An American Editor

July 17, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: Killing Me Softly

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on July 25, 2012.)

I recently reviewed the various groups I am a member of on LinkedIn and was astounded to find a U.S.-based editor soliciting editing work and offering to do that work for $1 per page in all genres. Some further searching led me to discover that this person was not alone in her/his pricing.

What astounds me is less that someone is offering to do editorial work for such a low fee but that people actually believe that is a fair price to pay for professional editing. I recently spoke with an author whose ebooks are badly edited — yes, edited is the correct word — who told me that he/she had paid a professional editor $200 to edit the novel in question and so was surprised at all the errors the novel contained.

Recently, I wrote about the publisher who wants copyediting but calls it proofreading in an attempt to pay a lower price (see The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting). In my own business, I have been under pressure to reduce my fee or see the work offshored.

I am being killed softly. (And for those of you who enjoy a musical interlude, here is Roberta Flack singing Killing Me Softly!)

Unfortunately, so is my profession for the past quarter century being killed softly.

I write “being killed softly” because that is exactly what is happening. There are no trumpets blaring; clients aren’t shouting and ordering me to work for starvation wages. Instead, what they are doing is saying that they can get the services I provide for significantly less money because the competition is so keen, driving downward pricing.

There is no discussion about whether the services clients get for less money are valuable services. The base assumption is that any editor will do and any editor will do a competent, quality job. Alas, there is little to disprove the assumption in the absence of postediting proofreading, but that work is being driven by the same dynamic and so clients set a mouse to catch a mouse, rather than a cat to catch a mouse. If the proofreader’s skills match the skills of the editor, little by way of error will be caught. We see this everyday when we pick up a book and discover errors that should have been caught by a professional editor and/or proofreader.

When passing out the blame for this situation, we can look elsewhere — to the international conglomerate bean counters, to the Internet that has brought globalization to the editing profession, to the death of locally owned publishing companies that count quality higher than cost — or we can look to ourselves — to our insistence on being wholly independent and our resistance to banding together to form a strong lobbying group, to our willingness to provide stellar service for suboptimal wages, to the ease with which we permit entrance to a skilled profession. Looking at ourselves is where we should look.

Individually, we may strike gnat-like blows against this professional decline, but these will continue to prove of little avail. The profession of editing used to be a highly respected profession. It always was an underpaying profession, but it was a prestigious profession. All that has changed in recent decades. Our bohemian attitude towards our profession has worked to hurry its decline. It is now one of those work-at-home-and-earn-big-bucks professions that draws anyone in need of supplementary income.

It has become this way because we have let it become so.

I wondered if anyone was going to challenge the $1/page person, but no one did. There was no challenge of the price or of skills or of services. The idea that at this price level superior services can be provided is rapidly becoming the norm. That a good editor can often only edit five or six pages an hour — and in many instances even fewer pages an hour — does not seem to be a concern to either clients or to the editors advertising inexpensive services.

It is increasingly difficult to compete for business in the editorial marketplace. There are still pockets of clients who pay reasonable fees, but I expect those pockets to diminish and eventually disappear, and to do so in the not-too-distant future. Those of us with specialty skills are beginning to see the encroachment of downward pricing pressure.

What I find most interesting is that so many people do not even notice poor editing. There is a cadre of people who care about precision communication, but that cadre grows smaller with each passing year. A rigorous language education is now passé. The result is that there are fewer individuals who can recognize good editing from bad/no editing, and even fewer who care, being more concerned with cost.

I have no surefire solution to the problem. My hope is that some day someone in charge will see the light and decide that quality is at least of equal importance to cost control and recognize that it is not possible for an editor to provide a quality job at $1/page. Unfortunately, I do not see that day arriving any time soon.

What solutions do you propose?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 12, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: Thinking About Invoices

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on January 23, 2013.)

Have you given much thought to your invoice form and what it says about you?

It seems like an odd question, but it really is a basic business question. The ramifications of how your invoice presents you are several, not the least of which is how you are viewed by clients when it comes to payment terms.

Some companies require freelancers to fill out and sign an “invoice” form. They do this for several reasons. First, it ensures that the information the company needs to pay the freelancer is all there and easily accessible. Second, it acts as reinforcement for the idea that the invoicer really is a freelancer and not an employee in disguise in contravention of IRS rules. Third, and perhaps most importantly to a freelancer, it acts as a way to classify a freelancer and thus apply payment terms.

Have you ever noticed that companies often ignore your payment terms: Your invoice says payable on receipt but you are paid in 30 or 45 days. Your invoice says payable in 30 days yet payment may take 60 days. Good luck trying to impose a penalty for late payment. In the battle of wills between publisher and freelancer, it is the publisher who holds all the cards, except if the publisher doesn’t pay at all.

(I have always found it interesting that a publisher feels free to ignore the payment terms and to ignore any late charges on invoices that a freelancer submits, but should the freelancer buy a book from the publisher and not pay on time, the publisher will hound the freelancer to death for both payment and any publisher-imposed late fees.)

What brings this to mind were recent discussions I had with colleagues who were complaining about how a publisher unilaterally extended the time to pay their invoices, yet that same publisher continues to pay me within the 15-day payment term my invoices set.

The primary reason for this difference in treatment is how the publisher views my business. I am viewed as business vendor, not as a freelancer.

This difference in view extends not just to how I am paid, but also to how clients treat me. For example, one client who insists that freelancers complete a publisher-provided invoice form and sign it, accepts my invoices as I print them and without my signature.

Another publisher sends files in which the figure and table callouts are highlighted and instructs freelancers to not delete the highlighting — but that does not apply to me. (In this instance, it doesn’t apply for at least two reasons. First, the publisher doesn’t view me the same as it views other freelancers. Second, I spent some time explaining to the publisher how I rely on EditTools while editing to increase consistency and accuracy and sent a sample file showing the highlighting EditTools inserts in action. I then explained that I could either leave all the highlighting or remove all the highlighting, their choice. The publisher chose removal. What is important is that the publisher did not immediately dismiss me by telling me to do it the publisher’s way or find work elsewhere. Instead, the publisher held a business-to-business discussion with me and saw and understood the value in the way I work.)

My point is that I have spent many years cultivating the view that I am a business, not a freelancer. Too many “clients” (both actual and prospective) view freelance editors as something other than a “real” business. I used to hear clients refer to freelance editors as part-timers and as people for whom this is a “vacation income.” I don’t hear that anymore but the attitude hasn’t changed.

