An American Editor

March 19, 2021

For Rent to Publishers: One Pistol with Bullet to Shoot Yourself in the Foot (or Why Good Editing Matters)

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 12:59 pm

Richard H. Adin

I never thought I would say “Gosh, I am glad I am retired,” but I am. Being retired has done many things for me, not least of which (aside from having the time to play with my granddaughters before their school and other diversions make me uninteresting and obsolete before my time) is that I now have time to devote to pleasure reading and building a library that my children wish I wouldn’t and my granddaughters are glad I am.

As part of doing so, I not only buy books as if there will be no more books for sale, but I also subscribe to dedicated book review magazines (New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, and Book Pages, to name a few), as well as numerous more general interest magazines that include book reviews worth reading (e.g., The Nation, The New Republic, Atlantic, The Economist, and Harper’s). It is not too often that more than one or two of magazines review the same book (one of the exceptions recently has been Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, which, surprisingly to me, has been reviewed by most of the magazines I subscribe to). Having all these book reviews available means that my to-be-read (TBR) pile of books never diminishes; it just keeps growing like the blob in the old horror movies.

In addition to these magazine sources for books that draw my interest, I also tend to scan online sources like Fantastic Fiction ( and certain categories of interest at Amazon, like biography, philosophy, history, language, science fiction/fantasy, and mystery. At Amazon, I use filters to narrow my searches. For example, I will filter for biographies, English language, and hardcovers (always hardcovers; I do not buy paperbacks) and then sort the list by publication date, which enables me to preview books yet to be published to see if there are any that I want to preorder. (I preorder a lot of books; as of this writing, for example, in 2021, I have preordered about 90 books so far. That includes books for me [the vast majority] and the books I send each granddaughter every month. In 2020, I ordered more than 275 books for myself and my granddaughters. I select at least three hardcover books, and sometimes more, to ship to each granddaughter each month.)

(I know this has been a long introduction, but soon I will pivot to focus more narrowly on the point of this essay.)

As a result of one of my biography searches, I came across Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel by Rachel Holmes (Bloomsbury Press, 976 pp., September 2020 in UK, December 2020 in US). If you look at Amazon, the reviews and quotes make this book look like it is a definitive biography, well-written, and worthy of both reading and being added to a library of biographies. Alas, it appears that the book is not so worthy. Bloomsbury, a respected publisher, rented my pistol and shot itself in the foot.

Rarely do I read a review that takes a book to task for errors and omissions that are so bad that they need to be pointed out so as not to mislead a potential buyer. A reviewer will occasionally note that a book is missing certain material, has a bias, is dully written, whatever. Rarely does a review take a publisher to task for doing a poor production job. Yet that is what happened in the case of Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel.

Within a few paragraphs of the opening sentence of “Worth the Upbringing” by Susan Pedersen (London Review of Books, vol. 43 No.5, March 4, 2021) (, an in-depth review of Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel, the reader is told:

Rachel Holmes’s new biography of Pankhurst rightly gives equal weight to the three great causes — feminism, left internationalism and anti-imperialism — to which Pankhurst devoted her life. Almost a thousand pages long, and weighing in at three and a half pounds, it is clearly intended to be the definitive life. Disappointingly, it isn’t. It is digressive, repetitive, and rife with typographical and factual errors, but that isn’t the main problem. (Emphasis supplied.)

Perhaps if that had been the end of the production criticism, I might view this book differently, but later in the review comes this:

Here,​ in its final third, Holmes’s book improves dramatically. It’s still baggy and repetitive, but the final three hundred pages are fresher and more engaging than the preceding six hundred, probably because Pankhurst did not write obsessively about her life during these decades, so that Holmes has had to piece the story together from more prosaic sources.*

That doesn’t look too bad until you note the asterisk denoting a footnote, and what a footnote it is:

