An American Editor

November 9, 2015

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

Flexibility and Accessibility

When someone is asked why they chose to be a freelance editor, quite often the response centers on flexibility — the idea that freelance editors can set their own schedule. Need time to watch a child’s soccer game? No problem. Need to schedule a doctor’s appointment? Again, not a problem.

Flexible scheduling is nice in concept but the schedules of freelancers aren’t really all that flexible. Sure we can do our work in the wee hours so we can attend that soccer game, but we still have deadlines to meet and it is those deadlines that dictate how flexible our schedule truly is.

When we focus on the flexibility of scheduling, we tend to forget that we are a business and that there are certain expectations that those who would make use of our services have about our schedule. The mistake is not the flexible schedule but the failure to make ourselves accessible as expected by clients. Flexibility and accessibility are not synonymous. Ideally, we can combine flexibility with accessibility.

One hallmark of a business is hours of operation. We know, for example, that the brick-and-mortar repair shop where we take our automobile opens at 7 am and closes at 5 pm. There are posted hours of operation and we know from experience that an 11 pm call to the business finds it closed — and often gives us the message that the business opens at 7 am. We get these same types of messages from online stores — you can make purchases 24/7 but customer service is open only during posted hours.

Granted that our business is not like an auto repair shop or an online retailer, but client expectations are similar: Clients expect to be able to reach us during “normal” business hours. Our flexibility is in what constitutes our business hours, not in our accessibility during those hours.

Accessibility Is…

This does not mean that we need to be accessible 24/7; it does mean that we need to be accessible during set, established times with occasional exceptions. It also means that, depending on who our clientele are and who our target audience is — that is, what our target market expects — when a client contacts us when we are not accessible, the client should receive a message saying when we will be accessible. For example, in response to an email inquiry we might autoreply, “I am sorry to have missed your email. My office is currently closed but will reopen at 9 am local time tomorrow, at which time I will respond. However, if you believe it is vital to contact me before that time, please.…”

Clients have problems that they want us to solve. They do not want to wait to know that they can entrust the problem to us or that they need to look elsewhere — our client’s goal is simple: assign the problem to a problem-solver as quickly as possible so that it is off the client’s list and on someone else’s list. Consequently, clients want to be able to reach us during known times; that is, they want to feel assured that if they wait to contact you during what they expect your business hours to be, that they will, in fact, reach you at that time — without that feeling of assurance, clients simply move to someone else, to someone who is accessible as expected.

Accessible today — at least in my business — usually means by email; I rarely receive a telephone call anymore. In olden days, clients wanted to be polite and chat for 60 seconds before getting to the point of the call; today, they want to avoid “wasting” those 60 seconds, just as we do. (I admit that I have a certain nostalgia for those olden days when chatting with my clients let me learn how their children are doing or learn about the wonderful time they had in Paris. It “humanized” what was otherwise an isolated experience by providing a watercooler moment.) The advantage of email is that it is a 24/7 nondisturbing way to contact a client or an editor.

Expectations

But there is also an expectation that when the client sends an email to me during my business hours, I will respond quickly — not in hours, not tomorrow, not when the client is not available, but nearly immediately. If I am accessible, I do make it a policy to quickly respond, even if it is to say something like, “I received your email and will give you a detailed response within the next 2 hours. If you need my detailed response more quickly, please let me know and I will address your email immediately.”

The issue of accessibility does go hand-in-hand with contact information, which we previously discussed (see The Business of Editing: A Second Fundamental Mistake that Editors Make). A reason to provide contact information is to make yourself accessible to clients. But it does no good to provide that information if the client cannot actually reach you. The counterargument is that clients who email do not expect a prompt response; clients know that the editor may not be accessible. Of course, we don’t know that as fact; we assume it is true because it fits within our needs and what we would expect.

I think that counterargument had more merit in past years. Increasingly, I receive client emails for “routine” jobs that have been sent to several editors and include the statement that the first to respond positively to the job offer (by which the client means the first who says he can meet the schedule at the offered price) will be awarded the job. If I wish to compete for those jobs, then a quick response, which means I am accessible, is required. (Fortunately, most of my work is “nonroutine” and clients seek me specifically for my editorial services.)

Clients with questions related to a job I am in the midst of editing also want their questions answered today and quickly, not tomorrow. (The Internet has altered greatly the concept of patience. Just as people wonder why they have to enter multiple clicks to buy an item instead of a single click, so they wonder why I can’t answer their email within a few minutes. Patience — meaning patience of hours rather than seconds — has become a lost virtue.)

Successful businesses are accessible to their clients and meet their clients’ expectations of accessibility. Freelance editors are as subject to those accessibility expectations as any other business. We have so much competition that clients do not need to be patient; clients can make multiple simultaneous requests and deal with the first responder, or they can internally decide to wait an hour for your response and if one is not forthcoming, seek another editor.

The Key

Consequently, we need to act like a business and set hours of operation that we mostly adhere to — and we need to let clients know what those hours are. Notice can be by posting on a website or by mentioning in correspondence; it doesn’t really matter, but it does depend on who you want to be your client — that is, who is your target audience. If I were seeking indie authors as clients, I would post that information along with my contact information at my website. With corporate clients, I try to have my accessible hours overlap my clients’ office hours and I let my clients know via email.

The key is being accessible when and how clients expect. Remember that we need our clients more than our clients need us. It is harder for us to find new clients than it is for our clients to find new editors. We need to approach this like Amazon does — by meeting our clients’ needs and expectations.

We need to avoid sending the message that we do not care or are not interested in our clients. We need to provide client-centric, not editor-centric, service. Failure to be accessible and to make known our accessibility as part of client-centric service is a fundamental mistake that editors often make.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays include:

March 5, 2014

Why Are You Hiring a Professional Editor?

Increasingly, I wonder why professional editors are being hired. In reading online discussions, it is pretty evident that (a) everyone thinks they can be an editor, (b) a growing number of authors think that self-editing or peer editing is more than sufficient, (c) professional editors are believed to be overpaid, and (d) people who have edited a romance novel think they can as competently and easily edit a 5,000-page manuscript on the genetics of cancer.

Of course, a lot of discussion online centers around price. Not only are editors offering services at unsustainable prices (see The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It for a discussion of sustainable pricing), but users of the editing services offered are balking at those prices. (How absurd is this “pricing war” becoming? I received a job application from an editor offering to work for 25¢/page!)

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is that those who need a professional editor’s services have no clue as to why they need those services except that everyone tells them that they do and because using an editor is what authors have done for decades. The users of editors do not contemplate the purposes for which they want an editor’s services.

We have discussed professional editors and what their role is in the publishing process numerous times over the life of this blog. The editor’s role hasn’t changed, probably since the time of the very first editor. Yet even with that history, when asked “Why are you hiring a professional editor?”, the answer is rarely inclusive of what the editor does.

Within the past few weeks, I was asked to edit a paper that was going to be submitted as part of a grant proposal. The instructions were clear: check spelling and look for egregious grammar errors but touch nothing else. Why hire me? (I turned down the work for a multitude of reasons, including the project’s schedule was incompatible with my schedule, but largely because I am not a spell checker — I am a professional editor who expects to make use of my editorial skills, not a verifier that spell check software didn’t miss something.)

I think a significant amount of blame for the state of editing lies in the hiddenness of what editors do. It is hard to point to a paragraph in a book and say that because of the suggestions of the editor, this paragraph altered the author’s destiny, turned the author into a star or into a has been. Editors may have star-making power, but if they do, it is not readily apparent to either the editor or to the person who hires the editor.

The person hiring the editor is really looking for someone who can take away embarrassments before they become embarrassing. That’s because of the limited understanding of the editor’s role. Each person who hires an editor needs to ask, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?” If the answer is to verify spell checking software, then the follow-up question should be, “Why am I hiring a professional editor for a job that doesn’t require a professional editor?”

Ultimately, there should be an epiphany. The questioner should realize that what she needs to know is what a professional editor does. It is this appreciation of the skills owned by a professional editor that will enable the answering of the original query, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?” Importantly, once the question can be answered, it is likely to move the focus away from pricing and toward skillsets.

Another result of being able to answer the question is that the asker will be able to analyze her needs and guide the editor as to what is needed and wanted: If all you need to do is cross the street, you don’t hire a taxi. It is the lack of understanding on the part of an editor’s clients as to what an editor does and why it is important that is at the heart of the problems professional editors face in terms of unrealistic expectations and downward pressure on pricing. It is hard for an editor to convince a client that she is worth $50 an hour when the client thinks the editor is just a glorified spell checker.

Someone who understands what an editor does, understands the need for a professional editor. It remains true that no one will be able to point to a single paragraph in a book and say that the editor’s transformation of that paragraph instantly altered the author’s status; such singular events remain within the realm of the speechwriter. Unfortunately, because readers never see the before and after of an editor’s work, it is not possible for readers to see how the editor has improved or worsened an author’s work.

In addition, an editor suggests and the author decides, which means that an author can easily reject the advice that would transform his work from a member of the pack to leader of the pack as accept the advice.

The reason a professional editor is hired is that the client wants to ensure that her manuscript is accessible and understandable, that it flows not just in her eyes and mind but in the mind and eyes of others. She wants to know that her word choice conveys the meaning she intends. Professional editors have honed the skills that deliver these results. Professional editors are able to maintain a distance from the manuscript that enables an objective assessment; it is very difficult for a mother to objectively assess her child.

Once it is realized what a professional editor does and what skills he has, it becomes clear that not everyone can be an editor, just as not everyone can be a lawyer or doctor; that peer group editing is not the same as using a professional editor; that professional editors are skilled artisans who are worth more than a bottom-scraping fee; and that the editor who has successfully edited a romance novel is not necessarily the editor who can successfully edit a large manuscript on cancer genetics.

In other words, once one realizes what skills a professional editor possesses, it is easier to see that different skills are needed for different projects. Now one can answer the question, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 17, 2010

Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers

I have “bought” more than 400 ebooks since I received my Sony Reader as a gift 2.5 years ago. I put “bought” in quotes because about half of the ebooks I “bought” were free ebooks; the other half I paid for. But I’ve noticed a significant downward trend in my buying of ebooks in the past few months, and I have finally realized why that is occurring: frustration with the ebookseller experience.

Before someone jumps up and says how wonderful and easy the buying is at Amazon with the wireless downloading to the Kindle and the 1-click payment system, let me be clear: having to download to my computer and transfer to my Sony and having to go through a couple of steps to complete the buying transaction are not the source of my frustration. I don’t find either troublesome or taxing.

The source of my frustration is finding the good book to read and buy at these ebooksellers — the finding of the needle in the haystack of needles.

Let me illustrate the problem. Fictionwise lists 2751 titles in the Fantasy/Dark Fantasy category; Smashwords lists 1223 titles in SciFi/Fantasy; and Sony Reader Store lists 6810 titles in SciFi/Fantasy. How much time would it take to go through 1223 titles looking for a few books? Even at 30 seconds a title, it would take more than 10 hours to go through the Smashwords list, which is by far the shortest list. Perhaps you are willing to sit at your computer for 10 hours and do nothing else, but I’m not.

Granted each of the ebookstores has some filters in place, but those filters don’t really address the problem. The reason why is that none of the stores offer you the option to filter out books you have already “reviewed” the last time you went looking for an ebook to read.

Buying at a brick-and-mortar bookstore reduces the problem significantly because of the store’s limited inventory. But online ebooksellers have virtually unlimited inventory that grows weekly. Consequently, the very first improvement I think ebooksellers need to institute is the ability to create a custom inventory for each buyer. Just as one can choose, for example, to filter out ebooks already purchased at Fictionwise (a filter that all the other ebooksellers should offer), there should also be a filter for books that I have already reviewed and am not interested in.

It should be relatively easy to implement, although I admit I am not a programmer. Next to each title should be 3 checkboxes: Add to Cart, Add to Wishlist, and Remove from Personal Inventory. If I check Remove from Personal Inventory, the next time I search for something to read, the ebook would not be included in the choices. However, there should be a list kept that I have access to so that I can reverse my decision 3 months from now by unchecking the title.

Another problem with all of these ebooksellers is that when I look for an ebook and spend an hour going through the first 10 “pages” or so of inventory and then leave the site, on my return, I need to start over, as if I had never looked at any of the ebooks previously. Admittedly, this is a tougher problem to solve because new titles are constantly being added and ratings change. I’d like to see two separate lists: a list of new titles since my last visit (new titles list) and the list that I had been perusing on my last visit (the last visit list).

The last visit list should let me pick up from where I left off; if I was on “page” 9, I should be able to go to page 9 and continue reviewing ebooks, knowing that all of the ebooks I reviewed on my prior visit are found in “pages” 1 to 8.

I also would like to see more filters. Smashwords’ filtering is so limited, it almost might as well not exist. Fictionwise’s and Sony’s are not any better, although Fictionwise at least lets me filter out books I have already purchased (but not the titles if they are in a different format; e.g., if I purchased the ebook but not the audio version, the audio version still shows up in the list).

I don’t read, for example, vampire books. Why can’t I filter out vampires? Or fantasy that doesn’t include dragons and elves? With the descriptions and the metadata available, shopping can be made a lot easier, and the easier it is, the more likely books will sell.

It is not enough that an ebookstore has hundreds of thousands of titles; the titles must be accessible and to make them accessible, better methods of finding that needle in the haystack of needles is needed. The ebookseller who conquers this problem will be the ebookseller who leads the burgeoning ebook market.

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