Colleagues have told me that they get calls from clients who see no reason why the freelancer can’t do a job on a rush basis over the weekend at the same price as they would do it leisurely during the business week. Even when they try to explain that they are a business and that they can’t just drop everything, especially without additional compensation, the message doesn’t get through.

The solution to the problem is complex, not simple, but it begins with how we present ourselves and how we insist on being perceived. To my mind, it begins — but does not end — with the invoice. When your invoice asks that checks be made payable to Jane Doe and includes your Social Security number, you are feeding the image that this is a casual secondary source of income for you. Yes, I know and you know, and maybe even the inhouse editor knows this isn’t true, but accounts payable and the company as a company doesn’t see it that way.

If the invoice instead gives a business name, a name that makes it clear that the check will require depositing into a business checking account, and an employer identification number rather than a Social Security number, that anonymous accounts payable clerk is likely to begin to view you differently.

I think it also matters how the invoice is presented. I know that when I receive an invoice from someone that is just a Word or Excel document I think “not very professional,” especially if everything is in a bland Times New Roman font. Your invoice should be a “designed” form into which you enter data, and printed in PDF if sent electronically (color is not needed and even best avoided; it is layout that matters). I understand that the information will be the same, but information is not what we are talking about — presentation is important in establishing credentials as a business.

We’ve had these types of discussion before. For years I noted that to be treated as a business you must act like a business. Years ago, that began with the way you answered your telephone, which either lent credence to your being a business or to your editing being “vacation income.” Today, when so little is done by telephone, it is important that the material that a client sees conveys the image of a business. The image begins, I think, with the most important item we send a client — the invoice for our work (perhaps equally important are your e-mail address and e-mail signature: not having your own business name domain sends the wrong message, which is a discussion for another day).

Remember that the people who make the decision on how fast you will be paid are not the people who evaluate your editing skill. They are far removed from the editing process and make decisions about you based on things they see that are unrelated to your editing skills. Consequently, you need to create a professional image on paper, beginning — but not ending — with your invoice.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 10, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: Best Price “Bids”

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on October 10, 2012.)

I was recently asked to give my best price on a possibly large project. My client was soliciting my bid for my editorial services on a project coming from one of its clients. In other words, I would not be directly working for the ultimate client.

It was an STM (Science, Technology, Math) project and supposedly would run 3,000 to 4,000 manuscript pages a month. My client wanted a price for both the original editing and for a review of the editing. A lot of detail was missing, so before I would give a price, I asked some questions.

Over my 29 years of editing, I have been asked many times to bid against myself with the client promising a large amount of work. What I learned was that there is a difference between what is promised/proposed in terms of quantity and what actually is delivered, which means that in the past, I lowered my price expecting lots of work only to do much less work than “promised” for that lower price. Consequently, I no longer simply bid against myself; I attach conditions.

Make no mistake. When you are asked to give a price in such a situation, you are being asked to bid against yourself (as well as against others). You should not bid against yourself without assurances that the work will really materialize in the quantities and on the schedule given in the solicitation.

The first question I ask is how many pages are expected for the entire project. To me, it makes a difference if I am pricing for 3,000 pages or 18,000 pages of manuscript. The closer the count is to 3,000, the less inclined I am to lower my price because 3,000 to 5,000 manuscript pages is a normal-size project for me. Conversely, the closer it is to 18,000 or more manuscript pages, the more inclined I am to discount my price.

But then I ask what often turns out to be the stickler question: What is the minimum guaranteed manuscript page count? That is, what is the minimum amount of pages for which I will be paid regardless of whether the client sends me that amount of pages. The answer to this question tells me a lot of things about a project.

First, it tells me whether the original request’s numbers are puffery or real. If the original request spoke of 3,000 pages a month for 6 months but the minimum guarantee is just 3,000 pages, it is likely that the project is no more than 6,000 pages. The more the client is willing to guarantee, the more likely it is that the project is as claimed.

Second, it tells me whether the client simply is trying to get me to commit to a lower price. This is a major problem. Even if the project turns out as advertised, I run the risk of establishing a price that the client will expect for all future projects, regardless of size. This is no different from consumer expectations in a host of areas, but that doesn’t mean it is a desirable result when it comes to my pricing.

Third, it tells me I need to be wary and make sure that I know a lot more about the project than I currently do before pricing it. The very worst thing I can do when being asked to bid is to not know as much as I can about the project and the likelihood of it really being as described before I make a bid. Once I make my bid, I am stuck, and I see value to having been the culprit who sticks me with what turns out to be an untenable bid.

Of major concern is how difficult the editing will be. The more difficult the editing, the less inclined I am to lower my price. Consequently, I need to to see several samples, something I do not ordinarily ask for.

In the instant case, one of the things that was supplied to me were a couple of samples showing the type of editing expected and a copy of the ultimate client’s guidelines for editors. When I saw the guidelines, I knew there would be trouble. The guidelines was a list of more than 60 items that the editor was expected to do — many of which are not normally done by a copyeditor, and certainly not done without an extra fee.

Editing is a labor-intensive business, which complicates the matter of bidding. How little are my services really worth? If I ask my clients, they don’t respond with a value of my services; rather, they respond that they can hire an editor for $x less than they pay me. There is never a discussion about quality or speed or knowledge; the only discussion is about market availability of editors who will work for less than I charge, and it is this single dynamic that has brought about the request for bidding for editorial services.

Sometimes there is little that one can do except participate in the auction. When I am in such a position, as with this recent request, I condition my bid on three things: (a) there has to be a minimum guaranteed number of manuscript pages within a certain period of time for which I will be paid regardless; (b) the quoted price is the price only for this project and not transferable to any other project; and (c) after x number of manuscript pages have been edited, the bid price will be revisited to be certain that there were no “hidden” complications that should have been included in the solicitation or that there are no problems that arise that are out of my control that warrant a higher price than the bid price.

A major problem of bidding against oneself is that it is difficult to protect oneself and still get the job. But experience has taught me to be suspicious of jobs that have no flexibility and I would prefer to not get the work than to get work on which I cannot make any money.

Which raises another matter about bidding. When I bid on a project, I have a firm grasp of exactly what services I am willing to perform for what price. Consequently, when I am asked to bid on a project that wants more services, I start my evaluation from the price point that I would normally charge for providing the requested services. It is a bad idea to have a single price for copyediting because that doesn’t consider the various services that can be provided, even if 99% of the time that single price is the price you charge or bid.

In this case, I bid much higher than my normal copyediting rate, but lower than the rate I would normally charge for editing performed with all of the required services. As I know who the ultimate client is, I do not expect to “win” this bid based on the price and conditions I submitted. I assure you, I will not shed a single tear should my bid be rejected.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 5, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It

(The following essay was originally published on
An American Editor on February 19, 2014.)

