An American Editor

December 28, 2010

Coming to Grips with Editing in 2011

In a few days, the calendar turns a new page and we move into a new year. For me, it will be a new fiscal year, as my fiscal year is the calendar year. This change got me thinking about whether 2011 will be better than 2010 and whether 2010 was an improvement over the Recession Years.

Starting from the past and moving forward, a look back on the Recession Years shows that they were not so terrible for me. Yes, business was down; yes, I lowered my rates to remain competitive; but even so, I did quite well over all. What the Recession Years meant to my business was that I had less need for additional help, which was clearly not good for those who relied on work from me, and that I paid less for the work I did provide.

This past year, 2010, was a significant improvement over the Recession Years. Business was up and I was able to provide work for more editors than during the Recession Years, but not for as many editors as in the years preceding the Recession Years. Unfortunately, what I could not recover was the price level. To remain competitive, I had to maintain my prices.

The coming year, 2011, looks brighter yet. I doubt I will be able to raise my prices, but I expect to see a greater volume of work. But even here competition is forcing changes. I expect that I will have to offer more services albeit without a concomitant increase in price. This remains to be seen.

I expect 2011 to be a more competitive year than any previous year. An increasing number of people are hanging out their shingle proclaiming themselves as freelance editors. This trend, which has been going on for a number of years but has spiked in the past year or so, seems to be fueled by the ebook evolution. Some commentators have noted that with the rise of self-publishing of ebooks, more authors will need editorial help. Unfortunately, this misreads, I think, the evolving market.

A trend that I am sorry to see, but which is gaining rapidly, is the trend to not make use of editorial professionals. I read more comments by authors saying that the economics of self-publishing preclude any kind of professional help, assuming they want that help to begin with. I also see an increasing number of authors who believe that all they need is spell-check — no other editorial help is required for their books. And I have seen in the past few months an increasing hostility toward editors because the editors do the job for which they were hired — correct grammar and spelling, question incoherence, and the like, but the authors think they speak in the voice of a god.

But most concerning of all is the increasing number of small publishers who are following the author trend. Several have commented that they have stopped hiring editors because what they pay a professional editor can be the difference between a book being profitable or a money loser in the short-term. Besides, they often add, readers don’t really notice when a book is well edited. (Isn’t that the desired end result?)

So where will editorial services be in 2011? It is a mixed bag. I see increased work for my company yet declining work for editors over all. The ebook evolution that should be cause for cheer for editors, may, in fact, be cause for gloom, especially for those editors who do not master the skills needed in an ebook world, which skills are supplemental to — not in lieu of — those needed for print books.

In a way this reminds me of the transition from paper-based editing to electronic editing that occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s. I remember how resistant many editors were to that change and when they finally did make the transition, they learned only barebones skills — they didn’t master the new skills. It isn’t unusual today to speak with an editorial colleague only to discover that the colleague’s grasp of the hardware and software used in their business is minimal. (I still remember attending a class on copyediting where the instructor told students that learning to edit on the computer was unnecessary because no one was doing electronic editing. Of course, all my clients at that time were happy to load me up with work because I was doing electronic editing and few other editors were doing it.)

Where will you be in 2011? Do you see a bright future for yourself and for editing in general? Do you think editing is a dying skill? Share your thoughts.

October 29, 2010

The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills

Over the past several weeks, I have had opportunities to speak with the heads of production at several of my clients. After our direct business discussion, we sort of wandered off topic to discuss the current state of copyediting and copyeditors.

What I found interesting was that each of the persons I spoke with had the same lament: There is a dearth of copyeditors with good grammar skills. What they have noticed is the wide gap in skill level between those who are nearing retirement (high on the skill scale) and those now entering the field or who have been in the field for only a few years (low on the skill scale).

Grammar and spelling skills appear to be declining among editors, or so I was told. These clients believe that editors increasingly are relying on software programs to tell them when there is a grammar or spelling error, and taking the software’s suggested correction without exercising the independent judgement that is required to determine whether or not the software is correct.

What brought this up was my mentioning that I occasionally speak at gatherings of freelancers about the business of freelance editing. In each instance, the client suggested that it would be significantly more beneficial — for both the client and the copyeditors seeking business — if grammar was addressed. One client said that of 100 editing tests administered, they were lucky if 1 got a passing grade and that it was rare for testees to get very high passing grades.

