An American Editor

December 14, 2016

On Ethics: Do Ethics Matter Anymore?

I have discussed ethics on An American Editor in a number of essays (see, e.g., “On Ethics: To Out or Not to Out Clients” [Part I and Part II]; “A Question of Ethics: The Delayed Project Further Delayed”; “A Question of Ethics: If the Editing Is Running Behind Schedule…”; “The Ethics of Distaste”; “The Ethics of Editing: Padding the Bill”; “The Ethics of Editing: The Sour Job”; “Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing”; and “Ethics in a World of Cheap”), but I am now wondering whether ethics matter.

Editors do not live in isolation, cut off from the world around us — or we shouldn’t. We need to be engaged with our surrounding world because it is our worldly experiences, along with our education and interests, that shape our editing. It would be difficult to provide a quality edit for a book on genocide if we did not know what genocide was and how it has appeared in history. We do not need to be experts in the subject matter, but we need to have some, at least rudimentary, knowledge about the subject matter. Thus we are engaged with our world.

In addition, we are engaged because we are citizens of our world and country. We cannot shut our eyes and pretend that what is happening next door, across the street, around the corner doesn’t have an impact on our own lives. And that is what makes me wonder if I have been wrong all along when I thought that ethics matter, that following an ethical path is important, that ethics is part and parcel of being a professional editor.

What I see around me is a vast change. A pebble was dropped in the ocean and the ripples it created are becoming a tsunami as the wave approaches the other side of the ocean. We have always had unethical members of the editing profession; every profession, every trade, every job type has workers who are ethical and workers who are unethical — except, we hope, for one very specific exception: president of the United States.

It is not that our presidents haven’t been ethically challenged on occasion; they are human and have human failings. It is the striving to be ethical that matters most and I cannot recall or think of a president who I would declare as wholly unethical — until now. Which is why I am concerned.

My reward for being an ethical business person, an ethical editor, is that I have work, I earn a decent wage, I have a place among my colleagues (i.e., they do not shun me for being unethical). And just as I sought to be ethical in my business, I expected others to be ethical in theirs. If they were not ethical, I expected them to not be rewarded for being unethical. Consequently, when we discuss questions of ethics, we discuss them in terms of balancing the scales of right and wrong and how, when we strike that balance, the answer affects not only ourselves but others. That is and has always been the foundation of ethics.

Until the Donald Trump run for and election to the presidency.

Now my world of ethics is being turned upside down. I get work and earn a decent living, but I am not a millionaire, let alone a billionaire, and I have not been rewarded with the power to set editing’s future direction. I am just an everyday schmoe of little influence and relevance.

In contrast, a man who appears to have no ethical boundaries, who doesn’t separate fact from fantasy, who is divisive, who steals from others and calls it business, is rewarded with election to the presidency of the United States and monetary wealth.

Sure I go to sleep at night with a clear conscience, but, I am willing to bet, so does Donald Trump.

So I ask the question: Based on the example of Donald Trump, do ethics matter? Would editors be better served to ignore questions of ethics and do whatever it takes or they can get away with? For example, instead of checking references, should the editor just style them and not care whether the cite information is correct, even though the agreement with the client is for the editor to check references for accuracy? Think of how much time and effort could be saved — time that could be spent on other, perhaps more profitable, pursuits.

When we discuss our fee and what it includes with an author, should we justify our fee by mentioning services that we will not really perform? Had you asked me on November 1, I would have said doing so was highly unethical and no, we should not only not do so but we shouldn’t even think about doing so. But today I waver.

I do not waver for myself; I know what path I will follow — the same path I always have. I waver on the question of whether or not ethics matter today. Does anyone expect ethicality? If we are willing to elect someone who wholly lacks an ethical and moral compass to lead us, why should we expect more of those who work beside us or for us?

I recognize that matters of ethics are personal. Each of us will choose our own path, just as we did on November 1. None of that is likely to change. What is changing — or, perhaps, has already changed — is the community compulsion to be ethical, however ethicality is individually defined. We are ethical because of personal traits and because of peer pressure. It is like stopping for a red light. We stop because of peer pressure and our desire to conform to community standards. (Yes, I recognize that there are laws, but laws are simply written expressions of community standards. They are written so that all community members can know them. But no law is enforceable in the absence of our personal beliefs, peer pressure, and community acceptance of the law.)

We are entering what is being called the “posttruth age,” a time when truth is whatever someone declares it to be. I think it might be better labeled the Trumpian Fantasy Age. It is an age when ethics are mutable, when ethics flow in all directions simultaneously, when ethics and honesty take a back seat to enrichment and fantasy. While the effect may be minimal on the current generation of editors, what will the effect be on future generations? Will anyone ask, will anyone care, whether a particular action is ethical? Does the future of editing lie in an ungoverned, undisciplined editing profession?

Has the political world of 2016 so upended the community’s moral compass that anarchy looks as if it is disciplined? Do ethics matter anymore?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

December 12, 2016

The Professional Editor & the Sacrificing of Contemplation Time

As I have noted many times on An American Editor, editing has changed greatly since I began my career nearly 33 years ago. Many of the changes are small and relatively inconsequential; others amount to sea changes. All have added to the burden of the job.

The most problematic changes for me are the triad of increased tasks to be performed in less time but for the same or less pay. This triad denotes a change in emphasis. Thirty-three years ago, budgets weren’t unlimited but priorities were different. The goal then was a better book (manuscript) even if the schedule had to be stretched, the budget increased, or some of the less-important tasks skipped. Today, it is the schedule and budget that reign supreme, especially the schedule.

