An American Editor

March 26, 2014

The Business of Editing: An Embarrassment of Riches

Over the past 28 years of my editing business, I have been consistently busy. Rarely did I have any down time and I nearly always had multiple projects going simultaneously. As things worked out, there was a steady flow of work and it was rare that I needed to tell a client I couldn’t undertake a project.

More importantly, those few times when I had to decline a project, the client modified the schedule so that I could ultimately accept the project. This year, however, has been significantly different.

This year the projects are more numerous and larger. I always handled large projects (greater than 2000 manuscript pages) but the projects this year are larger than the large projects of the past (one runs close to 20,000 manuscript pages, and several others exceed 5,000 manuscript pages). For the first time, I am facing the problem of advising clients that I cannot take on their projects even with a schedule change, unless the schedule is altered by months rather than weeks.

Within the past two weeks, I have had to turn away seven projects; within the past month, I turned away 11 projects.

The problem occurs from a mix of things: (1) client projects are bunching rather than being spread across the year; (2) this is the time in the publishing cycle when new editions of many large books are coming to fruition simultaneously; (3) books that had previously been offshored are being brought back; (4) authors are more faithfully fulfilling their commitments to deliver manuscript on time; (5) the books are larger than the “usual” large; (6) in-house production editors are having to handle a larger number of books and so want to minimize the number of freelance editors they need to supervise; etc.

The question is: How do I resolve the problem?

One client suggested I hire more editors. I explained that the problem with that solution is that I cannot get a commitment from my clients for enough work to keep additional editors busy year round. The suggestion might cure the short-term problem, but it will create a long-term problem. Besides, it would add to my workload as I would need to monitor and supervise their work until I was comfortable that I could rely on the new editors to submit work that met my and the client’s expectations.

The embarrassment of riches (i.e., having too much work offered) is a real problem that freelance editors need to face at various points in their career. The editor doesn’t want to turn work away for a number of reasons, not least of which is a fear that the client will not call again. In addition, there is the worry that when the editor is ready to take on more work, there will be no more work to take on — that is, the editor will have hit a dry spell, which means a loss of income.

As you can see, the problem and the worries are not unique to the solopreneur; the problem is one faced by all forms of business. The solutions are not easy and all solutions amount to a form of gambling.

I see basically two alternative solutions (when change of schedule is not possible). The first is to accept the work and increase the number of hours the editor works. This solution has its own problems, such as trying to extend the workday may jeopardize the quality of the editing; most editors can only effectively edit for a maximum of five hours a day. And what happens when the next project comes along? How do you extend yourself even further? At some point, editing quality diminishes and you then jeopardize your relationship with the client.

The second is to say no to the new work and hope that the client will call again. The merits of this solution depends on the nature of the client. If the client is new, then you really are taking a big gamble that the client will return. If the client has been a regular client, the gamble is not very large because the client already knows the quality of your work and wants you to continue working for them. Here the gamble is more that when you are ready for additional work, the client has additional work for you, than whether the client will return.

In both instances — extending yourself to take on the additional workload and saying no — whether the client returns has much to do with the niche you have carved for yourself. For example, in my case, my “brand” is that of excellent editing service by a cadre of editors who require minimal supervision (basically, “here are the files, here are the peculiarities of this manuscript, please return edited files as quickly as possible”) and who use tools designed for large projects, including multieditor projects.

Clients return because they know they can rely on my company to handle projects with minimal problems and supervision, thereby freeing the in-house production editor to deal with other freelancers, other projects, and the myriad other things they need to deal with on a daily basis. Consequently, I feel more comfortable saying no to projects that cannot be squeezed into the schedule.

I admit that I did not feel so comfortable 25 years ago. The comfort with saying no has grown over the years as my reputation grew and the demand for my services grew and when I discovered that I had more work than time each year. (I would add that a good part of that rise in comfort came about as a result of my recordkeeping habits, which gave me a better picture of how I was really doing and, more importantly, what I should be doing. It is not enough to know how much I earned and how much it cost me to earn that; good data can give lots of insight into a business. See The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping I and The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping II.)

Scheduling remains a problem for the freelancer. We’ve previously discussed the problem; see, for example, Business of Editing: Workdays & Schedules and Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations. All I can do is hope that I am making the right business decisions. My data say I am, but the tricky thing about data is that data are ever-changing.

