An American Editor

February 19, 2014

The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It

In a previous essay, The Business of Editing: Worth in the Decision-Making Process, I wondered why editors and those who use our services attribute so little worth to the value of what professional editors do. As I noted, we are a large part of our problem because we accept — and even solicit — work at a price that cannot provide a sustainable lifestyle.

What brings this to my immediate attention, in addition to the experience I related in that essay, are the constant notes I see on various forums, including the “professional” LinkedIn forums, from “professional” editors who are willing to edit a manuscript for $10 or less an hour — and when questioned about the economics of such a fee, they vigorously defend it.

Let’s start with some data (all from “Opening Remarks,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, February 17-23, 2014, pp. 10-13):

  • Minimum wage for tennis ball boy in Chennai, India: 37¢
  • Price of a Starbucks Frappucino in New York City: $5.93
  • One-tenth of 1% of hourly pay of JP-Morgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon (based on 60 hours/week, 50 weeks/year): $6.66
  • Poverty wage for a single parent with 2 children: $9.06
  • Average price of 3 lbs ground chuck beef: $10.77
  • Prevailing hourly wage for NYC laundry-counter attendants: $11.62
  • Median hourly wage in Mississippi: $13.37
  • Hourly wage paid by Henry Ford to auto workers in 1913 adjusted for inflation: $14.71
  • What the hourly minimum wage would be if it had kept pace with productivity growth: $16.93
  • Hourly wage required to afford a 1-bedroom apartment in San Diego: $20.24
  • Living wage for single parent with 2 children in Pascagoula, Mississippi: $22.27/hour
  • Living wage for single parent with 2 children in San Francisco: $29.66/hour
  • Living wage for single parent with 3 children in Shakopee, Minnesota: $33.28/hour
  • Adjusted for inflation, Americans’ real incomes have fallen 8% since the start of 2000
  • U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty threshold: $18,123/year

I am a firm believer that each of us needs to set our own rate. However, to be able to intelligently set my rate, I need to know precisely how much my effective hourly rate must be for me to earn a sustainable livelihood.

(By sustainable livelihood, I mean an income that lets me live comfortably and not worry about meeting bills or whether I can afford to buy a book or go to restaurant or buy a toy for my grandchildren. For a discussion of how to determine what to charge, see my five-part series, “Business of Editing: What to Charge.” This link will take you to Part V where you can find the links to the other four articles. The articles should be read in order.)

So, when I say $10 an hour for editing is not sustainable, I base that on an analysis of fact. Let’s look at the $10 per hour rate. (The same analysis method applies regardless of your country.)

In the United States, $10 an hour equals a yearly income of $20,800 if you work 52 weeks in the year and every week you can bill and collect $10 an hour for 40 hours. If you can only work 30 hours a week for 20 weeks, 40 hours a week for 25 weeks, and 10 hours a week for the remaining 7 weeks, you will earn a maximum of $16,700. Similarly, even if you can earn $10 an hour for 40 hours and do so for 40 weeks of the year, your gross income will be $16,000.

Remember that these figures are gross income; let’s work from the best scenario, $20,800 per year. In the United States, you must pay the self-employment tax. This is the one tax that cannot be avoided. It amounts to 13.5% of earnings, which on $20,800 equals $2,808. Your yearly income has just been reduced from $20,800 to $17,992 — and nothing has been paid for except the unavoidable self-employment tax which is your contribution to Social Security and Medicare.

To do business these days, an Internet connection is required. I suspect it is possible, but I do not know anyone who pays less than $35 a month for the Internet ($420 per year). I also do not know any editor who does not have telephone service, usually at least cell phone service and often both cell and landline service, which runs about $50 a month ($600 per year).

I won’t add a charge for computer hardware and software; let’s assume that was bought and paid for last year. We now are at a “net” income level of $16,972. We haven’t yet paid for rent, food, gasoline, health care, television, clothing, heat and electric, and the like. In my area, the average rent for a studio apartment runs $972 per month. Assuming you can get one of the least-expensive studio apartments available and that it includes heat and electric, the cost would be $700 per month ($8,400 per year), which drops our available income for other necessities, like food and healthcare, to $8,572.

