An American Editor

November 11, 2015

The Business of Editing: A Fifth Fundamental Business Mistake That Editors Make

Profit & Business Model

A business has to either be profitable so that its owners can earn a living or it has to have investors who are willing to fund the business for years and let the business lose money during those years because of greater future profit expectations or the business has to go out of business.

The first option is usually the option of the freelance editor. We rarely can convince people to invest in our business and let us generate losses for years (the Amazon model), because of the type of business editing is — personal and hands on. Amazon sells goods; the goods are not unique and buyers of the goods do not care whether Jeff Bezos has ever touched the goods. Amazon sells to us based on customer service and price.

Editing, as we know, is different. We are usually hired because of our skills (there are semi-exceptions as in my business model in which clients hire me because of my skills and because of the skills of the editors who work for me) and those skills are hands-on skills. We are hired to read each and every word and pass judgment on the words, the sentence structure, the grammar, and so on. Editors are hired to exercise judgment and improve a product; we do not expect Amazon to edit the book we buy from it.

As a result of this difference, Amazon can go years without making a profit, but freelance editors cannot. And Amazon can get people to invest money in it based on a not-written-in-stone promise of future rewards; outside editors themselves and immediate family, it is the rare person who will invest in an editor’s business with the expectation of a future profit.

Yet there is something in our business model and in Amazon’s business model that is identical (aside from the need for stellar customer service): We both need data to determine how we are doing and what we should be doing. The types of data we need are different, but we both need data.

Why Collect Data?

And this is where editors make a fundamental business mistake. Many editors simply do not collect data or if they do collect data, they make no business use of it. Yet data can tell us lots of things about our business. For example, data can tell us whether

  • a client should be kept or fired
  • certain types of projects should be avoided or sought
  • we are charging too little or too much
  • our focus is wrong or right
  • we need to start a marketing campaign now or can wait
  • our marketing campaign is a success or failure
  • making an investment is likely to increase or decrease our profitability
  • subcontracting would be a smart or dumb direction to go
  • and myriad other things

— all we need to do is gather and explore the data.

We’ve discussed several times how to calculate what to charge (see the five-part series, Business of Editing: What to Charge), but knowing what you need to earn and charge does not necessarily equate to profitability. It is not difficult to have calculated the rate you need to charge, charge that rate, yet be unprofitable. That’s because knowing what to charge is only part of the necessary information.

Consider the type of editing you do. I focus on long manuscripts, the longer the better, preferably 1,000 manuscript pages or longer. Offer me a manuscript that runs 15,000 pages and you will make me happy. Over the years I have been professionally editing, I have collected data on hundreds of projects — in fact, on every project that has passed through my office. Among the information I collected was project subject matter; whether single author or multiauthor; number of manuscript pages (which was calculated using my own formula); the time it took to complete the project; the number of projects I was offered, indicating the number I accepted and the number I turned down; the reason for acceptance or rejection; and the fee I was paid. (I gathered other data, too, but for our discussion, this list is sufficient.)

Analyzing Data

From this data, I learned what manuscripts were likely to be profitable for me. It is important to remember that we are not all alike; that is, what is profitable for me may be highly unprofitable for you. What is important, however, is to know whether what you are doing is, in fact, profitable for you.

Editors focus on editing — it is what they know best and what they feel most comfortable doing. But freelancers wear multiple hats. Not only do they wear an editing hat, but they wear the business owner’s hat. When wearing the business owner’s hat, editors need to assess their business objectively. It does not matter whether they love or hate editing; what matters is whether they are running a profitable business. To make that determination, editors must objectively collect and analyze data about their business.

One of the most important bits of data is time. How long a project takes to edit — not approximately, but exactly — is key information. It is information that is used to determine your effective hourly rate as well as the number of pages you can edit in an hour. It also is information that is needed when giving a client a quote. An editor needs to know whether, as a general rule, a heavy edit means 2 pages an hour or 6 pages an hour, because that helps you determine the likelihood of profitability at different price points.

The Excuses

I have heard editors say that data collection isn’t all that important for them because they bill by the hour, not by the page or project. Contrary to such sentiment, it is equally important to collect data regardless of how you charge, unless your clients have unlimited budgets (and I have yet to meet a client who does). It is also important because in the absence of data, it is not possible to determine whether you are making a sufficient profit.

