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 27, 2017

A Continuing Frustration — The “Going Rate”

Sadly for me, I still read editing-related blogs and posts on forums like LinkedIn. I say sadly because there is little more frustrating to me than to read the repetitive, advice-seeking posts and the repetitive, well-meaning, but usually incorrect and nearly always factually incomplete responses.

How many times does it have to be said that what I charge a client and what Betsy charges a client is wholly irrelevant to what you should charge a client? Apparently, it is something that cannot be said either frequently or emphatically enough because rarely does a day pass without someone (or multiple someones) asking something similar to “What is the going rate?”

If I say I charge $50 an hour and Betsy says she charges $20 an hour and Phil says he also charges $20 an hour, what is the answer to the going rate question? Add Susan ($10), Robert ($15), and Jeremy ($25) to the mix. Does the answer change? Have you really gotten an answer? Even if the universe of editors is small (say, 1,000 editors in total), which we know is not the case (there are more than 100,000 editors in the United States alone), how representative of the whole universe of editors are the responses from me, Betsy, Phil, Susan, Robert, and Jeremy?

After getting a bunch of responses, the asker usually decides she now has an answer, say $20/hour. But she has such incomplete information that the number she has decided is the “going rate” is useless — too much necessary information is missing, information that qualifies (explains) each response.

For example, I didn’t tell you that I have been in the editing business for more than 30 years, bill at least 1,800 hours each year and have done so for at least the past 25 years, only work with tier 1 publishers, and only do copyediting of manuscripts that exceed 1,500 manuscript pages. Betsy didn’t mention that she does editing part-time (after her day job as a senior executive at a Fortune 100 company) for relaxation, has been editing for 3 years, and bills no more than 200 hours in a good year. Phil didn’t mention that he is struggling to find enough work to edit full-time and is slowly building his business, which is focused on working with university students to improve their research papers and resumes. Fortunately for Phil, his spouse is the primary household income provider and they live in a low-cost area where a household income of $35,000 lets one live decently. Phil also didn’t mention that he started his business only 3 weeks ago and has edited only two 5-page papers.

Susan, the low-baller, didn’t mention that she is a retired software engineer (retired 8 years ago) who took up editing to stave off boredom. She was a database specialist and now edits only technical articles intended for publication in specific database journals. She doesn’t need the income but feels she has to charge something for her work. And because she is retired, she limits the number of hours she is willing to work as an editor each month to 15 or fewer.

And so it goes.

Is this information important? Surely it is if you want someone else to tell you what to charge your clients. Why? Because you are a new fiction editor working with your first indie author on the author’s first novel and when you ask what the going rate is, shouldn’t you compare apples with apples, not apples with oranges? Doesn’t (shouldn’t) the response of the fiction editor who has edited 200 novels over the past 5 years carry more weight than someone like me or Betsy or Phil or Susan?

The usual response is that having an idea of what others charge is important so that the asker doesn’t price herself out of the market. Really!?

Suppose every responder to your question said exactly the same number — $15/hour. Now you feel confident that you, too, can (should) charge $15/hour. But you are still ignoring significant missing information and its impact on what you should (need to) charge. If you can only get enough work to enable you to bill for 20 hours a week, your gross earnings will be $300 per week. What if you can’t get enough work to bill for 52 weeks? Your gross yearly income will be less than $15,600 (the 52-week amount). Will that be enough to pay rent, utilities, and food, let alone anything else? Is the 52-week total ($15,600) enough?

My point is that not only do you need more information from responders to be able to make any use of their responses, but you need to have already analyzed your own economic needs. If you have analyzed your economic needs, then why do you need to ask the question? You already know what you have to charge in order to survive, so what difference does it make what the rest of the world charges? Either you can earn what you need to earn or you need to find a job (or a combination of jobs) that enables you to meet your financial needs.

The answer usually given is that if the going rate is $20 an hour, then that is all I can expect to charge, so it doesn’t matter that I need $50 an hour. And this is where the businessperson in you needs to come front and center.

Few editors can charge more than the “going rate” and actually get work. The confusion is in the terminology: for the businessperson, “I need to charge $50/hour” = “my effective hourly rate (EHR) needs to equal $50.”

The businessperson calculates what she needs to charge to make a profit and then figures out how to charge so that she makes that profit. It may mean using a different charging method; for example, charging by the page rather than by the hour, or defining a page by character count rather than by words, or something else. It may mean changing niches; for example, going from working with packagers to working directly with authors or changing from fiction to academic treatises.