Food is always difficult, but I think $100 per week on average is probably reasonable, which means $5,200 per year, leaving us with $3,372. Do we really need to go on?

Can you scrape by on $10 an hour? Sure. People live on even less. But the biggest fallacy in this analysis is the base assumption: As an editor, you will have 40 hours of paying and collectible work every week for 52 weeks — that is, no downtime. It does happen, but the usual scenario is that an editor ends the year having worked fewer than an average of 40 hours per week and fewer than 52 weeks during the year.

Yet the expenses don’t fluctuate. The rent will remain the same whether you work 52 weeks or 32 weeks, 40 hours or 20 hours. Similarly, the telephone and Internet bills will likely remain the same. The bottom line is that $10 an hour is only doable under ideal conditions and even then is barely doable.

The $10/hour wage has multiple effects in addition to not being a “living” wage. The more often editors say they will work for that amount, the more difficult it is to rise from it. If a goodly number of editors are willing to work for that price, then the market price is being set.

I have discussed the hourly number with a number of clients. I have asked them about the basis for the hourly rate they pay and when it was last raised. Several have told me that they have not raised the hourly rate since the early 1990s. The reason is that there is a flood of editors willing to do the editing for a price that equals or is less than their hourly rate, so why raise the rate — the market is not demanding that the rate be raised and because of industry consolidation, editorial quality is not high on the list of corporate objectives.

Consequently, we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to rate setting. I know that when people ask on the lists about what to charge there is almost always a response that points to a published survey that quotes a higher-than-$10-per-hour rate, but then the flood of “I’ll edit for less” messages begins. There isn’t an easy solution to the free market problem except for this: Before setting your rate and agreeing to work for a rate, know what rate you need. I think those who low-ball rates would be less likely to do so if they really analyzed their needs.

The only other point I constantly raise with clients and potential clients is that the truly professional editor cannot and will not edit a manuscript for a nonsustainable rate.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

18 Comments »

  1. A very thorough analysis. However, it assumes that everyone offering editing services needs to live solely from that wage. Many people may be supplementing the salary of a higher-earning spouse; the flexibility of freelance editing may attract more parents who need to be at home than other fields might. Those in this situation could work for less while still making ends meet.

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    Comment by gem — February 19, 2014 @ 5:02 am | Reply

    • Gem, as someone who edits on the side, I think it’s important for me not to drive down the market for editing by using my other income (or savings, or lotto winnings, etc.) to artificially lower what I would have to charge if editing were my main source of income.

      Personally, I like to value my time away from my 9-5 based on my 9-5’s salary. Knowing that I make $X per year, I break that out into hourly rate, and then double that rate for editing, because half of the time of editing (roughly, that may be a generous approximation—I encourage everyone to find their own multiplier) is spent on non-billable work.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Erik, A Hanson (@Erik_A_Hanson) — February 19, 2014 @ 9:52 am | Reply

      • I would like to hope that everyone valued their time as you do, but if they don’t it could be a factor driving prices down.

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        Comment by gem — February 20, 2014 @ 2:40 am | Reply

  2. Hobbiests can afford to work for spending money.

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    Comment by Adrienne (scieditor) — February 19, 2014 @ 9:29 am | Reply

  3. If I encounter someone who doesn’t want to pay what I think I’m worth, I try to focus on the value I bring to an editing project rather than argue over dollar amounts. I’ve found that focusing only on the dollars doesn’t usually win the argument; having to haggle over fees usually means I’ve lost the battle anyhow. I don’t know how I would fare if I were starting out as a freelancer nowadays, though.

    There have always been amateurs and wanna-be’s and “I don’t need the money, I just like to write/edit/proofread/etc.” types, but there seem to be so many more of them now, and so many outlets (I won’t dignify them as clients) that care more for how little they can pay than for the quality of the work.

