The Value of Editors.
The trouble ‘a maxim tremendous’ is that it does become ‘trite’ in time (yeah, I will send a copy of Dog and Dragon to the first person who successfully identifies the source of that cheerfully abused quote, and gives us a few lines to prove it. You should recognize it. If not, report to your dear pater and mater and tell them you were deprived. Possibly depraved too, but that is none of my business. In this these degenerate times you can probably claim victim points for their cruelty.)
In this case I’m not referring to England (although, ladies, I have been told, find her very exciting when they close their eyes and think of Albion.) but to editing, which has little resemblance to England – except that it is the rump of an old Empire.
If I’ve heard ‘Editing is essential before you publish’ once, I have heard it expressed in different ways, at last count seventeen thousand three hundred and twenty three times. Including this one … 17324… and counting. Just as soon as any writing/writer’s group/site/blog runs out of useful things to say, sure enough someone will dig up this chestnut, which isn’t just hoary, it’s Precambrian (which is quite an achievement for a chestnut).
It’s also one of the ones that everyone feels bears repeating, because we’ve all been subjected to swill that never saw a spill-chucker, let alone a first reader, and has never been within cannon-shot of an editor. These days, as anyone can upload their stories onto the net, with no form of filter, you might even have paid for it.
In most cases, however, the best an editor could have done is said ‘start again.’
I’ve read slush. I think Matapam (and probably several others here) will confirm: Slush submissions are 90% bad. Unpublishable. Not something anyone would read for pleasure. And 75 % of those could not be made better, short of a rewrite that might easily take three times as long as the original writing did. The other 25% could be edited into something which is good enough to join the top 10%.
The top 10% contains about 0.01% which are just jewels, would shine out of any muck-heap. There are maybe a further 0.1% which require a quick wipe and they gleam. The rest of the 10% would take a greater or lesser degree of polishing/cutting/changing/adding (or all of these) to make good enough to read and in some instances as good as the ones that needed no polish.
Most of the sort of writers who finds their way to writing websites like this already know this. In fact they’re probably obsessive hyper-polishers, who try, and try, and try again to make every story perfect. Who are always looking to learn, and willing (possibly too willing) to take advice, and make their work better. Most of them were in the upper half of the top 10% anyway, but don’t believe it of themselves. The 75% who make the Eye of Argon look like a work of genius (which it is in its own little way) already believe in their overwhelming talent. Besides, publishers have people who do that trivial spelling, sentence construction, tenses, continuity, punctuation and all that boring stuff (they have. They’re called ‘Authors’.) And if they’re independently publishing they’re sure readers will be just as purblind as they are to the faults, and be dazzled by their re-iteration of LotR/Star Wars.
You can repeat the maxim to them until they turn puce (it’s easy. You chew betel-nut while doing so and spray it rather than say it) it will no effect except on their color and possibly health. It won’t change the tide of swill running into KDP or filling the few remaining slush submission intakes. They’re not listening. They have no idea what you could be irrigating about.
To the rest of the writers… we are like adolescents in middle-grade. Desperate to stand out and desperate to do so by fitting in. We’re as much of a sucker market for editorial services as those kids are for the right labels. And for some of us, it’s the difference between our beloved story/book being a jewel or just more dross. And we are the worst of judges, as the best of us tend to think all our work is dross (or fear that everyone else will think it dross), even though we love it. Millions of great books rot under beds or in bottom drawers. As readers we’re all poorer for this.
Ah. ‘Poorer’. Now you may have noticed that so far that money hasn’t entered into all of this… which is odd, because as a society we seem to have settled on that as a way of measuring worth. Besides, it buys kitty kibble and chocolate, which are essentials to my life (yes, I am ruled by my cats. Aren’t all cat-owners. That’s why – to borrow from a favorite author (who gets it?) We call the cat a Bastet.)
Of course, that’s how traditional publishing worked, and was its one strength, for readers. It washed out the 90%.
The problem of course is it washed out almost all of the other 10% too, and there is little real evidence that it did so brilliantly, giving us only the best. And from the author buying the kitty kibble point of view, the author got to keep (if he or she was lucky) 10%, with the other 90% being divvied up between publishers (who, in theory at least, provided editing, proof reading, cover copy, cover design, cover art and marketing) distributors, and retail. The rates varied a little from 6% for Noobs in paperback (8% being more normal), to for e-books 25% of net (or a LOT less of gross as the book industry learned nasty tricks from the music industry – 14-15% if you were lucky). In the rare instance of Baen, that got to 20%. The author didn’t have a lot of choice about it. The traditional publishers had almost total control of access to retail space. It was what is called an oligopsony – where many sellers compete for few buyers, and the buyers can pass most the risks and costs to the producers.
It’s an economic position which, even for the most desirable product, isn’t good for producers or buyers. If it is a product – such as books or sugar which people love but can, sort of cut back on or even do without, once they’ve got used to cutting down… then those middle-men had better do a very good job, because if the number of users declines, the share they’ve left the producers is disproportionately hurt. The oligopsony’s response to their own inefficiency is always to do exactly what it had – it passes more of the expenses on to the producers, to keep it’s own margins. So for example, authors increasingly had to do their own marketing, and take a cut in income too. It’s one of those examples – like sugar under Venetians back in the Renaissance – and chocolate and tobacco in the US – producers and consumers have little or no influence, and when things go pear-shaped, they all suffer. Ending an oligopsony is not always easy on anyone, but the middle hurts most.
