An American Editor

March 8, 2017

The Decline & Fall of Editorial Quality

Three events occurred in the past several weeks that started me thinking about the decline and fall of editorial quality. One was a job offer I received; the other two were book reviews I read. I begin with the book reviews.

The first review was in The Economist (February 18, 2017, pp. 69–70). It was a review of the soon-to-be-published biography Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel by John Stubbs (W.W. Norton, 2017). What alarmed me was this:

However, Mr. Stubbs’s account has a few surprising factual errors — the battle of the Boyne, arguably the best-remembered event in Irish history, is dated as 1689, a year early, and the medieval town of Kilkenny is placed “60 miles to the south-east” of Dublin (which would put it smack in the middle of the Irish Sea). [p. 70]

A few days later I was reading the essay “Can We Ever Master King Lear?” by Stephen Greenblatt (The New York Review of Books, February 23, 2017, pp. 34–36), which was reviewing The One King Lear by Sir Brian Vickers (Harvard University Press, 2016). Greenblatt wrote:

…But perhaps something else is occurring here, some dark nemesis signaled in this book perhaps by the absence of a bibliography, or by the scanty index, or by the startling number of errors made by someone who excoriates careless printers and proofreaders. Why did no one catch “schholar” and “obsreved”? Who allowed the book’s stirring peroration to assert that Shakespeare “had no reason to go back to his greatest pay”?

These typos, like tiny pebbles, are foretastes of the rocks that have come crashing through Vickers’s glass walls. For three weeks last May, Holger Schott Syme, a professor ay the University of Toronto, undertook…a detailed scholarly critique of The One King Lear….Syme’s appalled accumulation of entries…details an array of fundamental contradictions, misstatements, and errors throughout the book, including a disastrous miscounting of the number of pages in a text Vickers trumpeted as one of his crucial pieces of supporting evidence for Okes’s paper crisis. [p. 36]

On and on the review goes, highlighting the editorial problems.

The third event, the job offer, was a request that I personally edit a 3500-page medical manuscript that requires a “very heavy edit” and that I do so for less than 75% of my standard rate, calculated in a way that reduces that 75% to closer to 60%, and that I meet a tight deadline that would require editing 300 to 350 pages per week. (I suppose I should add that I was also required to typecode the manuscript and that there were lots of references, nearly all of which were in the wrong format and often incomplete, thus requiring me to look them up.) Of course, there was the admonition that I was “being asked to do this job because a high-quality edit is required” and the claim that the proffered fee was a “premium” rate.

I do not understand the thinking. Here are three separate events, three completely separate publishers, and three prestigious projects — two of which have editorially failed, the third of which will be an editorial failure. Thousands of books are published each year; only a handful are reviewed by The Economist or The New York Review of Books, both selective and well-respected book reviewers. The importance of these books to the literature of their fields is emphasized by their selection to be reviewed. The medical book, when published, will be a very costly book to buy and will serve as a reference for the subject matter area. All three books deserve and even require professional, high-quality editing, yet none received (or, in the case of the medical book, will receive) such editing because of the deadly combination of inadequate pay (which makes it difficult to hire a cream-level editor), too short a schedule (which pressures an editor to edit speedily, which means sacrificing quality; the shorter the schedule the greater the required quality sacrifice), and too many mechanical requirements that have to be performed by the editor, along with the editing, within the too short schedule and for too low pay.

What I don’t understand is why otherwise savvy business people are unable to grasp the idea that a high-quality edit is no different from any other high-quality artisanal job that cannot be performed by a robot or computer: to get a high-quality result you have to pay a fee commensurate with the quality level desired and allow the time needed to reach and maintain that level. In addition, you need to let the artisan focus on the quality edit and not sidetrack the editor with nonartisanal requirements.

Of particular concern, however, is that one of the problem books is from Harvard University Press. I have purchased books from Princeton University Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, to name but two university presses, that I have thought greatly overpriced for the poor editorial and/or production quality of the books (imagine, e.g., a $50, 168-page [including front and back matter] hardcover that comes without a dust jacket, along with other problems), but I also thought the books were outliers. Yet I am discovering that the more “prestigious” the university press, the more careful I need to be when buying a book published by that press.

Is it that these presses have grown too large and are under pressure to produce a profit as a consequence of their growth? When I first joined the editing ranks, university presses paid editors roughly 15% less than the commercial publishers paid and expected a higher-quality edit than the commercial presses. The lower compensation was balanced by a looser schedule and a true commitment to quality. In those days, editors sought to work for university presses because editors were more concerned about the artisanal aspects of editing than about the financial aspects.

That outlook changed as commercial publishers consolidated and began lowering/stagnating their fees and university presses tried to maintain the fee disparity. Editors by necessity became more oriented to business and less focused on being artisans. Where before an editor might edit three or four commercial projects followed by a university press project, as fees equalized (or came closer to equalization), the financial ability to take on university press projects lessened — the fees earned from editing commercial press projects no longer could carry the lesser fee of the university press because the spread was no longer sufficient.

We are beginning to see the fruits of these trends as an increasing number of error-riddled books are being published by both university and commercial presses. We are also beginning to see editors who have calculated and know their required effective hourly rate, and because they know their required rate, are turning down editing projects that do not offer sufficient compensation to meet that rate. Unfortunately, we are also seeing a parallel trend: the number of persons calling themselves editors is increasing and these “editors” advertise their willingness to work for a rate that is far too low to sustain life.

For publishers — university or commercial — this increase in the number of “editors” willing to work for a life-denying wage creates a problem. The problem manifests as a conflict between the requirement to minimize production costs — especially of “invisible” tasks like editing — and the desire to produce a high-quality-edit product. The conflict usually resolves in favor of cost-cutting, which will ultimately hurt the publisher’s bottom line, especially if the publisher begins to develop a reputation for poor-editorial-quality books, as the pool of book-buyers grows smaller and more discerning.

As long-time AAE readers know, I buy a lot of books (for an idea of how many I buy, take a look at the On Today’s Bookshelf series), but I have become wary of buying books from certain presses. Because of poor editorial quality, I certainly won’t be buying Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel or The One King Lear. Would you buy books from publishers known to skimp on editorial quality?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 20, 2014

The Commandments: Thou Shall Know the Basics or Don’t Edit

The title may tell you that I am a bit frustrated. But let’s begin this story at the beginning.

My daughter wrote a nonfiction book that was accepted by a major crossover publisher for fall publication. (A crossover publisher is, in this instance, one that publishes academic titles for popular consumption — think Doris Kearns Goodwin-type books, which are well-researched nonfiction and could be written and published for a strictly academic market but instead are written and published to appeal to both academics and consumers.) Everything has been going smoothly with the process and my daughter has been very happy with the publisher.

