An American Editor

October 5, 2015

A Question of Ethics: If the Editing Is Running Behind Schedule…

The Background

A project I recently completed was originally scheduled to be done by August 31 — a 4-week schedule; it ended, instead, 3 weeks later. The price I quoted was based on the short schedule that the August 31 must-meet date represented. (For this particular project, a 4-week schedule was quite tight.)

The delay in completing the project was caused by delays in the client delivering the manuscript to me. The delays were such that it seemed as if nothing was going right with the project. For example, references were called out in the text using the author-date system, with all of the references appearing in a bibliography at the end of the manuscript, not in each chapter. Although I requested the references early in the process, I didn’t receive them until a few days before the absolute final extended due date. Consequently, the editor had no opportunity to check whether the bibliography actually contained all of the cites called out in the text or if there were references cited in the bibliography that were not called out in the text.

A fundamental part of editing is to check the references to make sure that all that are called out are cited in the bibliography/reference list and to identify any that are cited in the bibliography/reference list but not called out in the text. When the client insisted that I return the edited references on a particular date, I pointed out that to do so meant the editor could not check callouts against cites; all the editor could do was look for missing information in the cites, try to locate that missing information, and style the cites.

Because callout–cite checking is fundamental to editing, I required the client to explicitly direct us to not do the checking, which the client did. As the client noted, it was not our fault that there was no time left to do the job. I replied to the client, “It is not a problem from our end. We do the job you want as best we can within the limits you impose.”

The Questions

At least three questions arise out of these circumstances, each raising ethical issues:

  1. In the case where the client instructs you to not perform a service that is normally included because the client is late delivering the files, should the fee be reduced by the value of the service not provided?
  2. In the case where the client instructs you to not perform a service that is normally included because the you misjudged the time needed to edit the manuscript and so are now late in delivering the manuscript to the client, should the fee be reduced by the value of the service not provided at the client’s instruction?
  3. Does the answer to either of the previous questions depend on whether the editor is charging by the page, by the project, or by the hour?

The client delivers late

In the first scenario (client is late deliverer), I think the editor has no ethical duty to reduce the fee. The editor is willing to perform the service if given the necessary time to do so. That the client has schedule constraints that do not permit the editor to perform the service is outside the control of the editor. The decision for the editor to not cross-check the cites was made by the same party that was late in providing the material, which is outside the editor’s control.

However, the basis for the billing does affect the amount to be charged. If the editor is billing by the page or the project, the invoiced amount should be the same regardless of whether or not the cite cross-checking was performed. But if the editor is charging by the hour, the invoice should not include a sum for time that would have been spent doing the cross-checking but for the client stopping the cross-checking. It would be unethical for the editor to bill for time that was not actually spent because the basis of the hourly charge is that the editor gets paid for hours worked.

Some commentators would argue that the billing method is irrelevant because all billing methods are based on time; that when an editor sets a per-page rate or a project-fee rate, part of the editor’s calculation is based on an estimate of the time it is expected the work will require. This is one of the elements of creating a quote (see The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote).

I agree that every price calculation method contains a time-expected-to-spend-editing component, but there is a significant difference between hourly-based and per-page– and project-fee–based projects. With per-page– and project-fee–based projects, the expectation of the amount the editor is to be paid is set based on a factor other than time; that is, it does not matter whether the editor completes the project in 20 hours but took 50 hours nor does it matter what the editor’s or client’s time expectation was — the fee is not time dependent, it changes only if there is a change in some other factor other than time (e.g., if the page count changes). In contrast, with an hourly-based fee the amount to be paid rises and falls based solely on the number of hours the editor spends editing; that is, unlike with per-page and project-based fees, the final hourly-based fee is not calculable until the project is complete.

The editor miscalculated the time needed

In the case of the second scenario (the editor is taking longer than expected to edit), I think the client is entitled to a reduction in the fee, even though it is the client who instructs the editor to not perform the service. In this instance, the editor knows the schedule that binds the client and that must be met. It is the editor who is late as a result of matters that are within the editor’s control. It is the editor who miscalculated and now jeopardizes the client’s schedule.

The reason for the fee reduction is that the agreed-upon price included the service that is now not to be performed and the reason it is not to be performed is because of the editor’s miscalculation, not because of anything the client has done. It is, in my view, unethical for an editor to be paid for work not performed at the fault of the editor. If there were no reduction in fee, the editor would be rewarded for not adhering to the bargain the editor’s made.

Here, also, the manner of calculating the fee affects the reduction. If the editor is charging by the hour, then no specific fee reduction is required because the client will not be billed for work not performed (i.e., hours spent editing). Only when the billing is per-page or project-fee based does there need to be a reduction in the set fee. How much of a reduction depends on the value of the service and whether the client will need to secure the service elsewhere. This is a matter of negotiation. But it is the to the editor’s advantage to initiate the reduction rather than wait for the client to raise the question or, perhaps more troublesome for the editor, for the client to not say anything but decide not to use the editor in the future.

A Question of Ethics

It is not unusual for an editor to ask on a forum whether a fee should be reduced or partially refunded. I do not consider the sense of ethics that governs my business to be a question of group ethics or group decision making; rather, I see it as a sense of my personal moral code, a sense of what I view as right and wrong. What does it matter whether 99 out of 100 editors would not issue a refund if I think one is warranted? That I would even ask the question is, to me, an indication that I think the client is entitled to some refund.

Ethics is a matter of taking the moral high road, of trying to seek a fairness balance, a balance of right and wrong.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 23, 2015

Two Books Every Author (& Editor & Publisher) Should Read!

I won’t keep you in suspense. The two books are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

I was reading Diane Johnson’s review of Go Set a Watchman (“Daddy’s Girl,” The New York Review of Books, September 24, 2015, pp. 22–26) when I realized that Harper Lee’s two novels should be read by everyone who touches — no matter how peripherally — on the editing process. The two books provide a stark contrast of the value of editing. Johnson wrote:

According to its editors and Harper Lee herself, To Kill a Mockingbird had profited from extensive editing at R.B. Lippincott by the late Tay Hohoff, who said she and Lee worked for two years on the project. (p. 22)

The result was the production of a classic that continues, 50-plus years later, to sell 1 million copies each year.

