On Fungibility

Eoin Purcell

Why the future will bite
Today’s lesson in why the future is neither necessarily a nice place comes in the form of this nasty headline and story I spotted in The Bookseller:

A total of 11 assistant editor posts have gone at Taylor & Francis imprint Europa Publications, with the function now offshored to New Delhi.

We will see more of these headlines and they are one of the very specific reason* why I avoided the editorial side of publishing in favour of commissioning and more relationship focused aspects. It all comes down to fungibility (that link goes to a pretty decent explanation on wikipedia but if you wanted an uncritical look at what I really mean, try Friedman’s The World is Flat which does a good job of explaining some of the economics).

Why is the editorial side at risk more than the commissioning?
The basic thought process goes like this. There is no reason why an English speaking editor in India, Pakistan, China, Canada, Germany or indeed any country in the world cannot edited a work written in English. This increases the competition. Even if all things were equal that would make the market tougher for editors anyway. But all things are not equal and pay scales differ hugely across these countries making it tempting for companies to outsource their editorial efforts and achieve productivity and expense improvements.

On the commissioning side there is less chance that an English speaker in India knows much about the market conditions of the Irish or UK market, they may well have a strong idea of who the major players are but do they know them and can they reach them on the phone, have they lunched with them or met them for sales events recently? Do they understand why certain books work in a small distant market or why they don’t? Probably not and learning these things and meeting these people requires on the ground experience an expense that most people won’t engage in. This builds an artificial protection for those engaged in commissioning and relationship type activities on the ground.

Of course this logic does not always protect the commissioning editor as I know too well but announcements like the one today and my own experience within publishing shows that where a bad economy might hurt the prospects for those working in the commissioning arena, even a good economy will not protect the editorial side of the business from the competition that changing technology has enabled!

Been a good few days,
Eoin

* The others being:
1) I saw that the larger share of the money in publishing rested in this area and
2) I felt much more at home with the commissioning and relationship skill-set.

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4 comments

  1. >>>There is no reason why an English speaking editor in India, Pakistan, China, Canada, Germany or indeed any country in the world cannot edited a work written in English.

    Wow, do I disagree with that!

    A nation’s culture and zeitgeist and slang are so wrapped up in its works that a foreign editor is bound to miss that subtlety.

    I feel this keenly when I read works that have been translated into English. Especially Japanese fiction. I feel as if I’m reading text that’s wrapped in a condom. I missing the sensation I’d feel if it was a work that originated in America — or if I was a native Japanese.

    At one point in my life, I watched English-subtitled Japanese TV. The subtitling was done by the Japanese. But even there I couldn’t get the nuances — because I was not a native Japanese.

    Outsourcing editorial functions is a huge mistake and it will lead to cock-ups they’re not, as usual, foreseeing.

  2. Eoin, I know that you’re not actually making the case for the fungibility (great word) of editorial functions, but simply pointing out that this seems to be the current way of thinking.

    I would have to disagree and say that in my opinion (and experience) editorial functions are not a particularly easily transferred commodity. I think that it is possible (but not always necessary or desirable) to outsource or offshore technical functions, like XML workflows, typesetting, data/file conversion etc. It depends on your in-house technical requirements and capabilities. Not all publishers have or need those functions in-house, all the time.

    However, I think that the editorial function is central to the value that a publisher adds. If a publisher outsources copy-editing and proofreading then for me it brings into question the very nature of what they do. In terms of quality and integrity then I think it will be very damaging in the long term for any publisher that has their editorial team books outside (or non-native to) the territory in which the books are sold.

    To avoid any allegations of xenophobia or jingoism I would say this. I think that this applies both ways, and as much to as much to India or the Philippines as it does to the UK. We all deserve to have books that have been edited locally, by editors that understand the same nuances of culture and language as the reader.

    To be fair to the publisher in question, some types of publishing may be more “fungible” that others. Reference or STM might work better than Trade for instance. However, I still think that offshoring editorial work may well prove to be a step too far though.

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