How Do You Do It? Amazon vs. Editors (II)

My previous post discussed the problem publishers are facing with Amazon’s stepping into the role of book publisher rather than just bookseller. On October 17, 2011, one New York Times front page headline read “Amazon Signing Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal.”

Reading a bit further into to article and one discovers that Amazon isn’t talking about the number of editors it is employing (if any), and Russell Grandinetti, a top Amazon executive, is quoted as saying, “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader. Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.” Note no mention of editors.

So where does the professional editor stand? To paraphrase an editorial colleague, Amazon pays editors as if the editor lived in a third-world country. The truth of the matter is that the ground is shifting yet again for professional editors.

The standard practice for many editors has been to try to work either in-house or freelance for publishers. We have seen many of those jobs disappear as the publishers have found it cheaper to outsource editorial tasks, and the globalization of our profession has cause a lowering of wages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is forecasting no growth in jobs for the editorial profession for the next decade but a significant increase in competition for what jobs exist.

I don’t have the magic bullet that will cure this problem, but I do have an observation. When I discuss book buying with editorial colleagues, the standard response is that they buy from Amazon. It is like feeding the mouth that bites you. Because we can save a dollar or two, we buy from Amazon. Perhaps that isn’t such a smart idea as it reinforces Amazon’s belief that it is right.

I recognize that many of the books professional editors need are not inexpensive. I also recognize that professional editors probably read more books for pleasure in the course of a year than does the average reader. And I recognize that each dollar saved counts. But perhaps when it comes to Amazon, this is wrong thinking. Amazon is not my friend.

It is important to note what the Amazon model is: a willingness to have very thin margins. Thin margins do not leave a lot of money to be spent on what is considered an intangible, such as editing. I do not expect to suddenly see a rash of jobs for freelance editors at decent pay spring forth from the bowels of Amazon.

We editors can follow the path of publishers; that is, we can shake our heads in worry, wring our hands, and do nothing for fear of what effect our doing something might have on our future. But our future is already insecure.

Everything we have traditionally seen and done as professional editors is changing. I expect that in a few years the only editors still able to get work from publishers will be those in groups, not solo editors. This will be a fundamental change in how editorial work has been done.

An even more fundamental shift that I expect to see is that increasingly less work will come from publishers and the burden of hiring an editor will fall on the author. Should that occur, it will be disastrous for the author, for the editor, and for the reader. Experience so far with authors is that few are willing to invest the necessary resources for professional editing in the absence of pressure from a third party, such as pressure from a peer-reviewed journal. The gamble is too great and the value of editorial services is ephemeral, not readily seen.

As I wrote earlier, I have no panacea for the troubles the editorial world will shortly begin facing. We didn’t face the original offshoring of the early 2000s very well, so I expect we won’t face these changes well either.

Yet one thing is certain: Editors who continue to buy from Amazon are only helping to bury themselves. Perhaps supporting Amazon is not the smartest idea editors have ever had and one that should be rethought.


  1. Piet van Oostrum26 October, 2011

    The effect of editors buying from Amazon or not is infinitesimally small.

  2. renzo26 October, 2011

    Boycott, what an obsolete word.

    Amazon realized the greatest but unnoticed Apple plagiarism:

    Books as apps.
    Publishing of books as submitting of apps.
    Fruition of books as fruition of apps.

    This change was made possible by web 2.0. An indie autor can became a bestseller in few days, a good novel stands aganist a billion mediocre books, thanks to social networking. No mediator is needed, no publisher, no librarian, no literary review.

    It isn’t Amazon burying the editors and the libraries, it isn’t Amazon stoling authority to reviewers: it’s the web 2.0.

  3. Doug26 October, 2011

    My advice: give it up. Editing is no longer a viable career for anyone who wants to get paid enough money to live in the developed world on it. Editing can be done by anyone, anywhere in the world. Editors from less-expensive countries will charge less than you can live on, and they’re the ones who’ll get the work.

    Will the quality be there? Probably not. Especially for us Americans, who have a peculiar variant of the English language not widely known outside of North America, and pretty much not widely known outside of the US.

    But you know what? Nobody cares, for relatively small values of “nobody.” From the e-book reviews I’ve read, about one person in eight complains when an e-book is poorly edited. The other reviewers either don’t care or are so clueless as to not even notice. And what about those who didn’t review the e-book? My guess is that even fewer of those readers noticed the editing problems.

    Readers are coming to expect the same poor workmanship in their e-books that they’ve learned to expect in their computer software. Quality costs money, and nobody wants to pay for it.

  4. Robert Nagle26 October, 2011

    I don’t exactly disagree with the opinions expressed here. But it just seems that the real change is that the writer — not the publishing house — is hiring the editor. That is probably more chaotic than the regular editor position, but hey, that’s the free market.

