An American Editor

December 18, 2013

The Business of Editing: Opportunity Knocks

Filed under: Business of Editing,Editorial Matters — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
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In previous essays, I discussed how one should present oneself to the world at large as well as what one should be — solopreneur or company (see, e.g., Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (I), Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (II), and Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (III)). As I pointed out in prior essays, being a “company” does not have to mean you actually have employees or subcontractors; you can be a solopreneur in company guise.

I am back to the topic for a limited purpose: to discuss opportunity. It has been approximately 9 months since the publication of the last essay in the “Solopreneur” series, and a lot has happened during that time that makes me believe we should be revisiting this question.

During those 9 months, I have had an opportunity to talk face-to-face with colleagues about the issues and I have had opportunities presented to me that would not be presented to colleagues who avoid the label “company.” The most recent example of an opportunity occurred a week ago when I was asked to undertake an editing project in the upcoming year that will run 16,000+ manuscript pages.

I understand that many editors (a) do not want to work on such large projects and (b) do not want to undertake projects in the areas in which I work. I also understand (c) that if your field is, for example, fiction, it isn’t likely that a novel will come along that runs that many pages (not counting, of course, some seemingly never-ending series). And I also understand that (d) many of you prefer to work on short pieces, such as journal articles or magazine articles. All of that is well and good and no one should think that large projects are better for everyone.

The issue is one of opportunity. The opportunity to say no or yes. I like the big projects because they provide a revenue stream that I can count on. They also mean I have less downtime between projects and that I have to spend less time, effort, and money on marketing. But the real reason why I think and act like a company and not a solopreneur is for the opportunity to decide that I prefer certain types of work or wish to shy away from other types.

I’m sure that some of you who prefer to work on short pieces, such as journal articles, are saying that this is not relevant to you. But it is. Just a few weeks ago, I finished a journal project that involved 109 articles that needed to be edited within a relatively short time frame. I think this was an opportunity that I would have missed out on had I not been a company.

While working on those journal articles, other opportunities came my way. The result is that I have several major projects already booked for 2014. However, at the same time, I turned down several opportunities. The key is opportunity.

But there is another aspect to opportunity that is a companion to the yes or no opportunity: the opportunity to change directions.

Consider my own story. I am a lawyer. I practiced law for a number of years before finding my way into publishing. When I found my way into publishing, it was with a law-book publisher. In other words, I hadn’t strayed far from my training and experience.

When I became a freelancer, I fully expected my business to be focused on legal publications, and that was who I marketed to. But one of the first responders to my marketing was a copyediting supervisor for the medical division of a publisher offering me an opportunity to edit medical books, something I had never done. We talked about it and I decided that maybe I should give it a try and pursue a different course than to focus on law-related books. That opportunity to change directions is what put me on the path that I still follow today.

Even then I was portraying my services as a company, and it was the thought that I could handle multiple projects simultaneously and relieve her of the supervisory burdens of handling several editors that drew the supervisor to contact me initially.

Opportunity comes in many guises. Whether we decide to grab an opportunity when it appears is secondary to whether we are afforded the opportunity to make a decision to grab or not grab.

I learned early in my career that I needed to make opportunity knock on my door before it went knocking on a colleague’s door. It is difficult to say yes (or no) if I am not even asked. Getting asked is key in our business.

Over the past year, I have been offered many opportunities that would not have been offered except that I am viewed as a company with more capabilities than a solopreneur can offer. For example, only a few months ago I was asked to submit a quote for the editing portion of a project bid. I was asked to quote an editing price for quantities of 5,000, 10,000, and 15,000 manuscript pages per month. My client assumed that I could either handle that amount of workflow or could/would hire enough editors to do so. The client’s assumption was based on my presenting my business as a company.

Again, what we are talking about is how we present ourselves. We can have the trappings of a company without having any employees but ourself. It is how we invoice, how we answer telephones, our signatures, our domain names, etc. that give us that aura.

I know I repeat myself, but I want to emphasize that the issue is one of having opportunity knock on our door, not of being forced to do work of the type that we do not want to do or of being required to hire or contract with other editors. It is the opportunity to say yes or no to projects that we otherwise would not be asked to do or to change directions. Today we may love editing large manuscripts without having to deal directly with authors; tomorrow we may discover through a presenting opportunity that we really would like to work on smaller projects and deal directly with authors. Without opportunity knocking on the door, how would we ever find out?

I’ll close on a humorous note. Here is opportunity knocking in action. 🙂 Relax and enjoy “Opportunity Knocks — The Honeymooners.” It is well worth watching.