In a previous essay, The Business of Editing: Worth in the Decision-Making Process, I wondered why editors and those who use our services attribute so little worth to the value of what professional editors do. As I noted, we are a large part of our problem because we accept — and even solicit — work at a price that cannot provide a sustainable lifestyle.

What brings this to my immediate attention, in addition to the experience I related in that essay, are the constant notes I see on various forums, including the “professional” LinkedIn forums, from “professional” editors who are willing to edit a manuscript for $10 or less an hour — and when questioned about the economics of such a fee, they vigorously defend it.

Let’s start with some data (all from “Opening Remarks,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, February 17-23, 2014, pp. 10-13):

  • Minimum wage for tennis ball boy in Chennai, India: 37¢
  • Price of a Starbucks Frappucino in New York City: $5.93
  • One-tenth of 1% of hourly pay of JP-Morgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon (based on 60 hours/week, 50 weeks/year): $6.66
  • Poverty wage for a single parent with 2 children: $9.06
  • Average price of 3 lbs ground chuck beef: $10.77
  • Prevailing hourly wage for NYC laundry-counter attendants: $11.62
  • Median hourly wage in Mississippi: $13.37
  • Hourly wage paid by Henry Ford to auto workers in 1913 adjusted for inflation: $14.71
  • What the hourly minimum wage would be if it had kept pace with productivity growth: $16.93
  • Hourly wage required to afford a 1-bedroom apartment in San Diego: $20.24
  • Living wage for single parent with 2 children in Pascagoula, Mississippi: $22.27/hour
  • Living wage for single parent with 2 children in San Francisco: $29.66/hour
  • Living wage for single parent with 3 children in Shakopee, Minnesota: $33.28/hour
  • Adjusted for inflation, Americans’ real incomes have fallen 8% since the start of 2000
  • U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty threshold: $18,123/year

I am a firm believer that each of us needs to set our own rate. However, to be able to intelligently set my rate, I need to know precisely how much my effective hourly rate must be for me to earn a sustainable livelihood.

(By sustainable livelihood, I mean an income that lets me live comfortably and not worry about meeting bills or whether I can afford to buy a book or go to restaurant or buy a toy for my grandchildren. For a discussion of how to determine what to charge, see my five-part series, “Business of Editing: What to Charge.” This link will take you to Part V where you can find the links to the other four articles. The articles should be read in order.)

So, when I say $10 an hour for editing is not sustainable, I base that on an analysis of fact. Let’s look at the $10 per hour rate. (The same analysis method applies regardless of your country.)

In the United States, $10 an hour equals a yearly income of $20,800 if you work 52 weeks in the year and every week you can bill and collect $10 an hour for 40 hours. If you can only work 30 hours a week for 20 weeks, 40 hours a week for 25 weeks, and 10 hours a week for the remaining 7 weeks, you will earn a maximum of $16,700. Similarly, even if you can earn $10 an hour for 40 hours and do so for 40 weeks of the year, your gross income will be $16,000.

Remember that these figures are gross income; let’s work from the best scenario, $20,800 per year. In the United States, you must pay the self-employment tax. This is the one tax that cannot be avoided. It amounts to 13.5% of earnings, which on $20,800 equals $2,808. Your yearly income has just been reduced from $20,800 to $17,992 — and nothing has been paid for except the unavoidable self-employment tax which is your contribution to Social Security and Medicare.

To do business these days, an Internet connection is required. I suspect it is possible, but I do not know anyone who pays less than $35 a month for the Internet ($420 per year). I also do not know any editor who does not have telephone service, usually at least cell phone service and often both cell and landline service, which runs about $50 a month ($600 per year).

I won’t add a charge for computer hardware and software; let’s assume that was bought and paid for last year. We now are at a “net” income level of $16,972. We haven’t yet paid for rent, food, gasoline, health care, television, clothing, heat and electric, and the like. In my area, the average rent for a studio apartment runs $972 per month. Assuming you can get one of the least-expensive studio apartments available and that it includes heat and electric, the cost would be $700 per month ($8,400 per year), which drops our available income for other necessities, like food and healthcare, to $8,572.

Food is always difficult, but I think $100 per week on average is probably reasonable, which means $5,200 per year, leaving us with $3,372. Do we really need to go on?

Can you scrape by on $10 an hour? Sure. People live on even less. But the biggest fallacy in this analysis is the base assumption: As an editor, you will have 40 hours of paying and collectible work every week for 52 weeks — that is, no downtime. It does happen, but the usual scenario is that an editor ends the year having worked fewer than an average of 40 hours per week and fewer than 52 weeks during the year.

Yet the expenses don’t fluctuate. The rent will remain the same whether you work 52 weeks or 32 weeks, 40 hours or 20 hours. Similarly, the telephone and Internet bills will likely remain the same. The bottom line is that $10 an hour is only doable under ideal conditions and even then is barely doable.

The $10/hour wage has multiple effects in addition to not being a “living” wage. The more often editors say they will work for that amount, the more difficult it is to rise from it. If a goodly number of editors are willing to work for that price, then the market price is being set.

I have discussed the hourly number with a number of clients. I have asked them about the basis for the hourly rate they pay and when it was last raised. Several have told me that they have not raised the hourly rate since the early 1990s. The reason is that there is a flood of editors willing to do the editing for a price that equals or is less than their hourly rate, so why raise the rate — the market is not demanding that the rate be raised and because of industry consolidation, editorial quality is not high on the list of corporate objectives.

Consequently, we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to rate setting. I know that when people ask on the lists about what to charge there is almost always a response that points to a published survey that quotes a higher-than-$10-per-hour rate, but then the flood of “I’ll edit for less” messages begins. There isn’t an easy solution to the free market problem except for this: Before setting your rate and agreeing to work for a rate, know what rate you need. I think those who low-ball rates would be less likely to do so if they really analyzed their needs.

The only other point I constantly raise with clients and potential clients is that the truly professional editor cannot and will not edit a manuscript for a nonsustainable rate.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 8, 2017

The Business of Editing: The AAE Copyediting Roadmap XII

In the previous 11 essays in The Business of Editing: The AAE Copyediting Roadmap series, I discussed how I approach a manuscript for editing. If you have read the series, you will have noted the common denominator of the macros I use in my approach to editing: they increase efficiency and accuracy, and thus increase my profitability, which is the subject of this final essay in the series.

