An American Editor

June 12, 2013

The Struggle to Make a Living

It doesn’t matter the forum. Wherever editors gather, there are two groups of editors: those making a living from their editing work and those struggling to do so. By making a living, I mean earning enough to give the editor the life the editor wants.

I couch it vaguely because earning a living means different things to different people. Some people are very happy earning $35,000 a year; others aren’t happy unless they are earning $70,000 or more a year. Some are happy if they earn enough to pay the monthly bills and still have a little bit left over when their income is combined with that of a significant other; others aren’t happy unless they can easily pay the monthly bills solely from their own income and have quite a bit left over.

The key isn’t how much you are earning but whether what you are earning meets your needs and expectations.

If you are struggling to meet your financial needs and have been doing so for a number of years, you are doing something wrong. What you are doing wrong can be almost anything, from whether this is the right profession for you, to failing to promote your business in the right market segments, to being inefficient, to insisting on being a solopreneur, to myriad other possibilities.

Usually there are competing desires: to edit a particular type of manuscript (e.g., mystery, biography, fantasy, erotica, medical, science, educational, doctoral dissertations, etc.); to work with a particular audience (e.g., companies, authors, publishers, advertising agencies, etc.); to living location (e.g., rural, urban, north, south); and so on, all of which require compromise.

No matter what competing desires there are, if you are struggling to meet your financial needs and have been doing so for a number of years, you are doing something wrong. The question you should be asking is: “What am I doing wrong?” This is a very difficult question to answer because we are blinded by our self-perceptions and by our limited knowledge, especially of business. Editors tend to be high on creativity and low on business skills. Perhaps that is why we are often much better editors than we are businesspeople.

Yet strugglers cannot avoid in-depth self-analysis if they ever want to move from the struggling ranks to the nonstruggling ranks. The analysis has to begin with the business aspects, not the editing aspects, because it is often the business aspects that are our downfall. The business aspects include everything but the actual editing process. For example, whether to buy and use a software program like EditTools is an aspect of editing; whether to change focus from women’s fiction to American history is an aspect of business.

If you are struggling, you are not competing well in your chosen market. Why is that? What steps should you take to overcome that problem? Every aspect of your business needs to be scrutinized, including: how quickly you respond to e-mail queries; how much time you spend socializing online; how much time and money you spend on marketing; what kind of marketing you are doing that isn’t working; and so on.

But the most important thing that a struggler needs to do is change his thinking. We recently discussed the solopreneur versus the company. No one, except me, came forward in favor of the company approach; what discussion there was tended toward praising and defending the solopreneurship or saying “different strokes for different folks.” I understand the thinking, because when I started as a freelance editor, my thinking was precisely the same: solopreneurship forever! But I struggled and I rethought.

My point is not that solopreneurs should become companies. Rather, it is that, if you are struggling — be it as a company or a solopreneur — you need to be open to considering what you are currently not doing. You need to analyze objectively, setting aside the emotional aspects and focusing on the cold facts aspects (and later let the emotional aspects have a whack). If your marketing efforts are largely confined to social media and participating on LinkedIn, perhaps you need to think spending less time and effort on the social media and about running a classified ad in the New York Review of Books or Writer’s Digest. Maybe you need to
raise your rates – and come up with ways to support those higher rates when clients push back (see Business of Editing: “I Can Get It Cheaper!”). Expanding your thinking is the first step down the road to ending struggling to make a living.

After tackling the business aspects, the struggler needs to analyze the editorial aspects. This includes the fundamental question of whether you should be a freelance editor. Assuming you should, you need to objectively analyze your editing process. Are there things you can do to streamline the process? Can you make an editing job that normally takes 25 hours take 20 hours and still give a high-quality edit? Is it really necessary to include three passes for the fee you are charging? Should you change the way you charge?

One thing the struggler needs to do is to talk with nonstrugglers to try to learn what they do. For example, if you talk to nonstrugglers and find that most of them charge a project fee and you are charging an hourly fee, perhaps you need to rethink your hourly fee. Or if you find that nonstrugglers spend time macroizing routine tasks, perhaps you should take a few days and learn to write macros. Or maybe the nonstrugglers discovered that editing children’s literature could never pay well because of the uncompensated demands put on editors by the publishers and so changed from children’s literature to academic publishers.

A professional editor should not be struggling. I grant that the world has changed greatly through the globalization of publishing and the rise of book packagers and self-publishers. But there are still opportunities; we just need to position ourselves to grab them by making ourselves flexible. The model that worked yesterday may not work today and we need to adapt yesterday’s model to today’s needs.

It is difficult to do, but what we need to do — what strugglers need to do — is what every business and profession has to do: Change as the world changes around us or fade away.

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