An American Editor

July 3, 2019

It’s All About the Benjamins! EditTools’ Time Tracker (Part I)

By Richard Adin

In the early years of my freelance editing career, I joined the EFA (Editorial Freelancers Association) as a way to “meet,” via its chat list, other freelance editors. One thing that struck me was how united — except for me and a very few others — EFA members were in their approach to the business of editing. We outliers viewed our chosen career as a business, while most of our colleagues viewed what they did as more like art; that is, they paid as little attention as possible to the business side of freelancing and as much as possible to the skill (editorial) side.

There were many discussions about financial struggles, poor pay, added tasks, multiple passes, and the like. There were few discussions (and very few discussants) regarding advertising, promotion, business practices, calculating what to charge, negotiating — any of the business-side skills. And when business-oriented discussions did start, they often ended quickly because colleagues piled on about how craft was so much more important than something as pedestrian as business and money.

As I said, I was an outlier. For me, it was about the Benjamins (the money). Freelancing was my full-time job — my only source of income. I had a mortgage to pay and two children to feed, clothe, keep healthy, and school. I had no trust fund or wealthy relative who couldn’t wait to send me money on a regular basis. Although how well I edited was very important to both myself and my clients, the money was equally important to me.

I recognized from the start that if I didn’t pay close attention to the business side of freelancing, my family and I would be in trouble. When my son needed $5,000 worth of dental work, it was my job to make sure he got it. It was not my job to tell the dentist, “Sorry, but I am an artisan without sufficient income to pay for your services.” When it came time for college, it was my job to try to get my children through with minimal or no debt for them to deal with upon graduation. And this doesn’t even address such things as providing for my retirement or providing health insurance and auto insurance and the myriad other things that are part of modern life.

In other words, for me, it was all about the Benjamins in the sense that my editorial work could not be viewed through rose-colored glasses as if the only thing that mattered was artisanship.

Which brings me to the point of this essay: EditTools 9 and the project management macros that are part of the just-released EditTools 9 (www.wordsnSync.com).

In Business, Data Drive Success

What seems a lifetime ago, I wrote a series of essays for An American Editor about calculating pricing and why it is important not to look at rate surveys or ask colleagues for guidance (see, for example, the five-part essay “What to Charge,” beginning with Part I, and “The Quest for Rate Charts.” ) Yet, when I go to chat lists like Copyediting-l, it is not unusual to find colleagues asking “What should I charge?” or “What is the going rate?” Nor is it unusual to see a multitude of responses, not one of which is really informative or meaningful for the person who asked the question.

When I meet or speak with colleagues and these questions come up, I usually ask if they have read my essays (some yes, some no) and have ever actually gathered the data from their own experiences and used that data to calculate their personal required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR) and their actual EHR, both for a project and over the course of many projects. Nearly universally, the answer to the latter questions (about data collection, rEHR, and EHR) is “no.” Why? Because “it is too much effort” or “the XYZ rate chart says to charge X amount” or “I can’t charge more than the going rate.”

But here are the problems: If you don’t collect the data,

  • you can’t determine what you are actually earning (as opposed to what you are charging; you can be charging $3 per page but actually earning $45 per hour, or you can be charging $5 per page but actually earning $9.25 per hour);
  • you can’t know what is the best way to charge to maximize your EHR for the kind of projects you do;
  • you can’t determine whether some types of work are more profitable for you than other types; and
  • you can’t easily determine what to bid/quote when asked for a bid/quote for a new project.

Ultimately, if you don’t know your rEHR, you don’t know if you are making money or losing money because you have nothing to compare your EHR against.

It is also important to remember that there are basically two ways to charge: by the hour or not by the hour (per word, per page, per project). Although many editors like to charge by the hour, that is the worst choice because whatever hourly rate you set, that is the most you can earn. In addition, it is not unusual to start a project and suddenly find that it is taking you less time — or more — to work than originally expected. If you charge by the hour and it takes less time than originally thought, you lose some of the revenue you were expecting to earn; if it takes more time, and assuming nothing has changed, such as the client making additional demands, you run up against the client’s budget. I have yet to meet a client with an unlimited budget and who doesn’t rebel against the idea that you quoted 100 hours of work but now say it will take 150 hours and expect the client to pay for the additional 50 hours.

