An American Editor

March 6, 2013

When Editors and Authors Fail

There is at least one area of the manuscript process in which authors and editors equally fail: Their lack of mastery of the tools of their trade, especially Microsoft Word.

What brings this to mind are recent queries on several fora by editors and authors asking how to accomplish what I view as basic procedures in Word, as well as queries asking how to do something in Word for which they already own an add-in to Word, such as EditTools or Editor’s ToolKit Plus, that easily accomplishes the task. I would probably have ignored those fora queries were it not for a manuscript I was asked to look at which was a nightmare of formatting.

What is it about text boxes that attracts authors? What is that compels authors and editors to create yet another new style in a futile attempt to make the manuscript look visually like what they think it should look like as a typeset product? What is it about Word that seduces authors and editors into needing to try “features”? What is it about the tools we use that entices us to take the lazy way of learning how to use them?

Word is a great product except when it is the bane of my existence. I used to curse Microsoft every time I received a manuscript that was riddled with poor formatting choices and myriad styles — more styles than there are pickles in the universe, or so it seemed, and certainly more than needed — as part of the basic (Normal) template. Now I don’t curse Microsoft so much because I realize that it is us end users who succumb to the lure of Word’s “exotic” options who are the primary problem.

Have you ever wondered why Word isn’t flagging a word as misspelled when you think it should? Some basic possibilities that every Word user should know and should check before threatening to punch out their monitor are: Is spell check turned off for the document or for text to which a particular style is applied? Is the wrong language governing the manuscript? Yet, much too often neither the editor nor the author has checked these possibilities.

The problems begin with the author of the document. Every author should know how their manuscript is going to be processed. Is it going to be edited and then typeset in a program like InDesign? If yes, then why worry about “formatting” the manuscript to make it look like you want it to look when published? The reality is all that work will be for naught, and 99% of the time will be done wrong anyway.

If you are writing a manuscript that will be published in English, shouldn’t you make sure that English — not French or Spanish — is the language choice for the document? I am always amazed when I receive a manuscript  that is to be published in English and the language preference is French. Of course, the very first thing an editor should do is verify that the correct language module is being applied by Word and fix it if it is wrong — yet, I often receive for review a document that a client has had edited only to find that the wrong language module is applied.

And why text boxes? Of all the things that are wrong about Word, the text (and graphic) boxes are the absolute worst. Text boxes don’t stick in place; text boxes do not break over pages; if the text box is too big for the page or not big enough to display all of the text it holds, it gives no clue that there is hidden in-box text; text boxes obscure text and other text and graphic boxes — basically, text boxes are evil and not easy to get rid of. Need to box some text? Use a table cell. It works just as well and has none of the evil features of a text box.

More importantly for the author: If the author is paying the editor, the author will save money by not using text boxes because you can’t convert a text box to text like you can convert a table. To avoid the evils of text boxes, the editor has to find each text box, select the text, copy it, paste it outside the text box, then delete the text box — and hope that all of the text was copied.

I know it is called a text box by Microsoft; that doesn’t mean it should be used to put text in a box!

Consider the styles that you create. Is it really necessary to have 18 of the same style with the only difference being the amount the text is condensed or expanded (and why expand or condense the text?) or the fraction of an inch of spacing there is between lines (why not have equal spacing between all lines?). Of course, the editor should be cleaning out excess styles, but there are usually so many, we all give up and let it be someone else’s problem.

What is being missed from this picture is that if the manuscript is going to be professionally typeset, all of these efforts by the author and/or editor to “design” the manuscript and make sure that what is wanted on a page actually displays in Word on a single page are wasted. All will be ignored by the designer and the typesetter; they will use programs and tools appropriate to the design and composition function, such as InDesign, not Microsoft Word, which is a strong word processor but a very weak composition and design engine.