Except that like far too many publishers these days, this publisher outsources to a packager the editing and production services. When told that the copyediting would be outsourced, my daughter asked about the assigned copyeditor. She was told that the editor had worked with the packager for more than 6 years, and was considered an outstanding editor — in fact, she was considered to be the best of the editors who worked for this packager.

Hearing that made my daughter feel better and gave her high hopes that the editing would be high quality.

Then I started receiving phone calls with questions about Chicago style, capitalization, whether it was OK to change “was” to “had been” in every instance, and on and on. Finally, my daughter asked me point blank: “Should I panic about the quality of the editing?”

I had not seen the edited manuscript but assured my daughter that some of the changes, such as removal of serial commas, were a matter of preference and house style and not (generally) something to panic over unless meaning was changed. I also suggested that she read more of the edited manuscript before coming to any conclusions about the editing.

Then she dropped the bombshell: The editor altered/rewrote direct quotations, making ungrammatical quotes grammatical. “Is this what a copyeditor does?” she asked.

Now I began to panic and asked her to send me a sample chapter to look at.

Within 15 minutes I saw that the editing was unacceptable in multiple ways and that my daughter not only needed to panic but needed to contact the publisher immediately. The editing was a disaster. (I also subsequently learned that no one told my daughter that as the author she could accept or reject any of the editor’s changes; she assumed that she had to accept the editor’s changes on the basis that this was the editor’s area of expertise. I quickly disabused her of that notion.) Once she explained to the publisher the problems she was finding and some of my comments, the publisher agreed that the book needed to be reedited by a different editor.

Which brings me to the commandment: Thou shall know the basics of editing or don’t edit!

If you do not know that direct quotes in nonfiction (and that the quotes are sourced should give you a clue) should not be changed, you should not claim to be an editor. I was taught that basic principle in sixth grade, if not even earlier. If you do not know that editing changes are to be limited to those that do not change the meaning of the sentence or paragraph, then do not claim to be an editor.

More importantly than not claiming to be an editor, you should not edit — period.

An editor is supposed to understand the value and meaning of words and how they fit, or do not fit, within the structure of a sentence and paragraph. When a sentence reads “…when he suddenly awoke…”, an editor needs to think twice about deleting “suddenly”: “…when he awoke…” is not the same as “…when he suddenly awoke…”. And if you think “suddenly” is unneeded and should be deleted, you should explain why you are deleting the word (or suggesting deletion). As an editor, you should know the importance and value of communicating with the author your reasoning for nonobvious changes.

In the case of my daughter’s book, this was a major failing of the editor. Not a single change that the editor made in the entire book was accompanied by an explanatory note, not even something as simple as “changed per Chicago.” Providing an explanation is fundamental to maintaining good author–editor relations. We have discussed this in detail before (see What Do Editors Forget Most Often?).

The question that arises is: How does someone know that they do not know the basics? If you don’t know something, you don’t know that you don’t know it. And in the case of my daughter’s editor, supposedly she had been a professional editor for 6 years and was receiving superior grades.

This is a tough question and it is a question that vexes authors who hire an editor. The only solution I know of is to ask for a sample edit. The problem is that there is an underlying assumption when a sample edit is asked for: That the person who will review the sample edit actually knows enough about editing that the reviewer can separate the wheat from the chaff. As my daughter noted, she has no experience and wouldn’t know whether the editor was correcting her mistakes or creating new mistakes. My daughter can fall back on me to review the sample but most authors and in-house production staff do not have someone to fall back on.

In the end, all an author can really do is rely on “gut” feeling unless, as occurred in my daughter’s case, a blatant, basic error repeatedly occurs (in this instance, it was the altering of direct quotes).

Editors can instill confidence by adding explanations and by knowing the basics of editing, such as direct quotes in nonfiction are left as they are but may be queried; that one doesn’t make a change unless it improves the sentence and doesn’t change the sentence’s meaning; that you don’t change tenses willy-nilly; that an editor’s role mimics that of the doctor — do no harm; that it is better to break a sentence into multiple sentences than to make an incoherent sentence even more incoherent.

Alas, my daughter’s experience convinces me even more of the need for a national editor’s accreditation. Her experience also convinces me that a significant part of the problem is the willingness of publishers to leave the task of finding qualified editors to third-party vendors whose interests are not synchronous with the publisher or author’s interest.

I’m not too worried about my daughter’s book, but I do worry about authors who do not have someone knowledgeable they can call on for help in evaluating the quality of editing. No matter what, ultimately the responsibility lies with the person offering the editing service, and that person should remember the commandment:

Thou shall know the basics of editing or don’t edit!

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 8, 2013

The Business of Editing: Expectations

The clash between client and editor often is caused by unmet expectations — the client’s expectations as to what services the editor will provide within what time frame and for what price.

In the negotiations between client and editor, the client wants more for less and the editor wants more for less: The client wants more work for less money, the editor wants more money for less work. This is just like every other business negotiation, except for one thing: client and editor expectations are rarely expressed; the parties act as if the other side already knows what the other expects.

The clash arises because clients expect an editor to do whatever it takes to make the client’s manuscript near-perfect regardless of the balance between the expectation and the rate of pay/time given to do the work, and editors feel pressure to do whatever is need to make a manuscript near-perfect, even if the pay, the time given to do the work, or both are inadequate. Both parties are wrong.

The most difficult thing to impress upon colleagues, something I have repeated over the years, is that compensation (which includes the time allotted to do the work) and work must correlate. If you are being paid a copyedit wage, then you copyedit, not developmental edit. If the manuscript needs a developmental edit, alert the client, explain why it is needed, and explain for what should be at least the second time why you are not doing it. And, clearly, if you are expected to do a developmental edit within a copyedit timeframe, explain — multiple times, if necessary — why you cannot.

Recently, an editor lamented that a client had an unrealistic expectation as regards how many pages an hour the editor should churn on a particular project. (I use churn to mean move through, to edit. Although technically this is not a correct use of the word, I find that the number of pages to edit in an hour has much in common with the idea of the frequent buying and selling of securities, which is a meaning of churn. Churn out, the transitive verb form, is perhaps closer in meaning to my use as editorial churn, in that it refers to producing mechanically or copiously, to which I would add nearly robotically.) The manuscript needed a developmental edit and the client expected not only the developmental edit but a churn rate of 10 to 12 pages an hour. The editor, however, was not being paid for such an edit.