However, to charge by something other than the hour requires past data so you can have some certainty, based on that past experience, that you can earn at least your rEHR and preferably a much-higher EHR. The way it works is this:

If you charge $3 per page for a 500-page project, you know you will be paid $1,500. If your rEHR is $30, you also know that you have to complete the job in no more than 50 hours. If you can complete the job in 40 hours, the client still pays $1,500 because the fee is not tied to the time spent but to the page count, and your EHR is $37.50. If you were charging by the hour and charged your rEHR of $30, you would be paid $1,200 — a $300 revenue loss.

All of this is based on knowing your data. During my years as a freelancer, I accumulated reams of data. The data were not always well-organized or easy to access until I got smarter about how track the information, but it was always valuable. Within months of first collecting data, I learned some valuable things about my business. I learned, among many other things, that for me (I emphasize that this applies solely to me and my experience):

  • medical textbooks earned a higher EHR than any other type of project;
  • charging by the page was better than charging hourly;
  • calculating a page by number of characters rather than words was better;
  • high-page-count projects that took months to complete were better than low-page-count projects (I rarely edited books of fewer than 3,000 manuscript pages and usually edited texts ranging between 5,000 and 7,500 manuscript pages; I often edited books that ran between 15,000 and 20,000+ manuscript pages);
  • working directly with an author was highly problematic and to be avoided;
  • limiting my services to copyediting was best (I phased out proofreading and other services);
  • working only with clients who would meet my payment schedule was best;
  • saying no, even to a regular, long-time client, was better for business than saying yes and not doing a topnotch job because I hated the work.

I also learned that investing in my business, such as spending many thousands of dollars to create and improve EditTools, paid dividends over the long term (the more-important term).

And I learned a lesson that many editors don’t want to accept: that sometimes you lose money on a project, but that is no reason not to try again. Too many editors have told me that when they have charged by a non-hourly method, they lost money, so they returned to hourly charging. How they know they lost money, I do not know, because they had no idea what their rEHR was, but their assumption was that if they earned less than they would have had they charged by the hour, they lost money. This is not only incorrect thinking, it is short-term thinking.

Such decisions have to be made based on data. Because collecting and analyzing accurate data is a stumbling block for many editors, EditTools 9 includes the Time Tracker project management macro, discussion of which will begin in Part 2 of this essay.

Richard (Rich) Adin is the founder of the An American Editor blog, author of The Business of Editing, owner of wordsnSync, and creator/owner of EditTools.

November 11, 2015

The Business of Editing: A Fifth Fundamental Business Mistake That Editors Make

Profit & Business Model

A business has to either be profitable so that its owners can earn a living or it has to have investors who are willing to fund the business for years and let the business lose money during those years because of greater future profit expectations or the business has to go out of business.

The first option is usually the option of the freelance editor. We rarely can convince people to invest in our business and let us generate losses for years (the Amazon model), because of the type of business editing is — personal and hands on. Amazon sells goods; the goods are not unique and buyers of the goods do not care whether Jeff Bezos has ever touched the goods. Amazon sells to us based on customer service and price.

Editing, as we know, is different. We are usually hired because of our skills (there are semi-exceptions as in my business model in which clients hire me because of my skills and because of the skills of the editors who work for me) and those skills are hands-on skills. We are hired to read each and every word and pass judgment on the words, the sentence structure, the grammar, and so on. Editors are hired to exercise judgment and improve a product; we do not expect Amazon to edit the book we buy from it.

As a result of this difference, Amazon can go years without making a profit, but freelance editors cannot. And Amazon can get people to invest money in it based on a not-written-in-stone promise of future rewards; outside editors themselves and immediate family, it is the rare person who will invest in an editor’s business with the expectation of a future profit.

Yet there is something in our business model and in Amazon’s business model that is identical (aside from the need for stellar customer service): We both need data to determine how we are doing and what we should be doing. The types of data we need are different, but we both need data.

Why Collect Data?