    A good editor can still add value to a book, but then again, so can an illustrator or an ebook promoter. I have a feeling that editors will have to wear a lot more hats than they used to and — I’m sorry to say — probably become less involved in editing the actual text and more involved in finessing content for maximum usability and impact and sales visibility.

    Also, I think an editor will have to spend more time chasing after providers of new content to add to the catalog.

    The issue of typos is a real one — not having a second or third pair of eyes look over your manuscript will cause a lot of things to slip by. On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to resubmit a revised manuscript to amazon, though the process is not too smooth.

    We find ourselves in the situation where there are a LOT more books coming out and on average making a lot less. That can be both bad and good for editors. Potentially more work (and more customers) but less time to spend on each project.

  5. Gina27 October, 2011

    Totally agree with Robert Nagle… That was a very good comment!

    I am sure that readers also prefer an edited book to a non-edited and they will be apreciating this.
    If an author wants to really become big it is not enough to only go indie and be happy with that…
    Editors are WAY more important than the publishers. Thats the big conclusion I think!

  6. Peter27 October, 2011

    I don’t think you’re too far off the mark in saying editors shouldn’t support Amazon- but for this to work it requires one additional step.

    The problem is that there will be a LOT of cheap, unedited dreck on Amazon- and 90% won’t care. That can’t be avoided or changed- and attempting to compete as an editor in an ocean where unedited works are the norm is foolhardy. And the 10% of customers who do want editing won’t pay a premium price for it on an individual works because on an individual work the reader cannot tell what the editor has done.

    What editors can do, though, is to find and create their own ponds, where editing is not just normal but is in fact REQUIRED. Perhaps an independent ebookshop, or a literary emagazine, or both. The 10% of people who care about these things (and also probably 100% of students- since the teachers will insist on properly edited works) will pay a little premium if they know EVERY book from this source is properly edited EVERY time. Works should also be properly formatted, typeset, etc. And if an error is discovered- guarantee it will be fixed. In aggregate, people will be able to notice the higher quality in this subset, and some people (particularly editors) will only purchase from this set. Thus author’s will have an incentive to get “in”.

    Eventually, Amazon, B+N, and others will offer a sub-walled garden of their own for this.

    1. Peter27 October, 2011

      I could probably have used an editor on that comment 🙂

  7. V28 October, 2011

    As a reader, I’m a firm fan of editors. It has frequently been obvious to me when I’m reading a favorite author that they’ve lost a perfectly good editor between their last book and their current one. They suddenly go at length about something that was previously condensed into a single paragraph.

    As a writer, I’m even more of a fan of editors. It is not that I don’t want to hear good things about what I’ve written, but I can get that from handing my work for a friend. What I need from an editor is someone who will point out that I’ve killed of character X twice already and perhaps I should think about killing someone else instead. Or that my youngest child has decided to help out and added a word that changes the entire context of a paragrah without tripping the spell checker. Frankly, I want these things to happen before the world at large reads my work. If it comes to paying for these services myself up front, I will. I won’t like it much and I’m sure I would express my opinion punctuated with a few choice words. Unbiased eyes looking over my work are worth it.

  8. epobirs29 October, 2011

    There is a shift going on. Many agents are now setting themselves up to take on many of the tasks formerly contained within the publishing house. An agent with a good sized stable of authors can better assemble and retain the additional talents needed for producing professional quality e-books. The current state of the tools is still pretty bad, with a steep learning curve for those not already well acquainted with web coding. Imagine how many popular bloggers would be out of business if they had to do their own coding or directly retain the services of a capable web designer.

    Step 1 is the backlist. This needs no editorial. It is purely the technical task of creating the EPUB and Kindle versions of an existing book. The biggest non-technical issue is what to do about the cover. Is the original artwork available for a reasonable price? Was it worth using again? Commission something new? Or just go with something text-based? And so on.

    That is a starting point for an agent to become an e-book publishing operation, providing value to authors who want to devote their time to writing rather than learning why their formatting in the EPUB doesn’t work on Kindle.

    Step 2 is to expand into the services needed for new books. Whether this is something that allows for a decent career remains to be seen but good editorial talent still has a way to find work. Editors are like record producers. The best have a lot of influence on the final product and are greatly in demand.

    There will be plenty of writers who forego any editorial input. Worse, many will publish without even submitting the book to a group of test readers. (Do not ask friends to do this if you want honest feedback.) Most of those people won’t sell much. They’ll just be a few more entries in the giant database at Amazon or B&N. The only difference between this trend and the past is that the vanity press is now very inexpensive, if you stick to digital. Those authors who appreciate what other people can do to improve their product in exchange for a piece of the action will be more likely to prosper.


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