We live and work in an increasingly competitive editorial world. Editors who began their careers in one specialty are expanding into other fields. Nonfiction editors are willing to take on fiction and vice versa. There are multiple reasons for that expansion, not least of which is that there are more people calling themselves editors and who are willing to work for a low price. The problem experienced professional editors face is that clients become used to paying a low rate for editorial work and expect all editors, regardless of expertise or experience, to work for that same low rate that unprofessional, inexperienced editors are willing to work.

Some editors are in a position to turn away work that is priced lower than they want to accept, but most editors are not. Faced with work that pays less than desired, editors need to figure out how to edit more quickly — that is, to be more efficient, more accurate, and more profitable. There are only so many options available. There are, for example, limits to the amount of time that can be spent editing each day without sacrificing accuracy. Besides, increasing the number of hours we work each day or the number of days we work in a week does not increase efficiency, accuracy, or profitability — it simply means that more work gets done because more time is devoted to working. What we really want is to get more work done in less work time.

Macros like those in EditTools do enhance efficiency, accuracy, and profitability because they make repeating tasks that take time to perform and accomplish the task in less time and with greater accuracy. If the editor charges by the project or the page, that saved time and greater accuracy leads to increased profitability.

Editors evaluate editorial aids by a variety of standards but the one “failing” that many editors have in their evaluation process is that they refuse to buy an aid that has many tools only one of which the editor thinks she will use. Consider, for example, Jack Lyon’s Editor’s Toolkit Plus 2014. This collection of macros includes macros that many editors do not use, such as QuarkConverter. I have had editors tell me that they haven’t bought Toolkit Plus because there are so many macros in the collection for which they have no need. When asked whether there are macros included that they think they would use regularly, most editors say yes and point especially to FileCleaner. Yet these same editors do not consider regular use of FileCleaner as sufficient to justify buying Toolkit Plus. (For what it’s worth, my favorite macros in the Toolkit Plus collection are ListFixer and NoteStripper; I almost never use any of the other macros, but I use these two frequently.)

To me, this is faulty thinking: If I think I would use FileCleaner regularly, and if using it would make me more efficient, accurate, and profitable, then I need to buy and use Toolkit Plus. It doesn’t matter how many of the included macros I will never use; all that matters is that there is one macro I will use repeatedly and that that macro will increase my efficiency, accuracy, and profitability.

The key for successful editing in a competitive climate is that editors take steps to be more profitable. In making a buying decision regarding a collection of macros, there are two items to consider: (1) that at least one macro in the collection has “super” value for the editor because it solves a specific problem that would require a lot of time and effort to resolve without the macro, and (2) that the editor can expect to face this type of problem more than once in the editor’s career. For example, for me, ListFixer and NoteStripper are invaluable; I cannot imagine not having these two macros available. I often get manuscripts in which the author has used Word’s autonumbering for a list. When I move the manuscript into the client’s template, the numbering often disappears, which means I now need to compare the original manuscript to the templated version to see what paragraphs should be numbered. That takes time. If I use ListFixer, I can convert the autonumbered lists to fixed-number lists in seconds. The cost of Toolkit Plus is quickly recovered and I have a tool that increases efficiency, accuracy, and profitability — even if I never use any other macro in Toolkit Plus.

The same kind of reasoning applies to EditTools. Although I use most of the macros in EditTools regularly, the most valuable macros in the EditTools collection for my editing are these: Toggle (see The Business of Editing: The AAE Copyediting Roadmap VIII), the complementary pair Insert Query (see The Business of Editing: The AAE Copyediting Roadmap X) and Comment Editor (see The Business of Editing: The AAE Copyediting Roadmap XI and The Business of Editing: Managing Comments with Comment Editor), and Enhanced Search, Count, and Replace (see The Business of Editing: The AAE Copyediting Roadmap IX). These four macros address the core of editing and each is designed to increase efficiency, accuracy, and profitability. Having spoken with other EditTools users, I know that other editors find other macros in the collection to be more valuable in their practice.

The point is that in today’s competitive editorial world, every second counts and editors need to figure out what repetitive tasks they perform while editing that can be made more efficient, accurate, and profitable by using a tool that is available in the marketplace. As I have noted in other essays, editors need to reuse the wheel, not reinvent it each time they face a problem.

With globalization and increased competition, editors need to do what is necessary to increase efficiency, accuracy, and profitability. Editors need to overcome the reluctance to invest in a macro collection that can make their editing more profitable because the collection only has one tool the editors think can help them. As several editors have expressed to me, they bought a collection of macros for a specific macro but once they started experimenting with the macros in the collection, they discovered additional macros that helped increase their efficiency, accuracy, and profitability.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

(Disclosures: (1) I am the creator of EditTools and have a financial interest in wordsnSync’s EditTools. (2) I have no connection with and no financial interest in The Editorium’s Editor’s Toolkit Plus 2014 except as a purchaser and user of the product.)

March 15, 2017

The Business of Editing: A Page Is a Page — Or Is It?

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.

The key

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

February 6, 2017

The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation

(The first part of this essay appears in “The Cusp of a New Book World: The First Day of Creation;” the second part appears in “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Fourth Day of Creation.” This is the final part.)

Donald Trump is late to the game. Reshoring of industry has been happening, albeit quietly, for the past several years. Also late to the game are publishers, but increasingly reshoring is happening in the publishing industry. The problem is that publishing-industry reshoring is not bringing with it either a rise in editorial fees or relief from the packaging industry. If anything, it is making a bad situation worse. It is bringing the low-fee mentality that accompanied offshoring to the home country.

Reshoring in the United States has meant that instead of dealing with packagers located, for example, in India, editors are dealing with packagers in their home countries. Yet professional editors continue to face the same problems as before: low pay, high expectations, being an unwitting scapegoat. Perhaps more importantly, the onshore packagers are not doing a better job of “editing” — the publishers are offering onshore packagers the same editing fee that they were offering the offshore packagers, and the onshore packagers having to pay onshore wages have the same or lower level of editorial quality control as the offshore packagers.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the packager system; there is something inherently wrong with the thinking of publishers as regards the value of editing, with the system of freelance editing, and with packager editorial quality control. These problems are not solvable by simply moving from offshore to onshore; other measures are needed, not least of which is discarding the assumption that high-quality copyediting is available for slave wages.

Publishing is in a simultaneous boom–bust economic cycle. Profit at Penguin Random House in 2015, for example, jumped by more than 50% from its 2014 level to $601 million. Interestingly, print revenue in the publishing industry overall is rising (+4.8%) while ebook revenue is declining (−20%). Gross revenue from print is expected to remain steady through 2020 at $46 billion per year while ebook revenue continues to decline.

