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

June 3, 2015

Going, Going, Gone…

Recently, what many consider a very mediocre Picasso painting sold at art auction for $179 million, setting a new record for a single painting. In the art market, bidding raises the price and reflects perceived marketplace value, at least to a degree. Contrast this to the editorial market in which bidding lowers the price, reflecting perceived marketplace value.

In both markets there is a glut of “artists”/“editors” but a dearth of “collectible”/“quality” “artists”/“editors.” Yet each market responds differently. Therein lies the tale of perception: a Picasso is considered valuable regardless of its quality simply because it is a Picasso; the quality adds to the value, but the “painted by Picasso” establishes that the price it will command will be higher, not lower. In contrast, editing is viewed as the “anyone can do it” skill and thus not worth much.

What perplexes me about the editorial market is that there is one at all. In the case of collectible art, there are two markets: the auction market and the retail market. In the retail market, if a painting is deemed worth collecting, then the artist’s price (or something close to it) is paid; if the painting is not considered collectible, it is ignored — it is not purchased because someone says “Well, people need to have this painting.”

In the editorial market, the service is thought necessary to have but only at the lowest possible price. Better to have someone wholly unskilled in editing edit a manuscript than to have the manuscript professionally edited at a higher price. The logic eludes me.

I was always taught that if it is worth doing, then it is worth doing well; if it is not worth doing well, then it is not worth doing. That concept contravenes the philosophy of the editorial market, which can be summed up as: editing is worth doing only if it is done very inexpensively. Editors have failed to justify their value in the marketplace.

Books are the primary means of communicating complex ideas from person to person, generation to generation. Even politicians who rely on visual communication to spread their message among voters write books to explain their thoughts and background in detail. A “sound bite” is important but the foundation of civilization is the written word. More information is communicated in one day in writing than is communicated in one year in movie form. Yet editors are less valued than actors.

With our reliance on written communication, I would think that editors could command prices that better reflect their skills, but that is not how the market works. It is clear that the primary factor in deciding whether to hire an editor is price, not skill and not need.

Discussions with colleagues about pricing usually ends with the lament that the price we can charge a client today is the same price we were able to charge that client in 1995. Factor in inflation and you soon discover that editors are being paid less today than they were paid in 1995 but that the work we are expected to do for that pay has increased. At minimum, if our services were valued, we would have kept up with inflation.

Interestingly, this flatlining of fees seems to apply across the board; that is, it doesn’t appear to make a difference whether the client is an individual or corporation. I suspect that a good part of the reason for this is the ease of entry into the profession, which has led to a significant increase in the number of minimally qualified editors who are willing to work for ever lower amounts.

I began this essay by comparing editorial bidding to art bidding. There is a significant difference between the two that needs mentioning: When you bid on an artwork, you see the finished artwork in all its glory or lack of glory — the point is that the bidder gets precisely what she sees. In contrast, the user of editorial services contracts for those services in the hope (expectation) that what he will receive after completion of editing equals what he hoped (expected) in terms of skill level.

The rejoinder that editors make is “I can/will provide a sample edit.” Unfortunately, sample edits are not all that editors say they are and they do not consider the likelihood that the recipient of the sample may not really be capable of judging the quality of the editing. The problem is that editing is fluid. The art world often can agree on a painting’s quality, even if its value is the subject of a war of words. Even those of us whose knowledge of art is minimal can agree, for example, that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is an outstanding painting or that Michaelangelo’s David is a magnificent sculpture.

Editing is different. How do we judge whether it is good editing or bad editing or indifferent editing to use since when because is meant or use about when approximate is meant or when the serial comma is omitted? How do we determine in advance that editor A will catch all misspellings but not all cliches whereas editor B may catch fewer misspellings but has the ability to turn uninspired prose into memorable prose consistently?

The sample edit makes certain assumptions, five of which are: First, that the material chosen for the sample is the best material to demonstrate the editor’s editing skills. Second, that the person reviewing the editor’s work is knowledgeable enough to know whether the editor has improved or not improved the sample. Third, the editor is actually demonstrating the skill set that the reviewer seeks to test or that the reviewer is seeking to test a skill set that is actually appropriate for the type of editing being performed. Fourth, that both the reviewer and the editor define the editor’s role similarly. (How many times have you been hired to do a copyedit but what is really wanted is a developmental edit?) Fifth, that the sample is, in fact, representative of the problems the editor can expect to encounter and address should she get the editing job. Sample editing makes additional assumptions about the editor, about the reviewer, and about the project, but the foregoing five assumptions illustrate the problem and why sample editing is not always an indicator of the quality of the services an editor will provide.

This is the conundrum editors have faced for decades: How do we get clients to recognize in advance the true value of the services we will have rendered when editing is complete? What is your solution?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 7, 2013

Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part II)

In Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part I), we ended with this question: Is the $30/hour rate you charge sufficient to generate your desired annual gross income based on your EHR? The answer is “no.”

Your current charge of $30/hour is not enough to generate the desired gross annual income of $50,000 because your net EHR is $13.56 (based on 20 billable hours in a 40-hour workweek), not the required minimum EHR of $24.04. Your EHR is $10.48 too little. Based on your EHR, your gross annual earnings will be approximately $28,200, or a little bit more than half of your desired annual gross income.

