An American Editor

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.

January 28, 2010

Publishers vs. Editors & the Bottom Line: Readers are the Losers

In 1966, William Baumol and William Bowen described the economics of the performing arts. The point of their study was that some sectors of an economy have high labor costs because they tend not to benefit from increased efficiency. Baumol and Bowen illustrated this proposition using a 1787 Mozart string quintet: that quintet required 5 musicians and a set amount of playing time in 1787 and today still requires 5 musicians and the same amount of playing time.

Like Mozart’s quintet, there is a limited amount of efficiency that can be gotten in the editorial process. A 500-page manuscript still needs to be read page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word, when edited.

Years ago the reading was done on paper with pencil and editors used a limited number of markings to signify elements of the manuscript, such as a chapter title or a bulleted list. Today, the coding has become more complex and most manuscripts are read on a computer. But editing is still as labor intensive today as it was 25 or 50 or 100 years ago. Perhaps even more labor intensive as editors have assumed responsibilities that they didn’t have back then, such as removing author inserted styling. And some publishers now want editors to use XML codes and advanced, expensive software like InCopy. Editors are now doing much of the work that typesetters did as near ago as the 1980s, in addition to dealing with issues of grammar, spelling, syntax, and organization. (For a discussion of what an editor does, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.)

Yet, unlike other labor-intensive professions such as nursing, garbage collection, and teaching, wages for editors haven’t grown; instead, they have declined. (Imagine paying a nurse or a teacher today what they were paid in 1995, let alone what they were paid in 1985 or 1975.) In fact, in contrast to what would be expected in the normal course of events, publishers have decided to make editors their sacrificial lambs on the altar of quarterly profits and are now paying rates that are the same as they paid in 1984 or, in some cases, less, while demanding that more work be done in a shorter timeframe.

One book packager (a packager is a company hired by a publisher to handle most or all aspects of the editorial and production phases of publishing a book) recently solicited experienced American editors to do high-quality editing (and wanted a no competition agreement, too!) in the medical field. High-quality medical editing is slow and careful, with editing at a rate of 3 to 5 manuscript pages an hour the norm, especially if the mansucript requires a “heavy” edit. In exchange for the editor’s effort, the packager offered a rate of 80 cents a page, or $2.40 to $4.00 an hour — not even minimum wage let alone a wage commensurate with the skill and knowledge levels required for this kind of editing. Would you want your doctor to rely on such a low-quality book to prescribe your medications?

Not all publishers or packagers pay such a miserly sum, but this packager doesn’t stand alone.  In fact, this packager is surrounded by myriad other packagers and publishers who pay poverty-inducing wages. Such low offers are increasingly being seen by American professional editors.

Who loses when editors are hired at such poverty-inducing rates? The book buyer loses because it means that an unskilled editor will be hired to do a very cursory editing job. When you buy a book that is riddled with errors, an increasingly common occurrence these days, put the blame squarely where it belongs: on the shoulders of the publishers who have lost any sense of pride in the quality of their books.

As with any profession, editors deserve a fair wage for their skill and knowledge, with specialized skills deserving higher compensation. Publishers have lost the book buyer’s trust because of high price with low quality. One way to regain buyer’s trust is to raise quality. To raise quality, a publisher needs to hire experienced, skilled editors at a fair rate of compensation.

The hue and cry for quarterly profits doesn’t mean that costs should be contained regardless of what is sacrificed. Rather, it means that publishers must change their business model and become more efficient in those areas where efficiencies can be obtained. Editing is not one of those areas because a lower price for editing does not equate with higher efficiency or quality. Editing is labor intensive — a computer cannot take over an editor’s work. Someday publishers and packagers will realize that false economies are a sure path to extinction.

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