The sacrifice being made today is that of time to contemplate. I used to have the time to puzzle over sentence construction. Consider, for example, this sentence fragment:

…after the speaker of parliament leaked a report on the crime by Kroll…

There really isn’t a great deal wrong with the fragment, especially in the Twitter age where people are increasingly thinking in 140-character fragments, except that given time to think about what we are reading should raise questions that are at war with an editor’s goals of making the language such that all readers receive exactly the same author message and of answering foreseeable questions before they are asked.

The questions that came to my mind when I read the sentence of which the fragment is a part are these:

  1. Was the crime report written by Kroll? or
  2. Was the subject of the report a crime that had been committed by Kroll?

(The complete sentence reads: “It was not until April that much information about the bank scandal became public, after the speaker of parliament leaked a report on the crime by Kroll, a security firm.” [“Moldova’s Economy Gutted,” The Economist, August 1, 2015.])

In context, my assumption would be that the first alternative (the crime report was written by Kroll) is the correct interpretation. After all, the complete sentence identifies Kroll as a security firm. But think about that interpretation. It is premised on the idea that a security firm (or a member of the firm) cannot (or would not) commit such a crime. Legitimately, the complete sentence could be written like one of these alternatives:

It was not until April that much information about the bank scandal became public, after the speaker of parliament leaked a report on the crime committed by Kroll, a security firm.

or

It was not until April that much information about the bank scandal became public, after the speaker of parliament leaked a report on the crime written by Kroll, a security firm.

Note the words in bold in each revision: committed and written. The addition of just the one word to the sentence enhances and clarifies the meaning. And because either word fits neatly within the confines of the sentence — with no other change to the sentence, just the insertion of the single word — it is clear that the sentence as originally written (i.e., with the omission of either committed or written) could mean either that the report was written by Kroll or the crime was committed by Kroll. All that context does is give some weight to the credibility of an unstated premise that many readers will unconsciously draw.

Thus, the importance of time to contemplate.

I know from my experiences as an editor and as a reader that the minimizing of an editor’s time to contemplate what the editor is reading in a manuscript has become a seismic change in publishing. Increasingly one cannot rely on, for example, a nonfiction book to be accurate, only that it approximates being accurate. Too many sentences appear in books of “fact” that rely on the reader drawing the correct premise from a well of premises.

It nearly goes without saying that the problem of lack of contemplation time, as brought about by the earlier-mentioned triad, is compounded by the increase in self-editing and in the expansion of the editor pool by the inclusion and use of un-/less-/underqualified or nonprofessional editors. Self-editors would not stumble over the sentence because they innately understand what their words mean; it is no different than writing their instead of there and not catching the mistake when you reread what you have written. Similarly, underqualified and nonprofessional editors would pass over the phrasing because of the subtlety involved in recognizing that there are not only two possible opposing meanings (committing a crime is opposite writing about a crime committed by someone else), but that interpretation of the sentence as written requires selecting the correct underlying premise — which itself may be a false premise — from the well of premises.

Consider this example:

Because of this, while intrastudy interpretations of serological data from clinical trials with Vi conjugates are possible, heretofore comparisons of different conjugates cannot readily be made as two different conjugates have not been used in the same randomized study for direct comparison.

The sentence has several problems, but the one I want to focus on is the phrasing “heretofore comparisons of different conjugates cannot readily be made.” Is the sentence intended to mean that previously the comparisons could not be made but they can now be made? Or that neither in the past nor now can such comparisons be made? The problem is the combination of “heretofore” with “cannot” — it should be either “heretofore” with “could not” or “cannot” without “heretofore,” that is:

Because of this, while intrastudy interpretations of serological data from clinical trials with Vi conjugates are possible, heretofore comparisons of different conjugates could not readily be made as two different conjugates have not been used in the same randomized study for direct comparison.

in which the notion that the comparisons can now be made is implied (which means it would be better to explicitly state that comparisons can now be made), or

Because of this, while intrastudy interpretations of serological data from clinical trials with Vi conjugates are possible, comparisons of different conjugates cannot readily be made as two different conjugates have not been used in the same randomized study for direct comparison.

Sentences like the above get passed over because of the pressure of schedule combined with low compensation and the increased number of tasks that a client expects an editor to complete within the allotted time for that low compensation. Something has to give, and what has given is the time needed to contemplate sentence structure and the order of words.

Professional editors do the best they can within the parameters forced on them by clients. But perhaps we — meaning both professional editors and clients — need to step back and rethink the sacrifices that are being made in order to meet the demands. Should we continue to sacrifice clarity upon the altar of schedule? Should we continue to sacrifice the author’s message to the triad?

These are the questions that editors and clients need to address before it becomes acceptable for every manuscript to look like it has been twitterized.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 30, 2016

On Politics: The Future of American Education

Most editors recognize that the foundation of our business lies in the education we received. It is hard to tackle grammar issues in a manuscript without having been taught grammar. And deciding whether the correct word is there or their requires having been taught the difference.

Of course, there is the issue of subject matter knowledge as well. Granted that editors are rarely expected to be subject-matter experts — especially not at the common rates paid to editors — but editors are expected to have some familiarity with the subject matter and to be able to understand what they are editing.

