An American Editor

June 3, 2015

Going, Going, Gone…

Recently, what many consider a very mediocre Picasso painting sold at art auction for $179 million, setting a new record for a single painting. In the art market, bidding raises the price and reflects perceived marketplace value, at least to a degree. Contrast this to the editorial market in which bidding lowers the price, reflecting perceived marketplace value.

In both markets there is a glut of “artists”/“editors” but a dearth of “collectible”/“quality” “artists”/“editors.” Yet each market responds differently. Therein lies the tale of perception: a Picasso is considered valuable regardless of its quality simply because it is a Picasso; the quality adds to the value, but the “painted by Picasso” establishes that the price it will command will be higher, not lower. In contrast, editing is viewed as the “anyone can do it” skill and thus not worth much.

What perplexes me about the editorial market is that there is one at all. In the case of collectible art, there are two markets: the auction market and the retail market. In the retail market, if a painting is deemed worth collecting, then the artist’s price (or something close to it) is paid; if the painting is not considered collectible, it is ignored — it is not purchased because someone says “Well, people need to have this painting.”

In the editorial market, the service is thought necessary to have but only at the lowest possible price. Better to have someone wholly unskilled in editing edit a manuscript than to have the manuscript professionally edited at a higher price. The logic eludes me.

I was always taught that if it is worth doing, then it is worth doing well; if it is not worth doing well, then it is not worth doing. That concept contravenes the philosophy of the editorial market, which can be summed up as: editing is worth doing only if it is done very inexpensively. Editors have failed to justify their value in the marketplace.

Books are the primary means of communicating complex ideas from person to person, generation to generation. Even politicians who rely on visual communication to spread their message among voters write books to explain their thoughts and background in detail. A “sound bite” is important but the foundation of civilization is the written word. More information is communicated in one day in writing than is communicated in one year in movie form. Yet editors are less valued than actors.

With our reliance on written communication, I would think that editors could command prices that better reflect their skills, but that is not how the market works. It is clear that the primary factor in deciding whether to hire an editor is price, not skill and not need.

Discussions with colleagues about pricing usually ends with the lament that the price we can charge a client today is the same price we were able to charge that client in 1995. Factor in inflation and you soon discover that editors are being paid less today than they were paid in 1995 but that the work we are expected to do for that pay has increased. At minimum, if our services were valued, we would have kept up with inflation.

Interestingly, this flatlining of fees seems to apply across the board; that is, it doesn’t appear to make a difference whether the client is an individual or corporation. I suspect that a good part of the reason for this is the ease of entry into the profession, which has led to a significant increase in the number of minimally qualified editors who are willing to work for ever lower amounts.

I began this essay by comparing editorial bidding to art bidding. There is a significant difference between the two that needs mentioning: When you bid on an artwork, you see the finished artwork in all its glory or lack of glory — the point is that the bidder gets precisely what she sees. In contrast, the user of editorial services contracts for those services in the hope (expectation) that what he will receive after completion of editing equals what he hoped (expected) in terms of skill level.

The rejoinder that editors make is “I can/will provide a sample edit.” Unfortunately, sample edits are not all that editors say they are and they do not consider the likelihood that the recipient of the sample may not really be capable of judging the quality of the editing. The problem is that editing is fluid. The art world often can agree on a painting’s quality, even if its value is the subject of a war of words. Even those of us whose knowledge of art is minimal can agree, for example, that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is an outstanding painting or that Michaelangelo’s David is a magnificent sculpture.

Editing is different. How do we judge whether it is good editing or bad editing or indifferent editing to use since when because is meant or use about when approximate is meant or when the serial comma is omitted? How do we determine in advance that editor A will catch all misspellings but not all cliches whereas editor B may catch fewer misspellings but has the ability to turn uninspired prose into memorable prose consistently?

The sample edit makes certain assumptions, five of which are: First, that the material chosen for the sample is the best material to demonstrate the editor’s editing skills. Second, that the person reviewing the editor’s work is knowledgeable enough to know whether the editor has improved or not improved the sample. Third, the editor is actually demonstrating the skill set that the reviewer seeks to test or that the reviewer is seeking to test a skill set that is actually appropriate for the type of editing being performed. Fourth, that both the reviewer and the editor define the editor’s role similarly. (How many times have you been hired to do a copyedit but what is really wanted is a developmental edit?) Fifth, that the sample is, in fact, representative of the problems the editor can expect to encounter and address should she get the editing job. Sample editing makes additional assumptions about the editor, about the reviewer, and about the project, but the foregoing five assumptions illustrate the problem and why sample editing is not always an indicator of the quality of the services an editor will provide.

This is the conundrum editors have faced for decades: How do we get clients to recognize in advance the true value of the services we will have rendered when editing is complete? What is your solution?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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