Rates, Data Tracking, and Digital Efficiencies (Part II)
by Louise Harnby
In Part I, I discussed some of the ways in which proofreaders working for agencies or publishers on typeset page proofs find themselves worse off in real terms. I also wrote about the importance of tracking business-performance data so that the proofreader can assess the health of her business and see where the problems are.
Here in Part II, I consider three options for how to deal with problematic rates, including my preferred solution — that of introducing digital efficiencies.
1. Discuss the Issue with the In-house Project Manager (PM)
You might be able to negotiate a better fee for the job. Even if your negotiations don’t end up in the rate increase you wanted, at least you’ll have a clearer understanding of why the press’s rates have either decreased or not risen in line with the cost of living. Any decision you make thereafter will be informed by knowledge of the press’s business concerns.
One mistake inexperienced editorial professionals make when setting about negotiations is lack of preparation. The “it’s not fair” approach is unlikely to be persuasive. Your PM may be sympathetic to your plight, may even acknowledge that many of her freelancers are feeling the pinch and that the editorial fees she’s offering are making it difficult for editors and proofreaders to sustain a viable business. However, unless you can give her substantive reasons why she needs to go down the negotiation route (as opposed to simply offering the job to some other freelancer who won’t quibble about the fee), your frustrations are likely to get you nowhere.
Instead, tell your PM why the project is worth more money. Do the sums where necessary so that she understands why she should pay more. I did this for a project earlier this year. I’d accepted a flat fee for proofreading a book on the understanding that it had been professionally copy-edited. It transpired that this wasn’t the case, and the proofs needed a level of attention that meant I’d be working for an estimated £10/US$16 per hour. This was completely unacceptable to me — the hourly rate worked out well below that which I both need and want to earn.
I could have declined the work but I took the time to provide a detailed explanation of the problems. Consequently, she understood that there had to be some give and take, and I was able to negotiate a substantial increase — one that, upon completion of the project, worked out to be £24/US$39 per hour. Given how invasive I’d been (though it was neither a proper copy-edit because I was working within the restraints of page proofs, nor was it a proper proofread because I had to do some sentence rewriting), the final hourly rate was still not as high as I think it should have been but it was one that I was prepared to accept, and it was north of my required effective hourly rate.
2. Elect Not to Work for the Press
As independent business owners, proofreaders have the right to choose with whom they work. If I’m unhappy with the rates a publisher is offering, I can decline the work and seek out better-paying clients. Though I’m constantly marketing my business in a bid to make myself discoverable and interesting to new and better-paying customers, letting go of an existing client is an option I only want to employ when all others have been exhausted.
3. Introduce Efficiencies
This is my preferred option, and the preferred option of An American Editor, as indicated in numerous previous essays by Rich Adin and his contributing writers. Finding efficiencies is especially important if I’m dealing with a long-term client that provides regular proofreading work that I enjoy doing and adds value to my portfolio. Not all of my publishers provide me with an income-per-project that works out at my preferred rate (what I want to earn) or, more importantly, my required rate (what I need to earn), but I absolutely love the books they send me and I therefore want to find a way to continue the relationship with them.
Introducing Digital Efficiencies…
Recently, I chatted with a colleague about rates. We have a common client and he’d noticed that the page rate had decreased — so we’re proofreading the same number of words per page as two years ago, but for less money. In theory, we’re worse off. He certainly thought he was worse off.
However, I looked at my project data spreadsheet and it told a different story. My spreadsheet showed that my extrapolated hourly rate for this client was higher than it was two years ago, to the extent that I was better off in real terms. Importantly, it was in excess of my required effective hourly rate. Even though I was earning less per page, I was still getting a higher overall reward for the time I spent working for this client. How could this be? I didn’t think I was worse off.
