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?

31 thoughts on “The Value of Editors.

  1. I could be very snarky about the whole thing and ask if you packed boots, barristers and brokers and maybe bankers….

    Because your ‘publishing team’ will probably need them too. But probably not makers of bonnets and hoods, billiard-mkers or beavers.

    It seems to me that we had this discussion some years back and I even recall doing some rough analysis of the proposal. I think everyone would prefer to get %age of the first N copies sold rather than the first M months but maybe editors, cover artists etc. will disagree.

    I think the basic proposal was for the first N (1000 copies say?) at $5 the distributor (i.e. amazon etc.) gets $1.50, the author gets $1.50 and the editor and cover artist get $1 each. That means editor and cover artist get $1000 for their services in what we all hope is a relatively switft time frame. Thereafter their rate falls to $0.25 or so / copy and as a result the author gets $3/copy (the distributor keeps getting $1.50).

    If a book sells 5k copies that means the following
    Distributor: 5000*$1.5 = $7500
    Author: 1000*$1.5+4000*$3 = $13,500
    Cover Art: 1000*$1 + 4000*$0.25 = $2000
    Editor: 1000*$1 + 4000*$0.25 = $2000

    the critical thing – it seems to me – is that editors and artists need to be able to make a decision about whether it is worth working for a partitular book or not quickly. Certainly in less than 1 hour. And also need to be able to spend no more than a week-10 days or so total (presumably split up into smaller chunks) on each book

    1. The Bellman would know, of course. 🙂 – I need to chat to you sometime about other matters. Yes, we did talk about it, but at that stage, the environment had not started to move this direction. Nothing worse than being precient but not having the time time locator fixed. I think this would work.

  2. This sounds like a good plan. What you may have a hard time doing is making the editor see the value of this FOR THEM. Having worked in sales though, it’s obvious. If an editor can edit enough books over time they can build up enough residuals to make a very healthy stack of cash. It will come from having enough books edited and enough itty bitty little amounts coming in to add up to something. Over the course of years it could become quite a lot.

    1. Where this becomes REALLY tempting and valuable for freelancers (or a co-op of them) is that Freelancers have no pension plan, no medical etc. In the current model, if they work (no matter how well they work) they get a flat sum which they need to use to live on and to provide these things. As we all know, doing that as a freelancer is just not practical a lot of the time – pensions and medical insurance require regular payements. Not just when you’ve got work. This long tail 1)allows them to be rewarded for extra quality, 2)provides a spread of income rather than occasional lumps, which means you can use that cash flow to pay the must be paid this month stuff, and, if you stick at it for a while the residuals can in themselves provide you with a comfortable retirement income. To me it sound a better deal.

  3. Editors and cover artist/designers then need to get good at deciding what to take their chances on – the writing. It is like picking which horse to back at a horse race: if you know something about horses in general, and the one you back, you hope for a good rate of return.

    It might be freeing for an editor to be able to choose what to work on – in the hopes of making that particular horse faster.

    1. It also means editors having to read slush, and arguably that will be part of their value proposition. “Edited by X” might become a sales asset.

    2. I actually had that happen to me. I was going to hire an artist to do an illustration of a character and sent her some stories. She replied that her vision of the character wouldn’t work with my characterization, and that it would not benefit her sales (different target audience). We parted in peace and I still have two of her prints that I need to hang.

    3. You’re right. But ATM freelance editors have nothing (but satisfaction and an easier time of it) to gain from choosing to edit a book by Jane Midlister, as opposed to Fred Verybadlyneedseditingandhasthemoney . The latter – if billed by the hour, will provide a fair amount of money, even if the book never gets anywhere. The former, well, Jane has no cash, and the book only needs 10 hours work. On a percentage, the editor gets to work on what she probably find easier and less exasperating (yes I’m sure there is satisfaction in making a silk purse out of sow’s ear, but adding a little embroidery to the silk purse that sells for thousands of dollars as a result has its moments too) .

  4. We have a huge cultural problem with people not understanding basic economics. Can I be rude and suggest that we might need more YA materials that actually talk about it?

    Speaking of which, when do we get the next book in the Cuttlefish series?

    1. Cuttlefish sequels don’t, at this stage, seem terribly likely Ori. YA and MG have yet to make much of a breakthrough in e-books, and I’m reluctant to go back to the publisher. Payment issues (the rest was fine). Sigh. I already talk about science, ethics/ethos, philososophy, classical liturature and now you want me to do economics too. One more straw… 🙂

      1. Well, Mrs. Hoyt did mention doing a collection of free-market romance stories . . . 😉

          1. I’m not sure how serious she was, but several people on the discussion thread thought it sounded great. IIRC she was thinking about five or six stories, 10k-15k words, romance stories that include pro-free-market capitalism elements. This was, oh, back in Feb or early March of this year.

      2. 😦 I loved the Cuttlefish books and made sure my kids’ school had copies. I hope they’ll make the e-books jump soon. My ten year old is reading Terry Pratchett on my phone, but he has tech obsessed parents.

        The reason that I want you to do economics is that I believe you’ll be good at it. Of course, my opinion is worth everything you pay for it (except for Internet charges, electricity, and wear and tear on electronics).

  5. And don’t leave out the accountant who takes the money from Amazon and Smashwords or whatever, and splits it all up.

    All this does is split up the Traditional Publisher into uncoordinated chunks, and leaves the author writing around to a dozen providers at each step for price quotes or to be accepted by them as a client.

