An American Editor

June 6, 2016

The Business of Editing: Keeping Records

Information is the most powerful tool any businessperson — including the freelancer — has in her armory. Inadequate information can lead to poor decisions. Information makes smarter decision-making possible.

Businesses keep track of all kinds of information. For some businesses, tracking the political climate is important because they may see sales increases and decreases that depend on what is happening in the local city council or in another country’s energy market.

To be successful as a business, an editor needs to keep records of all kinds. To determine what our baseline price for our services should be, we must keep records that are sufficiently detailed that we can calculate our required effective hourly rate (rEHR). To determine if we are earning at least our rEHR, we need to keep careful records for each project and for all our projects in aggregate; that is, we need both a micro and a macro view.

The information we need is more than just our costs of doing business or of running our homes. We also need to be politically aware. For example, how would Donald Trump’s isolationist positions, should he be elected president, affect the business of editors who have clients outside the United States? If Trump were, for example, to anger China with his protectionist policies, what is the likelihood that China would retaliate in a way that could limit American editors’ work with Chinese authors?

That type of political information, although important, is difficult (if not impossible) both to obtain and to evaluate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. As the election season proceeds, the gathering of such information might lead us to change our marketing strategy — for example, to do less targeting of foreign clients and more targeting of domestic clients.

The thoughtful gathering of information can be the difference between a struggling business and a successful business. I found it very worthwhile in my early years as a freelance editor to track the types of editing I was being hired to do (e.g., copyediting, developmental editing), the types of manuscript (e.g., book, journal, business document, white paper, thesis), the subject matter of the manuscript (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, medical, legal, thriller), the type of service I was providing (e.g., editing, proofreading, desktop publishing), and who was doing the hiring (e.g., large publisher, boutique publisher, author, agent). I also kept track of earnings for each.

As a result of the information I gathered, I discovered early in my career that I needed to focus on book-length nonfiction manuscripts from medium to large publishers. I also narrowed the subject-matter fields.

I reconstructed my business to appeal to the potential clients who fit the profile I had determined was best for my business. (A lot of factors went into the decision of what was to be my business profile, and many of those factors were personal to me. You should not view my business profile as being the one you should emulate; what you should do is recognize the need for extensive data gathering about yourself and your business so that you can determine the correct business profile for you.) I stopped taking on small projects; I stopped accepting developmental-editing work outside certain subject areas; I stopped accepting occasional work from local clients; I stopped accepting manuscripts directly from authors; and so on.

I also redesigned my marketing approach so that I focused on those potential clients who I thought could best use my services. I redesigned my business procedures so that I could efficiently handle large volumes of work. And I also established a network of other editors who were willing to subcontract with me but under set conditions.

The information I gathered about my business over the first few years of my freelancing also led me to establish certain business policies. These policies concerned such things as my editing day and week, which we have discussed before (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: The Standard Editing Workday & Workweek), payment terms, and even, back in the 1980s and early 1990s, before the switch to online editing by the vast majority of publishers, that I did online editing only — no hardcopy editing, which was still the primary method.

The information I gathered also let me evaluate whether I was earning enough money to consider remaining a freelance editor. It was from this information that I realized it was wrong to evaluate a client based on a single project, and I created my Rule of Three (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three). I recognize that my Rule of Three is not readily usable when you do not have repeat clients, which is another reason why I changed my potential client focus. To reach the goals I had set for myself, I needed repeat clients, not one-time clients. With one-time clients, each project needs to stand on its own, which can be difficult. No matter how carefully we evaluate a manuscript before agreeing to edit it, we do not know its difficulty until we actually edit it. With repeat clients and limited subject areas, the risk of financial loss on a client (not a particular project) is greatly reduced, so much so that I have rarely had to “fire” a client for lack of profitability during my 32 years of editing.

It is clear that we need information to guide us. The ultimate question comes down to how much detail do we need to track and keep. The answer is that the more detailed the information, the more useful the information. Consider this: When a client approaches you to undertake a project, do you track the time you spend evaluating whether to take on the project? Very few editors track that time; most begin tracking time from the moment they begin editing. Yet the amount of time spent evaluating a project and negotiating on it affects your editing day and week and your profitability. Even if you reject the project, the time spent coming to that conclusion is time you spent and cannot recover.

We tend to think of ourselves as editors first and businesspeople second. That is the opposite of how we should think about what we do. You can be the greatest editor in the world and still starve, be homeless, have no health insurance because you avoid the business aspects. Conversely, you can be one of the worst editors but still eat well, own a home, have health insurance because you paid attention to business.

The key is to balance the requirements of business and editing so that you are both the best businessperson and the best editor you can be. To meet this balance, you need to view yourself as a businessperson first and editor second. Doing so will force you to pay attention to the nitty-gritty details without which you won’t attain the financial success necessary if you want to devote yourself to perfecting your editing, which is what drives us as editors. With business as the first focus, the need for data becomes clear. The next natural steps are to gather the data, interpret the data, and apply the data to your circumstances, but to do so honestly and objectively.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 12, 2014

The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping I

Have you ever wondered why some businesses are successful and others are not? One key ingredient to being successful is knowledge — knowledge about one’s business.

Think about all the ways companies like Google and Facebook collect data on those who use their services — all the ways they “invade your privacy.” Why do they and other companies mine their users for information? Because data is important and these companies either want to sell others data about you or want the data to determine how best to reach you.

