Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Should Book Editors Get Royalties?

At Publishing Perspectives this week, the veteran editor and publisher Ann Patty has written a provocative post titled "The Future for Book Editors: Royalties?" Ann, who was a colleague and then my boss at Crown, worked in corporate publishing for decades, acquiring, publishing--and editing--an impressive string of fiction authors. Now a freelance manuscript editor, she wonders aloud whether, in the dawning new world of publishing, what editors do may be valued more highly--perhaps highly enough for an editor to receive a share of royalties. She writes,
enough lamentation! We all know the publishing industry of yore is long gone. What about the future? In the Internet free-for-all book editors may become more, rather than less important. The editor is the author’s interface with the world at large; the other roles in publishing houses, as they are now configured, may become obsolete in the digital future. Publishers may devalue editors, but writers and agents don’t. As business models change, it’s time that book editors reclaim their essential place in the publishing process, and be appropriately compensated for it. 
Ann's piece has generated a lively, not to say brawling, comment thread, well worth reading. Several editors, and a few authors, have said "right on!" Many other posters have said, more or less, "No way!" A couple of the critics suggest an editor's contribution is unimportant compared to the author's. Some point out quite rightly that while editors may provide invaluable help to a writer, they are salaried employees of the publishing house and don't assume the risk, or make the investment of time, that an author working on her manuscript for months or years does. One author pointedly noted that a writer's royalties are small enough to begin with; peeling them away to pay an editor adds injury to insult. 

My first reaction to Ann's suggestion was knee-jerk disagreement. I do edit manuscripts, and carefully, but that's part of what Bloomsbury pays me for. While many things about publishing have changed in the past century, it still seems to me that working with an author to shape the manuscript is a basic part of the editor's job. I don't necessarily feel that doing so (even for a book that, as Ann hypothesizes, becomes a commercial winner) entitles me to extra compensation. If my titles are successful, presumably that will be reflected in what I get paid next year. 

But on further reflection my reaction was more nuanced. After all, freelance editors like Ann are already receiving, in some cases, royalty shares just as co-writers often do.  Authors accept such arrangements--again, occasionally--without seeing them as an injustice. And in a few cases, as Ann's post notes, editor-publishers who head imprints (myself not included) have some profit participation, though on the basis of imprint results, not individual titles. Furthermore, at some houses a significant share of editors' compensation comes in the form of a bonus, which is almost always related, partly or wholly, to the sales of their books. It's not a share of royalties as such, but it amounts to something similar. (These bonuses usually include other benchmarks including company or division-wide performance.) In textbook publishing this practice is more common, I think, and I know of at least one textbook publisher where as much as a third of an editor's pay came in bonuses. 

There are problems with pegging editors' pay to numerical indices, but it's not wholly unreasonable. As I have written here before, I believe one of the problems of big corporate publishing is that editors' performance is often valued in arbitrary and haphazard ways, which leads to poor decision-making. I'm not ready to advocate Ann Patty's proposal, but if publishers do value editing--and want to tout it as part of their "value added" to authors, her idea would be one way of putting their money where their mouths are.*

* In which case, any editor-royalty should come out of the house's share of revenue (and of course, wouldn't be payable when the author's advance--which the editor negotiated--is unearned). 


Terry Stonecrop said...

I'm not savvy on how this industry works, no matter how much I read. But I thought one of the main reasons a writer wants to get a publisher is that they hire good editors to go over your work.

If a writer has to pay the editor a commission, I think it might cause more writers to hire a freelance editor and self publish.

Renee Miller said...

I know that editors work hard, very hard. I wouldn't want to do the work that they do, I'd go nuts. But royalties?

I'm of the opinion that editors are paid to do a job. REGULARLY. They don't have to worry if the book sells, they don't have to worry much beyond when they finish their job and pass it along. If the book sells one copy, do they not still get their pay?

To me, this is better than putting all of that work into a manuscript and waiting for payment, crossing one's fingers in hopes that it sells enough to make their time and effort worth it. Unless of course it is expected that the editor will get paid, and then also receive royalties, to which I say, Pardon?

I agree with the comment above, to do this would have more writers going with freelance editors and doing it themselves. How many pieces are there to a pie? You can only cut it into so many slices before you get down to what amounts to nothing.

Peter Ginna said...

These are perfectly reasonable questions from the author's point of view. The fact is, self-publishing is always a better deal for the author IF the author can market the book as effectively as a publisher can. That of course is a big IF. But Renee, you are absolutely right that--as I noted in the post--the editor doesn't take the risk that the author does, and collects a salary whether the book succeeds or fails. Ann Patty responds to some comments like in the thread below her post, linked in the body of my piece above.

