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

3 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.”

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

  3. I wholeheartedly agree, Richard and it would seem that there are no easy means to remedy this decline. I have worked tirelessly to find a groove in the competitive/bidding freelance market and from what I have seen for several years running is the perpetuation of offshore bidding at much lower rates than would be reasonable in North America and those offshore bids, equating to $3.00 per hour, all the while bidding on projects demanding Masters level expertise, are being accepted by the client. How do we counter what is evidently acceptable to the hosting website?

    I have lost track of just how many of my clients have come to me out of sheer frustration that the so-called ‘professional’ proofreader or editor left their content almost untouched in terms of issues the author was aware of yet charged a considerable sum and insisted that they would not go through even a second or third round to resolve missed issues. At first, I felt most awkward having to charge them again and in a couple of instances, I offered a modest discount with a conditional agreement that I would revert to my accustomed fee structure for subsequent publication proofing. What ensued in both cases were long term clients that rave about my services to this day. I was shocked at the apparent total lack of knowledge and conscience charging a dime for what my new clients received.

    When there is no body of jurisdiction which directly oversees editorial services and has full authority to address such delinquent service providers accordingly, what accountability is there for such hacks to live and thrive in our industry? Their actions are downright fraudulent.

    Perhaps the introduction of a common registry of complaints against the offending ‘proofreader’ or ‘editor’ would serve as a deterrent. There would still need to be some level of administrative commitment and accountability that there be a highly visible reference to such a complaints registry, in turn encouraging all consumers to refer to the listings prior to engaging a professional service provider. Perhaps that would be something of a deterrent to those who are not suitably qualified to provide said services. Of course, there is a host of legal issues that would encumber such a registry which may otherwise entangle parties in litigation.

    The whole issue surrounding the general decline of applications of the English language has gone unaddressed for years now. When I read any news media articles today I shudder at the sloppy oversights and obvious lack of proofing. When I entered journalism school back in 1976 professor would tear up our copy in front of the whole class for but one single typo throughout the entire document. We were told in no uncertain terms that we had better bring back a second and final ‘clean’ copy or lose a grade mark and if such issues persisted our continued tenure of studies in that institution’s program would be seriously compromised.

    Not long ago my spouse pointed out a highly reputable bestseller author, making a fortune through her titles, whose publications were riddled with errors, and that comment coming from someone with limited knowledge of English language applications. I checked for myself in several of that author’s novels that were occupying our home library shelves and they were indeed full of issues. On that note, I have had numerous author clients adamant that spelling and grammar check software was accurate to a fault. There are plenty of points of reference that would suggest to the contrary so that issue is easy to refute.

    I expect that as long as the consumer grudgingly accepts such inferior quality product, these issues will never be resolved. Publishers ‘encourage’ professional editing beyond self-editing as an important phase of pre-submission polish to book manuscripts but again, I have had any number of clients who have published a multiple of titles who have never once read through the publishers content and formatting guidelines. Regardless, I have taken it upon myself to counsel my clients to engage fully in those guidelines prior to writing a single word of interior content for their next and subsequent titles. They quickly renounce such a notion as they “have no time for such exhaustive review of guidelines”. Early on, in order to avoid such challenging issues with new clients, I undertook to develop a template configured to accommodate their chosen publisher’s guidelines and made each client aware of the specific issues to avoid such as conflicting use of formatting settings and keyboard use which creates havoc with their electronic format content.

    I am off topic here and only mention the foregoing as a further instance of author disregard for publisher guidelines. In the end, their inattentive adherence to such guidelines and a lack of self-editing, especially to the extent that it begins to burden my process heavily, has meant a more costly service rate to adequately cover my time and efforts to bring their content to a quality standard that will pay them dividends in terms of sales.

    This is a troublesome issue with no clear solutions at hand.

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    Comment by Don MacIver, RPA, Editor, Writer, Poet, Author — July 23, 2017 @ 3:01 am | Reply


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