And this is where editors make a fundamental business mistake. Many editors simply do not collect data or if they do collect data, they make no business use of it. Yet data can tell us lots of things about our business. For example, data can tell us whether

  • a client should be kept or fired
  • certain types of projects should be avoided or sought
  • we are charging too little or too much
  • our focus is wrong or right
  • we need to start a marketing campaign now or can wait
  • our marketing campaign is a success or failure
  • making an investment is likely to increase or decrease our profitability
  • subcontracting would be a smart or dumb direction to go
  • and myriad other things

— all we need to do is gather and explore the data.

We’ve discussed several times how to calculate what to charge (see the five-part series, Business of Editing: What to Charge), but knowing what you need to earn and charge does not necessarily equate to profitability. It is not difficult to have calculated the rate you need to charge, charge that rate, yet be unprofitable. That’s because knowing what to charge is only part of the necessary information.

Consider the type of editing you do. I focus on long manuscripts, the longer the better, preferably 1,000 manuscript pages or longer. Offer me a manuscript that runs 15,000 pages and you will make me happy. Over the years I have been professionally editing, I have collected data on hundreds of projects — in fact, on every project that has passed through my office. Among the information I collected was project subject matter; whether single author or multiauthor; number of manuscript pages (which was calculated using my own formula); the time it took to complete the project; the number of projects I was offered, indicating the number I accepted and the number I turned down; the reason for acceptance or rejection; and the fee I was paid. (I gathered other data, too, but for our discussion, this list is sufficient.)

Analyzing Data

From this data, I learned what manuscripts were likely to be profitable for me. It is important to remember that we are not all alike; that is, what is profitable for me may be highly unprofitable for you. What is important, however, is to know whether what you are doing is, in fact, profitable for you.

Editors focus on editing — it is what they know best and what they feel most comfortable doing. But freelancers wear multiple hats. Not only do they wear an editing hat, but they wear the business owner’s hat. When wearing the business owner’s hat, editors need to assess their business objectively. It does not matter whether they love or hate editing; what matters is whether they are running a profitable business. To make that determination, editors must objectively collect and analyze data about their business.

One of the most important bits of data is time. How long a project takes to edit — not approximately, but exactly — is key information. It is information that is used to determine your effective hourly rate as well as the number of pages you can edit in an hour. It also is information that is needed when giving a client a quote. An editor needs to know whether, as a general rule, a heavy edit means 2 pages an hour or 6 pages an hour, because that helps you determine the likelihood of profitability at different price points.

The Excuses

I have heard editors say that data collection isn’t all that important for them because they bill by the hour, not by the page or project. Contrary to such sentiment, it is equally important to collect data regardless of how you charge, unless your clients have unlimited budgets (and I have yet to meet a client who does). It is also important because in the absence of data, it is not possible to determine whether you are making a sufficient profit.

Editors have told me that they know they are making a sufficient profit because they are able to pay their bills, put a little bit away in savings, and have money for entertainment, and that they are doing this without collecting and analyzing data about their business. Accepting that as true, data collection is still necessary because you may well discover, for example, that you can earn the same but in less time and with less effort. Or you might discover after analyzing the data that although you are making a profit, you are spending more time and effort to do so than is warranted and that making some changes in your business would increase your profit but require less effort.

The Reason

Data collection is key to business growth and profitability. Data inform decisions; data provide a foundation for action. It is a fundamental business error to not collect as much data as you can about your business.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays include:

April 16, 2014

Are Boom Times Coming?

As all self-employed in the United States know, April 15 is not only the date our personal income tax returns for the prior fiscal year are due, but also the time when we need to pay our first quarter estimated taxes for the current fiscal year. For me, it is also a time to spend a few hours looking at data I have accumulated during the first quarter and making an attempt to predict future trends.

In recent articles, I have noted the importance of data collection (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping I and The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping II). I have also noted the upswing I have experienced in offers of editing work (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: An Embarrassment of Riches). In those articles, I hinted (at best) at the extent of the data I keep and analyze.

