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Making TED (The Editing Decision) in 1998

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The typical small press prospecting for useful freelance editing work, I have found, can strike either a mother lode of critical input or worthless rock. Professional outside editing is not warranted for every manuscript. In many cases, publishers would be better advised to apply the money that would be spent on editing to marketing even passably written nonfiction works. But in many other cases, editing is crucial — it’s an important part of answering the special needs and intended purposes of a manuscript.

How convenient it would be if TED could be based on a book’s subject matter alone. Alas, it cannot: Professional editing can be critically important even for works of “casual” content and general focus like The New Mexico Trivia Book (Gem Guides Book Company, Baldwin Park, California), which I corrected and polished recently.

Nowadays, with so much electronic media accessible for any author’s message, the content within the covers of any professionally printed and bound work, intended to be replicated thousands of times, must not be considered trivial. How trivial, for example, is even “trivia” when there are trivia books on at least a score of topics and locales (my favorites are The Best of the Bible Trivia and Nashville Trivia), along with the sisters of trivia—scores of fact books and almanacs—on shelves in bookstores, libraries, and homes across the land?

Not to mention that typically the unit cost of print production alone to independent publishers is between $1.50 and $4.50 per book, according to Jan Nathan, executive director of PMA.

Not surprisingly, freelance editors, many of whom barely support themselves by their toil, are compelled to ponder TED no less than the publishers who throw work their way. An editor may be instructed to change text only insofar as to correct errors remediable by reference to a reliable and widely used style guide such as The Chicago Manual. But the all-too-human tendency of an author is to veer toward occasional confusion and self-contradiction. This means that, in the mind of the editor hired, it will not serve his client to strictly restrain himself. Conversely, the client, having gone to the trouble of engaging the editor, can easily see that it would be a waste of time and money to strictly limit the editor’s role.

At least those are the opinions of Jill Mason, a professional freelance editor in Austin, Texas, formerly with W. Thomas Taylor, Inc., a limited edition fine press.

Mason finds it impossible to isolate either the types of works or the types of authors that would make TED unnecessary or allow editing to be highly restricted, because almost every author or work must be edited differently. “A common tendency in writers, published or otherwise,” she says, “is to be disorganized, so you get this splatter of information through 200 pages of a manuscript. Sometimes I take a manuscript apart chapter by chapter, page by page, sentence by sentence, and put it all back together like a jigsaw puzzle.

“There is an enormous group these days, in the last decade at least, of authors who are not writers. They will often publish one or two books in their lifetimes . . . They are people with some expertise on a given subject or two and they write on these subjects. Bookstores and libraries are full of their books.” Consequently — although a fixed fee is normally clear and equitable in business — Mason says she rarely charges on the basis of a per page rate (“I consider a page rate absolutely unfair to editors”).

Thus aware of the natural vicissitudes of authorship and writing, Mason suggests at least a light edit rather than none at all: “My clients generally give me some instruction about the level of editing desired on a particular manuscript . . . They hire me either for substantive editing or for copyediting.” At whatever level of editing, however, her clients can rest assured that “if I find other, more substantive problems, I will call them in.”

There were certainly many unexpected challenges in my editing The New Mexico Trivia Book. Looking back, I recognize the soundness of Mason’s basic outlook: The book’s author was knowledgeable and his work authoritative, but his writing was occasionally confusing and unclear.

My greatest saving stroke involved correcting a mere typographical error — a virtual laboratory monster that’d almost escaped its bay and run amok. I had little choice but to recast the sentence in which the error occurred in substance and well as style.

“Does New Mexico have an Implied Consent Law?” read the trivia question in question (whose last three words, actually constituting a generic term, I promptly decapitalized).

The answer read as follows: “Yes. It means that when you accept a driver’s license, you agree to submit to a breath/blood alcohol test. If you test at more than .10, you are considered to be driving while intoxicated.”

The author or typist had crucially omitted a percent sign (or better, the word percent) after “.10”. Consider: One is all but unconscious if one’s blood alcohol content reaches one-one hundredth and dead if the level is one-tenth. As it stood, then, this entry stated that no one alive could fall afoul of drunk driving laws in New Mexico. Swiftly fastening down the monster’s arm restraints, I put in a percent sign.

Then I realized that the implied consent question cum answer was, in effect, a public service message (thrown into exquisite relief by the more trivial questions and answers surrounding it). As such, it didn’t do a very good job. The answer signalled that a driver might be asked to take a breath or blood test without first coming under suspicion. This depreciated the point that if a person is drinking and driving, they’ll be a public menace well before a test confirms it.

I reminded myself that I was not charged with rewriting, but editing for publication. I did not want to alienate my client by rewriting the entry. But I realized it would be a shame not to capture and fix important things — indeed, everything possible — while the manuscript was resident. I had one choice: to call Gem Guides. When I did, they cleared me to rewrite not only this entry but any other offending ones.

After checking briefly by phone with the State of New Mexico’s Public Information Division (whose young receptionist, when asked from my vantage in L.A. how New Mexico was that morning, replied, “Fine. Don’t move here.”), I rewrote the answer as follows:

“Yes. It means that when you drive in New Mexico, you consent to take, at the time of an arrest for driving while intoxicated (or while possessing open intoxicants), a breath or blood alcohol test. If you refuse, fail to complete the test, or have a blood alcohol content of more than .10%, you face confiscation and subsequent suspension or revocation of your driver’s license.”

Of course, the rephrasing was wordy, but if any subject deserved completeness, clarity, and even gravity, it was this one.

This experience and many others have shown me that TED is important indeed. Making TED at all, it is true, is certainly optional. But in another sense, making TED on each and every manuscript purchased or produced is the definition of publishing — second only, perhaps, to the physical distribution of books.

I’m hardly alone in this opinion. Would you believe, it’s the law? The core legal definition of publishing has recently come into focus as the result of a $3 million judgment against Vantage Press, a vanity publisher in New York. Like many other such firms, Vantage turns a profit by turning publishing on its head — giving the opportunity to almost anyone to publish a book, providing that the costs of publication are utterly footed by the author.

Few have recognized, however, that strictures newly applied against vanity publishing (according to an exhaustive article in 1992 in the Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Journal by Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles attorney, copyright authority, and frequent contributor to the PMA Newsletter) derive from those applicable to the industry at large.

A court sitting in judgment on the claim of an author for fraud or breach of contract for a publisher’s merely producing a quantity of books (the vanity MO) will look at several factors, but two are key: (1) did the publisher undertake to bring the book to market in a way that would reasonably ensure sales, and (2) did the publisher change or suggest changes in the scope or content of the work or manuscript that enhanced the author’s book, compared to the form in which it was received by the publisher, so that it became more marketable, whether or not the author subsidized its production?

In this light, editing can be seen as an absolutely unbanishable part of the publishing process, however its value is underestimated or paid lip service by particular publishers.

The upshot is that editing is a potentially more crucial and important service to the smaller publisher than ever before. When making TED, remember: Editing, itself steeped in trivia, is hardly a trivial service to a company seeking not only to profit but to gain or maintain stature in what has become a fiercely competitive trade.

Bill Becker is owner of BB Communications in Los Angeles, offering freelance writing and editorial services to publishers. He can be reached at bbecker000@aol.com.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor July, 1997, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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