An American Editor

August 31, 2011

What Should an Editor Do?

In her comment to my article, Is the Editorial Freelancer’s Future a Solo Future?, Cassie Armstrong asked:

How does what you suggest differ from the idea of a large publishing house? I see the benefit of working with a group, but perhaps you can expand on the idea. Should I then offer my services to other freelancers and suggest collaboration?

The questions are important and boil down to “What should an editor do?”; the answers difficult.

I don’t see grouping together in the manner of a large publishing house as the answer. The idea is not to offer a full panoply of services — the cradle-to-grave approach — but rather to offer more competitively specialized and focused services.

Currently, large publishing houses (and smaller ones, too) contract with book packagers to provide nearly all of the needed production services. The result is that freelance editors no longer work directly for the publisher; rather, they deal with a third-party intermediary, the book packager. How does the packager get the business? It offers a package price for all the services and allocates a portion of the bid price to various services. Consequently, the editorial services take a beating because they are the least fixed-expense category, largely because this is out-housed work even for the packager.

So where does this leave the solo freelance editor? In a very uncompetitive position. Because we freelancers are always scampering to find the next job to fill a schedule gap, we tend to react to and subsequently forget about solicitations from third-party packagers such as this one I received (errors are as appear in the original):

We’re a leading company in pre-press industry and have huge amount of work for copyediting and cold-reading on regular basis. I’ve got your brief details from web and would like to see if you’re interested to associate with us. The major subject would be Science, Technology and Medicine for Books and Journals. We’re dealing with International clients only so they need very high standard of Quality and on time delivery so there will not be any compromise on these front.

The proposed rates are as under…

Copyediting – $0.80 per page

Cold-reading – $0.50 per page

There will be a Non-competent agreement between us before starting the live project.

These proposals are take-it-or-leave-it proposals because if you don’t want the work, someone else will jump at the chance, even though the rate of pay is absurdly low. What other option, other than turning down the offer, does the solo freelancer have? The publisher has contracted with the packager to provide these services and the packager has a gazillion “professional” freelance editors to solicit, many of whom would jump at this offer.

Solo freelancers may reject the above solicitation, but what about a solicitation that calls for “someone who is a subject matter expert in physiology with a strong science background to copy edit this book, as some sections may need to be rewritten.” In addition, “[m]any of contributors are not English speaker so will need copy edited pretty closely for language, especially for the chapters written by a non English speaker.” (The quotes are exact quotes, errors and all.) The job is for approximately 550 manuscript pages and has to be completed in less than 4 weeks. The proffered pay rate is $3.50 per page.

This second solicitation, although labeled as one for copyediting, is really a developmental editing job, a different type of edit altogether (see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor for a discussion of developmental editing vs. copyediting). Again, because of the sheer numbers of competing solo freelancers, even if you would turn down this job, others would jump at it because they need the work.

The solo freelancer can’t bargain with the packager over the price for several reasons. Here are two: First, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of solo freelancers who would accept the job just to have a job, so you have no bargaining leverage. Second, the packager has already allocated money for the out-house editing and claims no wiggle room. (I once had a packager tell me that it not only had allocated the editorial budget but had also predetermined how much of that budget the packager had to retain because the packager’s editorial division had to show a profit!) Again, you are a solo freelancer in a sea of solo freelancers, and thus without bargaining power.

The idea of solo freelancers grouping together is to offer publishers an alternative, at least for editorial needs. As a group, the freelancers offer the same “advantages” that the packager does but put the group’s editorial skill level on the line. Sit back and think about what differentiates you as a solo freelancer from the packager who offers editorial services in the eyes of the publisher. It is in overcoming of those differences that grouping can offer.

Yet the solo freelancer needs to think carefully about the group concept. The idea is that the group needs to be fairly stable; you need to think and act long-term. You cannot assemble a group for one project then disband and form a different group for the next. There needs to be some permanence.

Perhaps more importantly, when forming a group, you cannot be stuck on the idea that every member of the group must do so many pages of editing every week. You need to approach the group from a more business-like perspective. Remember that the success or failure of the group is a combination of factors, not least of which is finding work for the group. Just like with law firms, the group’s “rainmaker” is as important as the person who actually does the editing work.

Cassie’s question was whether she should contact other solo freelancers and offer to collaborate. Although collaboration has been embraced by many (see, e.g., Ruth Thaler-Carter’s guest article,  Working Alone — Or Not?), collaboration is such a loose alliance that it won’t work over the long-term if the idea is to compete for work as a group.

Collaboration is designed for the individual project: A solo freelancer is offered a project that is too big for him/her to complete within the allotted time and so he/she needs project-specific help. The group, on the other hand, is designed to be ongoing and to solicit work based on there being a group of editors who can tackle a project on an as-needed basis and who are practiced at coordinating style amongst themselves.

The answer to Cassie’s question is not that collaboration is bad or should not be sought, but that it should not be the ultimate goal because it is not a method for obtaining work (which is the purpose of a group); collaboration is a method of completing work.

What should the editor do? What the editor thinks is best for the editor’s future.

December 13, 2010

Missing the Editorial Boat Redux

I received several private comments regarding my Missing the Editorial Boat article, with all demonstrating that the primary point is being missed.

What is it that packagers offer American publishers? They offer (1) complete (or near complete) production services at a price that is less than what it would cost the American publisher to do the same work in-house and (2) convenience. It appears that readers grasped the first concept but not the second, yet it is the second that is the most important for editorial freelancers.

