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.


  1. AE: “But the most important thing that a struggler needs to do is change his thinking.”

    I am a struggler, have been one since the start, and suspect it might be my status for the remainder of my life. The problem I have, which I don’t see mentioned in this article, is the gap between *knowing* what’s wrong and/or what’s needed to do to improve things, and *making* myself take those steps. In some areas, I take the steps but don’t get results. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Who I am is the biggest obstacle to overcome.

    I’m advancing in small steps, mainly as a result of changing my thinking and M.O., which both have come from participating in forums and subscribing to blogs like this. When you have no idea what to do or how, you’ve got to get the ideas and info from somewhere!

    But it’s not an overnight, sweeping change. I have to peck at it, creep up to it sideways and fool myself, pounce on opportunities that pop up unexpectedly, reconsider things, reconsider them again, experiment, fail, reprioritize, beat myself up when I’m bad, reward myself when I’m good, ask for help, get over the embarrassment of having to ask for help, tackle things I don’t know how to do, fail, succeed now and then, start over, rearrange, get drunk with girlfriends and brainstorm, try something new, give up and cry, meanwhile meet deadlines and take care of my family, revise expectations, think outside the box, crawl into the box and pull the lid down over my head, and so on ad infinitum.

    I love editing. I hate business. That ain’t gonna change. So I have to figure out how to make it work.


    Comment by Carolyn — June 12, 2013 @ 6:48 am | Reply

  2. In my comment after Rich’s solopreneur post, I described my business as a sort of hybrid — sometimes I’m on my own, and sometimes I call in help or head up team projects. I said that since anyone who is freelancing or operating as a company with subcontractors or employees is legally a business, I’ve always thought of myself as a business. I would never praise the solopreneur concept over the company, or vice versa. It’s a business decision, and I agree that too many struggling editors don’t make smart business decisions.

    One problem, I think, is that not everyone who is in this biz has chosen it, freely and clearly. Many were laid off from traditional publishing (or other) jobs and started freelancing as a way to continue to make a living doing what they do best. But the problem with that trajectory is that, as soon as you start freelancing, you’re a business, even if it’s only a side work and you are still employed, but especially if you are trying to make a go of it solely on your own with no other day job. From what I’ve seen on discussion boards and personal interactions, post-employment editors are typically not businesspeople. But you can change that.

    I came to having my own editorial services business in a different way, and almost from the beginning looked at it as a business. Many years ago, in order to get some financing, I was forced to do a business plan. I thought it was an unnecessary bother to write up the plan, but by the time I finished it, I was really glad I did it. The process made me think and look ahead, rather than just react to circumstances. I suggest that any struggling editor sit down and work up a business plan as a first step to changing his or her professional fate. There are a gazillion business books and websites that will tell you how to write up such a plan, and I’m sure there are a ton of free templates available now, too.

    I’m not a struggling editor, but as we all know, that can change pretty quickly, even though I’ve built up what looks like a pretty secure business. To have continued success, I have to keep pushing myself — to learn more, invest in my business, and always pursue new leads. To keep in mind that going from successful to struggling is always a possibility and to minimize that as much as possible.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — June 12, 2013 @ 9:42 am | Reply

  3. […] Making a living as an editor […]


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  4. I think your advice about drawing up a business plan is critical. Thanks!


    Comment by brynsnow — June 13, 2013 @ 7:47 am | Reply

  5. […] The Struggle to Make a Living – “It doesn’t matter the forum. Wherever editors gather, there are two groups of […]


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  6. Online publishers don’t pay much. They can’t afford to and still make a profit, so the freelance editors they use work long, long hours and generally put in seven days a week to make what many would consider a crappy living. I know. I’ve done that. I burned out in less than a year.

    I work on my own now. What to charge is always balanced against what I can get, and if I guess wrong, I lose money (I do not live on either coast; I live in the upper Midwest). If I under-price myself, I work too hard for too little. Editing is a rough business. I supplement my income with fiction writing and a part time job, as well as acting as property manager for a friend.

    I must be doing something terribly wrong, because despite all those jobs, I’m still barely scraping by, and medical insurance? In my dreams.

    If there are editors making a good living at this job, kudos to them! I ain’t one of them.


    Comment by Theo Fenraven — June 13, 2013 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

    • Theo, when you mentioned that you live in the upper Midwest, was that in relation to how much you think you can charge (i.e., less than if you lived on either coast)? If so, time to rethink that. If you’re only working for local clients who don’t pay well, time to expand your market. I don’t have any local clients, except for my church newsletter, which I do for free. (I’ll either charge my going rate or donate my services, but nothing in between.) I work on e-files from clients in several areas in the USA and a couple that are overseas. Some of my US clients are international companies or nonprofits. They don’t care where I live; their level of compensation is what they can/want to pay, period. My strategy is to concentrate on niches and companies/nonprofits that will pay well and drop those who don’t, while also increasing my efficiency and skill level so I can make flat fees pay.


      Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — June 14, 2013 @ 10:23 am | Reply

      • I, too, have clients from everywhere, even Dubai.

        My biggest problem is charging enough. I’m nervous about raising my prices because then I may alienate some of my clients. I always think everyone is as poor as me, when often, the reverse is true. ;/


        Comment by Theo Fenraven — June 14, 2013 @ 3:25 pm | Reply

  7. One strategy for raising prices is to set higher fees for new clients and leave the same rates for current clients (at least for the short term). But sooner or later, you’ve got to take the plunge. I’ve recently raised my rates for most of my longstanding clients without any problem. I’ve found that it’s better to increase my rates by small increments on a roughly regular basis than to wait and wait until it’s critical and then try to get a big increase all at once.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — June 14, 2013 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

    • I raised my prices a few months ago. I’ll do it again in another few months. I really want to hang on to a few of my clients, as I enjoy their writing and it’s a joy to edit them. The others… not so much. ;/


      Comment by Theo Fenraven — June 14, 2013 @ 9:34 pm | Reply

  8. For those living in the US or are US Citizens in other countries, I would suggest for advice about business, you call on SCORE. There are 400 hundred chapters in the US. Go to, to the tab “Find SCORE,” put in your zip code and you’ll get a list of the closest Chapter(s)to contact. The service is free and comfidential Many counselors are used to working with creative people is small businesses.

    There are in some other countries like programs.


    Comment by Alan J. Zell — June 20, 2013 @ 11:03 pm | Reply

  9. […] The Struggle to Make a Living […]


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