An American Editor

January 13, 2014

Evaluating Editors

Last week our dishwasher died. It had served us well for 14 years but finally gave a last gasp, which meant it was time to buy a new one. But what do I know about dishwashers? Not much. I know what features I want and what I expect it to do, but among brands and models, I don’t know good from bad and really have no way to test them in advance of buying one and subsequently learning whether or not I made a good decision.

In the very olden days, filling this knowledge gap was difficult. The primary resource was anecdotal evidence from family, friends, neighbors, and advertising. If my cousin was ecstatic about her new dishwasher, then I would have likely looked at one from the same brand — even though her dishwasher was already 7 years old and the model was no longer available.

Today things are a bit different. The Internet has made it so. But even today much of the consumer’s decision making relies on anecdotal opinion, with the difference being the number of opinions that one can access. The opinion universe is nearly infinite.

Although I did look at comments about dishwashers, I rapidly found that they were not all that helpful. Some were much too general and broad, some were gripes about “defects” that I wouldn’t call defects, many were about models no longer available. In the end, I relied on my primary standby, Consumer Reports, which tested, reported on, and rated 228 models of dishwashers. We looked at the top 10 models and bought one of the top 4 models.

This shopping experience made me think of editing. I can find information from reliable organizations that test and evaluate both expensive and inexpensive appliances, but if I want to hire an editor, it is a crapshoot. In some countries and in some specialty areas, it is slightly better than a crapshoot because there are certifying organizations. However, the value of the certification lies in how well recognized that certification is among the consuming populace. I suspect that in many instances, the organizations are not well known outside the profession.

All of this brings me back to the complaint that I have made before about the lack of licensing standards for editors. Many, if not most, editors are generally opposed to any kind of national governing body that would test and license editors. They do not see the value of making the editorial profession akin to lawyering, accounting, therapy, doctoring, and even hairdressing; that is, minimum education standards followed by testing and licensing and, perhaps, even continuing education requirements. Such a scheme is viewed as just one more financial roadblock designed to curb individual freedom and prevent the marketplace from deciding (the idea being that cream will always rise).

Twenty-five years ago I thought similarly; today I think differently. The world has changed for editors. Thirty years ago, when I started in this profession, an American book publisher didn’t consider offshoring editorial work. Consequently, the pool of competitors was limited. It was further limited because there was a close working relationship between the in-house editor and the freelance editor; poor work didn’t slip by. The Internet and the internationalization of publishing has changed that relationship. The pool of editors is now global, not local, and in-house editors handle so many more projects than they did 30 years ago that they do not have the time to work closely with the freelance editor.

The close relationship between the in-house editor and the freelance editor allowed for an evaluation of the freelance editor’s work that no longer occurs. It even allowed for informal mentoring. Although the ease of entry to the editing profession hasn’t really changed (it was easy then and it is easy now), the rigorous evaluation of an editor that occurred then has, for the most part, gone by the wayside today.

The result is that the profession of editing now faces more challenges than it is capable of handling. First is the challenge of ensuring basic competency. Although the topic of another essay, it is worth noting that education in America is in great decline, with Kansas being at the forefront of that decline and the other states watching Kansas and itching to mimic it. The trouble in Kansas is that the Republican-led government is defunding education, having slashed public education funding to 16.5% below the 2008 funding level, and working to slash even more. The consequence will be that future editors will be drawn from a pool of inadequately educated people. If the slashing were limited to Kansas, it would only be Kansas-educated editors who would be disadvantaged. But with other states looking to mimic the Kansas approach, the inadequacy will be much wider spread. Licensing and education requirements to be an editor would not solve the problem but would help to minimize it by assuring a minimum competency.

The second challenge is ensuring the ability of competent editors to earn a living, or at least having the opportunity to do so. If our profession remains as libertarian as it currently is, and if the ease of entry — just hang out a shingle and call one’s self an editor — remains, the consequences will be that better qualified and more competent editors will leave the profession because it will be too difficult to compete economically, which will lead to a further degradation in quality of the editorial product.

The third challenge is changing the decision-to-hire-an-editor driver from price to quality. As long as the decision driver remains or is dominated by price, the highly skilled editor will be unable to compete. We see this now with authors who talk about not having the money to hire an editor or who are willing to pay no more than $200 to edit a 500-page manuscript — and then expect, if not outright demand, the “perfect” edit. Editing is like most crafts in that it is a hands-on skill. Although some aspects can be automated, the reading of a manuscript word by word cannot be. Paying $200 for editing a 500-page manuscript amounts to $8 an hour, assuming the manuscript can be read and edited at a pace of 20 pages an hour; at a pace of 10 pages an hour, the pay is $4 an hour. How long do you think it would be before price drove highly skilled editors into other professions?

