An American Editor

December 2, 2013

The Business of Editing: Standing One’s Ground

There is nothing I like more than to be overwhelmed with offers of work. There is nothing I dislike more than having been offered work and having to turn it down.

Recently, I had two offers that, had I looked no further than the gross amount of money I would receive, I would have accepted and would have turned into nightmares. What looked good on the surface was very bad for me underneath. And so I had to choose whether to stand my ground and insist on “thanks, but no thanks” or accept the work.

The first offer was perfect in every way but two. I had done similar projects before and so already knew what was expected. The price was acceptable based on my past experience with this type of project. The bugaboos, however, were schedule and language.

I am an American editor. My skillset is geared toward American English. Asking me to “translate” from British English to American English is fine; it is certainly something I can do. But to ask me to edit in British English, regardless of the amount of money being offered, is to ask me to do something I cannot.

I am aware of my limitations. Every successful and professional editor has limitations and is aware of them. I know that I do not have sufficient familiarity with British English grammar, spelling, structure, usage, and idioms to undertake a project that requires application of British rules.

The second bugaboo with this particular project was schedule. I was asked to do this project on a Saturday; the due date was the following Friday. The problem was that the week in question was Thanksgiving week, which meant that only Monday and Tuesday were available workdays — my office was closed for the holiday the rest of the week.

The client, to my pleasure, was persistent, but the reality was that I was not going to cancel long-ago-made plans for the holiday for my normal fee and I was not going to agree to work that I could not assure my client I could do professionally and successfully.

I tried to explain to the client that professional editors are generally busy and cannot simply set aside work for other clients that is also subject to a schedule, especially not for the standard fee. I also tried to get the client to understand that my language limitations are real limitations that if ignored could and would reflect badly on both of us.

With effort I convinced the client that I was not the right person for the job and that even if I was the right person, I couldn’t do it within the needed schedule. I believe that one difference between a professional editor and a nonprofessional editor is that a professional editor knows her limitations and will not let either a client’s cajoling or proffer of money induce her to step over that line. The professional has pride in her abilities and her work product — her reputation — and is unwilling to jeopardize it. So, I stood my ground and turned down this work.

The second opportunity I passed on was more problematic. In this instance, I was well-suited to the task and the schedule was one that I could work with. The problem was a lack of balance. We have discussed balance in prior posts, including “The Business of Editing: Expectations.”

This offer had a somewhat different history. There were three parties involved: myself, my client, and my client’s client. The saga begins with the relationship between my client and their client. My client was asked to bid on certain work. It decided to bid based on its doing the editing in-house. After doing some of the editing, it sent completed work to its client for review. Unfortunately, the review was not positive, the bottom line being the client’s client suggesting that the client needed to find more skilled editors to do the work.

This was a rare instance when my client did not have the in-house expertise to do the editorial aspects of the project; however, this project should have been earmarked for outsourcing from the beginning. That it wasn’t created the problem my client now faced: My client bid an editing price that was far too low for the type and amount of work involved. When they came to me, my price was nearly five times that my client had bid and that was accepted by my client’s client.

Unfortunately, I cannot lower my price enough to come close to what the original bid price was. The demands are simply too great. Ultimately how this will be resolved remains to be seen, but there are several lessons to be learned.

The first lesson is to be sure that you understand exactly what demands are going to be made on you before you price a project. In this case, I asked to see already edited material, knowing that I would see what edits were made and what the reviewer thought of those edits. Even in the absence of seeing that edit of an edit, I was familiar with what my client’s client would expect because I had done this type of work for my client’s client in the past and stopped doing it because there was no balance between demands and pay.

The second lesson is to be certain that you are capable of doing the work. To say that I have edited Roman history many times so therefore I can edit this Roman history is to ignore the unique features and demands of each project, author, and client. A project needs to be evaluated on many levels before it is priced and accepted.

The third lesson is to make sure that the quoted price is sufficient to earn you a profit even if some snags are hit. There is no sense being in business if you cannot make a profit.

A fourth lesson is to be ready, willing, and able to say no and to do so firmly. I understand the argument that it is better to have some work that pays poorly than to have no work that pays nothing. The problem with that argument is that it becomes a trap. If you did a similar job for next to nothing yesterday, why would I pay you more today? Experience tells me that you will lower your price. One must be willing to stand one’s ground and risk losing the job and/or the client.

