An American Editor

April 29, 2015

So, How Much Am I Worth?

I recently wrote about rate charts and how I think it is a disservice to professional editors for an organization like the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) to publish such charts publicly (see “Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts“). That got me wondering: How much am I worth as an editor?

In my essay, “The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor,” I discussed inflexibility as a key sign of an unprofessional editor. That essay, combined with the rate charts essay, got me wondering: If I am inflexible about my fees, am I on the road to unprofessionalism?

Why the sudden philosophical thinking? This morning (i.e., Saturday morning my designated/scheduled time to write my AAE essay) I had planned to write on a different topic, one I was struggling with, when my e-mail box started chiming — ding! ding! ding! ding! ding! — alerting me to five incoming emails. I glanced over to my inbox and there they were: five offers for (relatively) small editing jobs (range: 700 to 1500 manuscript pages).

(Those are small jobs for me. This past week, for example, I began working on a chapter that runs nearly 500 manuscript pages and has 1,827 references — not a single one of which was in the correct format/style for this book. [The book has more than 130 chapters.] That’s 219 pages of incorrect references. EditTools came to the rescue. The Wildcard macro let me reformat the author names and the cite information [year, volume, pages] in less than 15 minutes [see “The Business of Editing: Wildcarding for Dollars“]; the Journals macro took a bit longer, a little more than 3 hours, to correct all but a handful of references [see “The Business of Editing: Journals, References, & Dollars“]. The Journals macro took so long because the dataset contains more than 78,000 entries. I guesstimate that the two macros saved me about 25 hours of drudgery of removing periods from author names, reversing author names, etc.)

Each of the five jobs had problems. One, for example, was authored by a group of scientists who are not native English speakers/writers and it required a 14-day turnaround. Another required reformatting of hundreds of references in a 10-day schedule. A third required a “light” edit but had a 23-day schedule. And so it went.

The question I needed to answer for each project was: How much am I worth as an editor? (I can make the calculation because I know what my required effective hourly rate is. Not knowing that would make any calculation nothing more than a wild guess. To calculate your required effective hourly rate, see the “What to Charge” series.) Once I answered that question, I had to decide whether there was any flexibility in my worth. In other words, if I quote the client $5 per manuscript page and the client counters with $2 per page, do I stand firm or do I negotiate down? That’s really the rub, the “down.”

If I have decided I am worth $5 per page, but am willing to negotiate down to $3, am I really worth $5? Was I ever worth $5 if I am willing to accept $3. Of course, this is project specific because for one project I may only be worth $3 whereas for another project I may well be worth $5, but that doesn’t really distract from the idea that if I ask for $5 on a particular project and negotiate down to $3, perhaps I was never worth the $5 I originally asked for.

Some would respond that you are worth whatever the market will bear and you will accept, an amount that can change daily or even hourly. But that makes me a commodity, which is the effect of bidding. Besides, how smart is it to bid against one’s self, which is the problem with websites that ask you to bid on editing work. Do I really want to be seen as a commodity?

If I remain firm on my price — telling the client this is my nonnegotiable price for editing project X — does that move me down the road toward unprofessionalism? Or is unprofessionalism limited to editing, excluding pricing? Does price firmness send a message? If it does, is it a meaningful message in the sense that it will be recognized by the recipient and affect the recipient’s behavior?

In the end, I think firm pricing is the sign of professionalism rather than unprofessionalism. Editors fool themselves when they believe that negotiating downward has any positive side for them; it certainly does have a positive side for the client, but not for the editor.

If I was worth $5 a page initially, I will never be worth less than $5. My price reflects the demands of the client, my required effective hourly rate, my experience, my expertise, my skills. None of those things change downward between the time I give my price and the time of the client’s counteroffer.

So, how much am I worth as an editor? The answer depends on who is giving the answer. To the client whose book I helped transform into a gazillion-copy bestseller, I may be worth $200 an hour. To the packager who is used to hiring local editors for 50 cents an hour, I may be worth no more than $10 an hour. But none of these valuations matter if I haven’t a sense of what I am worth as an editor and if I don’t stand firm on that worth. I am always willing to charge more; I am  never willing to charge less.

Professional editors are able to provide professional-level service because they are adequately compensated. They earn enough that they can afford to occasionally not earn enough on a project. Adequate compensation ensures that the editor has the time to think and review; there is no need to speed up the editing process so that the editor can make room for the next project in hopes that the next project will mean better compensation.

Inadequate compensation is part of the problem of unprofessionalism. No matter how you slice the earnings pie, you still need to earn the whole pie to pay your living costs. The thinner the slices, the more of them you need to create a whole pie — the lower you see your worth, the lower you are willing to negotiate, the more projects you need to squeeze into the set amount of editing time to create the “whole pie.”

Lower worth also means less ability to say no, to turn work and clients away, which means less control over your own business. People give the advice that you should have so many months of savings so that you can manage through a dry spell or have the ability to say no to a project/client you don’t want. That is good advice, but only half of the advice needed. The other half is that you need to know your worth and not bid against yourself.

If a client’s only concern is cost, then the client is not really looking for skilled editing; the client is looking for the ability to say the project was edited, regardless of editing quality. There is often a penalty to pay for approaching a skilled craft like editing with that view. Of course, the benefit to me is that my worth goes up when I have to reedit poorly edited material.

Ultimately, the keys to the answer to the question “So, how much am I worth as an editor?” are these: knowing your required effective hourly rate; ignoring rate charts that provide no link to reality (because they fail to disclose the underlying data and/or fail to define terms) and that act as a brake on your earning ability; and refusing to bid against yourself by standing firm on your price (which assumes that you have an articulable basis for your price). This is a sign of a professional and successful editor.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays:

3 Comments »

  1. Good topic. As freelancers, we have to answer two questions about what to charge: how much do we need to meet our effective hourly rate and how much will clients pay us? The answers to these will hopefully coincide, but when they don’t, well, there’s the rub. Do you lower your prices if you hit a dry spell? How long is a dry spell? If you temporarily lower your prices, will word get out to other potential clients? That last one depends on your market, of course. I doubt if any of my clients know what I charge any of the others, except for those in the same company (e.g., production editors at the same company), but another person’s clients might be more of a tight-knit professional community.

    I don’t generally lower my rates, but if I’m in a relatively dry spell and a client offers me something at less than my usual fee, but still a doable amount, I might well take it. That is more the “rule” of supply and demand, given that, by the same token, if I’m really busy and I get several offers for new work, I’ll tend to take the higher priced ones or the better clients to work with if the pricing is the same.

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — April 29, 2015 @ 11:32 am | Reply

  2. I think this is always an issue for any service provider. The key, I suppose, is if the client wants to pay less, you provide less service (scope of work) just like the electrician, the gardener, the plumber, the housecleaner, and the carpenter. Of course, it always helps to have multiple streams of income (preferably unrelated to editing work) so you can comfortably tell cheapskate client to search elsewhere.

    Like

    Comment by Carla Lomax — April 30, 2015 @ 11:22 am | Reply

  3. I don’t think that, in order to have a steady income, you necessarily need to have other income streams unrelated to editing work, but it helps to have a variety of clients. If I lose one client or one job, I’ve got a big enough client base to make up for it. If I tried to earn money doing something unrelated, I think it would make me too scattered. I’ve tried that in the past, when I first started freelance editing, and ultimately I decided to throw myself into totally the editing fray, and just enjoy my other talents as hobbies (like sewing and quilting, which I did waaaay back in the day for money — never very much money!) But different strokes for different folks: if a variety of different ways of making money works for you, go for it!

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — April 30, 2015 @ 11:40 am | Reply


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