An American Editor

February 1, 2017

The Cusp of a New Book World: The Fourth Day of Creation

(The first part of this essay appears in “The Cusp of a New Book World: The First Day of Creation;” the final part appears in “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation.”)

The world of publishing began its metamorphosis, in nearly all meanings of that word, with the advent of the IBM PS2 computer and its competitors and the creation of Computer Shopper magazine. (Let us settle immediately the Mac versus PC war. In those days, the Apple was building its reputation in the art departments of various institutions; it was not seen as, and Steve Jobs hadn’t really conceived of it as, an editorial workhorse. The world of words belonged to the PC and businesses had to maintain two IT departments: one for words [PC] and one for graphics [Mac]. For the earliest computer-based editors, the PC was the key tool, and that was the computer for which the word-processing programs were written. Nothing more need be said; alternate facts are not permitted.)

I always hated on-paper editing. I’d be reading along and remember that I had earlier read something different. Now I needed to find it and decide which might be correct and which should be queried. And when you spend all day reading, it becomes easy for the mind to “read” what should be there rather than what is there. (Some of this is touched on in my essays, “Bookmarking for Better Editing” and “The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud.”) So who knew how many errors I let pass as the day wore on and I “saw” what should be present but wasn’t. The computer was, to my thinking, salvation.

And so it was. I “transitioned” nearly overnight from doing paper-based editing to refusing any editing work except computer-based. And just as I made the transition, so were the types of authors whose books I was editing. I worked then, as now, primarily in medical and business professional areas, and doctors and businesses had both the money and the desire to leave pen-and-paper behind and move into the computer world. Just as they used computers in their daily work, they used computers to write their books, and I was one of the (at the time) few professional editors skilled with online editing.

The computer was my salvation from paper-based editing, but it also changed my world, because with the rise of computers came the rise of globalization. How easy it was to slip a disk in the mail — and that disk could be sent as easily to San Francisco as to New York City as to London and Berlin or anywhere. And so I realized that my market was no longer U.S.-based publishers; my market was any publisher, anywhere in the world, who wanted an American editor.

But globalization for me also had a backswing. The backswing came with the consolidation of the U.S. publishing industry — long time clients being sold to international conglomerates. For example, Random House, a publisher with a few imprints, ultimately became today’s Random Penguin House, a megapublisher that owns 250 smaller publishers. Elsevier was not even in the U.S. market, yet today has absorbed many of the publishers that were, such as W.B. Saunders and C.V. Mosby. This consolidation led to a philosophical change as shareholder return, rather than family pride, became the dominant requirement.

To increase shareholder return, publishers sought to cut costs. Fewer employees, more work expected from employees, increased computerization, and the rise of the internet gave rise to offshoring and the rise of the Indian packaging industry. So, for years much of the work that freelancers receive comes from packagers, whether based in the United States, in Ireland, in India — it doesn’t matter where — who are competing to keep prices low so work flow is high. And, as we are aware, attempting to maintain some level of quality, although there has been a steady decline in recent years in editorial quality with the lowering of fees. (One major book publisher, for example, will not approve a budget for a book that includes a copyediting fee higher than $1.75 per page for a medical book, yet complains about the quality of the editing.)

The result was (and is) that offshoring turned out to be a temporary panacea. The offshore companies thought they could do better but are discovering that they are doing worse and their clients are slowly, but surely, becoming aware of this. One example: I was asked to edit a book in which the author used “tonne” as in “25 tonnes of grain.” The instruction was to use American spellings. The packager for whom I was editing the book, had my editing “reviewed” by in-house “professional” staff who were, according to the client, “experts in American English” (which made me wonder why they needed me at all). These “experts” told me that I was using incorrect spelling and that it should be “ton,” not “tonne.” I protested but felt that as they were “experts” there should be no need to explain that “tonne” means “metric ton” (~2205 pounds) and “ton” means either “short ton” (2000 pounds) or “long ton” (2240 pounds). After all, don’t experts use dictionaries? Or conversion software? (For excellent conversion software for Windows only, see Master Converter.) Professional editors do not willy-nilly make changes. The client (the packager) insisted that the change be made and so the change was made, with each change accompanied by a comment, “Change from ‘tonne’ to ‘ton’ at the instruction of [packager].”

