An American Editor

February 10, 2010

On Words: Mugwump

The political partisan divide gets deeper daily. The electorate can’t be counted on to vote in accord with their party registration. Politicians are increasingly nervous that if they do not tilt further to the left or right, they will not be electable. Interestingly, in today’s partisan politics being a centrist seems to ensure that one will not get elected to political office. Makes me wonder if we voters simply want to elect someone we can complain about.

But that aside, the issue today is one of mugwumpery. Can we fickle voters who have registered our loyalty as Republican or Democrat but then desert the anointed party candidate stake a claim to being mugwumps? The bumper sticker possibilities seem endless:

  • Make mugwumpery a daily rite!
  • When the impossible needs doing call a mugwump!
  • Mugwumps brew their own tea!
  • Mugwumps don’t like tea parties!
  • I’m more than a partyer, I’m a mugwumpian!

The sound alone makes me want to proclaim: Mugwumpery — today, tomorrow, forever!

Mugwump (n.) originally referred to an Algonquin chief (mugquomp); John Eliot used the word in his 1663 Indian Bible. Consequently, mugwump became associated with “an important person.” Over the years, however, it became transformed from serious to ironical. For example, in 1835, it was used as follows: “This village, I beg leave to introduce to the reader, under the significant appellation of Mugwump, . . . used at the present day vulgarly and masonically, as synonymous with greatness and strength.”

But it was the presidential election of 1884 between James Blaine and Grover Cleveland that gave mugwump its political meaning. Blaine, the Republican candidate, was disliked by a group of influential Republicans who announced their support for the Democrat Grover Cleveland. The New York Evening Post (June 20, 1884) wrote: “We have yet to see a Blaine organ which speaks of the Independent Republicans otherwise than as Pharisees, hypocrites, dudes, mugwumps, transcendentalists, or something of that sort.” Time (January 12, 1948), speaking of Truman’s election, wrote: “The Mugwumps of 1884, for much the same reason deserted James G. Blaine and helped elect Democrat Grover Cleveland.”

But mugwump wasn’t reserved solely for those who deserted Blaine for Cleveland. There were also Democrat mugwumps, Democrats who deserted Cleveland for Blaine. The Boston Journal (January 21, 1885) reported: “There is a row . . . between a Democrat and a mugwumpian Democrat.”  The Nation (April 14, 1887), gave mugwump a nonpartisan life: “The municipal election in Jacksonville, Fla., last week was another victory for nonpartisanship, and showed that Mugwumpism is growing in the South as well as in the West.”

Even the New York Times was called mugwumpian. The Voice (September 1, 1887), wrote: “Our esteemed Mugwumpian contemporary, the New York Times, is very solicitous for the Republicans to make concessions to the Prohibitionists.”

So mugwump, politically speaking, was first a disaffected Republican, became an Independent Republican, and ultimately moved to total independence. The definition became “a person who withdraws his support from any group or organization; an independent; a chronic complainer who doesn’t take sides.”

Seems to me that we need another political movement in America and I suggest we call it The Mugwump Party of America. So, my fellow, Mugwumpians, shall we gather at Independence Hall on July 4?

January 9, 2010

The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (I)

Publishers are losing the battle over ebook pricing for many reasons, but the core reason is poor product quality. Publishers are so focused on the quarterly return that they have forsaken what once made publishing giants and made publishing a glamorous profession: quality editing — publishers fail to equate price with quality.

I guess I should back up a bit and make this disclosure: I am a reader of both ebooks and print books; I buy a lot of books each year. In 2009 I bought more than 100 books in each format, but no duplicates. I also should say that I am a book editor. I work independently and for many publishers and authors, and have for 25 years. Early in my publishing career I worked for a couple of major publishers and at one time ran a small independent press. I say all this because (I hope) it adds some credence to my commentary.

Back in the olden days of publishing, 5 to 10 years ago, publishers hired editors for one purpose: to take a manuscript and improve it — improve its organization, its grammar, its readability, its consistency. Poor editors were not rehired, good editors were reasonably paid. There was a balance between price and quality: a consumer generally could feel confident that the book was well produced — editorially and physically — and that the price was justifiable.