The editor’s obligation is to provide the best editing the editor can within the parameters set by the client. If the client’s parameters include churn of 10 to 12 pages an hour, then the editor should strive to meet that churn goal and do the best editing job that the editor can at that rate on that manuscript. If the editing level decreases because of the churn and the complexity of the manuscript, the editor also has an obligation to alert the client to the editing limitations that result because of the churn rate required. It is then the client’s obligation to determine what balance is desirable.

But the immutable law, as far as I am concerned, is this: An editor does not owe a client a near-perfect edit of a manuscript; the editor owes the client the best edit that balances against the fiscal and time constraints imposed by the client — nothing more, nothing less. It is unreasonable to give a Mercedes performance when you are given a Yugo to drive. It is unreasonable to provide a Yugo when you want a Mercedes performance. Give a Yugo, receive a Yugo; give a Mercedes receive a Mercedes.

I make it very clear to clients the difference between a copyedit and a developmental edit (I usually refer them to my article, Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) I also make it clear that the faster the churn rate, the less careful the editing will be. Some clients not only expect a high churn rate but a multipass edit. Perhaps if the churn expectation is 5 pages an hour, it is reasonable to expect at least a two-pass edit, which makes the effective churn rate 10 pages an hour, but that is certainly not true when the churn expectation is 10 pages an hour, which would make the effective rate 20 pages an hour with a second pass.

However, there are two problems that must be addressed. Both stem from how the editor is paid. If an editor is on an hourly rate, the client often sets a budget based on the expected churn rate (i.e., manuscript size ÷ churn rate = number of hours; number of hours × hourly rate = budget). However, an editor may not be aware of the budget and thus expect that every hour spent editing will be compensated. If there is an upper limit, a budget amount, the editor needs to determine the maximum number of hours for which the client will pay and scale the editorial services accordingly. If the client is not forthcoming about the compensation limitations, then the editor needs to make it clear upfront that the editor expects to be paid for the time spent regardless of whether or not it exceeds the client’s budget (subject, of course, to the ethical constraints discussed in The Business of Editing: The Ethics of Billing).

If the editor is paid on a per-page or project basis, the total fee does not change regardless of the number of hours. Consequently, if the editor spends 20 hours or 100 hours editing, the fee remains the same. As in the hourly situation, the editor needs to balance the fee the editor will receive against the client’s editorial expectations — before beginning editing or by the time the first pages are edited. Exactly what services the editor will provide for the fee to be earned needs to be spelled out so that there is no confusion on the part of either party. However, should the editor not take this step and discuss any editing limitations, then, in the circumstance of the per-page or project basis for compensation, the client is entitled to Mercedes performance even if the editor is paid a Yugo fee — as long as the client has made the Mercedes expectation clear before the compensation was agreed to.

Sometimes there can be no meeting of the minds: the client is unwilling to lower expectations or raise the fee or do both. In this instance, the editor should bail from the project, assuming that this discussion is taking place at the beginning of the project and not in the middle. If in the middle of the project, the editor should offer the client the option to either pay for work done and find another editor to complete the project or to accept a defined level of editing that meets the client’s churn expectations, even if it doesn’t meet the client’s editorial expectations, and which balances against the fee being paid.

The more clarity the editor brings to the project, by which I mean the more the editor explains the balance, the more likely it is that the editor and the client will work together amicably. It is important to remember that it is the editor who is initially dissatisfied with the lack of balance between expectations and pay; thus, it is the editor’s obligation to educate the client as to the need for the balance and as to what will meet that need. The client’s obligation is to listen, understand, and correct the misbalance in a way that is satisfactory to both the client and the editor.

But under no circumstance should the editor voluntarily (especially not while grumbling about it) accept the misbalance between expectation and compensation. Ultimately, the editor must say, “This is what I will do for this compensation — nothing more, nothing less — and I will do it expertly and professionally, but I will not provide [fill-in the blank, e.g., developmental edit] for the price of [e.g., a copyedit].” Editors must educate their clients about editing, and not assume that clients are already educated about it.

Most importantly, editors must realize that this is a business relationship and must be treated as one. I understand the need of editors to do the near-perfect edit on every job. Unfortunately, our creditors are unwilling to accept a near-perfect edit as payment. An editor who feels she cannot compromise on the edit to be delivered, such as doing a one-pass edit when she would normally do a two-pass edit, should then decline jobs that require compromised editing; happiness in what we do should be our number one motivation.

October 1, 2012

On Language: The Professional Editor and the Hyphen

I know it hasn’t been very long since I last discussed the problem of hyphenation (see The Business of Editing: The Hyphenated Compound), yet it needs to be raised again. I recently had a discussion with a couple of younger editors — younger in terms of age and experience — who are members of a wholly different educational generation from me, regarding compound adjectives and the hyphen.

It is increasingly clear to me that our educational system is failing horrendously as regards passing on to new generations basic language skills. And this lack of skills is being transferred to a broader population as editors are drawn from these groups. I have also come to realize that probably the most valuable course that can be taken in school is rarely, if ever, taught in high school and is not a mandatory course in college: logic/philosophy.

I am appalled at how poorly many of our “educated” classes have no grasp of language fundamentals and cannot follow or decipher the logic of a communication. Why, I’m sure you are asking, am I raising these issues now?

Consider these two phrases:

  1. in my small animal practice
  2. bounded by a salmon-spawning creek

What do these phrases mean?

The first phrase is unclear; the second phrase is clear but illogical. Yet both of these phrases were unanimously considered correct by my younger colleagues — without any question.

Consider the first phrase. What does “in my small animal practice” mean? Does it mean that I have a small business that deals with animals or does it mean I have a business that deals with small animals as opposed to large animals? This unhyphenated phrase leaves the reader guessing, causes the careful reader to pause and ponder, and permits the reader to draw a wrong conclusion; in other words, it fails the primary test of language and grammar: crystal-clear communication.

If the phrase means I have a business that deals with small animals, then the correct construction is “in my small-animal practice.” Why? Because small and animal are really intended to be a single “word” and the hyphen indicates that they belong together. The hyphen says that “animal” neither stands alone nor belongs with practice. It makes the meaning crystal clear.

In contrast, if the phrase means that I have a small business that deals with animals, it is not easy to clarify the construction by using or omitting the hyphen; instead, the phrase should be rephrased. The point is that clear communication is of utmost importance and hyphenation is intended to bring clarity to what would otherwise be unclear or questionable. The last thing an author or an editor should want is for a reader to involuntarily pause in an attempt to try to glean what the author intends, especially if the pause occurs on a minor or insignificant point.

