An American Editor

March 8, 2017

The Decline & Fall of Editorial Quality

Three events occurred in the past several weeks that started me thinking about the decline and fall of editorial quality. One was a job offer I received; the other two were book reviews I read. I begin with the book reviews.

The first review was in The Economist (February 18, 2017, pp. 69–70). It was a review of the soon-to-be-published biography Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel by John Stubbs (W.W. Norton, 2017). What alarmed me was this:

However, Mr. Stubbs’s account has a few surprising factual errors — the battle of the Boyne, arguably the best-remembered event in Irish history, is dated as 1689, a year early, and the medieval town of Kilkenny is placed “60 miles to the south-east” of Dublin (which would put it smack in the middle of the Irish Sea). [p. 70]

A few days later I was reading the essay “Can We Ever Master King Lear?” by Stephen Greenblatt (The New York Review of Books, February 23, 2017, pp. 34–36), which was reviewing The One King Lear by Sir Brian Vickers (Harvard University Press, 2016). Greenblatt wrote:

…But perhaps something else is occurring here, some dark nemesis signaled in this book perhaps by the absence of a bibliography, or by the scanty index, or by the startling number of errors made by someone who excoriates careless printers and proofreaders. Why did no one catch “schholar” and “obsreved”? Who allowed the book’s stirring peroration to assert that Shakespeare “had no reason to go back to his greatest pay”?

These typos, like tiny pebbles, are foretastes of the rocks that have come crashing through Vickers’s glass walls. For three weeks last May, Holger Schott Syme, a professor ay the University of Toronto, undertook…a detailed scholarly critique of The One King Lear….Syme’s appalled accumulation of entries…details an array of fundamental contradictions, misstatements, and errors throughout the book, including a disastrous miscounting of the number of pages in a text Vickers trumpeted as one of his crucial pieces of supporting evidence for Okes’s paper crisis. [p. 36]

On and on the review goes, highlighting the editorial problems.

The third event, the job offer, was a request that I personally edit a 3500-page medical manuscript that requires a “very heavy edit” and that I do so for less than 75% of my standard rate, calculated in a way that reduces that 75% to closer to 60%, and that I meet a tight deadline that would require editing 300 to 350 pages per week. (I suppose I should add that I was also required to typecode the manuscript and that there were lots of references, nearly all of which were in the wrong format and often incomplete, thus requiring me to look them up.) Of course, there was the admonition that I was “being asked to do this job because a high-quality edit is required” and the claim that the proffered fee was a “premium” rate.

I do not understand the thinking. Here are three separate events, three completely separate publishers, and three prestigious projects — two of which have editorially failed, the third of which will be an editorial failure. Thousands of books are published each year; only a handful are reviewed by The Economist or The New York Review of Books, both selective and well-respected book reviewers. The importance of these books to the literature of their fields is emphasized by their selection to be reviewed. The medical book, when published, will be a very costly book to buy and will serve as a reference for the subject matter area. All three books deserve and even require professional, high-quality editing, yet none received (or, in the case of the medical book, will receive) such editing because of the deadly combination of inadequate pay (which makes it difficult to hire a cream-level editor), too short a schedule (which pressures an editor to edit speedily, which means sacrificing quality; the shorter the schedule the greater the required quality sacrifice), and too many mechanical requirements that have to be performed by the editor, along with the editing, within the too short schedule and for too low pay.

What I don’t understand is why otherwise savvy business people are unable to grasp the idea that a high-quality edit is no different from any other high-quality artisanal job that cannot be performed by a robot or computer: to get a high-quality result you have to pay a fee commensurate with the quality level desired and allow the time needed to reach and maintain that level. In addition, you need to let the artisan focus on the quality edit and not sidetrack the editor with nonartisanal requirements.

Of particular concern, however, is that one of the problem books is from Harvard University Press. I have purchased books from Princeton University Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, to name but two university presses, that I have thought greatly overpriced for the poor editorial and/or production quality of the books (imagine, e.g., a $50, 168-page [including front and back matter] hardcover that comes without a dust jacket, along with other problems), but I also thought the books were outliers. Yet I am discovering that the more “prestigious” the university press, the more careful I need to be when buying a book published by that press.

Is it that these presses have grown too large and are under pressure to produce a profit as a consequence of their growth? When I first joined the editing ranks, university presses paid editors roughly 15% less than the commercial publishers paid and expected a higher-quality edit than the commercial presses. The lower compensation was balanced by a looser schedule and a true commitment to quality. In those days, editors sought to work for university presses because editors were more concerned about the artisanal aspects of editing than about the financial aspects.