This example is one of the types of errors that have occurred in editing with the globalization of editorial services and the concurrent rise of packagers and lesser pay for editors. It is also an example of the problem that existed in the paper-based days. Although there is no assigning of fault in the computer-based system, when an error of this type is made, the author complains to the publisher, who complains to the packager, who responds, “We hired the editor you requested we hire and this is their error.” And the result is the same as if it had been marked CE (copyeditor’s error) in flashing neon lights. The editor, being left out of the loop and never having contact with the publisher becomes the unknowing scapegoat.

And it is a prime reason why we are now entering the sixth day of creation — the reshoring of editorial services, which is the subject of the third part of this essay, “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation.”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 30, 2017

The Cusp of a New Book World: The First Day of Creation

The world of business is an ever-changing world. When I began my publishing career, offshoring was not in the business vocabulary — publishers looked for local-market solutions to local-market problems. Of course, helping to maintain that local tether was that most editorial problems and solutions were paper-based — copyediting, for example, was done on a paper printout.

The general course of events went something like this:

  1. The paper manuscript was shipped by the in-house production editor to the freelance editor for copyediting;
  2. After copyediting, the copyeditor shipped the marked-up physical copy to the in-house production editor for review;
  3. After review, the in-house production editor shipped the finalized version of the marked-up manuscript to the typesetter; in some procedures, before shipping to the typesetter for setting into pages, the edited manuscript would be sent to the author for review and approval of the editorial changes. Which fork was taken depended on the publisher and on the author;
  4. The typesetter created a master copy of the final edited version and produced physical page proofs for author review;
  5. The authors received as little as the page proofs or as much as the page proofs, the original unedited manuscript, and the finalized copyedited version of the manuscript to review and make any final adjustments that were needed, especially the addressing of any queries;
  6. The author then returned the manuscript to the in-house production editor who would review the author changes, do any final accepting or rejecting, ensure that all queries had been addressed, and then send the manuscript to the typesetter for creation of a master file for printing.

Not mentioned in the foregoing are the rounds of proofreading done by freelance proofreaders, which also added to shipping costs.

Of course there was some variation in the foregoing procedure, but there were two notable things that did not change regardless of the exact procedure: (a) the process was very labor intensive and thus very expensive and (b) the process incurred a lot of shipping costs — somehow the physical manuscript had to get from person to person in each step.

For some publishers the answer was local-local; that is, if you wanted to be hired as a freelance editor, you had to be able to come to the publisher’s office to pick up the manuscript and return it the same way. In my earliest days, for example, Lippincott’s New York City office would not hire a freelancer who wasn’t a subway ride away from its offices. The problem the publishers faced was that book sales were growing and the way to earn more money was to sell more books, which meant more books had to be published, which meant more editors were needed. The solution was hire more editors but you had to have a labor pool from which to draw, so even companies like Lippincott had to broaden their geographical boundaries.

The other labor-related problem was that even the best editors had weaknesses and even the worst in-house production editors had weaknesses. These weaknesses were minor stumbling blocks in the early years of publishing, but then authors became less “wowed” by editorial expertise and publisher demands and began asserting their ownership of their words. It is important to remember that most books in the very early years were “owned” (i.e., the copyright was in the name of) the publisher. That put publishers at the top of the power chain. There were always authors who retained copyright, but for most authors, giving the publisher the copyright was an acceptable trade for getting published. The tide began changing after World War II but accelerated in the 1970s with the instant megahit authors; ultimately, what started as a gentle wave of change became a tsunami until the moment when calm returned because it became standard for authors to retain copyright.

