An American Editor

August 1, 2016

On Politics: Freelancing in a Trumpian World

I’m worried. Neither U.S. presidential hopeful is my ideal choice, and no, I was not a Cruzian; nor did I feel the Bern — in my 50-plus years of voting and following politics, I can’t remember a worse lot of primary candidates to choose from. But if I set aside general policy disagreements with the nominees and instead focus on my future as a freelancer, I can’t get past the Trumpian worldview.

Freelance editing has been globalized for decades. The globalization began in the 1980s with the consolidation of publishing companies into a few international conglomerates, the laying off of in-house staff, and the increased use of freelancers to fulfill previously in-house functions. I worked with several publishers over the years who had no in-house editing staff, just production staff, and even the number of production staff was limited because much of the production work was outsourced.

Globalization, of course, rapidly grew with the rise of the Internet and ever-faster computers with more capable software. When I began my career, the dominant software program for copyediting was XyWrite. Lippincott, which was at the time an independent, major book publisher, required freelancers to travel to its New York City office to be tested on their XyWrite skills and to be “taught” how to use the Lippincott version of the program. XyWrite’s primary competitor was WordPerfect. When Windows began to take over the desktop, XyWrite struggled to create a Windows version; the ultimate product was poor. WordPerfect did much better and became the leading word processing program until it was sold to Novell, a company that had no clue about consumer-focused software. Ultimately, Microsoft Word was crowned king.

Once Word took the throne, once Windows came to dominate the desktop computer, and once the Internet became truly usable from anywhere on Earth, the freelance editing industry became a global industry. Freelancers now obtained work from all over the planet, and the packaging industry began taking over the production of books. Today, American freelance editors may receive work from India, England, Australia — any place you can name. Similarly, freelance editors in those countries can and do receive work originating in the United States.

So, what happens when globalization becomes threatened? Donald Trump speaks of retreating from globalization, making the retreat a goal of his presidency. He talks of canceling trade treaties, of demanding that foreign-sourced work now be brought back to the United States. We know he is focused on manufacturing, but to think that there will be no ripple effect is to be naïve.

According to some pundits in publishing, the book industry is in trouble. We all know reading is in decline (see, e.g., “Sharp Decline in Children Reading for Pleasure, Survey Finds” by Alison Flood [The Guardian (US Edition), January 9, 2015], “Reading Study Shows Remarkable Decline in U.S.” by Lynn Neary [All Things Considered, NPR, WNYC Radio, November 19, 2007 (Transcript of program)], “The Decline of the American Book Lover” by Jordan Weissman [The Atlantic, January 21, 2014], and “Decline in Reading in the U.S.” [EBSCO Host Connection]), and it appears that overall book sales are either stagnant or declining. To make more money, publishers are cutting costs. One way is by increasing the tasks that are outsourced and paying less to the freelancers to whom the work is outsourced. (I find it interesting that executive pay in publishing has increased since 1995 but that most publishers and packagers are offering freelance editors the same pay as was handed out in 1995. No adjustment for inflation.) Bringing those tasks back to the United States will not result in higher-paying in-house jobs for editors.

In fact, it is unlikely that the jobs will be brought back at all. More likely, books will be edited by non-American editors. I have seen the start of this trend; in recent years, I have watched projects that I wouldn’t do for the offered fee be assigned to foreign editors.

Not long ago, I was contacted by a packager from Ireland. We had no problem coming to agreement, except when it came to price. With the maximum they were willing to pay, I would have received 96 cents per page for editing technical material on a short deadline. The packager is clearly able to find editors willing to work for that price, but how many American editors can accept so little money to edit technical material?

I see a practical problem for freelance editors in the event of a Trump presidency: if the United States becomes protectionist in trade policy, should we not expect retaliation and/or reciprocation? With much of the publishing industry consolidated into non-American firms, how effective can a retreat from globalization be for us? Economists are already saying that if we want to see how well the Trump program will work, we only need to look at Walmart’s re-Americanization efforts (see “If Wal-Mart Can’t Bring Manufacturing Back to America, How Can Trump?” by Shannon Pettypiece, Bloomberg Businessweek, July 14, 2016).

So, because I’m a freelance editor who relies on business from around the world, the prospect of having Donald Trump as president alarms me. Some Trump supporters say that this is just bluster on Trump’s part, that he will not really upset the American economy, and that he will modify his stance once elected. That is a gamble I am unwilling to take.

Trump reminds me of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, the populist U.S. senator who is elected president after promising America First economic policies in Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here. If you haven’t read the novel, you should. Although written in 1935, it could be about the 2016 election. Also worth reading is “Trump’s Bigotry Revives Fears of ‘It Can’t Happen Here’” by Michael Winship (Moyers & Company, December 8, 2015).