Another problem they all cited was the obvious reliance on spell-checker. One client wondered if the editors even owned printed dictionaries and usage guides, or if they did, if the editor knew how to use them. Two examples were cited: The first was there and their. The client remarked that it was not unusual, anymore, to receive a copyedited manuscript with the incorrect term left as presented by the author. The second was that and who. Apparently people have become objects and many copyeditors do not correct a sentence such as “The students and teachers that became…” or “The patients that were tested….” Other examples given were that and which and since and because.

I don’t know if the full cause of the problem can be laid at the feet of the education system, but certainly a significant portion of it can. I know that when my children were in school, grammar was barely touched on as a subject. I also know that when I look at the writing of many educators, there is a clear lack of facility with grammar. This is not to say that the best of us don’t make grammar mistakes; rather the problem is that what was once occasional error has become commonplace.

Yet, the question is this: How many copyeditors recognize that their grammar skills are less than stellar and would be willing to pay to attend a conference devoted to improving grammar skills? I suspect, based on conversations that I have had with colleagues, that most think the problem is not their problem but is that of someone else. It is the state of humanness that lets us readily perceive the faults of others but not our own.

I expect the problem to get worse long before it gets better. Unless how teachers are taught/educated undergoes significant reform and a new emphasis is placed on communication skills that include grammar, spelling, and writing, I do not think improvement will occur. As the transmitters of knowledge, teachers have to be the first to gain it.

It also may symptomatic of today’s culture. In my youth, one way grammar skills were picked up was by osmosis — reading well-edited books, magazines, and newspapers could only lead to absorption of some of the “rules.” But today, reading overall is in decline. Interestingly, what is on the incline are those tasks that reward brevity and substitution — all that matters is that the general message be sent and understood, the twittering of grammar.

It doesn’t help that we are in an age of anyone who wants can publish. It means that a lot of grammatically and spelling-poor material is available for reading, which only acts to reinforce poor habits. Is there an easy solution? No. But based on the discussions I had with clients, there is a definite need for copyeditors to recognize their limitations and voluntarily undertake the effort to improve their skills.

What do you think? Would you pay for grammar-focused class or do you think you already have a high skill level?

August 23, 2010

Literacy in the Graphic Novel Age

Recently, The Digital Reader ran a post titled “Ben Bova thinks graphic Novels are the death of literacy – I can prove he’s wrong.” The thrust of the article is that science fiction author Ben Bova thinks graphic novels demonstrate declining literacy. The Digital Reader’s rebuttal was to cite an article in Inside Higher Ed about professors whose students read comic books and/or graphic novels rather than standard textbooks for the courses with the result that the students understood the course material better.

The problem I see with the rebuttal is that it is not really a rebuttal but instead supports the original thesis: literacy is in decline.

The dictionary definition of literacy is “the quality or state of being literate.” Literate is defined as the “ability to read and write.” Implied in the definition is “with understanding” — I don’t know anyone who would say a person who can read and write but not understand is literate. If we define literacy as the ability to understand the written word, and the more and better you understand the more literate you are, then graphic novels and comics may be foundational (i.e., starting points) but are far from what is meant by literacy.

Think of it this way. Would you want your doctor to prescribe a surgical procedure for you based on a synopsis of your ailment found in a comic book or would you want your doctor to be able to read and understand the medical literature before making a recommendation? Would you want your lawyer to understand the terms of a contract you are being asked to sign only if it can be given to the lawyer to read as a comic book?

Graphic novels (which term I am using to include comic books) have a place in the learning system. Certainly they are useful introductions to reading and excellent companions to literature, but they are at the bottom of the ladder in terms of literacy. Although the graphic novel version of Moby Dick may be more interesting, it is not the same as reading the original text — it is simplified for understanding because it assumes that the reader would struggle to understand the original and because it is designed to “cut to the chase.”

Would I want to know that the president of the United States’ reading and comprehension abilities are defined by graphic novels? Not I. I want to believe that the president can read and understand complex economic documents before deciding what to do in the midst of an economic crisis; I want to believe that the generals can read understand Clausewitz before deciding on battle tactics.

Consider it from a different perspective. Prior generations had to gain minimal level of literacy in order to graduate from school, and they had to do so by reading the original works and the standard textbooks that it appears need to be reduced to graphic novels for today’s students to understand. Is that a sign of stable or increasing literacy or a sign of literacy decline?

Again, this isn’t a bashing of graphic novels. Rather it is a statement that graphic novels can form a foundation from which literacy can grow if — and that is a big if — the graphic novel reader moves from graphic novels to more traditional textbooks in their educational process. I would not want economic policy made by someone whose understanding of Keynesian theory is based on what he or she read in a Classics Illustrated comic book.