June 3, 2013

Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (III)

In the prior two articles on this topic (see Part I and Part II), the discussion centered around the what (what it means to be a solopreneur or a company). As one commenter pointed out, the reality is that even a solopreneur is a “company” with the solopreneur being an employee of that company. But the difference for our discussion lies less in the taxing authority definitions than in commonly understood definitions.

What was missing from the earlier discussions and needs to be addressed is what the future looks like. I’ve written on this topic before (see, e.g., Does the Future of Editing Lie in Tiers?The Future of Editing: Group Sourcing?, and Is There a Future in Editing?), but our discussion of solopreneur versus company prompts me to write again.

To see our future as editors in the context of solopreneurs versus company, we need look no farther than the changes that have come about in the legal and medical professions. Professions like plumbing are not good comparisons because both the worker and the work have to be local; it would be pretty difficult to hire a plumber located in San Francisco to fix a leaking faucet in an apartment in Los Angeles, much less one in New York or Bangladesh. But the limitation faced by the plumber, and at one time thought also to apply to doctors and lawyers, doesn’t apply to doctors and lawyers in the global economy. It certainly doesn’t apply to editors.

True there is still a “thriving” solopreneur approach to law and medicine, but if you watch the trends, you will discover that, whereas 90% of doctors and lawyers were once solopreneurs, today that number is rapidly approaching less than 25% with no end in sight as to the decline.

That there will always be some solopreneurs is really just an excuse. What doctors and lawyers have discovered is that solopreneurship is generally not economically feasible. Back in the days when I practiced law, the movement was toward two-person offices. It wasn’t long before it was a movement toward three- to five-person offices, and the trend has continued. Globalization and insurance and lack of insurance have made the change happen.

The discussion of solopreneur versus company, when phrased in terms of personal preferences, ignores changing economics — it misses the foundational point of the discussion: survival in one’s chosen field; in our case, the field of editing. To choose between solopreneur and company, one needs to answer this question: Am I earning the net amount of money I want or need each year in my current form? If I am, then nothing more needs be discussed. But if I am not, then one of the several things that needs to be thought about is whether I am in the correct “form” to survive.

Another question that has to be asked and answered is this: Where do I fall on the bell curve of working life? For example, in my case, I am on the downslope side; although I continue to work, I am eligible to retire. Consequently, my approach to the solopreneur versus company question is different (or should be different) than that of someone on the upslope side. If I were on the upslope side and not making the income I wanted, I’d be looking at what changes I can make to get me the income I want.

I don’t disagree that it is important for an editor to be comfortable in his business model. What I do disagree with is the idea that one needs to sacrifice income for comfort. Each of us has our own strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are better editors than others; some are better businesspeople than others. Some are better editors than businesspeople and vice versa. The idea of collaboration — or a company — is to take advantage of the strengths of each of the people who collaborate (make up the company).

I understand the reasons for solopreneurship but I do not understand making it a god so that one clings to it even in the face of not making a sufficient income.

When it comes to professions that are reluctant to change, I think editing is one of the most reluctant. We tend to cling to what has worked because it has worked, even if it hasn’t worked for us or it once worked for us but no longer works for us. Many of us still edit as if we are editing using paper and pencil — even though we are editing using a computer. (I even know a few editors who still refuse to edit or proofread except on paper — and they have clients who agree!)

The Internet has brought a sea change to editing. Before the Internet, we knew our competition. With the Internet, our competition is anyone and everyone, and that competition has acted as a brake on pricing. The other sea change has been the number of people who want to become editors to supplement their income or because “it looks easy to do.” These “editors” also are a brake on the professional editor’s income.

When we think about solopreneur versus company, we need to think about these economic factors, how they affect us, and what model — taking into account our business skills and interests — will best serve to maximize our incomes and best be able to deal with the sea changes of the future. Just as lawyers and doctors have realized that, to correct the mismatch between their income expectations and income realities, they have had to move away from the solopreneur model, editors, too, may have to come to that realization.

It is not enough to say that there will always be a place for the solopreneur editor. Although true, it fails to account for the ease of entering the profession and the growing number of people who are competing for that same group of clients. It also fails to account for the growing globalization of editing.

The most important thing is not to be quickly dismissive of the company model. Your future may be at stake.

May 29, 2013

Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (II)

Filed under: Business of Editing — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
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In “Business of Editing: Solopreneur or ‘Company’ (I)”, Ruth Thaler-Carter made her case for solopreneurship. There are a couple of fundamental points that I want to address.

An underlying premise of Ruth’s argument is that she is satisfied with her level of income. Although not stated this way, I think that is an implicit recognition that there is a income-limiting factor that is self-imposed by the solopreneurship. That limiting factor is the focus on the smaller projects.