I have lamented in past essays about the decline of editing and of education. Now I worry even more with the nomination of Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos to be Secretary of Education in the forthcoming Trump presidency. Her selection is tantamount to declaring war on public education and on education standards — public and private. If her views on education permeate the educational system, what I see as a decline in quality of editors may well become a tsunami.

The foundation of America’s education system is that it is a public education system, meaning that every child has access to a “free” public education (and, yes, there is really no such thing as “free” in this context; public education is an expensive taxpayer burden, but a burden that since the early days of the republic taxpayers have been willing to bear in hopes that their children will do better economically and socially than they did). In DeVos’ world there would be no “public” education — all education would be by private schools, largely charter schools.

I admit that there was a time when I thought charter schools would be a panacea to our declining school systems, but that fantasy didn’t last long. The truth is that to fix our schools, we need to fix the way our teachers are taught and compensated. Rather than mid-level students choosing teaching as a career path, we need to find a way to make the highest-level students seek that career. And we need to require teachers to be subject-matter experts not generalists whose expertise is in classroom administration with a minor in subject matter.

Whereas I have progressed from thinking charter schools are the panacea to education’s ills, DeVos has not. In fact, DeVos not only abhors public schools, but she opposes setting standards for charter and private schools to meet. DeVos has been supporting proponents of her education views for years in Michigan. The result is that Michigan not only has more charter and private schools than any other state, but its educational ranking (in comparison to other states) has been steadily slipping, with no end in sight. (For an excellent review of DeVos’ history, see “Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Pick, Has Steered Money From Public Schools” by Kate Zernike [news item], The New York Times, November 23, 2016, and for why she would be a disaster for American education, see “Betsy DeVos and the Wrong Way to Fix Schools” by Douglas N. Harris [opinion piece], The New York Times, November 25, 2016.)

What does this mean for the future of editing? Even though education has been on the decline for years and this decline has been evident in the quality of new-generation editors and editing — as witnessed by the number of people hanging out shingles, proclaiming themselves editors, and then failing to do a quality job — there were rays of hope as colleges began to realize that they are a major part of the problem of education failure and steps have slowly been taken to revamp education curriculum and requirements for a teaching degree and license.

But what little progress has been made is now jeopardized because all of the controls that are exercised over education in public schools are nonexistent in the DeVos education world. DeVos believes that the free market, unfettered by chains of requirements to obtain a teaching license and unfettered by educational goals that part of standards such as the Common Core or national tests, will supply the needed fixes — even though this has been untrue in the 30 years she has pushed such an agenda.

If education further, significantly declines, then editing may be a doomed profession. After all, why would an author want a manuscript edited by someone without the skills necessary to edit her manuscript better than she can edit it herself? Why would publishers pay someone to simply run spellcheck?

This is not to say that our current system is the answer; it definitely has proven itself to not being able to solve the education crisis. The problem is that with DeVos we will swing from one extreme to another extreme, which is problematic when both extremes have conclusively shown that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Do I have a solution? No, I don’t. I do know that for years I have complained about the low standards that have to be met to graduate from a college education program with a teaching degree (I attended such a college in my college days). I know that I have clashed with teachers who should never have been given a teaching license but who were teaching my children in public schools. And I know that the way to fix the problem is not to replace it with another “solution” that is just an exacerbation of the existing problem.

Betsy DeVos should not be confirmed as Secretary of Education because her “solutions” have proven, in Michigan, to be worse than the existing problem. To institute those policies nationally would be to jeopardize America’s future. I encourage you to petition your U.S. Senator to not confirm Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos as Secretary of Education. Her confirmation would be disastrous for America and for the future of editing.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 16, 2016

The Order of Things (An Occasional Series): I

This essay inaugurates a new series, The Order of Things. The idea of the series is to discuss the steps necessary for a long-term successful editing career. Needless to say, much of this series will be based on my experience and the experiences of close colleagues. I like to think I have had a very successful long-term editing career, but then success is relative. What is success to me may not be success to you.

Consequently, we begin with what I consider to be the first step in launching a successful career, a step so fundamental that it is rarely discussed, even more rarely thought about, and yet is the driver of for many of the decisions we make. The first step is defining success.

Success has always been a part of the editorial vocabulary, but usually a hidden part. Editors rarely think about it but are quick to claim their success to clients and colleagues, who also do not ask the bottom-line question: What do you mean by success?

Success can have any number of meanings. For some editors, success is editing a New York Times bestseller, even if they made no money on the project. For other editors, success is defined by money, that is, by an income that exceeds $x. Some editors define it by a mixture of steady work and a reasonable income. It really doesn’t matter how it is defined; what matters is that success is defined because it is that definition against which you evaluate your career.

Working for a company usually results in success being defined as climbing the corporate ladder, gaining increasing power and income as one rises. We tend to measure our corporate success against that of our colleagues. We can see who rises, who falls, and we can know what perks accompany the rise or fall.

But as an individual proprietor of our own company of one, we do not really have that ability to measure our success (or failure) against that of our colleagues. Over 32 years I have found very few colleagues willing to really discuss the ins and outs of their business, especially not their incomes. More importantly, it is hard to verify any statements colleagues make about their income or clients or workload or, really, just about anything involving their editing business.

Thus success for editors is measured against self-definitions.