*I am sorry to labour this point, but Bloomsbury deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly. Holmes’s factual errors and interpretative choices are obviously her own, but surely someone might have noticed when Amy Ashwood Garvey (750) turns into Amy Ashmore Garvey (751), or when Emmeline’s sister Ada Goulden Bach (624) reappears — without having married some other Pankhurst — as Ada Pankhurst (628), or when garbled sentences have simply migrated uncorrected into the text (121, 650). Need we be told twice that Sylvia reminded Emmeline Pethick Lawrence of a young Russian student revolutionary (189, 197), twice that Norah Smyth could afford to keep Sylvia’s East End ventures afloat ‘since she managed her investments well’ (353, 359), twice that during his state visit to Britain Selassie reminded Sylvia of his invitation to her to move to Ethiopia (745, 775), twice about the importance of folk dancing to the women’s movement (182–3, 267–8), three times about the wonders of the eucalyptus tree in Ethiopia (760–1, 783–4, 834–6), half a dozen times (at least) that Sylvia hated porridge, and twice that Harriot Stanton Blatch tried to persuade Emmeline to stop making Sylvia eat it when she was a child (41, 284)? Key events are often recounted twice: Sylvia’s first trip to Ethiopia in 1944 once on pp. 721-2 and again at greater length on pp. 758-66; the story of her breach with her mother and sister over Richard’s birth once in Chapter 5 and then again in Chapter 30. I would not have wanted the job of paring this manuscript down, but surely a publisher employs people for this purpose.

The first words of the footnote — “Bloomsbury deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly” — are the crux of the matter.

Bloomsbury is a highly reputable publisher. It has a long history of publishing important books and rarely is quality discussed; in fact, I can’t recall the last time I read a review that so keenly criticized the quality of a Bloomsbury book, and I have been an avid review reader for 60-some years. Consequently, when the quality of a Bloomsbury book is questioned, savvy readers need to take notice. Not just readers, however. Professional editors and all publishers need to take notice. Why? Because the problems for which Bloomsbury is being scolded seem to be problems that are growing within the industry.

We have all noticed the trend since the 1980s, if not earlier, as publishers merged and consolidated and shareholder dividend became more important than nearly anything else, for costs to be reduced. There are few places in the publishing world where costs can be reduced. In-house staff can be reduced (done!), greater reliance can be had on outsiders to make publishing decisions (done!), and lower production costs can be achieved by seeking the least-expensive ways (and people) to edit and produce a book (done!).

The industry can’t tell in advance how well most books will sell. A prime, and very famous, example is the Harry Potter series. It was rejected by many publishers and was originally brought out by a small, independent publisher. What publisher wouldn’t have grabbed that series had they been prescient enough to know what a worldwide seller it would be? Yet, it is this lack of prescience that causes problems like “Bloomsbury deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly.” Bloomsbury doesn’t have a bottomless coffer from which to draw funds and so has to allocate its resources.

The real issue is whether publishers like Bloomsbury are sufficiently analyzing their options and making the best choices. It increasingly seems that the only option is “cheapest.”

In the last decades of my active editing career, I made it a point to insist on certain terms. I established a minimum price below which I would not go (this was kept internal and not shared explicitly with clients or potential clients; I determined this floor by the process I outlined in previous An American Editor essays that are available in the An American Editor archives). I set a specific and nonnegotiable way for establishing a page count (I always charged by the page and never by the hour; for my reasoning, you can search the An American Editor archives for my essays discussing the pluses and minuses of the various ways to charge); and I set a firm payment-due-by policy — if payment in full was not received within my timeframe, I stopped work.

These key things (and some others) were nonnegotiable — either the client agreed and I did the work or the client didn’t agree and I passed on the job.

I was being paid for my expertise and the quality of my work. Clients always had the option of finding someone willing to work for far less than me; of finding someone who would accept the client’s page count instead of doing their own (I always do my own page count; I never accept the client’s); and of finding someone who was willing to wait an eternity to be paid. (I recall one short-lived client who started at payment within 30 days, then went to 45 days, then to 90 days, and finally to when the book was published. I never did get a satisfactory answer to what happened if the book was not published for a year or perhaps was never published). But my expertise and work quality were not available to clients who wanted that person.

To find editors who would do as they wanted, publishers created an intermediary level. When I first started work as an independent editor, I was hired by the publisher, my work was reviewed by the publisher’s in-house editorial staff, and I was paid by the publisher. As time passed and cheapness became the requirement, “independent” full-service production houses were created, often as subsidiaries of the publisher, and located in developing countries where costs were low. In the beginning, only production, not editorial, work was done by these companies. But as dividend demands and competitiveness increased (and pressure from companies like Amazon built), these service companies expanded into the editorial realm.