Enter Amazon KDP, and on its heels Smashwords and all the other e-book retailers. Paying around 70% of gross… a long step up from the 15% you would be very lucky to get otherwise. Only… all you got for that was distribution and retail space. The remaining 55% of the cover price is equal to what the publishers were taking for their work – the editing, the proof reading, the cover, the marketing and publicity etc. and of course NY premises, and interest on those advance payments and a few other things besides a profit, which is what they could take as an oligopsony. In reality, they had themselves outsourced often many of these functions, on a work for hire basis, for some time. Remember that is not what it cost, but what, under an oligopsony they could extract from the system.
Now for those of us deciding to go Indy — it’s over to us. Which brings us to the tremendous maxim, ‘Editing is essential before you publish’.
I hit up against the fossilized but true unicellular chestnut late last week on an Oz writers list I belong to, which is principally writers, but has a sprinkling of editors – freelance and small press, because the great ones do not concern themselves with this sort of thing. One of the freelancers was touting their wares, telling the audience just how essential editing was before you published. Just how VALUABLE it was, and how authors didn’t realize this.
Which of course led me to the thesis of today’s post: Many of us DO realize how valuable editing is (some need it much more than others, most of us would like to have it). On the other hand: the freelance editing market is burgeoning. Not only do a stream of graduates in English Lit. fail to find jobs every year (and some are specifically training to edit) but the publishing world has slashed thousands of jobs in most of the areas that really add value to writers and readers (copy-editors, proof-readers, graphic designers) knowing that in the current awful economic climate, they can get these former employees to do the job for less, without benefits or leave. So: Do editors realize what their value is, in terms of what a writer earns? And more importantly, HOW the e-book publishing writer earns – which is slowly. I hope, for instance, based on present revenues, to realize about 10K for a book – as an established midlist author with a following… over the next 10 years. A new start-up might aim at half that. Yes, I might get lucky, and we really don’t know what the actual figures are yet, but it’s a monthly (or less often) low figure per book for a number of years, provided the author keeps writing. The author doesn’t have large (for certain values of large) amounts of money up front as with an advance. Editors I get the feeling have no idea of these harsh realities or value themselves at the salaries they got in traditional publishing, when it was an oligopsony. I wanted to put a figure on it (and actually I have several. Most of which are too much for the Indy author to bear).
A small press editor, who doesn’t freelance, and who has never tried to make a living writing, but is a very important (in the small pond that is Australia) literary arts figure (with all that that implies – I will probably never sell a book or eligible for an award in Australia again, because just as in the US this is very… shall we say close group, who are not used to anyone daring to do more than agree humbly and kiss their feet.) promptly informed all and sundry that it didn’t matter. You had to have editing and editors had to be able to earn a good living… If you had to take a day job and save up for however long it took.
To a part-timer or a hobbyist perhaps it made sense. To anyone with any hope of being a full time professional, none at all. (And, in the end, _I_ want my favorite authors to be that, because then they can write more. Writers are not interchangeable widgets. No one reads quite like Sir Terry Pratchett or David Weber, or Sarah Hoyt. If they can’t earn a living, they write less. And they already write much slower than I read.) If it costs more than it benefits you: it’s vanity publishing.
What’s more that makes editing – for all but very well-to-do or with supportive second incomes from the trust fund or partner or mumsy – unaffordable. Something for the hobbyist only. I can’t afford to stop writing to earn extra to pay the editor, publicist, cover artist, designer… unless each of them increases my sales by more than they cost me. Which – as the number of would-be editors is growing means a lot of them will end up jobless, because the number of well-to-do hobbyists is about the same size as the old vanity publishing market. Lucrative, but not that vast. And, not to make too blunt a point of it, the one piece of advice that those editors cannot give is ‘start again’. What they get to edit and have to be tactful about is going to include what is worst about slush, with little redeeming pleasure from polishing books that start not needing much. It won’t help Indy books one bit.
In the end this means I – and many other midlisters taking to indy can’t afford the editors. We work around this as best as possible, and that’ll be a topic for next week’s post. It also means a lot of people who choose to be editors can’t get work and will have to take something else – be it flipping burgers or working in finance – but not in the area they wanted to be in. A lose : lose equation, with the only winners being the traditional publishing industry – which is good for neither writer, readers, nor people who actually like to hands on work with polishing books. Great for NY real estate and the arts establishment.
Unless of course we do things differently. Authors and editors need to be able to make living. So do graphic designers and proof readers… the issue is 1) They have to be paid according to value added. 2) They need to add enough value to make it possible for them to do the job. 3) There is no way that most authors accept that when we’re talking about dollars per hour, and final outcomes, they get less than anyone else, or less than they get without them.
It’s an idea which is coming –
Although to be honest I don’t think their rates are competitive yet. Sorry, the accounting does not add up, unless for e-books for example sell (at their 20% for the author and assuming the author would make 10K without them) –
Without them the author would have to sell 14.2K worth of books or at $4.50 each 3174 copies.
With them… to earn the same amount – 50K worth of books – 11 111 copies.
For this to be viable win for the author (their saving in time, stress and effort being worth something too, but the loss of control and delays inevitable) the publisher will have to sell more 12K. I can see the publicist and the cover artist adding quite a bit… but how much the editor adds will depend on how bad the book was to start with. And her/his earning must surely depend on how many hours it took to make it better.
Here is my idea to toss into the wind. The editor/cover artist/ proof reader, just like the author, need some basic cost covering. They also need some motivation to make that book work. Surely the answer would be a short term higher percentage share to the ‘publishing team’ – say for the first six months of the book’s life to let them recover costs, and thereafter a small but appreciable share of the monthly royalties.
And that could end up as win for everyone.
Or what other ideas do you have?