An American Editor

September 18, 2013

Medievalist or Futurist?

Discussions with colleagues are always interesting. We come from such different places to reach a similar point — that of being a professional editor. But I do note that we tend to divide into two primary camps, which I call Medievalist and Futurist.

When I began my editing career in 1984, both editors and clients were focused on a fair wage for superb work. Clients wanted and expected quality, and clients expected to pay a fair wage to achieve that quality. That balance was important because clients viewed editing as both necessary and positive for their reputation.

Not too gradually, things changed. Small (relatively speaking), family owned publishers who took pride in their product went through generational changes in family managers. The newer generation hadn’t built the publisher; they were taking over an already established publisher. Their educational background differed greatly from that of the prior generation, and the focus changed.

Ultimately, what happened, as we all know, is that once proud, standalone publishers were bought by larger international conglomerates. The focus shifted from fair wages and high quality to editing being a necessary evil that simply cost money. The result was depression of wages and demands for more work; quality took a backseat to pricing.

This change moved swiftly through the industry with the parallel rise of the Internet and the globalization of services.

When I began my editing career nearly all manuscripts were edited on paper. (I can proudly say I was a pioneer in the shift to electronic editing. After the first few months of dealing with paper editing, I pressed clients to let me edit electronically, and by the end of my first year, I was refusing nonelectronic editing work.) What this meant was that services were done “locally,” which meant, generally, within the country, although there were several major publishers who insisted you be close enough to stop by their office to pickup and deliver the paper manuscripts (for which effort they did not pay transport time or costs).

Globalization brought a change from local to worldwide. The change was slow, but the tide was unstoppable. Even faced with this, many of my colleagues clung to the idea that editing was not a business but a craft and as a craft, the primary concern remained quality. If the client paid you pennies, you still gave dollars worth of editing. I viewed the matter as being if paid pennies, you gave pennies worth of editing. Arguments raged back and forth about this, but I was in the minority, and losing side, of the argument in terms of changing the views of my colleagues.

Time passed and the tide continued to flow outward and eastward. Eventually we reached the situation we are in today, where the number one matter of importance to a client is cost, the number two is speed, and in a distant third place is quality. It is not that clients do not want quality, it is that they prize cost and speed above quality, and as we all know, you can have two of the three but not all three.

Also, today, it is not unusual for the editor to be hired by a third-party, the packager who has won the contract to provide editorial and production services, but who has to use a hybrid system: offshore for the production component, onshore for the editorial component. In many cases, these packagers’ primary source of income is from production so they are willing to bid a low editorial price in the package bid, which means a low fee to the freelance editor.

Facing that, one would think the view that “even if the client pays you pennies, you still give dollars worth of editing” would have dissipated, but it hasn’t. Not only hasn’t it dissipated, but I think an increasing number of editors are touting it. I call this attitude the Medievalist approach to the business of editing because it is an approach that views editing as a craft and not as a business. In contrast, the Futurist is constantly reevaluating his business, trying to squeeze more efficiencies and more profit out of the editorial work. The Futurist looks toward tomorrows down the road and takes the view that “if the client pays you pennies, you give pennies worth of editing” — the Futurist looks for that balance between craft and business that the Medievalist does not, because the Medievalist says editing is a business, but really means it is a craft and she is an artisan, not a business person.

This conflict is particularly acute among American editors and is one reason why there is no strong national organization for professional editors: editors cannot agree on whether we are business people first or artisans first. (I know some American editors will point to the EFA [Editorial Freelancers Association] as a “strong” national group, but it isn’t; at best it is a national social group. It serves a function, just not the function that editors most need in today’s global marketplace.)

I think the Medievalists have a point when they focus on quality and its importance. After all, we professional editors should not let pass through our hands sloppily edited manuscripts. On the one hand, there are minimal levels of quality that every edited manuscript should meet. On the other hand, Medievalists go too far when they say we should worry less about the mismatch between price and quality, even if it means that we provide Rolls Royce services for Yugo prices. (Interestingly, it is rare to have a discussion of the third leg, speed, with Medievalists.)

Ultimately, I think the next generations of editors will increasingly adopt the Futurist approach as our economy continues to see growth in the freelance marketplace and contraction in in-house staff, combined with depression of prices. The trend toward outsourcing continues, and professional editors will be able to compete only by adopting a more business-like view of editing.

We need to remember and enforce with our clients that of the three key editing virtues — low price, fast speed, high quality — they can have any two, but not all three. We need to remember ourselves that, on any given project, we can only provide two of the three.

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