That is when trouble began — “good enough” became the standard, eventually devolving to “it was edited” without mention of or regard for the quality of the editing. I do not intend to rehash that history or delineate the problems beyond saying that editorial quality declined greatly. Much of the problem was that having a grasp of formal language is not the same as having a grasp of the nuances and localisms of a language, and the editors who were hired were formally fluent but informally naïve.

The other major contributor was that to be competitive, more books had to be published, yet publishing more books meant more fiscal failures. The book industry relies on hits to support both failures and what is referred to as “literary masterpieces”; that is, books that deserve to be (if not need to be) published as part of a debt to society and to the future, but that will never be wildly profitable (or even minimally or barely profitable).

One way to help keep a company afloat is to control costs. Editorial costs are easy to control because many readers can’t discern between good and bad editing and, more importantly, most people buy a book and put it on a shelf until they get around to it, by which time the book can’t be returned. In addition, of the great number of books being published each year, only a handful will be reviewed by knowledgable reviewers.

But all of this brings us back again to the Bloomsbury problem: Does having a bad review for editorial reasons sink a book’s prospects? If yes, then when publishers seek the least-expensive editing instead of the best editing, are publishers shooting themselves in the foot? If no, then why bother with editing at all? How many books and publishers can survive repeated reviews that state, “[publisher] deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly”?

The Bloomsbury problem is exacerbated by us editors in that there is both an overabundance of editors (largely because of the ease of becoming an editor and the belief that not only can anyone be an editor, but “that I caught the half-dozen misspellings in the book proves what a great editor I am”) and an overabundance of editors willing to cheapen the value of their work so they have work, like the editor who says she can charge 50 cents a page for a heavy edit of an engineering tome because she is retired, receives Social Security, and views her editing earnings as popcorn money. (I have often thought that editing is one of those trades that probably should have remained a guild craft, but that isn’t how capitalism works.) Bloomsbury could publish Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel because it had no one to advise it that the book should not be published until edited better (assuming it was edited at all).

Bloomsbury, like most publishers, wears blinders when it comes to editorial services — it simply does not want to understand the value that a high-quality, highly professional editor can bring to the table. Adding to the problem is that few editors understand the importance of their role, or even the parameters of their role, in preparing a book for publication. Ask most people what an editor does and the answer is “Correct the spelling and grammar.” I’d bet that few editors reading this have ever told a publisher (or even an author) that a book should not be published in its current construct, detailing why and what steps are needed to make the book publishable.

Most editors see a production schedule and know that by x date, they have to be done editing. Their goal is to meet that schedule for fear of not getting another project from the client. The fear is legitimate, but also often hampers the editor by keeping the editor from doing the best professional job the editor can do. Publishers like Bloomsbury also look at the production schedule and see that the editing has to be finished by x date to meet the printing date so the book will be available for a specific release period. The publisher does not think it possible that the book would greatly benefit from delay, because the publisher does not equate high-quality editing with higher sales and better reviews.

And so we have the Bloomsbury Sylvia Pankhurst problem. How many more books would Bloomsbury sell if instead of writing, “It is digressive, repetitive, and rife with typographical and factual errors” and “Bloomsbury deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly,” the reviewer had written, “It is authoritative and free of typographical and factual errors” and “Bloomsbury deserves kudos for the high-quality editing and proofreading this book received, which makes this an outstanding contribution to the Pankhurst literature”?

Imagine being the editor of Sylvia Pankhurst, knowing that Bloomsbury definitely saw the negative London Review of Books review. If I were the publisher, I would want to know the editor’s name and put out the word within Bloomsbury (which would soon leak externally) not to hire that editor again. In contrast, had the review been positive, thereby enhancing Bloomsbury’s reputation as a publisher, Bloomsbury would want to know the editor’s name so it could hire that editor again for future projects. And if I were the editor, I’d be blasting the positive review everywhere.

Publishers and editors earn reputations. Too many reviews like that of Sylvia Pankhurst hurt a publisher’s reputation; readers will be cautious about buying books with that publisher’s name attached. Similarly, editors associated with reviews like that of Sylvia Pankhurst tend to be avoided by knowledgeable publishers; it is very difficult to regain a positive reputation for editing in today’s social media world once a negative one has been earned.

Both publishers and editors need to remember that an important key to success is reputation.

Richard Adin is the founder of the An American Editor blog, author of The Business of Editing (with Jack Lyon and Ruth E. Thaler-Carter), owner of wordsnSync, and creator/owner of EditTools.


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