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All Gone West (Or East)

I recently attended another drinks party, again to celebrate, or rather mark, the forced departure of a former colleague after his many years of working for a major professional publisher. There was neither bitterness nor acrimony on his part, just an acceptance of that being the way it is. You work with them until you become surplus to requirement, too old (however young) and/or too expensive (however underpaid) and then you are out. The problem is that there are years of work still capable of being done and bills still to pay. In this way, another aspiring and hopeful freelancer or “consultant” joins the ranks of the army of non-staff of the publishers.

There is an obvious logic to it all. Increasingly, certain of the publishers take the view that it is possible to be an expert, market-leading value-adding information provider without employing any relevant resources to achieve this. There is no need for commissioning editors, legal and technical editors, copy and production editors, proof-readers, managing editors, project managers, marketing specialists and the like. Everything can be outsourced to far-off, low-price, developing economies where the entire process, from proofreading, copy-editing, writing, legal editing to match the needs of every legal jurisdiction, author management and future planning can be done. All the publisher has to do is collect the profits. Some take the contrary view that this era is passing and a more attentive one, with a focus on quality output, is on its way. One can only hope so and in many cases there is justification in believing that they are right. Perhaps many of those freelance resources currently being used would once again make excellent career professional publishers.

For my part, I have mixed opinions about it. One might easily take the view that one person in employment is pretty much the same as another and that providing a real job for someone in The Philippines is more or less equal to providing one in London, Toronto, New York or Amsterdam. Maybe it’s better to help create careers, prospects and financial stability in developing countries where there is genuinely a greater need. Of course, the true motives are not altruistic or anti-xenophobic but much more simple and obvious.

Whether in far-off places or much closer to home, the work of the freelancer is much undervalued. They rarely receive credit or praise for their work, tend to be badly paid and have few rights beyond those contained in the unequal contracts under which they operate. I have personally witnessed, even participated in ploys to defer payments contractually due to freelancers from December to January, just to show increased year-end profits and secure internal bonuses. The fact that the December holiday period can be so financially burdensome for the freelancers in question is not always a relevant factor. They’re only freelancers, after all. That the leaving party described above was at the end of the year was no accident either. Wondrous things happen in the last quarter of the year, including many of the job terminations that we see, often for reasons that are similar to payments being deferred. By the way, an attempt to chase payment is as likely or not to reveal that the finance department too has been outsourced to Bangalore or elsewhere, far from home. Of course, major corporations have a duty to control their costs, just as they have lawfully to manage and optimise their tax liabilities but this, ideally, should sit comfortably with the high ethical values that they so often publicly proclaim.

Yet, where would the professional publishing industry be without its outsourcing? The answer is that it would be in deep trouble or rather, defunct. The continuous succession of layoffs gives testament to the fact that companies are to a significant extent using redundancy, off-shoring and the use of freelance resources as a key means by which to sustain profitability, as other factors, such as demand for the products and services, diminish. For those who are commissioned to do the work after the employees are gone, often ex-employees themselves, this would be a benefit, but for the fact that the life of the freelancer is tough. There are no perks, pension contributions, health care provision, paid holidays or payment for down-time, to name a few of the omissions. What there is in abundance is low rates of pay, irregular work, slow payment, lots of drudgery and, sometimes, treatment that would not be acceptable to those with more power and less need of the money.

It might be suggested that customers are not receiving the benefits of the evolving trend. Whereas some time ago, only such functions as the preparation of tables of cases and legislation, indexing and perhaps proof-reading might have been put out of house, every function is now a candidate. This might be fine if the skills being retained were equal to or better than those of the publisher that invests in retained technical skills, market intimacy and subject expertise. However, this is not likely to be the case and even where it is readily available, detailed input is not always required. It is unlikely that payment would be made to cover in-depth editing undertaken using legal source documents and adhering to established house-style criteria. Nor would it anticipate author liaison, management and negotiation aimed at defining and improving technical quality standards. More likely is the frantic call, late in the day, to cast a quick eye over some material, within an inadequate schedule, but to try not to find too much that needs alteration; and all for a pittance. If pricing were based on getting what you pay for, that might be fine but there seems little evidence of prices moderating where quality standards reduce. Moreover, as some publishers, at least until recently, have, allegedly, remained up to their old tricks in dealing with their customers, it might appear that, in terms of beneficial upside, it mostly seems to be in one direction only.

For those who choose or who are obliged to make their living from freelancing for some professional publishers, one would wish them well and hope that their skills, both professional and negotiating, serve them adequately. One might wonder though, if the win-win-win concept as it ideally applies to supplier, provider and customer, works in equal proportions.

As for those back in the publishing businesses whose jobs have evolved from doing the work to administering freelance resources in the form of their former colleagues, each time they are dismissive, mean or slow with the payments, they should bear in mind that, sooner or later, if they have any luck at all, they may be one of those very resources. Maybe considerably more dangerous, that freelancer might just have turned into an entrepreneur with an inclination towards revenge.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for this post, it’s very insightful and great advice.

  2. John Rogers Prosser

    A well considered and accurate commentary Robert.

  3. Nicholas Jobidon

    Extremely interesting – if a bit bitter – article.
    The opening in the conclusion is particularly interesting. Why are there so few small legal publishing houses? One would think such a small specialised market would make distribution easier, especially with the Internet?

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