There is much more, but you have the idea. The real problem is that neither author nor editor has taken the time to master the basic tool of their trade. I know editors who use Word but do not even have a single dedicated reference book for the version of Word they are using. They prefer to stumble through, thinking that their role is limited and so they need limited features. Perhaps they do only need limited features, but they can never know if there is another feature that would make their job easier if they were aware of it in the absence of stumbling across it. (When I buy a new version of Word, I also buy several different manuals and spend a full day going through them and the new version.)

Authors use text boxes without thinking about the feature because they think to themselves “I want this material boxed” and so they use a text box — after all, why would it be called a text box if it wasn’t intended to be used to box text? Authors want text to be in columns so they use tabs (or worse, spaces) to try to align the material, when a table would be so much better. (Did they not ever notice that the text they have so beautifully aligned using tabs or spaces is no longer aligned when they change computers or fonts? Or that it often wraps and becomes confusing when moved to another computer?) Why not use the table feature? Usually authors tell me it is because they do not want lines (rules) around the material. OK, but tables do not have to have visible rules.

Authors and editors fail to create the best and least-expensive document to process because neither understands Word’s functions. If both took some time to master the basic tool of their trade, the author could save some money, and the editor could focus more on the editing and less on the peripheral matters that take up so much our time (and thus either raises the author’s cost or decreases the editor’s effective hourly rate and profit).

A lost point is that a feature’s name is not always indicative of what the feature is best used for. To know what feature to use, one must be knowledgable about the tool and all of its features. An editor should be asking, “Why do I need to ask in a forum how to change the language preference from French to English? Why don’t I know how to do this already?”

When it comes to formatting a Word document, less is infinitely better than more.

January 7, 2013

The Business of Editing: Will the Tide Turn for Us?

In the December 2012 issue of The Atlantic, “The Insourcing Boom” discussed the trend initiated by GE to return manufacturing to America from China. It and the companion articles discussing manufacturing offshoring and onshoring are well worth reading.

The article made various points about why offshoring originally occurred and why inshoring is the new manufacturing phenomenon. The articles correctly, I think, conclude that not all manufacturing will return to the United States but the more important aspects will.

What tickled my thinking when reading this article was what GE discovered when it returned to America: that many of the manufacturing skills that Americans had before offshoring became the rage had been lost and needed to be revived. GE and other manufacturers assumed that because it had once been done here it could easily be done again. But America had moved on.

The concept of offshoring was laid out originally by the Harvard economist Raymond Vernon who stated that as manufacturing of a product matured, meaning it no longer needed innovation and was just a repetitive process, manufacturing would be offshored to where labor costs were lower. This is what I call the Foxconn effect: The assembly workers simply do repetitive tasks when building, say, an iPhone; they are not expected to design or innovate. Consequently, massive assembly plants with thousands of workers are built in low-wage countries. Vernon’s theory of the manufacturing lifecycle has been repeatedly seen in the past few decades.

But this has changed as manufacturers increasingly become aware that quality is important and that offshored goods do suffer from quality problems — not that the quality was horrible, but that it wasn’t at the expected level as consumers began demanding higher quality.

Does this not sound like the publishing industry?

A British editor cannot be beat when it comes to editing a book for the British market; an American editor cannot be beat when it comes to editing for the American market. (And, yes, I know that each of us can point to an editor from another country who is a better editor than “native” editors. Every rule has its exceptions, which are not its majority.) Inshore editors know their markets and their cultures; it is one of the skills that they bring to the table. That knowledge, a part of the quality process, is what differentiates editors. As good as an Indian editor may be, the Indian editor lacks that intimate knowledge of America that makes a difference, just as the American editor lacks that knowledge of India.

What I hear all the time from the production editors I deal with is grumbles about the quality of offshored editing. Unfortunately, I expect to hear the same grumbles about onshored editing in the not too distant future. Part of the blame belongs with our educational system (see The Decline and Fall of the American Editor), but part of the blame belongs with the publishers themselves.

