An American Editor

October 21, 2015

The Business of Editing: Fundamental Business Mistakes That Editors Make

Editors are often connoisseurs of language first and of business last. People become editors for many reasons; few become editors because they have evaluated editing as a business and decided that they can make their fortune as an editor. People become freelance editors for a variety of reasons, often including as a reason the desire to be their own boss — but without fully understanding what it means to run a business.

Ask your colleagues to show you their business plan — the one they used to decide to setup Gonzo’s Editorial Services and storm the editorial barricades. Both of us will be surprised if they have one to show you.

This is not anything unusual in the business world. Many, if not most, small businesses are established without a business plan and without fully understanding what is involved in running and maintaining a business. But editors seem to be especially neglectful of acquiring the skills to run a business successfully before starting the business — they often look for courses on editing, but not on business, and most editing programs offer little by way of business skill development. And in the United States, there is no national organization that offers a comprehensive editorial business skill-building course.

When I started as an editor (in January it will be 32 years ago), I had a leg up on nearly all my competition when it came to business skills — I had already been involved in and had run several successful small businesses. Having those business skills, combined with the editorial skills I had developed working for a publisher in-house, I was able to rapidly grow my editing business.

Not having those basic business skills is a fundamental mistake that editors make. Perhaps an even more fundamental mistake is the refusal to recognize that they are running a business and need to learn and develop basic business skills. Too many times have I been told by colleagues that they are editorial artisans, not tradespersons or businesspersons. Such thinking limits an editor to earning a basic living (maybe; too many do not even earn at that level) but not much more.

If editors were more businesslike, the first thing they would do is evaluate whether editing was the business for them. Knowing how to do something, even knowing how to do it well, is usually not enough to ensure success. You can be the world’s greatest editor yet have no clients and no income or too few clients or too little income, all because you haven’t the necessary business skills to succeed. Perhaps, then, being a freelance editor is not the correct business for you.

What I often hear is that “I am satisfied with what I earn” or “I am satisfied with the number of clients (projects) I have.” But delve a bit deeper and what one discovers is that the person has come to terms with their situation; they have become satisfied out of necessity, not from choice.

A sure sign of weak business skills is charging a fee that is not enough to raise the editor above the poverty line (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It). When a colleague tells me that they do not need more, it is sometimes because they have supplemental income, such as a pension or a significant other who is paying the bills. But in that case, they are not treating editing as a business; it is more of a hobby — a business needs to stand or fall financially on its own. When they tell me that their clients cannot afford more, I wonder why they aren’t seeking clients who can pay more. I also wonder how they know their clients cannot afford more. For most of us, our clients are from all over the country and world — we do not know them except via impersonal contact. At what point have we crossed that line that divides our interests from our client’s interests to say that our clients are always honest and are more important than ourselves? As far as I know, editing is not a path to sainthood.

Not objectively evaluating what we need to charge is a fundamental business mistake editors make. When you buy groceries, the prices you pay are not arrived at via crystal ball gazing or tossing dice in the air and seeing how they land. A lot of calculation goes into determining the price to charge for a container of yogurt. The grocery wants to charge enough to be sure that it can meet its expenses and open its doors tomorrow, but not so much that you will shop elsewhere. There is also a psychology to pricing: charge too little and clients do not respect you or your skills; charge too much and clients will go elsewhere.

Why do editors think editing is any different a business than, say, a grocery? Probably because editors do not view editing as a business and do not think we have a product to sell. Consider how you set your rate (see, e.g., On the Basics: Dealing with the Perennial Question of Setting Rates for Our Work). Many editors will say they looked at what other editors were charging for similar services. (How do they know the other editors’ services are similar? All that we really know is that they are doing “copyediting,” not how they define “copyediting” nor how good they are at copyediting.) Or they checked out some “national rate chart” (needless to say, without checking out how valid that rate chart is; see, e.g., Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts). And when they found that their colleagues were charging $20 an hour, they charged $20 an hour — even though to meet their expenses they need $30 an hour (see Business of Editing: What to Charge).

It is not that editors do not survive at these rates; they do. But one needs to look at how “well” they are surviving at such rates. In some cases, they are able to survive because someone else in the household is bringing in sufficient money to make up the difference. Or because they are retired and have a supplemental income. What happens to the editor when that other income is lost? It is a question not posed and not answered.

What editors miss is that they are a business and they need to evaluate what they are doing as a business, which means as if they had no other income source. How successful are they if they cannot stand on their own?

Once we begin to view our editorial services as a business, we can apply all of the business fundamentals to our service — not just fees, but also invoicing, marketing, defining our services, deciding which projects we will accept and which we will reject, and determining what constitutes our business day and week, and more. When we get a handle on these things, we will see that our path has changed — for the better.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays:

May 13, 2015

It’s Fundamental & Professional, Too

One of the more widely disseminated and read essays on An American Editor in recent times was “The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor” in which I stated that one sign of an unprofessional editor is inflexibility. As we all are aware, there are other makings, too. Some are more unprofessional than others, but all contribute to making an editor unprofessional.