There are several options for curing this problem. First, increase the number of billable hours you work each week. At the hourly rate of $30, you need to generate at least enough work to bill for 34 hours every week for 52 weeks a year (or its equivalent). That will generate a net EHR of $24.06 ($30 × 34 hours = $1020 ÷ 40-hour workweek = $24.06). That is not impossible to do, but if you haven’t averaged at least 34 hours a week of billable-at-$30-an-hour-work over the course of a year in past years, you will have to devote some time, money, and effort to bring your workload to that level.

Second, you could lower the amount of your desired gross annual income. That would certainly change the calculation, but it would raise other questions, such as: Are you earning enough to meet your bills? Are you earning enough to warrant remaining a freelance editor? Is your annual income sufficient to support the lifestyle you want?

The third option is to raise your hourly rate to $51 an hour and continue to generate an average of 20 hours of work a week for 52 weeks, which would give you a net EHR of $24.06 and meet your income goals.

The fourth — and best — option is to calculate the net EHR you need to meet, which is, in this case, $25 (it really is $24.06, but rounded numbers are easier to deal with and so we round up). Then, instead of trying to charge and collect an hourly rate of $50, charge a per-page or project fee and work to increase your efficiency so that you can generate your necessary EHR. It is more likely that clients will accept a per-page or project fee than an hourly fee that they view as too high or outside their budget.

Also very important to consider when deciding whether to charge by the hour or the page/project is this: If you charge $3 per manuscript page, you need to edit a little more than 8 pages an hour to meet the $25 EHR. If you can edit 10 pages an hour, your EHR will equal $30, which is $5 more than needed. As time passes and that extra $5 adds up, you build a cushion for those times when you have no work, a cushion that may still allow you to maintain the EHR of $25 over the course of the year.

And don’t forget this: The $25 EHR is based on your generating enough work to bill for 20 hours a week on average. Thus, to meet your goal, you need to copyedit approximately 167 pages a week. (A cautionary note: Remember that all of these example calculations are based on our net EHR but that our net EHR is incomplete. You must do your own calculations based on your own business.)

Option 4 is, in my thinking, the best option because, as many freelancers have noted, publishers generally do not offer rates above $25 an hour, and authors aren’t knocking down doors in a scramble to pay editors $50 an hour. Most publishers offer a rate between $18 and $25 an hour; some publishers, to their discredit, I think, offer rates of $12 or less an hour. In addition, we are competing worldwide with editors who do not calculate their EHR needs and will accept work at any price offered. Consequently, the best way to charge is a per-page or project-fee rate because you can compete effectively yet increase your productivity and efficiency and thus raise your EHR to a sum much higher than the offered hourly rates — in other words, by becoming more efficient and speedy, you can make a $20 hourly rate (when converted from a per-page rate) an EHR of $50.

Which brings us to the next matter: calculating a page. There are lots of ways to calculate a page. One of the most common formulas is 250 words = 1 page. But there are other formulas, such as counting characters. It really doesn’t matter what you decide equals one page; what does matter is that you have a definition, that you make it known to clients, and that you apply it before quoting a price.

Regardless of how you ultimately decide to charge — whether by the hour, the page, the word, or the project — it is important to be able to calculate the number of pages because for most people, the number of pages has meaning as a measure. In addition, editors think in terms of how many pages they can edit in an hour, not how many words they can edit in an hour.

In a recent online discussion, someone was looking for an editor to edit a 248,000-word manuscript that they said equaled 450 pages. Before bidding on such a project, you need to have a standard definition of what constitutes a page so that you can rationally determine what to bid. In this instance, the author calculated a page as 550 words, more than double the commonly used 250 words. Were I to bid on this project, I would bid as if the page count were 992 pages, not 450. One page equaling 550 words is not within my lexicon.

If I placed a bid based on the 992-page count, I would be prepared to explain what constitutes a page and how I calculated the manuscript’s true (for editing) size. This count is important to me because I have a pretty good idea of how many pages I can edit in an hour. That number is a range that covers badly written manuscripts through well-written manuscripts. Knowing the correct number of pages by my definition of what constitutes a page and knowing how many of those pages I can edit, on average, in an hour, lets me knowledgeably decide if I can undertake the project and how much I need to charge.

If the author insists that the correct page count is 450, my response would be that it doesn’t matter — this is my bid price for the manuscript as described, whether we call it 450 pages or 992 pages. What matters is that I have a definition for a page that I apply when calculating my fee.

This is important because I charge by the page, not by the hour. I have a high EHR that I want to meet and a key to knowing whether I can meet that EHR is knowing how many pages I can expect to edit in an hour. The more pages I can edit, the higher my EHR.

In contrast, if I charged by the hour, aside from the fact that my true EHR would be significantly lower than my hourly rate, it wouldn’t matter how many pages I could edit in an hour. I am being paid by time, not by productivity — and I will not be rewarded for being efficient or productive; in fact, I will be punished if I am efficient and productive because I will earn less (in gross) on the project. When I charge by the page (or by the project), I am rewarded when I am efficient and productive.

Every time I exceed my required EHR, I am given a bonus. In contrast, if I charge by the hour I can never exceed my required EHR (and usually cannot meet it), thus I can never receive a bonus.

I know the concept of EHR can be confusing, maybe even daunting, but combined with a firm definition of what constitutes one manuscript page, it is really the best way to determine what you should be charging.

In Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part III), we will discuss tracking the EHR.

Links to the other articles in this series:

October 10, 2012

The Business of Editing: Best Price “Bids”

Filed under: Business of Editing — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , ,

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.

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