The key question (for publishers) is, how do publishers increase profits when revenues remain flat in print and decline in ebooks? This is the question that the Trumpian economic view ignores when it pushes for reshoring. Trumpian economics also ignores the collateral issues that such a question raises, such as, whether it does any good to reshore work that does not pay a living wage. The fallacy of Trumpian economics is in assuming that reshoring is a panacea to all ills, that it is the goal regardless of any collateral issues left unresolved; unfortunately, that flawed view has been presaged by the publishing industry’s reshoring efforts.

My discussions with several publishers indicates that a primary motive for reshoring is the poor quality of the less-visible work (i.e., the editing) as performed offshore — even when the offshore packager has been instructed to use an onshore editor. Consider my example of “tonne” in the second part of this essay and multiply that single problem. According to one publisher I spoke with, the way management insists that a book’s budget be created exacerbates the problems. The budgeting process requires setting the editing budget as if the editor were an offshore editor living in a low-wage country and without consideration of any time or expense required to fix editorial problems as a result of underbudgeting. After setting that editorial budget, the publisher requires the packager to hire an onshore editor but at no more than the budgeted price, which means that the packager has to seek out low-cost editors who are often inexperienced or not well-qualified.

Packagers — both onshore and offshore — try to solve this “problem” by having inhouse “experts” review the editing and make “suggestions” (that are really commands and not suggestions) based on their understanding of the intricacies of the language. This effort occasionally works, but more often it fails because there are subtleties with which a nonnative editor is rarely familiar. So the problem is compounded, everyone is unhappy, and the budget line remains intact because the expense to fix the problems comes from a different budget line. Thus when it comes time to budget for the next book’s editing, the publisher sees that the limited budget worked last time and so repeats the error. An endless loop of error is entered — it becomes the merry-go-round from which there is no getting off.

Although publishers and packagers are the creators of the problem — low pay with high expectations — they have handy partners in editors. No matter how many times I and other editorial bloggers discuss the need for each editor to know what her individual required effective hourly rate (rEHR) is and to be prepared to say no to projects that do not meet that threshold, still few editors have calculated their individual rEHR and they still ask, “What is the going rate?”

In discussions, editors have lamented the offshoring of editorial work and talked about how reshoring would solve so many of the editorial problems that have arisen since the wave of consolidation and offshoring began in the 1990s. Whereas editors were able to make the financial case for using freelancers, they seem unable to make the case for a living wage from offshoring. The underlying premise of offshoring has not changed since the first Indian company made the case for it: Offshoring editorial services is less costly than onshoring because the publisher’s fee expectations are based on the wage scale in place at the packager’s location, not at the location of the person hired to do the job. In the 1990s it was true that offshoring was less costly; in 2017, it is not true — and editors need to demonstrate that it is not true. The place to begin is with knowing your own economic numbers.

Knowing your own numbers is the start but far from the finish. What is needed is an economic study. There are all sorts of data that can be used to help convince publishers of the worth of quality editing. Consider this: According to The Economist, 79% of college-educated U.S. adults read only one print book in 2016. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how many editors were part of that group and how many books, on average, editors bought and read? Such a statistic by itself wouldn’t change anything but if properly packaged could be suasive.

When I first made a pitch to a publisher for a pay increase in the 1980s, I included in the pitch some information about my book reading and purchasing habits. I pointed out that on average I bought three of this particular publisher’s hardcover titles every month. I also included a list of titles that I had yet to buy and read, but which were on my wish list. I explained that my cost of living had risen x%, which meant that I had to allocate more of my budget to necessities and less to pleasures like books. And I demonstrated how the modest increase I sought would enable me to at least maintain my then current book buying and likely enable me to actually increase purchases. In other words, by paying me more the publisher was empowering me to buy more of the publisher’s product.

(For what it is worth, some publishers responded positively to such a pitch and others completely ignored it. When offshoring took hold and assignments no longer came directly from the publisher, the pitch was no longer viable. Packagers didn’t have a consumer product and insulated the publisher from such arguments.)

With reshoring, imagine the power of such a pitch if it is made on behalf of a group. Reshoring in publishing is occurring not primarily because costs can now be lower with onshoring rather than offshoring, but because of editorial quality problems. And while it would be difficult to gain the attention of a specific empowered executive at an international company like Elsevier or Penguin Random House, it is easier to establish a single message and get it out to multiple publishers.

The biggest obstacle to making reshoring be advantageous for freelance editors is the reluctance of freelance editors to abandon the solo, isolated, individual entrepreneurial call that supposedly drove the individual to become a freelance editor. That used to be the way of accountants and doctors and lawyers, among other professionals, but members of those professions are increasingly banding together. In my view, the time has come for editors to begin banding together and for editors to have full knowledge of what is required to make a successful editorial career.

This sixth day of creation can be the first day of a new dawning — or it can be just more of the same. That reshoring has come to publishing is an opportunity not to be missed. Whether editors will grab for that opportunity or let it slip by remains to be seen. But the first step remains the most difficult step: calculating your rEHR, setting that as your baseline, and rejecting work that does not at least meet your baseline.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 1, 2017

The Cusp of a New Book World: The Fourth Day of Creation

(The first part of this essay appears in “The Cusp of a New Book World: The First Day of Creation;” the final part appears in “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation.”)

The world of publishing began its metamorphosis, in nearly all meanings of that word, with the advent of the IBM PS2 computer and its competitors and the creation of Computer Shopper magazine. (Let us settle immediately the Mac versus PC war. In those days, the Apple was building its reputation in the art departments of various institutions; it was not seen as, and Steve Jobs hadn’t really conceived of it as, an editorial workhorse. The world of words belonged to the PC and businesses had to maintain two IT departments: one for words [PC] and one for graphics [Mac]. For the earliest computer-based editors, the PC was the key tool, and that was the computer for which the word-processing programs were written. Nothing more need be said; alternate facts are not permitted.)

I always hated on-paper editing. I’d be reading along and remember that I had earlier read something different. Now I needed to find it and decide which might be correct and which should be queried. And when you spend all day reading, it becomes easy for the mind to “read” what should be there rather than what is there. (Some of this is touched on in my essays, “Bookmarking for Better Editing” and “The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud.”) So who knew how many errors I let pass as the day wore on and I “saw” what should be present but wasn’t. The computer was, to my thinking, salvation.