But during this changeover, which occurred over decades, costs began rising. Where before publishers simply absorbed the costs, now the pressure to increase profits required an allocation of costs between those who caused the costs to be incurred. Thus the assigning of “fault” became more important — the assigning of something as a PE (printer error), AA (author alteration), or CE (copyeditor error) became an important tool in deciding who would be responsible for the cost of correction once the manuscript had been put into master proofs. A certain number of errors and changes were expected but once that number was exceeded, the costs were allocated and the responsible party was expected to “pay.”

The author usually had a “debt” deducted from royalties earned; the copyeditor, if the number was large enough, “paid” by not being hired again; the printer (typesetter or compositor) paid by not being able to bill for the costs incurred to make the fixes necessitated by PEs. Yet this was where the weakness of the system stood out.

We have had discussions before about grammar, copyediting, what is or isn’t error, the “authority” of the “authoritative sources,” and the like. What I consider to grievous editorial error, you may well think is so minor that it isn’t even worth mentioning. Which of us is right? The answer is that we can both be right, we can both be wrong, or one of us can be right and the other wrong — it all depends on the standards to be applied, who is to apply them, and whether the foundation of the standards is recognized universally as strong, weak, or crumbling. This is the discussion we often have as regards the authoritativeness of books like The Chicago Manual of Style and Garner’s Modern English Usage. It is the traditional argument whether prescriptivism or descriptivism should dominate.

And that was the problem of the AA versus CE assignment of fault. More importantly, it was even more so the problem of the world that had but three possibilities: AA, CE, and PE. There was no possibility that the error was an in-house (IH) error, because just as some editors today always respond with “Chicago says…” or “Garner says…” and whatever Chicago or Garner says is inalienable, unalterable, infallible, so it was true of in-house staff. At no point was there a discussion regarding why the CE was not a CE; it was marked a CE and so it was a CE — now and forever.

There was another wrinkle to this process. Quite often the initial designation of CE, AA, or PE was made by the freelance proofreader, who often was a copyeditor who was doing this particular project as a proofreading job rather than as copyediting job. This, of course, meant that what we really had was a spitting contest between copyeditors. Once again, there was no designation for proofreader error because the proofreader couldn’t make an error. By definition, the proofreader was supposed to only correct and mark objective errors such as a clear misspelling, or the failure to have sentence-ending punctuation, or other indisputable errors. And so that was true on the first day of creation, but by the third day the role had expanded and proofreaders expanded from pure proofreading to a hybrid proofreading-copyediting role. This became by creation’s fifth day the expected standard.

And so we have come full circle — it was not unusual for a strong copyeditor to find that she was being “graded” by a weak proofreader or in-house production editor. As between the proofreader and the copyeditor, both were trying to impress the client with their skills because they both were freelance and both dependant on gaining more business from the client. The in-house editor had to assign fault because accounting demanded it. In addition, the IH was becoming swamped with work and so had to increasingly rely on the proofreader’s judgment calls.

All of this worked because everything was kept local, that is onshore as opposed to offshore, because it was a never-discussed-but-well-understood system, and, most importantly, because once the book was published, there was no customer complaint system. How many readers (or reviewers, for that matter) were concerned with the finer points of editing and the production process. Rarely was a book panned because of poor editing as opposed to poor story, dull writing, factual error — none of the things that those outside the production process would ever associate with poor editing.

This world began changing not long after I became a freelance editor with the introduction of computers, word-processing programs like XyWrite, Word, and WordPerfect, and, ultimately, globalization — the material for the second part of this essay, “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Fourth Day of Creation.” (The third part of the essay is “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation.”)

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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?

April 30, 2012

Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations

A couple of months ago, I was hired to edit a new medical text. The publisher estimated the manuscript to be 2500 pages and wanted a 4-week turnaround with a medium-level edit. When I received the files for the entire project, I did a page count; the client had greatly undercounted the manuscript size. Instead of 2500 ms pages, the actual count was 5300 pages. (Why the disparity? Because, for example, in the original manuscript figure legends were in 7-point type and chapters had 70+ legends; tables and references [of which there could be several hundred in a chapter] were in 8-point type; paragraphs were single spaced.) In addition, it had to be conformed to AMA style; almost nothing conformed to AMA style as presented.