We need to separate pleasure reading from educational reading, not that the latter shouldn’t also be pleasurable. Educational reading is for a different purpose — it is to gain knowledge and understanding of a subject matter, preferably in-depth rather than surface knowledge. Graphic novels can provide surface knowledge but the lack of ability to understand the language of in-depth treatises and the need to rely on the surface knowledge in the decision-making process is a sure sign of a lack of literacy.

The ideal is to combine both, but given a one-or-the-other choice, I believe that graphic novels should be shunted aside in the educational process in favor of in-depth learning and improvement of literacy. That people read more because they read graphic novels is not the same as saying they are more literate. That students understood course material better when presented in graphic novel form is not comforting if these same students will be future decision-makers whose decisions will impact me rather than just them.

June 29, 2010

Hall of Shame Nominees 2

Below are the second round Hall of Shame nominees received from readers. These are all the nominees I have received since posting Hall of Shame Nominees 1. If you want to participate, send your nominations to hallofshame[at]anamericaneditor.com and be sure to follow the format shown in these entries.

1. Star Trek (movie tie-in) by Alan Dean Foster

  • Format: print
  • Problem: poor editing
  • Samples of errors: Captain Kirk’s father, under attack, discovers he’s restricted to “manuel control.” This is right after the word “manual” has been spelled properly.
  • Solved: No, the current run of this best-seller still contains the error.

2. The Poison King, Adrienne Mayor

  • Format: print (Princeton University Press)
  • Problems: poor copyediting and proofreading
  • Samples of errors: (1) inconsistent spelling: Sea of Azov/Asov, Damogoras/Damagoras [in the same paragraph!], Lucullus/Luculus [same paragraph], Heniochoi/Heniochi; (2) typos or misspellings: ensuring [ensuing] months, unable to chose [choose], tassled [tasseled], seige [siege], Bibliotheque National [Nationale, several times], artemesia [artemisia], ro [to] become invincible, vistory [victory], putrify [putrefy], Mithrdates [Mithradates], A.E. Houseman [Housman]; (3) faulty past tense: everyone … spit [spat] on the memory; (4) missing word: caused it [to] fill; (5) wrong word: staunched [stanched] the flow of blood, enormity [enormous size, vastness] of the land and sky; (6) faulty punctuation: Mithradates’ died
  • Frequency of errors: occasional
  • Overall quality: neutral

June 8, 2010

The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud

Note: I wrote the following article as a guest piece for Kris Tualla’s Author & Writing Blog, where she has been discussing ebook publishing, among other topics. Kris published The WYSIWYG Conundrum on June 3, 2010, as part 6 of her series “The Death of Traditional Publishers?” I recommend reading the other articles in the series as well as her blog for an author’s look at the publishing world.

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We’ve had this discussion about the value and importance of professional copyediting but it seems that it is a topic that just won’t die in the eBook Age. As I have noted before, too many authors believe that they are capable of doing everything themselves while producing a superior product. I admit that out of 1 million authors (in 2009, more than 1 million books were published) there are a handful who can do it all themselves and even do a very credible, if not superb, job — but it is a handful. As my grandfather used to say about a neighbor who thought he could do it all, “jack of all trades, master of none.”

Like writing, editing is a skill. It is a developed skill, that is, experience brings a higher level of editing quality just as an author’s second novel is often better written than the first as the author’s experience grows. There is a significant level-of-quality difference between a well-experienced professional editor’s skill set and a nonprofessional editor’s skill set.

When we look at a sentence, we see what we expect. When we look at thick clouds, they look solid enough to walk on (do you remember being a child and talking about how someday you were going to walk among and on the clouds?), but as we know, our expectation that they can support us is a false expectation. What we see is not what we get — the WYSIWYG conundrum!

The same is true of words on paper (or computer screen). We often see what we expect, not what is really there. If we always saw only what was really there, we could turn out perfect manuscripts every time. But the truth is that if you hand a manuscript to 5 different people, each of the 5 will find something that the other 4 missed, in addition to what all 5 do find.

Think about eyewitness identification. This is a field that has been explored by scientists for decades and the conclusion hasn’t changed: eyewitness identification is one of the least-reliable forms of evidence because the eyewitness has certain expectations that unconsciously get fulfilled, even if those expectations deviate from the facts. (If you haven’t watched it recently, I highly recommend Twelve Angry Men with an all-star cast lead by Henry Fonda.)