And so it was. I “transitioned” nearly overnight from doing paper-based editing to refusing any editing work except computer-based. And just as I made the transition, so were the types of authors whose books I was editing. I worked then, as now, primarily in medical and business professional areas, and doctors and businesses had both the money and the desire to leave pen-and-paper behind and move into the computer world. Just as they used computers in their daily work, they used computers to write their books, and I was one of the (at the time) few professional editors skilled with online editing.

The computer was my salvation from paper-based editing, but it also changed my world, because with the rise of computers came the rise of globalization. How easy it was to slip a disk in the mail — and that disk could be sent as easily to San Francisco as to New York City as to London and Berlin or anywhere. And so I realized that my market was no longer U.S.-based publishers; my market was any publisher, anywhere in the world, who wanted an American editor.

But globalization for me also had a backswing. The backswing came with the consolidation of the U.S. publishing industry — long time clients being sold to international conglomerates. For example, Random House, a publisher with a few imprints, ultimately became today’s Random Penguin House, a megapublisher that owns 250 smaller publishers. Elsevier was not even in the U.S. market, yet today has absorbed many of the publishers that were, such as W.B. Saunders and C.V. Mosby. This consolidation led to a philosophical change as shareholder return, rather than family pride, became the dominant requirement.

To increase shareholder return, publishers sought to cut costs. Fewer employees, more work expected from employees, increased computerization, and the rise of the internet gave rise to offshoring and the rise of the Indian packaging industry. So, for years much of the work that freelancers receive comes from packagers, whether based in the United States, in Ireland, in India — it doesn’t matter where — who are competing to keep prices low so work flow is high. And, as we are aware, attempting to maintain some level of quality, although there has been a steady decline in recent years in editorial quality with the lowering of fees. (One major book publisher, for example, will not approve a budget for a book that includes a copyediting fee higher than $1.75 per page for a medical book, yet complains about the quality of the editing.)

The result was (and is) that offshoring turned out to be a temporary panacea. The offshore companies thought they could do better but are discovering that they are doing worse and their clients are slowly, but surely, becoming aware of this. One example: I was asked to edit a book in which the author used “tonne” as in “25 tonnes of grain.” The instruction was to use American spellings. The packager for whom I was editing the book, had my editing “reviewed” by in-house “professional” staff who were, according to the client, “experts in American English” (which made me wonder why they needed me at all). These “experts” told me that I was using incorrect spelling and that it should be “ton,” not “tonne.” I protested but felt that as they were “experts” there should be no need to explain that “tonne” means “metric ton” (~2205 pounds) and “ton” means either “short ton” (2000 pounds) or “long ton” (2240 pounds). After all, don’t experts use dictionaries? Or conversion software? (For excellent conversion software for Windows only, see Master Converter.) Professional editors do not willy-nilly make changes. The client (the packager) insisted that the change be made and so the change was made, with each change accompanied by a comment, “Change from ‘tonne’ to ‘ton’ at the instruction of [packager].”

This example is one of the types of errors that have occurred in editing with the globalization of editorial services and the concurrent rise of packagers and lesser pay for editors. It is also an example of the problem that existed in the paper-based days. Although there is no assigning of fault in the computer-based system, when an error of this type is made, the author complains to the publisher, who complains to the packager, who responds, “We hired the editor you requested we hire and this is their error.” And the result is the same as if it had been marked CE (copyeditor’s error) in flashing neon lights. The editor, being left out of the loop and never having contact with the publisher becomes the unknowing scapegoat.

And it is a prime reason why we are now entering the sixth day of creation — the reshoring of editorial services, which is the subject of the third part of this essay, “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation.”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 30, 2017

The Cusp of a New Book World: The First Day of Creation

The world of business is an ever-changing world. When I began my publishing career, offshoring was not in the business vocabulary — publishers looked for local-market solutions to local-market problems. Of course, helping to maintain that local tether was that most editorial problems and solutions were paper-based — copyediting, for example, was done on a paper printout.

The general course of events went something like this:

  1. The paper manuscript was shipped by the in-house production editor to the freelance editor for copyediting;
  2. After copyediting, the copyeditor shipped the marked-up physical copy to the in-house production editor for review;
  3. After review, the in-house production editor shipped the finalized version of the marked-up manuscript to the typesetter; in some procedures, before shipping to the typesetter for setting into pages, the edited manuscript would be sent to the author for review and approval of the editorial changes. Which fork was taken depended on the publisher and on the author;
  4. The typesetter created a master copy of the final edited version and produced physical page proofs for author review;
  5. The authors received as little as the page proofs or as much as the page proofs, the original unedited manuscript, and the finalized copyedited version of the manuscript to review and make any final adjustments that were needed, especially the addressing of any queries;
  6. The author then returned the manuscript to the in-house production editor who would review the author changes, do any final accepting or rejecting, ensure that all queries had been addressed, and then send the manuscript to the typesetter for creation of a master file for printing.

Not mentioned in the foregoing are the rounds of proofreading done by freelance proofreaders, which also added to shipping costs.

Of course there was some variation in the foregoing procedure, but there were two notable things that did not change regardless of the exact procedure: (a) the process was very labor intensive and thus very expensive and (b) the process incurred a lot of shipping costs — somehow the physical manuscript had to get from person to person in each step.

For some publishers the answer was local-local; that is, if you wanted to be hired as a freelance editor, you had to be able to come to the publisher’s office to pick up the manuscript and return it the same way. In my earliest days, for example, Lippincott’s New York City office would not hire a freelancer who wasn’t a subway ride away from its offices. The problem the publishers faced was that book sales were growing and the way to earn more money was to sell more books, which meant more books had to be published, which meant more editors were needed. The solution was hire more editors but you had to have a labor pool from which to draw, so even companies like Lippincott had to broaden their geographical boundaries.

The other labor-related problem was that even the best editors had weaknesses and even the worst in-house production editors had weaknesses. These weaknesses were minor stumbling blocks in the early years of publishing, but then authors became less “wowed” by editorial expertise and publisher demands and began asserting their ownership of their words. It is important to remember that most books in the very early years were “owned” (i.e., the copyright was in the name of) the publisher. That put publishers at the top of the power chain. There were always authors who retained copyright, but for most authors, giving the publisher the copyright was an acceptable trade for getting published. The tide began changing after World War II but accelerated in the 1970s with the instant megahit authors; ultimately, what started as a gentle wave of change became a tsunami until the moment when calm returned because it became standard for authors to retain copyright.

