I’ve Looked at Copy from Both Sides Now: Straddling the Editorial Desk

books for last excerptI promised to pull back the veil on travel publishing — really, publishing in general. This is the last excerpt from my book that I’m going to post before my Kickstarter campaign ends (it’s from a chapter I haven’t yet finished). If you like it and want me to get back to writing, please contribute.

The context: It is 1993 and I have recently moved to Tucson from New York City. 

Guidebook writing is no profession for the conscientious — or compulsive.

My sense of adventure in traveling to exotic destinations as a freelancer was undercut by only two things: the need to earn a living and the tedium of having to slot the information I gathered into a guidebook template.

Yes, I got paid for my updating work, provided primarily by Fodor’s, but the expression “traveling on someone else’s dime” came pathetically close to describing my hourly rate. I got a flat fee for assignments, based on the number of pages covered as well as on the destination; foreign destinations paid more than domestic ones because guidebook publishers don’t cover expenses. In order to figure out what I was going to earn on any given project, I had to factor in financial outlay as well as time spent on the road doing research and at home organizing notes, writing, and putting the material into the correct format.

Or formats. With the hotel section of Fodor’s Las Vegas, for example, it was mostly a question of deleting places that had closed, adding ones that had opened, and fact checking service information, as the details at the end of each listing are known: address, telephone number, number of rooms, amenities…it was a long list but after a while it became easy to remember. With comprehensive destination chapters like the Copper Canyon in Fodor’s Mexico, on the other hand, each section of listings—Getting There, Getting Around, Sights, Lodging, Shopping, Dining—required different service information, which meant shifting mental gears and consulting the style guide frequently. These formats changed regularly. For a couple of years, updaters were required to put in codes that would be converted into print icons. (Today’s equivalent would be bloggers being responsible for inserting html code every time they wanted to generate a subhead, boldface, or italics.) So having worked in house didn’t give me much of an advantage here.

The fee for the Copper Canyon chapter was $1200. I didn’t have to pay for hotels—more on that later—but if you subtract $350 plane fare to Los Mochis, $50 to ride the Copper Canyon train, $150 for meals, $50 for taxis to and from the Tucson airport, that leaves $600. And that’s a low estimate of my expenses. I spent eight days on the road and at least a week inputting all the information, a total of 15 days. I usually work 6.5 hours a day, every day. Multiply 6.5 by 15 and divide $600 by 95.5 and you get $6.25 an hour. The cost of living in Tucson is low, but not that low.

The horseback ride at Divisadero, the fling in Creel, hanging out in Batopilas…all came courtesy of a Fodor’s assignment, sure, but more typical was the day spent checking hotels and sights in Los Mochis. And back in Tucson, nodding with boredom at my desk, making sure the listings for telephone numbers and accepted credit cards were correct, I often wondered what on earth I had been thinking. I’d left New York to become a writer, not a hotel room inspector or a fact checker. I rationalized that I was establishing myself as an expert in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico and gathering story ideas to pitch to magazines.

This turned out to be true, eventually, though I’m not sure this particular form of dues-paying was a smart idea for someone with my compulsive work habits; I spent far more time than I should have trying to get every last detail correct. But given my connections with guidebook publishers and my initial lack of confidence in approaching magazine editors, it was the most comfortable way for me to get to know my new beat.

And, happily, I also got a lot of freelance editing work from Fodor’s.

In an odd inversion of economic logic, updating was far more labor-intensive and time-consuming, but editing paid the bills. I probably earned $5,000 for editing a smallish book like Fodor’s San Diego, $8,500 for a large guide like Fodor’s Mexico. And, unless I wanted to visit places to familiarize myself with them—or, in the case of San Diego, where I did my dissertation research, to see my friends—I didn’t have any outlay of expenses other than office equipment and supplies.

Each book might take from three to six months to complete but there were always breaks between editing phases—hiring writers, reading submitted copy, looking at final proofs–during which I could leave town. Moreover, I worked quickly and efficiently. I was responsible for making sure that all the required data was there, not for providing it. After editing in house for many years, the process was second nature to me and I generally enjoyed it, especially when I worked with writers who managed to include lots of interesting details within the confines of the format, who were conscientious about the service information, and who met their deadlines. Insanely compulsives like me.