I advised the client and suggested that a 10-week schedule would be more appropriate. I was told to start the editing and the client would get back to me about the schedule.

In 2 weeks, I was able to edit nearly 1400 ms pages, but even at that rate, an 8-week schedule would be needed and it assumes that the initial pace could be maintained.

At the 2-week mark, I was told to stop work on the project. Instead of being edited locally, the manuscript would be shipped overseas (i.e., outside the United States to India) for editing because (a) the budget was based on 2500 ms pages and (b) there is insufficient flexibility in the schedule to extend it to 8 to 10 weeks or longer. The client was assured that both its budget and schedule could be met in India.

I was not overly concerned about the loss of this particular project; I had others waiting. But I was concerned about how realistic client (not just this particular client, but clients in general) expectations are when it comes to both price and schedule; more so schedule than price. I wonder how Indian copyeditors — let alone copyeditors from anywhere — will be able to do a medium edit on a very technical medical textbook in 4 weeks. I am not questioning the Indian editors’ editing skills, as I do not think this is a question of skills. I do understand how the price can be met in India, but not the schedule or the required editing level.

More importantly, it worries me what is becoming of the publishing industry. The upheaval caused by ebooks is not being well dealt with by anyone yet. One of the outstanding negatives to ebooks is the ease with which poor quality books can saturate the marketplace. Too many ebook authors are writing as if they were Georges Simenon, an author who once stated that he was able to turn out a new novel every 21 days. (Simenon was prolific and I particularly enjoyed his Inspector Maigret novels.) But unlike Simenon’s novels, which were well-written and well-edited, many ebooks are neither.

At one time readers could feel assured that the pbook they were buying that was published by a traditional publisher also was well-edited. Publishers devoted the time and the money to ensure a minimum quality.

Yet that seems to be changing today. In the case of the books I work on, which are medical texts written by doctors for doctors, I am concerned that unrealistic expectations will cause a decline in quality in books that can have serious implications for the well-being of consumers. If a novel tells you that the Taj Mahal is in Tibet, no harm is done to the reader, only to the author’s reputation. But if a medical text tells you to remove the left lung when it should be the right lung, the potential for harm is present; you have to hope someone catches this error before you are operated on.

Again, the question is not so much that of competency of the editors as it is the compression of the schedule. Editing a 200-page novel in 4 weeks is not wholly unreasonable; errors that slip by are not likely to be catastrophic except possibly to the author’s reputation. But to edit a 5300-page medical text in 4 weeks strikes me as unreasonable, even if the editorial work is divided among numerous editors. I suppose the question boils down to how many editors are used, but as the number of editors used increases, the greater the likelihood of inconsistency and the greater the variation in skill level among the editors.

I know that publishers are increasingly being run by the “bean counters” who take steps to reduce editorial costs because there is no readily visible-to-the-consumer effect of an editor’s work. Editors are the invisible people who can make a good manuscript better. Publishers are increasingly competing with the self-publishers and so must mimic the self-publishing way to final version, which is little to no editing and/or the least expensive editing possible combined with a compressed production schedule in order to get the finished product to market more quickly.

I wonder if, in the end, this will be good for the industry as a whole; that is, not just for the traditional publisher but for the self-publisher, too. In the attempt to get to market sooner and to publish as quickly and as often as possible, are publishers of all stripes sacrificing too much? Will the result be a changed literary landscape that would not be recognizable to a reader who grew up reading the Hemingways and Steinbecks of an earlier era?

Perhaps more importantly, in the case of nonfiction, is this compulsion to reduce costs and speed up production dangerous for the reader and consumer? Is our insatiable appetite for instant gratification and cheap pricing going to boomerang?