Professional editors provide a dispassionate look at an author’s work. They provide a skilled, experienced eye that is trained to find the kinds of errors that the author, who is intimately familiar with the manuscript, will miss when he or she tries to self-edit. A good author lives with his or her manuscript for months and years, lives with the characters, and lives with the plot. The author knows how the heroine spells her name and whether or not she is left-handed, the color of her eyes, and all the other important details. Consequently, it is not unusual for an author who is self-editing to miss the extra “r” in Marrta because the author expects to see Marta. Our mind skims over minor errors, converting them into what should be because we have trained ourselves to see it as it should be.

It is this role that the professional editor, the “indifferent” or “dispassionate” set of eyes, fills. The professional editor can stand back — aloof — from what the author has lived with and can note the misspelled or changed name, that in 20 other instances the heroine was left-handed but now is right-handed, the sentence construction that the author understands but the reader doesn’t. If nothing else, this last item can be the most valuable service the professional editor provides an author — making sure that the story, the plot, the characters can be followed by the reader.

Authors tend to forget that most readers read a novel once and then never look at it again. They also tend to think that their work deserves the same intense scrutiny that a reader would give to a nonfiction book about the theory of relativity, but novels are intended to entertain, which means nonintense reading. The reader does not want to have to spend time trying to follow the storyline and certainly does not want to study the text to make it understandable. But the author rarely is capable of standing in the reader’s shoes because of the intimate relationship the author has with characters, plot, and storyline. The author knows where it should be going and expects it to go there; the reader doesn’t know, doesn’t have the intimate knowledge needed to draw everything together in some logical fashion. The author’s job is to draw it all together for the reader, but if the author can’t stand in the reader’s shoes, the author can’t honestly judge how well he or she has accomplished that task. The professional editor can because the professional editor is disinterested; there is a difference between one’s passion and one’s job that enables one to stand back and look objectively at one’s job but with bias at one’s passion.

Professional editors bring many skills that are complementary to the author’s skills to the table. These skills cannot be brought to bear on the project by the author because the author cannot separate him- or herself from his or her writing. The author suffers from the WYSIWYG conundrum: the author sees what the author expects to see.

The authors who recognize this conundrum and who take steps to have their work professionally edited are the authors who enhance both their readers’ enjoyment and their likelihood of success in an overcrowded marketplace. Success is much more than the number of downloads of free or 99¢ ebooks, especially when there is no way to know how many of those downloads actually were read or well thought of. Instead, success is having readers clamor for your books, talk about your books, express a willingness to pay a higher price for your books — all things that a professional editorial eye can help an author achieve by preventing the kinds of mistakes that turn readers away.

May 24, 2010

Viewing the Future of Publishing

Sometimes all the discussion that can be had about publishing’s future can be boiled down to a few minutes of video.

Although humorous, the video does illustrate the confused state of publishing. No one knows how to accommodate all  the different needs that each of the characters in the video represent.

What is clear, however, is that none of the pundits, none of the publishers, none of the technologists — no one — has a clear vision of tomorrow’s publishing landscape. Some commentators predict that ebooks will soon be 25% of all publishing; others predict it will soon be 50%. But those predictions are really unhelpful without a plan for maintaining publishing standards while moving to a more standardless medium.

Everyone says that publishers need to adapt and change. Easy enough to proclaim, but without firmer guidance as to what adaptation is needed, what changes to the industry must be accomplished, and how all the various competing interests  can be reconciled, the pronouncement is like spitting into the wind.

Before the ease of computer-to-Internet ebook publishing, the book market was inundated with new books, many of which could be classified as a waste of time, effort, money, and paper primarily because finding a particular book (without guidance to the book) was like finding a needle in a haystack of needles. Too many books were being published for any person to rummage through. Now the problem is compounded as the number of books brought to market has quadrupled with ebooks and the direct-from-computer-to-Internet model — and it will continue to grow, because with ebooks, there is no need for any book to go “out of print.” Now it is like looking for a sliver of a needle in a haystack of needles.

The one thing no one wants to hear is that the more books that are available, the fewer will be read and the less valuable books become. In the marketplace, it is scarcity that causes prices to rise, not abundance. It is true that marketplace forces have had little effect in list pricing of books before the Age of eBooks, but there was definitely an effect on actual selling pricing — at least until agency pricing. And it has been true that certain authors could lead a price increase that “trickled down” to books of all authors, but this required that the certain authors were authors of such repute that they were instant million sellers.

Alas, this is all changing under the new regime. As difficult as it was to find financial gems among 250,000 books published traditionally in 2009, imagine how much more difficult it will be to find those gems among 1 million plus books, especially as that 1 million grows to 2 million and more in the Age of eBooks.