Editors have told me that they know they are making a sufficient profit because they are able to pay their bills, put a little bit away in savings, and have money for entertainment, and that they are doing this without collecting and analyzing data about their business. Accepting that as true, data collection is still necessary because you may well discover, for example, that you can earn the same but in less time and with less effort. Or you might discover after analyzing the data that although you are making a profit, you are spending more time and effort to do so than is warranted and that making some changes in your business would increase your profit but require less effort.

The Reason

Data collection is key to business growth and profitability. Data inform decisions; data provide a foundation for action. It is a fundamental business error to not collect as much data as you can about your business.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays include:

November 6, 2015

Worth Celebrating: Ruth Thaler-Carter

The good news about An American Editor essayists continues.

Congratulations to our On the Basics essayist, Ruth Thaler-Carter, who will receive a Big Pencil Award on November 14, 2015, from Writers & Books in her hometown of Rochester, NY, for being “A teacher of adults who has inspired the creation and appreciation of literature” and having “contributed significantly in the advancement, creation, and understanding of literature in the Rochester community.”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 4, 2015

Worth Celebrating: Carolyn Haley

Congratulations to our Thinking Fiction essayist, Carolyn Haley, for winning second place in the Contemporary Novel category in the International Digital Awards (IDA) contest sponsored by Oklahoma Romance Writers of America for her novel Into the Sunrise. For those interested, the book is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 21, 2015

Worth Reading: Is Wikipedia Reliable?

Need to know whether a “fact” is really a “fact”? A lot of editors turn to Wikipedia. Is that what an editor should do?

A recent study, written by Adam Wilson and Gene Likens, regarding Wikipedia’s reliability was published August 14, 2015 in the journal PLoS ONE and is well worth reading:

Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale

I admit I rarely look at Wikipedia and have never been comfortable with crowd-sourced “research”, but I attribute that to a generational hangup. Yet perhaps there is some reason to be cautious.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 6, 2015

Thinking About Charleston

Filed under: Miscellaneous Opinion,Politics — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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It’s July 4, Independence Day, and I am still thinking about Charleston. It isn’t as if Charleston hasn’t happened before; it has. I guess I am wondering why it still happens.

Part of what keeps Charleston in my mind is that I recently watched the Kevin Costner movie, “Black or White.” The movie was well acted, but could have been better written. The movie’s topic is important, but it fails to resonate because the neither the black nor the white families that are the focus are representative.

But the courtroom scene does contain something very important. Costner’s character is asked about his racial prejudice, and he replies that yes, when he sees a black person the very first thing he sees is that they are black, just as the very first thing a black person sees when looking at a white person is that the person is white. What matters, Costner’s character says, is not that first thought but the second and third thoughts and how fleeting the first thought is. I think Costner’s character has it right.

No matter what we look at, our first thought is to characterize/classify it; when it comes to people, as opposed to objects,what matters is the fleetingness of that characterization/classification and what our second and third thoughts are.

Perhaps I am an oddity in today’s America. I do not understand why so many of us get stuck on that first thought, that characterization/classification. I live in what is perhaps the best neighborhood in all of America. The street is U-shaped, which means no through traffic, which also means that the neighborhood is readily identifiable, and residents have a sense of community.

In my neighborhood live all sorts of people. We have single, cohabiting, and married;  blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Indians; young, old, and elderly; blue collar and white collar; furniture movers, physicians, lawyers, college professors, school teachers, stay-at-home mothers, real estate agents, plumbers, stone masons, laborers, government employees, truck drivers, and more. We also have military, nurses, police, and LGTB. We have Sikhs, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, atheists, and probably some other religions in the mix. The list goes on.

The point is that I live in what I consider to be the ideal neighborhood — a mix of all that makes America great. We speak to each other; we visit each others’ homes and share meals; when we walk our dogs, the pack gets larger as additional neighbors join the walk and the camaraderie. My wife, who walks the neighborhood more than I, knows all but the newest members, and it is difficult to walk the 1-mile circuit in less than 90 minutes because people always want to stop and chat. We even exchange house keys so that access is readily achieved in case of emergency.