Important data that I keep are the number of projects I have been offered, the number that I accepted and the number I declined, and as much detail as I can about the projects I declined, but with particular focus on size, offered fee, subject matter, and schedule. I usually review and analyze this data quarterly, about the same time that I prepare my income information for transmittal to my accountant for the quarterly returns. (I know that many, if not most, of my colleagues do their own quarterly payments; after all, it is a simple form. But I have made it a practice over my years as a freelancer to always use an accountant even though the accountant’s services are not free. For my business it is worth the fee. The accountant also looks at the data I have collected and sometimes offers a very valuable insight into my business that I have overlooked.)

This year has been significantly different than previous years. When publishers started offshoring, I could see a trending decline in the number of projects I was being offered. Interestingly, at the height of the offshoring and of the consolidation of the publishing industry, a key indicator was the low number of projects that I declined. (I should note that I do track the reason why I declined a project. This is important data. It makes a big difference in my analyses if the reason was fee, schedule, project size, or subject matter, or a combination of these four. For example, if I declined a project because it was outside the scope of the areas in which I work [e.g., a historical romance novel], then that particular project plays a very minimal role in my analyses; in fact, other than being counted as a declined project, it has no role in my analyses.) At that time, few projects were declined.

I could then trace a leveling. Every year following the plateauing of the accepted-declined numbers, I could reliably estimate the amount of work I would have each quarter of the following year, from whom the work would come, and the type of work it would be. That information helped guide my marketing: how much marketing I needed to do, to whom it should be directed, and when it should be done.

Beginning in the last half of 2012 I noticed that what had been plateauing was changing. The number of projects and the size of the projects being offered were beginning to increase. Where previously the number of projects being declined had remained low and steady, the trend was starting to show an increase.

The data for 2013 reinforced this trend, with the numbers steadily, but slowly growing. Also the data showed an increase in the effective hourly rate, which indicates an improvement in efficiency as well as an improvement in the types of projects accepted.

For the first quarter of 2014, the data demonstrates a continuation of the trend. But the data shows a significant spike. For example, in the first quarter of 2014 I was offered and declined as many projects as I had declined for the whole year in 2011 and 2012. The data shows that the number of manuscript pages in the declined projects equals 46% of the number of pages that was accepted.

Perhaps more importantly, the data shows that clients increasingly tried to alter schedules in hopes that by doing so I could fit the projects in my schedule. This is an important bit of knowledge because I can look at, for example, 2007 and see that in 2007 clients were willing to alter production schedules for very few projects, but in 2014 it changed to the majority of projects.

The data indicates to me that, at least within my niche, boom times may be coming. The first quarter 2014 data is an eye-opener for me. I note that revenues are up 61%, the size of the projects under contract is up 143%, and the number of projects being offered is up 218%, but I declined 58% of gross number (or 46% in terms of manuscript pages), which is also an increase. Unfortunately, because editing is hands-on work that has limits on what can be automated, the number of projects that I can accept is governed by the same key determinants — number of manuscript pages, project difficulty, and schedule — that existed in 2000, which limited the number of projects I could accept in 2000, still control the number of projects I can accept today.

But data analysis also discloses how efficiently I can edit. The more efficient I am, the higher the number of pages per hour that can be edited. The higher that number is, the more projects I can accept; conversely, the lower that number, the fewer projects that can be accepted.

Although the percentages noted above look great, it needs to be remembered that they represent just the first quarter of 2014. Second quarter data could plummet those numbers when applied year to date. My point is that although analysis of the first quarter is important in the decision-making process for upcoming months, it cannot be the sole determinant. At most it is a guide. Had the numbers been down, however, the importance of the analysis would be much greater; the analysis would be a warning of a negative trend that requires immediate corrective steps.

As I said earlier, my first quarter results indicate a change in the publishing industry for my niche and implies that boom times are coming. But even if boom times are coming, who knows how long they will stay. It could be fleeting or it could be years. The answer lies in the data I continue to collect.

What does your data tell you about upcoming trends for your business? Are you doing better than previously? Do you limit your analyses to comparing gross revenue? If so, what does that comparison tell you about your business and what you need to do?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 19, 2014

The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping II

In The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping I, I discussed the importance of keeping records to determine whether it is better for you to charge by, for example, the page or the hour. But that article gave a very limited view of why recordkeeping is important.