With such increases in numbers of books available, the only way to get one’s needle to be seen in the haystack of needles will be price. Consequently, ebooks will lead the spiral of pricing downward. As that happens and as there is less money to divide among multiple parties, there will be lots of negative effects on the publishing industry:

  • a publisher who can only sell an ebook for $2.99 (or less) will be unwilling — if not unable — to spend money on production and marketing, thereby gradually eliminating the publisher’s role altogether, which will make a chaotic market even more chaotic
  • an author who has to sell his or her work for $2.99 (or less) has to rethink the whole artistic endeavor and has to consider 100% self-publishing as the only viable way to earn a return
  • such pricing and self-publishing will also put downward pressure on production quality, even more corners will be cut by necessity than are currently cut, leading to a downward trend in quality
  • readers will continue to exert a downward pressure on pricing because readers are, for the most part, author agnostic; that is, they are less interested in who the author is than in a story they enjoy, the consequence being that they will look for lower-priced ebooks to try
  • third-party book producers — the editors, the marketers, the printers, the designers, etc. — will struggle to keep afloat in a world that wants to pay less for fewer of their services, adding to the overall decline in quality

The future of publishing — once we get past the notion of quantity and instead focus on the notion of quality — as a structured enterprise appears bleak in the eBook Age. I, for one, have difficulty imagining a survivable structure focused on quality in the absence of an easing of pressure on pricing. Consequently, I am like the other pundits — I know that there has to be adaptation and change, but I can offer no guidance on how to accomplish either, not even for my role in the production process. Will historians of the future look at the 20th century as the epitome of publishing?

May 20, 2010

Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance

Editors rely on lots of “professional” resources to guide their editorial decisions when working on a manuscript. In addition to dictionaries and word books, we rely on language usage guides and style manuals, among other tools. [To learn more about the professional editor’s (and my) bookshelf, see The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf.]

But it isn’t unusual for an author (or publisher) to have a different view of what is appropriate and desirable than the “professional” resources. And many editors will fight tooth and nail to make the client conform to the rules laid down in a style manual. As between language usage guides like Garner’s Modern American Usage and style manuals like The Chicago Manual of Style, I believe that editors should adhere to the rules of the former but take the rules of the latter with a lot of salt.

The distinction between the two types of manuals is important. A language manual is a guide to the proper use of language such as word choice; for example, when comprise is appropriate and when compose is appropriate. A style manual, although it will discuss in passing similar issues, is really more focused on structural issues such as capitalization: Should it be president of the United States or President of the United States? Here’s the question: How much does it matter whether it is president or President?

When an author insists that a particular structural form be followed that I think is wrong, I will tell the author why I believe the author is wrong and I will cite, where appropriate, the professional sources. But, and I think this is something professional editors lose sight of, those professional sources — such as The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association — are merely books of opinion. Granted we give them great weight, but they are just opinion. And it has never been particularly clear to me why the consensus opinion of the “panel of experts” of CMOS is any better than my client’s opinion. After all, isn’t the key clarity and consistency not conformity to some arbitrary consensus.

If these style manuals were the authoritative source, there would only be one of them to which we would all adhere; the fact that there is disagreement among them indicates that we are dealing with opinion to which we give credence and different amounts of weight. (I should mention that if an author is looking to be published by a particular publisher whose style is to follow the rules in one of the standard style manuals, then it is incumbent on the editor to advise the author of the necessity of adhering to those rules and even insisting that the author do so. But where the author is self-publishing or the author’s target press doesn’t adhere to a standard, then the world is more open.)

It seems to me that if there is such a divergence of opinion as to warrant the publication of so many different style manuals, then adding another opinion to the mix and giving that opinion greater credence is acceptable. I am not convinced that my opinion, or the opinion of CMOS, is so much better than that of the author that the author’s opinion should be resisted until the author concedes defeat. In the end, I think but one criterion is the standard to be applied: Will the reader be able to follow and understand what the author is trying to convey? (However, I would also say that there is one other immutable rule: that the author be consistent.) If the answer is yes, then even if what the author wants assaults my sense of good taste or violates the traditional style manual canon, the author wins — and should win.

The battles that are not concedeable by an editor are those that make the author’s work difficult to understand and those of incorrect word choice (e.g., using comprise when compose is the correct word).

A professional editor is hired to give advice. Whether to accept or reject that advice is up to the person doing the hiring. Although we like to think we are the gods of grammar, syntax, spelling, and style, the truth is we are simply more knowledgeable (usually) than those who hire us — we are qualified to give an opinion, perhaps even a forceful or “expert” opinion, but still just an opinion. We are advisors giving advice based on experience and knowledge, but we are not the final decision makers — and this is a lesson that many of us forget. We may be frustrated because we really do know better, but we must not forget that our “bibles” are just collections of consensus-made opinion, not rules cast in stone.

