An American Editor

September 2, 2015

The Business of Editing: The Profitability Difficulty

In making any decision about my editing business, my number one consideration is profitability. I do not mean to denigrate other important matters, especially not ethical matters, but once past ethical considerations, profitability is the ultimate determiner as to whether I take on a project or retain a client.

Ensuring Profitability Is Difficult

What I have noticed is that increasingly, profitability is more difficult to ensure, not only on a project basis but over the course of multiple projects. I have always adhered to the Rule of Three (see The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three for more information about the rule). The rule has served me well for decades, but even that rule is coming under attack from the types of projects I am consistently being asked to take on in recent months.

As we have discussed many times on An American Editor, the underlying key to profitability is efficiency. It is that striving for ever-increasing efficiency that lies behind my EditTools macros. Yet even though they increase efficiency, the projects I have been seeing in recent months strain attempts to be efficient. It is nearly impossible, for example, to efficiently deal with references when they need to conform to a convoluted style like that of the American Chemical Society and the author has made little attempt to conform to that style.

The problem of efficiency and working style is what led me to abandon proofreading. When I first began my freelance career, I offered both editing and proofreading services. But because of how I work, I found it increasingly difficult to make a profit from proofreading. With the advent of PDF proofreading, my workstyle was such that I went from low profitability to loss.

(For those wondering how to determine profit and loss, the place to begin is my five-part series, Business of Editing: What to Charge. If you don’t know what you need to earn, you can’t possibly know whether you are making or losing money as a freelancer.)

Schedule and Profitability

Even more deadly to profitability than efficiency is schedule. Long-time editors probably remember the guideline that editors and publishers used to follow, but publishers and packagers seem to have abandoned, that set the editing pace. For example, an editor asked to copyedit a medical or science textbook that required a “heavy” or “high-level” edit was expected to edit two to four pages an hour; a “medium” edit’s pace was five to eight pages an hour; and a “light” edit’s pace was eight to ten pages an hour. An editing “week” ran 30 to 35 editing hours.

(An editing hour is the time actually spent editing, not the time you are open for business. I calculate an editing week as 25 editing hours because I have learned that after 5 editing hours, the quality of editing begins to deteriorate — slowly but steadily. Consequently, I try to limit my daily editing time to between 5 and 6 hours. In addition, an editing week is Monday to Friday exclusive of holidays.)

Thus, clients expected that with a medium-level edit, an editor could competently edit 150 to 280 manuscript pages a week, depending on the subject matter. The range for a high-level edit was 60 to 140 manuscript pages per week. But all of that has changed with the outsourcing of editing to companies (“packagers”) that are skilled at book layout and production but which themselves outsource the editing work to freelancers like me.

The Triad

What has occurred is that these packagers have a lot of competition and they need to separate themselves from the pack. So, when they seek work, they promise quick turnaround, excellent editing, and low price — the triad that editors often tell clients that they can pick one of, but not two of, and definitely not three of. When the packagers come to the editor, they refuse to accept that they cannot have all three. Unfortunately, too many editors simply acquiesce without a “fight” although whether the editing is excellent is definitely questionable.

All of this impacts on profitability. Although a key to profitability is turnover — the idea being that the faster a project can be completed, the more projects that can be undertaken, and the higher the gross revenue — the hoped for increase in number of projects doesn’t come to fruition in the absence of the quality editing.

What made me realize this was that I have not stopped telling my clients that they cannot have more than one leg of the triad. About two months ago, I was asked to edit a book that required “heavy” editing. The subject matter was quite technical and the extensive number of references were all in the wrong format. The problems were that the fee was low and the schedule unreasonable — the client expected 400+ manuscript pages to be edited per week when a reasonable and likely schedule was 125 to 150 pages.

The reason this would not be profitable work is that by rushing the project to meet the schedule, I could not provide the editing that the project needs. When the clients see the editing, they will complain and will insist on corrections being made — I know this from past experience — which will eat up ever more time. Consequently, additional hours will be spent on the project but without additional compensation.

Meeting the Triad

The danger is, of course, that not only will I lose money on the project, but the client will be wary of sending me additional work because by not providing a quality edit according to their schedule I caused delays, which cost them points with their client. It is a vicious cycle with the ultimate loser being me, the freelance editor.

Consequently, I have not given in to the demands that I accept these types of projects and the requirements of the triad. I prefer to turn down work, which I regularly do, than try to meet unreasonable requirements. When asked to undertake a project, I always do the page count myself and I always determine, myself, what the schedule should be. I advise the client of the page count, my proposed schedule, and what options they have.

The first option is my schedule at my “usual” fee; the second option is a shorter schedule with a higher fee; the third option is the shortest schedule I am willing to accept at a yet higher fee; the final option is for the client to find another editor. Note the relationship between schedule and fee: the longer the schedule, the lower the fee; the shorter the schedule, the higher the fee.

This fee–schedule relationship revolves around two very important bits of information that I possess: the first, is the page count. The method I use allows for figures without having to actually go through each figure and trying to determine how much of a page should be allotted to the figure. The major weakness in my method, and one that I have yet to ascertain how to overcome, is how much work the references will require. On that, I have just “bitten the bullet” and let the law of averages take over. (Now that I have had the experience of dealing with the ACS style, something I hadn’t done for many years, I will, in the future, apply a multiplier to ACS style projects.) Most importantly, I do the page count and tell the client what the count is; I do not ever accept or rely on the client’s page count.

The second bit of information I possess is this: I know how many pages an hour I can edit under various scenarios. Like the page count, I determine this number, not the client.

With this information in hand, I prepare my “report” to the client. Recall that I have not yet agreed to accept the project. What I am doing is justifying to the client my decision if it is “no, I cannot accept the project” or building the foundation for the terms on which I will accept the project. This tells the client I have carefully considered the offer and that I have business reasons for turning down the project or setting acceptance conditions.

My experience has been that very often the client either ups the price or extends the schedule. If I say “no” to a project, it is not unusual for the client to try to work something out with me. I think that these situations resolve in my favor more often than not because the client knows the quality of the editing I provide and wants to avoid discussions with their clients over quality.

The Lesson

The lesson is that an editor needs to know their price point and their editing rate and resist the idea that it is better to lose money (i.e., earn less than their Required Effective Hourly Rate as discussed in Business of Editing: What to Charge) and have the work than to say “no” to such work offers. Saying “no” to unprofitable work helps you establish ground rules with your client. After all, why be in business if you are not going to make a profit?

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

4 Comments »

  1. I agree fully with the content of this essay, but was brought up short by the closing question: “why be in business if you are not going to make a profit?”

    Like many freelancers, I did not enter self-employment voluntarily. And while yes, I’m doing everything I can to consistently make a profit, I did not choose to be in business, and first had to deal with the problem of survival. So my answer to the question “why be in business if you are not going to make a profit?” is “because I have to.” It is great good fortune that I love this way of life, love my work, but I do *not* love the constant press to make a living at it, never mind a profit!

    Like

    Comment by Carolyn — September 2, 2015 @ 6:47 am | Reply

    • The ending question really should be thought of in these terms. You earn $20,000 a year as a freelance editor specializing in karma studies. To earn that $20,000, you pay out in expenses $23,000 a year. Why be in the business of editing karma studies? That is a gross simplification of the concept, but one that is a better guide to what the question really is asking than thinking “because I have to”.

      Like

      Comment by americaneditor — September 2, 2015 @ 8:01 am | Reply

      • Yes, that is a better guide to what the question is really asking. It changes the slant from why to how. Using the same simple example: Earn $20,000, spend $23,000 — How does one make up that $3,000 and get ahead? Let’s see… raise one’s rate for karma studies editing? Branch out into different subjects? Drop karma studies entirely and change to science editing? Edit more karma studies books faster and more efficiently? Get a “real” job? Each option can be analyzed, and offers slow or fast movement, incremental or total change, as one’s desires and circumstances allow.

        Like

        Comment by Carolyn — September 2, 2015 @ 8:19 am | Reply

  2. I set my rates based on Bachman’s book, “My So-Called Freelance Life”.
    If the hopper is empty, I will take on pro bono, once in a while.

    I also make sure, when doing pro bono work, that I write the invoice for it–and mark it “pro bono.”
    Some organizations will offer an honorarium when reminded of the work you have done.

    Like

    Comment by Morty — September 3, 2015 @ 2:51 pm | Reply


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