I look at my neighborhood and think this is the type of neighborhood that every child should grow up in because it is the kind of neighborhood that teaches we are all the same.

Perhaps that is what is missing in America’s Charlestons — that opportunity to learn that we are all the same. To learn that the first thought should be a fleeting thought; to learn that it is the second and third thoughts that really matter. I guess that is what bothers me — the need to constantly fight the Civil War and the war against racism and the war against segregation and the war against poverty. We seem to not be gaining ground; we seem to be refighting the same battles that we were fighting decades and generations ago.

Why do we need, in the 21st century, to refight the battles of the 20th century? It is because we have yet to digest the idea that the first thought should be fleeting.

I mourn for the victims of Charleston and I mourn for the America that cannot move forward when it comes to civil rights. On my block, in my neighborhood, in my world, we are one, we are Americans.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 8, 2015

Summertime & Wondering Why

It’s just clockwork — once a year, every year, summer comes (and the summer solstice brings another wedding anniversary). As I write this, my son is on a week-long vacation, one of several paid vacations he gets each year, along with all those other benefits of working for a corporation/government agency. And as he merrily enjoys his paid vacation, I think about why I chose the freelancer path 31 years ago.

Before freelancing I held a variety of positions and jobs, some in my own organizations and some in the corporate sphere. In all of those jobs, I had paid vacations, paid sick days, paid personal days, medical insurance, annual raises, excellent compensation (my last job with a publisher paid $70,000 a year plus bonuses), retirement, relative job security — all of those wonderful things that can make life easy (relatively speaking) for the employed that as a freelancer I have to provide for myself. And when I think about what I had, the most important was a structured work week. I worked a 35-hour workweek (officially; unofficially it was closer to 50), rarely holidays or weekends.

When I made the move to freelancing, I had no set workweek; jobs came and went and I worked as I needed to meet schedules. I was luckier than many colleagues in that I had enough steady work by my second year of freelancing that I was already subcontracting and still working 40+ hours 52 weeks a year myself.

But every time summer comes around I ask myself what foolishness enticed me to the world of freelancing. The answer is both simple and complex.

Starting from the money angle, I realized that if I created a business and acted like a business, I could earn much more than I was earning from corporate America. Back then, most freelance editors viewed themselves as craftspersons, members of a guild, not businesspersons. If you called editing a business, the heavens would storm daggers down on you; editing was not a business — period. No ifs, ands, or buts on that score. Colleagues thought I was foolish to think otherwise, but I did and I do.

Accepting that editing was a business with great financial potential meant that I tackled creating that business as if it were (could be) a highly successful, organized and structured business. That meant setting a workweek, buying medical insurance, establishing (and funding) a retirement account, establishing (and funding) a vacation account, and so on. I needed to make my business resemble what other businesses did, including, at that time, multiple telephone lines (including several toll-free numbers) (this was years before email took over and before the Internet; even years before the dialup modem was ubiquitous) and a bookkeeping system that was indistinguishable (except for scale) from that of corporate America.

Bottom line was that I recreated in my starting editing business the standards of the then business world. I established business protocols for answering the telephone and for signing a letter. My invoices were in the business name, not in my name. My wife would answer the telephone as if she were the company receptionist. I created the illusion of the corporate world and so I never left the corporate world.

As it happened, this was all to my benefit. Because I created a business and the attributes of a business, I still was able to take paid vacations, have medical insurance, and have paid sick days. For many years I took three or four 1-week vacations every year. Sure, I was paying myself, but I had the revenue to do so. And that was and is the key — having the revenue to give myself all the things that I gave up receiving as benefits from someone else’s hand.

Why did I make the switch from corporate employment to self-employment? Because I knew that I had the type of personality that could make a financial go of it — eventually. It turned out that my “eventually” was sooner than I had planned or expected, but I knew I had the self-discipline to recreate my corporate experience but on my own terms.

I also made the switch because the one thing I couldn’t avoid in the corporate world, which increased in number as I rose in position and salary — the meeting — became increasingly problematic for me. I found that the maxim that in corporate life one rises to one’s level of incompetence was absolutely true. Meetings became increasingly difficult for me because the bosses running them became increasingly conservative and unknowing and, more importantly, unwilling to be educated. Frustration became such a companion that I no longer looked forward to commuting to work (which was another good reason to strike out on my own). Working for myself, I could keep meetings to a minimum (how often do you meet and debate policy with yourself?) and when I did have a meeting with a client or an employee/subcontractor, the agenda was short and to the point — no one had time or energy to waste.