If they were rules cast in stone, there would be no changes, only additions, to the rules, and new editions of the guides would appear with much less frequency than they currently do. More importantly, there would be only one style manual to which all editors would adhere — after all, whether it is president or President isn’t truly dependent on whether the manuscript is for a medical journal, a psychology journal, a chemistry journal, a sociology journal, or a history journal.

Style manuals serve a purpose, giving us a base from which to proceed and some support for our decisions, but we should not put them on the pedestal of inerrancy, just on a higher rung of credibility.

May 12, 2010

Judging Quality in the Internet Age

As a reader of An American Editor, you know that one of my concerns is what will happen if no one is willing to pay for news (see Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall). Compounding my anxiety over this issue is a recent The Economist article, The Rise of Content Farms: Emperors and Beggars, which notes that “[n]ewspaper articles are expensive to produce but usually cost nothing to read online and do not command high advertising rates, since there is almost unlimited inventory.” The article goes on to discuss content farms like Demand Media and Associated Content, which use software to figure out what Internet users are interested in and how much advertising revenue a particular topic can support.

These content providers then send the results to freelance writers who are paid as little as $5 to write an article, which then is published on various websites, including that of USA Today. As The Economist notes, “[t]he problem with content farms is that they swamp the Internet with mediocre material. To earn a decent living, freelancers have to work at a breakneck pace, which has an obvious impact on quality.” One supporter of content farming is Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint.

In his article at paidContent.org, “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless”, Elowitz identifies 4 criteria of “old media” quality — credential (i.e., reputation of the media), correctness (i.e., fact verification), objectivity (i.e., not pushing a particular agenda), and craftsmanship (i.e., in-depth reporting) — and then relates how they are irrelevant in the Internet Age because:

The audience doesn’t care where the content comes from as long as it meets their needs. Decisions of what content is trustworthy are made by referral endorsements from our friends and colleagues on the social networks, and by the algorithms of search that help weigh authority vs. relevance. In the abundant world of content, consumers know to apply their own sniff tests — and with myriad sources, they develop their own loyalties and reputations. The brand’s stamp isn’t the point anymore — the consumer’s nose is.

He has it right that the audience doesn’t care about the source of the content so long as the content meets the audience’s need, but that is nothing to boast about. That the audience determines whether something is trustworthy is not something to praise but something to worry about, and to worry about greatly.

Essentially, content farmers and supporters leave the question of truth/fact to each reader — either the reader believes or the reader doesn’t. If a favored website repeatedly writes that the Earth is flat and 10 million people visit that website and agree, then, according to Elowitz’s standard, it must be true or that website wouldn’t have 10 million visitors. The reasoning isn’t sound — either the Earth is flat or it is round, regardless of what 10 million persons believe. Fact by definition is not belief, it is actual being or what we used to call truth.

There is a lot of distance between ease of access, which the Internet provides, and truth/fact, which neither the Internet nor mass belief can provide. This is and has been my problem with the current view of some in the Internet Age that news sources that want to go behind paywalls can be ignored because information is so readily available free. There is rarely a discussion of the credibility of the free information or how high factual standards will be maintained in the age of free.

How many Photoshopped images have you seen; if a photograph is so easily faked, why should we assume that a news story isn’t also faked? How many times have you read a press release from a repressive government that complaints of police brutality are untrue, that no one is starving in Darfur, that the Iranian elections weren’t rigged, that North Korea is paradise on Earth? And have we so quickly forgotten the few instances when “old media” found reporters faking news and the outrage it caused because of the “old media’s” credibility? Have we forgotten how quickly sound bites that were factually false (e.g., “death panels”) became believed by millions because of the viral reporting of the “new media”?

Elowitz goes on to say:

Without a staff of old-school journalists, Gawker has managed to rack up over 10 million visitors a month who come because the rumors and snark meet their definition of quality — without any of the institutional qualities of old media.

The flaw is the equating of numbers of readers with quality. The rumor that Ben Elowitz is a robot may make interesting reading but doesn’t equate with quality (or necessarily reality), and because a million people read that rumor doesn’t make the source trustworthy, the rumor true, or do away with the need for “old media” quality.

Somewhere, somehow, we all need a fact baseline against which to judge the quality of website — and government — pronouncements. In past generations, that fact baseline was provided by “old media”; in the Internet Age, if the content farmers are correct, there is no provider of that baseline — there are simply websites that agree with me and websites that disagree with me, no matter how far-fetched or absurd my beliefs are.

