When editors speak of how to charge for a project, they are referring to one of these three methods: by the page, by the project, or by the hour. Although editors speak in these terms (page, project, hour), the truth is that every calculation comes down to the page.
Editing is based on the page
Regardless of an editor’s method of calculating a fee, a fundamental question that every one of them must answer — consciously or subconsciously — is this: How many pages can I edit per hour in a project like the one proffered? The number of pages you can edit in an hour sets the basis for your rate and establishes your profitability. (I am guessing that your client does not have an unlimited editing budget; in 33 years of editing I have yet to be told, “My editing budget is unlimited, so take as long as you need.”) Thus the question: What is a page?
Even if you charge by the hour, you are assuming that you can edit a certain number of pages per hour. You might assume, when estimating a project, that you can edit 10 pages an hour and price the project accordingly, but if you soon discover you can only edit two pages an hour, you are likely to find that you are losing your shirt on the project. (It is to “prevent” this scenario from happening that editors claim they charge by the hour. It is the rare client, however, who will pay you for an unlimited number of hours, even if you explain the project’s difficulties. Charging by the hour often does not prevent the described scenario. In my experience, it is smarter to charge by the page or project, and when you are enmeshed in a money-losing project, you should figure out how to make it and subsequent similar projects profitable.)
Pages are the basis not only for the fee but also for the schedule. Editors want to know a “page count,” even if they are charging by the hour, so that they can calculate how much time a project will take — a critical consideration for scheduling purposes. That brings us full circle to the assumption that the editor can edit x pages per hour.
Pages are the foundation of editing.
What is a page?
Defining a page is critical to editor–client communication. Experienced editors know that; less-experienced editors soon learn it. Yet rarely is there a true discussion of what constitutes a page. Defining a page is also critical to an editor’s profitability. The defined page forms the foundation on which many further decisions, such as what to charge, are based.
When people in the editing business ask how a page is defined, they usually ask the question obliquely — What should I charge? How should I calculate what to charge? — instead of directly: What constitutes a page and why? A common response to the charge question is to ask how long the manuscript is, with the expectation that the response will be x words. No one questions whether counting words is the best method for calculating length. (The most common response is simply to toss out a number such as $25/hour, citing some survey as authority — without anyone ever wondering about or questioning the legitimacy of the survey — or $1/page, without any discussion of what constitutes a page or of the legitimacy or basis of the stated per-page price. The most financially successful editors have calculated their required effective hourly rate and have based their pricing on that, not on what colleagues claim is “standard” pricing, or on what some very unscientific survey claims is “standard.” [For information on calculating your required effective hourly rate, see the series Business of Editing: What to Charge. Some other essays on pricing are So, How Much Am I Worth?, The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It, and Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts.])
When the discussion does get to the question of calculating a page, the most common response is 250 words = 1 page.
This equivalency has been around for decades, and its continued legitimacy is based on that longevity. The equivalency came about in the days of typewriters. Editing was done on paper, and manuscripts were required (unless, of course, the author ignored the requirements, as authors so often do today) to be single-sided, double-spaced, with one-inch margins. The typewriter font was universally Courier 12-point, a monospaced font that ensured that all spacing between words and characters was uniform. Unlike today’s word-processing programs, authors couldn’t create all the little variations that currently haunt manuscripts and editors (such as adjusting kerning to squeeze more words on a line, or using multiple font sizes to “format” the manuscript). Most manuscripts were straight text as far as the editor was concerned. (There was often a separate editor who dealt with figures and tables.) So, for decades 250 words = 1 page was a good equivalency.
Personal computers and word-processing software began taking over in the 1980s, and things likewise began to change for editors. A job that was once divided among specialists became a unitary job to be done by one editor. Where previously a typesetter would clean up files, that task became the editor’s job. Everything changed except the equivalency. Authors tried “typesetting” their manuscripts so that editors and publishers would “know” what the author wanted the text to look like. And editorial headaches became more frequent and more enduring.
Even as the workload increased and the pay stagnated, the equivalency carried on. It is still a living, breathing thing — just ask on any editors’ forum what constitutes a page and their answers will predominantly be 250 words = 1 page.
