An American Editor

August 6, 2014

How Much Is That Editor in the Window?

I remember as a very young child watching Patti Page sing this song, which sets the tone for this essay:

Lately, I feel like a doggie in the window.

As those of you who are long-time readers of An American Editor, my complaints about work are that I have too much, not too little, and that clients are continually trying to nibble away at my fee. My biggest complaint is that the fee I am being paid today, in raw terms, is the same as it was in 1995. Granted, I have learned how to be significantly more productive and efficient so that my effective hourly rate is higher today than in 1995, but still, it rankles that the going rate for professional editors hasn’t changed much in 20 years. (For those unfamiliar with the effective hourly rate concept or wanting a refresher, see the five-part series Business of Editing: What to Charge beginning with Part I, which includes links to Parts II through V, and for an overview, Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand.)

There are lots of reasons for this stagnation — and in some cases, regression — of rates in the United States, including the lack of a truly professional national organization dedicated to improving the editor’s lot, the rise of the Internet which has made pricing more competitive, and the decline in caring about invisible qualities in the rush to increase shareholder returns. All of these have been discussed in other essays on An American Editor (see, e.g., The Editorial World — Will it Pass Editors By? and Editors in the Offshore World).

Unfortunately, the issue of “I can get it cheaper” (see The Business of Editing: Killing Me Softly and Business of Editing: “I Can Get It Cheaper!”) keeps raising its ugly head. In the past two weeks I have had offers for nine projects of which six were lost because I wouldn’t/couldn’t meet or beat a lower price. (The other three didn’t even raise the issue of price except after awarding me the project. These clients were looking for quality first.)

The six lost projects were being shopped — How much is that editor in the window? Like the puppy in the song, the question wasn’t “How good are your editorial skills?” (“How friendly/healthy/cuddly/etc. is that puppy?”) but “How cheaply can I get you to edit this manuscript for me?”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t disfavor competition and I have no problem with shopping around for oranges or any other thing that can be commoditized. But how do you commoditize editorial skills? How do you compare what an editor does who charges $100 an hour with what an editor does who charges $10 an hour? For that matter, how do you compare what one editor does who charges $25 an hour with other editors who charge $25 an hour?

Surely we can discover whether an editor has intimate knowledge of the subject matter to be edited, but how important is it that the editor have that knowledge if you are unwilling to pay for it or want an edit that doesn’t really exercise that knowledge? Besides, even if the editor has great knowledge of the subject matter, isn’t knowledge of, say, grammar more important if you want only copyediting and not developmental editing? How does the rate the editor charges correlate with mastery of grammar? If there is a high correlation, then the shopper could expect that the higher the fee charged, the greater the mastery; conversely, the lower the fee charged, the lesser the mastery.

Yet professional editors know there is no direct correlation between fee charged and mastery of grammar.

So I feel like a doggie in the window when price shoppers come calling for a quote.

Making me feel more so is that it is often impossible to get the shopper to explain why my price is too high. One of the shopped manuscripts required a heavy edit. The book was a contributed book with nearly all chapters written by authors whose English was probably a third language. Yet the shopper wanted to pay less than what would normally be charged for a light edit of a manuscript written by a single author whose primary language was English. Asking the shopper to explain why my price was too high resulted in “Others will do it for less”; “The manuscript is not as difficult as you think”; “Two weeks is more than enough time to edit the 500 pages”; and similar reasons.

I suppose, in looking at these statements many days later, that the shopper did give me an “explanation.” It is just that the given explanation is not really helpful.

For example, to say that others will do the editing for less is a conclusion, not an explanation. What I needed to know is what kind of editing they will do for less and for how much less. As to the former, the best I could get was that the other editors will do copyediting just like I would (but the shopper didn’t know what I would do/not do for the quoted price because we hadn’t been able to progress that far). As for how much less, the shopper wouldn’t say, which made me suspect that my price became the benchmark price against which other prices would be measured.

We’ve discussed expectations before (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Expectations, Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations, and Great Expectations: A Recipe for Disappointment) and that is what shopping is based on: the shopper’s expectations. Unfortunately, I was either unable to address the shoppers’ expectations or my attempt to address them fell on deaf ears. Editing has become perceptually commoditized; that editing is more art than anything else has become lost in the Internet age where the single dominant expectation is that price is the determining decision factor — nothing else matters.

Fortunately for me, I have enough business that is quality focused that losing these shoppers made no difference. But I really dislike being viewed like the puppy in the window and approached as if my editorial skills were tertiary considerations. How about you? Have you had similar experiences? Do you feel as I do? How do you handle shoppers?

Richard Adin, An American Editor


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