Elowitz and the content farmers tackle the problem from the economic perspective — “old media” qualities are bad because they are unprofitable, and therefore irrelevant, in the Internet Age. But that skirts the fundamental question of whether the only thing that matters in any decision-making process is profitability. It also ignores how businesses that are profitable make their daily business decisions; don’t they rely on truths rather than mass opinion? Additionally, if it is OK for the masses to be self-delusional, can we expect anything different from those who govern us?

We went to war in Iraq because “old media” qualities were ignored and the “new media” relevancy prevailed (remember the rumors of weapons of mass destruction?). Instead of applying the “old media” qualities of objectivity and correctness and being sure that the source of the rumor met “old media” credential standards, the “new media” qualities were used. How many more Iraqs must we suffer before we recognize that “old media” standards should be applied to the “new media” as well?

“Old media” standards aren’t irrelevant in the “new media”; rather, they are expensive and difficult to implement and thus the “new media” prefers to take the easy way out. The “new media” also tends to be more concerned with dollars than with accuracy or truth, and happily sacrifices accuracy and truth on the altar of greed — not caring about the subsequent consequences.

The danger of content farmers and of their supporters, like Elowitz, is that they believe there is wisdom in sheer numbers and that everything boils down to a popularity contest. Such thinking and believing doesn’t bode well for the future of civilization. With such reasoning, it won’t be long before we truly do revert back to the standards of the Dark Ages. In this regard, Rupert Murdoch is right and the Elowitzes of the world are wrong.

May 10, 2010

eBooks & the Future of Freelance Editors

Here’s the tough question: Is there a future for freelance editors in the ebook Age? To which we can add this question: If there is, what kind of future will it be?

There are few things that freelance editors can be certain of, but here are some of those few things:

  • Every day our numbers increase as increasing numbers of people turn to freelance editing as either a full-time career or for a second income
  • Every day colleagues, including those with years of experience, are trying to find in-house work and give up freelancing
  • Every day there are fewer jobs available for a larger pool of editors
  • Every day another author or publisher decides that editing can be bypassed because readers simply don’t care
  • Every day another editor lowers his or her price, reducing the value of professional editing and making it harder for the professional editor to earn a living wage

We also know that there is no true professional organization for freelance editors that is actively seeking to lobby on our behalf or to find new employment opportunities for us. And we also know that computers were the first modern revolution in our business, the Internet was the second, and ebooks will be the third.

We’ve got trouble right here in edit city!

eBooks are bringing a new kind of revolution to freelance editing as a consequence of the direct-from-author’s-computer-to-Internet model that some publishers and many authors are adopting.

Editors have always faced the problem of authors and publishers being unwilling or unable to pay our fee and of authors and publishers doing without our services, with authors instead asking friends and neighbors to give the manuscript a once-over. But his has become more common and more problematic with the advent of ebooks and the proliferation of the belief that anyone can be an editor (and anyone can be an author).

The underlying problem, I think, is acceptance of the good-enough standard for publishing in lieu of the much higher threshold that existed when I first began my editorial career more than a quarter-century ago. This lower standard is a combination of industry consolidation, ease of access via the Internet, increased competition, and a desire to lower costs, with intangible costs, such as editing, being a prime target for cutting. I’ve even heard one publisher say that paying for editing is a waste of money because most readers don’t know the difference between whole and hole. Based on some of the ebooks I have read, I’m not sure that publisher doesn’t have a point (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!).

The good-enough standard is rapidly becoming the de facto standard for editing. When I started as an editor, my role was strictly limited to editing. I was expected to be careful and thorough and focused like a laser on copyediting. As time passed, the laser focus became more of a shotgun focus and other jobs became part of the expectations. And then came the need for speed. Not only was I expected to do more work for less money, but I was expected to do it faster. Where at one time a page rate of 3 to 4 pages an hour was the expectation, today the expectation is often 10 to 12 pages an hour, sometimes coupled with the request for a “heavy edit.” And where in the beginning I could expect a yearly increase in my fee, now many publishers are unwilling to pay more than they paid in 1995, yet demand more work be done for that pay than they demanded in 1995.

The good-enough standard is both the rationale and the justification for bypassing the editor. As this becomes the actual standard against which an ebook is judged, the expectations of the reader also become less — soon the reader accepts whole when hole is meant, seen when scene is meant. And as this happens, authors and publishers sell their work for less, almost as if dumbing-down readers and lower pricing are handcuffed together.