As the years passed, I watched colleagues struggle. They struggle with a lot of issues, not all of them easily solvable, but the fundamental reason for many of their problems was how they approached editing. The unwillingness or the inability to apply business fundamentals to editing, the desire to keep editing as a craft or to think of themselves as artisans rather than tradesmen, hampered their success. Even the greatest of editors needs to apply business fundamentals to what they do because it is those fundamentals that determine financial success and enable payment of the mortgage, the kids’ education, the medical insurance, the retirement fund.

Do not mistake my elevation of finances for a lowering of artisanship. That not only need not occur, it should not occur. Rather it is financial success that gives an editor the opportunity to say yes or no and do the artisanal things the editor wants to do. It is so much easier to volunteer to write the monthly newsletter for the local shelter pro bono when you do not have to choose between doing that and putting food on the table.

Financial success also does one other thing: It makes the looking back and asking “why” an amusement rather than a serious endeavor. When I look back, I know that I never really left that “secure and safe” corporate world; I took it with me and made it my own. Sure I had to make some compromises that if I were truly free of the corporate environment I would not ever address, such as standard business hours so that clients always know when they can speak directly with me; if I were truly free, I would come and go from my office as each day enticed me — it’s beautiful outside today, so I’ll garden — but compromise is the state of life.

So when I look back and ask “why,” I answer because I could and I knew I could succeed. There really wasn’t and isn’t a “why” in my case. How about for you?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 18, 2015

So, You Want to Be an Editor — Why?

A few times a year I am asked, “How can I become an editor?” or something along those lines. It is usually a college student who thinks being an editor has a certain amount of mystery and prestige or a person who has lost her job and is looking to make a career shift for whom the idea of working as a freelancer has some mystical appeal who is doing the asking.

I struggle to give an answer that isn’t flippant. I have learned — 31 years later — that being an editor is neither glamorous nor mysterious nor prestigious nor just about anything, except that I love what I do and can’t imagine going into another career. But the key here is “31 years later.” The answer that I need to give has to relate to now, not then.

It is true that I am successful, that I have developed a certain level of reputation for highly skilled, high quality work. But I began my career in the dark ages of editing, when the market was country-centric not global, when consolidation among publishers was still a gleam in corporate accounting’s eye, when pay was actually enough to give you a middle class life, when clients cared about quality and were not hesitant to return a manuscript riddled with questions for the editor.

Today everything is different. Why would you want to become an editor today?

Nothing about freelance editing is easy today. When I started, I was able to get work from a half dozen publishers within an hour and turn down work from another half dozen. Not today. When I started, packagers (i.e., providers of complete services) didn’t really exist. They were starting their birth but they didn’t dominate book publishing like today. In those days, the king of the hill was the typesetter, and the typesetter rarely hired freelance editors. A typesetter might recommend an editor to a publisher, but that would be the extent of it. Today, publishers contract with packagers and basically wash their hands of the production process except to praise or complain.

When I started as a freelance editor, I was contacted by a wonderful woman who was production supervisor for a long-ago-bought-out publisher about doing some medical copyediting. I told her I had zero experience; I was a lawyer by training and experience and my experience in editing was primarily in legal books. She told me not to worry; she would teach me what I needed to know about editing medical books. So I started and never looked back.

That is highly unlikely to happen today. Today, you need to be experienced in the area; no one has time to teach you because in-house staff is overwhelmed as it is. And pray you do not make too many errors today, regardless of the reason. Too many errors (quantity unknown) means you are never called again. In my early days, it was understood that in medical publishing, for example, an experienced editor could give a high-quality edit to three to five pages an hour; today, that is not only not understood, but the demand is for closer to 20 pages an hour and the editing had better be darn close to perfect — and you are to do it for a price that is less than what editors were being paid in 1995.

