An American Editor

December 2, 2015

Market Magic: The In-Tandem Duo — Declining Price & Declining Quality

There is a disconnect in the editorial marketplace. The disconnect occurs at several levels but is most prominent when a publisher outsources production and editorial work to a single provider (a packager), often an offshore provider, that promises to deliver high-quality editing at a price lower than the publisher itself can get directly in the editorial market it wants tapped (e.g., a U.S. publisher wanting a U.S. editor).

The disconnect occurs because the packager has not first determined that, when tapping the publisher’s desired editor market, it can obtain and deliver the promised quality for a price even lower than the price it promised the publisher. The disconnect also occurs because the publisher has misbudgeted for a manuscript’s editorial work on the basis of the packager’s representations.

There is a line below which quality and price decrease as one, and packagers have been embracing that downward trajectory for short-term gains, at the expense of long-term survival and growth. If the reports are correct, many packagers are facing revenue and growth problems — the long-term penalty is now starting to be paid for their having focused on the short term. They have entered that cycle in which they must continue to promise low editorial costs (sometimes even lower than previously promised) in exchange for more short-term business. However, the packagers increasingly find that they cannot hire the better editors and so return to the publisher lower-quality editing (often, much lower quality) than was promised. The editorial members of the publisher’s staff are unhappy, but the accounting staff remains unmoved.

As a result, the publisher continues to budget low prices for high-quality editing because the packager continues to represent that it can provide that level of editing using the publisher’s preferred editors at the lower price, a price that the publishers themselves cannot get in the editorial marketplace for high-quality editing. (One publisher, for example, budgets $1.25 per manuscript page for high-level editing and lesser amounts for “normal” editing; a second publisher budgets less than $1 per page based on promises from its packagers. In both instances, the publishers have expressed their dissatisfaction with the quality of editing their books have received, making the relationship with the packager less secure than the packager requires, and sometimes the publishers will insist that the editing be redone at the packager’s expense using specifically named editors.)

What the publisher ignores is that if it pays the packager $2 per page for editing, the packager pays the editor significantly less as the packager retains some of the price for its own coffers. The publisher also ignores that it has required the packager to hire skilled editors from a certain editorial marketplace. For example, it is not unusual for a U.S. publisher to insist that “a U.S. editor” be hired, without considering whether a U.S. editor who delivers the level of editing quality the publisher wants can be hired for the amount that the packager will offer to pay. (A companion problem is that publishers will tell a packager that a particular manuscript requires a “high” or “medium” edit “by a U.S. editor,” but neither the publisher nor the packager adjusts the editing price so that it matches the editing expectations.)

The result is that between the packager’s actions and the publisher’s acquiescence in and promotion of the packager’s actions, neither the packager’s promise nor the publisher’s expectation of high-quality editing comes about. As the price paid to the editor declines, so does the quality of the edit. (We are addressing just the effect of pricing on quality and ignoring the effect of scheduling.)

Recently, I was discussing future projects with a publisher. The publisher needs — not just wants — the particular manuscripts to receive a high-quality edit. The problem is that we are a universe apart on fee. The budgeters at the publisher have become accustomed to the prices paid to packagers and have decided to reduce those already low prices by 15% as part of a cost-saving measure. Apparently, many of the packagers they work with have agreed to that price lowering. The result is that while the publisher is willing to pay me more directly, its “more” is what it was paying the packagers before the new lower fee. The budgeters consider those rates the “standard.” They are immune to complaints about the poor editorial quality from in-house editorial staff and from authors and purchasers of the publisher’s books.

The packagers have set marketplace expectations without having determined beforehand whether they can deliver. Those expectations have leaked so as to infect relationships with nonpackagers, and when publishers deal directly with editors so that they can ensure the quality they want and need, they are unprepared to face the cost.

Unfortunately for packagers, the expectations they have created are beginning to harm their businesses. In discussions with colleagues, I find that many of the better-skilled editors are resisting, preferring to pass on work that is too low priced. This is, I think, a result of editors becoming more businesslike and actually understanding what they require to run a profitable business. Over the years, packagers have been both a bane and a boon to editors: a bane because of the high demands for low pay, but a boon because they have forced editors to increasingly recognize that they are a business and must act like a business.