The ripple effect is that as reader quality expectations decline along with a concurrent lowering of price, there is both less need and less money available for editing, which ripples into less editing being done and declining work for editors. Admittedly, the other scenario is that more authors and publishers will have money available for editing and will want editing services but at a price that parallels the sales price of their ebook. This is equally devastating to freelance editors because there is a point at which one cannot afford to work as an editor.

eBooks are the great field opener for authors and publishers but, I fear, they will be the harbinger of doom for freelance editing as a profession for skilled editors. It is a never-ending downward spiral whose downward thrust is reinforced by the incessant consumer demand for lower pricing.

I’m open to suggestions on how to reverse the trend, but I think the future for freelance editors in the eBook Age — at least from the current view — is bleak. The need for ebooks to be professionally edited isn’t changing (see, e.g., Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1); Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2); For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed; and other related articles under the tag Professional Editors), only the opportunities for professional editors to do that work and earn a living wage.

May 5, 2010

Thinking About Pay: Is a New Model Needed?

The current method by which book editors, designers, and illustrators, for example, get paid is hourly, by the page or illustration, or by the project. In other words, do the work and get a check.

And as the economy contracts, and as the traditional publishing world contracts, an increasing number of people join the ranks of freelance editors, designers, and illustrators, making their services available and putting additional strain on the pay scale because of their willingness to work for significantly less just to get work.

As wonderful a system as the free enterprise/freelance system is, the living wage pay scale has been put under pressure by publisher cutbacks and offshoring. Increasingly, editors, designers, and illustrators find more competition for less work at a lower rate of pay. I read recently where a person had graduated law school and when asked about job prospects, replied that he wasn’t worried because before becoming a lawyer he became a plumber. As he noted, you can offshore a thinking job, but it is hard to offshore a hands-on job like plumbing.

That got me thinking. I’m too old to start a career as a plumber, so perhaps a different pay model is the answer for intellectual endeavors. What if instead of a one-time payment for our work, editors, designers, illustrators — the whole intellectual and creative supply chain — received a “nominal” fee plus a percentage of sales?

The problem is that sales could be Harry Potterish, in which case I could be a millionaire, or it could be more typical  — less than 5,000 copies, perhaps even less than 500 copies, in which event I would starve. And if the freelancer’s focus was on specialty nonfiction, the freelancer could be in the same bind as scholarly publishers — seeking a way to keep the lights on.

eBooks exacerbate the problem to the extent that ebooks let anyone with a computer become an author-publisher, that is, someone who goes direct from computer to Internet. That route bypasses editors, designers, and illustrators. The usual reason given for that direct-to-reader approach is cost — and that is wholly understandable: How may authors are willing to gamble their own money on their own book’s success? For us service providers, the answer is too few.

And gambling it is because it is difficult to get noticed when your book is just one of 1 million. As is true in most of the creative arts, few artists (used broadly) earn enough money from their artistic endeavors to give up the day job. Yet for us freelance service providers, whose day job is editorial and production services, there is a large untapped market just waiting — and desperately needing — our skills.

It is this problem — How do I connect with those who have need of my skills but who are reluctant to pay for them from their own pocket in such a manner that the connection benefits both of us? — that forces freelancers to be creative and flexible in how they get paid. I grant that I have yet to come up with a good solution, but there has to be a better one than none.

If we do not find a solution, eventually we may find ourselves without work altogether. As is true of tossing a pebble into a pool of water, failure to find a solution has rippling effects.

One of the ripples will be the acceptance of “good enough” as the standard for a book. As it is, too many ebooks are poorly written from nearly every perspective — grammar, spelling, plot, characterization — and working downward toward the good enough standard will make these poor ebooks the norm and the expected. Once it is accepted that misspelling (e.g., making brake and break synonymous) and bad grammar do not matter as long as the book is priced right and can be waddled through, authors and publishers will decide to save costs by doing nothing more than is necessary to meet the good-enough standard.

As noted earlier, we are in a race to the bottom in terms of fees. Yes, some of us continue to earn high fees for our services, but that number of us is declining. As our ranks swell with people willing to work for decreasing amounts of money, those who continue to earn higher fees will be under pressure to lower their fees. It’s simply a truth of the free market in which price dominates all else — experience and skill take a backseat to cost containment. But if we could find a new way to be paid for working with independent authors, we could open a whole new world of clients while helping to stave off the collapse of spelling and grammar.

So how do we compete in a very competitive world? There must be a model that would work well, providing publishers, authors, and us with incentives and rewards. I just don’t know what it is. What ideas do you have?

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