Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Year in Review 2010
As former Republican Party chair Michael Steele said, quoting his favorite book War and Peace, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Well, actually it was neither. Just love the above anecdote.
The problem with writing a year in review is actually remembering the year. As a freelancer, sometimes the days float together. Weekends aren’t different from weekdays. The deadlines are short, and the seasons aren’t real defined. Another FedEx shipment comes in, another UPS drop-off; the lines on my work calendar change, but not much else. So one year slips into the next.
My sons turned 21 and 18 this year, and I turned 50. I guess those are some milestones.
For my fiftieth birthday, I went to a place I’d read about a number of times in the course of my employment: The Abbey at Gethsemani, www.monks.org. This is the real deal, I imagine. Other Trappist monasteries around the country seem to have given themselves over to being convention centers. The Thomas Merton Institute, which I think is near Gethsemani, does some of that stuff, but the Abbey itself is silent, peaceful, beautiful, mesmerizing. I’ll never think of birds chirping in the same way again. Five days there, and I’d do it again tomorrow. In certain frames of mind, I’d sign up for the long haul. I’d probably have to get over that whole Catholic/Jewish/agnostic thing, but frankly I suspect that the longtimers there have some pretty good questions of their own. I spoke with the Retreat Master for a while, Father Carlos -- a very worldly monk who had been a parish priest in the Philippines, and the order still ships him around the world for various duties, so it’s not like he’s lived the cloistered life. We were discussing what passes for where I am spiritually and psychically, and he said, “Organized religion will ruin you.” Straight from the horse’s mouth.
But if it weren’t for organized religion, I’d have a lot less work. As always, the players come and go, and even within that, the amount of work I might get from any given publisher varies greatly from year to year. For that reason, as a freelancer I don’t turn down work and will usually find a way to put in a plug for myself if a new contact comes my way through a third party. More on interesting referrals to come.
I found out toward the end of last year that the managing editor at one of my main clients is retiring later this month. This news makes freelancers very nervous. The managing editor (or sometimes the production editor) is the person in a publishing house who farms out work to freelancers. I’ve had one or two managing editors over time whom I’ve wanted to take out life insurance policies on, in case anything ever happened to them. Catherine comes close to being one of them. She’s a very tough customer, but we’ve managed to craft out a pretty friendly relationship over the years. I remember one time when I gave her a hard time for her handwriting. She informed me she had polio as a child. I’ve felt stupider, but not often.
So, Catherine is leaving at the end of this month, and I’m hopeful that she is training her replacement well. I told Catherine last month that she should only say four words to the new hire: “Bob Land [name of another freelancer here].” Catherine said she’ll make sure the new person understands who the good vendors are. The good thing is that one of the two people whom the search narrowed down to had no previous publishing experience. That’s a plus. The fear is that a new managing editor comes in with her/his own list of favorites. Big fear.
The year 2010 started out with not much on the books, and I panicked. I went back through my lists of invoices for the past few years and started identifying clients who hadn’t contacted me recently. As one of Moi’s posters once said, “I wish it was that easy.” Sometimes it is. I ended up rehabilitating three or four companies I hadn’t heard from in a couple of years. One of them ended up leading to another publisher that now uses me to edit one of its journals (4x/year) and has used me for one proofing job (I’ll contact them for more). The original company itself has probably contacted me for four editing jobs since reestablishing relations. Another publisher, for whom I used to proof a good bit, is now back into the regular groove of sending me work. I don’t know why some publishers all of a sudden forget a freelancer is there. If it was a problem with my work, why upon contacting them would they say, “Oh, you’re available? We’ll have something for you this week.” It happens too frequently to say it can’t happen.
Interesting contact/client: Usually I don’t mention people by name, but I might as well here, just ’cause it’s kind of fun. I indexed a book this year for one of the Rolling Stones. It wasn’t Keef’s book, but still cool. Chuck Leavell was the keyboardist for the Allman Brothers after Duane Allman passed, Sea Level (his own band), Clapton’s Unplugged band, and scores of others, and he also has been the Stones’ keyboardist and de facto musical director since the early 1980s. By “musical director,” I mean he makes up the playlists and all that when they’re on tour. He’s also an environmentalist and tree farmer and plantation owner in central Georgia. I had indexed his autobiography a few years ago, Between Rock and a Home Place.
He’s written a new book, Growing a Better America, and when it came time for the index, he contacted Mercer U. Press and asked for the name of the indexer on the last book. Thus it happened that I started exchanging phone calls and emails with one of the Rolling Stones. Great guy, extremely friendly. My wife, Tere, of similar Alabama-Georgia roots as Chuck, was excited. When he called one time, Tere said, “Is his name actually on your caller ID?” Yep, there it is.
As I was sending him my invoice, I indicated that I’d be happy to barter some future editorial services on his next book in exchange for some Stones tickets next time they tour. We’ll see. But that’s my interesting author story for the year.
Fun books. In my particular niche of the publishing world, not too many come through. My idea of fun is loose leading. But the good thing about working for university presses is there’s no telling what will come across the desk sometimes. A fun book this year was Doonesbury and the Art of G. B. Trudeau, from Yale UP. If you’re a Doonesbury fan or a fan of illustration and graphic design in general, this book is a winner -- or even if you’re looking for a gift idea. Lot of nifty stuff in there about the mechanics of putting the strip together, as well as illustrations of a great deal of collateral that Trudeau has developed over the years, such as for local festivals, advertisements, and so on. And while Trudeau himself came out with a book last year that was strictly a Doonesbury retrospective, and that’s not what this one tries to do, the book still gives an arc of the strip over time. Since I stopped reading Doonesbury about a million years ago, seeing where he’s gone with it was interesting. And it’s always fun being reminded of “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!”