Traditionally, an in-house production editor would have x number of books that he or she would have to shepherd through the production process in a year. As the publishing industry consolidated in the 1990s, the in-house production editor’s workload increased. Instead of having to occasionally hire a freelance editor, for example, hiring freelance editors became the norm, a necessity even — yet the in-house production editor had to monitor each hired freelancer’s work. What happened is that the role played by the in-house editor changed from editing to managing.

This workload increased greatly as the years passed and the demand for more profit by the parent company had to be met. It reached a point where the in-house production editor could no longer manage all of the titles for which he or she needed to be responsible in order to meet the corporate bottom-line goals, in the sense that the production editor could no longer properly manage all of the individual freelancers needed to be hired to get the work done. In addition, freelancer costs were rising.

The solution was the packager who offered to undertake the management burden as well as the production burden at a price that was often less than the publisher’s current costs. The packager’s lower cost came about in two ways: first, by moving the mechanical production outside the United States to developing countries where costs were significantly lower. And second, by putting the burden of meeting that lower cost on the freelancer; after all, the packager’s in-house costs, although less than that of the publishers it dealt with, was/is still a fixed cost. The cost of the freelancer, however, was/is a flexible cost.

Conversations with publishers tell me that the packager situation is less than ideal and that quality of output has declined, but there is no viable alternative for the publisher. Publishers are still being squeezed between costs and profit demands, so they are trying to publish more books with fewer in-house staff. And it certainly is less than ideal for editorial freelancers who get price squeezed. But the convenience factor, when added to the lower bid price of the packager, makes packaging a sensible choice for publishers. Take away the convenience factor, and the packager is not necessarily the best alternative.

Just so it is clear, the convenience factor is the convenience of having a third-party manage all of the freelancers the publisher needs to get the books edited. Packagers have undertaken the role of the in-house production editor in this regard, and now, when a publisher sends a book or several books to a packager, the publisher only needs to speak with one person even if there are 15 freelance editors working on the publisher’s books. This is convenience, as well as a lower cost to publishers.

The idea behind partnering is to level the playing field as regards convenience. There still needs to be price competition, but that is another matter. To get to that point, freelancers first need to overcome the hurdle of convenience.

Think about the editorial boat article in that light.

December 10, 2010

Missing the Editorial Boat

Here’s the question of the decade — at least for us editors: Are editors missing the editorial boat?

I can hear you mumbling “what in heck is he talking about?” I’m talking about the changes that have occurred in editorial work between the 1970s and the 2000s and whether editors are still stuck in LP mode while the rest of the world has moved to CDs and MP3s.

In the 1970s (and before, as well as into the early 1980s) most of the larger U.S. publishers were American owned and had a stable of freelance American editors that they called on. In addition, the Internet was still being birthed and the world was a far away place. This invited and encouraged many of us to give up corporate jobs, especially low-paying publishing jobs, and become our own bosses. And many freelancers touted on any number of forums that they were free and would never work for someone else as an employee again.

Yet the world moved on. Many of the American publishers bought other American publishers and eventually were absorbed into even larger conglomerates who were based in Europe. These American publishers now had different masters with different outlooks. No longer was the outlook American centric; it became global and increasingly driven by the need to increase short-term returns for global investors.

Many experienced editors who have worked through these decades have commented on the changes seen in editorial quality as the push came to lower costs and increase profits. Where American publishers hired American editors at reasonable rates in the beginning, the pressures created by bottom-line thinking changed that so that publishers increasingly were no longer hiring editors directly but outsourcing the complete production cycle. The rise of the packager.

Packagers, who now dominate the editorial process, get their business by providing a low-price bid to a publisher that includes the complete production package — editing, composition, and even printing. Yet these packagers usually only do the latter two functions in-house; they outsource to freelance editors the editorial aspects.

All of this is OK until one thinks about how the packager’s bid is aligned. If the packager outsources the editorial function but keeps in-house the rest of the production process, the packager, like other businesses, wants to maximize the profit of the in-house work and minimize the loss of the outsourced work. Yet the packager has to create an attractive price to win the publisher’s work. So the method is to externally provide a bundle price but internally separate out an allocation to outsourced and the in-house functions.

The result is that minimal sums, as minimal as can be gotten away with, are allocated to the outsourced editorial function. And of the sum allocated, the packager keeps a portion as its profit, as packagers are unwilling to either take a loss or simply break even on any facet of the work.

So with this going on in the background, what changes have been seen in the world of freelance editors? As I look at my colleagues, what I see is exactly the same approach to business today as was the approach in the 1980s. In this regard, I think editors are missing the editorial boat.

Yes, we have changed in that we now work using computers rather than editing on paper, but that really isn’t much of a change. It’s like changing from goose quills to ballpoint pens — the tool has changed but not the approach. But even that change is only a partial change. Most freelancers have rudimentary knowledge of the tools they use and refuse to spend any money on tools that are not absolutely required.

The largest hurdle that freelancers have to surmount is the idea that working alone is the way to work. Packagers have gained their stranglehold because they offer a single stop for a publisher. The publisher’s costs are reduced because the packager handles all of the production aspects and the publisher no longer needs to maintain high staff levels. Freelancers need to learn and adopt the packager lesson: Freelancers need to think in terms of working as a group and offering their services as a competitive group. Freelancers need to make themselves attractive to publishers by becoming low cost-low maintenance yet high-quality service providers.

If freelancers think downward price pressure is a burden now, the further behind the editorial boat leaves us, the greater the downward pressure will become, especially as editorial skills are increasingly thought of as a commodity.

Something to think about as we contemplate our editorial futures, and something to address in the new year.

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.

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.

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