How Lucrative Are Your Editorial Clients Really?
Keeping an Eye on Creeping Costs (Part II)
by Louise Harnby
In this two-part essay, I consider the care we need to take when making assumptions about how lucrative certain client types are, particularly with regard to the time each of us spends on elements of the process that are unbillable. These unbillable elements can occur during the booking phase of a project, during the actual project work, and after completion of the work.
Part I considered the problems of defining how well clients pay and how fee expectations can vary even within, as well as between, client types. Then I looked at the booking phase of proofreading work, and considered how the situation can vary between a regular publisher client and a new nonpublisher client.
Part II considers how additional costs can creep into the actual editorial stage of a booked-in proofreading project, and into the postcompletion phase — again comparing regular publisher clients and new nonpublisher clients.
It’s worth reiterating the point made in Part I: Not all of the scenarios considered here will always occur with each client type on each job. Rather, I aim to show that (a) extra costs are less likely to creep in with the regular publisher client, and (b) this needs to be accounted for when considering which types of client are “well-paying.”
Creeping Costs During the Editorial Stage
Here’s a fictitious, but likely scenario. Let’s put to one side any costs incurred to firm up the job at booking stage.
Regular publisher client, PC, offers me the opportunity to proofread a 61,000-word fiction book for £17 per hour. The client estimates that the job will take 15 hours. Total fee: £255.
Also in my inbox is a request from a self-publishing author, SP, with whom I’ve not worked before. It’s also a 61,000-word fiction book. I assess the sample of the manuscript that’s been provided (it’s in good shape and has been professionally edited). I estimate the job will take 15 hours, and quote a fee of £345, which is accepted.
The job for SP looks much more lucrative on paper than the job for PC. I accept both jobs because even though the job from PC will bring in a lower fee, it’s still within my own particular required hourly rate.
I do the PC job first. I’ve worked for this publisher for years. We have a mutually understood set of expectations about what is required. The manuscript has been thoroughly copy-edited and professionally typeset. As usual, I receive a clear brief and a basic style sheet. It’s a straightforward job that takes me 15 hours (the in-house project manager is experienced enough that he can estimate with accuracy how long a job should take). I complete the work and return the proofs along with my invoice. End of job.
Next I tackle the SP book. It is in good shape and I should be able to complete the proofread in the time I estimated. However, I’ve underestimated the amount of hand-holding required. This client is a lovely person, but she’s a first-time author and she’s nervous. She sends me 13 emails during the course of the project, each of which takes time to read, consider, and respond to.
I keep track of the time I spend on these. On average, each one takes 15 minutes to deal with – that’s an extra 3.25 hours of my time that I’d not budgeted for when I quoted for her. It’s also an additional 3.25 hours of my time that I have to find space in my day for. I have to find the time out of office hours in order to respond – time that I’d rather spend doing other things.
The quoted fee was £345, based on 15 hours of work. This has turned into 18.25 hours of work. My hourly rate has gone from an expected £23 (cf. £17 from the publisher) to £18.90. It’s still within my required hourly rate, but my assessment that SP is more lucrative than PC is disappearing under my nose.
Of course, I should have quoted her a higher fee that took account of the fact that she was an unknown entity to me and that the job might take longer.
Again, it’s essential to consider the bigger picture when assessing the degree to which a particular client or client group “pays well.” With some clients, it’s harder to predict how a project will progress. And with nonpublisher clients, especially those with whom there’s no preexisting relationship, it’s essential to build hand-holding time into the assessment of how long a job will take, and then quoting accordingly, so that you’re less likely to get caught out.
Creeping Costs After Completion of the Project
I’ve been proofreading for publishers since 2005 and in that time the postproject correspondence has tended to go something like this:
Me: Thanks for the opportunity to proofread X for you — I really enjoyed it. Please find attached my invoice and my Notes & Queries sheet. Delivery of the proofs is scheduled for Y. If there’s anything else I can help you with, please let me know.
PM: Cheers, Louise. Glad you enjoyed it! Are you free to proofread…?
That’s the general gist of our postproject discussion — it’s friendly but concise. We’re already talking about forthcoming work. This recent job is closed. My PM’s schedule is as tight as mine and we’re both keen to move on. This isn’t always the case when we proofread directly for nonpublisher clients. The following snippets of postproject emails from clients are fictitious but I’ve encountered the like many a time. Do they strike a chord with you?
- I’ve just been looking over the files one more time and I’m thinking about changing X… What do you think? Would that work?
- Sorry to bother you. I changed the following sentences a bit. Could you just quickly look over them? There are only 25 — no rush. Just when you have a minute. Thanks so much!
- Do you have any marketing advice you can give me for when the book’s published? I know you’re a proofreader but wondered if you had any ideas about how I can go about this. It’s a whole new world to me!
- What did you think of the book? Please give me your honest opinion — even if it’s negative. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say!
- Would you mind giving me your opinion of the cover? You did such a great job with the text and I’d really appreciate knowing what you think!
- I’d really like to approach some agents, now that the book’s in good shape. Do you have any recommendations or advice about how to go about this?
It’s not unusual for these postproject discussions to take place. What is less usual is that editorial professionals manage them appropriately. Too often, they become unbillable costs that detract from the project fee. There’s nothing wrong with a client asking these things and it’s not that the editorial business owner shouldn’t have these conversations. They do incur a cost, though.
If you regularly build postproject handholding time into your original quotation, all well and good. But if you don’t and you are prone to offering free, additional support to your clients, take a step back and ask yourself how much this is impacting on the value of each project, and your required and desired rates. If you spend an additional two hours emailing back and forth about these extras, that time needs to be set off against the invoiced fee; those hours need to be tracked so that you can work out exactly what the final value of the project is to you.
A better solution is to communicate to the client, immediately and politely, that you’d be happy to discuss X or Y, and what the cost will be for the additional work. I appreciate that for some editorial folk this is very difficult because they’ve built up a strong relationship with the client during the editorial process, and the tone of communication may well have become informal, even friendly. However, we have to remember that we’re running a business and that our professional expertise has a fee attached to it. There’s no shame in putting a price on the additional work we’re being asked to carry out.
Controlling Creeping Costs
Here are some thoughts on how to keep control of creeping costs in editorial work:
- Where possible, build a safety net into your quotations for clients. This will help to ensure that hand-holding and other types of support are billed for.
- At the start of negotiations, make it clear what levels of support, both during and after the work is complete, are available as part of the agreed price, and what will incur additional costs.
- If you think that you are the type of person who is likely to go beyond your own brief and allow additional costs to creep into your project work, and you’re happy for that to be the case, then that’s your choice and it’s fine. But do be honest with yourself in your accounting process. Only by tracking the time we actually spend on a project can we accurately assess which client types are the “best” payers according to our own required and desired rates.
- Create some value-added content that you can refer clients to when they have questions that are beyond the scope of the job. I created my free Guidelines for New Authors in order to direct less-experienced authors to resource centres and knowledge bases that would (a) help them on their journey and (b) reduce the amount of time I spend on unbillable and nonproofreading queries.
By being aware of ALL of the time we spend on a project with our clients, we can develop insights into the financial health of our business. This enables us to make decisions about who we want to work with and what their actual value is to us.
A Quick Summary:
5 Things to Remember When Assessing Client Groups
- The fees we can earn will vary — between clients, and between client groups more broadly.
- What one person considers “poor” pay will be acceptable to another, and vice versa. This is because each individual editorial business owner’s financial requirements are personal.
- It is not true that, in general, publishers don’t pay well. Rather, some publishers offer fees that exceed my required and desired fees; some offers exceed only my required fees; and some offers meet neither.
- Nor is it true that, in general, nonpublisher clients are more lucrative. They might be or they might not be. It will depend on the particular client, the project being undertaken, how well the estimation of the project’s demands stacks up against the reality, and how much control one keeps over the additional costs that could creep into the work.
- Keep a close eye on all the time that goes into a project. By doing this, you can make realistic assessments of what works for you, rather than what works for your friends and colleagues.
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.