That outlook changed as commercial publishers consolidated and began lowering/stagnating their fees and university presses tried to maintain the fee disparity. Editors by necessity became more oriented to business and less focused on being artisans. Where before an editor might edit three or four commercial projects followed by a university press project, as fees equalized (or came closer to equalization), the financial ability to take on university press projects lessened — the fees earned from editing commercial press projects no longer could carry the lesser fee of the university press because the spread was no longer sufficient.

We are beginning to see the fruits of these trends as an increasing number of error-riddled books are being published by both university and commercial presses. We are also beginning to see editors who have calculated and know their required effective hourly rate, and because they know their required rate, are turning down editing projects that do not offer sufficient compensation to meet that rate. Unfortunately, we are also seeing a parallel trend: the number of persons calling themselves editors is increasing and these “editors” advertise their willingness to work for a rate that is far too low to sustain life.

For publishers — university or commercial — this increase in the number of “editors” willing to work for a life-denying wage creates a problem. The problem manifests as a conflict between the requirement to minimize production costs — especially of “invisible” tasks like editing — and the desire to produce a high-quality-edit product. The conflict usually resolves in favor of cost-cutting, which will ultimately hurt the publisher’s bottom line, especially if the publisher begins to develop a reputation for poor-editorial-quality books, as the pool of book-buyers grows smaller and more discerning.

As long-time AAE readers know, I buy a lot of books (for an idea of how many I buy, take a look at the On Today’s Bookshelf series), but I have become wary of buying books from certain presses. Because of poor editorial quality, I certainly won’t be buying Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel or The One King Lear. Would you buy books from publishers known to skimp on editorial quality?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 19, 2010

Repurposing Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores in the eBook Age

The consensus among the ebook seers is that in not too many years brick-and-mortar (B&M) bookstores will cease to exist — all book sales will be online or wireless.

If B&M bookstores continue to look and act as they currently do, I think the seers may eventually be proved right. To save B&M bookstores, and possibly even traditional publishers, the bookstores need to be repurposed in the eBook Age. They not only need to be repurposed, but they need to change how they generate revenue.

I think it is safe to say that we are several decades away from an ebook-only world, assuming we ever reach that point. I believe we will never see a truly ebook-only world; pbooks will always be around, even if just as antiquarian throwbacks for social trendsetters. As I’ve noted before (see The Death of “Personality” in the eBook Age), I think pbooks will retain significant value to a significant segment of the book-buying and -reading public, especially among scholars (see, e.g., eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite and Can eBooks Save University Presses?).

There is also another consideration. When the next Stephen King novel is about to be published, everyone knows about it — the B&M store is simply a conduit for getting the book to the reader. But the same isn’t true when the next Shayne Parkinson novel becomes available (see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet and On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept for a review of her excellent series) nor is there an easy way to keep up with new releases of university press books, and these books — university press and independent authors — deserve the same exposure as the James Patterson books and need that exposure more than James Patterson books.

Repurposing of the B&M bookstore may be the way to aid independent authors, university presses, and small traditional publishers in the eBook Age.

Today’s B&M bookstores are blockbuster oriented and oriented toward the major traditional publishers. Except for local independent authors, indie authors and presses are not heavily stocked, and for good economic reason: they simply do not sell well enough to support the expenses of the B&M store. Perhaps instead of being corporate America bookstores, a cooperative of indie authors, indie presses, university presses, and smaller traditional publishers who currently struggle for bookstore shelving should be created to run B&M bookstores.

But if the Barnes & Nobles and the Borders chains are struggling, how can such a cooperative succeed? One way would be to act as fronts for print-on-demand (POD) pbooks and as a gateway to ebooks.

Yet this doesn’t address the new thinking that is required for indie bookstores to remain alive in the Internet age. Perhaps the answer lies in the creativity being shown by BookPeople, an independent bookstore in Austin, TX (see “At Camp, Make-Believe Worlds Spring Off Page”) and imitated by indie bookstores in Decatur, GA, and Brooklyn, NY. Although the idea focuses on a camping experience that involves using imagination and role-playing based on popular children’s books, there is no reason the options can’t be expanded. BookPeople’s Camp Half-Blood (based on the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) had 450 available slots — and all slots were sold out within 90 minutes. Brownstone Books’ (Brooklyn, NY) Camp Half-Blood charges $375 per week for its Camp Half-Blood.

Using imagination is only a start. Perhaps indie bookstores could also become afterschool care centers for children or run tutorial programs. Let books become a partner in the enterprise rather than the dominant purpose of the enterprise. Doing so would give indie bookstores a new life and make them relevant again in the eBook Age.

If the indie bookstores banded together under a single associative umbrella, they could easily tap the creative talent of hundreds of bookstore owners and employees across the country and develop these competitive models that would repurpose the B&M bookstore and extend their lives significantly. But closer cooperation, which is the key, I think, to survival is tough to come by: people own their own businesses because they want to be wholly independent and it is difficult to think about giving up some control. I do not think another trade association is the answer; I think what is needed is a mix between the rigid top-down governance enforced by say a B&N corporate-structure chain and a franchisee relationship. Indie bookstores need to maintain individual character yet they also need to band more closely together if they intend to survive the eBook Age.