I can tell you that for 29 of my 32 years as an editor, I have earned a six-figure income and that it has generally been at the high end of the low end (a little confusing isn’t it). And I can point to my being the primary (and often sole) source of income for my family, my having bought a house and paying $2,000 a month on a mortgage, and having bought health insurance, and having paid for college, and so on as proof of my statement — but that really doesn’t prove how successful I am. Because I have not yet defined what constitutes success for me, and, perhaps more importantly, it may not be what you consider success. So, we each need to define success for our self and measure our self against that definition.

Why is definition important? Because if we do not have a goal or something to measure against, it is impossible to know if we should continue following our current course.

Let’s accept that success means financial success and that financial success means earning a minimum of $100,000 a year, every year, beginning in 2017. Somewhat like a New Year’s resolution, but one we will strive to attain and keep.

As we begin our journey toward that goal, we can constantly evaluate how we are doing. With that goal, we can determine whether we have enough work, or if we have enough work to keep us busy for the year, is it the right kind of work from the right kind of client. Having that goal also allows us to evaluate what we need to do to attain the goal. Do we need to advertise? What kind of advertising? Where? How often? Focused on what type of client?

“Ahhh!” I hear you say. “The beginnings of a business plan” (for an excellent introduction to business plans, see Louise Harnby’s “Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers” or, better yet, her “Omnibus: Editorial Business Planning & Marketing Plus“). Fundamental to every business plan is knowing your goal, knowing what constitutes success.

Yet defining success encompasses much more. It gives you the opportunity to evaluate many of the business concepts that you are unconsciously employing in your daily business. After all, one facet of attaining the success we defined is wrapped in the cloak of the price we charge for our service. It is not possible, for example, to earn $100,000 if you charge $10 an hour. If you work 80 hours a week and charge $10 for every one of those 80 hours and do so for 52 weeks, your income will be only $41,600 or less than 42% of what constitutes success.

The result of defining success is that you are forced to face and address those things that most editors usually ignore. For example, when setting their rate, most editors ask colleagues questions such as, “What is the going rate?” or “What do you charge for copyediting?” or other uninformative, unhelpful albeit similar questions, when the correct question is, “What is my required effective hourly rate?” and the correct “colleague” to ask is yourself. (For guidance on the effective hourly rate, see the five-part series “Business of Editing: What to Charge.“)

When you ask a colleague about what to charge, you are doing so in a vacuum. Without knowing their goals, you cannot know whether they are charging correctly or how it compares to what you should be charging. Unless a colleague’s goal is the same as your goal and unless the colleague and you are taking the same path, including focusing on identical markets, to that goal, the answer you receive is interesting, making for great “water-cooler” gossip, but not what should guide you.

So, the first step necessary for a long-term successful editing career is to define success. In the absence of setting your goal, you have no yardstick against which to measure your progress and when your path forks, you have no clues as to which fork to take. If you have yet to define success, now is the time to take that first step.

(There are lots of little things that matter in establishing a successful editorial business. My book, “The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper,” is an excellent guide to many of the things that create a successful editorial business. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and from the publisher, Waking Lion Press.)

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 14, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Decline & Fall of Editing

For quite some time, I have been concerned about the decline of editing. Increasingly, few books are receiving anything more than cursory editing. Increasingly, the focus is more on preparing a document for publication, for example, by applying styles to designate something as the heading for a second-level bulleted list, than on sentence structure, word choice, grammar, and other language (as opposed to structural) needs.

This is particularly evident in ebooks, especially self-published ebooks.

I have pondered this situation for months without coming up with a satisfactory explanation as to why the original, traditional goals of editing have been stealthily replaced and the lack of “uproar” from readers. Then came the 2016 U.S. elections and it dawned on me that authors and publishers are making this transition because the average reader either can’t separate fact from fiction or doesn’t care whether something is fact or fiction.

I have no plans to dwell on or discuss the past election except as the actions of the voters really were actions that could have been predicted had attention been paid to the evolution that has been ongoing in editing.

Consider the Trumpian cry that Hillary Clinton was a liar and Donald Trump told it like it is. The fact checkers — that is, every nonpartisan fact checker — agreed that Trump’s statements were outright lies and falsehoods 75% of the time and Clinton’s were 25% of the time. They also agreed that Clinton’s were closer to the proverbial “white” lie and Trump’s were just outright lies. Yet if you asked Trump voters, they would tell you that Clinton never told the truth and Trump nearly always did tell the truth.

What this tells me is that the average American has little interest in separating fact from fiction; that errors of language in books really do not matter as long as the package is attractive. If there is no concern about fact truth in presidential politics as long as appearances are kept up, then it is logical that there is little worry or concern about fact truths in books, and thus little concern about whether a book is edited at all, let alone whether it is properly edited.

I have noticed in my local newspaper, which is part of the Gannett chain, that copyediting is clearly a very low interest. It is the rare local-origin article that has fewer than five or six errors (the articles that originate elsewhere seem to be better edited), and many of the local opinion pieces, including letters to the editor, are riddled with language errors.

When I was in public school in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the things that we did was get a student subscription to The New York Times for classroom use. The primary reason for the subscription requirement was to learn grammar and language. There was some, but not much, interest in the classroom for the news as news; the newspaper was used to teach English grammar. Sometimes we would also get a copy of the local paper and compare and contrast how each wrote about a particular news event, the words chosen, and the sentence (and paragraph) structure. Using the newspaper as a teaching tool died out as the acrimony over the Vietnam War grew.

Today, there seems to be less concern on the part of readers, publishers, and authors about how a book is viewed from a grammar perspective because what used to be the bastions of quality editing have become haphazard. Consequently, students do not learn by example and absorption quality language skills; they learn indifference.

