An American Editor

January 31, 2018

The Business of Editing: The Line in the Sand

Richard Adin, An American Editor

As I have gotten older, I have found that things in life have reversed, by which I mean that things that once irritated me no longer irritate me and things that didn’t irritate me now do irritate me. Yet there are a couple of things that irritated me when I began my editing career that continue to irritate me today, although today’s irritation level is more strident.

One example of a continuing irritation we have already discussed on An American Editor — the question that both inexperienced and experienced editors never seem to get tired of asking, even though they have been told hundreds, if not thousands, of times that there is no such thing: What is the going rate? (For that discussion, see A Continuing Frustration — The “Going Rate”.) Today’s irritant is the fast-schedule-but-low-pay project offer, which also has been previously discussed on AAE in, for example, Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations, Business of Editing: Workdays & Schedules, and The Business of Editing: The Standard Editing Workday & Workweek.

What brings this back to the forefront is that this month I have already declined four offered projects that combined amounted to 11,000 manuscript pages (which, of course, raises another issue, what constitutes a manuscript page, a topic previously visited on AAE; see, e.g., The Business of Editing: A Page Is a Page — Or Is It? and The Business of Editing: How Many Pages an Hour Do You Edit?). I declined the projects because I am already under contract to edit two books by the end of April that combined run a bit more than 19,000 manuscript pages.

I would have declined the four offered projects even if I were twiddling my thumbs and staring at an empty work basket because the pay rates were abysmal and the schedules Orwellian.

Consider just one of the projects. The client’s estimate was that the number of manuscript pages was 2,500. Based on past experience with this client, I know that the true number of pages (by “true,” I mean as calculated using my formula, not their formula) would raise that number by at least 25% and more likely closer to 35%. The size is fine; in fact, it is my preferred project size — bigger is better — since I do not like to tackle small projects (less than 1,000 manuscript pages), even though I occasionally will (most of the projects I take on run 1,500+ manuscript pages and many run 7,500 to 15,000 manuscript pages).

The client’s schedule was Orwellian: two weeks to complete copyediting. The schedule was matched by the abysmal rate offered: $2.60 per manuscript page. And, according to the client, the manuscript required heavy editing, which in the client’s parlance meant none of the authors’ primary language was English. (The subject matter was medical.)

Unlike some editors who have imaginary lines that they draw and claim they will not (but always do) cross, my lines are like those of the Great Wall — in stone, permanent, immovable, and I will not cross them. I told the client that I was declining the project because the schedule was Orwellian and the pay abysmal. For me to take on the project, the shortest possible schedule would be based on editing 400 manuscript pages per week with the count done using my formula and a rate of $15 per page. The more reasonable the schedule, the lower my per-page rate would become until we hit my absolute minimum, which was still higher than their offered rate.

My two uncrossable lines are these:

  1. The schedule must be doable in the real world, not a fantasy world.
  2. The compensation rate must correlate with both the schedule and the expected editing difficulties (i.e., does the client rate this as a light, medium, or heavy edit and what do those terms mean in the client’s parlance).

I know how fast I can edit because for 34 years, I have mostly edited manuscripts from the same subject area and I have kept careful records. In addition, I have created tools, like my EditTools macros, and use tools created by others, like Jack Lyon’s Editor’s Toolkit Plus, that are specially designed to make my work more accurate, efficient, and speedy.

I know how much I need to charge for my editing work because I have calculated my required effective hourly rate (also discussed in prior AAE essays in detail; see the series Business of Editing: What to Charge) and I know how much I want to charge for my work so  I make a profit, not just break even. And I know how much of a premium I require to be willing to work longer hours than my standard workday and workweek (see The Business of Editing: The Standard Editing Workday & Workweek for a discussion of work time).

The point is that if I cross those lines I have drawn, I hurt myself. Why would I ever want to hurt myself? In the olden days, before I knew better and before anyone with experience set me on the correct path, I thought if I accepted a project that was on a tight schedule with low pay, it would get me an in at the company, get me more work, and give me a chance to show how good an editor I am, with the result being that the company would offer me better-paying projects to keep me as part of their editorial stable. It didn’t take long for me to learn that the only fool in that scenario was me.

Sure, I got more work offers, but never at a better rate nor on a better schedule. As one project manager told me, I had already demonstrated I could handle the schedule and was willing to work for the offered rate, so that is all I would ever get.