By offshoring editorial functions, publishers discourage people from considering editing as an occupation; the jobs aren’t there. That means that there is no reason for people to agitate for better language education. Afterall, if we do not need to know how to distinguish a noun from a verb, what difference does it make if we do not learn it? Publishers also discourage people from learning language skills by depressing wages for those few who do have/learn the skills upon which publishers rely. The wage depression comes about by publishers threatening to send even more work offshore because wages are low.

As Charles Fishman wrote in his The Atlantic article, “The Insourcing Boom“:

Harry Moser, an MIT-trained engineer, spent decades running a business that made machine tools. After retiring, he started an organization called the Reshoring Initiative in 2010, to help companies assess where to make their products. “The way we see it,” says Moser, “about 60 percent of the companies that offshored manufacturing didn’t really do the math. They looked only at the labor rate—they didn’t look at the hidden costs.” …

[According to] John Shook, a manufacturing expert and the CEO of the Lean Enterprise Institute, in Cambridge, Massachusetts[,] “…it was also the inability to see the total costs—the engineers in the U.S. and factory managers in China who can’t talk to each other; the management hours and money flying to Asia to find out why the quality they wanted wasn’t being delivered. The cost of all that is huge.”

But many of those hidden costs come later. In the first blush of cheap manufacturing, it’s easy to overlook the slow loss of your own skills, the gradual homogenization of your products, the corrosion of quality and decline of innovation….”

Slowly publishers are seeing the hidden costs of offshoring. In some instances, they are finding that true costs are higher than they expected. Quality is down. Schedules are being kept but at great sacrifice. Communication is difficult because of different work hours and holiday schedules.

At least one publisher is increasing the number of books it requires to be edited onshore; the quality issues became so great that both inhouse production staff and outside customers were complaining. In some instances, authors were refusing to work with offshore editors because of the communication gap.

But this is one publisher among many. Publishers are conflicted. They need to lower costs yet they cannot let quality decline greatly. There is no easy resolution. Yet I think the experience of the hard good manufacturers like GE will ultimately influence the offshoring decisions of publishers. It may take a decade — we all know that publishers are slow to change — but I expect that the offshoring trend, at least for editorial services, will reverse. I expect each year to see increased onshoring and less offshoring.

I also expect that noneditorial production, such as composition and printing, will continue to be done offshore as long as there is a wage advantage. This simply mimics what is happening with, for example, GE: those tasks that require creativity and collaboration are being repatriated; those that are “mechanical” and repetitive remain offshore.

Ultimately, the question for publishers will be, “Is the onshoring effort coming too slowly and too late so that they cannot find skilled editors and those that they can find command a price greater than they want to pay?” Will publishers come to regret having offshored to save pennies that are now costing dollars?

For editors, the tide of onshoring may be coming in and it may lead to higher wages for the more highly skilled among us. What do you think?

November 26, 2012

The Merger Apocalypse

It has been a while since I wrote about ebooks and books in general. For the most part, nothing new or exciting has been happening once you move away from the hardware side of things. But the merger of Random House and Penguin is a comment-worthy event.

In the past, consolidation has been very bad for professional editors. Somehow these mergers and purchases needed to be paid for and with supposedly declining sales in bookworld, the way to pay for the merger was to cut expenses. The primary way to cut expenses has been to cut costs in areas that consumers do not see or notice until too late, thus primarily in editorial and book production.

Past consolidations have resulted in layoff of editorial and production personnel and in lowering of fees paid to freelance editors. In preconsolidation days, there was competition for editorial services, so freelancers could easily raise prices. In postconsolidation days, competition has been greatly reduced, there are fewer publishers to compete with each other for editorial services and thus the (successful) downward pressure on pricing. Freelance editors have little place to turn when where there was once two there is now but one job opportunity (publisher).

