nuance of words and language. I hope that if I make it into the field one day, I can provide high quality work. It is very useful for me to read this blog so that I can be aware of the obstacles (and the rewards) that exist in the field. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, experience, and wisdom!


    Comment by kimh — March 9, 2017 @ 9:17 am | Reply

    • Nineteen errors in a 220-page book? What kind of errors?


      Comment by Karincather1 — March 9, 2017 @ 9:57 am | Reply

      • Many were typographical (words typed twice, etc.). A few others were simple spelling errors; and some were grammatical such as confusion with the use of “who”/ “whom”, etc. For a couple of them I even looked up proper usage because I second-guessed myself. It was an exciting adventure in reading! It was also sad that so many errors found their way into the book…or didn’t find their way out.


        Comment by kimh — March 9, 2017 @ 11:21 am | Reply

        • I just took another quick glance at my highlights. There were also incomplete sentences (in the narrative, not in the dialogue), misplaced modifiers, and improper or inconsistent verb tenses.


          Comment by kimh — March 9, 2017 @ 11:31 am | Reply

          • What kind of misplaced modifiers?

            Were these misspellings or alternative spellings?

            Keep in mind that the industry standard is to catch 95% of errors. What’s more, clients can accept or reject changes. I can think of a number of reasons why the editor was good enough but the book had errors.

            What words were repeated?


            Comment by karincather1 — March 9, 2017 @ 12:22 pm

  9. Recently I copy-edited a book from a major publishing house that was so appalling written, both in terms of the content and the actual level of written English, that I was almost embarrassed to return it. I didn’t understand how it could even have been commissioned – and just did the best I could! It’s good that reviewers highlight such issues; hopefully it will make publishers take note of the importance and value of proodfreading.


    Comment by Selena Class — March 9, 2017 @ 11:16 am | Reply

  10. I am a *former* copy-editor and proofreader, who is now engineering a career change (because of the very financial reasons you outline in this post), so back at university for a year to retrain. I was alerted to this article by a friend reacting to my Facebook status:

    “As a student, I am *immensely* frustrated to have to read texts that haven’t been (competently) copy-edited and/or proofread. I don’t mean little misspellings or inconsistencies (which are just irritating), I mean tables/figures not showing what the text says they do, abbreviations and foreign terms not being defined, poor punctuation requiring a sentence to be read three or four times before the sense can be gleaned, citations with no matching bibliographical entry (so no chance for me to follow them up) or sometimes even without a date (so just “as Smith points out…”), and whole sentences that make no sense whatsoever. Some of these texts are by very eminent and knowledgeable academics, and I am very interested in what they have to say. But I’ve had to give up on a couple as a bad job.”

    These books are not doing the job that they are designed to do (disseminate academic scholarship). My friend suggested I complain to the publisher, but to be honest I have found examples of these in books and journals by all of the main academic presses in the UK (which is where I am). I don’t hold out much hope that things will change. Publishing is a business driven by profit, and the only way that profit can be increased at the moment is by cutting outgoings on labour … that means us.


    Comment by Sara Peacock — March 12, 2017 @ 12:25 pm | Reply

  11. I am an academic/technical editor at a large university, and much of my work for the last eight years has been copy editing peer-reviewed publications. The manuscripts come in like Sara Peacock (No. 10 comment) describes: citations with no matching references and/or references with no citations, convoluted sentences that make no sense, incomplete sentences, acronyms that are never spelled out, technical terms that are not defined, tables that don’t add up, figures that indicate the opposite of what the text describes, tables and figures never mentioned in the text, incorrect subject-verb agreement, etc. They are often written as if for their peers instead of for their intended audience. These are technical documents written by PhDs, and English is a second language for some of them. I have had to do substantive editing (rewriting) for many of these publications, along with substantial research — looking up every reference in most cases.

    All along the powers that be have complained that it takes me too long to edit. They look at copy editing rates published by some of the editing associations (rates to edit nontechnical texts written by journalists) and try to apply it to the technical documents I edit. I am a perfectionist like many in this profession, and it’s difficult for me to approve a publication that is incomplete or that contains errors.

    Now my college has decided to gut our entire department (I am the only copy editor, along with graphic designers and web people) and outsource everything. Management thinks that because publications are peer-reviewed and written by subject experts with PhDs, they should be ready for publication. The result will be more opportunities for those willing to work for online editing services that pay peanuts and many more publications filled with errors, inconsistencies, and incomplete info.


    Comment by bah — March 13, 2017 @ 10:48 am | Reply

    • I do academic editing as well, and I see all of the problems with the texts that you describe. And it should take between two and four pages an hour to edit those manuscripts in a good enough way (sometimes less, depending), and $300 is a ridiculous fee for a twenty-five page healthcare policy dissertation by an ESL author, especially with a hundred references with just the deficiencies you describe. I’ve edited ones where a significant chunk of the references were incomplete and improperly formatted, both at the same time. But graduate students, I get that they are poor, but they need to have their work competently edited by people who don’t view the profession as a hobby.

      I freelanced for a large publisher who offshored their work and I got lectured that I should be able to edit this work at eight pages an hour—in which 500 words of terrible English had been crammed into a single page.

      And it’s sad, because science gets a bum rap here, and we should see that in part it’s because scientists are allowed to publish brilliant ideas in the form of gibberish.


      Comment by karincather1 — March 13, 2017 @ 1:07 pm | Reply

  12. I’ve found that businesses only understand one, maybe two, things: money and reputation. To get your point across, I say, do like the millenials do: Post it on the Web, like the company’s Facebook page, or an Amazon book comment. I’d like to think that once these publishers get a poor reputation on the Web, they’ll be more likely to rethink their quality-cutting measures. A widespread, poor reputation equals less money for them. They think they can sacrifice good editing because few people notice or care much, so it doesn’t affect their bottom line one iota. We have to make lots of people notice and care with their wallets.


    Comment by Carla Lomax — March 13, 2017 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your 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 )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: