An American Editor

June 9, 2010

Is it Time to Go Beyond Hyphenation?

Today’s paper New York Times had a front page article spotlighting the Republican primary in South Carolina that described Nikki Haley, candidate for governor, as “an Indian-American,” as if this was a reason to vote for or against her. USA Today reported today that Hispanics — both illegal immigrants and legal residents and citizens — are leaving Arizona in anticipation of the new anti-immigration law becoming effective in a few weeks (see Documenting Me).

Hyphenation is a tricky topic because people want a group identity, but unlike anywhere else in the world, Americans are hyphenated. I haven’t yet met a hyphenated British, Jamaican, Algerian, German, Mexican, Brazilian person, only of hyphenated Americans.

We speak of ourselves as Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans, African-Americans, even though our connection to Mexico, Ireland, or Africa is really tenuous. If someone tells me they are Mexican-American, I wonder whether that means they are immigrants just recently naturalized as American citizens or that they are Americans of Mexican descent (and if the latter, are they Mexican on both sides and for how many generations have they lived in America).

Here’s my question: If they were born in the United States, or were naturalized, aren’t they simply Americans?

Okay, I understand that this is an attempt by some of us to keep a link with a past with which we really have little familiarity or solidarity. And I also understand that it is an attempt by some to have a handy way to categorize others — either favorably or unfavorably. But if my paternal grandfather emigrated from Russia, my paternal grandmother from Poland, my paternal grandfather from Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my maternal grandmother was born in America (but her father emigrated from Germany and her mother from Spain), and both my parents and I were born in the United States, what am I?

What link should I keep? Why choose one link above the others? Does it matter that, for example, the Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer exists? If I emigrate from the United Kingdom, is my hyphen United Kingdom, British, English, Scotch, Welch, Anglo, Saxon, Celtic, Irish, Jute, French (remember 1066)? If from my hodgepodge background I choose, say, Russian and declare myself Russian-American, what am I really saying about myself? What useful (and accurate) information am I really conveying to someone when I respond by saying “Russian-American” — especially as I have never been to Russia and only know it by what I read?

How many generations back should I go to establish my hyphen? I suppose we could all claim to be African-Americans if science is correct that our first ancestors did come from Africa. How tenuous a connection is acceptable?

I am not suggesting that we should not appreciate or celebrate our roots; after all, somewhere along the line those roots made us what we are. But for those of us who were born in the United States or who became naturalized citizens, isn’t it enough to simply say we are Americans?

“Why,” you ask (I’m sure), “are you raising this issue? Is it really an important matter?” Good questions; let me see if I can provide satisfactory answers.

When we classify ourselves by hyphenation, we separate ourselves from other hyphens. After all, we all know that a Mexican-American is not the same as an Irish-American. When we hear the hyphenated identity, we conjure up specific images. We group ourselves, and our interests, in accordance with the left side of the hyphen rather than with the right side. And this is tragic. We see the tragedy in, for example, the discussions regarding immigration. No one views the struggle to solve America’s immigration problem as solving an American problem; it is viewed as solving (or addressing) a hyphenation problem. For example, Mexican-Americans and Latino-Americans view the troubles in Arizona as being discriminatory against them.

But without hyphenation the perspective changes. The solutions, or where someone falls in the spectrum of solutions, may not change, but the perception of the problem changes. No one asks now why it is okay for other countries to limit the immigration of Americans (no hyphenation) but it is not okay for the United States to limit immigration of prehyphenates. Mexico objects to our limiting Mexican immigration but no one objects to Mexico’s limits on American immigration. Why? Because of hyphenation. The problem gets mischaracterized into a problem of hyphenation rather than of America. The problem is viewed as a restriction on the Mexican part of Mexican-American.

Are we electing presidents and governors and senators and other officeholders based on their hyphenation or on their qualification. I think if the former, it is a sad commentary on us.

Isn’t it offensive that Americans and legal immigrants believe they must flee Arizona, a state they have a right to live in, just to avoid being harassed. It certainly offends me to think that Americans have to flee America to avoid being harassed for being American or where they have a right to be.

Hyphenation does have a role to play today and certainly had a much larger role to play not so many decades ago. But hasn’t the time come when we should all just be Americans and unhyphenated? Yes, we should continue to celebrate ancestral days with parades and festivals and cultural organizations and activities — after all, what makes America great and different from everywhere else is the variety of nationalities that melded together, and continue to meld together, to create America. But perhaps we should just be Americans, without hyphenation.

Perhaps once we all think of ourselves as simply Americans, we will discover that we can, together, solve America’s problems — the universal problems that affect us all as Americans — and overcome the rancor that now pervades the political process. I do my part: When asked what I am, I always answer “American” — no hyphenation needed!

January 28, 2010

Publishers vs. Editors & the Bottom Line: Readers are the Losers

In 1966, William Baumol and William Bowen described the economics of the performing arts. The point of their study was that some sectors of an economy have high labor costs because they tend not to benefit from increased efficiency. Baumol and Bowen illustrated this proposition using a 1787 Mozart string quintet: that quintet required 5 musicians and a set amount of playing time in 1787 and today still requires 5 musicians and the same amount of playing time.

Like Mozart’s quintet, there is a limited amount of efficiency that can be gotten in the editorial process. A 500-page manuscript still needs to be read page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word, when edited.

Years ago the reading was done on paper with pencil and editors used a limited number of markings to signify elements of the manuscript, such as a chapter title or a bulleted list. Today, the coding has become more complex and most manuscripts are read on a computer. But editing is still as labor intensive today as it was 25 or 50 or 100 years ago. Perhaps even more labor intensive as editors have assumed responsibilities that they didn’t have back then, such as removing author inserted styling. And some publishers now want editors to use XML codes and advanced, expensive software like InCopy. Editors are now doing much of the work that typesetters did as near ago as the 1980s, in addition to dealing with issues of grammar, spelling, syntax, and organization. (For a discussion of what an editor does, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.)

Yet, unlike other labor-intensive professions such as nursing, garbage collection, and teaching, wages for editors haven’t grown; instead, they have declined. (Imagine paying a nurse or a teacher today what they were paid in 1995, let alone what they were paid in 1985 or 1975.) In fact, in contrast to what would be expected in the normal course of events, publishers have decided to make editors their sacrificial lambs on the altar of quarterly profits and are now paying rates that are the same as they paid in 1984 or, in some cases, less, while demanding that more work be done in a shorter timeframe.

One book packager (a packager is a company hired by a publisher to handle most or all aspects of the editorial and production phases of publishing a book) recently solicited experienced American editors to do high-quality editing (and wanted a no competition agreement, too!) in the medical field. High-quality medical editing is slow and careful, with editing at a rate of 3 to 5 manuscript pages an hour the norm, especially if the mansucript requires a “heavy” edit. In exchange for the editor’s effort, the packager offered a rate of 80 cents a page, or $2.40 to $4.00 an hour — not even minimum wage let alone a wage commensurate with the skill and knowledge levels required for this kind of editing. Would you want your doctor to rely on such a low-quality book to prescribe your medications?

Not all publishers or packagers pay such a miserly sum, but this packager doesn’t stand alone.  In fact, this packager is surrounded by myriad other packagers and publishers who pay poverty-inducing wages. Such low offers are increasingly being seen by American professional editors.

Who loses when editors are hired at such poverty-inducing rates? The book buyer loses because it means that an unskilled editor will be hired to do a very cursory editing job. When you buy a book that is riddled with errors, an increasingly common occurrence these days, put the blame squarely where it belongs: on the shoulders of the publishers who have lost any sense of pride in the quality of their books.

As with any profession, editors deserve a fair wage for their skill and knowledge, with specialized skills deserving higher compensation. Publishers have lost the book buyer’s trust because of high price with low quality. One way to regain buyer’s trust is to raise quality. To raise quality, a publisher needs to hire experienced, skilled editors at a fair rate of compensation.

The hue and cry for quarterly profits doesn’t mean that costs should be contained regardless of what is sacrificed. Rather, it means that publishers must change their business model and become more efficient in those areas where efficiencies can be obtained. Editing is not one of those areas because a lower price for editing does not equate with higher efficiency or quality. Editing is labor intensive — a computer cannot take over an editor’s work. Someday publishers and packagers will realize that false economies are a sure path to extinction.

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