    It isn’t much better for freelance writers, if that’s any consolation. We just had a local magazine drop its writing rate from 45 cents/word to 15 cents/word because a competing publication came into the market that was paying the lower rate, and some of the established one’s writers had articles in the new one – so the editor of the established one apparently realized that at least some of his writers would work for less. And a recent article in Writer’s Digest noted that Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine pays 5-8 cents/word (for short fiction), which is about the same it was paying several decades ago.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — February 19, 2014 @ 9:34 am | Reply

  4. As others have commented here, those who charge poverty-level rates often have other income streams. Another situation that I’ve seen on discussion boards is when people — sometimes those who were laid off from employment — are trying to enter the freelance editorial market and are competing solely on price to get a foot in the door. I suspect these folks would actually work for free if they thought it would open doors, and I’m not saying this in a disparaging way — there are many people who are pretty desperate for work. Many are older people who are not old enough to retire but know that they can’t go back to the career they had. Some are young, right out of college, and facing a still bad labor entry-level market. But they don’t realize that starting a freelance career with artificially low prices often sets the stage for years of low rates that are hard to raise, because they get stuck with the same clients (who of course come back to them because of the savings they’re seeing) and the more intangible consequence of lowering rates all around, so that it’s even hard to find good-paying work beyond their happy clients are used to paying next to nothing. They don’t realize that by charging very low rates they’re really shooting themselves — and other freelancers — in the foot in the long run.

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — February 19, 2014 @ 11:08 am | Reply

  5. Another thing in Rich’s calculations that $10 an hour won’t allow for is professional development and continuing education. Every professional, whatever the profession, needs to be continually learning and increasing their knowledge and skills. This level of income leaves no money available for joining a professional association, taking classes, buying reference and other profession-related books and subscriptions, and attending conferences. Taking part in one or more of these is another thing that differentiates a true professional from an amateur and makes it possible to advance one’s career. Charging very low rates becomes part of a vicious cycle in which the person doesn’t have enough money for professional development, so cannot go after higher-paying work.

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — February 19, 2014 @ 11:19 am | Reply

  6. There are also some fields for which the freelancer doesn’t set the rate; it’s set by the client, usually on per page basis. Some pages can take an hour to edit, so I actually only make $7 per hour. I’ve been freelancing for medical/engineering journals for about four years now. These subjects have been my area of expertise for the last 30 years. I’ve yet to find a publisher of these types of journals who are willing to pay freelancers on an hourly basis.

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    Comment by Dori Birch — February 19, 2014 @ 12:09 pm | Reply

  7. An excellent analysis, Rich. The situation is not unique to editing, of course. I used to do custom bridal dressmaking, and I worked very hard at developing my skills. I took classes and attended conferences, joined professional organizations, read books and magazines, went to museum exhibitions, studied vintage garments—anything I could to improve my skills. I’ve reached a pretty high level of ability in fine sewing. Yet brides expected to pay less for a custom gown from me (which could be 40–100 hours of work) than they’d pay for a store-bought gown produced in a factory in the Third World. They had no concept of quality and didn’t want to pay for it. My pricing was also definitely undermined by local women who didn’t sew well but did sew cheap. If brides know nothing of quality, they’ll choose the cheaper option. One bride offered me $150 sew her gown. I pointed out that $150 would work out to only about $3/hour, far less than even minimum wage. Her reply: “So?” I no longer do custom dressmaking. As for editing, I’m lucky right now to work for a company that values editors’ skills. I wouldn’t want to have to make it as a freelancer. My hat is off to those of you who do!

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    Comment by Christina — February 19, 2014 @ 12:42 pm | Reply

  8. Thank you for this post that expresses what so many professional contractual editors and writers like myself are facing. The public perception of the value of our skills is that they are equivalent to the minimum wage. In 1999, I earned $1 per word as a freelance writer for a respectable academic newsletter; today I am lucky to receive 10 cents per word from the same university. I believe this can be attributed to two major reasons.

    First, the poor economy and the highest unemployment rates in labor history have flooded the freelance market with people of all ages and skill levels turning to work at home as independent contractors, providing a captive labor force. They presume that they are capable of editing because they went to college and got good grades in English, yet they have no expertise as a professional editor. Most could not identify predicate nominative case nor distinguish the correct use of reflexive pronouns or the proper format for ellipses and the subtle nuance between a comma and semicolon. With editing jobs being put to bid like a cheap vase in a yard sale, the prize goes to the lowest bidder for a ridiculously low rate.