The learned indifference carries over to all spheres of life. Incorrect language use peppers political debate, resulting in two voters hearing the same words but understanding them differently. Incorrect language use acts as a barrier to progress because there is no agreement on the import of the words.

We struggle with the idea that there are class distinctions. We often attribute the distinctions to financial wealth when, perhaps, the core of the separations are really language and understanding. We perpetuate the class problem by failing to unite around language use, by failing to communicate clearly so that the message we send is understood the same by all.

Quality editing was, in my early years as an editor, a sought-after prize. It was not unusual (although it did not happen often) to learn that an editor had been fired from a project or that a publisher had removed an editor from the approved list of editors because of poor editing. In-house editors would often return manuscript pointing out missed errors or wanting to discuss why a particular editing decision was made. The editing pay scale was a range, with new editors at the bottom rung and very experienced and highly sought after editors at the top.

Contrast that with the editing world of today. Today, the pay is pretty uniform. Today, an editor is chosen more often based on price than on excellence. Today, editing is often outsourced to offshore companies whose primary goal is to keep editorial costs minimal. There is no time or money for fact checking or for second or third language passes. There is an increased belief that “anyone who can spot a spelling error can edit” or that the best (and least-expensive) editor for a manuscript is the author of the manuscript.

As the mistakes appear in print, they begin reinforcing incorrect knowledge about language. Eventually the erroneous becomes the normal and few recognize that the normal is erroneous. Which is how we end up with mislabeling and a disregard for true editing.

If this trend continues, there won’t be much need for skilled editors; the only need will be for low-cost editors who know how to style but who have few to nonexistent language skills. Schools will teach using books edited by these editors and another low-language-skill generation will take over.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

October 31, 2016

The Business of Editing: Putting Out the Fire

Every editor eventually faces the question of “damage control” and over a long career, may face it more than once. Preparation is the best way to address the issue.

What do you do when a client finds an error
in your work?

Every business faces this problem. For service people, like editors, the issue is error; for a retailer, the issue is defective goods; for service-retailer (e.g., an auto mechanic), the issue may be either error, defective goods, or a combination. No matter, every business — from the smallest to the largest and in every type of commercial venture — has on occasion had to deal with the question of what to do when a client finds an error.

The difference is that most businesses have an existing plan to address the problem; editors rarely do. Reasons why editors rarely are prepared include:

  • We expect errors to exist in our end product; we know that editing perfection is a goal, not a standard against which we should be judged;
  • We understand that it is a matter of preference and opinion whether to use serial commas or to close up hyphenated compounds;
  • We recognize that language is fluid — what was forbidden yesterday may well be de rigueur today;
  • We expect at least one if not many more eyes will go over our material, thereby minimizing the number of errors; and, perhaps most important,
  • We know that our work product is not (or should not be) the final iteration because the client has the power, right, and duty to accept or reject our suggested changes.

It is for these reasons, among others, that editors — unlike content creators such as writers who carry errors and omissions insurance policies — do not carry editing liability insurance policies. Of course, those reasons do not address the problem with which we are faced: What should we do?

The usual suggestion is to offer a discount on the work or on future work. Some clients demand reimbursement for any costs incurred, such as the cost of reprinting. Neither is an acceptable solution.

The more severe the client considers the error, the less likely it is that the client will continue to use your services, making the ultimate goal of your giving the discount/reimbursement — to smooth ruffled feathers and maintain the work relationship — less achievable. If you cannot be certain that your goal will be achieved, why proceed down that path?

Taking steps to avoid this problem — that is, the problem of being asked to compensate a client for an error — should be among the first acts of an editor when setting up to do business. The steps that can be taken are to have a written policy regarding errors and liability. (It is important to note that we are speaking of editing errors, not content-creation errors that include fact-checking errors.) The policy should indicate:

  1. What constitutes an error;
  2. Whether there is a margin for error and if there is, the size of the margin. (The margin of error can be a set number of errors or a percentage such as “constituting greater than 4% of the number of words in the document/project.”);
  3. The remedy(ies) available to the client; and
  4. The client’s responsibilities to minimize any negative effects that might arise from the error(s).

The terms need to be in writing and part of any agreement or correspondence with a client.

Probably the most important item in the foregoing list is #4. Clients have to assume some responsibility for a final product, whether it be a novel, a biography, a quarterly report, a dissertation, or something else. Clients too often assume that they can hire an editor and walk away from the project. But they cannot. One of the responsibilities can be (and should be) to hire an independent proofreader to review the near-final product.

One of the reasons I do rarely work directly with authors is because it was always a battle to convince authors that editing without independent proofreading is like taking one’s car in for an oil change and just having the oil drained and not replaced. Authors were (rightfully) budget conscious, but there is a difference between being conscious of one’s budget and being a slave to the budget to the detriment of one’s creation. When I do work directly with an author, I make it clear that I cannot accept liability for errors in the absence of high-quality independent proofreading.

Probably the most difficult item in the list to define is error. But the absence of an agreed upon definition of error is an invitation to an acrimonious editor–author relationship. This definition must be clearly spelled out and in writing. The easiest way is by defining the parameters of the work to be done. For example, if the editor is being hired to fact check, that should be included in the definition of the job’s parameters; if fact checking is not part of the job, it needs to be explicitly excluded as part of the editor’s responsibilities and explicitly included as part of the client’s responsibilities.