In those olden days, the in-house editors I worked with understood the concept of “fast, good, cheap”: They understood they could have two of the three but not all three and they chose the two they wanted. What was important was that they didn’t blame the editor for any failings that occurred as a result of the choice they made. Not so today. Today, when errors occur as a result of the demands being made and when those errors are compounded by the bypassing of proofreading, it is the editor who is blamed. Too much is at stake for the client to accept any responsibility.

Also in those olden days, I knew my work was going to be evaluated by someone who actually had command of both the subject matter and the language. If I made a change and was questioned about it, there was no trying to obfuscate my reasoning: I had to be able to defend my decisions because the person asking the question had herself done this type of work for years before becoming a hirer of freelancers. If I am lucky, I will have that same experience today, but the more usual experience is that the person hiring me has had no experience as an editor; they understand the production process thoroughly, but not editing or the subject matter or language (and often their command of the language is poor as it is not their primary language). Consequently, it is difficult to defend a decision because they understand that in some other book some other editor did something else and therefore I must be wrong.

Perhaps even more frustrating is when the client, today, has decided that something must be done a particular way and wants me to confirm that what they want is correct, even though I have told them it is not. The shifting game (i.e., the shifting of responsibility for an editorial decision) is common today. It commonly happens after the fact; that is, I have submitted the edited manuscript and unbeknownst to me, the in-house person makes changes that result in errors, and when the author or ultimate client complains, blames my editing. I’ve had that happen several times in the past couple of years; fortunately, the ultimate client contacted me and I was able to provide a copy of my submitted edited manuscript. But should I have to do this? No.

Of course pay is another stumbling block, especially for new editors. I try to tell editors that you cannot be profitable or earn a decent living by working for a wage that is less than your required effective hourly rate. But it is like talking to a brick wall because they see postings all over the Internet of editors charging very low sums or of editors saying it is better to have poverty work than no work or of “suggested” rate guidelines from pseudo organizations. The rate guidelines are the most difficult obstacle to overcome because some “editorial” organization has published them; consequently, new and wannabe editors think they are the gospel without inquiring as to the data behind them.

But the problem with pay ultimately comes down to the “I can get it cheaper” syndrome, making it a race to the bottom. New editors run that race and lead the pack when they do (although there are any number of “experienced” editors who run that marathon, too).

Finally, there is the matter of prestige (little to none, today) and respect (sometimes even less than none these days). The glamor days of editing are gone. Today, client demands leave little time for an editor to help a promising author achieve stardom. Our job is much more mundane; there is little to no time to nurture an author.

So, you want to be an editor. My question is: Why? If you understand the problems and can articulate the why, then this may be the profession for you. Editing can be a wonderful profession if you enter it with eyes wide open and for the right reasons. Today’s global marketplace has changed the world of freelance editing.

Richard Adin, An American Editor


Other essays of that may be of interest:

March 16, 2015

The Order of Things

The Order of Things

by Jack Lyon

Rich Adin and I are having a fight. I sent him a lovely article about why the parts of a book are placed in a particular order, and he sent me back the following note: “The principle you explain doesn’t really matter and doesn’t really influence the order of content; rather, that order is based on reader expectation built over centuries by publishers and printers.” The nerve of that guy!

So what principle did I explain? That the order of a book’s content is based on the fact that we start reading at the beginning and keep reading until we get to the end. In English, we read from top to bottom and left to right; we start reading at the top left of a page and we stop reading at the bottom left. And this, I argue, is what has caused books to be put together in the order we typically see. It’s the principle underlying the convention.

Consider the front matter of a book, specifically the foreword and the preface. The foreword is usually written by someone other than the author; the preface is written by the author. So it makes sense that the foreword should come before the preface, as it provides commentary on the book as a whole, including the preface. And if we start reading the author’s words at the beginning of a book but then run into a section by someone else, we’re likely to wonder what’s going on. Would you put the contents page before the title page? No, you wouldn’t, and this is more than a matter of convention; it’s based on the principle that we start reading at the beginning.

Now consider the back matter of a book, which should be in the following order:


  • Would it make sense to put the appendix after the notes? No, because some of the notes might refer to the appendix.
  • Would it make sense to put the notes after the bibliography? No, because the notes don’t refer to the bibliography; the bibliography is not part of the main text.
  • Would it make sense to put the bibliography after the index? No, because readers are used to turning to the last part of a book in order to access the index. That makes sense for ease of use, but surely the fact that the index doesn’t immediately follow chapter 1 is more than a matter of convention.