The merger of Random House and Penguin, who combined will account for approximately 25% of traditionally published (as opposed to self-published) books, is likely to spur a second merger, that of HarperCollins and Macmillan (or perhaps it will be HarperCollins and Simon and Schuster), who combined will account for at least another 20% of that market. And when pricing for freelancers is set, it will be set companywide — it will make little difference which imprint of the RandomPenguin colossus a freelancer works for, the pricing will be fairly uniform, and increasingly depressed. Or so experience says.

I understand why the merger is occurring: somehow a company has to combat Amazon and Apple and the most logical way is to make it so that Amazon and Apple cannot ignore the publisher’s demands because neither can forego stocking 25% of traditionally published books. (And let us not forget that Amazon is working to build its own publishing behemoth as a foil to these publisher tactics.)

Yet there is another possibility. What if one or both of these megapublishers — RandomPenguin or HarperMacmillan — decides to combat Amazon and Apple directly? It strikes me that the way to do it would be to buy Barnes & Noble. Buying B&N would give them immediate access directly to consumers. They could set terms for distribution with their captive company (bring back agency pricing) and tell Amazon and Apple they, too, can have access to these books but on the same terms as B&N. It would put the publishers back into control quickly, and B&N could be bought cheaply — a couple of billion dollars ought to do it.

Another possibility, although one that would likely have limited success, would be for publishers to start a “first edition” club only for brick-and-mortar stores. B&M stores would be given the exclusive opportunity to sell to consumers collectible first edition-first printing-author signed hardcover books that come with an included ebook copy. If done smartly, it could be an incentive for consumers to enter a b&m bookstore. I think, however, publishers would blow it simply because they seem to blow everything else.

The bottom line is that just as these consolidations are likely to be bad news for editors, they are likely, too, to be bad news for consumers and for sellers like Amazon and Apple.

The consolidation of the publishing industry has been ongoing for 30 years. The problem is that there are fewer large publishers to consolidate today than 30 years ago. It strikes me that if the Justice Department doesn’t think that Amazon dominates the ebook retail market in the United States and that it never did, it would be hard pressed to oppose these consolidations or even the purchase of B&N by a combination of the megapublishers because their market position would be less than that of Amazon.

Are we in for interesting times in publishing? I think more worrisome than interesting. If book quality is noticeably declining preconsolidation, what will it be postconsolidation? If editorial incomes are in decline, how much more rapid will that decline be postconsolidation? If book prices are on the rise, how much faster will they rise postconsolidation?

The question that comes to mind, however, is this: Would RandomPenguin have come about if Amazon were not acting like the Wal-Mart of ebook world? I have no inside information but I suspect that the answer is no, the merger would not have been proposed. I think it is fear of the Amazon vision of the future that is driving this merger, with the final straw being the court’s decision to approve the settlement in the agency pricing case. That settlement gives publishers little leeway against Amazon in the absence of controlling a large enough portion of the market that Amazon cannot do without that portion’s product, which would be the case with RandomPenguin controlling 25% of the traditionally published market.

The more I think about the megapublishers joining to purchase B&N, the more I think it would be a smart move. There are a lot of ways that publisher ownership of the chain could effect cost savings, and with good planning, the physical stores could be made relevant again. More importantly, B&N’s online store is already a well-established and well-known destination for books for consumers, which would relieve publishers of having to create a new online presence and drive traffic to it, a difficult task. And, as noted earlier, it would provide leverage for dealing with Amazon and Apple.

What do you think?

September 5, 2012

The Business of Editing: Whom or Who?

Sometimes language usage can be very difficult. This is especially true when we rely on our ears. If a construction doesn’t sound right when spoken, we often assume it cannot be right when written. This is the problem of whom and whowhom often sounds incorrect when it is correct.

Because the growth and modernization of language rarely follows the written-oral (aural) trajectory and nearly always follows the oral (aural)-written trajectory, word usage comes and goes based on the latter trajectory. This has been recognized for years, as evidenced by Grant White’s, an 18th century grammarian, pronouncement in 1870 predicting the death of whom. In his great treatise on the American language , The American Language (1936), H.L. Mencken wrote that “Whom is fast vanishing from Standard American.” The predictions of death have been ongoing, yet whom remains a part of the lexicon.