Once there is agreement, then the remedies available to the client need to be spelled out. It is here that you give the answer to the question “What do you do when a client finds an error in your work?” The remedies have to reflect what you are comfortable doing and should never be based on the unknowable, such as the likelihood that a client will continue to send me work if this particular remedy is available. It is better to assume that no matter what remedy you offer, there will be no future work from the client. With that assumption, you can focus on what will enhance your reputation for fairness and quality work.

What do you do when you find an error in work
that you have already submitted to your client?

Although a related issue, this is a garment of a different color. Some editors choose to say and do nothing, assuming that the next person in the chain will spot and fix the error. Some, like me, prefer to notify the client immediately and send a corrected file.

We gain or lose work based on our reputation. Consequently, I try to make my decisions based on whether I think the action I am contemplating will build up my reputation or tear it down. To my thinking, sending the corrected document will enhance my reputation.

I have sent a corrected document even weeks after I submitted the original edited to the client. Sometimes it is too late, sometimes it is in the nick of time, but always the client has been appreciative. I have never lost a client by sending a corrected file.

I not only send a corrected file, but also a cover note in which I explain what the correction is and why it is important to correct my error. (Sometimes it is not an error but something has changed since I edited the document, such as the announcement of a new treatment modality.)

I have said in other essays that the most important marketing tool for an editor is impressing upon the client that you are knowledgeable about the subject area and are always expanding your knowledge. It sends an important message about you to your clients and prospective clients.

I grant that there are many ways to send such a message; my admission that I made an error and correcting it is one way. (Another is when I develop a better way to accomplish a task and I let the client know about it. For example, when I developed the reference renumbering report that I send along with a document with renumbered references, I made sure that clients learned about it and how useful the report would be to their authors, proofreaders, and compositors. The result has been an increase in inquiries about my willingness to take on large projects with complex reference renumbering.) Being forthright about errors gives clients confidence in my abilities and willingness to accept responsibility for what I do.

The key to both questions is to create a response that enhances your stature. Remember that as an independent businessperson it is your reputation that determines your success in building clientele.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

October 17, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Card — Don’t Leave Home Without Them

Filed under: Business of Editing,Marketing — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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A repeatedly asked question goes something like this: “Any tips on how to find clients?” There are any number of variations, but the question really is asking “how should I market and to whom should I market?”

The answers given are always the standard answers for today. Be on social media, have a website, ask for referrals, and so on. Never mentioned is one of the oldest and most effective methods of marketing: The Card.

“The Card” is the business card. That little scrap of heavier paper that acts as an introduction of the giver to the recipient — the one piece of paper that a businessperson should never leave at home. It is the gold mine of essential information about its giver.

Colleagues who have attended conferences at which I have spoken know that the first thing I do is make sure everyone present receives at least one of my cards. What they don’t know — because I never said so — is that I also made sure that every hotel or restaurant employee I came in contact with also received a card; I do not know who they know. Experienced conference colleagues also know that I expected to receive a card from them. Some gave me one, but some just made excuses for why they didn’t have a card to give me or for the quality of the card they were handing me. I’m willing to bet that since I stopped speaking at the conferences, the exchange of cards has withered — probably not thought of anymore because the value is not so evident in the internet age.

Yet that is a mistake. Sure, an online presence is important, and today’s young publishing professionals disdain the ways of the past. But I think of it more like I think of Sun Tzu (ca. 544–ca. 496 bc) and Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) and Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) — ageless, priceless, and still authoritative. Just as we study these past masters of war and politics because what they said hundreds of years ago is still relevant and accurate today, so the smart hunter of business views the business card.

If I were looking to edit indie fiction, I would attend local writers’ gatherings and I would hand out my card to every attendee every time. It doesn’t matter if they take it home and throw it away; what matters is that for at least a few seconds — and likely longer — the only editor they will think of is me. And the card reinforces my information because it isn’t easy (or polite) to refuse to accept the card, unlike an email that can be put on the spam list.

Years ago I did something a bit different when it came to the card: I had it made into a mini-chocolate bar and I handed out the bar freely, often several at a time. Because I wanted to make a “lasting” impression, I wrapped with the chocolate (sanitarily, of course) the paper version of the card — the recipient received a chocolate card and a paper card.

I’ve stopped using the chocolate card because I am semiretired and can’t make up my mind whether I want more business or less business — but every so often I think about doing it again. Why? Because people liked it enough to actually ask me for a card if I didn’t proffer one immediately — within my narrow market circle I became associated with the chocolate card.

The card is, as I noted earlier, a source for information about me. But it gets boring to read the same information repeatedly (although not to eat the chocolate :)), so I made it a point to redesign my cards every 12 to 18 months. I changed the text, its placement, the colors, the image, the feel. The card was my walking billboard and so it had to be treated as a billboard — it needed to reattract the recipient’s eyes.

The problems are several with relying on social media and online forums to spread your name and attract business. I’ll set aside for this discussion the amount of time it takes, much of which is unproductive (by which I mean not income generating), but will acknowledge that it takes a lot of time. A good example is this blog. It takes hours of work to produce a single essay and it would take even more hours to properly promote the essay across the internet. And the financial return is not commensurate with the amount of time spent to get that return.

Instead, I’ll focus on other problems. For a website to be effective you have to properly design it, maintain it, update it, and most importantly, provide some reason for someone to make the effort to come to it and once there, stay there, not just skate by. The card, on the other hand, requires minimal amount of maintenance and already has a reason for someone to accept it — you are face-to-face in the same room. People are generally social, so you do not need to entice them to say hello when you occupy the same space.

