An American Editor

February 2, 2015

The Business of Editing: The Crystal Ball Says…

Readers of An American Editor know that one of the tasks I believe an editor has to do — preferably continuously, but at least yearly — is try to determine future trends that might affect their business. This is not easy to do, but it is necessary for a successful future business. Every time I urge prognostication I am asked how to do it and what trends I foresee.

My answer to what trends I foresee has been no answer at all. The reason is that what is a trend for me is not a trend for you. Our businesses, our plans for the future are not the same. What is important to my future business is different from what will be important to your future business.

My answer to how to prognosticate has been vague. The bottom line really is that there is no single, scientific way to prognosticate because there are so many factors involved. But I am going to attempt to illustrate one method and I am going to identify a trend I see for books, especially ebooks.

One thing I have discovered in recent years about colleagues is that many have very narrow reading habits. Surprising to me, some colleagues only read the material they are working on; they do no “outside” reading, preferring to watch television or do other things. Other colleagues do read but either not much or within very narrow confines, generally for amusement rather than for education.

Trend prognostication requires broader reading habits. It is not enough, for example, to read only romance novels when most of your editing is geology journals. Narrow reading is not good for many reasons, including because it limits the scope of your knowledge base expansion. We all have limited reading ranges — because of the sheer volume of material that is available. I struggle to keep up with the books I buy (see the series “On Today’s Bookshelf” for some of the titles I acquire) because I spend a significant amount of time trying to keep up with the periodicals I subscribe to. But between the books and periodicals I read, I get a broader knowledge base from which to discern trends that will affect my business.

“We Know How You Feel”

A good example of an article that triggered future thinking (and the foundation for this essay) is “We Know How You Feel” by Raffi Khatchadourian, which appeared in the January 19, 2015 issue of The New Yorker (pp. 50–59).

The article is a discussion of the current state (and future expectations) for computers to be able to “read” emotions. The idea is not new and has been worked on for decades, but it is in recent years that great strides have been made. Software now can determine whether your facial expression is one of anger or confusion or some other emotion — with 90% accuracy. What the software can do is simply amazing; what is expected in the not-too-distant future is Orwellian.

I read the article and was amazed, but then I began thinking about whether and how this will impact my work. I grant that I am looking a decade down the road, perhaps more, but then the way some companies move, perhaps not. What I ultimately want is to determine how I can position myself so clients need to come to me to take advantage of skills that perhaps only I will have at the beginning of the trend. I want to be able to command and control the market for editorial services in this up-and-coming field.

I hear you asking “What up-and-coming field?” “How can this possibly relate to manuscripts?”

A Future Trend?

Think about how books are bought today and who buys them. (This analysis can be applied to anything with a manuscript; I am using books to encompass all.) In addition to the consumer who buys a book to read, publishers buy books to publish. When a publisher “buys” a book, it does so through an advance. Whenever we buy a book, we gamble that the book will be to our liking or, in the publisher’s case, that it will be a bestseller. The emotion-reading chip of the future could remove that gamble.

The first thing I see is the software being embedded in ebook reading programs and devices. In the case where we download a reading application to our tablet, it will be the tablet that will come with the emotion-detecting software and the downloaded app will link to it. Emotion-detecting software can collect all kinds of data about reader like and dislikes and transmit it to the publisher. Imagine learning that fewer than 25% of the purchasers of a particular book actually read more than 20% of the book and that the reason why is they find it confusing. Perhaps the publisher will rethink publishing the second book in the series or, more likely, will take that information and help the author rework the second book to make it a better seller.

The second thing I see is that the emotion-detecting software will change the way books are sold to consumers. Today we pay in advance; with this software perhaps we will pay only if we like the book or read a certain amount of the book. In other words, all books will be free initially with payment based on liking and amount read. In other words, books will come with an enjoyment guarantee.