Something that emerged from my discussion with my colleague was that I was utilizing digital tools, whereas he was not. I believe that this is how I’ve managed to ensure that my extrapolated hourly rate has increased to the extent that I’m better off. I’ve become more accomplished at using these tools, too, so any efficiency gains aren’t one-off — there are marginal benefits to be accrued.
PDFs, Proofreading, and Saving Time…
Not all my publisher clients want me to mark up the PDF version of a proof; some still want hardcopy annotation. But all of them send me a PDF, and that means I can still introduce efficiencies. Here are just some of the ways that I think working with a PDF saves me time:
- Chapter headings/drops: The PDF proof usually comes with each chapter bookmarked. If it hasn’t, I do this myself. Clicking through those bookmarks enables me to check in seconds that the chapter drops, and the font and size of the chapter headings, are consistent. I don’t waste valuable time thumbing manually through, say, 350 separate bits of paper, sticking Post-it tabs to the chapter-title pages, and measuring or cross-comparing the pages, while trying to ensure the whole lot doesn’t end up on the floor (it has happened!).
- Reference checking: Even if you don’t use something like the fabulous ReferenceChecker (one of my favorite tools — though you’ll need to dump the text from the PDF into a Word document first), it’s much quicker to search for an author’s name in the PDF, and click straight through to the references/bibliography, than manually fiddling with bits of paper.
- Global searches: We can do superfast searches for erroneous spaces before colons, semi-colons, and full points; and for possible problematic words such as “pubic,” “manger,” and “asses.”
- Other layout issues: Using a PDF, it takes seconds rather than minutes to search for and check the positioning and styling of figures and tables, running heads, page numbers, and word breaks at the end of recto pages. The same applies to checking that the text on facing pages is balanced, as well as spotting widows and orphans.
Other Digital Efficiencies
- Onscreen markup: Ask your client if they’ll accept onscreen markup of PDFs. Even if they don’t like the idea of extensive use of the comment boxes, you can utilize proofreading stamps. These enable you to provide a digital version of a paper markup. For more information on PDF proofreading take a look at Roundup: “PDF Proofreading Stamps (quick-access links)” (Proofreader’s Parlour, 2012); it includes further valuable links to relevant resources (and advice) published on the websites of my colleagues Adrienne Montgomerie and Katharine O’Moore-Klopf.
- Digital delivery: Following on from that, if your client allows you to mark up onscreen, you can simply email the marked-up proofs. Consider how much time you spend dropping projects off at the post office or waiting for couriers to arrive. If you are proofreading on a fixed-fee basis, that’s a cost to you, and it’s time you could be doing other billable work or drinking your favorite tea.
- Utilize online dictionaries to check word-break preferences, spelling, hyphenation, and style preferences. It’s quicker than thumbing through printed reference guides.
- Use additional digital tools such as macro suites, word-list generation tools like TextStat (“Revisiting an old favourite: TextSTAT, word lists, and the proofreader”, and consistency checkers (e.g., PerfectIt) when it’s appropriate to do so. They save you time while increasing your hit rate.
Toyota Does It, So Why Shouldn’t We?
UK readers may recall an episode of Digby Jones: The New Troubleshooter (BBC, 2014). In a bid to help a Durham-based electronics manufacturer, Ebac, British business ambassador Digby Jones took the owner to a Toyota factory to learn how staff have introduced even the smallest efficiencies to improve their productivity and profitability. Nothing in the factory was left out of the mix — from the layout of the factory floor to the use of high-tech equipment. If a change in process could help turn minutes into seconds, it was considered worthwhile. In other words, it’s about marginal gains.
If Toyota does it, why shouldn’t the proofreader? When we track and add up all our saved minutes, the total can have a significant overall impact on the time it takes us to complete the work we do. The use of digital tools isn’t the only way to introduce efficiencies, but it’s an obvious one to start with.
How do you track your data? Do you know what you need to earn vs. what you want to earn? Which variables do you record? Which complementary digital tools do you use when proofreading, and how do you think they make you more productive and improve the quality of your work?
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.