Contrast that with Go Set a Watchman, which was published as written — without editorial input. Although Watchman has sold a phenomenal number of copies, those will be one-time sales and they came about because of the high expectations readers of Mockingbird had. The consensus seems to be that Watchman is a disaster and a blight on the reputation of Mockingbird; its primary value is to demonstrate what should not be done if one values one’s writing and reputation as an author.

Authors & Wannabe Authors

Watchman was the parent from which Mockingbird was spawned. Yet it is as different from Mockingbird as night is from day. What it demonstrates, however, is how a good editor can help an author.

Too many authors on too many lists promote self-editing or no editing or friend editing. The complaint is that a good editor costs too much and there is no reason to hire one when the author can do it herself. Too many authors also say that they would like to hire an editor but editors are too expensive; they cannot afford an editor.

If you believe you really have a good story to tell and that people will buy it, then shouldn’t you figure out a way to get that editorial help? Your book will not sell like Watchman has sold because you do not have the reputation that Harper Lee has been trading on for 50 years. And it is expected that sales of Watchman will fall precipitously now that the book has been seen. What Watchman does demonstrate, however, is that the editorial investment made in Mockingbird has paid off doubly: first, by creating a phenomenal bestseller that keeps on selling, and second, by creating a reputation that allowed the author to sell drivel, which is what Watchman amounts to. Watchman would not have sold except for Lee’s reputation built on Mockingbird.

It is hard to convince authors (and readers) of the value of good editing because editing is an invisible hand — but these two books, a before and after, should clearly demonstrate what a good editor brings to the table and why authors need editors.

The two books also offer one other insight that I think authors need: They graphically demonstrate the difference between — and value of — developmental editing and copyediting, as well as the value of each. Watchman was neither developmentally edited nor copyedited; Mockingbird was both. Could you self-edit both developmental editing and copyediting?

Skilled and professional authors know that it is almost impossible to edit one’s own work because we see only what we meant to say; we cannot be objective enough to see where our work might be unclear, clunky, disorganized, or simply grammatically lacking (suffering from misspellings, wrong or missing punctuation, close-but-not-quite-right word choices, missing or doubled words, poor transitions, and more).

It is true that a very few authors have the skills to self-edit, but those are the rare authors. Most, if not all, of the most successful authors did not self-edit. Either they or their publisher hired a professional editor. As an author, you may have spent years writing your book. You know every word, every nuance, but you do not know where you are going wrong, because your book is “perfect” — you have said so.

As did Harper Lee when she originally submitted Watchman. What a difference a skilled, professional editor made for Harper Lee — and could make for authors and wannabe authors today.

Editors

Editors should read these two books to see what a skilled editor can do. This is not to suggest that you are not a skilled editor, but to suggest that rarely are we given the opportunity to see a before and after of such radical dimension as in the case of Watchman and Mockingbird.

Even more importantly, however, these books give us the opportunity to create an explanation of the value of our services. They also give us the opportunity to graphically demonstrate the differences between developmental editing and copyediting, and what each does for a manuscript. How many of us would reread Watchman or call it a classic or even want it taught in our schools? I know I struggle to envision a movie based on Watchman or caring about the characters or the storyline.

But Mockingbird remains a highly praised novel, 50 years after its publication. It is still discussed in schools and in conversations about race relations. The movie is considered a classic that is still shown. The novel still sells a million copies each year with no advertising to speak of. And all of this is because the original version, Watchman, was developmentally edited and then copyedited by professional editors to become Mockingbird.

Editors should use these books as teaching experiences for clients. They illustrate the benefit of not creating an artificial schedule and of taking the time needed to properly develop the story and to do the editing the story requires.

Editors have looked for years for a way to clearly illustrate why they are worth what they are asking and why editing is a valuable service that is ignored or avoided at an author’s and a publisher’s peril. Watchman and Mockingbird graphically demonstrate the value of editing and editors.

Publishers (& Packagers)

Today, publishing is run largely from the accounting perspective, not the art perspective. Schedules are artificially imposed without regard for the true needs of a manuscript. Editors are asked to do more of the mechanical work and less of the judgmental work; in my earliest years as an editor, for example, the emphasis was on language editing, not on applying styling codes. We did macro-level styling at most, and left micro-level styling to designers and typesetters. But in today’s editing world, the emphasis has switched 180 degrees to emphasize micro-level styling and a deemphasize language editing.

Yet Watchman and Mockingbird can provide a useful lesson for publishers, too. Sure, HarperCollins reaped a quick influx of cash with the publication of Watchman, but if I were the publisher, I would rather have the year-after-year sales of Mockingbird than the one-time sales of Watchman. Watchman will have no lasting value in the marketplace except as an illustration of what publishers used to provide authors versus what they no longer provide authors.

Today, the mantra is “how low can I go”; that is, how little can I, the publisher, spend to take a book from manuscript to bookstore? And the first services publishers squeeze are those that are deemed “invisible” — editorial services. Instead of two years of developmental editing, as was done for Mockingbird, two weeks of copyediting may be provided today (even if the book requires two months of copyediting, let alone additional months of developmental editing).

Watchman and Mockingbird, however, demonstrate the value of the editorial process. Good editing changed a book with no potential into a classic that sells 1 million copies each year and has done so for more than 50 years, with no end in sight. Whatever the editing cost for Mockingbird, it was recouped decades ago, yet keeps on giving. Quality editing is the Timex of publishing — it is the service that keeps on giving.

Publishers and packagers should read these books and use them as guides and reasons why changes to the current editorial and production methods need to be revamped and more attention and money needs to be given to editing. Editing has to be seen today as it was in the early days of publishing. Isn’t it a shame that the books that we treat as classics and must-reads, decade after decade, were nearly all published several decades or longer ago — before accounting supplanted editorial as the decision makers?

Perhaps it is time to rethink the current model. Certainly, Watchman and Mockingbird make that point.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Selected related An American Editor essays:

September 21, 2015

The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote (II)

Part I (The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote (I)) discussed the required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR), the churn rate, and calculating a page. Part II discusses additional elements and how to put the quote together and present it.

