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

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