The second phrase, “bounded by a salmon-spawning creek,” is on its face illogical, yet many readers and editors and authors think it is properly constructed. As written, the creek is spawning the salmon, yet we all know that it is salmon that spawn salmon (unless, of course, we do not know what spawn means, in which case it is worth having a good dictionary handy), not creeks. Creeks are where salmon go to spawn. The correct phrasing is “bounded by a salmon spawning creek” but in this construct, a reader may well pause to try to interpret what is meant because the phraseology seems a bit awkward even if grammatically correct. Thus, rephrasing is better.

The problem is, however, that my younger colleagues with whom I was discussing hyphenation of compound phrases didn’t grasp the illogic of the phrase and thus did not see it as erroneous. I think it is because students after my educational generation were not and are not required to take courses in logic/philosophy and thus lose the opportunity to learn to dissect language constructs based on logic (as opposed to based on rigid rules of grammar). Essentially, that is what a good basic, introductory course on logic/philosophy does: It teaches one to construct and destruct language based on logic, which is what a professional editor does.

(It is worth noting that something may be grammatically perfect when “rules” of grammar are applied yet illogical. It is also worth noting that something may be grammatically perfect rule-wise yet fail the fundamental test of good grammar, which is crystal-clear communication. A professional editor keeps these limitations in mind while editing.)

A professional editor’s primary function is to ensure that clear, consistent communication occurs between author and reader. It is like a syllogism in that B must follow A or the argument falters. It is not enough for an editor to know that compound adjectives are hyphenated; the editor must also know that by hyphenating the compound phrase, the phrase is now crystal clear and not as muddy (or muddier) as before. Yet for many editors, simply following the rule to hyphenate the compound is sufficient; there is little thought being given to the subtleties of meaning and communication-miscommunication.

This is why an author needs a professional editor. The author already knows the intended meaning and thus reads a phrase as crystal clear. Few authors can distance themselves far enough from their work so as to question the subtleties of language and grammar choices. And this is why an author should expect to pay more than a few dollars for a professional editor.

The professional editor doesn’t simply ramble through a manuscript and add a hyphen here, delete a hyphen there. The professional editor considers what that addition or deletion does to the clarity of the message, and what subtle meaning changes occur as a result of that addition or deletion.

Some real constraints on editors, however, must be noted. Whereas in the ideal world, an editor has all the time that is needed to properly edit and is working for a client with an unlimited budget, the real world imposes both time and budgetary constraints, which affect the depth of editorial analysis. Even so, some phrases should stand out as potential obstacles to reader understanding, and those phrases are the compound phrases that beg for the addition or removal of a hyphen and the application of a test of logicality.

July 30, 2012

The Business of Editing: The Hyphenated Compound

As I have mentioned before (see The Business of Editing: Culture and Editing), I get asked by clients to give an opinion on editing decisions made by other editors. (It would be much easier if they simply hired me to do the editing originally rather than asking my opinion after the fact, but that isn’t how it works these days!) I was recently asked to give an opinion on hyphenating right-heart syndrome (and its opposite, left-heart syndrome).

Medical terminology is a world of its own. Only in very recent editions, for example, did Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, a standard reference in the United States, agree that disease and syndrome names should generally not be possessive. Dorland’s was slowly getting to that point, but until recently, it was a hodgepodge of possessive and nonpossessive. The result was that authors were resistant to dropping the possessive.

Similarly, in medical terminology, most journals refer to right heart syndrome, shunning the hyphen; a few are beginning to make the change. This raises an interesting problem for an editor: the hyphenated version is clear and accurate from both a reader’s perspective and grammatically; the nonhyphenated version is traditional and requires reader interpretation (does the author mean that his is the right [correct] heart syndrome or the syndrome that occurs on the right side of the heart?). From context one can often tell what is meant, but — and but is an important qualification — not always.

The question becomes one of 100%, all-the-time accuracy versus 98%, less-than-all-the-time accuracy: Which should an editor strive for? More importantly, which should an author strive for?

If we were discussing a novel, 98% — even 85% — accuracy can be acceptable. After all, by its very definition a novel is not intended to be true, accurate, real; it is intended to be, foremost, entertaining. In contrast, a work of nonfiction, such as a medical text or a history of the French Revolution or a biography of Lyndon Johnson, is intended to be factual, accurate, true, real. Consequently, not only does word choice matter, as discussed in The Business of Editing: Words Do Matter!, but so does how words are formed. Thus, the use of the hyphen in compounds is important.

There is no doubt that the rationale for omitting the hyphen in right heart syndrome is that it has been omitted since the naming of the disease. That may be good enough reasoning for an author, but should it be for an editor? There is yet another question: What weight should be given to author preference? In this regard, whether to use distension or distention doesn’t matter; both are acceptable spellings with the same meaning — essentially a schizoid word that can’t settle on one spelling. Yet they same deference to preference perhaps should not be extended to an author when deference can lead to less than 100% accuracy and understanding.

Consider it from another angle. What harm does hyphenating the phrase do to the fundamental goal of accurate communication? On the one hand, if hyphenating the phrase changes the intended meaning, then clearly it is harmful. On the other hand, if it clarifies meaning or enhances understanding or doesn’t change the intended meaning, then it isn’t harmful. If it isn’t harmful, why should it give way to an author preference that is based simply on “that is the way it has been done in the past”?

The reality of publishing today is that the editor is a weakened link in the process of taking a raw manuscript and making it into a polished, published product. In the early days of modern publishing, the editor had the time and was expected to make the effort to cajole an author into doing the correct thing, whether it took days, weeks, months, or even years. Quality of output was the key guiding factor. Today, the process is governed by tight schedules and cost saving. Today, the publisher backs the author and not the editor. The one common refrain I hear regularly these days (and for the past couple of decades) is to give the author what the author wants, regardless of whether it is correct or not.

If I were the editor of right heart syndrome, I would add the hyphen. It does no harm. Right-heart syndrome will not be misunderstood by the reader, unlike right heart syndrome, which can be misunderstood although not likely. There is no question in my mind that right-heart syndrome is accurate and clearly conveys to the reader that the discussion is about a syndrome of the right side of the heart.

My dilemma arises when I receive author feedback that says:

Ed: I have never seen a hyphen used for this syndrome at any time in the medical literature.  I think most readers would find it odd. I suggest doing away with the hyphen throughout the text unless you can find documentation that this is correct.

