Outsourcing and the future of editing

Published in

European Association of Science Editors

7 June 2005

If you live in North America or Western Europe and earn your income doing some form of editorial work, you may be looking at the current trend in outsourcing with some alarm. Just how worried you should be will depend on your niche in the editorial/publishing food chain. A recent article in Folio Magazine by Karen Holt provides several illuminating examples (below) of the current outsourcing trend.


Boma, a Philippine company, charges $50 per page for layout and design, a price that includes sending the pages electronically to clients three times for proofing. Boma pays their staff about $12,000 a year for a job that might pay $60,000 in the USA. In case that sounds like "exploitation", the average per capita income in the Philippines is just under 2000 Euros a year (yes, that’s ‘year’ not ‘month’). Being an editor in the Philippines is good work.


Office Tiger, another Holt/Folio example, is an Indian company with a staff of 1,650 with offices in New York and London. Tiger started in 1999 by offering research, analysis and production services to law firms and investment banks. It was an easy move to start producing annual reports and other company publications. Now Tiger is moving into prepress and editorial support to magazines.


Many American and European editors wonder if editors in India can master nuances of style well enough to smooth copy for a gourmet magazine aimed at upper middle class Americans. Can a graphic designer in the Philippines create the right "look" for a British teen fashion publication? Before you join the chorus with an emphatic, "no", consider that many overseas designers and editors were trained in the West and that many of the firms employing them are under Western management or partnering with Western firms.


Professional journals have been quick to follow in the steps of niche market magazines. Publishers are discovering that instead of investing in expensive software and staff, they can outsource work to India or the Philippines and save up to 80 percent of the cost of doing the work in-house. One such example is SPI Publisher Services, a Manila based company, doing layout and copyediting, as well as file conversion from print to electronic format for professional and scholarly journals. SPI's revenues have been growing 50 percent a year for the past two years and are expected to reach $15 million this year.


Many American and European editors would like to think that editing is too "complicated" to be done well by someone in another country. Karen Holt quotes Barbara Wallraff, a language columnist for the Atlantic Monthly and editor of the Copy Editor Newsletter who says, "If it's quality that the companies care about for the great majority of copyediting applications, offshoring wouldn't be the way to go. So we need to do a good job of explaining why good, solid domestic editing does have value."


Wallraff’s Ameri-centric view may be right - up to a point. Most science publishers are not looking for sophisticated style. What they want is nothing more complicated than clear, error-free copy. MD Writers, an Indian firm with American links, has six Indian physicians under contract who write, research, copyedit and fact-check material for consumer and professional audiences. MD Writers supplies content for Websites, ghost writes articles for peer-reviewed journals and prepares material for continuing education courses. The Indian doctors hired to do the work typically make $1,200 to $2,000 a month - a welcome supplement to a physician’s income. According to MD’s owner, it takes only three months to train Indian doctors to write American-style copy.


Not all editing outsourced


The first step in getting a grip on the outsourcing issue is to step back from the editorial trees and have a look at the professional forest.


In a Lancet commentary on 21st Century biomedical journals, Richard Horton reminds us that editing and publishing are, "separate but interdependent activities carried out by people with different training, skills and interests." Publishers are in the business of bringing content to readers. Their skill sets include marketing, sales, database management and other business applications. Their success is judged by how well they deliver information and by profit.


Editors, says Horton, are typically, "the peers of authors and readers, prepared by experience and interest to act on their behalf." Managing editors help ensure quality by selecting material they consider to be appropriate for the publication’s readers and improving it for the readers’ benefit. Success is measured in terms of how well they build and retain an audience of readers.


In the heat of the debate on outsourcing we forget that ‘editing’ is not a single profession but a cluster of specialist skills. The range includes activities typically described by titles such as managing editor, book editor, photo editor, copyeditor and proofreader.


People working at the managerial and supervisory levels of editing have little to fear from outsourcing in the immediate future. The big shift in outsourced jobs will be in those areas that can be automated or do not require a high level of English language fluency. A lot of routine "cleaning up" can already be handled with common desktop tools and there are more on the way. Despite what some American and European editors would like to think, it does not require a high level of language ability to correct subject verb agreements, check for consistent capitalization or apply house style and XML tags. And thanks to the highly successful export of English language training programmes, the level of fluency among so-called "non-native speakers" is steadily improving.


Nothing new in outsourcing


The second step in assessing the impact of outsourcing on our profession is realizing that there has always been an ebb and flow of outsourcing services and bringing them back into the company structure as technology and economic conditions change. The three main reasons companies cite for outsourcing are to reduce and control operating costs, free internal resources for other purposes, and improve a company's focus. Technology and the globalization of business are the main forces driving the current wave of outsourcing.


In the USA, Gartner Inc. earlier predicted that 25 percent of the jobs in the US IT industry will have moved offshore by 2010. Forrester Research predicts that $136 billion in wages, or 3.3 million jobs, will move offshore in the next 10 years. And these figures do not include Western Europe. Gaudin, Sharon, 2004. Gartner: 1/4 of U.S. IT Jobs Offshored by 2010. http://itmanagement.earthweb.com/career/article.php/3331751


The current round of outsourcing came to public attention when American companies discovered that Indian and Chinese computer programmers were as good as but cheaper than American programmers. Indian and Chinese programmers working in America were just as upset as their American colleagues. India had the early advantage because its workforce has good English language skills. This advantage allowed enterprising Indian entrepreneurs to bid for and win contracts to take on "back office" functions.


