An American Editor

April 20, 2016

The Business of Editing: 8 Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid I

A recent discussion on another forum lamented over how underpaid (undervalued) editing is, pointing out that neither authors nor publishers appreciate and are willing to pay for the expertise editors bring to a project. Of course, this is not a new lament; it was the same 32 years ago, when I began my editing career, and it has been a constant since that day.

In the discussion I just mentioned, the lament was tied to the client command (or observation) that the manuscript requires only a “light” edit. Let’s set aside the initial problem — what a “light” edit is (for my perspective, see The Business of Editing: Light, Medium, or Heavy?) — and instead focus on some — not all — of the reasons the value of editing is viewed so poorly as to act as justification for low rates of compensation from our clients.

Part I of this essay discusses the first four reasons.

1. Few editors know their required effective hourly rate.

Like all businesses, we can set our own rates of compensation. The problem is that too many of us set them in an information vacuum. Too many of us have no idea what our Required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR) is, and as a consequence we set our rate based on what some unscientific and invalid rate survey says is the “going rate.”

(For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of rEHR, and those who need a refresher on how to calculate it, see the five-part series Business of Editing: What to Charge. Additional previous essays worth reviewing are The Business of Editing: Fundamental Business Mistakes That Editors Make, the two-part essay The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote, So, How Much Am I Worth?, and Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts. Essays written by Ruth Thaler-Carter and Louise Harnby that touch on these and related topics can be found if you look for “On the Basics” and “The Proofreader’s Corner” in the Search field on this blog.)

Your rEHR is the minimum you need to earn for each hour of paid work if you hope to meet your living requirements. A survey that is of suspect validity to begin with can’t help you determine what you should charge if you do not know whether what the survey says is the “going rate” is more or less than you require just to have shelter, clothing, and food. When editors do not know their rEHR, they undermine themselves.

How are they undermining themselves? By helping to establish the validity of a rate that has no relationship to real-world economics. Haven’t you found that no matter how low your rate, a client readily comes back with a lower rate that was quoted by an editorial colleague? How was that lower rate established? Probably by waving an uncooked strand of spaghetti through the seas of Atlantis and watching the numbers magically appear. Or by going to one of the rate surveys that are constantly mentioned but aren’t any more valid than the spaghetti waving.

By approving and accepting rates that are lower than your rEHR, you are reinforcing the idea that editorial services are of little value.

2. Our profession has failed to convince clients of editing’s value.

In the olden days, when people like Bennett Cerf ran publishing houses and publishing houses were family-owned businesses, not international conglomerates, being an editor made you part of a prestigious profession. More importantly, high-quality editing was desired and properly compensated. I can still recall the lecture I received in 1987 from a Farrar, Strauss & Giroux editor about the publisher’s low tolerance for editorial errors. However, as the original family-owned publishers were bought up and merged into international conglomerates, bean counters took over and assigned a low value to editing, a low value from which the profession has not recovered.

As a profession, we have failed to convince our clients that they are devalued by poorly edited books. We have failed to demonstrate that consumers notice and care. We have failed to equate high-quality editing with reasonable compensation. By not making a concerted effort to convince clients of the value of editing, we have shored up the notion that cheaper is better for the bottom line. Finally, we have failed to make the consumer see that poor-quality editing means a poor reading experience, and that particular publishers and authors are noted for producing poorly edited books.

3. The market views us as low-level professionals who provide an unnecessary service.

Although we call ourselves professionals and think of ourselves as part of a profession, the market reality is that we are viewed as low-level professionals who provide an unnecessary service. This is a market view we have not successfully countered. Actually, as a group we have done little to nothing to counter that perception.

This is tied to number two above. We have let others determine whether our services are necessary. Look at how many times we see comments from authors saying that the author can edit his or her own manuscript as well as or better than any editor. Delve a little into the reason for the statement and what you find is that the author has had a poor experience with an editor and tars every editor with that tainted brush.

Of course, the author looked for the lowest-cost editor who claimed the most experience, and hired that editor. The author and the editor were both racing to the bottom, with cost driving both the author and the editor, who had set a low price to attract the business. The problem for many authors is that they personally have to foot the editorial bill, and so they look for the least cost. And the publishers? They assume that no one will notice if the editing is poor — not the author and not the consumer — and, unfortunately, too often they are correct. The publishers make the gamble and usually win.

If an author cannot get an editor cheaply enough, the author will self-edit or have friends do the editing, because the author does not view editors as high-level professionals who provide a necessary service in these days of self-publishing. It is our failure as a profession that we have not convinced clients of our professionalism and of the value of editorial services.

4. It is too easy to open an editorial business.

Unlike professionals who are able to charge much higher fees (e.g., doctors, lawyers, plumbers, carpenters, masons), we have no entry requirements in our profession — no apprenticeships, no degree requirements, no code of conduct, no licensing, no nothing. All a person has to do is declare to the world that she is a professional editor. (When you think about it, even McDonald’s fry cooks get some training from someone else, and cleaning-service personnel often need to be bonded. Our profession [different for content creators] has no insurance requirements, something most, if not all, other professions have.)