The third thing I see — and the most important — is the change in how books are written and the role of the editor in the creation process. I see books being rewritten based on objective reader responses. Today we rely on beta readers telling us what they think about a book. But beta readers miss many clues that only can be picked up via trained observers. For example, a beta reader may well like a book but not realize (or remember) that while reading chapter 4 she was confused or turned off by the characterizations or was very (dis)pleased with an exchange between characters. Or that the author tends to meander, which makes the reader yawn and wonder if the author will ever get back on track.

In other words, emotion-detecting software can make authors and editors more knowledgeable about what is right and what is wrong with a manuscript. Are readers turned off by character names? Are they okay but not happy with the lead character being a grammar school dropout? Do they like the story better when the child is 10 years old rather than 12 years old? Do readers become frustrated every time a particular minor character appears and then become happy when he leaves the storyline? Are readers frustrated by the never-ending acronyms or localisms? How quickly do they tire of the constant, repetitive swear language?

When we use beta readers today, we usually use people who are familiar with the genre. For example, if we are writing a space opera, we tend to find beta readers who are space opera fans. But what can that beta reader tell us about how readers of paranormal or fantasy or steampunk fiction will react to the book? More importantly, if you get a paranormal reader as a beta reader, how valuable is their feedback (today) in determining what will and will not appeal to other paranormal readers?

It is not that beta readers today are not useful; they are very useful. It is that emotion-detecting software can catch all the emotional nuances — the ups and downs, the hates and loves, the likes and dislikes — that we express unconsciously. Instead of “The book reads okay but I do not find the characters interesting,” emotion-detecting software could tell us which characters fit that description, which gave a glimmer of interest, and which were very interesting, thereby enabling an author to rework the manuscript appropriately.

The Editor Who…

The editor who is familiar with emotion-detecting software will be able to better guide an author. The editor will be able to interpret the results, and to discover the writing techniques the author uses that readers like and dislike. (Does, for example, the repetitive use of “further” to begin a sentence annoy readers or do they not care? Or do readers smile at certain character names but frown at others? Is a reader’s reaction to a character related to the character regardless of the character’s name or to the character’s name? Do the readers who read the version of the manuscript that sets the action in Berlin like the book better than those reading manuscript where the action occurs in Cairo? Or vice versa? How are readers reacting to various sections of dialogue? Do readers find the characterizations or the storyline unbelievable? Is it likely that readers will give positive word-of-mouth feedback to fellow readers?)

The editor who can offer such a service first will be able to command higher prices and a unique service. It is like when a few editors, in the days when paper editing was dominant, were able to show publishers how to save money by editing on a computer even though such editors expected to be paid more than other editors. The early-adopting editors had a head start that was difficult for other editors to overcome, especially those editors who resisted the transition.

Emotion-detecting software has the potential to revolutionize the publishing industry, just like the advent of ebooks did and the transition to editing on computers. The question is, will you spot the trend and leap on it? Perhaps today you can only follow progress, but that is what trend-spotting is about: identifying those happenings that need to be followed closely so you can grab the opportunity as soon as possible.

Imagine being the only editor who offers indie authors a way to exponentially increase the likelihood of success. That is what prognostication is all about.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

December 31, 2014

Business of Editing: Getting Ready for the New Year

In a matter of hours, the new year will arrive. Are you prepared?

Preparation for the new year involves mundane tasks like getting your “books” (accounts receivable and payable) ready for the new fiscal year and esoteric tasks, such as analyzing the past year’s business and trying to predict (and prepare for) the trends of the new year.

Getting my fiscal books in order is pretty easy. I use QuickBooks Pro because of all the analytical tools it offers. Using QuickBooks means that I have nothing to do to prepare for the new year, at least as far as that program is concerned. An advantage to QuickBooks is that it is easy to compare time periods. Knowing how the ending fiscal year stacked up against the prior year gives me an idea of how accurate my predictions for the now-ending year were and how successful my efforts at self-promotion were.

I also use Excel. I have found Excel to be the best (for me) method of tracking project information that QuickBooks doesn’t in the absence of expensive customization, such as the number of hours a project took and the pages-per-hour rate. (QuickBooks will let me input the information, but there isn’t a built-in analytical tool that will make use of the information or make it readily accessible.) For me, this information is very valuable because it allows me to track my actual performance against my required Effective Hourly Rate (EHR) and my desired EHR.

