An American Editor

March 19, 2014

The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping II

In The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping I, I discussed the importance of keeping records to determine whether it is better for you to charge by, for example, the page or the hour. But that article gave a very limited view of why recordkeeping is important.

Businesses run on data. As freelancers, we are well aware of the reliance of corporate clients on data — the data is used to determine everything from whether a new edition of a book should be undertaken to how much should be budgeted to produce the book. Although we do not have the same issues to think about, those that we do have are as equally weighty for our business.

For most freelancers, the beginning year(s) are devoted to accepting paying work of any type. When I first started, I accepted book editing, book proofreading, journal article editing, advertising, desktop publishing, and whatever other assignments came my way. And I kept detailed data on every one of those assignments.

Every couple of months I would analyze the data, but it wasn’t until I had about a year’s worth of data that I could draw conclusions. The data told me that for me:

  • advertising work didn’t pay
  • proofreading didn’t pay
  • book editing was the most lucrative work — but only if
    • it was on a per-page or project-fee basis
    • the manuscripts were of a sufficiently large size
    • the work was nonfiction
    • the work was not for academic presses
    • the work was not directly with the author
    • the work was copyediting

I also learned other things, such as what types of subject matter were best for me and that I could increase profitability by working with other editors.

Let me emphasize that the above were lessons I learned based on my experience and my data. I am not suggesting that they are true lessons for anyone else. Rather, the point is that the collection of data can help direct your business into the areas that are most lucrative for you.

Data also helps guide marketing efforts. Once I learned what was best for me, I was able to focus my marketing efforts on those services and (potential) clients. I stopped trying to be all things to everyone; instead I focused solely on those things that had the greatest potential to help me reach my goals. Once I realized that editing fiction was less lucrative for me than editing nonfiction, I eliminated my marketing efforts to fiction publishers and refocused my efforts to nonfiction publishers.

All of that is well and good, but the focusing of my efforts was not the biggest boon I got (and continue to receive) from data collection. Rather, the biggest boon is identifying those projects that were financially more successful and those that were less successful.

With that identification (which is something you cannot readily do if you charge by the hour because hourly charging makes all projects equally successful, regardless of whether that is the best or least success you can have), I was able to focus on what made one project more successful than another. I was able to glean the stumbling blocks.

One example: I discovered that projects that had hundreds of references with each chapter were a mixed bag of success. Those that were second or subsequent editions were more likely to have greater success than first editions because authors would often follow the citation formatting of the prior edition, but if it was a first edition, there often was no uniformity to the style the authors followed.

I also discovered that the two primary problems that I encountered with references were wrong journal abbreviations and wrong format of author names. The questions were (1) could these problems be solved or at least mitigated and if so, (2) what are the solutions? The solutions took some time to formulate, but having identified the problems, I could focus. The ultimate result was the creation of my Journals macro and the Wildcard Find & Replace macro. My journals database now approaches 20,000 entries (see Business of Editing: The Logistics of Large Projects for more information), which makes checking and correcting journal names easy and accurate. The Wildcard macro makes it possible to fix many of the incorrectly formatted author names. Combined, the two macros significantly reduce the time I need to spend on the references.

Of course, other problems also needed addressing, but I would not have been able to identify common problems in the absence of the data; in the absence of the data, I would have been able to identify only the problems in an individual project, which may not have recurred in other projects.

Ultimately, the more information you can parse from the projects you work on and can categorize, the more you will be able to identify common problems among your projects that you can address. The more of these that you address, the more profitable you can make your business.

There is all kinds of data worth collecting, but I have found one of the most valuable to be my churn rate; that is, how many pages an hour I can edit. That number varies by project and project complexity, but I have found it important to track. I know that I need to churn a minimum number of pages per hour (on average across a project) to meet my goals. When I see that a certain type of project consistently falls short of that minimum number, I know that I need to rethink accepting such projects.

As I hope is evident, data is the lifeblood of even a freelancer’s business. The more effort you put into collecting and analyzing data regarding your work, the more likely it is that your goals will be met. This endeavor is well worth the time and effort required.

What data, if any, do you collect and analyze? How often do you review the information? Has it helped guide your business?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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