The style manual

Few editors consider the style manual to be applied to the project when calculating a quote. The reason is that we tend to fall into niches and to use, and thus become facile with, a particular style manual. Many editors rarely, if ever, use any style manual but one. Consequently, few editors think about the impact of the style manual on the project.

Then there are editors like me who work with and use multiple style manuals. The projects may be similar but the clients have different style manual preferences. Even so, there may not be much difference between the style manuals or not enough difference such as which style manual is required has an impact on the project price.

But after my recent experience with The ACS Style Guide (see Style Guide Terrorism: A Formula for Failure), I realize that I do need to factor into the calculation the impact of the choice of style manual. This is especially true when the client-selected manual is so radically different from other style manuals and/or when it is accompanied by a house exceptions manual (even if not by a difficult style manual).

The choice of style manual impacts the churn and the schedule. I suspect that no other allowance for it needs to be made in the calculation.

The schedule

Another element, and a very important one, is the client’s schedule.

What usually happens is that a client contacts an editor and says something like this:

I have a 320-page manuscript on eating your vegetables that I need edited in 2 weeks. It requires a medium-level copyedit and the files will be ready to send you tomorrow. The fee is xyz. Can you take it on?

The editor responds almost instantly with “sure,” thinking that 160 pages a week is easily done. And it may be easily done — or not. (I know that many editors insist on seeing a “sample,” or even the whole manuscript, but unless you are going to read it all — word by word, beginning to end, which is an editing task being done at your expense — you can never really know for certain what problems you will face during actual editing.)

Whether it is easily done — or not — depends on many of the factors discussed earlier. Is the page count accurate? What does a “medium-level copyedit” entail? And so on. Once you have all of that information, you can then evaluate the schedule.

Over my 31 years, I have learned that my best editing is done within a 5-hour window. What I mean is that of a typical 8-hour workday, only 5 hours can be spent editing if I want to provide a high-quality edit. After 5 hours of concentrated editing, the mind tires and error creep begins.

This does not mean that I do not ever edit for longer than 5 hours in a day. Some projects are easier than others and editing can go on for longer; some are so difficult that editing for 5 hours is very difficult if not impossible.

What it means is that I have determined that an editing day is 5 editing hours and an editing week is Monday to Friday. Note that it is Monday to Friday and not 25 editing hours. This is important when calculating a project fee. It means that I work Monday to Friday and weekend or holiday work is not part of the workweek; weekend and/or holiday work, or more than 5 editing hours in a day, are premium services.

So, when I calculate the viability of a schedule, I calculate it based on an editing workweek or 5-editing-hour days, not on a 7-day workweek of unlimited hours.

The First “Rough” Calculation

Assuming that the proposed 320-page manuscript is really 320 pages, then to meet a 2-week schedule means a maximum of 9 editing days (not 10, because I cannot start a project within seconds of receipt from a client; I always figure next day), which means 45 editing hours, which translates into a required churn of approximately 8 pages an hour (actually 7.11, but I always round up to the next whole number; I don’t know how to edit 0.11 pages). I check that against my churn rate for a “medium-level copyedit” and, depending on the subject matter, may conclude that the schedule is doable.

But the calculation is based on a lot of assumptions, not least of which is that the page count is accurate.

Getting more information

At this point, I have not yet responded to the client. Now is when I make my first response, which is that I am interested but need to have the manuscript sent to me so I can do a page count. Even if the client doesn’t have the whole manuscript, I want what they do have. I also tell them it is not necessary to send me any figures except tables and all-text figures; I do not need the 30 photo images to do my count or evaluate the project.

The Second Calculation

Once I receive the manuscript, I do a page count using my preferred method. It is rare that my count and the client’s count match. It is not unusual to find that the client’s count is anywhere from 25% to 50% (and sometimes more) lower than my count.

With the page count in hand, the next thing I do is open a couple of chapters and look at the references. If the references are close to the preferred style, that is a good sign. I have found that where the references are pretty much in what is to be the end format, the author has paid attention to detail and the text generally is in decent shape. But if the references are a mess, are missing a lot of information, are not close to the desired end style, I know that I need to spot check the text of several chapters to get a flavor of the author’s writing style.

Next, after the page count and checking a few chapters, I determine how many pages a day and an hour will need to be churned to meet the client’s schedule. For example, if the page count in our hypothetical is really 500 instead of 320, instead of 8 pages an hour, I will need to edit 12. I now need to determine whether it is possible to churn that many pages during my editing workweek. If I can, then the schedule is fine; if I can’t, I need to be able to explain why I can’t and what is a more realistic schedule.

With the information in hand, it is time to put together the project quote.

The Quote

In my quote, I outline exactly what I have found: the level of edit required (and what that means), the number of pages I found, what is included and excluded from the service requested, and the difficulties, if any, presented by the requested style manual in light of the condition of the manuscript. I use all of this information to justify the price I am asking and any schedule changes. I also include a description of the services I will provide, as well as what I will not do, and I include an explanation of the editing workweek to forestall any expectations that I will work 7 days a week, 24 hours a day to meet the client’s requirements.

One caveat

My price is never less than my rEHR. In fact, it is usually more than my rEHR because the rEHR really is my breakeven number, not a profit-making number. The rEHR is simply the line below which I will not go. I do not consider it my job to subsidize my clients; they do a fine job of protecting their interests without my help.

Why this quote-building process?

An editor needs to go through this quote-building process to be sure she can justify her requested fee when challenged by the client. I used to wait for the challenge before justifying my fee, but for many years I have included the justification in my quote as a means of educating the client about the project. Most clients have a fee in mind and any deviation from that fee is unacceptable to the client — unless you can explain its necessity. In addition, most clients assume that because we are freelance editors, we have no other life interests and that we can devote all our waking hours to their project.

The more professional your quote is made to appear, the fewer problems you will have with a client, the more likely you are to receive your wanted fee, the more likely you will receive the project on your terms, and the more likely you will be treated as an equal.

What do you do? Do you do things in addition to those listed here?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Selected related An American Editor essays:

September 9, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Mastering Subjectivity

by Carolyn Haley

An earlier essay on this blog, “The Ethics of Distaste,” focused on the professional aspects of editing distasteful material. The following essay supplements the ethics discussion by focusing on a manuscript editor’s emotional challenge that may occur behind the scenes. Although this essay’s context is fiction, some of its ideas and techniques apply, as well, to nonfiction editing.

