An American Editor

January 25, 2012

The Publisher’s Search for Savings

The current issue of The Atlantic has a very interesting article, “Making It in America,” which asks a very difficult question: The article explores manufacturing jobs and wonders what will be the future for the unskilled laborer. The article is well-worth reading and thinking about, even though the professional editor is skilled labor, because just as manufacturers seek cost savings, so do publishers, especially in the Internet Age.

One problem with publisher attempts to save costs is that much too often the effort is focused on editorial costs, the so-called hidden costs, which generally means reducing the compensation paid to freelance editors. I would be less concerned about taking a cut in my compensation if my compensation had risen over the course of years. However, it hasn’t; the rate being offered by many publishers today is the same rate publishers were offering in 1995. Another way of saying it is that publishers have been the beneficiaries of editorial cost savings since 1995 because they haven’t increased the rate of pay in the past 17 years commensurate with the increases in costs of living.

But advocating that is beating one’s head against a reinforced brick wall. Why? Because editorial costs are hidden costs in the sense that, unlike a book cover that buyers see immediately and that can either improve or lessen chances of a sale, editorial matters are not noted until after the book is already purchased, usually weeks after purchase, when the return period has already expired. We may curse the publisher of a book riddled with editorial errors, but whereas we might “blacklist” an author, we don’t “blacklist” a publisher. Consumers simply do not shop for books by publisher; publisher brands are weak brands. When was the last time you asked a bookseller for the latest book published by Harper & Row?

Regardless, recently, I received a communication from a major publisher with its latest idea for lowering costs. I applaud the publisher for thinking about ways to save costs and for experimenting; this is something that too few publishers do, yet need to do in the ebook age. But I’m not convinced that the approach being taken will result in any significant savings.

The underpinnings of the approach is that there is a difference between editing and reading: the former is time-consuming, the latter less so. I have been thinking about this division and have asked colleagues for their view of whether the reading effort while editing differs from the reading effort when looking only for errors such as misspelling and homonym misuse, but not “copyediting.”

The colleagues I spoke with regarding whether the “copyediting read” differed significantly (or at all) from the “error read,” were similarly minded — amongst themselves and with me. Their was universal agreement that the reading effort remained the same and was equally time- and effort-intensive. Asking an editor to read for errors but not copyedit is like asking a fish to swim in air — the editorial skills are not so easily shunted aside.

In my case, there could be no cost savings even if there was a difference because I charge by the page, not the hour. Fifty pages are still 50 pages, whether thoroughly read or not. Consequently, while I think the publisher has the right idea — look for cost savings — this attempt is unlikely to result in significant savings. The publisher would likely save more by simply switching from an hourly based fee for editing to a per-page rate. Such a move, although many editors cannot see it, also would greatly benefit editors. (For a discussion comparing hourly and per-page rates, see Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand. You can also search past articles using the search term per-page rate.)

Let’s begin with human nature. If I am paid by the hour, I have no incentive to do a job either faster or more efficiently. (I assume that the quality of the editing would not differ regardless of how the editor is paid.) If I am happy earning $21/hour, I am as happy earning it for 40 hours as I am earning it for 50 hours; after all, what I am happy with is the $21/hour, which is constant, and having the work in an increasingly competitive environment.

But think about if I am paid by the page. If I am paid $3.50 a page, I can earn my comfortable $21/hour by editing at a rate of 6 pages an hour. Imagine how luxurious it would feel if I could edit at the same level of quality but at 10 pages an hour — I would then earn $35/hour. There is now an incentive for me to increase my efficiency and speed without sacrificing quality.

For the publisher, the per-page rate sets a maximum fee for a project. There is no more budget speculation about what a project will cost because hours are no longer part of the formula; instead, the focus is on saving time by getting the project completed sooner — a shorter turnaround. The costs are controlled because an editor can’t dally over the manuscript in the belief that the longer it takes to edit, the greater the editor’s income.

It also gives the publisher an opportunity to weed out from its stable of editors those who are inefficient and more costly because of their inefficiency. Remember that savings are not only gotten by reducing payout to an editor; even greater and more important savings can be had by shortening the time from manuscript to published book, especially in the eBook Age when faster-than-instant gratification is demanded.

Shifting to a per-page payment also frees a publisher to evaluate ways to increase accuracy, efficiency, and productivity. A colleague who was discussing EditTools with me (trying to find out what enhancements are coming in the near future :)), told me that as a result of using tools like EditTools, she has been able to increase the number of pages she can edit in an hour by as much as 50%, with an even higher level of quality than previously, both of which have resulted in increased work opportunities. Whereas many publishers and editors currently have little incentive to experiment with these types of tools, switching to a per-page rate from an hourly rate would provide that incentive. The ultimate results would be cost savings for the publisher and increased income for the editor.

Unfortunately, in the cost savings game, win-win situations are rare. Neither publishers nor editors are willing to break the traditional path. One of my clients told me that they are unwilling to insist that editors accept a per-page rate; in fact, the client expressed reluctance to use editors who want to work on a per-page rate, saying that they fear editors would make less money and thus exacerbate the problem of finding quality editors. The client went on to say that even after 15 years of my working for them on a per-page rate, they consider me an exception and the per-page rate experimental; additionally, few editors have asked for a per-page rather than an hourly rate. Similarly, no matter how many presentations I have made over the years demonstrating why the per-page rate is better for editors as a general rule (as with anything, whether it is better depends on what you do; there is no universal rule that applies in every circumstance), many editors refuse to try it and of those who do, a goodly number have told me that “they lost their shirt” on project X on a per-page rate and thus refuse to use it ever again.

I am at a loss how to convince publishers of the benefits of the per-page rate for their bottom line; corporate thinking runs in hourly segments, and, as one client noted, there are too many “approvals” required. But those publishers I have talked with who have moved many of their freelance editors to the per-page rate tell me that they can see overall cost savings.

As for the editors who “lost their shirt” on a project, the answer is this: First, you cannot evaluate the profitability of a client based on a single project. Similarly, you cannot evaluate the profitability of a payment method on a single project. You must evaluate both on the basis of at least three completed projects. There are lots of reasons why the shirt could have been lost on the single project, not least of which was the editor’s continuing to approach the project as if it was hourly paying. I can tell you from my own experience that it takes time to learn how to efficiently address a manuscript and that even today, I occasionally get a project on which I lose my shirt. But if I lose my shirt on one out of 100 projects, the other 99 more than makeup for the one’s loss.

Perhaps a discussion of the factors that can cause you to lose your shirt should be another day’s topic. Until then, do you stick with hourly only projects, do a mix, or per-page/project fee only? Why and what is your experience? Why are you reluctant to move from an hourly based fee to a per-page fee? Are you really satisfied with the hourly rate publishers pay?

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