One of these years, I’ll go back through my invoices to determine how much of my work comes from proofing, editing, and indexing. I’m always complaining about indexing on the blog, because good news rarely makes the front page. So many of the books I index are rather a chore, because I don’t have a good grasp of the content. I just indexed a book (2011 news) for the sister of a woman I worked with 20-something years ago -- freelancers, take note: don’t change email addresses and such too frequently that people can’t find you (and I suppose a blog or website helps as well) -- and University of North Carolina is the press. I’d love to have them as a client, but I’ll wait awhile to bug them. I probably already did, years ago. Anyway, UNC has a lengthy document of indexing instructions, some of which is quite helpful. Even though they instruct indexers to begin all entries with capital letters (grrr), they provide one very good piece of advice for the indexer that I would do well to apply to all future work: don’t put so much detail in the index entry that the reader finds nothing else when going to the page. Excellent advice, yet I fear that it’s exactly that kind of detail that at least one of my clients and certainly authors groove on. We’ll see if I can incorporate the concept without angering folks.
One of my freelance cohorts tried to get me to do an index for an ebook, a step I’m presently avoiding.
Other technological developments: One of my publishers wanted me to mark up a PDF for proofreading instead of returning hard copy with corrections on it. After offering my perspective on that task, the publisher backed off. We’ll see where that goes.
Copyediting is still copyediting. I’m doing a little more coding and applying of style sheets than before, which is fine. Doesn’t take much time (applying style sheets is almost fun), and it’s certainly a benefit for the publishers.
To wrap up the year, on December 31, one of my very good clients (essentially a vanity press) said that 2011 was the year she was selling the business. After a short email exchange, she basically offered the business to me. At another point in my life, I might consider being a publisher, but not now . . . I don’t think. After so many years of avoiding working with published authors, the idea of spending my days working with unpublished ones while still trying to pay the bills (two kids in college next year) seems not too enticing. But one never knows.
Oh, almost forgot about my much-reviled client.
If you’ve spent any time in the last year or so around freelance writing websites, or spent any time in the last few months reading the business/tech pages of the national news organs, you’ve probably heard about Demand (Media) Studios. I’m not going to go into all the ins and outs of the company and its history or its business model here. All that information is readily available with some searches, and if you’re not already familiar with the company, this little report won’t mean much to you.
Long story short: “It’s the death of journalism.” It’s not journalism. “They’re paying writers pennies when they used to make dollars.” They’re paying my son a pretty good wage for a 21-year-old, and he can work anytime day or night anywhere in the world, and he’s not saying “fries with that?” “They just put out the most bottom-feeding, feeble crap that’s available on the Internet.” They put out some very simplistic content and a whole lot of intelligent content that’s just not as much fun for columnists to write about. “They’re a sweatshop.” Depends on the work you’re doing and your approach to it. People who are making a few dollars an hour are doing so because of their approach to the task. “They’re driving down wages for all writers.” I hope I’d never hear that comment from any free marketeers. They are paying a rather decent hourly wage for the work they require, presuming one can work efficiently.
The story of my hiring is available elsewhere on this blog. I went out to a meeting with the company in September 2009 and found out that people up to the EVP level had read my blog postings. I essentially shamed them into hiring me, because they hadn’t been hiring editors with book experience beforehand.
What do I do for the company? Still a little copyediting, but mostly I supervise the work of other copyeditors, presently about 85 of them. That means I review their work every month or two and write rather detailed critiques of a number of articles they’ve edited, giving them guidance on how better to work with the writers to meet the company’s guidelines. I also help man the Help Desk, where writers query staffers and copy chiefs (that’s me and about ten or so other folks) to get clarification on requests that copyeditors are making of them.
What I can say is this: I’ve run into a hell of a lot of good editors working for this company. Some aren’t so good, but that’s going to happen when you have so many copyeditors doing the work. And the ones who really aren’t good are shown the door, sometimes in rather quick fashion. But I now work with a lot of very fine people who bring a lot of good experience to the table. I’ve met a number of these folks in person, and I’d have to say that some are pretty good friends of mine at this point. And I can also say that working for Demand has, yes, improved my work as a copyeditor for other clients.
Does the company make a lot of people angry? Absolutely. Is their output generally miscategorized by Internet bloggers? Absolutely. Am I going to continue working for the company? For the foreseeable future, for my own reasons. If I won the lottery tomorrow, would I give it up? Yep, that and indexing. But there are some aspects of the job I’d miss. Working for myself for the last 17 years (geez), I must admit that I get lonely sometimes, even though I have clients I speak with on a regular though intermittent basis. With Demand I truly feel like I’m part of a company and a community, and I’m not talking about getting the warm fuzzies over corporate America and a shameless march toward the almighty profit. I’m much more talking about the relationships I have with some of my fellow copy chiefs and a small handful of the editors in my charge. At this point, they—the people and the relationships—mean a lot to me. And while my previous stint in management, at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, didn’t quite turn out as planned, I’m getting another shot here . . . not that I relish being in management by any means. But one of the knocks against me at the Fed was that I was too close to my staff. Well, hell, there’s far worse things. And I like to think that for a lot of editors and writers, I provide a certain approach to my duties that positively influences the people I’m working with.
Back to work.