An American Editor

February 15, 2012

The Business of Editing: Pricing Yourself Out of the Market When Applying for Work

Part of my business involves having editors work for me on projects that I obtain from major publishers in the medical field. I constantly receive applications for work from editors. Every applicant receives my editing test, but I often never hear from them again, which is just as well, as their pay expectations are unrealistic.

One of the things that an editor who is looking to work for me has to state, when applying, is the minimum per-page fee the editor will accept. After all, why waste my time if I know that, no matter how good an editor the applicant may be, the minimum fee the applicant will accept is unrealistic and exponentially greater than the gross amount I will receive from my clients?

Of ten applicants, nine will state a minimum acceptable fee that is stroking the stratosphere. It isn’t that difficult to translate a per-page fee to an hourly fee to determine the “realness” of the asked-for amount. Most publishers expect editing of six to eight pages an hour and, when setting a budget for a project, base it on that rate of editing. So if you state your minimum acceptable fee is $25 per page, which I see often, you are asking for $150 to $200 an hour — a great fee if you can get it, but not based in the reality of the editing world.

There are four basic types of “employers” for editors: the publisher, the author, another editor, and a packager. (“Publisher” includes businesses and government agencies and anyone who ultimately will put their name on the document as the publisher.) In the case of the publisher and the author, the relationship between them and the editor is a direct one, so the editor can expect to receive the full amount of the fee the publisher or author is paying. And in the case of the author, the author may be expecting to pay a higher hourly rate than the publisher.

The latter two, however, are middlemen, and the job applicant should expect to receive less than what a middleman receives from the ultimate client. Middlemen are entitled to some return for their effort in finding the work (not to mention putting together and managing the team to produce it).

The finding of that ever-elusive work can be a costly endeavor.  Plus, it is the middleman’s reputation that is at stake when an editor is hired, not the editor’s reputation. I know the difficulties of finding enough work to keep editors busy year-round and I know that my clients never ask who the editor is/was: If the job was done well, I get the kudos (which I then pass on to the editor who actually earned the kudos), but when something goes amiss, I’m the one who has to smooth ruffled feathers and I’m the one who spends hours doing so; I’m the one who stands to lose the client and future work. In addition, I’m the one who spends money promoting the group’s services.

The middleman also acts as a buffer between a problematic client and the editor.

Perhaps more importantly from the editor’s perspective, at least in my case as middleman, I’m the one who gambles on getting paid. Of course, I am speaking only for my own business in this regard, but I make it a habit to pay an editor for the editor’s work within 24 hours, which is often before I bill the client and long before I actually receive payment. Should a client delay payment by weeks or months, or even never pay at all, the editor never knows as the editor was paid.

When applying for editorial work, the applicant needs to both keep in mind who the work is for and investigate what the going rate of pay is — and how it is calculated — for the type of work that the “employer” does. Of course, it would also help the applicant’s chances if the applicant had the requisite skill and knowledge to edit the types of publications the employer works on or produces.

But a realistic financial expectation is a key to getting past the initial stages of review by the employer. No matter how good an editor you may be, no prospective employer will give you a second glance if you price yourself out of the market. You cannot assume that if you pass a test but your fee request is above what the employer pays, you will have the opportunity to modify your request to bring it into line. That may occasionally happen, but it happens so rarely that an applicant should assume it never happens at all.

Again, it is the combination of realistic financial expectations and excellent editorial skills that wins work in today’s very competitive editorial market. Applicants for editorial work need to know and understand the market in which they are seeking editorial work. Does your experience indicate otherwise?

13 Comments »

  1. Very useful guidance, thank you!

    What is the most reasonable fee, an average? In my observation, companies that are trying to get through the recession, cut costs at the expence of writers/editors/translators.

    Example: I am editing a book at a 0.01 per word rate which amounts to appx $770 for the entire volume. The amount of time I am spending on the book is moderate, I am not overworked. So based on the evaluation of my input I accepted the offer. I am happy to assist the publishing house that enlisted my services because I value the type of the books they put out on the market. Besides, the credit I am getting for this which sits very well on my resume.

    However, I”m thinking whether I should price myself higher for another client – and whether that would be fair and competitive at the same time.

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    Comment by Camilla Stein — February 15, 2012 @ 4:31 am | Reply

  2. My experience directly reflects the marketplace divisions as described above. I do a lot of work for middlemen, and the pay is correspondingly lower than when I work directly for publishers and authors. I am happy to accept the lower rate because it spares me from the onerous sides of the job — finding work, doing the more-complicated paperwork, dealing with problem authors or publishers — and lets me just edit. Thus I can spend my energies doing a good job and delivering on time, which creates a nice win-win arrangement that serves everyone’s needs (and gets me more work from middlemen).

    I occasionally get blasted by other editors because my acceptance of lower rates contributes to the downward pull of rates in general. It took me a long time to recognize that this is untrue. My lower rates correspond with which market segment I’m being paid by.

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    Comment by Carolyn — February 15, 2012 @ 6:07 am | Reply

  3. Nice article. I wonder if the $25 per page was meant to be per hour which would then correspond to $3 to $4 dollars per page. That rate seems in line with third party editing. My question in this area is the following: Some rates are low, do you figure in two reads? For instance, if the rate is $3.50 per page does it include two reads. I have found that some do not expect that, but it is a tricky question to ask. Curious as to what you think.

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    Comment by Jonathan Moore — February 15, 2012 @ 9:45 am | Reply

    • I think the answer to your question depends on the client. I suspect that some clients expect one pass and others two passes. There is also a wide discrepancy about what constitutes a page, although the “standard” is 250 words.