The true test will be whether indie bookstores, indie authors, and indie/university presses are willing to band together and whether they will cede some control in exchange for a future. If they are so willing, it will be beneficial to all book lovers as well as to the indies themselves. Although the creative ideas of indie bookstores like BookPeople can provide a small shot in the arm, I think there is a need to broaden the creativity pool. One idea — no matter how good it is — will not save the indies.

April 8, 2010

Can eBooks Save University Presses?

University presses are very important in the world of scholarly nonfiction publishing. Like many other small businesses, they are suffering in today’s economy — and have been suffering even when economic times have been good. University presses (UPs) bring prestige to a university and publish work that the for-profit commercial publishers, like Hachette and Random House, often will not publish because expected sales are so low and the reading audience so narrow and/or small.

UPs are generally subsidized by their schools. Absent the subsidies, there would be few, if any, UPs (excluding the giants like Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). But when university budgets need reducing, UP budgets are often among the first to get sliced.

One problem that UPs face is that of book pricing. To make a book potentially profitable, the UPs have to list their books at high prices, much higher than the commercial presses. It is rare for a UP to have a runaway bestseller that is able to carry several other titles with it. And as we book buyers know, the higher the price, the less likely the book is to have mass appeal and sell in significant numbers. I suspect, but do not know for certain, that the largest number of UP sales are to libraries, the repositories of knowledge in a community, whose own budgets are being squeezed. As always, there is a ripple effect.

So that raises the question of the role of ebooks in the future of UPs. There are lots of hurdles that need to be overcome, not least of which is establishing an authoritative version (see Will eBooks Return Us to the Days of the Scribe? and eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite for a discussion of the problems of constant revising). The printed book is a resource to which all readers can look and see exactly the same content; the ebook is a resource that has the potential to never be settled thus even readers who look at an ebook have no assurance that they are seeing the same content.

We know that distribution and production costs are reduced with ebooks. Other costs remain the same as compared to a print version. If only an ebook version is produced, composition costs can be significantly reduced because a single template can be created into which content can be flowed — or so one would think. The reality is different, unfortunately. There may well be a change in composition costs, but it might not be less than for a print book, at least not under the current standards. As standards improve and become more nonfiction centric (as opposed to the current fiction centric), composition costs may well be reduced.

But there are advantages to an ebook that do not exist with a pbook. The obvious one is ease of delivery. It costs virtually nothing to deliver an ebook over the Internet. Perhaps the most important advantage for UPs, however, is the ease with which new editions can be created as new information is discovered. Modifying an electronic file is significantly easier than recreating a print version. And this might be the way for UPs to capitalize on ebooks: encouraging authors to continue with their research and update their books.

In fact, UPs should consider selling books as subscriptions rather than as final sales. Today, when I buy a UP published book, I get today’s offering and nothing more. Perhaps the author is continuing to work on the project or perhaps other scholars are using the particular book as the basis for their own enhancements to it. If so, I do not get the benefit of that work for many years, until a new edition is published or another author publishes a followup work, if ever.

A subscription, on the other hand, could serve me, the UP, and the author well. The UP would get a constant stream of revenue; the author would receive a constant stream of royalty as an incentive to continue research in the subject matter; I would get a constantly updated book. Granted this wouldn’t work with all UP offerings, but it shouldn’t be difficult to isolate those offerings for which it would.

A scheme such as this would also allow the UP the option of not offering a pbook version. Or it could offer a pbook and ebook in tandem (see eBooks & pBooks in Tandem), with the ebook being a subscription. The pbook would serve as the base, authoritative, original version of the work and the ebook would serve as a planned update service to the original research, whether by the original author or by other scholars in the field. This in-tandem combination would allow an initial sales capture (with its revenue) and an ongoing subscription sale (with its revenue).

Once this concept took root, there would be nothing to prevent UPs from creating packages of related books and ebooks that could include backlist titles and even forthcoming titles. For example, if the UP created a series on the history of the Tennessee Army in the Civil War, it could offer a subscription ebook series that included the first title in the series and the next 5 titles. By buying a subscription, the reader would be assured of getting the information and the UP would know sales in advance and revenues in advance. The subscriptions would encourage authors to continue their research and to share it with others via this model. The UP could even follow the Baen model of offering forthcoming manuscript in various stages and inviting readers to give the author feedback on everything from content to composition.

Perhaps not a perfect model, and really more just a collection of thoughts, but the UPs need to be forward thinking if for no other reason than we rely on UPs to preserve knowledge as nonprofit presses. The subscription concept could be a win-win-win — for readers, authors, and UPs.

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