An American Editor

January 7, 2015

The Business of Editing: Discounting Rates

It has been asked: Is discounting your rate ever justified? The answer is “yes, but not usually.” We have all been faced with the dilemma: Should we offer a discount in order to get the job? Or because the potential client is a student? Or [fill in the blank]? The answer is not easy. I begin where I always begin when it comes to rates — with the effective hourly rate (EHR). Discounting a rate is like setting a rate in that you must first know how much you have to earn to keep yourself afloat. It is neither very smart nor does you any good to earn less than your required EHR.

Many years ago I would have said that it is better to have some income than no income. That was in my days of not applying business practices to my business and not realizing the potential of my business. The truth is that it is not better to have some income than no income. It is only better if that income meets your required EHR. Note that I am speaking of required, not desired, EHR. I learned quickly that rather than take on work that was below my required EHR I was better served spending my time marketing myself, trying to find work that would meet my required EHR. This is also true when it comes to discounting my rate.

I never discount to a rate that is below my required EHR; I want to be able to pay my bills, which is something I will not be able to do if I do not meet my required EHR. There are several factors at play. First, before discounting my rate, I need to be earning overall more than my required EHR, and preferably close to my desired EHR. It is that difference — the difference between my earned EHR and my required EHR — that is the negotiable area.

Second, the client needs to be a repeating client. It does me no good financially to provide a discount to a one-off client, even if I think that client will tell friends and neighbors how great I am. The reason is that the one-off client will also tell friends and neighbors what he paid and the friends and neighbors will be expecting a similar discount. For repeat clients, especially institutional clients, I am willing to consider a discount because I know I can make up for the loss on the particular project on future projects or because it is worth my while to charge a little less in exchange for a larger volume of work. Which brings me to the third point.

Third, volume discounting is reasonable as long as the discount does not go below my required EHR. In the case of a volume client, I always keep in mind my Rule of Three (see “The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three“) as it will do me no particular good to have a lot of business that I am losing money on. But volume clients are what I want because such clients assure me year-round profitable work. In a sense we have gone full circle. Discounting one’s rate is acceptable in the circumstance that doing so does not bring the rate below one’s required EHR.

Where most of us part ways is with the other requirements. Usually the argument is that

  • it is a new subject area for me that I want to explore
  • the client is poor
  • the subject matter of the project is one that I am very interested in

and other similar “reasons.”

The first question to ask yourself is this: Are you a business or a charity? If you are a charity, then these reasons have some merit; if you are a business, these reasons have no merit. As a business, you need to earn enough to stay in business and even to earn a profit. Why remain in a business that cannot provide income sufficient for your needs?

The second question to ask yourself is this: If I undertake this project, will it preclude me from taking on a higher-paying project? If it will, then it should be avoided. Why take on a project that costs you both money and opportunity?

The third question to ask yourself is this: If I take on this project will I have the time and money and energy to market myself to better-paying potential clients? If no, then don’t take on this discounted project. Discounting is fine when you are in a position to do so, when your business is such that whatever loss you will take can be made up for. It is also fine when it is connected to volume. But under no circumstance is it fine to discount below your required EHR, which means you must have calculated your required EHR beforehand. (To calculate your required EHR, see the five-part series “Business of Editing: What to Charge.”)

One thing we haven’t considered is the worth/value of your editing. I consider myself a highly skilled professional. My services can make a difference. How valuable are those services? The more valuable they are, the less willingly they should be discounted. I differentiate my services by the price I charge and the quality I provide; discounting takes away that differentiation. And it becomes a slippery slope: If I discounted today, why not tomorrow? The consumer will neither understand nor accept the fine differences we use to distinguish among projects and clients; if my price was $x yesterday, the consumer expects it to be $x today and on both days expects high-quality service.

Are there times you can discount? Yes. Are there times when you should discount? Yes. The way your  recognize those times begins with knowing your required EHR and evaluating whether giving the discount will further a legitimate business interest. In the absence of either, no discounting should be given, and under no circumstance should a discount result in an EHR below your required EHR.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 15, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall be Profitable

Along with my recurring column called “The Business of Editing,” I’ve decided to start another series titled “The Commandments,” in which I, and perhaps some guests, will discuss commandments I (we) believe editors and authors should follow.

The series begins with this commandment for editors and writers, although I will couch most of it in terms of editing: Thou shall be profitable! It is primarily aimed, of course, at editors who have their own businesses, but is worth keeping in mind even for in-house staffers.

What good is it to be in business and not be profitable? Being profitable is more than just having a steady income. It means earning more than it costs you to run your business, and it means earning at least what you would earn if you were working for someone else — that is, more than the minimum wage!