Let’s face it — even a sixth-grader could hang out a shingle as a professional editor. There simply are no professional standards. Writers and painters in the United States are better organized than editors and have more professional organizations (i.e., the organizations are more professionally organized and run) to create standards and promote codes of conduct than editors have.

Such ease of claiming membership in the editorial profession does us a disservice. It helps foster the notion that we are undeserving of better pay because there is no minimum standard of quality that a client can be assured of receiving in exchange for higher compensation.

Part II addresses reasons five through eight.

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. Another nice post Richard but I would say that we also need to look at this issue from the perspective of what solutions we can come up with or what solutions can we be a part of. There are editorial associations (e,g., SfEP) that are doing great work but because these are mostly volunteer-driven, they are not able to do as much as they would ideally like to do. We don’t have an association in India, and we are trying our best to get one started as soon as we can so that editors get the necessary training, are vetted/certified, and get compensation that matches the effort that goes into being an editor.


    Comment by Vivek Kumar — April 20, 2016 @ 5:31 am | Reply

  2. I think one reason editors are underpaid is that for a long time it was one profession dominated by women, who were expected to be happy with low salaries. Many people equated editorial work with secretarial work, rather than with engineering work or the like. And there was a feeling that anyone could do it. I used to have people asking me, when they learned I was a freelance editor, “Oh, I’d like to do that. How much should I charge?” No one ever asked what kind of training they’d need.

    Another reason is that the readers don’t realize a book is poorly edited until after they’ve bought it, whereas a bad cover or layout may affect the buying decision. And the publisher cares mostly about the bottom line. If reviews say the story is exciting, readers will buy the book even if the reviews add that the book could have used better editing.


    Comment by Gretchen — April 20, 2016 @ 7:45 am | Reply

    • I used to be an editor at a newspaper, and every year on National Secretary’s Day (or whatever it’s called), a local politician used to bring roses to all the female reporters and editors at the newspaper. We didn’t know how to respond as she meant well and it seemed unkind to lecture her. She didn’t give roses to the men.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Gretchen — April 20, 2016 @ 7:58 am | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on Beyond the Precipice and commented:
    Richard Adin’s article hits the nail on the head with why editors are underpaid.


    Comment by Eva Blaskovic — April 20, 2016 @ 10:09 am | Reply

  4. […] The Business of Editing: 8 Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid I […]


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  5. It’s not entirely true to say that there is ‘no’ code of conduct. The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) (UK) certainly has one, and it is enforced. SfEP also has stringent standards for it’s Professional Membership and Advanced Professional Membership levels of membership. For PM and APM membership, an editor has to show, among other things, training, continuing professional development, significant experience, and have references from clients for whom they have done over a substantial number of hours of work. So to suggest that there are no standards does seem a tad disingenuous. The Editors Association of Canada also has editing standards, which are, I believe, at the moment being updated.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Janet MacMillan — April 21, 2016 @ 6:38 am | Reply

    • You are correct that there are editorial organizations in England and Canada and Australia (perhaps other countries) that do have codes of conduct that they enforce. However, enforcement is only against members of the organization; as best as I am aware, unlike other professions with codes of conduct, a person is not required to be a member of one of these organizations and is not required to abide by whatever rules or codes they happen to have. There is certainly no universal code of conduct to which every editor must adhere in any country where organization membership is voluntary. The United States does not have an SfEP equivalent and thus is more of a wild west when it comes to ethics and conduct.


      Comment by americaneditor — April 21, 2016 @ 8:17 am | Reply

  6. Re hourly rate – people often seem to work this out on the assumption that they they want X amount per year, and therefore, as will be working a full 40 hours a week for 48 weeks of the year, they need to charge Y amount per hour. Of course, in actual fact, no independent contractor will have this blissfully ideal situation, unless they’re exceedingly fortunate – it takes no account of empty work calendars, time spent on non-billable items, work that takes much longer than quoted for, etc. Therefore, the freelancer who relies on this will then end up working themselves to a frazzle trying to reach that impossible goal.

    Some time back, I came across the following formula, which appears to be pretty accurate and widely used in other professions, and by HR depts to work out a contractor’s rate: hourly rate X 1000 = annual income. This takes into account paid holidays, sick days and tax, as well as an assumption for downtime and non-billable work. Therefore, to achieve the current average UK salary of £27K, an hourly rate of £27 is needed (which is close to the current SfEP rate for copyediting).


    Comment by Tina — April 21, 2016 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

  7. […] a few weeks. You might also like to read An American Editor’s blog (and the comments) on Eight Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid (Parts I and II), and have a look at the SfEP’s suggested minimum rates, although I think […]


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  8. […] month, Rich Adin wrote about the value of the editing profession—specifically in the context of how much editors should get paid.[1] He gives eight reasons in two […]


    Pingback by A Proposal for the Uniform Certification of Copyeditors - Karin Cather Editorial Services LLC — May 13, 2016 @ 12:31 am | Reply

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