One problem with whom is that it sounds stilted. A more fundamental problem is that so many people do not understand when to use whom and when to use who.

Who is the subject of a verb (“It was Jon who put out the fire”) and the complement of a linking verb (“They know who started the fire”), whereas whom is the object of a verb (“Whom did you speak with?”) or a preposition (“She is the person with whom we need to speak”).

Yet when I look at the foregoing description, I do not find that my understanding of when to use who and when to use whom is any easier to implement. The subject versus object distinction is helpful but not always clear.

Perhaps a better method for determining which is correct when is what I call the substitution principle, which is found in The Gregg Reference Manual (10th ed., 2005 by William Sabin). According to Gregg (¶1061 c and d),

Use who whenever he, she, they, I, or we could be substituted in the who clause.

Use whom whenever him, her, them, me, or us could be substituted as the object of the verb or as the object of a preposition in the whom clause.

The substitution principle makes the choice easier. Using examples from Gregg, here is how it works, beginning with who:

Who booked our conference?
Who shall I say is calling?
Who did they say was chosen?

The substitutes for the foregoing who examples are, respectively:

He booked our conference.
I shall say he is calling.
They did say she was chosen.

Now let’s look at whom:

Whom did you see today?
To whom were you talking?
Whom did you say you wanted to see?

The substitutes for the foregoing whom examples are, respectively:

You did see her today.
You were talking to him.
You did say you wanted to see her.

The substitution principle seems to work fairly well. Yet it does not avoid the problem of whom sounding stilted and wrong. And because it sounds stilted and wrong, it is likely that it will not be properly used. Perhaps it shouldn’t be used at all.

Perhaps we should rewrite sentences that demand a whom or at least those that make us wonder if it should be whom rather than who. How many of us react positively to “Whom are you going to endorse in the next election?” Whether read or spoken, it comes across as stilted. We are more likely to write and say, “Who is your candidate in the next election?” or even “Who are you going to endorse in the next election?” because it reads and sounds more natural to our aural sense.

The question neither asked nor addressed so far is this: Does it matter if we use who in place of whom? My thinking is that it does not matter because we will write and speak the who sentence in a form that aurally sounds natural and correct, and thus no one will question the use of who and wonder if it should have been whom. Having said that, the reality is that, as with most things in the English language, everything depends on context.

The failure to get who and whom correct in fiction is of less concern than in nonfiction. Yet even in nonfiction, unlike other words, the misuse of who and whom is rarely, if ever, misleading or a cause of miscommunication. To my way of thinking, that is the key to language usage: If there is no miscommunication, then the ultimate goal has been met; if there is a chance of miscommunication, then correction is necessary.

For most of us, it will be the rare sentence that will cause us to pause and remark, “I wonder if this should have been whom and not who.” Should such a case arise (i.e., one where we pause and wonder), we should rewrite the sentence or apply the substitution test and make the correction. In the absence of that  “aha” moment, I think we should simply let the matter go because it is not causing any miscommunication or stumbling.

Yes, there is a grammatically correct usage for who and whom; but the purpose of grammar is to ensure understanding. Automatic application of grammar rules for the sake of applying them does not further grammar’s goal in this case. Flexibility has been the cornerstone of English grammar over the course of time.

What do you think?

January 11, 2010

A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty

Part of the problem for publishers in the attempt to justify pricing for books, regardless of the form — ebook or print — is their inability to convince consumers that there is any relationship between the end product and the cost other than barebones greed. Because I am an editor (disclosure time: I am a freelance editor and am owner of Freelance Editorial Services, an independent editorial company), my perspective on what it costs to produce a book and what a publisher does differs from that I would have if I were solely a consumer; however, I am also a consumer of both ebooks and print, and not always a happy one (see my earlier post about why a good editor is important).