What do I do? Even though I can find recent journal articles that support hyphenation, the truth is that the vast majority do not use the hyphen. Even though I can make the argument that adding the hyphen makes the term clearer, avoids any possibility of misunderstanding, and is grammatically correct, the current weight of published articles is against me. Even though I can say that hyphenating it conforms to American Medical Association (AMA) style guidelines, this appears to be irrelevant because, again, the weight of the literature is against me.

My response to the client is essentially to outline the dilemma discussed above. Because I was not the editor, I didn’t have to make the yes/no decision. Had I been the editor, I think I would have cited a couple of recent articles that do use hyphenation and outline why I think hyphenation is the better choice, and then I would kick the ball back to the client for the final decision. In the end, it depends on whether the client prefers to accede to the author’s wishes and avoid a fight.

Yet knowing that, after the fact, the client is likely to accede to the author’s wishes, does not relieve me of the responsibility of doing what I consider correct while editing. Consequently, I would hyphenate the phrase (absent initial instructions from the client to the contrary) and if questioned give my rationale. The point is that the editor is obligated to do the correct thing even if it is subsequently undone by the client. The editor’s job is to change potentially less-than-accurate terminology into precise, accurate terminology without sacrificing meaning; it is the client’s job to decide whether it is better to be fashionable or accurate.

July 16, 2012

The Business of Editing: Words Do Matter!

Within the past few weeks, Americans learned that words do matter. Allegedly, editors and authors have been aware of this since forever, but on occasion I am reminded that ingrained habit can be more important than what a word really means.

Within the past several weeks, Americans learned that Obamacare is constitutional because the individual mandate penalty is a tax, and not a penalty. According to the American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed), a penalty is “A punishment imposed for a violation of law” and a tax is “A contribution for the support of a government of persons, groups, or businesses within the domain of that government.” Black’s Law Dictionary (6th ed) defines penalty as “An elastic term with many different shades of meaning; it involves the idea of punishment, corporeal or pecuniary,…, although its meaning is generally confined to pecuniary punishment” and tax as “A charge by the government on the income of an individual….The objective in assessing the tax is to generate revenue to be used for the needs of the public.”

For the average citizen, the difference is meaningless. Most of us who have to pay taxes consider ourselves as being penalized (thus tax = penalty) and don’t worry about the fine distinction made by lawyers and judges. But the difference does matter and choosing the right word equally matters: Obamacare would have failed if the mandate was a penalty, and succeeded because the mandate is a tax. (The importance of using the right word is reinforced by efforts to call copyediting proofreading and pay less for the service, as discussed in The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting.)

Yet the pundits have it wrong when they conclude that the government cannot force us to buy broccoli. The effect of the Roberts’ opinion is that if the government imposes a tax on persons who do not buy broccoli, such a tax is constitutional and if it is constitutional, then all that needs to be done is to make the tax onerous enough that it is fiscally more prudent to buy the broccoli than pay the tax. But I stray.…

In the world of editing, we have been exposed to possessive diseases and the demise of the serial comma. When we speak of Lou Gehrig’s disease, what exactly is meant? It is true that Lou Gehrig had the disease and if the writer means to discuss the agony that Lou Gehrig faced, then the possessive Lou Gehrig’s disease seems appropriate. However, if the writer wishes to convey the agony my grandmother underwent when she was struck by the disease, the nonpossessive Lou Gehrig disease strikes me as significantly more correct. The latter requires no interpretation as to meaning — it is clearly not referring to Lou Gehrig’s bout with the disease named after him — whereas the former does require interpretation and a best guess.

That is the problem with not choosing the correct word: the reader is left to make a best guess. The choice between penalty and tax involves also a set of consumer/taxpayer rights that arise depending on which term is used. For example, there are certain procedures that have to be followed by the government in order to collect a tax that differ from those that arise when collecting a penalty. In addition, the defenses that can be raised and when they can be raised by the consumer/taxpayer differ.

Similarly, the conclusion that a reader can draw from a group of words differs based on the words chosen. Consider how cleverly, for example, the words chosen by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lead readers to one conclusion but Sherlock Holmes to another; or what would have happened had Charles Dickens chosen different opening words to A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom,  it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of  incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was  the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Literary immortality came to Dickens via this opening and readers were given a scene setting that compelled further reading.

Editors need to be aware of the words used and ensure that the author is communicating precisely, as well as capturing a reader’s interest. The primary role for an editor is to help the author avoid miscommunication. Whether an author’s work will rise or fall on word choice is increasingly reflected by the importance grammar, spelling, and word choice are given in reviews of books.

Two decades ago, grammar, spelling, and word choice were rarely mentioned in book reviews. The editorial quality of a book was not suspect and was taken for granted. Since then, especially as cost control has come to be the number one goal of the publishing industry — especially with the consolidation of publishers into international conglomerates, the globalization of editorial services as a cost-control measure, and the rise of ebooks and the self-publishing phenomenon — the triad of grammar, spelling, and word choice has become a mainstay of book reviews.

This need to ensure that the correct word is chosen validates the need for the services of a professional editor — a person who is removed from the rigor and stress of the creative process of writing a captivating tale, yet who has command of the essentials of language and language usage.

Although by itself, choosing the right word will not turn stinkweed into a rose, choosing the wrong word can, by itself, turn a rose into stinkweed. This is something authors need to remember when deciding whether to hire a professional editor and something the professional editor needs to keep in mind during the editing process.

July 9, 2012

On Books: The Agony of Reading Franz McLaren’s Clarion of Destiny

One thing I hate about article titles is that they are length limited and thus tend to sweep with broad strokes. Such is the case with this title.

This is the partial saga of my encounter with an 8-volume fantasy series called “Clarion of Destiny,” written by Franz S. McLaren. The series begins with Home Lost, which is available free at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble, as well as at other ebooksellers. I admit that I enjoyed Home Lost. I found the characters interesting and the story engrossing. Alas, I also found the repeated misuse of words distracting and annoying. But given that the book is free, it is still worthy of 4 stars.

The agony arises with the second volume, To Save Elderon. As soon as I finished Home Lost, I logged into my B&N account and looked for the next book. I found To Save Elderon, but was a bit taken aback by the price — $3.99. It is not that the price is high; rather, it is that it is high if this volume suffers from the same problems that the first volume did. The higher the price of the book, the less tolerant I am of fundamental spelling and grammar errors, errors that would have been caught and corrected by a professional editor.