Fast forwarding to today and everything has changed. Not a year goes by without consolidation in the industry. The industry has changed from small (relatively) local publishers to giant international media conglomerates. The guiding philosophy of publishing in the 1950s and 1960s — produce quality books and the readers shall come — has devolved to the quarterly returns of the 2000s — cut costs, quality be damned! Yes, there are still publishers who care, but they are a struggling minority in terms of market share.

Increasingly publishers are outsourcing what they used to do inhouse. The 1990s saw the beginning of the rise of the book packager, an independent company who promised publishers that it could more quickly, more efficiently, and, most importantly, more cheaply produce the books for the publisher. Often the packager was a printing company that expanded its services to editorial and design. These promises appealed to the accountants and to those who had to face shareholders, so the packagers got the work.

Well, the packagers also have to make money, and if they are cutting the publisher’s costs, they have to hire more cheaply and locate where costs are less. It’s not rocket science to understand this. As a consequence, something had to give. Because the packager’s roots were in the typesetting/printing end, what flexed was editorial. Packagers discovered that savings couldn’t be made in their physical plants and equipment but could be made by outsourcing to less expensive and less experienced editors. And so they did and do.

Just a few days ago I was solicited by a packager wanting to hire me to edit STM (science, technical, and medical) books. The price offer: 80 cents a page. And the solicitor stated that for that high sum, a careful detailed, quality edit would be required. Just ain’t gonna happen.

As I pointed out in my reply, quality STM editing requires a well-skilled, knowledgable, experienced editor who has an eye for detail (after all, do you want to have your doctor pickup a medical book that says the dose is 5 grams when what is really meant is 5 milligrams?). And experienced editors will tell you that a quality edit of such a book means a rate of 3 to 5 pages an hour, sometimes up to 8 or 9 if the book is well-prepared by the author. To make a living in America, the editor would have to edit 20 to 30 pages an hour at minimum at the offered price. So how high a quality edit should be expected for 80 cents a page? (And it also makes me wonder what the price would be for fiction editing? 40 cents a page?)

How does this relate to the pricing battle? Consumers aren’t blind and are generally literate (a topic for another day). When the publisher pays an editor what amounts to $4 an hour for editorial work, is the publisher likely to get a quality job? Is the editor likely to know the difference between effect and affect, between emotional ringer and emotional wringer, between roll and role, between boarder and border, between acceptable and exceptable? Will the editor really care? And when the consumer reads “John entered the house in hopes of becoming a border” or “Their laid the brief case with the money,” will the consumer be thankful they paid a price for the ebook that is higher than the paperback price? Or will there be resistance? With their lax approach to quality, publishers are shoring up the $9.99 threshold they so want to resist.

Consumers are complaining about the high price being charged for ebooks for lots of reasons, but whereas a publisher might have some response to most reasons (acceptable or not), there is no response to the poor quality complaint. Smart publishers will rethink their book strategies and begin to chip away at consumer complaints by tackling immediately those quality issues that underly much of the unhappiness of consumers. Once this the quality issue is laid to rest, the other issues  can be addressed in a more measured manner: It is much easier to compromise when there is only one problem than when there is a plethora of problems.

January 7, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf

I like to read and so I spend a lot of time finding books to read. The result is a backlog of books waiting to be read. What brought this to mind was yesterday’s trip to Barnes & Noble.

In nonfiction, I buy only hardcover and only first editions; I want these books to be permanent parts of my library. My fiction reading interests are not nearly as catholic as for nonfiction, I tend to read primarily fantasy and science fiction. When it comes to fiction, I am not a book publisher’s dream consumer. I prefer to buy fiction (with the exception of a few specific authors such as L.E. Modesitt, Jr., David Weber, and Harry Turtledove, to name just a few) in ebook form and then only if available in the ePub format and at the lower end of the price spectrum. That’s because I consider fiction to be “read once, then delete,” again, with some exceptions. I don’t buy Dan Brown or Stephen King novels; when I did I found them trite and boring. But because of my willingness (nay, eagerness) to buy fiction ebooks, I am exposing myslef to authors who I would never have otherwise found and who I enjoy, such as Celina Summers, Richard S. Tuttle, Hilary Bell, Fiona McIntosh, and Alastair J. Archibald.