Consider it from just one angle. When Ruth takes on a 25-page journal article, the work is finished in a (relatively) short period of time and Ruth now needs to find additional work. The nature of dealing with small projects it that there is a frequent cycle of work-no work. Ruth may be able to find another project in a day or a week, but the point is that because the project is small it provides a finite return and requires faster return to self-marketing.

When I take on a 6,000-page project, that project could provide work for months, depending on the number of editors needed and the schedule. Large projects limit the work-no work cycle. From a financial perspective, too, the larger project is better because it assures a steady income for a longer period of time.

But that is only one aspect of the large versus small project scenario Ruth discussed. (I am ignoring her statement, “As an editing company, I might miss out on smaller projects that I really enjoy doing.” because it assumes — falsely — that only small projects are enjoyable. Personally, I find book-length and longer projects significantly more enjoyable than short projects. It also falsely assumes that an editing company cannot or does not do small projects.) Ruth’s foundation is that both the solopreneur and the company work on one project at a time. I think that is more true of the solopreneur than of the company; it certainly is not true of my company where we work on multiple projects — or the equivalent — simultaneously.

The single-versus-multiple project is important only from a revenue-generating perspective. If you can only work on one project at a time — and, let’s admit it, an editor can only edit one project at a time even if the editor has three projects in-house for editing; in that case, we edit them sequentially, not simultaneously — and your hourly rate is $30, the most you earn is $30 for one hour of work. On the other hand, if you are able to have work done simultaneously on multiple projects, you can earn that same $30 plus a portion of the other projects.

Another assumption made in the solopreneur argument is that all companies are similarly structured. It does not account for the various arrangements that can be made that can make up a company. The argument confuses the presentation to the world with the arrangement between members of the company. A company can be a traditional employer-employee arrangement or it can be an association or it can be one of myriad other arrangements. But regardless of the arrangement, the presentation to the world of clients is a presentation of unity. It is not safe to assume, as Ruth did, that, depending on the arrangement, she couldn’t end up with “the whole fee [for her work] in [her] pocket, rather than some of it going to colleagues, employees, or subcontractors.”

Consider one possible arrangement. The agreement between the editors is that the editor who brings in the project receives 25% of the fees generated by the project. In this case, the editor has to do nothing to earn the 25% except find the project and sign it on. But suppose it is a project that requires three editors, and the finder is one of the three editors who will edit the project. In this case, the finder would receive 100% of the fee for the material she edits plus 25% of the fee generated by the editing of the other two editors. Doesn’t the finding editor still get “the whole fee in pocket” plus some?

Even if the finding editor received no fee from the other editors’ work, she still would be receiving “the whole fee in pocket” for her work, just the same as if the client’s in-house editor had divided the project among three editors rather than the finding editor dividing the project.

Another assumption Ruth makes to the company approach is that company fees are higher and authors might not be able to afford them. Just as easily, the fees might be significantly lower than those of the solopreneur. Considering the lack of standardization of fees in the editing industry, I’m not sure how one can draw this conclusion. Ruth’s rationale is that companies have overhead and other expenses that solopreneurs don’t have.

Again, this depends on how the company is arranged. In the association-type company where one editor finds the work and then subcontracts parts of the work to other editors, the only increase in costs would be the cost of check writing to pay the subcontractors, a very nominal sum in view of the increased work and fee opportunities. Even in a traditional structure company there need not be significantly greater overhead. In fact, based on my own experience, I can see where the overhead of a traditional company could be less, as well as more, than that of the solopreneur. The solopreneur has to bear any health insurance costs, which can be staggering (until recently, e.g., I was paying $1500 a month) whereas a company doesn’t need to offer it at all. On the other hand, companies do have costs that solopreneurs do not have, such as being required to carry worker’s compensation and disability insurance and contributing half of the cost of Social Security to anyone receiving wages. I suspect that in the end it balances out.

There is no easy, single solution. What it comes down to is trying to predict what the market is going to require in the future. The trends I see increasingly point toward collaboration among editors in some type of arrangement as a company. I think it will become increasingly difficult for the solopreneur to find sufficient amounts of work that pays enough to keep the lights on. The reasons for being a solopreneur will not change but the economics of solopreneurship will.

The argument about solopreneur versus company, however, misses a key point. The primary purpose of a company of editors is to create opportunities to increase work availability and income. This is done by relieving diminishing in-house staff of the responsibility of finding and managing multiple editors. The arrangements between the editors are not what matters; what matters is that a cohesive group of editors who can work together when needed do so and present themselves to potential clients as having that capability. In addition, it enables editors with different areas of expertise to contribute to the group by expanding the areas in which the group can comfortably work.

It is at least something to think about and not dismiss by simply saying, “I became a freelancer so I could work on my own,” especially if what you are earning is less than what you would like to earn or need to earn.

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