The Personal Dilemma of Distaste

What makes a novel distasteful to you personally could be anything: incoherent writing, a repellent subject, plots or characters so ludicrous or undeveloped that the book is painful to read — all or none of the above. Even if you handle the business side of a distasteful novel with impeccable professionalism, there remains the head–heart strife that comes from getting stuck with something you should turn down but can’t afford to, or ethically back out of once committed. That stress, unmanaged, can undermine the quality of your editing, which, in turn, could lead to client payment problems for independent editors, employment repercussions for staff editors, or reputation damage for both. The stress might possibly damage your health, too, from fighting against yourself internally.

What to Do?

When burdened with a distasteful novel, you as editor must make mental and emotional adjustments to deal with it successfully. The first step is to rationalize what the book really is, and the second is to take time for some do-it-yourself training and therapy.

Rationalization

Novel writing is an art form: a literary art, like poetry, scripts, or short stories; a sister art to painting, sculpture, music, dance, and theater. People compelled to create art have different mindsets than those who evaluate their work. Creative compulsion is often inarticulate, driven by emotion. A novel’s purpose is to create an emotional experience for readers through story (as compared to nonfiction, whose purpose is to inform).

A fiction editor’s role is to help authors express their vision as coherently as possible to the audience most inclined to value it. Developmental editors have the best opportunity to untangle gnarly books and make them shine, but line editors and copy editors enter the process after content decisions have been made. They can only address mechanical elements and make a lot of queries. All editing tasks are much easier to embrace when you fathom the subjectivity of art, and remember that a fiction editor’s job is to help actualize art in the form of a novel.

Distasteful novels will keep many of us employed for years to come. Today we are seeing a growing number of authors who don’t write well and never will. Although almost everyone in the industrialized nations can read and write, they’re not all being trained in basic composition or required to study classic literature. Fewer and fewer take courses in creative writing or have workplace mentors disciplining their prose. Yet more and more have the tools and freedom to easily express themselves, adding to the distasteful-novel parade through editors’ hands.

Self-training/-therapy

If your tolerance for distasteful novels has worn thin, or your art appreciation has gone stale, then it’s time to reprogram your emotional response. That starts with physically altering your perspective.

For example, step outside literature and walk through an art museum, a gallery, or an arts-and-crafts fair. Look at every piece and assess how you feel about it, what you’re willing to spend money on. Surely you will pass by most of the offerings then stop when something catches your eye or heart. You’ll note that most pieces are produced with mediocre to extraordinary skill, and reveal an astonishing range of imagination.

You’ll see people cheerfully buying paintings you wouldn’t dream of hanging on your walls, while those you consider masterpieces are left behind. At the same time, you may be tempted by something to blow your budget on and enjoy in your own home for the rest of your life.

Try the same exercise in the other arts. Attend, in any combination, a play, a ballet, a Broadway show, a child’s musical recital, a rock concert, a symphony, a folk festival, an open mic session at a coffee house poetry night. Alternatively, close your eyes and select a DVD off the shelf from three or more categories and periods, then play them back to back. What’s your reaction to each?

Perhaps watch a TV show such as NBC’s The Voice, which is a singing competition that parallels a novelist’s apprenticeship from raw talent to star performer. The show displays what an artist goes through to become competent and accepted, and how helpless they are against other people’s tastes and opinions— or boosted along by them.

Then visit a bookstore. Allow yourself to be amazed by the total number of volumes on the shelves. Wander through each fiction section and peruse a few titles, observing how different each is from the next in subject and style, and how widely they range in quality. Watch what people bring to the cash register, and count how often their choices differ from yours.

Then go back to the distasteful novel on your desk.

New Eyes

The book hasn’t changed; it may still be off-putting gobbledygook. But you’ve been colorfully reminded that it wasn’t written for you, and your job is to help it along its path to reaching others. Now you can see it as a project begging for a stronger application of craft; a story struggling to get free; an object needing refinement. Now you can roll up your sleeves and tackle its language with all your skill. When the process is over, the result will be a better novel. Maybe it will even be great.

Maybe not, but what happens after you deliver the manuscript is outside your control. Although your soul may agonize over the book’s imperfections, your professional duty is to deliver what you were hired to do. As part of that, you’re obliged to establish mutual understanding of expectations with your client or employer so all parties, especially the author, are pleased with your contribution. Bottom line: Your job is to improve the book within employment parameters, not to guarantee its publication or success.

The onus for that falls on other parties. A book’s fate depends on how far an author is willing or able to go in upgrading their work, combined with where and how they choose to expose it. Success or failure depends on the following, singly or in combination:

  • an acquiring editor’s taste in novels or directive to find what the house seeks for publication;
  • an agent’s sense of what is likely to sell within the categories they serve, and who they try to place the work with;
  • a contest judge’s pile of manuscripts, time available to review them, and mood of the day;
  • the self-publishing venue a book is released through;
  • any marketing and promotion done for the book, and reviews it receives;
  • ultimately, readers’ moods, tastes, and where they shop.

These all fall beyond the scope of work for editors who handle manuscripts prior to submission. Ironically, a book’s success may come down to how well an editor managed the project: how enthusiastically she greeted the story, how seriously she took it, how supportive she was to the author, how lightly or heavily she touched the text, how conscious she was of reader viewpoint.

Options

If you can’t unplug your subjectivity, and your desire to influence what enters the marketplace still burns, then reorient your career. Acquisitions and managing editors have the power to accept or reject, as do literary agents. Developmental editors have much more hands-on opportunity to direct a manuscript’s course than do line and copy editors. Alternatively, you can volunteer to judge writing contests in your free time, or become a book reviewer so you can publicly proclaim your opinion.

Regardless, increase your exposure to all the arts so you can better appreciate their variety and impact on other people’s lives. Then support what you think deserves success by spending your own dollars on it. Earn your next dollars by welcoming each manuscript as a challenge to your own creativity; a puzzle, perhaps, to solve within tight rules. Approaching editing distasteful novels this way eases frustration and revives the joy and marvel of being paid to read stories.

