Black-box editing, an argument for

Publishers need to save money. I get that, I do. We all need to save money, and that goes double these days, with runaway fuel costs that drag all other costs up with them.

Editor as black box: graphs showing hassle going up as price goes down


In order to save money, though, it’s tempting to buy cheaply. But there’s the old adage, ‘buy cheap, buy twice’, put rather more eloquently by the late Sir Terry Pratchett when he formulated Captain Sam Vimes’s boots theory of socio-economic unfairness.

If you have to buy cheap, you buy poor quality (yes, I know there are exceptions. And then you have to ask yourself if it’s now exploitation). You have to invest over and over as things don’t last long enough, or are not up to the job. If you have the money, you can buy better quality, something that meets your requirements and represents a value for money that those with emptier pockets can’t obtain.

So: publishers also want value for money. You’ll get no argument from me there. Of course they do, and they should get it.

A story – noticeable for the absence of black boxes

Many (many) (so many) moons ago, I was a civil servant. I was payroll manager for one of the major departments. We were outsourced to the private sector.

Stay with me on this – I’m not off on one of my tangents.

When I was in the civil service, I spent my budget on the computer system, stationery and postage, staff costs with guaranteed pay progression (scales of pay that you went up each year as you gained in skill and experience until you were at the maximum for your grade, and after that it was down to what the government was prepared to offer) and staff training.

The department spent zip on overseeing our work. Big fat zero.

When I was outsourced, I spent my budget on the computer system, stationery and postage, staff costs and staff training, and a profit margin for the new owners. Staff pay was not guaranteed to rise at all, and efforts were made to keep staffing costs down, as low as possible. Hey, that profit margin had to come from somewhere.

One of the ways we kept staff costs down was by constant churn. The number of years of experience each staff member had plummeted. The remaining experienced staff spent a lot of their time training the new clerks, who quickly learned that staff loyalty was expected by our employer, but not earned or justified. Staff were fungible. Even those with skills and experience were easily replaced by anyone walking in off the street, surely?

We also had to monitor our performance against the contract, and write monthly reports about it. All new work. No extra staff. And with ever-dropping levels of expertise, those monthly reports were nothing to write home about. Complaints rose, overpayments increased, recovery rates decreased.

The department, naturally, developed a plethora of monitoring staff and procedures to ensure the contract was delivered. That got quite unwieldy very quickly, as the department had no expertise in monitoring contracts and tried to make up for that lack of expertise by using an iron fist, in case they lost control.

A sad story, because it produced a worse service at greater cost – and the exercise was meant to save the department (and thus, the taxpayer) money. How could it have?

Oh, and the relationship between the people who really mattered – the payees, who, unable to go elsewhere, were stuck with whatever service was doled out to them – and the payroll staff became increasingly adversarial, with plenty of finger-pointing and blaming, and zero tolerance for the mistakes that were being made more and more often. The ugly Us and Them, where before there had just been Us.

The department’s answer was increasing levels of micromanagement on the contract. This absorbed more and more time that should have been spent providing the service, because we had to make the time to keep apologising for not being able to provide the service and to go to endless meetings to explain, taking more and more time on the phone fielding queries and complaints as payees lost confidence – even when we’d done things right!

And, of course, that rise of micromanagement added to the department’s own costs of monitoring the contract – which was all additional work starting from the privatisation.

Pay peanuts, get monkeys. And get a vicious cycle, into the bargain.

Translating that story to editing and proofreading

Now, apply all that to freelance copyeditors and proofreaders.

Get poorer work at greater cost and inconvenience – or just get poorer work and accept that, and lose all confidence that there are any competent editors and proofreaders to be found.

It’s not just publishers – this is about anyone who tries to buy editorial service at bargain-basement prices. Trained and competent editors and proofreaders have a great – and wide – skill set aimed at producing good-quality text that’s fit for purpose.

I’ve turned down plenty of work because the rates were ridiculously low. I know plenty of colleagues in the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading have also done this. Yet someone picks up that work.


  • Novices.
  • People desperate to get something – anything and at any cost – on their CVs.
  • People who want work to learn on.
  • People in the enviable position of being able to work for pin money.
  • People who haven’t spent money and time learning their skills and gaining experience.
  • People who aren’t good enough to command better fees.

This isn’t theoretical – editorial social media is full of stories about this. I’ve experienced it myself.

Micromanagement can focus on the wrong things – micromanagers can forget to ask for the right things.

Micromanagement is an avoidable cost

If you pay a decent rate for a trained and competent copyeditor or proofreader, you can forget the micromanagement.

This is where the black box comes in

Here’s a radical idea: let the copyedit take place in a black box.

Inputs: the raw text; contact with the author; the publisher’s brief and style guide.

Process: the copyeditor does their magic whilst you go about the rest of your business.

Outputs: a text ready to typeset, with all author queries answered and changes made, including any unspecifiable consequential changes (identified and actioned by the aforesaid competent copyeditor), in accordance with the brief and the style guide; good handover notes; and a file ready for the typesetter to proceed.

Do you really need to know how that’s achieved? What do you actually gain? Do you know exactly how the pilot flies your holiday plane? What goes on behind the locked door of the cockpit is black-box stuff. You trust that the pilot knows her job, and the vast majority of the time, your trust isn’t misplaced. You take off, fly and land safely at your destination.