    Second, the proliferation of self-publishing Wal-marts such as Amazon’s CreateSpace, Kirkus and others have created a cyber sweatshop of cheap labor where contractual editors are paid less than a penny a word for book editing jobs, with an expected turnaround of 8 business days for 300-page manuscripts requiring at least three times the labor time for a basic line edit. Ditto with content farms such as Demand Studios where I am told that contractual editors receive less than minimum wage for processing reams of copy in short, high-pressured turnaround times.

    Like going to Wal-mart for its low, low prices, some of my longtime individual author clients have turned to CreateSpace to edit their books for a fraction of the cost. More often than not, they return to me like prodigal children, complaining about all the errors, typos, lack of one-on-one communication with an editor or any personal service, and ultimately paying a higher price after Amazon cunningly layered hidden editing costs that amounted to far more than I would have ever charged. Ditto with their e-books in the Kindle division, where their manuscripts are handled by anonymous editors who display little expertise as the final products remain littered with grammatical and punctuational blasphemy and eveninsufficient paragraph breaks for an attention-deficit culture.

    Desperate people do desperate things for survival. In such a capitalistic culture, the time-honored process of editing as a literary art form becomes debauched and reduced to a cheap trick by prostitutes in the publishing monopolies. Like slaves on galley ships, we are rowing furiously and getting nowhere all too slowly. Professional editors must hold their ground in the face of this assault by upholding professional rates along with our publishing ethics and practices dedicated to excellence in the printed and digital word instead of a fast buck.

    Books represent an author’s heart and soul; therefore, editing is akin to open heart surgery. Our author clients would certainly never go to a nurse practitioner at a walk-in clinic for such a delicate procedure but would select the finest board-certified cardiologist at the best hospital and conduct a thorough inspection of the surgeon’s credentials.

    I find that even rules-based copy editing requires a highly intuitive process, and that’s why I have developed my branding to distinguish my services as The Editorial Intuitive. So we have to build our image the same way Amazon built its empire. It’s time for editors to think like Madison Ave. copywriters and charge like Philadelphia lawyers. If clients don’t like my rates, they can go to the glut of generic, assembly-line editors out there for shabby print and digital editing. They will get what they pay for.

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    Comment by Catherine Rourke — February 19, 2014 @ 1:33 pm | Reply

  9. Thanks for a great article, as usual🙂 For anyone who wants to see the article cited, the link is https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/?s=decision-making+process. Thanks again🙂

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    Comment by Anne Victory — February 19, 2014 @ 1:50 pm | Reply

  10. […] On his blog, An American Editor, Rich Adin, the owner of Freelance Editorial Services, first puts the matter of earnings into perspective with an array of statistics related to the cost of living in various parts of the United States. Then he argues that a freelance editor in the U.S. can’t stay in business in 2014 by charging only $10 an hour, and he goes on to calculate for his blog’s readers the costs of an editor’s minimal living and business expenses, concluding: […]

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    Pingback by A professional editor’s hourly rate | Robin Mizell: Treated & Released — February 19, 2014 @ 10:39 pm | Reply

  11. […] Adin explains why $10/hr isn’t enough to cover your expenses and pay you a living wage. He compares hourly rates across many standards. […]

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    Pingback by Language-change index, why $10/hr is not enough, training on-demand, and finding time to write — links this week » Right Angels and Polo Bears — February 21, 2014 @ 2:50 am | Reply

  12. […] online centers around price. Not only are editors offering services at unsustainable prices (see The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It for a discussion of sustainable pricing), but users of the editing services offered are balking at […]

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    Pingback by Why Are You Hiring a Professional Editor? | An American Editor — March 5, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  13. Agree with your points – $10 per hour is a ridiculous rate. On a positive note, there are a significant percentage of clients who prize quality over price, so I just focus on those people.

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    Comment by Clare Xanthos — March 29, 2014 @ 12:28 pm | Reply

  14. […] being challenged. The automation of the editing process, the pressure to break stories first, and the underselling of freelancers threaten our value to the organizations and the industries we […]

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    Pingback by What else can we do with our strengths? | PROJECT CHIRON (BETA) — May 15, 2014 @ 8:57 am | Reply

  15. […] The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It […]

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    Pingback by So, How Much Am I Worth? | An American Editor — April 29, 2015 @ 4:01 am | Reply


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