Accepting and Moving On

By accepting the editorial bottom line — improving the work within employment parameters — we can free ourselves from the downside of distasteful novels. The upside comes from regarding our job as helping literary artists achieve their dreams and touch other lives through their creative work. Even novels we consider distasteful may go on to great sales and acclaim, win awards, snag lucrative movie deals. They may build the foundation for long and prolific writing careers. We can help that happen by cultivating a pro-author, art-loving attitude.

The key is to remember that all novelists have to start somewhere, and each is at a different point on a journey. Understanding that our personal taste must sometimes be put aside releases us to edit darn near any fiction manuscript and help authors advance toward their goals.

Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

September 2, 2015

The Business of Editing: The Profitability Difficulty

In making any decision about my editing business, my number one consideration is profitability. I do not mean to denigrate other important matters, especially not ethical matters, but once past ethical considerations, profitability is the ultimate determiner as to whether I take on a project or retain a client.

Ensuring Profitability Is Difficult

What I have noticed is that increasingly, profitability is more difficult to ensure, not only on a project basis but over the course of multiple projects. I have always adhered to the Rule of Three (see The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three for more information about the rule). The rule has served me well for decades, but even that rule is coming under attack from the types of projects I am consistently being asked to take on in recent months.

As we have discussed many times on An American Editor, the underlying key to profitability is efficiency. It is that striving for ever-increasing efficiency that lies behind my EditTools macros. Yet even though they increase efficiency, the projects I have been seeing in recent months strain attempts to be efficient. It is nearly impossible, for example, to efficiently deal with references when they need to conform to a convoluted style like that of the American Chemical Society and the author has made little attempt to conform to that style.

The problem of efficiency and working style is what led me to abandon proofreading. When I first began my freelance career, I offered both editing and proofreading services. But because of how I work, I found it increasingly difficult to make a profit from proofreading. With the advent of PDF proofreading, my workstyle was such that I went from low profitability to loss.

(For those wondering how to determine profit and loss, the place to begin is my five-part series, Business of Editing: What to Charge. If you don’t know what you need to earn, you can’t possibly know whether you are making or losing money as a freelancer.)

Schedule and Profitability

Even more deadly to profitability than efficiency is schedule. Long-time editors probably remember the guideline that editors and publishers used to follow, but publishers and packagers seem to have abandoned, that set the editing pace. For example, an editor asked to copyedit a medical or science textbook that required a “heavy” or “high-level” edit was expected to edit two to four pages an hour; a “medium” edit’s pace was five to eight pages an hour; and a “light” edit’s pace was eight to ten pages an hour. An editing “week” ran 30 to 35 editing hours.

(An editing hour is the time actually spent editing, not the time you are open for business. I calculate an editing week as 25 editing hours because I have learned that after 5 editing hours, the quality of editing begins to deteriorate — slowly but steadily. Consequently, I try to limit my daily editing time to between 5 and 6 hours. In addition, an editing week is Monday to Friday exclusive of holidays.)

Thus, clients expected that with a medium-level edit, an editor could competently edit 150 to 280 manuscript pages a week, depending on the subject matter. The range for a high-level edit was 60 to 140 manuscript pages per week. But all of that has changed with the outsourcing of editing to companies (“packagers”) that are skilled at book layout and production but which themselves outsource the editing work to freelancers like me.

The Triad

What has occurred is that these packagers have a lot of competition and they need to separate themselves from the pack. So, when they seek work, they promise quick turnaround, excellent editing, and low price — the triad that editors often tell clients that they can pick one of, but not two of, and definitely not three of. When the packagers come to the editor, they refuse to accept that they cannot have all three. Unfortunately, too many editors simply acquiesce without a “fight” although whether the editing is excellent is definitely questionable.

All of this impacts on profitability. Although a key to profitability is turnover — the idea being that the faster a project can be completed, the more projects that can be undertaken, and the higher the gross revenue — the hoped for increase in number of projects doesn’t come to fruition in the absence of the quality editing.

What made me realize this was that I have not stopped telling my clients that they cannot have more than one leg of the triad. About two months ago, I was asked to edit a book that required “heavy” editing. The subject matter was quite technical and the extensive number of references were all in the wrong format. The problems were that the fee was low and the schedule unreasonable — the client expected 400+ manuscript pages to be edited per week when a reasonable and likely schedule was 125 to 150 pages.

The reason this would not be profitable work is that by rushing the project to meet the schedule, I could not provide the editing that the project needs. When the clients see the editing, they will complain and will insist on corrections being made — I know this from past experience — which will eat up ever more time. Consequently, additional hours will be spent on the project but without additional compensation.

Meeting the Triad

The danger is, of course, that not only will I lose money on the project, but the client will be wary of sending me additional work because by not providing a quality edit according to their schedule I caused delays, which cost them points with their client. It is a vicious cycle with the ultimate loser being me, the freelance editor.

Consequently, I have not given in to the demands that I accept these types of projects and the requirements of the triad. I prefer to turn down work, which I regularly do, than try to meet unreasonable requirements. When asked to undertake a project, I always do the page count myself and I always determine, myself, what the schedule should be. I advise the client of the page count, my proposed schedule, and what options they have.

The first option is my schedule at my “usual” fee; the second option is a shorter schedule with a higher fee; the third option is the shortest schedule I am willing to accept at a yet higher fee; the final option is for the client to find another editor. Note the relationship between schedule and fee: the longer the schedule, the lower the fee; the shorter the schedule, the higher the fee.

This fee–schedule relationship revolves around two very important bits of information that I possess: the first, is the page count. The method I use allows for figures without having to actually go through each figure and trying to determine how much of a page should be allotted to the figure. The major weakness in my method, and one that I have yet to ascertain how to overcome, is how much work the references will require. On that, I have just “bitten the bullet” and let the law of averages take over. (Now that I have had the experience of dealing with the ACS style, something I hadn’t done for many years, I will, in the future, apply a multiplier to ACS style projects.) Most importantly, I do the page count and tell the client what the count is; I do not ever accept or rely on the client’s page count.

The second bit of information I possess is this: I know how many pages an hour I can edit under various scenarios. Like the page count, I determine this number, not the client.