Are you ready, willing, and able to stand your ground?

June 17, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners

We recently edited a new book that was badly written. Not only was it badly written, but we were financially and time-wise constrained. So, as we typically do, we do the best we can within the limitations imposed.

The usual process is for us to receive a manuscript that an author has already gone through a few times and often has had crowd-editing by friends and colleagues. In addition, it has received whatever developmental editing it will receive. We are hired to copyedit the manuscript. (For a discussion of the difference between copyediting and developmental editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) After we have copyedited the manuscript, it goes back to the author to approve or reject any changes we have made, to answer/address any author queries we have inserted, and to give it yet another read in case we missed something.

This last step is important. Like authors, we editors are human and we make mistakes and we do miss things that seem very obvious. In this particular editing job, the editor missed a very obvious error. The author had written “Jack and Jill is a married couple” and the editor failed to change the is to are. Out of more than 100 changes the editor made to this particular chapter, the editor missed this change, but that was enough. The author latched onto this error and wrote: “I suggest you review the edited pages I sent in and develop a list for you to use when speaking with the editor of this project.  As I am not compensated to help you do your job, I will offer the most blatant example and then let you do your due diligence on your end.”

This author ignored the commandment: Thou shall treat the editor as a partner, not as an adversary.

I looked at the “edited” pages the author had returned and found only one change the author had made (added a description), which was clearly not a change because of an editing error. Aside from that one change and a comment that praised a rewording done by the editor, the author noted no other “errors.” So I went through the particular chapter and a couple of others to see if I could figure out what the author’s complaint was, but I couldn’t find anything.

The author failed to treat the editor as a partner; instead, the editor was treated as an adversary. First, by not listing or identifying what the author perceived as errors. It is difficult to address unidentified “errors.” Second, the author made a general, broad-brush complaint. This is not helpful to anyone. The author failed to understand that the editing of his book is a collaborative process between the editor and the author, not an adversarial process. The professional editors I know are willing to correct errors they have made, but they are not willing to keep reediting a manuscript simply because an author proclaims dissatisfaction.

The third error this author (and many authors) make is refusing to understand and accept the parameters of the editing process for which the editor was hired. For example, this author also complained about the layout (not an editor’s job at all) and about the failure of the copyeditor to provide both a copyedit and a developmental edit.

The fourth and most important error the author made is to believe that to point out errors is doing the editor’s job and that the author has no role in doing so because the author is “uncompensated.” The author is the one who has everything at stake, not the editor. The book will be published in the author’s name, not the editor’s name. Any error that remains will be attributable to the author, not to the anonymous editor. As the largest stakeholder in the final manuscript, the author does have a responsibility to identify perceived errors.

I find it troubling that an author would look at 100 errors, find 99 of them corrected, but ignore the 99 and rant about the one that was missed (the author should point out the error, but not go on a rant about the editing). I also find it troubling that an author willingly ignores the sorry state of the delivered manuscript and the time and financial constraints under which the editor is working, and focuses on the one error, which error was introduced by the author.

Authors need to look at the manuscript broadly and not focus on one or two errors that slip past the editor. Authors need to remember that editors are human and suffer from the same problem as do authors: they sometimes see what they expect to see. We are not immune just because we are editors. Authors also need to recognize that the editor could have as easily caught the error about which the author is now complaining, but missed one of the other 99 errors.

Authors need to recognize that the editorial process is a collaborative process. If an author is reviewing an edited manuscript, the author should at least point out the missed error. The author could also correct it.

In the instant case, the author was uninterested in the constraints under which the editor worked. When publishers and authors demand a short editing schedule, they have to expect errors to remain. Something has to give to meet the schedule; the most obvious thing to give is second passes. This is especially true when the client demands that material be submitted in batches.

As many of us have experienced, publishers and authors are also putting pressure on pricing. For many authors and publishers, the paramount consideration is price followed by meeting a short schedule. Quality takes a backseat to those requirements. Low price and fast schedule cannot equate to a perfect edit. A perfect edit takes time.

Authors do have responsibilities when it comes to their manuscript. To think otherwise is to end in the publication of a poorly prepared manuscript. Authors need to think of editors as their partners, not as their adversaries. Authors also need to get away from the false demarcations of who is responsible for what when it comes to their manuscripts.

Thus the commandment for authors: Thou shall treat your editor as a partner, not as an adversary!

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