What a publisher brings to the table, other than high advances for authors like Stephen King, Dan Brown, and Sarah Palin, is well hidden from the consumer. What the consumer sees is only the end product. This is really no different than manufacturing an automobile or the latest pharmaceutical phenomenon or even a candidate for political office: all we consumers ever see is the finished product. And this is where publishers fail us and themselves: Publishers are doing nothing to instill consumer confidence in the publisher’s product!

Consumers are buying books that are riddled with errors and are frustrated; I really hate paying $40 for a hardcover that has missing footnotes, or $14 for an ebook that regularly confuses the characters names and whether a character is dead or alive. One consumer reported a mystery novel that had the University of Georgia located in North Carolina and Duke University in Georgia. I have bought books with sentences with mixed up homonyms like “It seams that the principal reason for there work was . . .” or with unclear phrases like “using the gene deleted mice” (does the author mean that the gene got rid of the mice or that the mice were missing a particular gene — but for the want of a hyphen there goes clarity), or, as noted earlier, with character names that change nearly as often as the pages are turned.

I’ll grant that there is no such thing as the “perfectly” produced book — human beings are imperfect and make errors — but there is such a thing as quality control and paying for quality. Too many publishers, to appease shareholder appetite for high quarterly profits, are forsaking quality in the editorial process believing that consumers don’t care, or if they do care, will only grumble and buy the next book in the series anyway. This lack of editorial quality is particularly evident in ebooks that created by scanning print editions that are thrust on the market without proofing first, riddled with errors that even a first grader would recognize.

So publishers are losing the public relations battle with consumers. The end product is not worthy of respect, and if the end product is not worthy of respect, neither is the publisher. Thus my second modest proposal: Publishers should warrant the quality of their books!

A consumer wouldn’t buy a warrantless car or TV or  computer or ebook device; consumers believe that a manufacturer’s warranty indicates quality or at least that the manufacturer is willing to stand behind its product. Perhaps it is time for publishers to join the 21st century and say: “We put a lot of care and effort into our books so as to produce a quality book. When you buy our book, we assure you that it is a quality product and if it isn’t, we’ll do something about it: We stand behind every book we sell!”

A book is a commodity, no different from any other commodity except that a book is a warrantless commodity. Consumers are conditioned as a result of years of it being this way, to accept declining book quality: How many books have you returned because of poor quality in the last year? If publishers warranted the quality of their books, there would be an obvious justification, albeit an incomplete one, for the price of books.

The biggest stumbling block is figuring out how to make a warranty work and what would be warranted. When a part fails on an automobile, it is easy to identify the problem and fix it. It isn’t so easy with a book. But there are possibilities. For example, a publisher could warrant that the book contains no more than 15 misused homonyms, no obviously missing text, no more than 15 misspellings, that characters are consistent throughout (e.g., Jane doesn’t suddenly become Jayne), that the book footnote 25 cites really does exist. I’m sure you and publishers could come up with other things worth warranting.

What happens then. Perhaps the way to deal with warranty problems is to have a warranty alert website for each book where readers could post found errors. The publisher would indicate whether the errors will be corrected (and if not, why not), and when a new version will be available (or if no new version, why no new version). The consumer would then have a choice: If the consumer bought an ebook, the consumer could redownload from the original retailer the updated version. Or the consumer could choose to do nothing. With printed books it would be harder, but a little creativity would come up with solutions (e.g., a discount coupon for another book from the publisher, or the return of the book for a refund based on the book’s condition, or something else).

Okay, I admit I haven’t worked out all the details, all the ins and outs. But I offer the idea of a quality warranty because publishers need to convince consumers that publishers aren’t just greedy corporations (see The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (I)) who have no concern for their customers; they have to convince consumers that they bring something worthwhile to the world of publishing, something that is not easily replaced, and offering a quality warranty could be one step in that process. What do you think?

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