Yet I had enjoyed the first book enough that I really did want to continue with the story, so, after hesitating over the price for a few seconds, I took the plunge and bought the book. After having read the second volume (which I rate at 2.5 to 3 stars), I was simultaneously sorry and pleased — the all-too-often agony and ecstasy of the indie book. Again, the story is intriguing, the characters interestingly developed, and I want to go on to the third book — yet I am not. I have decided that at $3.99 I should not be continuously insulted by language misuse.

How do I know I will be so abused? Smashwords offers sample previews of each of the volumes. Every volume suffers from the same illness: an author who seems not to know what either a dictionary or a grammar guide is for or how to use it. The only thing that could make this worse is if it turned out that McLaren was a public school English teacher.

How many times can I accept, for example, forth for fourth, there for their, were for where, then for than? McLaren writes disburse when he means disperse, to long ago when he means too long ago, that when he means who, cloths when he means clothes. And the list goes on, almost without end. I’m not convinced that he knows what purpose the apostrophe serves, because so many possessives lack one (e.g., the mornings work rather than the morning’s work) — perhaps a better way to say it is that too few (what should be) possessives include an apostrophe. And let’s not delve too deeply into the missing hyphenation in compounds or the missing commas, both of which ensure a struggle for readability and comprehension.

I need also mention that the author does a sloppy job of remembering his own characters’ names. The fairy Uwi becomes Renee before returning to Uwi; Niki becomes Nike and then Niki again. This problem of getting character names wrong happens several times with several characters throughout the series.

This is a case study of a good series that desperately needs attention from a professional editor. The story is intriguing and for a fantasy buff like me, even compelling, except for the necessary slogging through illiteracy. For free or 99¢, I can accept a lot of insult; for seven volumes at $3.99 each, my tolerance is very limited.

I grant that for a good story, $3.99 is not a lot to pay. I wouldn’t hesitate to pay it, but there has to be a convergence of good writing, good editing, and good story for me to shell out $3.99 seven times just to get a complete story. (It is not that each of the first two volumes cannot stand on their own; they can. Rather, it is that each tells only a part of the adventure and all eight volumes need to be read to get that complete adventure.) Those of you who have been reading An American Editor for a while know that I praise the writing of some indie authors, such as Vicki Tyley, Shayne Parkinson, and L.J. Sellers. I would not hesitate to buy one of their books at $4.99, let alone at the $2.99 that they charge, because their books are well-written, well-edited, and well-told stories. They use the correct words and understand the importance of punctuation.

It is the well-edited that is the missing leg in McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” series, which, when combined with a “high” price, causes the discerning reader to agonize over whether or not to read indie books. Unfortunately, it is books like McLaren’s that give a bad reputation to all indie books — at least among readers who care about grammar, spelling, and word choice. The most common statement I see on various forums regarding indie books is that the commenter won’t buy them because the quality too often is poor. I buy them knowing that of 10 indie books, only one or two will be readable or worth reading. I don’t mind having to separate the wheat from the chaff, but that is also why I won’t spend more than 99¢ on an introduction to a new indie author and I prefer that the first book from an unknown author be free.

What I do mind, however, is to find an author who spins a good story — a story worth reading and recommending — but who is so careless with language, yet wants a higher price for his or her stories, that the story cannot overcome the barrage of insults the reader needs to absorb. The point is that the lower the price the author asks, the more tolerant the reader should be; conversely, the higher the price the author asks, the less tolerant the reader should be!

So, now I am in a quandary over McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” series. I am inclined to reward the author for writing a good story, one that holds my interest. Simultaneously, I am disinclined to reward the author for his apparent indifference to the fundamentals of good writing — correct language use and grammar. The asking price of $3.99 is probably the fulcrum point where the competing inclination and disinclination are at balance. I am certain in my mind that were the asking price $4.99, I would not have even considered buying the second book in the series; at $3.99 it was an OK gamble, albeit a gamble that I lost as the misuse got worse. It is also clear to me that because the story is as good as it is, were the price $1.99, I would hesitate but I would buy.

I am aware that $2 is not a lot of money in the scheme of things. For me, it is not so much about the $2 as it is about the message I send when I spend that $2. Buying the seven books at the $3.99 price tells the author that his misuse of grammar and language is OK. Is that really the message I want to send?

As I said, $3.99 is, for me, the point of balance between inclination and disinclination. I am undecided as to what I will do. For now, I will set aside McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” and move on to other books and series. In a month or two, if I still remember the series, I’ll revisit the issue. If I remember the series, it will be a sign that I should spend the money; if I forget about the series, my not spending the money was a wise decision for me.

Regardless of what I ultimately do, I think the time is rapidly coming when indie authors who do not want to simply give all their work away for free need to encourage readers to buy their books by ensuring that they are well-written, well-edited, and have a compelling narrative — the three legs that form the support for success.

July 2, 2012

The Business of Editing: Culture and Editing

A client asked me to look at some excerpts of material that had been offshore outsourced for editing and to give my opinion whether something struck me as wrong or incorrect. In the past 6 months, I have had several requests from clients asking me to clarify style rules and whether material comports with those rules. The clients have recognized that their expertise is different from mine and that the combination of our skills can result in a better product.

A frequent query involves American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style 10th edition §19.1 “Use of Numerals.” Most non-editorial clients find the AMA’s instructions confusing, especially as it contravenes the instructions given in other style guides, notably the Chicago Manual of Style.

But this client request fell into another category: not was a style guide convention contravened, but did the editing make sense.

The subject had to do with legislation and one sentence in one of the text portions I was asked to review read as follows:

The legislative solution was to make it easier for gays to marry women to obtain birth control…

Certainly, from a grammatical perspective and taken in isolation, there is nothing wrong with that sentence fragment. But was it culturally correct?

Editing cannot be done in isolation of the world around us. Form (grammatically correct in isolation) cannot control over function (communication and understanding). Instead, there needs to be a meeting of form and function because only with that meeting can we be certain that what is intended is what is expressed.

It immediately struck me that something was wrong with the sentence. A good test is what I call the substitution test, in which I substitute a synonym for a key word to ask does it still make sense. In this case, my immediate notion was that no substitution was necessary but I applied the test anyway, substituting homosexual for gay. Why was this important? Gay in America increasingly means male homosexual exclusively; homosexual means both male and female, that is, gays and lesbians. Other cultures may use other terms for genderizing homosexuality, but since this was a book for American audiences, American culture rules.

With the term gay, the sentence makes sense every which way but sexually; with the term homosexuality, it makes no sense either politically or sexually. In America, lesbians currently are generally not free to marry women for any reason. In a culture that does permit homosexual marriage or civil unions, the sentence would pass the substitution test, but not in the United States, where the overwhelming legal position is that homosexuals cannot marry or even have legally recognized civil unions.

