An American Editor

July 8, 2015

The Commandments: Thou Shall be Businesslike

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

The value of presenting an editorial services entity as a business has been discussed here several times. A dreary, rainy day of doing more business tasks than actual editing, writing, or proofreading led me to think about what it means to be, and be seen as, a business.

As has, again, been said before, many freelance editors see ourselves as individuals providing services to clients and value our image as individual, independent, freelance workers. We see ourselves as professionals in terms of our training, experience, skill level, and ability to do what our clients need to make their publishing activities better. Many — maybe even most — of us, though, don’t want to be seen as companies or even formally as businesses. There’s a sense that our individualness is something to cherish and that it doesn’t quite fit with the idea of being “a business.”

But being an individual freelancer doesn’t have to mean appearing to be unbusinesslike. And being businesslike, or presenting ourselves as businesses, doesn’t have to mean being a company with employees or subcontractors. You can be an individual editor and still have a businesslike image.

Rich Adin, An American Editor, has laid out several of the factors he considers essential to being seen as a business: regular work and access hours, a formal phone greeting, etc. (For additional views, see the list of select related AAE essays at the end of this essay.) Here are some of the factors I see as helping an individual, whether freelance writer, editor, proofreader, indexer, whatever, present a businesslike front to the world.

  • Business name: Even if you function as a sole proprietor, it probably looks better to have a company name. I’ve been doing this so long as an individual that I can usually get away with being seen simply as Ruth Thaler-Carter, Freelance Writer/Editor, especially because I started out more as a writer than an editor or proofreader. If I were to start out today, though, I’d use something other than my own name as the identity of my business. I have had a couple of clients request that I provide a business name, so my business checking account has one so I can deposit checks regardless of how they’re made out.
    Your business name should say something about what you do. Poetic names like “Blue Horizons” are all very well, but they don’t tell prospective clients what services you offer, so they won’t help you gain new projects or be visible on the Internet. Blue Horizons Editorial Services, sure.
    Opinions vary on what to call ourselves. I have no problem with being called a freelancer, but some colleagues prefer to use consultant, contractor, entrepreneur, or even (business) owner.
    Opinions also vary about whether to incorporate. This is something worth discussing with an accountant or tax professional.
  • Website: A businesslike editor will have a website, and it will look polished and professional. No amateur snapshots of the editor with kids, cats or dogs, messy desks; no photos of someone other than yourself pretending to be you. No irrelevant information. Easily navigable. Information about your background, training, experience, skills, and why someone should hire you. Whenever possible, examples of your work or, if that isn’t doable, strong testimonials from clients.
  • Work samples: A businesslike freelancer will have a way to present work samples to potential clients without violating the confidentiality or egos of past and present clients. This is more of an issue with editing and proofreading services than with writing; after all, most writing work is meant to be published and seen, while much editing or proofreading work is meant to be invisible. The finished product is what matters, and most clients don’t want the world to see what a mess their original versions were before we made our improvements. Always ask before making editing/proofreading samples accessible; use only excerpts that don’t identify the client; look for other ways to present your skills, such as testimonials and references from clients who have been happy with your work.
  • E-mail address: A businesslike editor will have a domain-based e-mail address. Using Ruth@writerruth.com or owner@FreelanceWhatever.com looks more professional and more businesslike than Ruth@gmail.com or FreelanceWhatever@aol.com. Sending e-mail from your domain-based account also might get messages through when major servers like AOL, Hotmail, Juno, etc., experience blockages for some reason. Having such an e-mail address also means you can change service providers every other day without having to notify dozens, if not hundreds, of colleagues and clients of a new address.
  • E-mail signature: Every e-mail message you send should include a signature (sigline). Opinions vary about what it should include; mine has my full name, business name, e-mail address, website URL, Twitter handle, reference to a booklet I’ve written and self-published, and a separate line with the name of the business through which I host an annual conference for freelancers. My e-mail program includes it automatically in every message I send. The only time I have to think about it is when I want to use variants, also stashed in the appropriate area of my e-mail program, that relate to my roles with organizations or clients/projects. Some colleagues include phone numbers in their siglines; I don’t do that much phone contact with clients, so I don’t include my number, but it is on my website and in directory information (yes, I still have a landline), so it’s easy to find when needed.
  • Phone: A businesslike freelancer can have either a landline or a cellphone/smartphone, but whichever you use, will answer it in a businesslike manner. I usually say “Good morning/Good afternoon, this is Ruth,” but some colleagues swear by “I can write about anything®, this is Ruth. How may I help you?” Either way, go beyond a plain “Hi” or “Hello” to let callers know whom they’ve reached when they call you. A businesslike editor also makes sure that their adorable five-year-olds or clueless spouses don’t answer their business phones; that callers don’t have to strain to hear them against background noise of barking dogs, loud TVs, clinking dishes being washed, or intrusive music.
  • Queries, job-listing responses, proposals, and pitches: A businesslike freelancer takes a little extra time to make every query, response to job-list opportunities, proposal, and pitch as perfect as possible. That starts with doing at least nominal research on the publication or potential client before pitching/querying ideas for articles so all are relevant to that publication, and only responding to job listings for which the freelancer actually is qualified. It also includes proofreading all such items before sending them; if necessary, having a friend or colleague take a look at them first.
  • Tools: We’ve talked here several times about the importance of having the right, and many times the most-current, tools for the freelance or editing job. This includes soft- and hardware; backup systems; style manuals to back up editing decisions; even business cards that go with you everywhere. Backup in the sense of equipment or files is one thing, by the way; in terms of coping with a crisis is another. A businesslike editor has colleagues to turn to if illness or injury — your own or that of a child, spouse, sibling, parent, or good friend — interferes with meeting a deadline.
  • Finances: The businesslike editor sets rates appropriate to the editor’s experience and skill level; has a business checking account and credit card for business-related expenses and payments; and has a savings cushion so the editor doesn’t have to beg to be paid earlier than usual or accept projects at rates well below the norm. It’s also important to present requests to resolve late payments in terms of being paid because of having done the work, not needing the money to pay the mortgage.
  • Invoices: A businesslike editor will have invoices that look official and go out promptly on completing a project. They will have all the necessary information to make it easy to get paid — an invoice number; your name; your mailing address and e-mail address so clients can choose between sending checks or paying online; your payment terms; any late fee terms you choose to use; perhaps a statement that the edited version of the work belongs to you until you’ve been paid.
  • Memberships: The businesslike editor will belong to associations or organizations that offer useful benefits such as job opportunities, educational programs, interaction with colleagues, and more — all aspects of being a lifelong learner and professional.

What all this boils down to is that, regardless of whether you want to be a sole-proprietor freelance editor or the owner of an editing company, Thou Shall Be Businesslike in all you do. What else do you do to present a businesslike persona?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

Select Related An American Editor Essays:

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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