Businesses run on data. As freelancers, we are well aware of the reliance of corporate clients on data — the data is used to determine everything from whether a new edition of a book should be undertaken to how much should be budgeted to produce the book. Although we do not have the same issues to think about, those that we do have are as equally weighty for our business.

For most freelancers, the beginning year(s) are devoted to accepting paying work of any type. When I first started, I accepted book editing, book proofreading, journal article editing, advertising, desktop publishing, and whatever other assignments came my way. And I kept detailed data on every one of those assignments.

Every couple of months I would analyze the data, but it wasn’t until I had about a year’s worth of data that I could draw conclusions. The data told me that for me:

  • advertising work didn’t pay
  • proofreading didn’t pay
  • book editing was the most lucrative work — but only if
    • it was on a per-page or project-fee basis
    • the manuscripts were of a sufficiently large size
    • the work was nonfiction
    • the work was not for academic presses
    • the work was not directly with the author
    • the work was copyediting

I also learned other things, such as what types of subject matter were best for me and that I could increase profitability by working with other editors.

Let me emphasize that the above were lessons I learned based on my experience and my data. I am not suggesting that they are true lessons for anyone else. Rather, the point is that the collection of data can help direct your business into the areas that are most lucrative for you.

Data also helps guide marketing efforts. Once I learned what was best for me, I was able to focus my marketing efforts on those services and (potential) clients. I stopped trying to be all things to everyone; instead I focused solely on those things that had the greatest potential to help me reach my goals. Once I realized that editing fiction was less lucrative for me than editing nonfiction, I eliminated my marketing efforts to fiction publishers and refocused my efforts to nonfiction publishers.

All of that is well and good, but the focusing of my efforts was not the biggest boon I got (and continue to receive) from data collection. Rather, the biggest boon is identifying those projects that were financially more successful and those that were less successful.

With that identification (which is something you cannot readily do if you charge by the hour because hourly charging makes all projects equally successful, regardless of whether that is the best or least success you can have), I was able to focus on what made one project more successful than another. I was able to glean the stumbling blocks.

One example: I discovered that projects that had hundreds of references with each chapter were a mixed bag of success. Those that were second or subsequent editions were more likely to have greater success than first editions because authors would often follow the citation formatting of the prior edition, but if it was a first edition, there often was no uniformity to the style the authors followed.

I also discovered that the two primary problems that I encountered with references were wrong journal abbreviations and wrong format of author names. The questions were (1) could these problems be solved or at least mitigated and if so, (2) what are the solutions? The solutions took some time to formulate, but having identified the problems, I could focus. The ultimate result was the creation of my Journals macro and the Wildcard Find & Replace macro. My journals database now approaches 20,000 entries (see Business of Editing: The Logistics of Large Projects for more information), which makes checking and correcting journal names easy and accurate. The Wildcard macro makes it possible to fix many of the incorrectly formatted author names. Combined, the two macros significantly reduce the time I need to spend on the references.

Of course, other problems also needed addressing, but I would not have been able to identify common problems in the absence of the data; in the absence of the data, I would have been able to identify only the problems in an individual project, which may not have recurred in other projects.

Ultimately, the more information you can parse from the projects you work on and can categorize, the more you will be able to identify common problems among your projects that you can address. The more of these that you address, the more profitable you can make your business.

There is all kinds of data worth collecting, but I have found one of the most valuable to be my churn rate; that is, how many pages an hour I can edit. That number varies by project and project complexity, but I have found it important to track. I know that I need to churn a minimum number of pages per hour (on average across a project) to meet my goals. When I see that a certain type of project consistently falls short of that minimum number, I know that I need to rethink accepting such projects.

As I hope is evident, data is the lifeblood of even a freelancer’s business. The more effort you put into collecting and analyzing data regarding your work, the more likely it is that your goals will be met. This endeavor is well worth the time and effort required.

What data, if any, do you collect and analyze? How often do you review the information? Has it helped guide your business?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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