The businessperson also plans what steps she needs to take to meet that EHR. As I have stated many times on An American Editor and elsewhere, I realized that to meet my financial goals I needed to streamline editing processes without sacrificing quality. My answer was macroizing as many tasks as I could and figuring out how to make Microsoft Word work for me. That process was what led to my creating and expanding EditTools. The process also led to my buying other software, like Editor’s Toolkit Plus, rather than reinventing the wheel.

Editors need to rethink their approach to the business side of editing. I know a lot of editors who are excellent editors but not-so-good businesspersons and who prefer to downplay, if not outright ignore, the business side of being an independent editor, that is, all the things that were done by someone else when you were an employee instead of a business owner. The balance needs to be changed so that editing skills and business skills are more in balance. It is one thing to have the scales tip in favor of editing, and quite another to have the scales heavily weighted toward editing. Perfect balance is not needed, just closer to balance.

One step in that direction is to get sufficient information about a responder’s business when a responder tells you what the “going rate” is. In addition, you might inquire how the responder decided to charge what she charges. Is she charging $20/hour because her client offered that amount, or because she calculated what she needs to earn an hour, or because someone else told her that was the “going rate”? I would give the least amount of credence to an answer that was based on someone else having told the responder that was the going rate, and the most credence to the number she actually calculated.

Regardless, it is time for editors to wise up to the fact that there is no such thing as a “going rate” — there is only what rate someone else is earning/charging and usually that rate is an arbitrary one, essentially grabbed from air and not supported by a solid informational foundation. With a new year arriving soon, it is time to become more of a businessperson and focus more on the business aspects of being independent editors.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 23, 2013

Worth Noting: The Business of Editing in eBook Form

I am pleased to announce that The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper, is now available in ebook form in the ePub format. Kindle (Amazon) format is expected to release shortly,  so for those looking for the Kindle format, keep an eye on Amazon.

To purchase the book in ePub format, visit https://www.swreg.org/com/storefront/47578/product/47578-23.

For more information about the book, see “Worth Noting: The Business of Editing in Print.”

November 15, 2013

Worth Noting: The Business of Editing in Print

Over the several years that I have been writing the An American Editor blog, some readers have urged me to write a book on the business of editing. I admit that writing a book has not been one of my driving life passions, but eventually I caved.

The result is the just-published The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper (ISBN 978-1-4341-0369-7). The book is a compilation of many of the essays I have written for An American Editor (and some guest essays, too). Aside from the essays being in one easily accessible place, the book organizes them by topic and has a comprehensive index, making it easy to locate the information you seek.

The Business of Editing

The Business of Editing

The Business of Editing is for new editors, persons thinking about becoming editors, and experienced editors. The book focuses on the business aspects of editing; not on how to edit, but on how to run an editing business.

The book is available directly from the publisher, Waking Lion Press and Amazon. For some reason I don’t understand, Barnes & Noble lists the book but says it is not available through B&N. Hopefully, for people who prefer B&N, that status will change in the near future. The book may be available through other outlets as well.

If you order directly from Waking Lion Press before December 1, 2013, there is a publisher’s discount. For details, go to the Waking Lion Press website. A sample of the book is available from the Waking Lion Press website or from this link.

No book should stand on its own in the sense of the author doing it all, some of it competently, some of it not. I’ve written numerous times in An American Editor that every author needs a professional “pit crew.” And so it was true with The Business of Editing.

The Business of Editing was professionally edited and organized by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter and Jack Lyon. Jack also did the layout, and Ruth and Jack also wrote introductions to the material. The book was professionally indexed by Sue Nedrow. This “pit crew” took what would have been just another book and made it into a wonderfully useful tool for professional editors.

July 29, 2011

Worth Noting: Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century

Just a quick note to remind you of the upcoming “Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century” conference sponsored by Communication Central and scheduled for September 30 – October 1, 2011, in Baltimore, MD.

The sessions are described here; registration information is available here. Presenter bios are available here (you may need to scroll down to see them).

Here’s my disclaimer: Although I am presenting and doing the keynote address, I will receive no compensation — direct or indirect — other than expense reimbursement. I look forward to participating in Communication Central conferences as a way of sharing with colleagues what I have learned during my 27 years as a freelance editor.

For those thinking about attending, you can save some money by registering early. The cutoff date for early registration is August 15, 2011. Information about early registration is available here. I hope to meet many of you at the conference.

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