Straddling both sides of the editorial desk gave me a newfound appreciation for what went into producing a clean update–one that didn’t require me to correct weird syntax and grammar or send a lot of queries requesting clarification or additional information. I began to think back on my previous interactions with contributors. I’d often sent only a terse “Got it, thanks” note in response to assignments that were turned in. That was justified when I was too busy to look at a submission, but how long would it have taken to get back to an author later and say “Great job”? But I rarely did that, and not only because I was distracted. I foolishly assumed that writers who were professionals knew they were good and didn’t need me to praise them. Offering them more work was sufficient proof of my approbation, I figured.

It didn’t take long for that bit of editorial karma to bite me in the butt when I started freelancing. To this day, if an editor doesn’t say anything positive about my work, I’m convinced she hated it. This fear partly stems from congenital insecurity, but it’s also based on insider knowledge of the workings of at least one editor’s mind. I wasn’t only stinting when it came to praise, but also cowardly when it came to criticism.

One example: When I was in the process of hiring writers for Fodor’s Wall Street Journal Guides to Business Travel, I told an applicant who had submitted a few excellent clips from prestigious publications that I was almost certain she would get the assignment, but that I needed to see some articles that had not yet been professionally edited. When they arrived, I was dismayed—though not entirely shocked–by their poor quality. It’s a self-perpetuating process: An unskilled writer keeps getting work because editors clean up the prose before publication, and the writer slowly acquires a nice portfolio of clips. Most editors don’t have time to look at original samples; it was a fluke, or maybe an intuition, that I did so in this instance.

I didn’t know how to tell the writer that her work was unacceptable, so I didn’t. I didn’t tell her anything. I just avoided her calls and emails until they stopped coming. I forgot about the incident fairly soon—but she never did. Years later, when I signed up for a travel conference and checked a box indicating I was looking to share a hotel room, the writer posted on the conference forum about me: “I would never share a room with her. She’s a liar.” I can’t deny my culpability. I should have found a kind but clear way to let her know why I didn’t want to hire her after I’d more or less promised her the job.

I spent the conference—luckily, a large one—avoiding her. Again.

Perhaps my most important bit of freelance consciousness-raising was a developing sense of urgency about getting “my” writers paid. From as far back as my Prentice Hall-Travel (PHT) days in the mid-1980s, I knew that guidebook writers didn’t get their expenses covered, but that fact was an abstraction to me. Authors at PHT wrote entire books, not sections of them, and the editorial director was in charge of both the contract and the assignment letter asking tourist boards, hotels, attractions, and restaurants to give the writers “help”—i.e., comps. Even updating Frommer’s Egypt hadn’t made the need for prompt payment sink in, because the Egyptian tourist board was so generous and my advance arrived in plenty of time. By the time my final payment for the book was due, I already had a job at Fodor’s.

I was more involved with financial matters at Fodor’s, where I tried to make sure that the company met its contractual obligations to authors. As at PHT, half the fee was due upon signing a contract, the other half sent upon “acceptance” of the work, i.e., when all the queries were resolved. Facilitating payment wasn’t a priority to me, however, and I got annoyed when writers bugged me. Didn’t they have a cushion that would carry them through a short delay in getting a check?

Talk about hubris. Would that every editor was required to spend a minimum of six months freelancing before working in house. There are many, many times I have to dip into my insubstantial savings to cover an unexpected expense, many times I bite my nails watching the mailbox, waiting for a check to arrive. As soon as I realized the error of my ways, I worked hard to try to smooth the remuneration process for those working on books I was editing. I discovered it was easier to bug the New York office to get someone else paid than it was to ask for what was owed me.

Why this should be so is a question for a therapist — or maybe a sociologist. And I digress.


Press trips, a stint as the travel editor and food editor at a newspaper, writing for magazines…I’ll cover it all. Help me finish this book by contributing to my Kickstarter.

Tags: , ,

About the Author

Edie Jarolim is a writer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. Sign up on this blog to get updates about her humorous tell-all/memoir, GETTING NAKED FOR MONEY: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All.

Post a Reply