    Much better to find a micro press, or a service that will do all of the above.

    It sounds good at first look. When you haven’t got the upfront money, assigning percentages sounds sensible. But where a company can wait for the slow trickle of money from dozens of sources, a freelance editor is in less of a position to do without prompt payment, and wary of your keeping on top of the profit sharing.

    I’ve found the first step–find an editor–to be an exercise in frustration. To date I’m at two ditzes, one total communications breakdown, one fatal heart attack, and one good one, who decided to write rather than do any more editing. At my low sales figures, it just isn’t worth it. I’ve got some volunteer beta readers, and one post publishing reader who sends me lists of typos, for the next time I update the contents.

    Yeah, frustrating as all get out. I keep telling myself it’ll all smooth out . . . eventually. In the mean time, I’m just going to have to put up with Amazon reviews that say “Great story. Needs an editor.”

    1. Firstly you could not do this with the author being handed the money and billed. You’d have to structure it somehow, and transparently so the editor/ artist / author can see sales on a day to day basis, and not be ripped off. I think the right answer would be a co-op of the various value adders or a micropress.
      The ‘quality editor’ find remains a tough excercise. I can see them becoming a brand in their own right.

  6. Right now, and for the next few books… I will beg, borrow, or barter for copy-editing services. Which is not the same as editing. But I do need the copy-editing to catch things I’ve looked at so many times I’m blind to them. Maybe, 5-6 books down the road, I’ll be able to justify hiring one. I’ll certainly never want to pay more than a couple hundred per book.

    1. I’ve seen asks of what amounts to $5000 a book. The gap between what serious freelance writers and editors see as their values is wider than Ginnungagap right now. We’ll talk about ways and means, next week

  7. Ironically, that’s what publishers are supposed to be for…pooling the risks by spending the up-front money on a bunch of different books, in the hope that some of them will pay off enough over time to make the overall investment worth it.

    Of course, in the modern “we don’t take risks, we don’t spend money, we don’t accept the prospect of recouping over time, and we only work with a few super-safe bets and our friends” era…well, we’ll probably have to reinvent publishing from the ground up, before it’s all over.

    1. The big problem – with any co-op, or reinvention (which is what we authors need – sans the NY office, and the endless meetings, and dahlings) is much like the US faced in Iraq – they needed a civil administration – but all the civil administrators were Ba’ath party loyalists (because that was the only way into civil admin) and we have thesame problem – many of the people with the skills needed have the values of traditional publishing so deep in their mindset, I don’t think they can change. Worse, from what I can work out, despite it being a failed system, they don’t want to change.

  8. First thought is that if the price is too high, maybe there are alternate suppliers.

    Fanfic model comes to mind, but I’m pretty sure that won’t work. Fanfic model, insofar as it works and has things cognate to professional editing, works because there is no money involved, and hence, little need to work out if any of the various hobbyists, students and unemployed are owed anything.

    I know that a couple of hundred dollars would look pretty tempting to me, assuming I didn’t have any other income lined up.

    I’m guessing that someone trying to make their whole income that way, at $200 per story, would want to be doing at least a hundred per year. I don’t know what editing needs, but based on my estimate of the minimum time and focus needed, I’d imagine that might be difficult. (I might know what copy editing needs.)

    I suspect that the time management and business skills related to pulling such off, as well as communicating with that many people, and having access to legal services would be enough to find better paying work doing other things. If the opportunity cost is too high, can one afford to do it?

    I had more pressing business, delayed this to where it is no longer entirely timely, and I’m no longer thinking clearly enough to avoid mashing everything to pulp.

    1. I suspect at least for copy editing (which really is all most of these folk do) is pretty essential. The big problem is, of course, that not all jobs are the same. I’ve spent longer copy-editing (long ago, I won’t do it any more) a chapter for one friend, than I did a whole book for another. I added little value to latter, but the former- good story, cr*p writing, needed more time than the author took in the first place, and went from chuck-away to pretty entertaining really. I’d guess for setting a realistic long term rate you’d need to look at how much time a good manuscript needs (my own experience with another pro’s drafts long ago, was 3-5 solid days. It was pretty clean but needed a lot of concentration and some continuity notes and fact checking.) 4 novels a month would be pushing it for me. So it comes down to what a reasonable annual wage for a job an intelligent person can do in their own home on their own time schedule – you have kids and want to work only while they’re at school for example, and then after they’re in bed – is. I suspect (I don’t know US rates, especially for that sort of work) that the gap between what a pro would/could pay, and reasonable rate is not that large. But it’s very different to the rates I’ve seen.

  9. The trouble with a kitten is that, eventually it becomes a cat. -Ogden Nash


  10. By any chance, was the ‘Dog and Dragon’ a reference to that classic SF short story, ‘The Game of Cat and Dragon’, by Cordwainer Smith? If so, I will happily collect my free story.

    1. No. The question is what does the quote ‘a maxim tremendous but trite’ come from, and Francis answered it straight off the starting bell :-).

      1. Deprived indeed – I’d never read that.. never heard of that… before. Thanks, Dave – learned something new today.

      2. Sorry, all. My mistake.

        I’d still like to know, though, whether Dog and Dragon might have anything to do with Cordwainer Smith’s story.

        Thanks for correcting me.

        1. No, nothing at all, really – I know and have the Cordwainer Smith story, but this stems from a story about a dog, and dragon 🙂

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