An American Editor

July 17, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: Killing Me Softly

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on July 25, 2012.)

I recently reviewed the various groups I am a member of on LinkedIn and was astounded to find a U.S.-based editor soliciting editing work and offering to do that work for $1 per page in all genres. Some further searching led me to discover that this person was not alone in her/his pricing.

What astounds me is less that someone is offering to do editorial work for such a low fee but that people actually believe that is a fair price to pay for professional editing. I recently spoke with an author whose ebooks are badly edited — yes, edited is the correct word — who told me that he/she had paid a professional editor $200 to edit the novel in question and so was surprised at all the errors the novel contained.

Recently, I wrote about the publisher who wants copyediting but calls it proofreading in an attempt to pay a lower price (see The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting). In my own business, I have been under pressure to reduce my fee or see the work offshored.

I am being killed softly. (And for those of you who enjoy a musical interlude, here is Roberta Flack singing Killing Me Softly!)

Unfortunately, so is my profession for the past quarter century being killed softly.

I write “being killed softly” because that is exactly what is happening. There are no trumpets blaring; clients aren’t shouting and ordering me to work for starvation wages. Instead, what they are doing is saying that they can get the services I provide for significantly less money because the competition is so keen, driving downward pricing.

There is no discussion about whether the services clients get for less money are valuable services. The base assumption is that any editor will do and any editor will do a competent, quality job. Alas, there is little to disprove the assumption in the absence of postediting proofreading, but that work is being driven by the same dynamic and so clients set a mouse to catch a mouse, rather than a cat to catch a mouse. If the proofreader’s skills match the skills of the editor, little by way of error will be caught. We see this everyday when we pick up a book and discover errors that should have been caught by a professional editor and/or proofreader.

When passing out the blame for this situation, we can look elsewhere — to the international conglomerate bean counters, to the Internet that has brought globalization to the editing profession, to the death of locally owned publishing companies that count quality higher than cost — or we can look to ourselves — to our insistence on being wholly independent and our resistance to banding together to form a strong lobbying group, to our willingness to provide stellar service for suboptimal wages, to the ease with which we permit entrance to a skilled profession. Looking at ourselves is where we should look.

Individually, we may strike gnat-like blows against this professional decline, but these will continue to prove of little avail. The profession of editing used to be a highly respected profession. It always was an underpaying profession, but it was a prestigious profession. All that has changed in recent decades. Our bohemian attitude towards our profession has worked to hurry its decline. It is now one of those work-at-home-and-earn-big-bucks professions that draws anyone in need of supplementary income.

It has become this way because we have let it become so.

I wondered if anyone was going to challenge the $1/page person, but no one did. There was no challenge of the price or of skills or of services. The idea that at this price level superior services can be provided is rapidly becoming the norm. That a good editor can often only edit five or six pages an hour — and in many instances even fewer pages an hour — does not seem to be a concern to either clients or to the editors advertising inexpensive services.

It is increasingly difficult to compete for business in the editorial marketplace. There are still pockets of clients who pay reasonable fees, but I expect those pockets to diminish and eventually disappear, and to do so in the not-too-distant future. Those of us with specialty skills are beginning to see the encroachment of downward pricing pressure.

What I find most interesting is that so many people do not even notice poor editing. There is a cadre of people who care about precision communication, but that cadre grows smaller with each passing year. A rigorous language education is now passé. The result is that there are fewer individuals who can recognize good editing from bad/no editing, and even fewer who care, being more concerned with cost.

I have no surefire solution to the problem. My hope is that some day someone in charge will see the light and decide that quality is at least of equal importance to cost control and recognize that it is not possible for an editor to provide a quality job at $1/page. Unfortunately, I do not see that day arriving any time soon.

What solutions do you propose?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

2 Comments »

  1. One aspect of this is the huge and growing number of people wanting to publish who don’t understand the value of editing or even proofreading, so they don’t want to pay for it at rates the professionals expect and have earned, if at all. Along with the growing number of people who think they can do editing or proofreading with no training or experience. They deserve each other, but that doesn’t solve the problem.

    If I had seen that $1/page post, I’d have responded to it. Not in a way the poster would have appreciated, but probably not in a way s/he would understand, either.

    Like

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — July 17, 2017 @ 10:08 am | Reply

  2. In the age of instant emotional gratification, texting, tweeting, and emojis, precise communication has fallen by the wayside because there are no serious repercussions for making false accusations or talking like a two-year-old. A “Whoops, sorry. I misspoke” is all it takes to return to social media’s good graces. We all know that corporations today are under increasing global pressure to capture an ever-shrinking piece of the marketplace, so they have to create a simple-minded message that can be understood by everyone, be they illiterate or erudite. However, most people, even if they do notice a grammatical mistake, will still buy the product, which is why editing doesn’t matter to a lot of companies. Editing doesn’t affect their bottom line. Perhaps one day all of us nitpicky editors, grammarians, and particular communicators can band together to say, “Whoa. If you’re too lazy to write the message correctly, what else are you too lazy to do? Create a quality product? Provide good customer service? I don’t trust you so I’ll just have to take my business elsewhere.”
    In the meantime, my answer is to create multiple streams of income that are unrelated to editing. That way, when a potential client asks me to work for an absurdly low fee or meet an unrealistic deadline, I can just say, “No.”

    Like

    Comment by Carla Lomax — July 17, 2017 @ 3:03 pm | Reply


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