An American Editor

October 21, 2015

The Business of Editing: Fundamental Business Mistakes That Editors Make

Editors are often connoisseurs of language first and of business last. People become editors for many reasons; few become editors because they have evaluated editing as a business and decided that they can make their fortune as an editor. People become freelance editors for a variety of reasons, often including as a reason the desire to be their own boss — but without fully understanding what it means to run a business.

Ask your colleagues to show you their business plan — the one they used to decide to setup Gonzo’s Editorial Services and storm the editorial barricades. Both of us will be surprised if they have one to show you.

This is not anything unusual in the business world. Many, if not most, small businesses are established without a business plan and without fully understanding what is involved in running and maintaining a business. But editors seem to be especially neglectful of acquiring the skills to run a business successfully before starting the business — they often look for courses on editing, but not on business, and most editing programs offer little by way of business skill development. And in the United States, there is no national organization that offers a comprehensive editorial business skill-building course.

When I started as an editor (in January it will be 32 years ago), I had a leg up on nearly all my competition when it came to business skills — I had already been involved in and had run several successful small businesses. Having those business skills, combined with the editorial skills I had developed working for a publisher in-house, I was able to rapidly grow my editing business.

Not having those basic business skills is a fundamental mistake that editors make. Perhaps an even more fundamental mistake is the refusal to recognize that they are running a business and need to learn and develop basic business skills. Too many times have I been told by colleagues that they are editorial artisans, not tradespersons or businesspersons. Such thinking limits an editor to earning a basic living (maybe; too many do not even earn at that level) but not much more.

If editors were more businesslike, the first thing they would do is evaluate whether editing was the business for them. Knowing how to do something, even knowing how to do it well, is usually not enough to ensure success. You can be the world’s greatest editor yet have no clients and no income or too few clients or too little income, all because you haven’t the necessary business skills to succeed. Perhaps, then, being a freelance editor is not the correct business for you.

What I often hear is that “I am satisfied with what I earn” or “I am satisfied with the number of clients (projects) I have.” But delve a bit deeper and what one discovers is that the person has come to terms with their situation; they have become satisfied out of necessity, not from choice.

A sure sign of weak business skills is charging a fee that is not enough to raise the editor above the poverty line (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It). When a colleague tells me that they do not need more, it is sometimes because they have supplemental income, such as a pension or a significant other who is paying the bills. But in that case, they are not treating editing as a business; it is more of a hobby — a business needs to stand or fall financially on its own. When they tell me that their clients cannot afford more, I wonder why they aren’t seeking clients who can pay more. I also wonder how they know their clients cannot afford more. For most of us, our clients are from all over the country and world — we do not know them except via impersonal contact. At what point have we crossed that line that divides our interests from our client’s interests to say that our clients are always honest and are more important than ourselves? As far as I know, editing is not a path to sainthood.

Not objectively evaluating what we need to charge is a fundamental business mistake editors make. When you buy groceries, the prices you pay are not arrived at via crystal ball gazing or tossing dice in the air and seeing how they land. A lot of calculation goes into determining the price to charge for a container of yogurt. The grocery wants to charge enough to be sure that it can meet its expenses and open its doors tomorrow, but not so much that you will shop elsewhere. There is also a psychology to pricing: charge too little and clients do not respect you or your skills; charge too much and clients will go elsewhere.

Why do editors think editing is any different a business than, say, a grocery? Probably because editors do not view editing as a business and do not think we have a product to sell. Consider how you set your rate (see, e.g., On the Basics: Dealing with the Perennial Question of Setting Rates for Our Work). Many editors will say they looked at what other editors were charging for similar services. (How do they know the other editors’ services are similar? All that we really know is that they are doing “copyediting,” not how they define “copyediting” nor how good they are at copyediting.) Or they checked out some “national rate chart” (needless to say, without checking out how valid that rate chart is; see, e.g., Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts). And when they found that their colleagues were charging $20 an hour, they charged $20 an hour — even though to meet their expenses they need $30 an hour (see Business of Editing: What to Charge).

It is not that editors do not survive at these rates; they do. But one needs to look at how “well” they are surviving at such rates. In some cases, they are able to survive because someone else in the household is bringing in sufficient money to make up the difference. Or because they are retired and have a supplemental income. What happens to the editor when that other income is lost? It is a question not posed and not answered.

What editors miss is that they are a business and they need to evaluate what they are doing as a business, which means as if they had no other income source. How successful are they if they cannot stand on their own?

Once we begin to view our editorial services as a business, we can apply all of the business fundamentals to our service — not just fees, but also invoicing, marketing, defining our services, deciding which projects we will accept and which we will reject, and determining what constitutes our business day and week, and more. When we get a handle on these things, we will see that our path has changed — for the better.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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1 Comment »

  1. […] Adin has written a straight to the point article on the mistakes editors make when not taking care of business. It’s a very common […]

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    Pingback by A Freelance Editor’s Promise | Northern Editorial — October 23, 2015 @ 8:06 am | Reply


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