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      Comment by americaneditor — February 15, 2012 @ 9:56 am | Reply

      • Thanks for the reply. I agree on the page issue. It is actually rare that I receive a paper with approximately 250 words per page. Definitely another pricing issue.

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        Comment by Jonathan Moore — February 15, 2012 @ 10:06 am | Reply

        • I can’t remember the last time I received a page with 250 words on it. But it doesn’t matter. You do a word count in Microsoft Word (a great macro for doing the count is Word Counter, available from The Editorium [www.editorium.com]) and divide the word count result by 250 to get the page count. I will add that the formula of 1 page = 250 words is just one of many formulas that are used. The important thing is to be in agreement with the client as to what constitutes a page.

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          Comment by americaneditor — February 15, 2012 @ 11:37 am | Reply

  4. My choice is to work directly for authors who recognize the value added by good editing and who will pay well for it. I quit working for book publishers long ago–they are still paying rates similar to what I paid 25 years ago when I was editorial manager for a large international publisher. A few journals pay my fee cheerfully (I have saved them from costly and embarrassing errors).

    I’ve never worked for a middleman, although I can see how some editors might like that arrangement. Because my clients all come through referral from enthusiastic customers, I don’t have to spend time marketing. But it has taken many years to reach that level of expertise, so maybe my road is unrealistic for young aspiring editors.

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    Comment by The Book Doctor — February 15, 2012 @ 12:09 pm | Reply

    • Like both Richard and the Book Doctor, I am quite experienced. But like Richard, I work mostly on medical subject matters. For the most part, I’ve moved to the Book Doctor’s model, working directly with authors; I also work with organizations and individuals that write or produce materials for continuing medical education. I don’t work with very many book publishers anymore because most of them want to pay lower rates than I want to earn.

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      Comment by Katharine O'Moore-Klopf — February 15, 2012 @ 10:47 pm | Reply

      • Unlike Katharine, I rapidly moved away from working directly with authors and focused on working with publishers and packagers. Although they pay less, I have found ways to increase both productivity and efficiency so that my Effective Hourly Rate is competitive with that of editors who work directly with authors. The beauty of editing is that there is room for multiple models.

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        Comment by americaneditor — February 16, 2012 @ 4:48 am | Reply

  5. I wondered as well if some editors were stating $25 a page when they meant $25 an hour. One would hope that an editor would be more careful, especially in a cover letter or pitch letter, but we’re all still human.

    What is a reasonable rate for an editor who works for another editor? I suspect less than if that editor works directly with the client, because, yes, the middleman does deserve to get paid. It also seems that if the rate is less, than the quality of the editor is going to be less as well.

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    Comment by Erin C Brenner — February 15, 2012 @ 5:45 pm | Reply

    • I have not found that quality suffers even a smidgen, at least not with those editors who do work for me. In exchange for receiving a lower rate from me than they could get directly from a client, I provide year-round work, pay promptly, do all the promotion to get the work, and act as a buffer. For some people, that is a fair trade; for others, it is not. But for the latter group, it is unlikely that they would be willing to work for someone else. Everything is a balance. For example, why would I pay an editor who did work for me upon receipt of the editor’s invoice if I had to pay the editor at the same rate I was being paid? Instead, I would want 30 days from the date I got paid and if I never got paid, neither would the editor.

      Although this is a sore point with many editors, I have said it before and I’ll repeat it here: I think the days of the solo editor are limited. There will always be the solo editor just as there continue to be sole practitioner lawyers and doctors, but the trend for lawyers and doctors is group practice and I think that trend will be true in the near future for editors, too. There are advantages and disadvantages, but one of the disadvantages to any group practice is that each member of the group has to share the proceeds, which usually means getting less than the gross amount received.

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      Comment by americaneditor — February 16, 2012 @ 4:44 am | Reply

  6. I would love to find clients paying $25/page for editing, but I doubt they exist. I do a lot of work for a law firm and for a PR firm whose only clients are lawyers, and even they don’t pay that much (although they do pay well).

    I’ve often thought it would be nice to have a middleman or agent of my own. If someone were finding projects for me, I’d be glad to hand over a percentage of the income from those jobs (or charge less, on the assumption that my fee is part of the agent/middleman’s).

    I rarely disagree with Rich, but I think there is still a role for the solo editor, and that there always will be. Some of my editing and proofreading clients don’t want to deal with a group and some only want to deal with me – not just me as a sole proprietor but me as myself. Some use more than one proofreader or editor and might be amenable to those folks working as a group, because what those clients want is assurance that someone is available to handle their work as it arrives and that the work is done well, regardless of who does the work. Individual authors also are a market for solo editors and proofreaders, assuming one can find those who value having a professional handle the messes they create🙂 – which some of our colleagues succeed at doing.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — February 18, 2012 @ 3:41 pm | Reply

  7. I agree that there can be many models that are ‘right’ for many situations. However, I think the role of the solo editor is only as limited as the editor’s niche skills and marketing ability. My clients keep coming back because they like the quality of my work and they trust my ability to understand their German way of warping English. Establishing a small, physical presence in the local university further developed my client base and heightened my value.

    Running your own show can mean surviving the fast or famine cycle, sure, but I think solo editors need to challenge themselves to think about what kind of ‘famine’ they’re willing to put up with. Working with a middleman is doing the same work for less, which may be fine for some people. I feel working for a middleman devalues my work, so I created new ways of marketing my skills to earn as much (or sometimes less) than my regular editing projects. I do a better job on the job when I get paid ‘my rate’, whether it’s editing or instructing.

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    Comment by Juliette — August 27, 2012 @ 9:13 am | Reply


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