The fourth challenge is objectively evaluating editors in a fashion that is universally understood by the consumers of editing. Of all the challenges — those identified above and those left unidentified — this is the most difficult to overcome. Why? Reasons include resistance on the part of editors who are semi-successful today; a lack of editors willing to step forward and accept the mantle of leadership in this task; the number of part-time editors for whom editing is a way to earn vacation money; and editors (freelance and in-house) who have yet to enter the profession who are not being taught the basic skills they need to identify good from poor editing.

If editors could be more objectively evaluated, editing might well return to the state of being a respected, skilled profession that attracts highly skilled and educated people and allows them to earn a middle class living. I think raising the profession in this manner could turn the decision driver from price to quality, which would benefit both editors and the consumers of editing. I also think one way to accomplish these goals is to have standards, education requirements, and licensing. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor


January 21, 2013

The Business of Editing: New Year, New Books

It’s a new year and one of the first tasks I undertook as the calendar changed from 2012 to 2013 was to create the “books” I will use during 2013 to track how my business is doing. It doesn’t take me long to create the new books, less than an hour, but it is — aside from obtaining business to keep track of — the most important task I will undertake in the new year.

I know that there are many ways of keeping track of how well one’s business is doing. Over my 30 years as a freelancer, I have modified not only what information I keep, but how I keep it. About 10 years ago, I settled on my current system, which has been holding up well for me.

But before deciding how to keep the records, the decision as to what records to keep must be made. Once I decided on the information I needed, I then decided on how I was going to keep and use the information.

Basically, in addition to the usual chores of tracking income and expenses, there is certain information I want to know about each project I work on. Item #1 in the must-know column is how much time I am spending working on a project. Even the editors who subcontract to me are required to include on their invoices the number of hours worked.

Don’t misunderstand: I do not care if a subcontractor takes 10 hours or 30 hours to complete a project; I care that the effective hourly rate I am receiving from a client is sufficient to warrant continuing to do work for the client and I care that the subcontractor is making a reasonable effective hourly rate. (I discuss effective hourly rates in Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand.) As part of the effective hourly rate discussion, I also keep in mind my Rule of Three, which is a critical determinant of whether I keep or fire a client. (Note, however, that this rule does not apply to one-shot projects such as are often encountered when working directly with authors.)

Keeping track of hours and my effective hourly rate also serves as a clue as to whether I am working as efficiently as I can. The data give me information so that I can determine that over the course of time my effective hourly rate for a project should be at least $x; that is, the average of all my projects over that period. If that number is $75 an hour and I find that my most recent projects came in at $35 to $50 an hour, I know I need to do some investigating. So, accurate hours are important — even though I charge a per-page or project rate rather than an hourly rate, my thinking is geared toward the effective hourly rate (EHR) statistic.

Another bit of information that I want to know is how projects break down by individual publishers and within individual publishers, by inhouse editor. Am I getting a balanced workload from a publisher/editor or are the projects skewed in one direction? If skewed, are they skewed toward a low EHR or a high EHR?

Along with that information, I also want to know how problematic a project was. For example, was the project loaded with incomplete references that were almost uniformly in the wrong style and thus requiring an excessive amount of time to edit? Consequently, I also rate a completed project on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being easy, 5 being average or “balanced,” 10 being excessively difficult). If I find that a particular inhouse editor sends me only projects that rate 8 or 9, I think about whether I want to continue to accept projects from the editor.

There are a lot of factors that go into my rating a project, including how much information I did not receive about a project that I needed and how extensive the client’s style exceptions are (e.g., it raises the difficulty number if the client tells me to adhere to AMA 10th ed. style, but then sends me a list of 100 exceptions). This is the most subjective of the data I keep, but it is important because the last thing I want is to find that nearly all my projects are in the 8 to 10 range, but is without compensation that matches the difficulty level.

Of course, I also track page count, but do so for more than calculating the EHR: I want to track ratings along with manuscript length. This ratio is one reason I prefer very large projects (i.e., thousands of manuscript pages) — such projects allow me to get a rhythm going and make more effective use of editing tools such as EditTools. Page count also tells me how busy I am and whether or not I should consider doing more books in a particular series.

There are other little bits of information I track, but the above are the keys. I use both QuickBooks Pro and Microsoft Excel to maintain my records. QuickBooks Pro makes it easy to compare performance over time; for example, I can easily compare income and expense information for the first month of 2013 against the first month of 2012, 2011, and as far back as my first use of QuickBooks Pro. QuickBook Pros also allows me to check on sources of revenue in detail. And tracking accounts receivable is a breeze. (It also makes it easy to generate the reports I need for my accountant for tax filings.)

