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



  1. We all have had similar experiences, and I wish there were more people (companies) who valued quality more than anything else. They need to understand that copyediting is a value addition function and cutting corners on this function will hurt them deeply in other areas. May be part of the problem lies in the fact that a lot of companies are headed not by editorial professionals but by those who have little understanding of what editing is all about. In the early phase of my freelancing career when I was trying to build a clientele, I was foolish enough to accept all samples. The clients always came back with appreciation for the work done but chickened out when it came to rates. Now, I am wise enough to discuss rates first and samples later.


    Comment by Vivek — August 6, 2014 @ 4:31 am | Reply

  2. Unlike AE, I am a solo operator who could never touch the type and scale of work his company provides, so how I handle shoppers may not apply.

    What I do depends on where the shoppers come from and what’s on my plate at the time. When I’m desperate for work, I’ll negotiate to get my rate up to within shouting distance, especially if I would like the particular job. I’m still experimenting with different ways to persuade lowballers upward, but it’s not my best skill. Sometimes I must accept their crappy rates in order to survive (i.e., some dollars are better than no dollars, and all experience improves my skills).

    When not in this mode, if it’s appropriate and I want the job, I might offer a different service in line with their price range (ex: they ask for a developmental edit, I’ll offer a non-editing critique, which gives them similar feedback but they have to do the work themselves on their own dime). This has turned more than one “no” into a paycheck. If all a shopper is concerned with is price, and I do not need the job, then I will politely decline. If I like the person, I’ll to refer them in different directions.

    I get fewer lowballers since I posted on my website two free-downloadable articles about the author-editor relationship and mutual expectations. Indie authors shopping for an editor who read these approach me with more confidence and willingness to pay professional rates. Just yesterday I saw an excellent blog post (need to back up and capture the link for future reference) that explains the cost factor very well, and is a good one to pass to shoppers.

    As indie publishing expands, more authors are learning about the components (and costs) of publishing, and telling each other about them. Just two years ago I saw many writers complaining about prices; these days, more of them are advising each other to pony up for a good editor (or designer, etc.). Enough of them have been embarrassed, or heard about others being embarrassed, that they want to present themselves more professionally! Which is giving them insight to fuel their expectations. Still, even the best potential clients often have budgets well below my floor rate, so I must turn them away. Usually I provide them with leads to resources that will help them write better and self-edit.

    On the traditional publishing side, rates offered seem to be stagnant or falling. I’ve had to turn down more and more of that work, which is too bad, because I really like the projects from some of those sources, as well as the wonderful production editors and project managers. But the need to make a living drives all my choices, just as corporate survival drives the publishing houses.

    The issue of quality rarely enters discussion. By the time prospects get to me, they have made a decision about what quality to expect, and I strive to meet or exceed it. When I lose a job, it’s either about price or the *nature* of my editing, based on a sample. Recently I missed out on a juicy one because the author wanted an editor who would focus on character development and story arc, whereas my approach was more mechanical. Comparing editors’ styles on their sample edits, he chose someone whose style suited his priorities. I daresay that, mechanically, we were similarly qualified, so it was fair game. Whoever won that job is lucky, because that author had a big budget.


    Comment by Carolyn — August 6, 2014 @ 7:06 am | Reply

  3. The old triangle of price, speed, and quality, no longer applies. I specialize in fiction, probably the lowest paid editing arena. Many smaller, but still popular publishers want it done for free, so they use interns. Newer ePublishers follow the trend of paying a percentage of royalties, only they don’t have a sales record that will effectively move that needle over the free line. I put my prices on my site, because as a customer it’s something I appreciate it. I suspect though, that my prices, low as they are, are still too high for many would-be customers.

    I’m working on ideas to improve my marketing, and expand into other editing arenas.


    Comment by Terese — August 6, 2014 @ 9:11 am | Reply

  4. I transitioned over a period of several years from editing mostly for publishers to editing mostly for other institutional clients and a handful of individual authors. I’ve found that both nonprofit orgs and for-profit companies are generally better payers and value my work more than publishers. Even when I’ve bid on work for them, it’s not a race to the bottom. Often I’m just asked to price a job with no other bidders involved. The few publishers I still work for are niche pubs in STEM and other specialty fields that don’t mind paying a good rate, maybe because they’re competing with the megapublishers and have to maintain excellence in their niche to ensure sales. Or in some cases, maybe it’s because no one else is filling that niche and the professionals who buy their books and reports will pay top dollar. One of the disadvantages of being an independent contractor is that I don’t know what’s going on in-house with my clients, but that’s true of any outsourced vendor.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — August 6, 2014 @ 11:05 am | Reply

  5. However, I still get work queries from low payers. Just the other day I received a job offer from a production editor at packager, who was offering what looked like a ridiculously low price to copyedit a book. I knew this without before doing my usual calculations, but I was curious and wanted to see just how bad it was. Besides the text, there was figure art, and it was for two rounds of editing — first pass and cleanups after author review. It was also on a short schedule. My total price came in at more than four times their offer.

    Often I just ignore offers like this. But something about it made me want to “educate” this shopper. The email looked professional and the packager seemed reputable (24 years in business) and had a well-organized, polished website. But they are going to risk all that by stinting on the copyediting? Or is it that you can actually get a great copyediting job done, in this country, for rock-bottom prices? The instructions indicated that they didn’t just want grammar-and-punctuation job done.

    Anyway, I wrote back with my calculations. I explained how I arrive at page count and how I figured my overall project fee. Of course, it was rejected. At least, the PE was good enough to write back to reject it; sometimes I’ve gotten no reply.

    Oh, well. This week two jobs came in from good, repeat clients.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — August 6, 2014 @ 11:25 am | Reply

  6. “Others will do it for less”
    Me: That may be so, and please feel free to contact those who do. Do get in touch again if less-expensive editors don’t work out.

    “The manuscript is not as difficult as you think”
    If I’ve already seen it: I’ve looked it over and my assessment of the time involved is unchanged.
    If I haven’t seen it yet: I’ll be glad to look it over, but I don’t expect to change my assessment.

    “Two weeks is more than enough time to edit the 500 pages”
    Me: I stand by my timeframe. I provide a careful edit and cannot commit to handling x pages in x weeks.

    I’m also lucky enough to be able turn down the shoppers, whether they’re cheapskates or just uninformed. I do occasionally explain the basis for my timeframes, but the only explanation I give for my rate(s) is along the lines of “I have many years of experience in doing this kind of work and plenty of appreciative clients who would be glad to provide references.”


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — August 7, 2014 @ 5:41 pm | Reply

  7. […] The pay rate for editors hasn’t changed much since 1995. […]


    Pingback by PH National Language Month and updates on editing and journalism | PROJECT CHIRON (BETA) — September 29, 2014 @ 11:30 am | Reply

  8. […] How Much Is That Editor in the Window? […]


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  9. […] How Much Is That Editor in the Window? […]


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