An American Editor

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.

August 12, 2011

Worth Noting: A Report on Overseas Outsourcing of Editorial Services

In February 2011, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) published a report on overseas outsourcing of editorial work. The report is well worth reading and keeping handy. Unfortunately, the response to the Society’s questionnaire was small. From the report:

In 2010, the SfEP asked members to report their experiences of this type of editorial outsourcing. More than 40 replied, giving us perspectives from freelance project managers, proofreaders and in-house desk editors, as well as freelance copy-editors who have seen their supply of work dry up and their income dwindle. The relevant parts of their replies are quoted and commented on in this report.

The complete report can be found here: What Price Quality? Overseas Outsourcing of Editorial Services.

January 9, 2010

The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (I)

Publishers are losing the battle over ebook pricing for many reasons, but the core reason is poor product quality. Publishers are so focused on the quarterly return that they have forsaken what once made publishing giants and made publishing a glamorous profession: quality editing — publishers fail to equate price with quality.

I guess I should back up a bit and make this disclosure: I am a reader of both ebooks and print books; I buy a lot of books each year. In 2009 I bought more than 100 books in each format, but no duplicates. I also should say that I am a book editor. I work independently and for many publishers and authors, and have for 25 years. Early in my publishing career I worked for a couple of major publishers and at one time ran a small independent press. I say all this because (I hope) it adds some credence to my commentary.

Back in the olden days of publishing, 5 to 10 years ago, publishers hired editors for one purpose: to take a manuscript and improve it — improve its organization, its grammar, its readability, its consistency. Poor editors were not rehired, good editors were reasonably paid. There was a balance between price and quality: a consumer generally could feel confident that the book was well produced — editorially and physically — and that the price was justifiable.

Fast forwarding to today and everything has changed. Not a year goes by without consolidation in the industry. The industry has changed from small (relatively) local publishers to giant international media conglomerates. The guiding philosophy of publishing in the 1950s and 1960s — produce quality books and the readers shall come — has devolved to the quarterly returns of the 2000s — cut costs, quality be damned! Yes, there are still publishers who care, but they are a struggling minority in terms of market share.

Increasingly publishers are outsourcing what they used to do inhouse. The 1990s saw the beginning of the rise of the book packager, an independent company who promised publishers that it could more quickly, more efficiently, and, most importantly, more cheaply produce the books for the publisher. Often the packager was a printing company that expanded its services to editorial and design. These promises appealed to the accountants and to those who had to face shareholders, so the packagers got the work.

Well, the packagers also have to make money, and if they are cutting the publisher’s costs, they have to hire more cheaply and locate where costs are less. It’s not rocket science to understand this. As a consequence, something had to give. Because the packager’s roots were in the typesetting/printing end, what flexed was editorial. Packagers discovered that savings couldn’t be made in their physical plants and equipment but could be made by outsourcing to less expensive and less experienced editors. And so they did and do.

Just a few days ago I was solicited by a packager wanting to hire me to edit STM (science, technical, and medical) books. The price offer: 80 cents a page. And the solicitor stated that for that high sum, a careful detailed, quality edit would be required. Just ain’t gonna happen.

As I pointed out in my reply, quality STM editing requires a well-skilled, knowledgable, experienced editor who has an eye for detail (after all, do you want to have your doctor pickup a medical book that says the dose is 5 grams when what is really meant is 5 milligrams?). And experienced editors will tell you that a quality edit of such a book means a rate of 3 to 5 pages an hour, sometimes up to 8 or 9 if the book is well-prepared by the author. To make a living in America, the editor would have to edit 20 to 30 pages an hour at minimum at the offered price. So how high a quality edit should be expected for 80 cents a page? (And it also makes me wonder what the price would be for fiction editing? 40 cents a page?)

How does this relate to the pricing battle? Consumers aren’t blind and are generally literate (a topic for another day). When the publisher pays an editor what amounts to $4 an hour for editorial work, is the publisher likely to get a quality job? Is the editor likely to know the difference between effect and affect, between emotional ringer and emotional wringer, between roll and role, between boarder and border, between acceptable and exceptable? Will the editor really care? And when the consumer reads “John entered the house in hopes of becoming a border” or “Their laid the brief case with the money,” will the consumer be thankful they paid a price for the ebook that is higher than the paperback price? Or will there be resistance? With their lax approach to quality, publishers are shoring up the $9.99 threshold they so want to resist.

Consumers are complaining about the high price being charged for ebooks for lots of reasons, but whereas a publisher might have some response to most reasons (acceptable or not), there is no response to the poor quality complaint. Smart publishers will rethink their book strategies and begin to chip away at consumer complaints by tackling immediately those quality issues that underly much of the unhappiness of consumers. Once this the quality issue is laid to rest, the other issues  can be addressed in a more measured manner: It is much easier to compromise when there is only one problem than when there is a plethora of problems.

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