I am finding that packagers are increasingly, albeit slowly, becoming flexible about editing fees — although the range of flexibility is not wide — as long as the majority of projects are still undertaken at the “standard” price. But that there is any flexibility speaks volumes about the long-term problems of the packager industry’s business plan; not so long ago, a packager faced with a demand for higher pay would simply say “no” and move the project to another editor. What they have found is that, as with all things in life, some editors have better skills than other editors and are more appropriate for a particular project; that is, editors are not wholly interchangeable — an experienced medical editor is likely to do a better editing job on a medical tome than an editor whose experience has been primarily in historical romance fiction. Both may be excellent editors in their genres, but poor choices outside their genres. And within genres, there are levels of editors, levels based on experience, learned skills, editing methodology, education, and so on.

I have suggested many times to packagers that it is smarter, thinking long term, to take less profit and deliver higher-quality editing than to focus on the short term and seek higher profit at the expense of editing quality — a short-term focus may lead to having nothing on which to make a profit long term. The message may finally be getting through. It will be interesting to see which packagers survive. My bet is that the packagers who revert to more realistic pricing for high-quality editing, thereby changing unreasonable and unrealistic expectations, will be the survivors. They may struggle in the beginning, but survive in the end.

Do you turn down work because of price? Are you finding that packagers are making changes for the better in your relationships with them?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. Two bucks a page??? Are you serious??

    I charge by the hour, not by the page, and I don’t come cheap. Am interested in knowing what you think a reasonable page rate would be for high-level editing, Richard.


    Comment by Anne Brennan — December 2, 2015 @ 4:20 am | Reply

    • Anne, there is no set number. I determine how many pages an hour I expect I can edit and divide that into my required effective hourly rate to determine what the page rate should be. But a caveat: I also cut deals with clients for volume work in the expectation that some jobs will result in a much higher EHR and others may result in a rate lower than the rEHR, but that over the course of the year and over the course of the volume work, my return will be greater than my rEHR. I do not work with single-project clients and I also only work in areas that I have been able to make editing efficient (largely through my EditTools macros and other macros), which also alter the equation in my case. Consequently, I have no firm answer for you; I only have a firm answer for me that is not transferable to other editors.


      Comment by americaneditor — December 2, 2015 @ 6:21 am | Reply

      • I should have known you’d say that, Richard. 🙂

        Let me try again, because I’m unfamiliar with page rates (as opposed to hourly rates): what kind of page rates are common among publishers these days? Not from the gougers, but from reasonable companies?


        Comment by Anne Brennan — December 9, 2015 @ 5:13 am | Reply

        • Again, Anne, I will disappoint you. Page pricing is meaningless without the definition of what constitutes a page. Some publishers (which term includes packagers) will pay $5 a page but they define a page as 550 words. How does that compare on the reasonableness scale to a publisher who defines a page as 250 words and pays $3 a page. Per-page pricing is all over the map, as is what constitutes a page.

          What is a reasonable hourly rate? Is it $20 because most publishers pay that? Or is it $50, which few publishers pay? And doesn’t it matter what the expected churn rate is? Is the rate of a publisher who pays $20 an hour but only expects you to edit 1 page an hour more reasonable than that of the publisher who pays $25 an hour but expects you to edit 10 pages an hour? And does it matter what the subject matter is or whether the topic is fiction or nonfiction?

          Reasonable is relative to lots of factors. You wrote that you “don’t come cheap,” but what does that mean? If you charge $50 an hour, you aren’t cheap to someone who charges $20, but are cheap to someone who charges $90, assuming all other factors are equal.

          If you charge $3 per page but can convert that into an effective hourly rate of $40, is that $3 reasonable? Cheap? Expensive?

          More importantly, what difference does it make whether the rate is “reasonable” if your required EHR is $60 and you are not collecting enough to meet that requirement?

          But here is a clue as to how to determine if a per-page rate is reasonable by your standards: multiply the per-page rate by the expected churn rate; that will give you the hourly equivalent. For example, if the pay is $3 per page and you are expected to edit 7 pages an hour, the equivalent hourly rate is $21. Is that reasonable in the hourly world?

          Unfortunately, even that comes with caveats. Suppose the expected churn rate is 7 pages an hour but you can churn 15 pages an hour. Now the same fee has become the equivalent of a $45 hourly rate. No easy answers.