With this information in hand, I prepare my “report” to the client. Recall that I have not yet agreed to accept the project. What I am doing is justifying to the client my decision if it is “no, I cannot accept the project” or building the foundation for the terms on which I will accept the project. This tells the client I have carefully considered the offer and that I have business reasons for turning down the project or setting acceptance conditions.

My experience has been that very often the client either ups the price or extends the schedule. If I say “no” to a project, it is not unusual for the client to try to work something out with me. I think that these situations resolve in my favor more often than not because the client knows the quality of the editing I provide and wants to avoid discussions with their clients over quality.

The Lesson

The lesson is that an editor needs to know their price point and their editing rate and resist the idea that it is better to lose money (i.e., earn less than their Required Effective Hourly Rate as discussed in Business of Editing: What to Charge) and have the work than to say “no” to such work offers. Saying “no” to unprofitable work helps you establish ground rules with your client. After all, why be in business if you are not going to make a profit?

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 26, 2015

House Guide Plus Style Guide: Why?

Last week’s essay, Style Guide Terrorism: A Formula for Failure (the “ACS essay”), was devoted to what I consider one of the worst style guides editors and authors may have to deal with, The ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information, 3rd ed., by the American Chemical Society. But there is a corollary problem with style guides that is not the fault of the style guides themselves: the (often, usually) contradictory companion house exceptions (style) guide.

I work with publishers and packagers (packagers being the full-service third-party service providers that contract with publishers to provide all of the production needs for a particular project). Publishers use packagers as a way to reduce costs; the same work is needed and required, but because the packager is often based in a developing country, the packager prices the services at a price that reflects the packager’s lower costs and then finds freelance editors to provide editing services at a price even lower than the already low packager quote to the publisher. It is a way for a publisher to still get a book edited by an editor from a higher-priced country, which is desired, but without paying that higher price.

When I receive a project, I also often receive a lengthy house style guide that contains the exceptions to the style guide I am supposed to apply. For example, not too long ago, I received instructions to follow the AMA Manual of Style, 10th ed., which is, roughly 1,000 pages, and my client’s client’s 105-page house style. Where the guides conflict, the house style controls. Of course, there is another style guide lurking in the background, because both the AMA Manual and the house style say to check The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., for items not covered (or sometimes even for items covered) in the AMA Manual or the house guide.

It is not enough to be a great editor; one needs to also have a near photographic memory so as to keep the rules, the exceptions, the exceptions to the exceptions, and a third style guide’s strictures in mind.

And what do you do when a usage guide like Garner’s Modern American Usage contradicts the older house style or one of the powerhouse style guides?

What greatly bothers me are those house style guides that tell you to follow a specific style manual except where the house guide contradicts. Why bother telling me to follow the specific manual? Why not just give me a comprehensive house guide? Or, better yet, why not just scrap the house style guide altogether and let me follow the standard style guide?

The answer lies in the belief that each publisher needs to have its own distinctive and recognizable style. When a book published by Oxford is picked up, it believed that it should be immediately recognized as being an Oxford book. The reality is that very few, if any at all, readers recognize the publisher of a book by the style applied to the text. Not only do readers not care, but, much more importantly, it is the very rare book that actually faithfully follows any firmly recognizable style.

That’s because of the ultimate style and usage instruction given editors: “Follow the author’s style!”

I mentioned in the ACS essay the problem with references. Here is what a journal reference conformed to the ACS style would look like:

Hesk, D.; Delduca, P.; Koharski, D.; McNamara, P.; Magatti, C.; Saluja, S.; Thomas, L.; Shapiro, E. L.; Gentles, M. J.; Tiberi, R. L.; Popper, T. L.; Berkenkopf, J.; Lutsky, B.; Watnick, A. S. Synthesis of Tritium Labeled Mometasone Furoate. Med. Chem.: Immunol., Endocr. Metab. Agents 1993, 33, 439–442.

Here is that same reference but in my project author’s style:

Hesk, D.; Delduca, P.; Koharski, D.; McNamara, P.; Magatti, C.; Saluja, S.; Thomas, L.; Shapiro, E. L.; Gentles, M. J.; Tiberi, R. L.; Popper, T. L.; Berkenkopf, J.; Lutsky, B.; Watnick, A. S., Synthesis of tritium labeled mometasone furoate, Med. Chem. Immunol. Endocr. Metab. Agents, (1993), 33(5), 439-442.

The difference is even greater with a chapter-in-book reference. A conformed chapter-in-book reference would like:

Barnes, P. J. Glucocorticoids: Pharmacology and Mechanisms. In Advances in Combination Therapy for Asthma and COPD; Lotvall, J., Ed.; Wiley-Blackwell: London, 2012; Vol. 2, pp 16–37.

whereas in the author’s style it looks like this:

Barnes, P. J., Glucocorticoids: pharmacology and mechanisms, in Advances in Combination Therapy for Asthma and COPD, (Ed. Lotvall, J.), (2012), (Wiley-Blackwell), vol 2, 16-37.

Because of the number of references in the project and the schedule that had to be met, it was decided to follow the author’s style and make the references consistent. So what was the value in telling me to follow the ACS style?

What we end up with is a mishmash of styles. It also means that the editor spends more time styling than editing, because form has become more important than substance. Don’t believe me? Time how long it takes to conform the two author-styled references above to ACS style, including looking up the journal abbreviation. Multiply the time it took by 5,000 (the number of references in the project) and add 50% to that number. That is approximately how long it will take to conform all of the references. (The 50% addition represents the time that you will need to spend looking up each reference for the missing information and the correct ACS journal abbreviation as found in the American Chemical Society’s CAS Source Index [CASSI] Search Tool.) How much time is left for editing of the text in a 30-day schedule?

Also think about how much time is added for deciding whether something is a house-style exception to the style guide’s rule governing the item.

The point is that we have lost sight of the purpose of styling, of style guides, and of editing: to enhance the author’s communication with the reader. Instead, editors are increasingly being sidetracked to deal with mechanical issues (is styling references really what an editor should spend his time doing?) that often do not make communication between the author and the reader more effective.

