An American Editor

June 3, 2013

Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (III)

In the prior two articles on this topic (see Part I and Part II), the discussion centered around the what (what it means to be a solopreneur or a company). As one commenter pointed out, the reality is that even a solopreneur is a “company” with the solopreneur being an employee of that company. But the difference for our discussion lies less in the taxing authority definitions than in commonly understood definitions.

What was missing from the earlier discussions and needs to be addressed is what the future looks like. I’ve written on this topic before (see, e.g., Does the Future of Editing Lie in Tiers?The Future of Editing: Group Sourcing?, and Is There a Future in Editing?), but our discussion of solopreneur versus company prompts me to write again.

To see our future as editors in the context of solopreneurs versus company, we need look no farther than the changes that have come about in the legal and medical professions. Professions like plumbing are not good comparisons because both the worker and the work have to be local; it would be pretty difficult to hire a plumber located in San Francisco to fix a leaking faucet in an apartment in Los Angeles, much less one in New York or Bangladesh. But the limitation faced by the plumber, and at one time thought also to apply to doctors and lawyers, doesn’t apply to doctors and lawyers in the global economy. It certainly doesn’t apply to editors.

True there is still a “thriving” solopreneur approach to law and medicine, but if you watch the trends, you will discover that, whereas 90% of doctors and lawyers were once solopreneurs, today that number is rapidly approaching less than 25% with no end in sight as to the decline.

That there will always be some solopreneurs is really just an excuse. What doctors and lawyers have discovered is that solopreneurship is generally not economically feasible. Back in the days when I practiced law, the movement was toward two-person offices. It wasn’t long before it was a movement toward three- to five-person offices, and the trend has continued. Globalization and insurance and lack of insurance have made the change happen.

The discussion of solopreneur versus company, when phrased in terms of personal preferences, ignores changing economics — it misses the foundational point of the discussion: survival in one’s chosen field; in our case, the field of editing. To choose between solopreneur and company, one needs to answer this question: Am I earning the net amount of money I want or need each year in my current form? If I am, then nothing more needs be discussed. But if I am not, then one of the several things that needs to be thought about is whether I am in the correct “form” to survive.

Another question that has to be asked and answered is this: Where do I fall on the bell curve of working life? For example, in my case, I am on the downslope side; although I continue to work, I am eligible to retire. Consequently, my approach to the solopreneur versus company question is different (or should be different) than that of someone on the upslope side. If I were on the upslope side and not making the income I wanted, I’d be looking at what changes I can make to get me the income I want.

I don’t disagree that it is important for an editor to be comfortable in his business model. What I do disagree with is the idea that one needs to sacrifice income for comfort. Each of us has our own strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are better editors than others; some are better businesspeople than others. Some are better editors than businesspeople and vice versa. The idea of collaboration — or a company — is to take advantage of the strengths of each of the people who collaborate (make up the company).

I understand the reasons for solopreneurship but I do not understand making it a god so that one clings to it even in the face of not making a sufficient income.

When it comes to professions that are reluctant to change, I think editing is one of the most reluctant. We tend to cling to what has worked because it has worked, even if it hasn’t worked for us or it once worked for us but no longer works for us. Many of us still edit as if we are editing using paper and pencil — even though we are editing using a computer. (I even know a few editors who still refuse to edit or proofread except on paper — and they have clients who agree!)

The Internet has brought a sea change to editing. Before the Internet, we knew our competition. With the Internet, our competition is anyone and everyone, and that competition has acted as a brake on pricing. The other sea change has been the number of people who want to become editors to supplement their income or because “it looks easy to do.” These “editors” also are a brake on the professional editor’s income.

When we think about solopreneur versus company, we need to think about these economic factors, how they affect us, and what model — taking into account our business skills and interests — will best serve to maximize our incomes and best be able to deal with the sea changes of the future. Just as lawyers and doctors have realized that, to correct the mismatch between their income expectations and income realities, they have had to move away from the solopreneur model, editors, too, may have to come to that realization.

It is not enough to say that there will always be a place for the solopreneur editor. Although true, it fails to account for the ease of entering the profession and the growing number of people who are competing for that same group of clients. It also fails to account for the growing globalization of editing.

The most important thing is not to be quickly dismissive of the company model. Your future may be at stake.

