An American Editor

September 5, 2011

Living in a Dream World: The Professional Editor’s Fee

I’m wondering if there is a psychedelic resurgence going on. No, I’m not planning on taking another trip back to the 1960s and their various hallucinogenic crazes. There really is no need to resurrect the past. To relive the psychedelic past, all I need do is review the applications for employment I have been receiving in the past few months.

I admit that there are few jobs that are as glamorous, legendary, and desirable as that of a freelance editor. Perhaps the life of a Hollywood superstar comes close, but I suspect that even that life pales in comparison to the life that wannabe editors believe freelance editors live.

I can sense your confusion. You are wondering what I’m talking about, so let me lay it out clearly and concisely: Of the two dozen most recent job applications I have received, 21 (87.5%) have stated that the minimum acceptable pay for copyediting is $25 per page. (Applicants are required to tell me their minimum acceptable pay level because I don’t want to waste my time — or their time — knowing that we shall never meet on common ground when it comes to pay.) Somewhere someone must be paying these rates, because too many applicants are setting them as the floor. I’m just wondering who is paying these rates; I’d like to apply to work with them.

In addition to the pay limitations, 17 (70.8%) have written to tell me that they see no need to complete a copyediting test. All I need do is look at their resume, especially their education, because it amply demonstrates their qualifications. That not one of the submitted resumes conforms to the explicit instructions regarding how the resume is to be presented seems not to matter. Nor, apparently, does it matter that it is made clear that without the completed copyediting test, the job application will not be considered at all.

I wish I could say that it gets better, but it doesn’t. Of those who actually do attempt the copyediting test, many, when returning the test, include a note saying that although they completed the test, they have neither medical editing experience nor any interest in pursuing medical editing, which is 90% of what I do and which I make clear in my hiring information. They assume that I would be able to keep them supplied with work in their preferred subject area, which they occasionally name.

Then comes the copyediting test itself. It isn’t that hard, the instructions are pretty clear, and a sample of the coding is provided — yet, barely 1% of the test-takers do a decent job of editing, or even code properly.

But none of this matters much when it comes to the expected pay. Occasionally I will choose one applicant who completes the test but didn’t pass it (and didn’t submit a resume in the correct form) and ask if they would be interested in working for me at $x per page. I make it clear that there are certain resources that they would need to purchase if they didn’t already own them (which I know, based on the test). The contacted applicant is never interested; the applicant makes it clear that $25 per page is the minimum acceptable fee and that they aren’t budging.

What does this tell us about how people view the editorial world? It tells me that people have an unrealistic sense of it, that they have done no investigation, that they see being a freelance editor as the golden path to fame and fortune — a profession with low entry requirements but high, immediate rewards. (It is worth noting that some of these applicants actually have full-time jobs in publishing, so you would think they would have a more realistic view.)

The problem with this mythical view is that, because so many people have it and believe it, it frightens away those who need our services. When I’ve asked indie authors why they aren’t hiring professional editors, in most cases the response is that the cost is too high. If I follow up by asking if they got price quotes from professional editors, the answer almost always is “no,” because they already “know” that professional editors are too expensive.

How do they know this? Somewhere, somehow, a misperception occurred. Equating the fees charged by all professional editors is as wrong as equating the cost of every painting with that of a Rembrandt. But then I look at the minimum fees job applicants demand compared to what the real-world editorial market actually pays and I wonder how that disconnect came about.

Combating this misperception is difficult, yet it is a task that editors need to undertake if we hope to survive as a profession the shift in the publishing industry from traditional publishing to self-publishing. What are your suggestions for combating this misperception that professional editors are too expensive?

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