I repeat that I wasn't arguing that editors should receive royalties; and if they did receive royalties I don't believe they should be taken from the author's share.

I do suspect that as publishing models evolve, we may see other varieties of publishing contracts or quasi-self-pubishing arrangements in which the services of editors, or designers or other professionals, may be added to a project a la carte.

Renee Miller said...

I understood what you were saying, Peter. Sorry, sometimes the Irish gets carried away and I overdo 'my opinion'. I read Ann's article and the comments later are what had me a little (okay, maybe a lot) ticked. If an editor is willing to work on spec, without a salary as an author does, then sure, they should be able to receive a royalty from work they've helped publish. But then, they would need a 'day job' because they'd never earn enough to pay the bills.

I'm still querying at this point, and the day job will be around for a long time. To read something like that, when I bust my ass daily to meet all of my obligations and write,(Often I'm up past midnight and waking before the sun rises) makes me shake my head in wonder that anyone could even consider that a fair arrangement.

And I've also noticed that publishers and agents are looking for manuscripts that are extremely polished. I understand no matter what happens, a manuscript could be edited a hundred times and still need 'something', but the publishers and agents I'm hearing from want to make sure there is as little editing as possible necessary in the manuscripts they read. Am I right? Or am I submitting to the wrong people?

Is this part of the issue for editors? Do they see less work because authors are required to edit their manuscripts before submitting? Just curious.

Peter Ginna said...

Renee, I'm not sure I understand your last question. If you mean, is there less work for editors now, the answer is no. Or rather, there is always more work to do than editors have hours to do it in. Because the market now is pretty tough, margins are small, and houses are trying to cut expenses, in most places fewer people are working on more titles. That's the main reason they are more reluctant to take on projects that need a lot of editorial massaging. It's hard enough to publish a book that needs *little* work.

To sign up a MS that needs a lot of work both increases the resources required, and the risk of the project--because the further a MS is from being marketable as is, the greater the likelihood that the final product will fall short of what you hoped for when you acquired it. That's the simple reason why the bar tends to be set higher than it may have been in the past.

Renee Miller said...

You understood. Thanks. I didn't word it very well. I was unclear as to why publishers wanted super polished manuscripts and your answer makes total sense. They have less editors doing more work. It's a tough situation for everyone involved I think. I still feel that royalties for editors is a bad idea. Hmm. Maybe bad is not the right word. Perhaps 'unwise' would be the proper one. I worry at how many more would want a piece of the pie once it started.

Anyway, great topic and post. Food for thought. (pun intended)

Charles said...

I don't know what the debate is like in the USA, but over here in the Netherlands the debate has been launched that royalties are a thing of the past anyway. Writers, musicians and artists are up in arms to prevent pirate-party-policies becoming mainstream ideas. It is suggested to reduce author\artist copyright to 7 or 10years after publication date (!!!) and to forego copyright (and thus royalties) on digital publication. In that light the idea of giving a royalty percentage to editors is truly a work of fiction.

Peter Ginna said...

Charles, obviously I'm not up to speed on the state of things in the Netherlands, but I'm honestly surprised by what you report. The trend in the U.S. has been in exactly the opposite direction, as you may know. Copyright now extends as long as 70 years past the author's death. Many people argue that this term of copyright is too long, and stands to enrich heirs or corporate owners who had nothing to do with creating the work. But most authors (and editors, whether or not we get royalties) would probably say a 7-year copyright protection for a work is too little.

Marilynn Byerly said...

If the Netherlands changes copyright so drastically, every last author there of any note will publish in other countries rather than give up their copyright.

Publishers would have trouble surviving, and the pirates would have to steal from other countries because of so little to steal in their own country.

On royalties, some small publishers and epublishers give their editors a piece of the royalty for each book, but it's taken out of the profit, not out of the author's percentage.

This allows cash-poor publishers to create books.

Peter Ginna said...

Marilyn-- Yes, that's one of several reasons I doubt such a measure would get off the ground in the Netherlands or anywhere.

Interesting point about small and e-publishers. It would be more accurate to say that the money paid to an in-house editor comes from the "publisher's share" rather than "profit" since various other costs come out of what is left after royalties are paid. Even without paying in-house editors the publisher's "profit" is usually in the range of five to ten percent, at least on printed titles. But it's true with e-books there are fewer costs to to take out, so margins may be greater (though revenues are typically smaller).