For the most part, there is little reason for a house style guide as opposed to simply endorsing the use of a standard independent style guide. Sure there is a need to list certain preferences, such as capitalization of heads and whether, for example, “since” and “because” or “about,” “around,” and “approximate” are synonymous. But those preferences should be few; there should be no need for a lengthy exceptions document, especially when those exceptions are rarely strictly enforced, are often set aside because the author wants something different, and because trying to keep straight all of the nuances of the conflicts between standard and house style guide requirements often leads to mistakes.

Perhaps it is time to return to the original purpose of editing. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 10, 2015

On the Basics: Step Away from that Project — Professionally and with Class

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

The Background

Ten years ago, the three-person team responsible for editing an association newsletter quit for reasons never explained, with no notice, and without providing any material for a successor — no formatting or style information, no backlog of unused material, no contact information for vendors or past contributors; nada. The organization’s board of directors was gobsmacked, to quote our British colleagues.

That was a textbook example of how not to step away from a project, client, or job. No matter how badly you’re treated or how much you hate the project (and it was never clear that there was a reason for that team’s move), it’s always smart to take the high road on leaving. That even goes for being laid off or fired. You never know when such behavior will come up in a future workplace, freelance, or volunteer setting. You don’t want to be known as the unprofessional, even childish, person who took her toys and went home in a huff, leaving everyone at a loss in her wake. You want to be remembered as someone who behaved in a professional manner that made the transition smooth for your successor.

I stepped up to take on editing that publication and kept it rolling for more than 10 years. When I was ready to let it go and give someone new a chance at the editor’s role, I was reminded of how I came into the project. I also remembered starting a couple of new in-house jobs and feeling somewhat at sea because a predecessor didn’t provide much of a roadmap for what to do and how. I was determined to handle this transition very differently from my predecessors. I felt that I owed that to myself as a professional, but also to the organization and to whoever was next to serve as editor — perhaps most to my successor.

6 Tips

Here are a few of my tips on how to hand off a project gracefully and professionally.

  • Give decent notice. That seems obvious, but it can be tempting to throw a hissy fit and just walk off the job if it has become onerous or unpleasant. Professionals, though, don’t do that unless there’s genuine provocation, and sometimes not even then. Publications and projects don’t run themselves, and it can take time to find a replacement. The standard is usually two weeks, but it might be smart to give a month’s notice, especially if the publication or project you handle is on a monthly publishing schedule. Take the high road, be the better person, and give the employer, sponsoring organization, or client a chance to find a replacement before you leave.
  • Put it in writing. Create or update a job description that details what your replacement will be expected to do, when, how, and with whom. There might have been one when you started the job or assignment, but you may have put your own stamp on the role or taken on additional responsibilities, so add those details to the original description. In many instances, especially for freelance projects, there is no job description. Providing one will make it easier for the client or employer to find an appropriate replacement and for your successor to handle the work.
  • Help a replacement out. Some may say that this is more appropriate for a volunteer project than a paid one, but I think it’s a good idea to provide as much information as possible about the publication or project, from the preferred or house style manual to the look of the book, whether you’re an in-house employee, a freelancer, or a volunteer. I know I appreciate that kind of information when I begin a new project. Prepare a list of relevant details: publishing schedule and deadlines; programs or applications used; formatting — typefaces and sizes; columns numbers and widths; character styles (headlines and subheads, body text, captions, indents, bullets, etc.); vendor roles, names, and contact information; contributors for writing, artwork, and any other roles; budget details if that is part of your responsibility. Have at least a couple of unused articles in place to hand over so the new person doesn’t have to start with a totally empty quiver of material. A new person might want to do a wholesale redesign of that newsletter or magazine that you’ve loved editing, and may want to use all new contributors and freelancers, but probably will need to know how to put together at least one first issue based on the current version. (This might seem like a lot to do to help out a replacement, but it can also be seen as an organizing function for oneself.)
  • Offer insights. Don’t be a gossip and don’t badmouth colleagues, but — if appropriate — let your replacement know something about the hierarchy of the organization; most importantly, any chain of approvals and command to follow, along with who is likely to be the most helpful to a newcomer. If a client or supervisor has certain unpredictable quirks, consider sharing that information informally. For instance, new editor or freelancer might think that “due on Monday” means they have until 5 p.m. to finish an assignment or prepare material for collegial review, but the client or supervisor might be expecting it at 9 a.m. that day.
  • Suggest a successor. If you know someone in or outside the organization who would be your ideal replacement, recommend that person. You’ll do a favor to both the organization and the individual, and they’ll remember it. This is especially important if you’re a freelancer and decide to leave a project for some reason. Good freelancers can be harder to find than good employees.
  • Be available. Let your contact, supervisor, or colleague know how to reach you in the case there are questions that only you can answer. You won’t want to be taken advantage of once you’re out the door by spending a lot of time on helping out the organization or your replacement, but you do want — again — to leave with the image of someone who is professional, responsible, and helpful. Within reason, of course.

What else have you done, or wished someone had done for you, to make a professional exit from a project or position?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

July 16, 2015

Worth Noting: New Macros, New Version — EditTools 6.2 Released

EditTools 6.2 has been released.

The new release has a much speedier Journals macro (thanks to a suggestion from Shmuel Gerber). Recall that in The Business of Editing: Cite Work Can Be Profitable, I mentioned how I had just finished working on a reference list of 1,827 that took the Journals macro, with my then dataset of 78,000 entries, not quite 4 hours to complete. With the improvement suggested by Mr. Gerber, it took less than 2 hours with a dataset of 98,000 entries. A more typical reference list of about 75 references takes a little less than a minute to check against the dataset.

Version 6.2 also has several new macros and one significantly improved macro.

The new macros are Bookmarks, Click List, Comment Editor, and Reference # Order Check. The Insert Query macro has received a great new addition called Categories. Categories lets you organize your standard comments for quicker access. Each macro is described at the EditTools website and will be the subject of an upcoming in-depth essay here at AAE. The AAE essays will discuss not only how the macros work but how they can increase your profitability.

The Bookmarks macro has one additional feature aimed at PerfectIt users. It provide a quick-and-easy way to insert special bookmarks in a Word document that tell PerfectIt what text you want checked.

EditTools 6.2 is a free upgrade for registered users. Go to the downloads page to obtain your copy. If you aren’t using EditTools, try it. Go to the downloads page and download the trial version.