Years ago, a publisher I worked for decided to put together an edition of the Bible. The editor in charge of the index took an informal survey around the office, asking, “Should a reference to chapter and verse precede or follow a descriptive quotation?” Here’s an example of each:

Reference preceding quotation:

Matthew: 6:30, clothe you, O ye of little faith; 8:10, thy faith hath made thee whole; 9:29, According to your faith be it unto you; 15:28, great is thy faith: be it unto thee; 17:20, faith as a grain of mustard seed; 21:21, if ye have faith, and doubt not; [and so on, for more than a page].

Reference following quotation:

Matthew: clothe you, O ye of little faith, 6:30; thy faith hath made thee whole, 8:10; According to your faith be it unto you, 9:2; great is thy faith: be it unto thee, 15:28; faith as a grain of mustard seed, 17:20; if ye have faith, and doubt not, 21:21; [and so on, for more than a page].

My vote? The reference should follow the quotation. Unfortunately, I was outvoted, and the index ended up with the reference preceding the quotation, ultimately making the index almost unusable. Here’s why: Let’s say you’re looking for the verse that talks about having faith as a grain of mustard seed. You scan down through the entries until you see it:

faith as a grain of mustard seed;

Now, where does your brain expect to find the reference? Immediately after the entry. Why? Because the English language reads from top to bottom, left to right. But the index puts the reference before the entry:

17:20, faith as a grain of mustard seed;

You are now forced to read backward to find the reference of 17:20. But you’re not through yet. What book is that in? You now have to scan backward (to the previous page, in this case) until you come to the bold heading of “Matthew.” Now what was that reference again? Scan forward to “grain of mustard seed” and then backward again to “17:20.” This isn’t a matter of convention; it’s a matter of reading order.

Now let’s say you’re editing or designing a table of contents. You’re suddenly struck with the thought that it would look really cool to put the page numbers on the left of the chapter titles, like this:

1   In the Beginning
23  The Tale Continues
38  More of the Same

Resist the temptation. Readers trying to find a particular chapter will look first for its title (“The Tale Continues”) and then for its page number (23).

Keeping things in their proper order also applies to line editing. Take the following sentence: “I enjoy reading both Entrepreneur and Wired, but I prefer the former over the latter.” Many readers are capable of doing the mental gymnastics to remember which example is the former and which is the latter, but many other readers are not and will have to backtrack to figure it out. Even those who can do the mental gymnastics will have to do them, which will slow reading down and may lead to confusion. So keep things simple! Keep things in order! “I enjoy reading both Entrepreneur and Wired, but I prefer Entrepreneur.

Keeping things in their proper order isn’t an editorial cure-all, and it’s certainly nothing to be compulsive about. For example, while reading the previous sentence, you had to remember that “it’s” refers back to “Keeping things in their proper order.” There’s nothing wrong with that; this kind of interplay between pronouns and their referents happens all the time. But sometimes, when you’re faced with a difficult editorial problem, putting things in their proper order can help solve that problem. For me, it’s something that has worked well over the years to keep readers from wandering all over the road. Maybe you’ll find it useful as well.

In the end, I leave the resolution of the argument to you, Gentle Reader: Is the way books are put together merely a matter of convention? Or is the convention a result of the underlying principle of reading order? What do you think?

Jack Lyon ( owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.

February 25, 2015

Changing Formats: From Scroll to Codex to eBooks

Changing Formats: From Scroll to Codex to eBooks

by Jack Lyon

Electronic reading devices abound. There’s the Kindle, the Nook, the Kobo, and many, many more. Electronic formats abound. There’s EPUB, Plucker, Mobi, and many, many more. But for thousands of years, there was only one way to read a book: by unrolling a scroll.

Scrolls offered some big advantages over their predecessors, stone columns and clay tablets. They were easy to make, easy to write on, and didn’t weigh much. They were also compact, holding a lot of text in a relatively small space. But they had one big disadvantage: they could only be accessed sequentially. In other words, if you wanted to read the 77th column of text on a scroll, the only way to get there was to “scroll” through the first 76 columns. Remember the good old days of cassette tape players? If you wanted to hear “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” you had to fast-forward through “Come Together” and “Something.” Are we there yet? Oops, went too far. Press “Rewind” and try again. Scrolls were like that.