In looking back over my book purchases in 2009, I was amazed at how many books I bought. From one ebook store alone, I bought more than 100 ebooks. As for hardcovers, 95% of those purchases were from B&N (I avoid Amazon because I don’t want to encourage its attempts to monopolize the book selling and publishing industries), and in 2009, I bought more than 90 hardcover books.

I find that reading fiction goes relatively quickly and that it takes more time for me to digest nonfiction. Consequently, my fiction to-read list gets whittled away much faster than my nonfiction list. I have at least 60 nonfiction books waiting to be read, probably more, but here are the ones that are at the front (or top) of my bookshelf waiting to be read:

  • Churchill by Paul Johnson (2009)
  • Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution by Kirkpatrick Sale (1995)
  • A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War by Daniel E. Sutherland (2009)
  • The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition by Thomas P. Slaughter (2008)
  • The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy by Adrienne Mayor (2010)
  • Jewish Terrorism in Israel by Ami Pedhazur and Arie Perliger (2009)
  • The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch (2009)
  • Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp by Christopher R. Browning (2010)

I know that in the weeks to come that list will grow and some of the above will be downgraded as new books take their place. But this is the bane, I think, of good editors — the need to read and expand knowledge and the need to own books.

What am I currently reading? In hardcover it is The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War by Caroline Alexander (2009) and Arms-Commander by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (2010) and in ebook it is When the Gods Slept (Timura Trilogy Book 1) by George Allan Cole.

January 6, 2010

Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important

I recently finished reading two books about the Truman and MacArthur dispute. The first, The Truman-MacArthur Controversy and the Korean War by John W. Spanier (1959; available in print only) is a well-written and well-edited book about the problems between a president and a general with an oversized ego.

The second book, Truman & MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown by Michael Pearlman (2008; available in both print and ebook), is a well-researched book that offers greater insight into the controversy between Truman and MacArthur, but is so poorly edited that it was a struggle to get through. Rather than being able to read the book within a matter of a couple of weeks, it took me many months of struggling.

Aside from author style and amount of detail, the two books illustrate the difference between good editing and not-so-good editing. A bad editor does not improve a book: at best, a bad editor leaves the book quality where it was, at worst makes the book a poor book. Conversely, a good editor always improves a book.

A good editor ensures that a book is readable. To my mind, that is the number 1 job of an editor: make sure that a reader can follow the story. After all, what good is a well-researched book or a well-plotted novel if the audience can’t follow the story? A good editor also ensures that the author’s language communicates well. All languages have rules of grammar and syntax and the reason for these rules (besides keeping the rule writers in work) is to create a common ground for understanding among all speakers and readers of the language; that is, to facilitate communication of ideas. That’s why it is important to know when to use since and when to use because, the difference between affect and effect, and to understand the implications of “the brief case is closed” and “the briefcase is closed.”

Sadly, publishers, as they seek to increase their quarterly returns are devaluing the work of editors. Whereas a decade ago the effort was made to hire experienced, qualified editors at a reasonable price so as to minimize the number of editorial errors in a book, today the effort is find the absolute lowest priced editor, regardless of skill level or qualification, and without regard to the number of errors that such an editor lets slip by. Sometimes I think that the only reason some publishers still hire editors at all is that they want to be able to at least claim they (the publisher) has provided added value to a book to justify their share of the revenue.

Unfortunately, Pearlman’s Truman & MacArthur suffers from poor editing. The writing is confusing, repetitive, and not well-organized, all things a good editor would have addressed, although the book is a plethora of facts. For anyone particularly interested in the Truman-MacArthur controversy, which was a very important one in American history, this book is a must slog because of the detail provided. (For those who don’t know, the bottom-line issue was who was in charge of the military: the president or the general. Truman was widely unpopular at the time and MacArthur, through his manipulation of the press, was perceived by Americans as the war hero, the man who should have been president. MacArthur knowingly, flagrantly, and intentionally disobeyed his commander-in-chief, causing a showdown. Fortunately for America, Truman prevailed or the precedent of military over civilian control would have been established.)

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