Rates, Data Tracking, and Digital Efficiencies (Part I)
by Louise Harnby
If you’re a proofreader working for agencies or publishers on typeset page proofs, you may believe that you’re worse off financially than you used to be. This may be because:
- Your client has increased its rates but not in line with the cost of living, so in real terms you’re still not being rewarded as well as you were in the past. You’re worse off.
- Your client’s rates have remained the same year on year, so in real terms, again, you’re not being rewarded as well as you were in the past. You’re worse off.
- Your client has reduced the hourly rate — real terms or not, you’re worse off.
- Your client offers a fixed fee for the job, based on the number of pages in a set of proofs, and the page rate has been reduced. You’re proofreading the same number of words per page, but for less money. You’re worse off.
- Your client offers a fixed fee for the job, based on the number of pages in a set of proofs, and the page rate is the same or slightly higher than in previous years, but the font size has decreased and there are, on average, more words on a page. The increased number of words per page offsets the static or increased page rate such that, overall, you’re proofreading more words for less (or the same) money. You’re worse off.
These aren’t the only scenarios but they’re the ones I’ve heard discussed often.
Tracking the Data…
If you’re not tracking your data, you can’t begin to work out whether your business is sustainable let alone whether one particular client remains a valuable asset that you wish to retain. Your data-tracking system doesn’t need to be fancy — an Excel spreadsheet might be all you need — but it should enable you to evaluate the health of your business, perhaps on a client-by-client and year-by-year basis. The reason I like Excel is because it gives me complete control over which data I collect and how I organize the information.
There are other options that are designed specifically for the job of business-performance analysis, though you’ll have to pay for them. One example, favored by Rich Adin, is QuickBooks Pro. Take advantage of free trials before you invest in expensive software, though. There will be things that you can do easily in, for example, Excel that are fiddly in paid-for programs, and vice versa. You might prefer to use different tools depending on what you want to find out.
When you’ve recorded your data over a lengthier time frame, say a year, you’ll be in a position to start assessing what works and what doesn’t, depending on your circumstances. For the specialist proofreader this could provide insight into which areas of work are most profitable (e.g., academic compared with trade publishing) or which client types (e.g. businesses compared with students or publishers). In “The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping II”, Rich Adin discusses how his data analysis taught him which parts of his business were the most valuable, “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” (An American Editor, 2014).
What Should You Keep Note Of?
Says Allena Tapia, “The variables that you track will depend on the things that are most important to you. You’ll likely play with these variables over the years, adding some and letting go of others” (“Bookkeeping for Freelancers — Exactly What Should You Track?”).
Sometimes our clients will be transparent about the changes in the fees being offered for proofreading page proofs, but sometimes changes to, for example, design (and the impact these have on rates) are only discernible if the proofreader keeps track of the data for each project — for example, number of pages, size of page, words per page, hours spent on the job, fee earned for the job. Think about what’s important to you, or what might be important to you in a year’s time, when deciding what to record.
My project data spreadsheet is Excel-based and tracks every project I’ve worked on in a particular financial year. It includes information such as: month in which the job was carried out, author, publisher, invoice number, date of invoice, payment due date, date of actual payment, pages, word count, £/1000 words, £/page, words proofed per hour, pages proofed per hour, total hours spent proofreading the project, agreed total fee, and the (sometimes extrapolated) hourly rate. I can manipulate the cells using filters so that I can see monthly and yearly totals. Or I can sort by client and compare particular variables. Previous years’ spreadsheets are similarly designed so I can cross-compare to see if there have been changes over a longer time frame.
Collecting data for many different variables is essential because I’m not always comparing like with like when looking at various projects. Some clients offer me per-page rates, some offer flat rates, some offer hourly rates, and sometimes I set the fee; page sizes and font sizes differ; and the approximate number of words on a page varies a great deal. By recording different variables, I can, over time, extrapolate information that enables me to build a picture of where the financial value lies in my client base.
I’m always particularly interested in extrapolating what I earn per hour because that’s the time I could be doing something else (e.g., working for a different client or doing my laundry). I’m also interested in what I earn overall per month and per year because those are the figures that I hold up against my monthly and yearly outgoings — this tells me whether my business is sustainable overall.
Don’t forget that by tracking the data more broadly you’ll become a better estimator, too, as Adrienne Montgomerie reminds us in “Track Your Pace to Estimate with Confidence” (Copyediting.com, 2014). For a more thorough discussion of tracking, see Rich Adin’s “Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part III)” (An American Editor, 2013). In it, Adin takes readers through the process of how he tracks the data necessary to determine his “effective hourly rate.”
Adin has addressed issues of what to charge, how to track data, and how to extrapolate an effective hourly rate extensively on his blog, and I’d recommend reading every word. There’s a great deal to absorb but it’s a wise editorial professional who’ll take the time to do so. See also Melanie Thompson’s Pricing a Project (Society for Editors and Proofreaders, 2013).
“But the Rate’s Not Fair…”
Considerations of whether your client is being fair are of little help. Publishing is a fluid industry. It’s operating in a climate where there are ways for authors to publish that bypass mainstream publishers, and in a world where what it means “to publish” is constantly being redefined by both the presses themselves (e.g., online vs. print; journal vs. article; bundle vs. single product; open-access initiatives) and the authors. This recent article, “The State of the University Press,” is a case in point (BookBusiness, 2014<http://www.bookbusinessmag.com/article/the-state-university-press/1>). Furthermore, publishers are businesses facing the same challenges that all businesses face — how to keep costs low and quality high in a way that means they can continue to do what they do both now and in the future.
The impact can be felt directly by the freelance proofreader because keeping editorial production costs as low as possible is one (and only one) way in which some publisher clients and agencies might seek to address the economic challenges of publishing.
More important than fairness is necessity. What I need to earn and what I want to earn are two different things. In my case, because of my particular household’s financial needs, my required effective hourly rate is £17/US$27 — that’s what my business needs to earn, given the working hours I have available, to meet my portion of what it costs my family to live the life we want to live. However, I do sometimes accept projects that fall south of this mark, because, when I evaluate my business earnings over the course of a year and from all my clients, the overall achieved effective hourly rate is well in excess of this — £27/US$44. That allows me to take a hit on the projects that I want to do.
Nevertheless, even if a client’s rates are meeting my requirements, I may still think that the fees are not in line with the value I bring to the table. In other words, the client isn’t offering me what I want to earn.
What can the proofreader do if her earnings are below that which she either needs to earn or wants to earn?
In Part II, I’ll discuss three options for dealing with problematic rates, including my preferred — that of introducing digital efficiencies.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.