But during this changeover, which occurred over decades, costs began rising. Where before publishers simply absorbed the costs, now the pressure to increase profits required an allocation of costs between those who caused the costs to be incurred. Thus the assigning of “fault” became more important — the assigning of something as a PE (printer error), AA (author alteration), or CE (copyeditor error) became an important tool in deciding who would be responsible for the cost of correction once the manuscript had been put into master proofs. A certain number of errors and changes were expected but once that number was exceeded, the costs were allocated and the responsible party was expected to “pay.”

The author usually had a “debt” deducted from royalties earned; the copyeditor, if the number was large enough, “paid” by not being hired again; the printer (typesetter or compositor) paid by not being able to bill for the costs incurred to make the fixes necessitated by PEs. Yet this was where the weakness of the system stood out.

We have had discussions before about grammar, copyediting, what is or isn’t error, the “authority” of the “authoritative sources,” and the like. What I consider to grievous editorial error, you may well think is so minor that it isn’t even worth mentioning. Which of us is right? The answer is that we can both be right, we can both be wrong, or one of us can be right and the other wrong — it all depends on the standards to be applied, who is to apply them, and whether the foundation of the standards is recognized universally as strong, weak, or crumbling. This is the discussion we often have as regards the authoritativeness of books like The Chicago Manual of Style and Garner’s Modern English Usage. It is the traditional argument whether prescriptivism or descriptivism should dominate.

And that was the problem of the AA versus CE assignment of fault. More importantly, it was even more so the problem of the world that had but three possibilities: AA, CE, and PE. There was no possibility that the error was an in-house (IH) error, because just as some editors today always respond with “Chicago says…” or “Garner says…” and whatever Chicago or Garner says is inalienable, unalterable, infallible, so it was true of in-house staff. At no point was there a discussion regarding why the CE was not a CE; it was marked a CE and so it was a CE — now and forever.

There was another wrinkle to this process. Quite often the initial designation of CE, AA, or PE was made by the freelance proofreader, who often was a copyeditor who was doing this particular project as a proofreading job rather than as copyediting job. This, of course, meant that what we really had was a spitting contest between copyeditors. Once again, there was no designation for proofreader error because the proofreader couldn’t make an error. By definition, the proofreader was supposed to only correct and mark objective errors such as a clear misspelling, or the failure to have sentence-ending punctuation, or other indisputable errors. And so that was true on the first day of creation, but by the third day the role had expanded and proofreaders expanded from pure proofreading to a hybrid proofreading-copyediting role. This became by creation’s fifth day the expected standard.

And so we have come full circle — it was not unusual for a strong copyeditor to find that she was being “graded” by a weak proofreader or in-house production editor. As between the proofreader and the copyeditor, both were trying to impress the client with their skills because they both were freelance and both dependant on gaining more business from the client. The in-house editor had to assign fault because accounting demanded it. In addition, the IH was becoming swamped with work and so had to increasingly rely on the proofreader’s judgment calls.

All of this worked because everything was kept local, that is onshore as opposed to offshore, because it was a never-discussed-but-well-understood system, and, most importantly, because once the book was published, there was no customer complaint system. How many readers (or reviewers, for that matter) were concerned with the finer points of editing and the production process. Rarely was a book panned because of poor editing as opposed to poor story, dull writing, factual error — none of the things that those outside the production process would ever associate with poor editing.

This world began changing not long after I became a freelance editor with the introduction of computers, word-processing programs like XyWrite, Word, and WordPerfect, and, ultimately, globalization — the material for the second part of this essay, “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Fourth Day of Creation.” (The third part of the essay is “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation.”)

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 12, 2016

The Proofreader’s Corner: Testing Editorial Pricing Models

by Louise Harnby

(Editor’s Note: This is Louise’s last essay for AAE. Because of demands in her business, she has found it increasingly difficult to find the time needed to write the high-quality and informative essays she has been writing since she first began contributing to AAE in 2013. All of us at AAE wish her continued good fortune and hope that sometime in the future she will be able to resume writing for AAE.)

This isn’t an essay about what one should charge. What you should, want, or need to charge to make your editorial business sustainable may be different from what I should, want, or need to charge to make my proofreading business sustainable. Rather, I’m focusing on how even experienced editorial freelancers should regularly evaluate what they are charging and how they are determining the price for a job, and whether they should introduce new pricing models that could increase their income. We’re back in the world of testing.

Tracking the data

If you don’t know what you need to earn each fiscal year (required earnings) and you don’t know what you are earning each fiscal year and how many hours you are working to achieve this income (actual earnings), you can’t evaluate whether your business is profitable or unprofitable, nor whether it is in financial growth, stagnation, or decline. And if you can’t evaluate the health of your editorial business, you won’t be able to evaluate the impact of introducing new pricing models, new services, new working-week regimes…new anything, in fact!

Data tracking doesn’t have to be complicated. I use an Excel spreadsheet to track my work schedule and earnings (a very basic template, which you can adapt for your own purposes, is available on The Proofreader’s Parlour at “Editorial Annual Accounts Template (Excel)”). Each line in my annual spreadsheet tells me the name of the client, the client type, the title of the project, the word count, the price charged, the time taken to complete the job, the dates for arrival and completion, an invoice number, the number of words per proofread per hour, and £ per hour earned.

At the end of the year, I can see at a glance my total earnings, my average billable hourly rate, and my average billable rate per 1,000 words. I like to record previous years’ totals on my current spreadsheet so that I can make quick annual comparisons. In this way, I have a macro view of my business.

I can also look at micro issues including, but not limited to, whether particular types of work are proving more lucrative than others (e.g., students vs. indie authors vs. publishers). I can see what’s working well and what’s working less well. That tells me how I might want to focus future marketing activities in order to expand the amount of work I do in the most profitable sectors.

Importantly, I track all requests to quote, so I know how much work I turn down, refer, make an offer on, and whether those offers convert into bookings or are rejected by the client. I keep a spreadsheet on my mobile phone that logs all requests from new clients. This logs the type of client (e.g., student, agency, author, publisher), the date the request was received, the type of work (e.g., thesis, book, report), and my response (offer, referral, decline). If my offer converts into a booking or if the client declines my offer at a later date, I amend the spreadsheet. Requests to work for existing clients are logged in a separate file on my PC. All confirmed bookings are entered into my annual accounts spreadsheet.

The data that you need to collect and evaluate will not necessarily be the same as the data that I need to collect and evaluate. One thing’s for sure, though – the more data you collect, the more insightful your conclusions will be.