But around the end of the 1st century C.E., someone developed a new technology—the codex.

The codex was a collection of pages bound together in a book—like the printed books we read today. It offered one big advantage over the scroll: random access. In other words, if you wanted to read page 77, you could just turn to page 77. And you could do that while keeping your finger between pages 34 and 35. And you could put a scrap of papyrus between pages 34 and 35 to mark your place without having to leave your finger behind. Remember the good old days of vinyl records? If you wanted to hear “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” you could just pick up the tone arm and move it to the third track on the record, bypassing “Come Together” and “Something” altogether. The codex was like that, and it was a wonderful invention.

Not only that, but the codex eventually became a work of art. Over the years, the scribes of the Middle Ages worked out all the techniques needed to compose beautiful pages, and they went on to illuminate those pages with gorgeous decoration.

When Gutenberg printed his famous two-volume Bible in 1455, he modeled his pages after those of the scribes, and his text is a masterpiece of fine typography, including such features as hanging punctuation, optical alignment, and font expansion (type variation)—features that have become available on the computer only in the past few years.

Yet we typically see none of those features on an electronic reading device. There’s no (or very little) random access. There’s no beautiful typography or page design. There aren’t even any pages. Instead, the text “reflows” to accommodate various screen sizes and readers.

But a page is the basic unit of book design. It’s functional. It can be beautiful. And, not least in importance, it’s fixed in place, allowing us to remember that the passage we loved so much was about halfway through the book at the bottom of the page. This “positional memory” is important not just in reading but in editing as well.

All of that is lost on an electronic reader. One solution would be some kind of software that can replicate a printed page with all the beauties of traditional typography. Is there such a thing? Well, yes. It was invented by Adobe in the early 1990s and is known as Portable Document Format—that’s right: PDF.

Nearly all electronic readers support PDF, so the problem doesn’t lie with technology but with publishers looking for an easy way out—a single file that can be read on a screen of any size. That’s what EPUB is all about.

But is it really that difficult to turn a book into PDFs of various sizes? Most electronic readers have screens of 5, 6, 7.1, or 9.7 inches, which isn’t really that many sizes to deal with. Adjust the pages in InDesign, and off you go.

Doing that, of course, would mean extra work for publishers, who are always watching that bottom line, and for online retailers, who would have to offer the PDFs in those various sizes. And that means most publishers have turned to EPUB as their format of choice.

I read a lot of books in EPUB format, on my Android phone and tablet, and on my computer. And I’m sorry to say that many publishers seem to have abandoned any attempt at controlling the quality of electronic books. Block quotations are indistinguishable from body text; poetry is a mess; text is usually justified but with no attempt at hyphenation, resulting in widely spaced lines. And any attempt at beautiful typography? Forget it. In short, the experience of reading ebooks is far less satisfying than it could be. In most cases, I attribute this to sheer laziness on the part of publishers, who continue to crank out junk when the means to excellence lie readily at hand. For example, EPUB relies on CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), which can accomplish absolute miracles.

Fortunately, some people still care about readability and fine typography, and they are working to ensure that ebooks are as functional and beautiful as possible:

What about you? Do you publish books in electronic form? If so, what do you to make sure that your books are readable and beautiful?

Someday, in the distant future, someone who has read nothing but ebooks is going to stumble into an ancient library and open an honest-to-goodness book. Will that experience be an illumination, a revelation of what we have lost? Or will the reader say, “Wow, this is just as beautiful as my ebooks!”?

What do you think?

Jack Lyon ( owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.

February 20, 2015

Worth Reading: Commas and Copyediting

The newest issue of The New Yorker has a wonderful article about commas and copyediting by the magazine’s own copyeditor, Mary Norris. “Holy Writ: Learning to Love the House Style” is a must read for editors and authors. You might also want to read an earlier article by Mary Norris, “Don’t Try to Hone In On a Copy Editor.” It is another well-written insight into editing. From The Economist comes this editorial by Schumpeter: “Authorpreneurship: To Succeed These Days, Authors Must Be More Businesslike Than Ever,” which is also true of editors.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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