Excel also lets me see at a glance the projects and the rates I have received from clients. Because Excel is intended for customization, I have been able to create data sheets that provide me with valuable business information. And because I created a master version of the forms, it is easy to set up the spreadsheets for the new year.

Those are the mundane tasks; they require little creativity or speculation to set up each year. Most of my time, however, is devoted to the esoteric tasks — trying to determine trends for the upcoming year and how I can improve my business.

The esoteric begins with an analysis of the closing year. For example, was my business up or down or neutral? Did I generate, more, less, or the same revenue as the prior fiscal year from more, fewer, or the same number of projects as the prior year? The answer to this latter question is particularly important in my year-ending analysis. What I do not want to discover is that I generated the same income but from more projects; what I do want to discover is that I generated more income from fewer projects.

I also want to know whether clients have changed over the year. I also want to know if the types of projects changed. And I want to know whether any (and how many) projects were unique and unlikely to be replicated in the new year. By this, I do not mean subject matter or title; rather, I mean, for example, was a project’s size unique and not likely to be replicated or were a larger number of projects on shorter schedules, which results in a higher fee, than usual.

With your sharp editorial eye, you will have noticed that I am a great believer in data and the data-driven business, and the planning that the data lets me do. Planning is important for lots of reasons, not least of which are taxes and investment. I have learned over my now 31 years in the business that I can fairly closely predict what my business will be like in the new year if I follow a plan. I have also learned the importance of creating a plan for the new year.

When I analyze the data of the ending fiscal year and the data of past years, I can see what steps I took that brought me new and “improved” business and what steps did nothing and what steps cost me time, money, and effort for no reward and perhaps even a loss. No plan is perfect and no plan is guaranteed to succeed, but having a plan is like having a compass in the woods.

Consider just one element: advertising. At the end of the fiscal year I carefully analyze what I spent advertising, how I spent it, and on whom I spent it. I compare that information to the same information from past years. What I learn is that dollars spent on method x generated little to no business, whereas dollars spent on y generated a significant increase in business. But I also learn whether the dollar amount spent on y is excessive for the amount of business generated — it makes little sense in my business plan to spend $1,000 to generate $1,200 worth of business: the ratio is wrong. However, it does make sense to spend $250 to generate $1,200 in business: the ratio is right.

And because I track my time carefully, I can also discover whether the time required by a particular advertising campaign is worth spending: sometimes one is better off spending the time “regenerating” oneself by reading a book than spending it on promotion efforts that bring little reward.

This analysis is particularly important when much of the “advertising” that is done to day amounts to participation on social media. Does the time spent on LinkedIn, for example, bring in sufficient business to justify the spending of the time? A common mistake that is made in making such a determination is not assigning the time spent a dollar equivalent; that is, each hour spent on social media should be “charged” at least at your required EHR (and better yet, at your desired EHR). If you spent 100 hours on social media in 2014 and your required EHR is $50, then the time should be valued at $5,000. If, as a result of your spent time you brought in $2,000 in revenue you would not otherwise have had, then social media is a losing proposition. (The value of social media is not just in new revenue, and those other values should be factored in if important to you. For some people, those other factors are more important than revenue; for others, only revenue matters.)

However, as part of that analysis, you also need to analyze the $2,000 in revenue. Was the work you did to earn that amount at, above, or below your required EHR?

The point is that with the change of years, it is time to prepare for the new year and make a plan to tackle the challenges you can expect. If your business was not where you wanted it to be in the ending fiscal year, then it is time to set it on the correct course. Analyzing the ending fiscal year and past fiscal years is the start, but it is not the end. You also need to try to analyze and predict industry trends. (See Are Boom Times Coming? for an example of trying to trend spot.) If you can identify a trend for your niche, you can try to exploit it in the upcoming year.

Get prepared for the new year now!

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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