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.

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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