The point is that because of my familiarity with the culture of the audience for whom the book is intended, it is clear to me that there is something wrong with the sentence. The cure is simple, however. All that is needed is a well-placed comma, so that the sentence reads as follows:

The legislative solution was to make it easier for gays to marry, women to obtain birth control…

Yet there is another problem with the sentence. Logically, why would a gay marry a woman to obtain birth control? That alone, under normal circumstances, should have raised red flags. But, again, I think it may be a cultural thing. I suspect that in more repressive cultures or in cultures in which the homosexuality is more underground than in America, gays may well marry women for a variety of reasons, even as a means of birth control.

Yet there is one other, at least questionable, problem with the sentence, with or without the comma cure, even though it is illogical for gays to marry women to obtain birth control: the use of gays. As I noted above, in America, gays increasingly is gender-specific, referring to male homosexuals and excluding lesbians. So the sentence, even as cured, means that it would be easier for males to marry but still impossible for females to marry. If nothing else were true about legislation affecting homosexual marriage, this would be true: In the United States, legislators would not grant marriage rights to one sex but not the other when granting homosexuals the right to marry.

Although the cured sentence would be better if homosexuals were substituted for gays, and much less prone to possible misunderstanding, there is another cultural reality in America. As noted above, gay has traditionally meant both male and female homosexuals, but it is increasingly being used as the word for male homosexuals to the exclusion of lesbians. As Bryan Garner writes:

Gay and lesbian. Though common, this phrasing is peculiarly redundant since lesbians are gay women.…What is actually happening, no doubt, is that gay is undergoing what linguists call specialization — that is, in some of its senses the word is becoming sex-specific. (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009, p. 387)

Consequently, in this instance, aside from adding the comma, I think a professional editor would query the author, explain the historical uses of the words, and suggest that homosexuals be substituted for gays. I also think that the professional editor would query the author to make sure that the addition of the comma is correct, that with the comma the sentence now reads as the author intended. Although I cannot think of a valid reason to omit the comma, perhaps the author has one

Alas, in this instance, neither the comma was added nor the queries made. Alas, also, there were several similar sentences in the samples I was asked to comment on, that had very questionable phraseology but passed the editor without query. Several needed no query, just punctuation.

I think this is less a matter of the editor’s skill, although it could well be that the original editor was not a professional editor, but more of a culture-related problem. It is not easy for out-of-culture editors to catch the cultural nuances of material intended for an audience that lives in another world culturally. For publishers, the question is solely one of containing costs. Instead, it should be one of making sure that the published product doesn’t miscommunicate; unfortunately, that is not the trend in today’s publishing. Just as publishers see a worldwide market for their books, they see a worldwide market for service providers. In some instances, that broad sight is appropriate, but not when it comes to editing for a specific cultural market.

June 27, 2012

The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting

I recently received an e-mail from a long-ago client who lost my services when they lowered their payscale to substarvation rates and began offshore outsourcing nearly 100% of their production process, the exception supposedly being proofreading, for which they paid sub-substarvation prices. Their e-mail stated:

We are a new team with a new process, but still need qualified readers for our books, so I hope you don’t mind that we are contacting you at this time.

We now do all of our composition and copyediting in India. However, we do put all of our books through a cold read using US-based freelancers. Our readers work on first proofs (PDFs)….

The assignment involves checking grammar, style (APA 6th Edition), punctuation, consistency, and poor phrasing. Rework awkward sentences only if confusing or very awkward. Feel free to query the Editor or Author. We realize there will be a lot of questions  with this test and perhaps the first few assignments. When in doubt – make the change and add a query. We want to see your “stuff.”

Needless to say, the rate of pay is very-very-low. They attached a PDF “test,” which they would pay me to take at the lowest rate they offer. The former client deserves a few kudos for at least offering to pay for the test taking.

This is an interesting ploy for obtaining copyediting from American-based editors. Calling it a rose doesn’t make it any less copyediting. It is worth noting that by requiring it be done using PDF rather than in Microsoft Word, the client is implying to most editors that it is not copyediting but proofreading, because experienced editors will tell you that the trend is to do proofreading in PDF. Very few publishers, especially when dealing with book-length projects, will ask for copyediting to be done using PDFs. It is much more difficult to edit a PDF than it is to edit a Word document, as many of the tools that editors use in the editing process are simply unavailable, including specialty spell-checking and the myriad macros that editors use.

The attached “test” was a PDF of composed pages. But if it was already satisfactorily edited (which I would assume because why would a publisher knowingly send manuscript out for editing to incompetent editors?), the “cold reader” — also known as a proofreader — should not be checking “poor phrasing” or “rework[ing] awkward sentences.” Those are editing tasks; they require decision-making skills, knowledge of grammar, and specialized subject-matter language, all of which are why the editor creates a stylesheet that is supposed to accompany the manuscript when it is sent for proofreading.

But call it what you want — rose, stinkweed, proofreading, cold reading — it doesn’t matter: The service they want is copyediting and they want it at substarvation pay.

The e-mail follows a recent trend among publishers. The trend is to offshore outsource copyediting and then ask the local people who the publisher previously hired to do the editing, to “proofread” at a rate that matches what the publisher is paying its offshore editors while simultaneously demanding that the “proofreader” correct all of the errors not fixed or introduced by the offshore editors. Publishers are squeezing local editors by taking away the work and then trying to get the same work after the fact under another guise, one that has always commanded a lesser fee.

In an attempt to lower costs, proofreading is now the new copyediting and copyediting is now the new typesetting/composition. Yes, I know that traditionally typesetting/composition meant simply putting the tendered manuscript into a WYSIWYG form that was called pages, and for the most part, that is what is happening with outsourced offshored copyediting. Publishers are banking on the local proofreaders to do the copyediting.

Not only is this sneaky, but it is also difficult to do well. Traditional proofreading meant comparing the typeset pages to the edited and coded manuscript that had already been copyedited, developmental edited, reviewed by in-house production staff, and reviewed and approved by the author to make sure that the typesetter didn’t introduce new errors.

Much of this changed when publishers switched to electronic editing, as electronic editing reduced the likelihood of typesetting errors. Such errors weren’t eliminated, merely exponentially reduced. With today’s bean counters unwilling to assign much value to editorial skills, publishers are trying to squeeze more editorial work out of freelancers for less pay. As many authors have complained in recent years, this is a recipe for editorial disaster.