Today’s makings are not only small signs of unprofessionalism, but they are contrary to fundamental principles of good business. Editing is a business, at least for me. I know that for some editors, editing is a part-time, second income job intended to bring in enough money to pay for next year’s vacation or a new car, but not intended to be the primary source for money to keep the family fed, clothed, and sheltered. But that’s not me.

I run my editing service as if it were Apple or Microsoft or General Motors — to bring in new clients and new projects, to be profitable, to earn for me a generous income. Consequently, I approach decisions that affect my business with all the care and caution that I can.

Fundamental to my “business plan” is to be seen as a professional editor. Clients may not like an editing decision I make, but there is never a doubt that I am professional. I can support my decisions if asked, and if I encounter a problem that will affect schedule, I address it head on and quickly — I do not wait for a manageable problem to become unmanageable before tackling it.

Which brings me to today’s makings of an unprofessional editor: replying to emails and answering the telephone.

Simmering in my thoughts these past few weeks have been my dealings with a couple of colleagues — or perhaps I should say “lack of dealings.” The quickest way to chase away a client is to ignore the client; similarly, the quickest way to lose an opportunity is to not grasp it when offered.

I had inquiries from a couple of potential clients for some good specialty work. By “good” I mean above the usual pay and for reliable clients. But the work was outside what I do; I have been at this long enough (31 years) and I’m old enough (“old” covers it) that I limit what I am willing to do and the types of clients for whom I am willing to work. So when these offers came in, I decided to send the clients elsewhere.

But when I send a client elsewhere, I usually contact the person to whom I want to send the client to make sure she is interested in the job and has the time to do it to meet the client’s schedule. My first contact attempt is by telephone, my second is by email — there is no third attempt.

The First Attempt: Telephone

When I telephone, I call during “normal” business hours; that is, during those hours that most of us consider business hours. I realize that my business hours do not match your business hours, and that is fine, but how about a return telephone call sometime this century? And that’s a sign that maybe I am not contacting a professional.

Every business owner understands, or should understand, that returning a telephone call is important if you want to keep current clients and gain new clients. There are several aspects to this “problem,” but two to focus on are these: (1) the call should be returned within a reasonable time, which in today’s world means no more than a few hours, and the quicker the better, and (2) you don’t return a telephone call by sending a text message or an email.

As for the reasonable time for returning a call, it strikes me that there is something amiss in one’s priorities when, instead of either answering the call or returning it within a short time, you respond to queries that aren’t directed specifically to you or that aren’t directly about either a job you are doing or want to do on lists like LinkedIn or make new posts on Twitter or Facebook. I know that when I call a colleague and leave a message that says I need to talk to her about a job but before I get a response I see her post messages in a forum, I lose interest in sending work to her. I wonder about her priorities.

If I have taken the time to telephone, does it not indicate that I wish to speak with you, not exchange emails or text messages? Explaining about a job or a client goes much faster by telephone than by texting, yet colleagues respond to telephone calls by texting.

I think not answering the telephone, not promptly returning a telephone call, and responding by texting/email rather than calling are all indications of a lack of professionalism. If there is a reason why you could not respond either quickly or by telephone, then an apology-explanation is appropriate.

Remember this: Editing is a person-to-person business that requires people skills. Being a good editor is not sufficient to be successful; interpersonal skills are important. Consequently, courtesy and good business sense as regards people are keys and indicators of professionalism. Do you like it when your doctor or your plumber doesn’t return your telephone call? How does it make you feel? Does it make you think they value you as a client?

The Second Attempt: Email

If time passes and I do not get a return call, I attempt contact by email. Sometimes I send an email immediately after leaving a voice message in which I ask the colleague to call me as soon as possible as I have a job to discuss with her. The email specifically asks for a telephone call.

I usually get a response — eventually and by email. By this time, I have decided not to pass the job on to this colleague because she didn’t respond as asked and offered no explanation for failing to do so. (There is also the question of how prompt her response was.)

This, too, is a business fundamental. When a client indicates a response method preference, a good businessperson adheres to that preference. It does not matter whether the client’s reason is silly or for national security — it is fundamental that it is the client who is in charge at this stage and the last thing that should be done is irritate the client.

I think not responding in the manner requested is an indication that the editor believes she is more important than the client, which bodes ill for the future business relationship. As I said earlier, courtesy and good business sense as regards people are keys and indicators of professionalism. Ignoring client requests and not responding promptly, in the absence of apology and explanation, is worrisome. How will my manuscript be treated if I’m treated as if my preferences matter naught?

The Professional Editor…

The professional editor cares about the impression she is making. She knows that everything she does communicates to her client (or potential client) her professionalism (or lack thereof). Most of us want to be viewed as professional. Consequently, we need to think about how we handle the mundane aspects of our business — are we communicating professionalism or giving signs of unprofessionalism?

We spend a lot of time and effort creating our presentation to the outside world — making sure our email signature is just right, that our website looks professional, that our forum messages demonstrate professionalism — so it seems foolish to let those efforts be undermined the little things.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays —

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: