An American Editor

September 16, 2015

The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote (I)

One of the most difficult things for an editor to do is to calculate an appropriate quote for a project. Clients usually use a formula approach that doesn’t waver from project to project. Most editors who work for publishers simply accept what is offered.

Accepting what a client offers without doing your own calculation is bad business! And if you work directly with authors, you need to correctly calculate your quote.

I begin with a reminder: You are a business. You are an independent business of the same stature as the client. Too often editors view themselves as unequal to their clients; too often they forget the value and importance of simply saying “no.”

I always remember that my clients have come to me to ask for my services as an editor. They come because of my reputation for quality and/or because they have firsthand knowledge of the value of my editing. The result is that I view the relationship as one between equals — and I act as if we are equals in all aspects of the business relationship.

What that means is that I calculate the price for a project. I consider the client’s offer, but I make sure that the offer is one that represents profit to me. I also recognize that pricing editing is a guessing game. Until I have actually done the editing, it is not possible to truly know how difficult or time-consuming the project truly is.

Elements of the Calculation

The rEHR

There are lots of things that need to be considered when creating a quote. The absolute must-have information that an editor needs is her required Effective Hourly Rate — the rEHR. This has been discussed several times on An American Editor and is discussed in depth in The Business of Editing: What to Charge series of essays.

The rEHR is the bottom line. The rEHR is the foundation from which your quote will rise. If you are not meeting your rEHR, then you need to rethink your approach to your business.

The churn rate

The next bit of information you need to know is how fast you can accurately edit at different editing levels. For example, if a project calls for a “light” edit, can you expect to edit 5 manuscript pages an hour? Or 10? Or 20? Suppose the project calls for a “heavy” edit? How does that impact your churn rate?

Which brings us to several other items about which you need to have a firm grasp for multiple reasons, not least of which is that they affect the churn rate:

  • The definition of the service you are being asked to perform
  • The definition of the level of service you are being asked to perform
  • How the variations in service and level of service definitions affect your churn rate
  • Your effective number of net editing hours per day (“net” here means actual time spent editing, not the length of your “work” day)

For example, if a client asks you to copyedit a manuscript (the “service”) at a “medium to heavy level” (the “level of service”), what precisely does that mean? What tasks are included and what tasks are excluded? Do you understand what the client means by medium to heavy level copyediting? Does the client understand what you mean by copyediting? Is what the client expects copyediting or is it more akin to developmental editing or something between or even something else?

The churn rate is also affected by both the style to be applied and the type of manuscript involved. As we recently discussed, some styles are significantly more cumbersome than others (see, e.g., Style Guide Terrorism: A Formula for Failure).  In addition, the requested style may be one with which the editor has less (or greater) facility. If you have edited 100 books and applied the Chicago style and are now asked to apply a different style with which you have little to no familiarity, your churn rate will be slower as you need to spend time determining the requirements of the new style. Similarly, the churn rate will be slower if there is a comprehensive exceptions style manual provided by the client.

Of course, it also matters whether the project is fiction or nonfiction, has a handful of references or thousands of them. Here, again, the style to be applied matters. Depending on how diligently the author adhered to the desired style, the editor may have to look up and modify every reference. A complex style like that of the American Chemical Society can be, as I discovered to my personal chagrin, exceedingly time-consuming and tiresome to apply.

The page

Once your rEHR and your churn is determined, the next step is to establish your method for calculating a page. Some editors have varying formulas they apply depending on the type of project they are asked to edit. And many editors, without giving it much thought, simply accept that 250 words equals one page. Some clients use 300 words equal one page, some use 250 words, some use a typeset page. Some, I have discovered, simply open the file as provided by the author and accept whatever page count is shown (and are oblivious to the fact that the author set the text to 8 point type and single spacing).

Many, if not most, editors and clients count words; some count characters without spaces and some count characters with spaces.

It both matters and doesn’t matter how you calculate a page. It matters because if you use the wrong method, you cheat yourself; it matters because the method the client uses may make for a larger page and so a shorter project page count and, thus, a lower per-page rate. What really matters is that you have a method that you are satisfied with and that you enforce.

Also key is that you count the pages using your method. You should never accept a client’s page count. And if the client insists on using its page count as the compensation basis, you need to insist that the client share with you how a page is calculated.

This is critical in nonfiction because of figures. Over the years, I have had clients refuse to count figures yet expect me to edit them. It may be that the figures are text-free images, but if I have to open a file to look at a figure and to determine if it looks like a match to the figure legend, then I need to be paid for the work.

Figures are tricky. How do you know how many figures equal one page? I once had a client tell me that because the images were small, they calculated 24 images equaled one page; the client ignored the fact that each image was in its own file and required specialized software to view and adjust. Needless to say, that was unacceptable. But it prompted me to devise a method that accounts for figures in the page calculation to my satisfaction. Again, it doesn’t matter whether I am actually counting each figure; it matters that I am willing to accept the number I get as including the figures.

Part II discusses additional elements and the putting together of the quote.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essay:

9 Comments »

  1. I like to charge flat rate because I can do all the math, adjust for anything extra (short turnaround, big hassle, hidden labor, whatever), and not have to explain anything to the client. They see a number they can afford or not, and get a description of what they will get for the money. We make a deal or we don’t. This only applies when I am working with independent authors. When working for a publisher, it’s the other way around. They put out their number and I accept or reject. In either case, there’s often some dickering, and when the deal works for everyone we proceed; when it doesn’t, we move on.

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    Comment by Carolyn — September 16, 2015 @ 6:09 am | Reply

  2. What I am left with is the adversarial tone of your article. A good business relationship occurs for me like a partnership wherein each is committed to ensure that the other gets what he/she wants and needs.

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    Comment by Harvey Austin — September 16, 2015 @ 8:17 am | Reply

    • Harvey, wait for part 2 and see if you feel the same. But remember this, regardless of how you think of the relationship: setting fees is always adversarial. You may not need to present it with fire and brimstone, but if the client offers $5 and you want $10, it will be difficult to commit to giving the client what the client wants or needs — unless, of course, you do not need the money and can accede to whatever the client is willing to pay for whatever services the client wants.

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      Comment by americaneditor — September 16, 2015 @ 11:21 am | Reply

      • I’ve never seen anyone put this one out there straight before: “setting fees is always adversarial.” Yep, that’s right. And making it a benign if not pleasant, and mutually beneficial, experience is part of what professionalism is all about.

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        Comment by Carolyn — September 16, 2015 @ 1:22 pm | Reply

  3. My suggestion for anyone using flat rates is to remember to include some self-protective language saying that requests/additional work beyond the original scope of the project may incur additional fees (if you use “may,” you have the flexibility of charging more or not). I’ve had the fun experience of someone adding the equivalent of a couple new chapters after an initial edit and expecting to get the new material edited as part of the original fee.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 16, 2015 @ 11:04 am | Reply

    • I’ve got that one covered. My service agreement specifies what the flat rate covers, and mentions that anything beyond that is a separate transaction at an hourly rate.

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      Comment by Carolyn — September 16, 2015 @ 1:22 pm | Reply

  4. Another important part of this process, which Rich suggests in discussing how to assess or calculate the definition of a page, is seeing the ms. before quoting or accepting a fee.

    First, not all clients – especially first-time or independent authors – know how to define a “page.” They’ll look at the Word value and accept that as gospel. Second, some will deliberately use a small type size, single-spacing and narrow margins to reduce the number of pages in a ms.; their 50 pages might actually be 100 or event 150 pages if you define a page as X number of words. Third, you don’t know the quality of the writing until you see the document, and quality will affect your speed. You might be able to edit a well-written ms. at 8 or 10 250-word pages/hour, but only be able to manage 2 or 3 pages/hour if the work is very badly written.

    Some publishing houses or packagers won’t provide the ms. until there’s a contract or fee in place, but you should be able to get the ms. from an independent author before you finalize an agreement.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 16, 2015 @ 11:13 am | Reply

  5. In response to Harvey’s comment above, I didn’t perceive Rich’s tone as adversarial. Rather, I think his concern is that there is a tendency within the freelancing market for editorial professionals to forget that they are running a business first and foremost, and that the business needs to be built around an understanding of what the costs of doing that business are. If we don’t pay attention to accounting methods, we risk running at a loss and having to shut down our editorial businesses, and none of us wants that!

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    Comment by Louise Harnby | Proofreaderouise — September 16, 2015 @ 11:15 am | Reply

  6. […] Many freelancers struggle with setting prices for projects. Too high, and you may not get the job; too low, and you may end up working for free. In this two-part post, Richard Adin covers how to calculate a price that works best for you. (An American Editor) […]

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    Pingback by The Nitpicker’s Nook: September’s linguistic links roundup « BoldFace — September 30, 2015 @ 9:05 am | Reply


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