I drew my lines and I never cross them.

I know that some of you are shaking your head and saying that you can’t afford to do that. I did the same until I realized I was always behind and never moving ahead — I was enriching my “clients” at my expense. Once I took my stand, I found that I was getting better projects and better pay — not starting the next day, but starting in the not very distant future.

Successful editors are successful businesspersons, too. Successful businesspersons do not do things that benefit others at their expense. They draw lines that they do not ever cross. I have drawn mine; are you ready to draw yours?



  1. Great post as always, Richard. Last year I learned the hard way that when I set boundaries it is better for me and better for my clients, as I am making it clear to all parties what I will accept and what I will not.


    Comment by malinidevadas — January 31, 2018 @ 5:28 am | Reply

  2. “In the olden days, before I knew better and before anyone with experience set me on the correct path, I thought if I accepted a project that was on a tight schedule with low pay, it would get me an in at the company, get me more work, and give me a chance to show how good an editor I am, with the result being that the company would offer me better-paying projects to keep me as part of their editorial stable. It didn’t take long for me to learn that the only fool in that scenario was me.”

    I learned that lesson the hard way and began drawing lines in the sand. Unfortunately, the consequent improvement in quality of work opportunities hasn’t come along yet. They pop up now and then, but in the main the pressure continues to be downward on rates and shorter on turnaround expectations. It might be a factor of the niche I’m in (lots of indie novelists, and publishers tightening the belt). My best clients are late middle age or retired, with or having concluded successful careers. They tend to have disposable income and understand the concept of professional wage.


    Comment by Carolyn — January 31, 2018 @ 6:10 am | Reply

  3. Spot on, Richard, as usual. I already had my boundaries in place as I went independent three years ago. I’ve been doing top-notch work in my field for 25 years and have the portfolio—and big names—to show for it. But setting realistic rates and schedules are only part of establishing a solid business.
    I’ve been around the block and can quickly sense when a prospective client is in the infernal CFH realm—those who are overly-demanding, not sure what they really want, and are disruptive at any time of day. I stopped salivating at those always-pie-in-the-sky gigs a L-O-N-G time ago.
    The method by which effective, unambiguous, two-way communications will occur is very important. I don’t perform at my best when receiving a call from someone who is in a noisy environment (perhaps walking down a city street), relaying instructions via a poor cell phone connection. And if the caller retains any portion of a Minsk accent and is a overly rapid speaker, that compounds my difficulty in understanding them.
    Setting expectations goes hand-in-hand with effective communications—especially for those prospects who know little about the production steps our work entails. For example, one (former) client—an engineering VP mostly unfamiliar with what we do—never specified how he expected his company’s updated (and mostly rewritten) hardware user manual to be delivered. When I sent him a draft (assuming he’d review it onscreen), there was silence for well over a week while I awaited a response.
    Finally I reached out to him, only to learn that he had printed it for review. But his printer differed from the internal printer configuration of my draft, the resulting font substitution and repagination making it appear to him as if I’d set loose a gang of monkeys to work his project. He was stewing in silence, completely oblivious as to what possibly could have resulted in such a mess. I quickly got him a PDF, but by then he had already made his evaluation regarding any additional work coming my way.


    Comment by Chris Morton — January 31, 2018 @ 7:22 am | Reply

  4. Well, this is timely. I was recently asked to create a 60-page magazine, through a combination of writing original essays and editing/trimming down dense scientific reports, all in a magical schedule of less than three weeks. And yes, you guessed it, the pay was disastrous. I turned it down, to the great surprise of the organization offering the gig. I feel vindicated after reading your essay. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Ann Williams — January 31, 2018 @ 9:21 am | Reply

  5. Oh, yes, those magical schedules. I often wish for a magic wand!


    Comment by Ruth Thaler-Carter — January 31, 2018 @ 10:40 am | Reply

  6. I think the issue for many people is that some money is better than no money, which is why they may accept projects for less-than-substantial pay. What can you do to pay the bills while waiting for those big projects to appear? In my case, I have other sources of income unrelated to editing. Unfortunately, that leaves little time or energy to market intensely for better editing gigs. It’s a catch-22.


    Comment by Carla Lomax — February 7, 2018 @ 11:22 am | Reply

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