February 25, 2013

Veterinarian or Editor?

The New York Times had an interesting article on February 24, 2013: “High Debt and Falling Demand Trap New Vets.” The article made several points that surprised me.

First, the profiled veterinarian had $312,000 in student loan debt solely from veterinary school. Second,

This would seem less alarming if vets made more money. But starting salaries have sunk by about 13 percent during the same 10-year period, in inflation-adjusted terms, to $45,575 a year, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Third, that fewer vets will be needed in the future and that new vets can expect to see further erosion of starting salaries. And, finally, fourth, that  a vet who is paid $60,000 a year is considered to be well paid.

I know that I spend a small fortune every year at our veterinarian’s office for our dog and cat, let alone the fortune I spend on the food they eat. Had I been asked to guess at the starting salary for a vet, I would have guessed $85,000, and for the median salary, I would have guessed $115,000.

If one of my children had asked me whether they should be a veterinarian or an editor, from the strictly income perspective, I would have said veterinarian. Not after reading this article.

Interestingly, what is being seen in the world of veterinary medicine is also being seen in other fields. Going to law school or obtaining an MBA from a business school, although it resulted in high student loan debt ($150,000 to $300,000), meant a good chance at a high-paying career. But not today. Today, law school graduates are struggling to find jobs and those they do find pay $40,000 or less. The same is true of those with an MBA degree. The only ones making money are the schools that offer these expensive programs.

I look at all this costly education and wonder why anyone would choose such a career path — especially when an editor can earn significantly more than these new lawyers and vets and MBAers — only to put themselves in a position where they can never get out of debt and never enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The job market is changing drastically. Consider this article from the February 19, 2013, New York Times, “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk.” As noted in the article,

Even the office “runner” — the in-house courier who, for $10 an hour, ferries documents back and forth between the courthouse and the office — went to a four-year school.

What will that mean for editors?

I think we will see, in the not too distant future, many universities and colleges offering “advanced” degrees geared to editing and we will see publishers and authors demanding that editors have such an “advanced” degree — even if the degree is really meaningless. After all, what will the editor study to warrant the cost and time of an advanced degree? We know that the schools will insist on it being at least a 1-year, if not a 2-year degree.

More importantly for editors, I think we will see a glut of new editors and a further depression of fees based on a tiered system (see my earlier article, Does the Future of Editing Lie in Tiers?). Those editors with just B.A. degrees will be paid less than those with the advanced degree, even though those with the advanced degree will not be paid very much because of the glut of editors.

As it stands now, editing can be a very good profession economically, even with the depression of fees. But newer and younger editors do not seem to be doing so well in today’s editorial market, or at least not as well as those of us who have been in the profession for a decade or two (or more). I am constantly amazed at for how little new editors are willing to work.

In a way, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Everyone in the “food” chain seems to devalue editorial skills. Authors and publishers will someday face the problem of a shortage of capable editors. The shortage will be the result of the penurious approach to paying for editing skills that is in force today. Just as fewer people are thinking of entering the legal profession, fewer people will think of entering the editing profession, if barriers are raised.

These barriers to the editing profession will be the need for advanced degrees and the simultaneous depression of pay. Younger generations are much smarter than my generation when it comes to the need for the cost of the education to balance against the financial gain that can be expected as a result of incurring that cost. In my college days, cost was a secondary, if not a tertiary concern — getting the education and degree is what mattered because the more advanced the degree (generally speaking), the higher the income earnings would be.

Can editors still earn the “big” bucks? I’d like to think so, but I’m not really in a good position to know, because my earnings are derived from a combination of factors, not least of which are 30 years’ experience as an editor and consistent application of business principles to what many colleagues consider a craft.

Would I recommend to my children that they become editors? It depends. It depends on how they would approach the profession, how skilled they really are, and what their expectations are.

Would you recommend editing as a profession to your children? Would you do so if an advanced degree were required?

May 17, 2010

On Books: The Most Important Novel in Your Life

As I was reading yet another book — seems as if that is all I ever do — a stray thought occurred to me: What was the most important novel I had ever read? By important, I mean that changed my perspective and influenced future decisions I made.