Excel lets me easily keep duplicate information about billing (I like to know that should one program fail for some reason, I have an alternative handy) and it allows me to track the bits of information I am interested in collecting and to manipulate them for analysis. QuickBooks Pro doesn’t require a resetting of the forms each year — it is a continuous history; Excel, however, does require me to reset the forms each year. I’m sure that a more advanced user of Excel wouldn’t have to reset the forms, but using Excel is not my job, editing is, and it is pretty easy to reset the forms for each new year. (I do retain, however, the prior years’ forms for a comparative history. I have Excel information going back to my first days as a freelancer.)

Now that we are at the beginning of a new year, you should think about what data you want to keep and how to keep it. The key is to make sure that you have enough data to make business-related decisions on facts and not on supposition. Keeping track of data is not time-consuming; it is necessary to maintaining a healthy and prosperous business.

October 19, 2010

Finding a Professional Editor: The Needle in the Haystack Problem

On one of the ebook lists of which I am a member, the question was asked: How does one find a professional editor? On the surface, this doesn’t seem like too big a problem, but dig deeper and one realizes that this can be a gargantuan task, like finding a needle in a haystack. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of people calling themselves professional editors, but there is no governing body that issues editorial licenses after proof of minimal competency.

The issue really comes down to how one defines professional when speaking of editors.

In past articles [see, e.g., The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)], I suggested some of the things that separate the professional from the amateur editor. The problem is at least twofold: (a) you can’t easily verify that the editor really owns and knowledgeably uses these resources, and (b) owning the right tools doesn’t turn a person into a professional.

The definition of professional also turns on what the editor is expected to do (for an explanation of what editors do, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). A professional copyeditor is not necessarily a professional developmental editor nor vice versa. Different skills and resources are needed.

As you can see, the problem of defining professional and then finding a professional editor is just that — a problem! I am not sure there is an easy or sure way.

One suggestion that many editors make is to ask about books (or articles or journals or whatever is appropriate) that the person has worked on in the past. The idea is that someone who has already edited 200 fantasy novels would be a professional editor of fantasy novels. I’m not sure that is sufficient. My own experience — I’ve been editing medical books for 26 years — tells me that all that it proves is that I have edited books, not how well I have edited them, and how well I have edited them is the true crux of the matter. I think past work is one criterion, but what do you do with the brilliant, young editor who is just starting out? We all had to start at zero at some point in our career.

There is something else to note about the past projects list. If a person copyedits only short journal articles, it is possible that their list would be thousands of titles long and thus impressive by sheer weight of numbers, especially compared to the person who edits primarily long tomes and thus can do fewer projects over the same timeframe. I know this because most of my work is on books that are 5,000 manuscript pages or longer, and it isn’t possible to complete such long projects in the same length of time as a 150-manuscript-page project.

Another suggestion was years of experience doing the particular type of work. I admit that I like this criterion better than the past project criterion for a lot of reasons, but the primary one is that it would be difficult to sustain a livelihood as an editor over the course of many years if you didn’t have at least minimal competency. This is even more impressive if the person has a couple of long-term clients. But, alas, this, too, is insufficient to separate the professional from the professional-wannabe.

A third suggestion that is often heard is to ask for references. But how telling are they? You have to trust the person giving the reference and have to assume that the person knows the difference between quality and nonquality work. A glowing reference may be because the work went smoothly and was finished on time and on budget, rather than because the work was of exceptional quality — even if the person giving the reference believes it was for superior quality work. There can be a chasm between belief and fact.

A fourth suggestion has been to ask for samples. This raises a host of problems and also doesn’t really answer the question. Among the problems it raises are whether the editor has the right to share the work with you. I treat all of my clients’ work as confidential and would not share it with anyone without written permission; after all, isn’t that how you would want me to treat your work? But a more important problem is determining whose work you are really seeing. If you are being shown or referred to the final version, you do not know what improvements to the manuscript were made by whom, not even if you can compare the originally submitted manuscript with the final version. And viewing a copy of the manuscript that shows tracked changes doesn’t really indicate a lot either. If it is the first go-round, the editing will be rougher than the final go-round; if it is the final go-round, you will have missed the important intermediate steps that brought the manuscript to this point and not know whether it reached this plateau through the editor’s efforts or despite the editor’s efforts.

Of course, there is one final problem with this last suggestion: you really can’t evaluate an editor’s work without knowing what limitations were placed on the editor by the client or the client’s approach to having someone edit their work. I can’t tell you how many times in my 26 years I have had authors tell me my job is only to code the manuscript for typesetting, not to make corrections or suggestions.

I could go on for many more paragraphs and I would still be no closer to solving the original puzzle: How does one find a professional editor, that needle in the haystack? Perhaps together we can find a viable answer by addressing these questions:

  1. How would you find a professional editor?
  2. How would you define professional?
  3. How would you evaluate an editor’s work?

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