An American Editor

April 30, 2012

Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations

A couple of months ago, I was hired to edit a new medical text. The publisher estimated the manuscript to be 2500 pages and wanted a 4-week turnaround with a medium-level edit. When I received the files for the entire project, I did a page count; the client had greatly undercounted the manuscript size. Instead of 2500 ms pages, the actual count was 5300 pages. (Why the disparity? Because, for example, in the original manuscript figure legends were in 7-point type and chapters had 70+ legends; tables and references [of which there could be several hundred in a chapter] were in 8-point type; paragraphs were single spaced.) In addition, it had to be conformed to AMA style; almost nothing conformed to AMA style as presented.

I advised the client and suggested that a 10-week schedule would be more appropriate. I was told to start the editing and the client would get back to me about the schedule.

In 2 weeks, I was able to edit nearly 1400 ms pages, but even at that rate, an 8-week schedule would be needed and it assumes that the initial pace could be maintained.

At the 2-week mark, I was told to stop work on the project. Instead of being edited locally, the manuscript would be shipped overseas (i.e., outside the United States to India) for editing because (a) the budget was based on 2500 ms pages and (b) there is insufficient flexibility in the schedule to extend it to 8 to 10 weeks or longer. The client was assured that both its budget and schedule could be met in India.

I was not overly concerned about the loss of this particular project; I had others waiting. But I was concerned about how realistic client (not just this particular client, but clients in general) expectations are when it comes to both price and schedule; more so schedule than price. I wonder how Indian copyeditors — let alone copyeditors from anywhere — will be able to do a medium edit on a very technical medical textbook in 4 weeks. I am not questioning the Indian editors’ editing skills, as I do not think this is a question of skills. I do understand how the price can be met in India, but not the schedule or the required editing level.

More importantly, it worries me what is becoming of the publishing industry. The upheaval caused by ebooks is not being well dealt with by anyone yet. One of the outstanding negatives to ebooks is the ease with which poor quality books can saturate the marketplace. Too many ebook authors are writing as if they were Georges Simenon, an author who once stated that he was able to turn out a new novel every 21 days. (Simenon was prolific and I particularly enjoyed his Inspector Maigret novels.) But unlike Simenon’s novels, which were well-written and well-edited, many ebooks are neither.

At one time readers could feel assured that the pbook they were buying that was published by a traditional publisher also was well-edited. Publishers devoted the time and the money to ensure a minimum quality.

Yet that seems to be changing today. In the case of the books I work on, which are medical texts written by doctors for doctors, I am concerned that unrealistic expectations will cause a decline in quality in books that can have serious implications for the well-being of consumers. If a novel tells you that the Taj Mahal is in Tibet, no harm is done to the reader, only to the author’s reputation. But if a medical text tells you to remove the left lung when it should be the right lung, the potential for harm is present; you have to hope someone catches this error before you are operated on.

Again, the question is not so much that of competency of the editors as it is the compression of the schedule. Editing a 200-page novel in 4 weeks is not wholly unreasonable; errors that slip by are not likely to be catastrophic except possibly to the author’s reputation. But to edit a 5300-page medical text in 4 weeks strikes me as unreasonable, even if the editorial work is divided among numerous editors. I suppose the question boils down to how many editors are used, but as the number of editors used increases, the greater the likelihood of inconsistency and the greater the variation in skill level among the editors.

I know that publishers are increasingly being run by the “bean counters” who take steps to reduce editorial costs because there is no readily visible-to-the-consumer effect of an editor’s work. Editors are the invisible people who can make a good manuscript better. Publishers are increasingly competing with the self-publishers and so must mimic the self-publishing way to final version, which is little to no editing and/or the least expensive editing possible combined with a compressed production schedule in order to get the finished product to market more quickly.

I wonder if, in the end, this will be good for the industry as a whole; that is, not just for the traditional publisher but for the self-publisher, too. In the attempt to get to market sooner and to publish as quickly and as often as possible, are publishers of all stripes sacrificing too much? Will the result be a changed literary landscape that would not be recognizable to a reader who grew up reading the Hemingways and Steinbecks of an earlier era?

Perhaps more importantly, in the case of nonfiction, is this compulsion to reduce costs and speed up production dangerous for the reader and consumer? Is our insatiable appetite for instant gratification and cheap pricing going to boomerang?

How do you give a high-quality edit to a highly technical manuscript of 5300 pages in 4 weeks without making any significant editorial sacrifice? Are client expectations becoming increasingly unreasonable? Something to ponder, I think, and perhaps even to worry about.

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