Which raises another problem with online selling — separating yourself from all of the spam that clutters the internet and that most potential clients try hard to avoid. You have to make the recipient of your message want to read your message and then act on it, usually by clicking a link to visit your website. We all know how reluctant most people are, just like we ourselves are, to click a link in an email from someone we do not know. But when I walk up to an author at a book signing, introduce myself and hand over the card, there is no resistance — the recipient sees I am real and has to do nothing more than what they would normally do.

The point is that the card has not lost its value in finding clients; we just need to use them differently in the internet age.

Business cards need to be well-designed and printed, not just slopped together on the home computer and printed on tear-apart business card stock on the home printer. The information on the card has to be just right for your audience. (At one time I used five different cards simultaneously. Each was designed for a different target market and I would hand to a recipient the card appropriate for the their market.)

I suspect few of my colleagues still use business cards to a great extent, which means there is a marketing opportunity for the adventurous. Old-fashioned marketing is still the most effective marketing in a business like editing because it is personal marketing of personal services. It gives us the chance to demonstrate our interpersonal skills, something that is greatly diluted by the internet.

If I were looking to build my clientele today, I would make business cards part of my effort, especially because it would force me to think about and define my market and how to reach it in a novel fashion.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

October 3, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Blame Game

I’ve always thought that the person who makes the decision should stand tall and accept the blame for anything that goes wrong as a result of that decision.

Consider, for example, where an author uses both ton and tonne in a book. If I were to decide to change tonne to ton on the (shaky) grounds that ton is the American spelling, who should accept the blame for having made the decision should it turn out to be a poor one? Usually, I would say me because I made the decision. But suppose I hadn’t made the decision; instead, those who hired me instructed me to make the change, and I did as I was told. When the author rightfully complains about the decision, who takes the blame — me or the person who gave me the instruction? I would have said that the instructor, not the instructed, should accept responsibility, but I am discovering that just as the chain of command has changed in publishing, so has responsibility.

The ton/tonne example is a good — albeit simplistic — example. Both are correct American English spellings because they represent different things: tonne is the equivalent of 2204.6 pounds (or 1000 kilograms), a metric ton, whereas ton is the equivalent of 2000 pounds for the short ton or 2240 pounds for the long ton. (Generally, in American English, ton means the short ton; if the long ton is meant, it is specified as the long ton.) Neither the short ton nor the long ton is the equivalent of the tonne — one is too light, the other too heavy. Of course, tonne could be changed to metric ton, but why is it better to use a word’s definition than to use the word itself?

To blithely change tonne to ton because ton not tonne is “the American spelling” in a book that uses both terms is inviting trouble, especially as both are correct American spellings, just with different meanings. And an instruction to make that change will inevitably lead to shifting of blame to the end of the chain, the editor, and is likely to result in the editor’s loss of a client.

Why does this happen? What can the editor do in this unfair situation?

Unfortunately, once the blame game has started, the editor rarely has a clue that it is on. The revelation comes when a source of work dries up. The cause of the blame game is the change in how publishing produces books. When I began my career, my dealings were with the publisher’s in-house production staff: the chain, in its simplest form, was

author > publisher > independent professional editor

In this chain, the in-house production staff and the professional editor were in constant communication, and decisions like changing tonne to ton were discussed and mutually decided. But the chain, too, has undergone change. The usual chain today is

author > publisher > packager > independent professional editor

When this chain was born, packagers were less confident and often relied heavily on the professional editor to make editorial decisions, even to provide the packager with guidance. But with the passage of time that changed. Packagers increasingly turned inward for advice.

As every professional editor knows (and hopefully would admit), professional American editors are more likely to have fluent command of American English than Indian editors, just as Indian editors are more likely to have fluent command of British-Indian English than are American editors. This is not to say that a professional editor cannot be strong in multiple versions of English, just that most editors are not. Consequently, using our ton/tonne example, for a book that is to be conformed to American English, it is more likely that a professional American editor will make a better-informed decision about replacing tonne with ton than will an Indian editor. Yet an Indian packager is more likely to ask for and accept a language usage decision made by in-house staff without consulting the American editor. And thus the problem arises.

Should the author complain about the substitution, the author’s complaint will be made to the publisher, who will then complain to the packager. But there the trail will stop because the packager already knows that if the editor is asked, the response will be “You [the packager] instructed me to make the change.” So why ask the editor? Instead, blame the editor, because blaming the editor is politic if the packager wants to keep the publisher’s business.

To minimize this blame shifting, which can have negative economic impact on the editor, the professional editor can only marshal her arguments against making such a change and hope to convince her client, the packager, of the rightfulness of her position. If unable to do that, the editor has little recourse, as someone has to be the scapegoat when authors start complaining.

The more distance there is between the professional editor and the ultimate client (the author), the greater the possibility of trouble. Unfortunately, in the current publishing model the editor has no assured position. As editors who work directly with authors know, the direct relationship doesn’t eliminate the blame game. When a negative review comes out, it is not unusual for an author to blame the editor for not recognizing and dealing with the problems raised in the review. Quickly forgotten are the instructions from the author that narrowed the editor’s role and said that identifying and correcting the problems noted in the review were outside the editor’s remit.