How do you give a high-quality edit to a highly technical manuscript of 5300 pages in 4 weeks without making any significant editorial sacrifice? Are client expectations becoming increasingly unreasonable? Something to ponder, I think, and perhaps even to worry about.

June 29, 2011

The Editorial World — Will it Pass Editors By?

In a few months, I will be presenting again at a Communication Central conference, Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century, which is scheduled for September 30-October 1 in Baltimore, MD. This year, I not only speak about making money as an editor and marketing, I also am giving the keynote address, which is a prediction on what the editing world will be like in 2015. Knowing that I have committed myself to speaking, I have begun thinking about how my editorial world continues to change and whether I and my colleagues are cognizant of the changes going on about us and are adapting to the changes.

The true impetus for my giving thought to this question was an article in the May 7, 2011 The Economist titled “A Less Gilded Future,” whose theme, interestingly, was repeated in a June 3, 2011 New York Times article “Where Lawyers Find Work.” (As an aside, although the New York Times’ article contents are identical, the titles are different for the print and online versions. I have used the print title.)

Editors have been facing the outsourcing problem (in which outsourcing = offshoring) for years now; doctors have been facing the phenomenon in recent years; and now lawyers. Offshoring seems to be moving up the food chain. Of great interest to me is that the offshoring for each of the three markets is to the same geographic area, largely India.

If doctors and lawyers are facing this phenomenon, what hope is there for editors to reverse the longstanding offshoring trend? I guess we could become plumbers and electricians because you do have to be on the spot to fix a plugged toilet or wire a new wall outlet.

As with all major problems, there is no easy solution. Entry to the medical and legal fields is, relative to entry to the editorial field, very difficult — perhaps comparable to a climb up Mount Hood versus a walk across an open, flat meadow. The ease of entry into the editorial field compounds the offshoring problem for editors. After all, what does it really take to hang out a shingle and say “I’m an editor and open for business!”?

(For some interesting data regarding editors in the United States, see Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2010: 27-3041 Editors from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

The freelance editorial profession — developmental editors, copyeditors, technical editors, proofreaders — in the United States has multiple failings as regards self-preservation. One, of course, is that there is no organization that looks out for the political and financial interests of editors (this was the subject of an earlier article, Who Speaks for the Freelance Editor?), a lobbying group dedicated to improving the business life of the freelance editor. The organizations that do exist are socially oriented, generally of local interest, not well-managed, and the core members who exert control are rarely interested in looking out for the political and financial welfare of the profession as opposed to having a social outlet for themselves.

The consequence is that freelance editors think and speak the party line of having become a freelance editor to be free of corporate bondage, to be able to set one’s own work hours and schedule, to live free and work free — and all of the other trite pap that we can think of as justification for working outside the corporate box. Oh, I hear you screaming at me already — “Trite pap! How wrong you are.” And the reasons follow.

Alas, it is pap unless you are one of the fortunate few who can view working as a freelance editor as a hobby — the extra income is nice but not really needed. It pays for a fancier vacation or car, but is not necessary for putting bread on the table or for paying bills.

I’ve been in the business — and yes, freelance editing is a business and needs to be treated as a business — since 1984, although some days it seems like forever. In my case, editorial work was/is needed to put bread on the table and to pay household bills. It wasn’t/isn’t supplemental income, it is primary income — always has been and always will be — which means that I need to watch trends and adapt my business to those trends, or see my business shrivel and die.

Because my editorial business is my primary income, I cannot emulate the ostrich and hope that today’s negative trends will suddenly reverse themselves and become positive trends for me on their own. If anything, I need to push them in the direction I want to go and if I can’t do that, then I need to rework my business to account for the trends.

Most editors don’t view freelance editing through the same lens I view it. Most editors I know will defend until their economic death the status quo, the idea that they chose to become a freelance editor to be free of all corporate bonds, to be wholly independent, to be … whatever. I think that to survive one needs to alter how one thinks about freelance editing.