          Comment by americaneditor — December 9, 2015 @ 8:18 am | Reply

  2. I turn down work from packagers and publishers because of price. When I’ve been unhappy with the fee being offered, I’ve attempted to negotiate. Sometimes this has been successful because my expectations and those of the client are close enough to be bridgeable. Other times, my complaints have been met with understanding but not action. I’ve therefore had to decline the work. I’m of the opinion that spending my valuable time negotiating is useful only up to a point. When the gap between what I need to run a profitable proofreading business and what clients are prepared to pay is too big, or when the client claims that there’s no more money in the pot (and never will be), it’s time to stop trying to change the way those clients work and time to start changing the clients with whom I work. Ongoing marketing is key as it gives the editorial professional the ability (because they have a choice) to make what might otherwise be the very difficult decision of turning down paying (albeit low-paying) work. There’s no overnight solution in this sense – just hard graft!

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by Louise Harnby | Proofreader — December 2, 2015 @ 5:54 am | Reply

    • Unlike you, Louise, I do a lot of work for packagers and pricing can be all over the place. Like you, I do not undertake projects where the pricing is too low, but I do undertake projects where the pricing may be marginal. More importantly, I do not work with single-project clients. The article is more addressed to the philosophy of packagers than to their dealings with me.

      I do think, however, that you make a very valuable and important point: “. . . it’s time to stop trying to change the way those clients work and time to start changing the clients with whom I work.”


      Comment by americaneditor — December 2, 2015 @ 6:25 am | Reply

  3. Great post. However, the rates mentioned, even though they are just an example, in the sentence “One publisher, for example, budgets $1.25 per manuscript page for high-level editing and lesser amounts for “normal” editing; a second publisher budgets less than $1 per page based on promises from its packagers” are too low.


    Comment by Vivek Kumar — December 2, 2015 @ 7:43 am | Reply

    • Alas, Vivek, they are not too low. And it was not so long ago that a packager sent me a request for experienced STEM editors, writing, in part:

      I’ve got your brief details from web and would like to see if you’re interested to associate with us. The major subject would be Science, Technology and Medicine for Books and Journals. We’re dealing with International clients only so they need very high standard of Quality and on time delivery so there will not be any compromise on these front.

      The proposed rates are as under…

      Copyediting – $0.80 per page
      Cold-reading – $0.50 per page

      There will be a Non-competent agreement between us before starting the live project.

      And the prices I mentioned that you question, I assure you are from major publishers.


      Comment by americaneditor — December 2, 2015 @ 8:03 am | Reply

      • A “non-competent agreement”? Talk about a Freudian slip! Hahahaha!


        Comment by Anne Brennan — December 9, 2015 @ 5:08 am | Reply

  4. I’ve seen even lower rates, and they continue to fall, closing the door to what could be interesting and fun opportunities.

    Whether I accept any undesirable rate depends on my economic state at the time. I built my business from working at low rates; and, having “graduated” to better, I now turn them down in an effort to keep building. Occasionally I have a big hole in my schedule, so if an offer comes from one of my good but lower-rate clients, I’ll take it. My household took a terrible financial hit some years back from which we are still recovering, so we must continue operate on the any-paycheck-is-better-than-no-paycheck system. But all our marketing is geared toward earning better rates and eliminating backslides. Establishing that momentum has been hard, but now over the hump we’re definitely seeing how it leads to better-paying clients and better-quality work.


    Comment by Carolyn — December 2, 2015 @ 9:38 am | Reply

  5. I spent 2 years transitioning academic journals to an overseas packager. The transition started with the copy editing then after a few issues, design also moved to the packager, then my job as a PE went to the packager as well. The review editors and managing editors stayed the same. Some of the review editors were very unhappy with the poor communication and quality. But review editors can be replaced, and content, not grammar, sentence structure or formatting, is what keeps subscriptions coming in.


    Comment by renee — December 2, 2015 @ 11:45 am | Reply

  6. I’ve worked for packagers that paid well — for a while. They always seem to cut the rates they pay to freelancers or increase the amount of work but pay the same (which is, of course, the equivalent of cutting rates. It’s like when coffee at the supermarket went from 1 lb to 12 oz cans for the same price.). I have had to walk away from more than a few packagers. I’ve also worked with freelancers who run small typesetting/packaging businesses, and they’ve usually paid well — again as long as they could, given the pressure they inevitably get from their publisher clients.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — December 2, 2015 @ 11:52 am | Reply

  7. I’m still chuckling over “There will be a Non-competent agreement between us before starting the live project.” But yes, I turn down work that doesn’t pay what I expect to receive. I’ve only worked with a couple of packagers, mostly to see what it’s like, and feel lucky not to need work that pays at what I see now of their rates. Being able to pick and choose clients/projects is a huge benefit of freelancing effectively.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — December 24, 2015 @ 10:11 am | Reply

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