It does and it doesn’t
Let’s begin with this: Regardless of what the formula is, the equivalency is arbitrary. It isn’t, today, scientifically based. It is, however, a method to increase or decrease the amount a client pays an editor.
Consider this example: According to Word, the chapter before you, as submitted by the author, is 118 manuscript pages, has 26,967 words, 161,167 characters without spaces, and 187,327 characters with spaces. Few clients or editors will accept the 118 manuscript pages as the chapter size. After all, who knows, for example, what spacing and font sizes are used throughout the chapter? And either (and both) of those can affect true count. Using the standard equivalency, this chapter is 108 manuscript pages. Most editors would go no further. But suppose the page count were based on 1600 characters with spaces? The page count is now 118 (rounding fractional page results [117.08] up); and if it were based on 1600 characters without spaces, it would be 101 manuscript pages.
Note that the number (250 words, 1600 characters) used is, today, somewhat arbitrary. The 250 words formula has historical precedent, but not necessarily modern-day relevancy. It is not unusual to find publisher and packager clients, for example, who define 1 page as 300 words or 1800 characters without spaces. There is no magical method for determining the number. The key to this discussion and to the equivalency is to determine the factors, including profitability, that you consider in deciding what should constitute a page for your particular type of work. And then you should select a number — and method of counting — that will represent those factors and that you can articulate and defend to the client as best corresponding to the intricacies of the manuscript.
There are two noteworthy points. First, how a page is defined affects the page count. Second, the method used counts only the text items that Microsoft Word can count; for example, it does not include the 22 graphic images that accompany the chapter, nor does it take into account the difficulty of the edit (the light vs. medium vs. heavy concept), and it doesn’t include in the count all the formatting and unformatting tasks the editor is expected to perform.
And another problem is…
Another problem with the word count method — and a major problem for me because of the type of books I generally edit — is that Microsoft Word counts words such as N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide as being the same as pain; that is, Word counts N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide as one word, just as it counts pain as one word. But the two are not, wordwise, equivalent — at least not to my thinking. A character count, however, treats N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide (29 characters) and pain (4 characters) equivalently — that is, 1 character = 1 character.
If I were editing a text-only novel, the 250 words = 1 page equivalency might work fine. From my perspective, everything would balance out; the fact that the average English word is five characters would probably offer a fair equivalency. But when a manuscript is more complex and the tasks are more involved (e.g., the chapter has 600 references that need to be formatted and checked; reference callouts need to be changed from inline to superscript; dozens of compounds have to be checked against The Merck Index), then the equivalency falters in its purpose and a different formulation of the equivalent of one manuscript page has to be devised.
(It is worth noting that many editors will respond that these factors and problems should be, and are, addressed by the rate rather than the count. That works well is your clients are amenable to paying a high rate; my experience has been that it is significantly more difficult to get a client to pay a higher rate than to get the client to accept a method of counting pages that differs from the standard equivalency. It is also important to understand that not all factors are equal and that the weight to be given a particular factor can vary from manuscript to manuscript. Finally, it is easier to set a variety of rates when an editor’s clientele are individual authors rather than publishers and packagers. Publishers and packagers expect a long-term many-project relationship and a single rate and method of calculating a page for all projects without regard for complexity or other factors.)
Don’t get me wrong. If you are editing chemistry textbooks, have investigated page equivalencies, and are satisfied with the “standard” equivalency formulation, use it. The key is that you have considered whether the “standard” equivalency sufficiently accounts for the types of problems you encounter.
There is no single, set equivalency that works well in all situations. In my editing, I deal with words of the N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide type and with lots of references and figures. Consequently, a character-based formula works best for me. This I have documented many times over the years. I have also learned that I can ignore graphic images when doing my count because the formula I use is sufficient to account for them; no additional assessment or count is needed. I also know, from experience, that using a character count gives me a more accurate idea of how many pages I can edit in an hour than a word count does.
The bottom line is…
Editors need to act like good businesspeople. They must evaluate how best to calculate a page equivalency for their type of work. Editors should not automatically assume that the “standard” equivalency is the fairest option for them. When determining the equivalency they’ll use, they need to keep in mind all the variables that are missing from Word’s count, and also all the tasks they will be expected to perform in addition to content editing.
Richard Adin, An American Editor