What all this means is that to be a successful editor, the editor needs to develop a thick skin, to understand the dynamics of the editor’s place in the chain, and to be prepared to gain and lose clients. The best safeguard for the editor is to actively market herself, knowing that while most of the time everything goes smoothly, sometimes the editor becomes a victim of the blame game.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 29, 2016

Should You Be Calling Yourself a Freelancer?

I just read one of the most intriguing essays I have read in years and it raises a question I hadn’t thought about in my 32 years of professional editing as owner of my own business. And now I recommend it to you:

Why I Hate the Term “Freelance Proofreader”
– A Letter to Newbies
by Louise Harnby

As editors, we know that words matter. Yet how many of us have considered the import of calling ourselves freelancers instead of proprietors or business owners or something similar?

What would you call yourself if not a freelance editor? How would you market yourself absent the word freelance?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 14, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Kneecapped Editor

We all have goals, whether adding new clients, making more money, or having more time to spend with the grandchildren. Yet you’ll notice two distinguishing features: first, our goals are often not challenging; second, if they are challenging, they are often not met or accomplished.

If we look around, we see goal-attainers like Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla Motors, Solar City, SpaceX) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon, Washington Post, Blue Origin) and think “There but for the lack of luck go I!” Such thinking really amounts to self-deception. We deceive ourselves into thinking that the difference between being a Musk or Bezos and being ourselves is something other than vision and self-esteem.

Think about how you tackle your editing work. It isn’t with imagination or vision. You tackle it today just as you did yesterday, last week, last month, last year. After all, how “visionary” or “imaginative” can one be when dealing with spelling and grammar? More importantly, think about how you go about finding new business and increasing your rates and doing myriad other business-focused tasks. All of us are constrained by how we view ourselves — some more than others — but our sense of self-esteem figures prominently in the outcome.

Colleagues who are excellent editors think of themselves as just average — not outstanding and certainly not as “the best.” As a consequence, they struggle to raise prices, to say no, to find new clients, to move outside their lifelong comfort zone. Be assured that this problem of low self-esteem is not unique to editors; we have been taught it since our babyhood, usually framed in the message of how important it is to follow rules and not rebel.

Yes, we all need to follow rules for society to function well, but there are levels and degrees of rebelliousness, ranging from meek acquiescence to outright defiance. The key is to find the proper levels and degrees — the ones that paint a positive portrait of your skills and make you so desirable that clients are willing to at least negotiate with you.

The editor–client relationship is like a mating ritual. We need to be the colorfully feathered peacock who makes clients want to dance with us and not some other editor. As in other aspects of life, the first step is belief in yourself.

When I give presentations, I often introduce myself by saying something like “I am the greatest of all editors.” I am always amused at the reaction, especially as I tend to repeat that several times during the course of the presentation. Some editors take umbrage, some just shake their head, and some get the message, which is that I have confidence and that I believe in myself, which is the foundation to success.

It is important, not because I say directly to clients, “You need to hire me and pay whatever I demand because I am the greatest of all editors,” but because my belief in myself and my abilities gives me the confidence to say to a client, “No, I cannot accept this project at the proposed fee and schedule. If you want me, you must agree to my terms.” And, even more importantly, it gives me the confidence to decline a project because I know — with confidence and certainty — that another project will be coming my way.

How do I know this? Because I message the confidence that I have built in myself when I discuss whether or not I will accept a project. Because I have convinced myself that I am an editor any author would be thankful for; because I have convinced myself and conveyed to clients that I am the superstar of the editing world.

Okay, I can hear your derision even over the internet. But think about it. Do you approach business meekly or like a lion?

Most of us approach life meekly; we want to avoid conflict. And in many cases that approach works fine. But it doesn’t work when you are self-employed, reliant on what you earn, and in competition with thousands of others for the same jobs. It is not that you need to be aggressive; it is that you need to stand tall, even to yourself, and not be led by others.

You also need the confidence to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. For example, famous author Richard Adin (who, after all, is more famous than the author of the chart-topping book The Business of Editing?) asked you to read and critique his book. It doesn’t matter whether this is paid or volunteer work; what matters is that you were asked. If it were me, I would be adding to my spiel to clients that I helped Richard Adin perfect his book — I do not need to say that I just critiqued Chapter 3. But few editors do that. They think their contribution was too minor or insignificant or that clients wouldn’t consider it important. Or they do not want to sound boastful. Or they offer up myriad other excuses. Yet if you are the world’s greatest editor, it is only right that a great author has asked your opinion or had you edit their book or proofread it or whatever. You worked on it; so boast about it.

Understand the way business operates: money is attracted to money, and greatness is attracted to greatness. Setting aside Donald Trump’s sad campaign for president, he is a perfect example of the concept — not the execution — of the importance of outward self-esteem. What does Trump sell? He sells the image of prestige and luxury. How does he do it? By believing that properties that bear his imprint are the world’s finest examples of prestige and luxury, and by convincing others of the same. Of course, the properties that bear his name need to also meet that standard, but when he started, there was just his self-belief.

And that is what the most successful editors do — they project an image, which they back up with skilled editing. But the purpose of having self-esteem and confidence is to obtain the opportunities to demonstrate that you have the skills. It does little good to be highly skilled but have little work.

Remember that your editorial business is about you and how you, because of your great skill, can and will help clients achieve their goals. Be confident in yourself and your clients will be confident in you. Never forget that low self-esteem can kneecap the best of us. Believing in yourself is the difference between being one of the crowd and one of the few.

And if you do nothing else, watch the following video to its end, and especially note the final words.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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