I keep searching for a better solution than saying no, but I have yet to find one. Do you have any suggestions?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

8 Comments »

  1. I subcontract work to carefully matched, suitable editors whom I’ve mentored, tested, and trust, usually editors who aren’t as busy as I am. I make a very small fee for my efforts at match-making, the subcontracted editor gets needed work, and the client is pleased to be working with a suitable editor, often someone I’ve selected whom I feel is a better match for the client than I would be anyway. It’s win-win-win.

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    Comment by Arlene Prunkl — March 26, 2014 @ 4:22 am | Reply

  2. If you have an abundance of work and don’t want to decline a client’s project (which often results in not being called again), best bet is to outsource the job to a reliable professional. I have been an editor for 20 years working across US and Australian housestyles and with a long list of satisfied clients. If you would like to contact me to help with your workload, please do so. My website is caroldcosta.com and you will find testimonials from some of my major clients. Regards, Carol

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    Comment by Carol — March 26, 2014 @ 5:51 am | Reply

  3. I have no useful suggestions, but I find this interesting. I’ve been working as a freelance editor for over twenty-five years, though I mostly work with novels. This for me also is the first year I’ve had to turn away work (which is still difficult for me), and I find myself always nearly overwhelmed. The very subjective nature of editing fiction–where “voice” is mostly more important than mere correctness–means that subcontracting is rarely an option for me. I’ve lately actually contemplated temporarily taking my website down.

    I wonder if this is just coincidental, or whether there is a significant shift in balance over the entire publishing industry that’s causing so much more demand for experienced freelance editors.

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    Comment by Miranda Ottewell — March 26, 2014 @ 7:00 am | Reply

  4. For the small-scale solopreneur (i.e., solo freelancers), developing a network of peers to exchange overflow with is an effective solution. I’m in the process of doing that right now.

    AE, however, operates on a scale and with a business arrangement much different from most of us, and he has different logistics to address. How many equivalent services are out there that he can have such a relationship with? As well, he shoulders the responsibility of other editors to begin with, and does not want to perpetuate the feast/famine cycle with people he’s heretofore been able to feed steady work, never mind burden and complicate his own workload with managerial duties.

    Still, business success ultimately relies on saying yes rather than no, so I would suggest expanding your team with a second group of editors to whom you do not promise steady work. Not all of us require or want it but may welcome a big pile for the short term. Gather a set of them to tap when workload is high, a set being the minimum number you use for the average project plus half, so when you need skilled bodies, the chances are good that enough will be available.

    I suspect that the investment in training them will be less than the money you can make from having them. After all, today’s situation of a zillion independent contractors arose from the exact problem you describe: companies not being able to keep a full-time staff on board during slow times.

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    Comment by Carolyn — March 26, 2014 @ 8:07 am | Reply

  5. I agree with Carolyn’s suggestion. The only modification I would make is — do you have a former production editor [maybe retired?] who could oversee these standby independent contractors on a temporary basis? Someone may be willing to take on a short-term position to mentor this set of editors that Carolyn mentioned.

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    Comment by D'Ann Hamilton — March 27, 2014 @ 12:08 pm | Reply

  6. I’m relatively new to freelancing (since 2011), but this ’embarrassment of riches’ has been an issue for me since Day 1 (luckily or not so luckily). I’ve never been so keen on the idea of subcontracting work, not least because any client agreements/contracts I sign often have a clause stating that subcontracting is not permitted. With subcontracting, I think I would also be concerned about maintaining a certain quality of work or finding other editors with a similar level of expertise (a control issue, I know). My solution is to be honest, and almost try to reason with a client – I have a sort of standard response that I send when declining work that goes along the lines of, ‘I don’t want to take on more than I can reasonably manage, particularly at the risk of doing a poor job’. Often, (new and old) clients will respond positively, saying that they’re grateful that you value quality over quantity, and will usually approach you again. Having the kind of long-lasting reputation of being reliable as well as able is what I’m aiming for, even if this means turning down or even losing a few clients along the way.

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    Comment by Hayley Thomas — March 28, 2014 @ 6:31 am | Reply

  7. […] of the solutions suggested last week in response to The Business of Editing: An Embarrassment of Riches was subcontracting. I have subcontracted with other editors for many years and I have had […]

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    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Subcontracting | An American Editor — April 2, 2014 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  8. […] I have also noted the upswing I have experienced in offers of editing work (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: An Embarrassment of Riches). In those articles, I hinted (at best) at the extent of the data I keep and […]

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    Pingback by Are Boom Times Coming? | An American Editor — April 16, 2014 @ 4:00 am | Reply


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