It’s true that editors don’t need the same information or even the same detail information, but we still need information about how our business is running. We need to know, for example, what our minimum effective hourly rate needs to be in order to ensure that we charge clients enough to meet our bills. (For a discussion on the effective hourly rate and what to charge, see the 5-part series Business of Editing: What to Charge. Part V includes links to the prior parts. The series should be read in order.)

Note: The following discussion centers on editing and editors. Modifications need to be made for writers and other freelancers, but the basic concepts hold true.

To determine what to charge, how to charge, and whether we are doing the best we can, we need to have data. Consequently, we need to keep records of what we do and know how to analyze those records.

Rule number 1 is to always track your work time. All analysis begins with knowing the amount of time spent on a project, how much time was spent working during a week, how many weeks of work we have over the course of a year. And we need to distinguish between billable work and nonbillable work. Every business has both, but it is the billable work that has to pay for both itself and for the nonbillable work. Nonbillable work includes the time we spend marketing and participating in online discussions and anything else that is work-related but for which we have no client to whom we can bill the time.

Rule number 2 for editing is to always convert a project to pages. It doesn’t matter what formula you use as long as whatever constitutes a page remains constant. By constant I mean that you use it for all your calculations, including how you would charge a client if you were/are charging using a per-page method.

Rule number 3 is that you collect the data for each project as a standalone as well as for projects cumulatively. That is, Project Alpha may provide data of 32 hours, 210 manuscript pages, and a fee of $800, and we need to know that information for Project Alpha. Project Beta’s data may be 21 hours, 250 manuscript pages, and a fee of $525. Project Gamma’s data may be 41 hours, 207 manuscript pages, and a fee of $1025. Cumulatively, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma’s data equals 94 hours, 667 manuscript pages, and $2350 in fees. As additional projects are completed, the cumulative numbers will grow.

Hours should be kept in quarter hours, rounded up; that is, if a project takes 5 hours and 3 minutes according to our timer, it should be calculated as 5.25 hours. There is always some unaccounted for project time and the rounding up to the nearest quarter hour accounts for at least some of it. My experience has been that over the course of time, the rounding up actually undercounts the actual time spent on work, but not by enough to matter for our purposes.

What do we do with this information?

The data used for Projects Alpha, Beta, and Gamma above assumed the billing method was $25 per hour. But we need to analyze the data to determine if this was the best billing method for us.

The very first bit of information we need to determine is what our effective hourly rate (EHR) needs to be. Is $25 an hour sufficient? It may be all that we can charge our clients for competitive reasons, but that does not mean $25 meets our required EHR. (Again, see the discussion of EHR referred to above.)

If what we can charge our clients and our required EHR do not at least match, or, better yet, exceed our EHR, then charging by the hour is not in our best interests. Even if the hourly rate we are charging meets or exceeds our EHR, charging by the hour may not be in our best interests.

Next we need to analyze each project on its own merits. Always remember that when we charge by the hour, the hourly rate we are charging is the most we can earn. Alpha was 210 pages, took 32 hours, and earned us $800. If we had charged $3.50 per page, we would have earned $735, or $22.97 an hour. In this instance, it appears that the hourly rate was advantageous.

Beta was 250 pages, took 21 hours, and earned $525. At $3.50 per page, the fee would have been $875 or $41.67 an hour. Here we took a beating charging by the hour. Gamma was 207 pages, took 41 hours, and earned $1025. At $3.50 per page, we would have earned $724.50 or $17.67 an hour. Again, on an individual basis, the hourly rate was best.

But what about cumulatively? Together the three projects were 667 pages and 94 hours for a total fee of $2350. At $3.50 per page, the fee would have been $2334.50, or $24.84 per hour — in other words, either choice was about the same. And if our required EHR is $25, the data, so far, shows that either hourly or per-page is an OK choice.

Where we have trouble is if our required EHR is higher than the $25 that competition will let us charge. We also have trouble if clients balk at paying for 41 hours for a 207-page project. Also, as we add more projects to the databank, we may find that Project Gamma was an anomaly and Project Beta was more typical, in which case we are losing significant sums by charging by the hour.

But the point is the importance of recordkeeping. Because we have the data, we can verify our choice of how to bill. In the absence of the data, we do not know if we are making the smart choice or not.

The data also gives us insight into projects. For example, I would want to know why the shortest project took the longest amount of time to complete and the largest project took the least amount of time. What was the difference? Did I do something differently? Is there something different that I could have done?

Although the data indicates that financially we chose wisely for these three projects, it also points out that there is something we are doing incorrectly. Our goal should be to do more in less, that is more pages of editing in less time editing.

The other purpose of recordkeeping is to take a long view of our work. I discovered early in my career, that as the data included more projects, I was losing significant amounts of money adhering to the hourly based system. Year after year the data demonstrated that while on some projects I lost money charging by the page, overall I did much better, which is why I have charged by the page for 28 years — the yearly and multiyear data keep reinforcing that per-page is best for me, in addition to being the only effective way to meet and exceed my required EHR.

I review my decision regularly. Should the data change, I would change. But I would not base a decision on just a few projects nor on anecdotal evidence. Consequently, I maintain records on every project. Recordkeeping is vital to business success because that is how the data needed to make business decisions is obtained.

(For the next part, see The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping II.)

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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