The result of offshoring has been a depression in freelance wages and jobs for the homegrown freelance editor. Jobs haven’t wholly dried up; rather, they have changed and the source of the jobs has changed. Whereas in 1984 domestic publishers needed freelance editors and hired them directly at a relatively decent rate of pay, in 2010 most of those domestic publishers have been absorbed into a few mega corporations who are outsourcing (offshoring) editorial work because they view it in the same global dimensions as they view accounting. The accounting thinking is that rules of profit and loss are the same regardless of location.

Unfortunately, that global accounting thinking is also being applied to editorial processes. It is true that at some level one can think globally about the editorial process, but it is not true at most levels. Although English is the most universally used and taught language, it is not a universal language in the sense that, for example, rules of grammar, spelling, conventions, and idioms are universal. Yet publishing conglomerates act as if English is no different in Britain than in Australia, in America than in India. And this hurts local editors by denying the editors opportunities to ply their trade.

The result is that accountants cannot see the value in hiring local when hiring nonlocal can be so much less expensive. So the editorial work is farmed out to nonlocal low bidders who now have to hire local talent to fulfill the contract but do so on a depressed wage scale. It is the imposition of the nonlocal wage scale on the local talent that ultimately is the problem, and most editors simply throw up their hands in surrender to “the inevitable.”

And this why I wonder whether the future editorial world will pass editors by. Adaptation to the current offshoring and its depression-level economics is not a viable solution. A viable solution would be one that makes it uneconomical to offshore what should be local, just as it is uneconomical to hire a nonlocal plumber to unclog your kitchen sink. Will editors come up with such a viable solution or will the editorial world pass us by? That is the question that must be answered in the near-term by local editors everywhere.

July 20, 2010

The Labor Market Keeps on Revolting

Recently I wrote about the labor problems at Foxconn’s China factories and my thoughts about the possible future consequences for editors (see Striking Workers and American Editors). But the news doesn’t seem to end as regards labor problems in China (see Bangladesh, With Low Pay, Moves In on China).

Although none of this is directly related to editors, as workers become more literate and able to compete for better-paying jobs, all wages will rise. I think this is the singular lesson of the industrial revolution, because the educational revolution was (and is) the mate of the industrial revolution.

Yes, it will be many more years before the “revolution” meets editors head-on, but then again, perhaps not. American editors suffer from the effects of offshoring to developing countries. It is a tidal effect in that it is the publishing jobs that require less education and lesser skillsets that enable offshore companies to package services for American publishers at a lower price than publishers can get onshore. (Take a look around: The higher the literacy the higher the wage structure throughout the society, and this is true historically.) But as wage pressure mounts from the bottom up in these offshore companies, something will have to give. I believe what will give is the significant price advantage that currently favors offshoring editorial work.

We must remember that editorial work, to be done competently, needs to be performed by literate people with higher-level skillsets. And as those on economic rungs below this level of literacy and skillset gain both literateness and skills and demand higher compensation, the pressure to maintain the distinction between the levels will increase, causing a rise in the compensation of the editorial level workers. I believe this is the singular truism of the marriage of industrialization and education, a marriage that is required to move from developing to developed.

Obviously, in the publishing world, my reference is to packagers who can underbid a panoply of services because the starting base for the most expensive portion of the package of services in the United States is so low. But just as America faced competition from China because China was able to underbid its services, China is now facing competition from less developed countries that are able to underbid China. And the reason, as noted in the New York Times article, is literacy — that marriage between education and industry.

It is the illiterate who form the low-wage backbone of the industrialization of developing nations. Yet to grow and compete, industry needs increasing literacy in its workers. Workers need to be able to comprehend computer instructions, for example. But as literacy rises, so does the demand for better wages and work conditions — and so the groundswell begins. Bangladesh, the competitor to China discussed in the New York Times article, has a 55% literacy rate, a rate that is comparable to China’s rates of the 1960s and 1970s when manufacturing began to move from made in the USA to made in China status. Now China’s literacy rate is 92%, which is giving rise to demands for socioeconomic parity with similarly literate countries, which means the developed countries of Europe and the United States.