The question of profitability is difficult, but the reality is that, if you cannot earn enough to cover business and living costs, including such costs as health insurance and retirement, then you are not profitable — and being profitable is probably the one inviolable commandment for any business.

I understand that there are other rewards of being self-employed, not the least of which is not being employed by someone else and being able to set your own schedule. But these are really illusory benefits if you do not earn enough to afford what are considered today the basics of life. If you are not profitable, the answer is not to give up, but to adjust your approach to the business of editing.

I remember my very first months as a freelance editor. In those days, I had no clients on day one. My first year as a freelance editor was a lean year — I didn’t earn enough to pay my mortgage, let alone feed my family. My turnaround year was my second year, when I doubled the gross of my first year, which was followed by my third year, when I doubled the gross of my second year.

In that first year, I had to make a decision: Pay the mortgage or use the money to promote my business. I went back and forth about what to do. In the end, I decided to skip the mortgage payment and use the money to promote my business. My thinking went along these lines: If I paid the mortgage, I put off for one month the loss of home for just one month; if I promoted my business, I gave myself an opportunity to put off the loss of home permanently, because the cure for my problem was more (profitable) work. As it turned out, I made the right choice.

This is the kind of choice that every business faces: Do you pay a current bill and hope enough business comes in to pay future bills, or do you invest in something that might encourage more business to come your way (or make the business you do have more profitable)? It needs to be noted that part of the problem for editors is that editing is a hands-on profession. It requires, like all crafts, that person-time be spent on the material. After all, if someone doesn’t actually read the manuscript, it will never be edited.

Spending person-time, however, also acts as a limiter on precisely how much work an editor can handle. Unlike manufacturing widgets, it isn’t possible to simultaneously read two pages from two different manuscripts and edit both — at least not do so and provide a professional edit. Consequently, editors need to find ways to speed up the work they do, do the work more efficiently and productively, and thus make room in the schedule for more manuscripts to edit.

In other words, profitability is the result of a combination of factors: a constant flow of manuscripts, to be edited at a price that will give the editor the potential to be profitable, and which will be edited efficiently and speedily.

Few editors I know have taken the time to analyze exactly what is the point of profitability for their business. One telltale sign is that the editor charges by the hour rather than by the page or the project or the word. Consider this: A person who works for a large company may earn $20 an hour, but, if you analyze the company’s books, you will discover that the employee costs the company another $15 to $20 an hour — or more — which means the company has to earn the equivalent of $35 to $40 an hour just to break even on the employee.

Self-employed editors do not think in those terms. They think that they have earned $25 an hour for 30 hours of work this week and so they have made $750 this week. But they haven’t really made $750. Approximately one-third has to be set aside for federal, state, and local taxes. That reduces the amount earned to $500. Because we all rely on the Internet these days to send and receive manuscript files and to find the resources we need, for example, to verify that a word is correctly spelled or used, there is the cost of the Internet connection. I grant that cost can range all over the place, but for minimal service, I suspect it runs at least $25 a month, so for this week, let’s allocate $6.25. Similarly with telephone service. Most editors I know have a cell phone. Again, plans and costs can vary widely, but I suspect that, on average, the cost runs $80 a month. For this example, let’s allocate $20.

I don’t want to go into each and every detail; you get the idea. But even with just these three allocations, that $750 has become $473.75 — and we know that there are more costs of doing business that need to come out of that sum, such as an allocation for rent/mortgage, for electric/gas, and for insurance, not even counting health insurance.

And there is one other problem with looking at this week’s earnings and projecting: It is not safe to assume that, if you earned a gross of $750 this week, you will earn at least that same gross each and every week. Experience indicates that some weeks will match, some will be less, and some will be more (which is why we pay an estimated tax).

Instead, editors need to determine what their hourly costs are and what their profit above that cost should be. That, then, becomes the amount you need to earn as an effective hourly rate (Remember our discussion of effective hourly rates? See Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand and In Editing, It’s the Little Things That Count), which is a truer indicator of your profitability than the hourly rate you charge.

If you are not going to run a profitable business, why run a business? If your editing is not profitable and you do not take the steps to make it profitable, should you not rethink your career plan? I know, as I said before, that there are other reasons for being self-employed and for being an editor. And these are important. For example, there is no sense being an editor if you hate reading and dealing with author foibles. On the other hand, as much as you may love what you are doing, do you not also need to eat?

Consequently, this commandment: Thou shall be profitable! And if you are not, you will think about how to change your business plan so that you do become profitable.

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