Testing different pricing models

Even experienced editorial freelancers can fall into the trap of not testing different ways of pricing. When I set up my proofreading business, most of my work was for publishers. In the main, the publisher offered an hourly rate and a budgeted number of hours in which they expected the work to be completed. I would accept, negotiate, or decline. I became used to thinking in terms of hourly rates and this model was the one I used to build a price when I was quoting for other client types, even when I was in control of setting a price. So when a student asked me to proofread a thesis, I’d estimate (based on a sample) how many hours the job would take, and then multiply the figure by my self-determined hourly rate.

There’s nothing wrong with this type of model. Many people prefer it and believe it to be the most profitable way of working. However, it is not the only option; and even if it is the most profitable way of working for person X, it may not be the most profitable way of working for you. Furthermore, different models may yield better returns depending on client type or editorial service.

What is certain is that unless you test different pricing models, and record the data acquired during your tests, you won’t know whether model A or model B is your best choice. Here’s a breakdown of how I went about testing an alternative pricing structure.

The pretest micro view

Note that my data tracking, reviewing, and testing decisions are particular to my business. I’m a proofreader who specializes in working on book-length projects for academics and independent authors. I sometimes work on postgraduate dissertations and theses, business reports, journal articles, and promotional material. In general, my proofreading service is fairly uniform in terms of what I’m required to do. Projects rarely overlap — it’s a case of project in, project out, move on.

After several insightful discussions with a trusted colleague/friend who used a different pricing model to my hourly rate one, I decided to take another look at my data. First, I looked at my macro-level totals. These told me that my business was growing year on year. That’s all well and good, but what about the micro data?

By looking at the micro data for each client, I was able to see which client types were giving me the best value for money for every hour I dedicated to working for them. Remember that at this point I was charging by the hour. My data told me, among other things, the following:

  • When I was offered an hourly rate by publishers, I earned less per hour on average for this client type than when I charged independent authors, students, and businesses a fee based on price per hour.
  • Three publishers were outliers and were competitive with my other client types.
  • Many publishers were offering uncompetitive (for me) rates, though they were low-risk clients — long-term customers who paid on time, offered regular work, and were thoroughly enjoyable to work with.
  • I was turning down a lot of work from indie authors and students because there was no room in my schedule. Some of those slots were being taken up by the less-competitive but long-term, low-risk, much-loved publishers!

The pricing-model test

I decided to take a leaf out of my colleague’s book and test the per 1,000 words pricing structure for indie authors, students, and businesses. I created a formula in an Excel spreadsheet that uses an array (see “Guidelines and examples of array formulas”). The array is useful because it takes a large number and break it into blocks of units. Those sections can be priced differently. So, for example, one could set up an array formula such that the following proofreading prices might be generated (these are fictitious examples for demonstration only):

  • Initial 2,000 words: £18 per 1,000 words
  • Next 3,000 words: £14 per 1,000 words
  • Next 5,000 words; £10 per 1,000 words
  • Next 20,000 words; £7.50 per 1,000 words
  • Next 10,000 words; £7 per 1,000 words
  • Next 10,000 words; £6 per 1,000 words
  • Next 10,000 words; £5 per 1,000 words
  • Next 20,000 words; £4 per 1,000 words

Thus:

  • 100K-word novel = £658. Average rate per 1,000 words = £6.50
  • 40K-word novella = £348. Average rate per 1,000 words = £8.70
  • 10K-word business report = £128. Average rate per 1,000 words = £12.80
  • 2K-word children’s book = £36. Average rate per 1,000 words = £18

You could build different arrays for different client types or different services. These would reflect the different demands of the work. Fundamentally, the array formula allows you to build economies of scale into a pricing structure.

The test results

I introduced the test pricing model in August 2015. One year later, my average earnings per hour are now 40% higher. That increase is a piece of macro information that’s pleasing to note, but the micro data are worth discussing, too. My posttest evaluation of the data told me the following:

  • When I charged indie authors, students, and businesses on an hourly basis, I earned less on average than when I set the fee on a per 1,000 words basis.
  • When I set my fees on a per 1,000 words basis, I earned more per hour from businesses than from students and indie authors.
  • The business projects tended to be much shorter in length. Therefore, the total earnings per project were higher when I worked with indie authors and students.
  • All of the businesses wanted a fast turnaround, which incurred a premium rate (hence the higher per-hour earnings mentioned above) because of the out-of-hours nature of the work.

The posttest evidence-based decisions

Evaluating the micro and macro data (and talking to a trusted colleague) helped me to work out where I might have been guilty of basing my pricing structure on untested assumptions, and where there could be room for improvement. Testing, and evaluating the results of that test, enabled me to make evidence-based decisions about client focus and marketing. Personally, I prefer to have fewer short turnaround projects on my books, and a greater number of longer, but profitable, projects. That means:

  • I’ve whittled down my publishers to a those few whose rates are competitive with my other clients. That meant saying goodbye to some long-term clients whom I had very much enjoyed working with.
  • I’ve increased my promotion focus on the student and independent-author markets.
  • I now favor a price per 1,000 words model (there are exceptions) over a per-hour model.
  • Fast-turnaround work for businesses on a per 1,000 words basis is very lucrative but rarely fits comfortably into my standard proofreading schedule because of the large amount of book projects I am commissioned to work on (especially fiction). I prefer not to work out of hours so I’ve increased my out-of-hours premium levies (from double to triple) to reflect this position.

If I’d not recorded and evaluated my data, I would not have been able to evaluate the then current state of my business and identify opportunities for potential growth.

Following on from that, I’d not have been able to take actions (e.g., the pricing-model test) that would affect the future state of my business.

In my case, it’s not just the change in pricing model that impacted on the increase in my average billable hourly rate; looking at the micro elements of my work schedule and accounting information helped me to fine-tune my existing client base (e.g., publishers aren’t out of the mix — I do still accept work from a small number of competitive presses, even though they set the fees and even though these fees are based on hourly budgets; and my out-of-hours premium rates have increased).

Using your business ownership to make
choices for growth

Owning an editorial business means you have choice — choice about what to charge and how to charge, and choice about what to accept, negotiate on, or decline. What works for your colleague may be less fruitful for you. Some pricing models may work better for particular client types. And different types of editorial service may favor different fee structures.

When it comes to pricing, what you know is as important as what you charge. If you are basing your fee structure on untested assumptions, you may not be getting the best out of your editorial business. I’d recommend that we all regularly look at our work schedules and accounts in detail, evaluating the data at micro and macro levels. We should ask ourselves whether there’s room for improvement and consider testing new models (pricing, of course, isn’t the only thing we can test). In this way, we can make evidence-based decisions about how to charge, where to target our marketing, and which clients to say goodbye to and which to retain.

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

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