Of course, that pilot is obliged to maintain standards, keep up to date with developments in the pilot-y world, keep her skills sharp and be on top of her game. Aviation safety is far more heavily regulated and policed than editorial skills, I grant you, but you take my point.

Using editors and proofreaders who belong to editorial organisations, especially one like the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading that has grades of expertise and gatekeepers for those grades, is the less life-and-death editorial version of the Civil Aviation Authority.

I know – you’re in publishing, so you do know this stuff. But it seems to me that in-house staff know much more about project management (and ideas for new content, and book selection, and marketing, and rights, and managing the balance sheet of publishing) than how the nitty-gritty of the actual copyediting (and proofreading) are done. That’s fine – that why you’ve outsourced this stuff in the first place, isn’t it?

I have clients who ask me to use barely half my skill set – they do the rest in-house, in a sequence that makes little sense, doing too much post-typesetting, than before it. It also makes me feel I’m doing only half the job – poorer job satisfaction for me, and quite possibly a poorer-quality output at the end of the production schedule.

I had clients (I fired them) that micromanaged the process, telling me to run Word’s Editor (aaaaaaaaargh! I have way better tools than that!) and how to word author queries (madness, given that they don’t know what the queries are going to be about). One tried to dictate how and when the queries should be sent to the author – a process that added two or three weeks to the schedule, and reduced my efficiency markedly, but with no additional time allowed. I fired them, too. I guess I’m not a cookie-cutter kind of editor.

I get jobs come to me from a variety of sources because the original copyeditor didn’t do a good enough job (bought cheap, bought twice).

Pay for a skilled copyeditor. Pay once. Get a good job done. Save the micromanagement costs and the hit on your staff’s time. It’s hardly the most fulfilling part of their role.

If you don’t know where to look for a skilled copyeditor, then hire me for humanities and social sciences – or someone like me. There are hundreds in the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading’s directory.

Don’t get me wrong – I adore clients who know what they want. But that should be written into the house style and the brief for this specific job. And if it’s not, I also adore clients who are able to give me a swift answer to any queries I have about the brief. Not so fond of the ones who take five weeks to answer key queries, not covered in the brief, when only four weeks was allowed for the edit.

I don’t need to get a list of random tasks because other underpaid copyeditors have blundered. I specifically don’t want to have to fill out two long forms,* hugely overlapping, saying that I’ve carried out each of these specific tasks. Honestly, I’ve done way more than those tasks, and I do those on the list as a matter of course – because I actually do know what I’m doing.

Sue Littleford of Apt Words, bitmoji

© Sue Littleford, 2022

* Said forms being so poorly designed, with cells that I need to write in being of a fixed size too small for the content, or protected against input (I kid you not), or allowing input only from a drop-down list that doesn’t have the necessary options in it. Then there was the one that allowed only a certain number of entries on the word list. And not enough of them, either, of course. Sigh. That’s micromanagement with added aaaarrrgh…

Penguin Random House leads the way

I attended Benjamin Dreyer’s presentation at last year’s Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading annual conference. He told us that Penguin Random House is investing in its freelance editors to ensure they can perform to the requisite standard; they’re building relationships so that editors know how PRH like things done and PRH has a pool of freelancers that they can match to authors, using them over and over again.

They’re lifting their editors’ skill sets, rather than using high-churn beginning editors desperate to get something on their CVs, or editors who aren’t that good at the job and can’t command better pay.

They’re not doing this via micromanagement.

I really, really hope that PRH are not the only publisher thinking this way, and it’s just that I haven’t encountered the others (yet). I recently joined the freelance pool of a publisher that I have high hopes for – my fingers are tightly crossed that the first job, when it shows up, realises those hopes. And amongst my other clients, there are those who kinda get all this. It’s not all doom and gloom.

The solution

  • Pay well to
  • Buy better quality, then
  • Nurture the relationships and
  • Let the editors and proofreaders toil away in their black box; then you can
  • Forget about the new costs in time, money and aggravation of micromanagement – especially as micromanagement does not guarantee the result you want.


As I took a break from drafting this article, I checked Twitter, and found it was alight with in-house publishing staff flooding out of their industry, citing low pay and heavy workloads. So this isn’t just me having a good ol’ vent. It happens to in-house staff too – and at what human cost, and bottom-line cost to the business? Take some of the strain off some of the staff, and give good-quality freelancers their head, suitably remunerated, rather than driving the headline cost (and only the headline cost) ever downwards.

Remember: peanuts, monkeys. Captain Sam Vimes. And that terribly useful editorial black box wherein lurk really good editors and proofreaders.

2 thoughts on “Black-box editing, an argument for”

  1. Not only will companies get better editing by not micromanaging their contract editors, but they’ll get more contractor loyalty. Those editing clients who invest in my skills and my team’s skills go to the top of the work list. We work harder to do a good job and make their work a priority.

    1. Well, exactly, Erin – at Apt Words it’s just me, but the same thoughts prevail. This whole issue is hardly rocket science, but so many of my clients have lurched in this direction. The ones that lurch too far end up being ex-clients, and I’m sure I won’t be alone in taking that line.

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