Copyediting (along with other forms of editing) is a skill set that becomes honed over the course of years. One doesn’t simply hang out a shingle calling oneself an editor and suddenly become a highly competent editor. As with other skills, copyediting is a collection of myriad skills learned and honed over years of work and learning. It is not a wholly mechanical process; rather, it requires educated judgment calls.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that causes books that have been edited to seem as if they have never met the eyes of an editor. It is this loss that distinguishes a professionally edited, well-edited book from the amateur editor who is doing the editing for a neighbor as a favor.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that publishers seek to regain at a cheaper price by renaming the service they want as “cold reading” rather than copyediting. You can call a rose by another name, but it is still copyediting. It is this ploy that editors need to be aware of and need to say thanks, but no thanks to the “opportunity” being offered — especially if the opportunity is to do the editing in a software program that is really not designed for the task, such as editing in PDF format/software.

As the competition wars heat up, by which I mean as the ebook world with its lower profit margins overtakes the pbook world with its relatively higher profit margins, this ruse by publishers will gain momentum. The result will be increasing numbers of published books that make the literate reader grimace, with yet further squeezing of profit margins as readers rebel at paying high prices for poorly edited books.

Although bean counters have yet to grasp the notion, long-term the survival of publishers will depend as much on quality editing as on changing strategies to deal with ebooks. Editors do provide value but need to receive value in exchange. Smart editors will just say no to opportunities disguised as roses that are really stinkweed.

June 13, 2012

The Business of Editing: Do You Want to Be Acknowledged?

On an editing forum, colleague Carolyn Haley asked a thought-provoking question about being acknowledged as a book’s editor by the book’s author if the editor is not satisfied with the quality of the to-be-published product. She wondered, “[H]ow big is the risk involved in allowing my name to be associated with low-quality books?”

Among the questions that are implicit in her question are these: (a) How much control over the final product does an editor really have? (b) Can an author credit an editor without the editor’s approval? (c) What can an editor do to prevent or get acknowledgment by the author? (d) What harm or good can an acknowledgment do? (e) Who determines whether the final book is of low quality or high quality? (f) Does an acknowledgment really matter?

Alas, none of the questions — explicit or implicit — have easy, infallible answers. Although I gave Carolyn a short reply, I thought her question and dilemma was worth exploring among authors, publishers, and editors, not just the editors that frequent the original forum.

I think analysis has to begin with the baseline question: Does an acknowledgment, or lack of one, really matter? I tackled this question by informally surveying some colleagues, friends, and neighbors about their reading habits. Do they read the acknowledgments page in a book? If yes, do they read it in both fiction and nonfiction, or just fiction, or just nonfiction books? As I suspected, 5% of the sample read the acknowledgments, and of that 5%, 75% read it just in nonfiction.

I grant that my informal survey is far from scientific, but I’d guess it isn’t far off the mark for the general reading public. Few of readers care that an author thanks her children for their patience and the many hamburger helper meals they tolerated during the authoring process, or the author’s spouse or parents or first grade teacher. We know none of these people and whether they were inspiring or not doesn’t make much difference to our reading of fiction.

I was more surprised at the lack of interest in reading the acknowledgments in nonfiction. (Let me confess that I have the “habit” of reading every page — including copyright, dedication, acknowledgments, table of contents, preface, and foreword — in both fiction and nonfiction, a habit I frequently regret, especially in fiction.) Acknowledgments in nonfiction can be very revealing about the effort an author has put into his or her research and even can provide a clue as to the quality of that research.

Regardless, I think the informal survey justifies the conclusion that an acknowledgment probably doesn’t matter. Even if it does matter, how does one judge whether a book is good or bad quality? I have been amazed over my 60+ reading years how many books received awards for quality that I wouldn’t consider quality at all. Consider James Joyce’s Ulysses. This book is considered an important piece of English literature; I wouldn’t give it a 2-dumpster rating, let alone a 2-star rating. I would never recommend anyone buy it or read it unless they wanted to commit mental suicide by reading. Yet, I can imagine that an acknowledged editor would be beaming. Book quality is in the eyes of the individual reader and I know few readers who would automatically say the editor must have been bad because the book is poor quality; readers are much more likely to blame the author, unless the book is riddled with basic spelling and grammar errors that even the least-competent editor should have picked up.

One also needs to consider what the average reader would make of an acknowledgement of the book’s editor. How many readers really have a clue as to what an editor does? How many really care? The growth of self-published editor-less ebooks demonstrates to me that readers are not equating good or bad quality with editor-no editor. I would be willing to venture that 99.9% of the positive or negative reaction to book “quality” by readers is aimed at the author and not to any editor. In fact, if the reader considers a book to be of poor quality, the reader is more likely to exclaim that the author should have hired an editor, and do so without having read the acknowledgments to see if an editor is listed.

In checking some of the ebooks I have in my to-be-read pile, I note that often the editor who is acknowledged is listed as “my wife,” “my neighbor,” “my beta reader”; in only one book was the listing such as to imply a professional editor. Consequently, I am not convinced that an author who is looking for an editor will suddenly start scanning acknowledgment pages to find an editor, not even of books that the author has read and liked. Nor is that author likely to recall who was named as editor of a book they liked but can no longer locate. Additionally, I suspect most authors are sophisticated enough to know that the final published form of a book does not necessarily reflect an editor’s work because the author has the final say and can accept or reject an editor’s work/suggestions.

So in the end, I come down on the side that says it doesn’t matter. With more than 1.5 million books published each year in the United States alone, it doesn’t even matter statistically. Unless the book garners a wide audience, in which case it would be a bestseller and the editor’s belief that it is of low quality matters not at all, it is unlikely that more than a few people will read the book, some of whom will believe it is a 5-star contribution to literature and some of whom will view it as a 1-star insult.

This leads, then, to the question of whether an editor can prevent an author from acknowledging the editor. Absent a contractual term that gives the editor that right, I’d say no. The editor can ask and the author should be willing to do as asked, but there is little else that an editor can do. Yet, if it really doesn’t matter, why make a mountain out of a molehill? An editor should always remember that one reader’s great literature is another reader’s trash.

The one caveat to all this is that I would be adamant about not being named if I had corrected misspellings and misuses of homonyms and language only to discover that the author rejected those corrections. Unlike the situation of the narrative — is it good, bad, or indifferent — the mechanics of spelling and word choice can reflect badly on an editor, except that I fall back to my original proposition, to-wit, few people read acknowledgments or remember whether a book was edited and by whom it was edited. Ultimately, even in this scenario, I’m not sure it matters.

I’m curious as to what editors, authors, agents, and publishers who read An American Editor think of this “problem.” What do you think?

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