(NOTE: EditTools 6.2 requires 32-bit Word 2007 or newer. If you are currently running EditTools 6.x, you can run version 6.2.)

Rich Adin, An American Editor

July 13, 2015

The Keys to High-Quality Editing

The one thing every professional editor strives to produce is a high-quality edit. This is more difficult today than it was 30 years ago; client demands have made production of high-quality editing increasingly difficult.

Yet there are “keys” to producing high-quality editing.

Accept or reject a project

The keys begin with the decision whether to take on a particular project. A few days ago, I turned on my computer to find five job offers waiting for me. I only accepted one. The one I accepted came with much less onerous demands than the others, which means that I will be able to provide a high-quality edit.

The job I accepted asked me to suggest a schedule based on what the client wanted and the manuscript needed; the others gave me a fixed schedule. After reviewing the manuscript for the accepted job, I suggested that a nine-week schedule was reasonable. The other jobs were for much shorter manuscripts but still required at least a two-week and more likely a three-week schedule; the schedule on offer was one week with no flexibility.

However, there were still problems that had to be addressed with what ultimately became the accepted job. For example, the references and how they were to be formatted. The author used what is for me a rarely seen style for the references: American Chemical Society style. If the manuscript had a handful of references, changing them to Harvard style would not be a problem, but the manuscript has a lot of references and there are a lot of stylistic differences between Harvard and ACS. The client wants the manuscript sooner rather than later, and so it was decided that because the author was consistent, we would use ACS style for the references.

In contrast, a couple of the manuscripts that I rejected didn’t have a single reference style, but the predominant style would have required many hours of work to restyle to conform to the client’s style. Yet the client was unwilling to compromise.

The keys to high-quality editing begin with the decision whether to take on a project or not. Many editors are simply thankful to be offered work and accept jobs without vetting them. This approach leads to a low effective hourly rate and questionable editing quality because it can be a struggle to meet short schedules — especially if the manuscript is not well written.

Effective hourly rate

Another key is ensuring that a project leads to a decent effective hourly rate and a profit. I have noted over the years that many colleagues take on a new project expecting it to go smoothly only to find that it does not. And when it does not, they are faced with the dilemma of ensuring a decent effective hourly rate versus the high quality of editing they prefer to provide. This is the eternal struggle — what to do when the compensation is inadequate.

Of course, it is difficult to know in advance, even if you sample a manuscript, how easy or hard a manuscript will be to edit. But there are certain things one can look for as clues. I have found that authors who very inconsistent and sloppy with references are often the same with the main text, which means more editing work. I have also found that if I see a lot of Word’s squiggly red lines, which indicate possible misspellings, that a manuscript may be problematic. In this case, however, because much of what I edit is medical, I recognize that the built-in spellchecker will mischaracterize a word, indicating it is misspelled when it isn’t. This clue requires familiarity with the subject matter.

Subject-matter familiarity

Which brings us to yet another key: knowledge of the subject matter. It is not that the editor needs to be an expert in the subject matter, it is that the editor needs to be comfortable with the subject matter. In my case, for example, I stopped editing fiction after about 6 months of editing — more than 31 years ago. I stopped for several reasons, including to provide a high-quality edit I had to be able to keep a sharp focus on the novel’s text. What I found was that when faced with a poorly written manuscript, my focus would begin drifting and I would have to reread the same paragraphs perhaps multiple times. I also discovered that for me, nonfiction was both more interesting and more profitable.

Fiction editing is difficult because it requires familiarity with a wide range of topics that I am not normally either interested in nor familiar with. I have never been particularly interested, for example, whether Bucharest’s weather is closer to that of London or New York City, but that could bin important in a novel whose action takes place in Bucharest. As a fiction editor, it was my responsibility to know whether or not the author’s description of Bucharest was plausible (actually, accurate). My fiction reading has always been limited; I tend to read vast amounts of nonfiction. Consequently, I was better “educated” about things that the nonfiction I was editing was concerned with than the fiction editing needed.

Pattern recognition

The ability to recognize writing patterns is another key. Every author has a writing pattern and in a group of collaborating authors, one pattern dominates. Identifying early in the editing process this pattern leads to greater consistency and accuracy in editing, which can lead to higher-quality editing. When you can identify these patterns, you can take advantage of tools such as EditTools. These types of tools, if properly used, lead to higher-quality editing.

Resources

The final key to be discussed in this essay is resources. Having the right resources available is important. For example, knowing that Garner’s Modern American Usage is the leading usage guide for American English is not enough; you need to have it available. Similarly, being told to follow a particular style manual by the client is of little use is you are not familiar with it and have it readily available. It does no good for a client to ask you to follow AMA style if the only style guide you can access and are familiar with is Chicago.

It should be clear that many things go into producing a high-quality edit; consequently, a lot of things need to come together. Yet an editor’s skill is not just objective things such as available resources; the skillset an editor needs to meet client limitations and still produce high-quality editing is sharpened over years of education and editing. Knowing one’s current limitations is an important part of providing high-quality editing. The professional editor works diligently to minimize those limitations, and one way to do so is to knowingly evaluate an offered job by the keys to high-quality editing.

What do you think?

Rich Adin, An American Editor

July 2, 2015

Worth Noting: Fowler’s 4th Is Here

I know that many of my colleagues swear by Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition. Although I own it and occasionally use it, the number 1 usage book for American English is Garner’s Modern American Usage, Third Edition.

But, as of this past June 1, Garner’s has some new competition — the updated fourth edition of Fowler: Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage edited by Jeremy Butterfield, or Fowler’s 4th.

I received my copy yesterday, so I am not yet ready to give an opinion, but I plan to use it each time I use my Garner’s 3rd. One of the things I like about Garner’s, which is lacking in Fowler’s 4th, is the “Language-Change Index,” which gives me a clue as to how usage is trending.

Both books are published by Oxford, so I suspect a new edition of Garner’s may be in process.

For those of you who are like me and “collect” usage guides, it is interesting not only to compare entries in current versions of the guides, but also to look at past editions and see how usage has evolved.

In any event, it is important for professional editors to remember that these are guides. Their opinion should weigh in your decision-making process, but should not dictate your decision. See, for example, “Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance” and “The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor” for additional discussion.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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