First it was data entry for insurance claims, then credit card and membership applications, catalogue ordering, stock market research reports and most recently research and development. The recent move to outsourcing in the US was fuelled in part by a law that allows companies to defer paying taxes on money earned overseas. This helps explain why Indian companies like Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys have seen increases of over 40 to 50 per cent in their software services. The call centre business is booming to the point where there is a chronic labour shortage in India for qualified staff. Given the double benefit of cost savings and deferred taxes, it is hardly surprising that other industries have started to look at what outsourcing can offer. Publishing is no exception.


Publishing has been a technology driven business since Gutenberg invented the movable type press. The only thing that has changed in the world of publishing is the rate of change. Publishers have always outsourced their printing. Offshore entrepreneurs, often trained in the West, started bidding for print jobs as soon as they could afford presses of suitable quality and the staff to operate them. Information technology further lowered costs by allowing electronic transmission of data to remote presses. My Herald Tribune is laid out in London but printed in Singapore and a dozen other cities in the world. As the skill level of the human resource pool has improved in "developing" countries, publishers have been able to persuade their offshore printers to take on graphic design and page layout. Offshore printers will outsource these functions to local shops or set up their own department or subsidiary company in a process of vertical integration. The more ‘technical’ levels of editing, i.e. copyediting, are the next logical step.


Limits to Growth


While the trend to outsource the technical levels of editing will most certainly continue and even progress up the editorial food chain, it will face a number of limitations. First, the number of publications that need editing is increasing more rapidly than the number of qualified English speakers in developing countries who have the skills, experience and inclination to edit. There are a limited number of countries where the general level of English is good enough to take on copyediting, mainly India, China, Sri Lanka, The Philippines and Singapore. As more publishers move work offshore, competition for qualified copyeditors among offshore companies will increase, driving up their costs and narrowing the gap somewhat between them and American and European providers.


American and European publishers must also consider the risks involved in outsourcing to developing countries. One risk is the potential loss of intellectual property and proprietary business-process information. China, which produces most of the world’s pirated goods, has no laws to protect intellectual assets such as editorial and production software not to mention the content itself.


Terrorist networks operate in some of the regions where companies look to outsource. Outsourcing means that daily operations could be disrupted by a terrorist attack. A political situation, such as the recent threat of armed conflict between Pakistan and India, could shut down offshore operations.


Finally, even in this much-hyped age of advanced telecommunications technology, it can be difficult to convince clients and potential customers that their information is secure with a company thousands of miles away in a region they may perceive to be unstable. Sometimes people are willing to pay a little more for the sense of security that comes with doing business face-to-face.


Advice to editors


A practical response to outsourcing is to realize that the publishing industry is growing by leaps and bounds and the need for qualified editors along with it. There should be ample room to prosper and grow for anyone with an eye for opportunity.


Start by paying attention to the current trends in publishing like open access and single source publishing. There are great changes afoot and you can’t be prepared if you don’t know what’s happening. Keep up your membership in professional organizations like EASE, go to conferences, and scan the trade magazines, websites and Internet discussion groups where these issues are under active discussion.


Second, keep up with the technology. If you think there is something charming, romantic or purist about refusing to go digital, then good luck to you. In the long term, new technology creates more jobs and opportunities than it eliminates. Plan on updating your hardware and software regularly, learn to use new tools and keep up with the discussions on their relative merits. Even at the managerial level, editors can no longer afford to delegate the ‘technical stuff’ entirely to the IT department. This includes ‘getting connected’ to the mobile phone, wireless, ftp and Internet networks where the changes are happening.


Finally, look for ways of adding value to the services you offer. As a freelance editor or small enterprise, you can’t hope to compete with a shop in Manila that has 20 well-educated Filipinos grinding through 10,000 pages of technical text a month - and doing a good job of it. The question is, "Why would you want to?" With the amount of printed information being created and disseminated today, there is no shortage of rewarding work for competent, qualified business-minded editors.




I would like to thank the reviewer of the original draft for his/her excellent direction. I am also indebted to the following authors, whose work I have drawn on for several sections in this article.


Richard Horton, author of, "21st century biomedical journals: Failures and futures". The Lancet, Volume 362, Number 9395, 08 November 2003. Accessed online at http://www.thtelancet.com/search/search.isa November 2004.


Robert H. Fletcher and Suzanne W. Fletcher, authors of, "The future of medical journals in the western world". The Lancet, Volume 352, Supplement 2, 03 October, 1998. Accessed online at

http://www.thtelancet.com/search/search.isa November 2004.


Karen Holt, author of "Are Magazines Next?" Folio Magazine, 6 January 2004. Accessed online at http://www.m10report.com/index.php?id=418&backPID=392 January 2005.