Soon these trends, I predict, will hit India, which is currently the offshoring capital for American publishers. As Indians increase their literacy rate, the demand for better working conditions and higher pay will be felt. And as was (and is true) in western industrialized nations, the current literati will want to maintain their economic supremacy and so will also demand higher wages. At some point in the not-too-distant future there will be no financial benefit to offshoring. (As it is, I am seeing a trend away from offshoring editorial services among the companies that first thought it would be the answer.)

One other matter worth noting: With an increase in literacy comes an increased demand for reading material; books and magazines are the purveyors of knowledge, which is needed to keep moving forward. When that pent-up demand surfaces in a developing country like India, the local packagers will face the same problems American packagers face — competition for the local market.

Within the next decade, I predict the tide will turn and offshoring by American publishers will become onshoring because there will be no cost advantage to the offshoring. (We must not forget that even under the best of circumstances, offshoring is not problem-free.) I also predict that we may well see India and countries like India who currently are benefitting from the offshoring by American companies, offshoring themselves — to the United States.

July 14, 2010

Striking Workers and American Editors

In the news in recent days have been articles about worker problems at Foxconn’s China factories (where Apple and Dell products are made) and about Chinese workers striking for better work conditions and pay — something one would never have expected to read about following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. More recently, there was an article about the inability of Chinese factories to hire younger Chinese workers who prefer not to work than to work for “slave” wages and under “slave” conditions.

Although not directly related to editing or to American editors, I do think these are a precursor of what we will see in coming years in other rapidly developing countries, such as India — the places to which publishers are currently flocking to get editorial and production services at significantly lower costs. I think that the financial class divide that exists in these countries, which is what enables the significantly lower prices, is rapidly being threatened by the interconnectedness that the Internet Age has brought to the world.

Although today is not a great time, compensation wise, to be an American freelance editor, the tides may be turning. I’ve noticed an increase in complaints about editing quality and an increase in requests from offshore book packagers to hire American editor services for American book projects. Counterbalancing this trend, however, is the increase in people who are claiming to be professional freelance editors and who are willing to work for the 80¢ a page that is being offered, for what amounts to a developmental edit rather than a copyedit (for a discussion of types of editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor).

Recently, this was brought home to me as I was hired to reedit a project that supposedly had been edited by a “professional” editor. The client ended up paying twice for the same work, and although the client got a bargain with the first editor — at least fiscally for editorial services — it turned out to be not much of a bargain when my fees were added to the pile.

But, as I began this post, the awakening of other editors around the world to what constitutes a fair wage can only harbor good things for American editors. Although we have lost our price competitiveness in recent years, the cycle is changing.

I was reviewing my company’s financial history a few weeks back in preparation for a discussion I will be participating in, and was struck by how price conscious publishers have become as a result of consolidation in the publishing industry. In the early years of my 26-year career, I could bank on a yearly fee increase; perhaps not a large increase, but an increase nonetheless. That seems to have ended in the mid-1990s.

I think the culprit is consolidation into megapublishers whose tentacles reach worldwide. The accounting departments, which justifiably look to the bottom line, see that they can pay an editor in country Y $1.50 a page and thus think that editors in country Z who want $3 a page are overpriced. There is little recognition of the differences between Y and Z and no consideration of the experience and knowledge of the individual editor.

The other trend, besides no fee increases since the mid-1990s, is the pressure to lower prices. Publishers seem to need (or want) to increase profit margins at the expense of editorial, probably because they think — and perhaps correctly — that most readers won’t notice if editing is lacking, but it is harder to do away with the typesetting and printing.

Of course, as with everything else there are countermeasures to each of these trends. The question becomes, however, how willing are freelance editors to take those countermeasures. From what I have seen so far, few are willing to do so, preferring to complain and struggle than to find a workable solution.

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