As all self-employed in the United States know, April 15 is not only the date our personal income tax returns for the prior fiscal year are due, but also the time when we need to pay our first quarter estimated taxes for the current fiscal year. For me, it is also a time to spend a few hours looking at data I have accumulated during the first quarter and making an attempt to predict future trends.
In recent articles, I have noted the importance of data collection (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping I and The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping II). I have also noted the upswing I have experienced in offers of editing work (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: An Embarrassment of Riches). In those articles, I hinted (at best) at the extent of the data I keep and analyze.
Important data that I keep are the number of projects I have been offered, the number that I accepted and the number I declined, and as much detail as I can about the projects I declined, but with particular focus on size, offered fee, subject matter, and schedule. I usually review and analyze this data quarterly, about the same time that I prepare my income information for transmittal to my accountant for the quarterly returns. (I know that many, if not most, of my colleagues do their own quarterly payments; after all, it is a simple form. But I have made it a practice over my years as a freelancer to always use an accountant even though the accountant’s services are not free. For my business it is worth the fee. The accountant also looks at the data I have collected and sometimes offers a very valuable insight into my business that I have overlooked.)
This year has been significantly different than previous years. When publishers started offshoring, I could see a trending decline in the number of projects I was being offered. Interestingly, at the height of the offshoring and of the consolidation of the publishing industry, a key indicator was the low number of projects that I declined. (I should note that I do track the reason why I declined a project. This is important data. It makes a big difference in my analyses if the reason was fee, schedule, project size, or subject matter, or a combination of these four. For example, if I declined a project because it was outside the scope of the areas in which I work [e.g., a historical romance novel], then that particular project plays a very minimal role in my analyses; in fact, other than being counted as a declined project, it has no role in my analyses.) At that time, few projects were declined.
I could then trace a leveling. Every year following the plateauing of the accepted-declined numbers, I could reliably estimate the amount of work I would have each quarter of the following year, from whom the work would come, and the type of work it would be. That information helped guide my marketing: how much marketing I needed to do, to whom it should be directed, and when it should be done.
Beginning in the last half of 2012 I noticed that what had been plateauing was changing. The number of projects and the size of the projects being offered were beginning to increase. Where previously the number of projects being declined had remained low and steady, the trend was starting to show an increase.
The data for 2013 reinforced this trend, with the numbers steadily, but slowly growing. Also the data showed an increase in the effective hourly rate, which indicates an improvement in efficiency as well as an improvement in the types of projects accepted.
For the first quarter of 2014, the data demonstrates a continuation of the trend. But the data shows a significant spike. For example, in the first quarter of 2014 I was offered and declined as many projects as I had declined for the whole year in 2011 and 2012. The data shows that the number of manuscript pages in the declined projects equals 46% of the number of pages that was accepted.
Perhaps more importantly, the data shows that clients increasingly tried to alter schedules in hopes that by doing so I could fit the projects in my schedule. This is an important bit of knowledge because I can look at, for example, 2007 and see that in 2007 clients were willing to alter production schedules for very few projects, but in 2014 it changed to the majority of projects.
The data indicates to me that, at least within my niche, boom times may be coming. The first quarter 2014 data is an eye-opener for me. I note that revenues are up 61%, the size of the projects under contract is up 143%, and the number of projects being offered is up 218%, but I declined 58% of gross number (or 46% in terms of manuscript pages), which is also an increase. Unfortunately, because editing is hands-on work that has limits on what can be automated, the number of projects that I can accept is governed by the same key determinants — number of manuscript pages, project difficulty, and schedule — that existed in 2000, which limited the number of projects I could accept in 2000, still control the number of projects I can accept today.
But data analysis also discloses how efficiently I can edit. The more efficient I am, the higher the number of pages per hour that can be edited. The higher that number is, the more projects I can accept; conversely, the lower that number, the fewer projects that can be accepted.
Although the percentages noted above look great, it needs to be remembered that they represent just the first quarter of 2014. Second quarter data could plummet those numbers when applied year to date. My point is that although analysis of the first quarter is important in the decision-making process for upcoming months, it cannot be the sole determinant. At most it is a guide. Had the numbers been down, however, the importance of the analysis would be much greater; the analysis would be a warning of a negative trend that requires immediate corrective steps.
As I said earlier, my first quarter results indicate a change in the publishing industry for my niche and implies that boom times are coming. But even if boom times are coming, who knows how long they will stay. It could be fleeting or it could be years. The answer lies in the data I continue to collect.
What does your data tell you about upcoming trends for your business? Are you doing better than previously? Do you limit your analyses to comparing gross revenue? If so, what does that comparison tell you about your business and what you need to do?
Richard Adin, An American Editor