I started thinking about the thousands of books I have read; some I misremembered as fiction when they were really nonfiction. Who knows how many I have completely forgotten, which, I suppose, means they weren’t all that important to me. And my list began to grow.

First, there were all the Tom Swift (made me think I wanted to be an scientist) and the Hardy Boys (nothing cooler than being a detective, or so a 10-year-old once thought) books. Then came the standard books that most of us read or tried to read, such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and hundreds more. It rapidly became a mountain of a task, when I originally thought it would be just a molehill. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I realized that I had at least limited the question to novels. I’d be in great distress if I had included nonfiction, although perhaps I’ll ask that question in the not-so-distant future.

Well, it was quite a struggle. I had to pass through many doors, and even had to double-check a couple; for example, I remembered Black Like Me by John Griffin as a novel when it is a true story. I shut the door on 1984, Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Portnoy’s Complaint, and myriad other novels. I eventually narrowed it down to 4:

  • Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  • Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer

Now I was stymied. I just couldn’t decide (and really can’t decide) which among the 4 was the most important or influential. Each influenced me in a different era of my life, and each had major consequences for me.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s story of a future America when books were burned and critical thinking was discouraged, made me question my schooling. I began challenging teachers; I was taught in an era when memorization was key, not critical thinking. There were a few teachers — the good teachers whom I still remember 50+ years later — who encouraged critical thinking, encouraged discussion, encouraged debate, but who, alas, were so few and far between and often forced to leave the school system, as to turn me away from becoming an educator. I simply could not picture myself being a typical, uncritical, nonthinking teacher. I also had difficulty with the publish-or-perish aspects of education that predominated in those days.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird made me aware of the racial tensions in my surroundings. I grew up in a small city along the Hudson River in New York. My playmates were of all creeds and color; I had never given a second thought to the issue of race. But after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I began to look around me. I realized that prejudices of all kinds existed even in my little world. I began to see that my friend and coworker, who was black, never was allowed to wait on customers in the store in which we worked. I began to recognize the subtle covert segregation and discrimination — even in school. And so I joined my first protest movements in support of civil rights — and I never looked back. Harper Lee awakened me to the real world of race relations around me.

Outside of the civil rights movement, I wasn’t involved in political matters. Yes, I did protest the Vietnam War, as did many of us in our teens and early twenties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I wasn’t politically involved. Whether it was Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon who was elected president didn’t really matter to me. Then I came across It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935.

It Can’t Happen Here is the story of a U.S. senator’s bid to duplicate in America what had happened in Nazi Germany and how he began by creating a private military force that through fear and violence began suppressing voices opposed to his coup. This book started me thinking and suddenly Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were in the headlines, and I realized that it can happen here if we aren’t diligent about keeping our political processes and (especially) our politicians honest. The confluence of reading Lewis’ book and the political events brought about by Nixon’s paranoia made me change from apolitical to political. Whereas before newspapers were mainly for sports and comics, they now became important for keeping me abreast of current affairs. (Perhaps it is worth noting that Lewis’ “hero” is a newspaper reporter.) This is why I worry about what will happen to high-quality news reporting in the Internet Age (see, e.g., Judging Quality in the Internet Age, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, and Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall) and the age of sound-bite reporting that is seen too often on programs like Fox News..

The final book, Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer, changed my career path. The book appeared a year after I had graduated law school. Throughout law school and in the beginning of my career, I had wanted to be a commercial lawyer. I thought I loved the dull, dry world of commerce. But Rumpole opened my eyes to the world of the underprivileged, the downtrodden, the criminal, and I began to take on fewer commercial cases and more “human” cases. I found that the lawyer I wanted to be was the lawyer that Rumpole was. If you have never read the Rumpole books or seen the television series (available on DVD), you should. Rumpole is, at least in my estimation, what every lawyer should be and few are.

Rumpole of the Bailey was a game changer for me; unfortunately, my career as a lawyer was short-lived as personal circumstances lead me to yet a new career and one that I have enjoyed for more than 25 years, that of publishing and editing.

So, although I asked the question and asked for the single most important novel in your life, I couldn’t/can’t answer the question myself. The best I could do is narrow it down to 4. But it does prove, at least to me, one thing: great authors can have a great impact on our lives, whether we consciously know it or not.

What was/is the most important novel(s) in your life?

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