There are, in my view, many economic reasons not to vote for Trump for president (e.g., “After 9/11, Trump Took Money Marked for Small Businesses” by Michael Warren [The Weekly Standard, February 15, 2016], “Donald Trump Sued Everyone but His Hairdresser” by Olivia Nuzzi [The Daily Beast, July 6, 2015], “How Donald Trump Bankrupted His Atlantic City Casinos, but Still Earned Millions” by Russ Buettner and Charles V. Bagli [The New York Times, June 11, 2016], and “Donald Trump’s Deals Rely on Being Creative With the Truth” by David Barstow [The New York Times, July 16, 2016]) as well as the social and cultural downsides to him as a candidate (e.g., his view of women [see, e.g., “Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved With Women in Private” by Michael Barbaro and Megan Twoheymay (The New York Times, May 14, 2016), “Donald Trump Hates Women: It’s the One Position He’s Never Changed” by Franklin Foer (Slate, March 24, 2016), and “Sorry, Ivanka. I’m Not Buying that Donald Trump Will Be a Champion for Women” by Vivien Labaton (CNBC, July 22, 2016)]); his denial of human involvement in climate change [see, e.g., “Trump and Pence Are a Match Made in Climate Change Denial Heaven” by Natalie Schreyer (Newsweek, July 15, 2016) and “Water World: Rising Tides Close in on Trump, the Climate Change Denier” by Suzanne Goldenberg (The Guardian [US Edition], July 6, 2016)]; his clear dislike of non–Northern European immigrants; his willingness to tear apart families; his lack of trustworthiness; his short temper; and his threat to America’s existence even four years from now. But the danger he poses to the way the freelance editing business works in the real world is sufficient reason for me to vote for Hillary Clinton. That is what I encourage all freelancers to do — vote for Hillary Clinton because Donald Trump’s world economic view is a danger to our livelihood.

(Addendum: Recently, Donald Trump asked a foreign government to intervene in the upcoming election. A petition to the White House asking for an investigation of Trump’s actions has been created at We the People, which is the government’s website for petitioning the White House. If you would like to review the petition and perhaps sign it, go to the petition at We the People. Sadly, as each day passes there are additional revelations, such as this one in The Guardian: “Donald Trump and Russia: A Web That Grows More Tangled All the Time.”)

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 14, 2011

Does the Future of Editing Lie in Tiers?

One of the things that struck me about the “saving” of the American auto industry was the new union contracts that created two wage tiers. The idea of tiers is also invading public employee contracts.

Then a new project came to me that was conditioned on my accepting a lower per-page rate than I customarily charge. The tradeoff was the size of the project and the extra long schedule. Yet that made me wonder: Does the future of editing lie in tiers?

We have already seen the changes in pay that were brought about by globalization of the editor’s job. Whereas when I first started in editing, 28 years ago, I had to overcome publishers wanting editors who were very local, that is, editors who could pick up and deliver the hard copy manuscripts, today I have to overcome publishers who are price focused and globally oriented. That global orientation has already caused a depression in rates that publishers will pay.

I thought that the rate pressure had hit bottom until this project was offered. Now I see it hasn’t and that it may be taking a more insidious form — the form of tiering.

I called the client to discuss the pricing and discovered that the rate they were offering was their new top-tier rate given only to very experienced editors and only for the most problematic projects. I was informed that most of the freelance professional editors who worked for this client were in one of two even lower-paying tiers.

I understand the pressure that publishers are under. Competition is getting keener with agents starting their own presses and with booksellers venturing into the publishing end of the book process. Yet the race to the bottom means everyone loses.

Right now the bulk of the competition for American editors lies in India-based editors and in newly minted American editors, both of whom are willing to work for low wages (i.e., low based on the American lifestyle). Newly minted American editors think that taking a job at any price is better than not having any work at all and also that it gives a foot in the door. That was reasonable thinking a few decades ago, but not today with globalization and with publishers viewing editorial services as being of questionable value for their bottom lines.

Alas, although such thinking is no longer reasonable, I am unsure what reasonable thinking is when it comes to pay. I am also wondering what the effect would be should I decide to accept this project at the proffered price. I am weighing multiple factors as I consider the effects.

First, even at the proffered price, the project would be profitable to me. Because of efficiencies in how I run my business, the proffered price is not a breakeven or worse price, yet it is not as good a price as I expect for a project with the problems this one has.

Second, I wonder if acceptance would set a precedent. Would I be more willing to accept lower-paying projects in the future? Will this client expect to pay even less next time?

Third, I wonder how this will impact other facets of my business. Will I be able to accept projects from other clients or higher-paying projects while working on this one? How will it interfere with work over the next few months (the proffered project is expected to last 6 or 7 months of near full-time editing).

There are other concerns but perhaps the most important concern is this: Is this project a portent of the future of editing in which low and tiered pay will become the norm, with editors having no control over the tier to which they are assigned? This may seem farfetched now, but the future is not so far away that we can ignore what is or may be coming. The time to plan counterstrategies to these possibilities is now; waiting until they are universal is too late.

It is at times like these that I lament the lack of a useful, viable, forceful national association for professional editors that is something more than a social club. The one lesson that publishers have absorbed, and that freelance editors shore up by their actions, is the divide-and-conquer lesson. American editors stubbornly refuse (generally speaking) to coalesce into anything that smacks of giving up some independence. Ultimately, that reluctance to give up any of our freedom will be our downfall.

Sadly, I think tier pricing for editors will be the norm in a few years, not a few decades. I think when that occurs, it will be too late for editors to join together to fight it. The ease of entering the field — all one need do is hang out a shingle that proclaims he or she is ready for work — and the very minimal financial investment needed to do so, works against us in this time of globalization, just as it worked for us when we started our own careers.

How many of us would choose this career path today should we be given the opportunity to restart our career lives? I know I would have to think carefully about my choice.

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