An American Editor

July 19, 2017

From the Archives: Business of Editing: Losing the Chance

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on May 20, 2013.)

Editors need work and, because we are self-employed, we cannot wait for work to come to us; we need to aggressively seek it out. That has always been the reality, but, with all the competition that editors face globally today, the editor who doesn’t seek out work is likely to have no work — unless something separates him from other editors that enhances his particular value to clients and brings them to him without his making an effort.

It is unfortunate that most editors do not understand how to find work. For many, as soon as they apply (inquire) about work availability, they have already lost the chance to gain a new client. There are lots of reasons why the chance is lost, but what follows are seven fundamental errors.

Error 1: Not knowing anything at all about the prospective client. For example, most of my work is medical and I primarily work with publishers and packagers, yet I receive applications from editors who want to edit fiction, or history, or anything but what I do. And when they receive the test they need to take, they send me e-mails asking if there is a different test that they can take that is more in tune with their interests. Why would you apply for editing work from a company that doesn’t work in your area(s)? Why would you think that a company that publishes cookbooks would consider hiring someone who makes it clear that she is interested in editing young adult fiction? This first error is a major error, generally fatal, but not on a pedestal by itself.

Error 2: Not understanding the pay parameters. One reason clients and employers ask about pay expectations is to weed the serious applicants from the nonserious applicants. To request a rate of pay that greatly exceeds what a prospective client pays or — more importantly — is itself paid, dooms any chance you may have of obtaining work.

When I receive applications, the first thing I do is look at the expected pay. Nearly 95% of applicants have wholly unrealistic expectations. Part of that lack of realism comes about because they are already working in an editorial-related field and in their field, the amount they state on their application is reasonable. But when you want to move beyond your field, you need to know what “standard” is in the new field. Unrealistic compensation expectations doom an applicant, if for no other reason than it loudly proclaims that the applicant has no experience. Why would someone hire an applicant whom they know they can’t pay? Or who they know will be unwilling to work at the pay scale that comes with the work?

Error 3: Not providing the information requested in the application in the form requested. I ask, for example, for the résumé to be in a particular form. Out of 25 applicants, one will comply. The other 24 simply demonstrate that they either cannot read and follow instructions, in which case they would not be good for my business, or that they don’t care enough about the work to make the effort to comply, in which case, why would I hire them and invite trouble? If they don’t care enough to follow my simple request, how can I be certain they will follow client requests? Or that they won’t cause clients to take their business elsewhere?

Error 4: Providing the wrong kind of information. If you are seeking work from someone who does mainly medical work, you need to highlight your medical experience or explain why your nonmedical experience is relevant. What you should not do is emphasize your nonmedical work in a vacuum: that is, leave your prospective client wondering if you have the necessary skills. This is especially evidence of poor judgment when it is combined with error 2, asking for wholly unrealistic compensation.

Error 5: Not taking any required exam in a timely fashion. Even if a prospective client is discarding your application because you made the first four errors, you have an opportunity, by completing the exam, to make the client rethink. I know that, when I have seen an exceptional exam from someone who committed any of the first four errors, I have made the effort to contact the applicant and explain the realities; I have discussed the possibilities further with the applicant. A well-done exam is a chance at resurrection and salvation — yet most applicants simply do not take the exam.

I find this particularly odd because I make it clear that an applicant will automatically receive a copyediting test and that the test is required to be considered. Yet, the applicant who doesn’t intend to take the exam submits an application anyway. Why do applicants think that prospective clients give any consideration to their applications in the absence of the completed exam?

Error 6: Not knowing how to take a copyediting test. There are certain fundamental things an editor is expected to do when editing a manuscript; those same fundamentals should be done on an editing test. The editing test is where you get the opportunity to show a prospective client that you really are a top-notch editor; that you are worth the compensation you requested; that you can do the job without a great deal of supervision; that you understand editing; that you are a professional.

Have you ever wondered how long it takes a client to determine whether an applicant has passed or failed an editing test? I can’t speak for everyone, but for myself and for several in-house editors who have the responsibility of reviewing submitted exams, the answer is that we can tell if you failed in less than one minute and whether you passed in less than three minutes. I’ll go you one better: I can tell you whether you failed my test in 10 seconds. (There are levels of failure. Some things result in an automatic fail, others simply get weighed in the balance, which is why there is the range of time.)

Copyediting tests are designed to assess core skills that the prospective client is most interested in, be it subject-verb agreement, following instructions, knowledge of subject matter lingo; whether certain resources are used; computer skills; or something else. Examiners also have a hierarchy and they have one or two things that, if you miss those, you automatically fail, whereas other errors are just added to the negative side of the balance.

The bottom line is that you need to know how to take a copyediting test, because a skilled editor will get past the automatic fail and will convey to the examiner that you are a talented, skilled editor.

Error 7: Calling the prospective client out of the blue and saying you want to apply for editorial work. Few clients are appreciative of this or have the time to deal with you. That is why many post information about how to apply for work at their websites. But even if they do not, writing rather than calling is the smarter method of seeking work from new clients. If nothing else, sending an email message gives you a chance to show that you edit your own material to produce accurate copy, while a phone call tells me nothing about your skills.

These are key errors, but not all of the errors, that editors make when seeking work. Correcting these errors is the first step on the path toward new clients and more work for an editor.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 11, 2015

The Business of Editing: A Fifth Fundamental Business Mistake That Editors Make

Profit & Business Model

A business has to either be profitable so that its owners can earn a living or it has to have investors who are willing to fund the business for years and let the business lose money during those years because of greater future profit expectations or the business has to go out of business.

The first option is usually the option of the freelance editor. We rarely can convince people to invest in our business and let us generate losses for years (the Amazon model), because of the type of business editing is — personal and hands on. Amazon sells goods; the goods are not unique and buyers of the goods do not care whether Jeff Bezos has ever touched the goods. Amazon sells to us based on customer service and price.

Editing, as we know, is different. We are usually hired because of our skills (there are semi-exceptions as in my business model in which clients hire me because of my skills and because of the skills of the editors who work for me) and those skills are hands-on skills. We are hired to read each and every word and pass judgment on the words, the sentence structure, the grammar, and so on. Editors are hired to exercise judgment and improve a product; we do not expect Amazon to edit the book we buy from it.

As a result of this difference, Amazon can go years without making a profit, but freelance editors cannot. And Amazon can get people to invest money in it based on a not-written-in-stone promise of future rewards; outside editors themselves and immediate family, it is the rare person who will invest in an editor’s business with the expectation of a future profit.

Yet there is something in our business model and in Amazon’s business model that is identical (aside from the need for stellar customer service): We both need data to determine how we are doing and what we should be doing. The types of data we need are different, but we both need data.

Why Collect Data?

And this is where editors make a fundamental business mistake. Many editors simply do not collect data or if they do collect data, they make no business use of it. Yet data can tell us lots of things about our business. For example, data can tell us whether

  • a client should be kept or fired
  • certain types of projects should be avoided or sought
  • we are charging too little or too much
  • our focus is wrong or right
  • we need to start a marketing campaign now or can wait
  • our marketing campaign is a success or failure
  • making an investment is likely to increase or decrease our profitability
  • subcontracting would be a smart or dumb direction to go
  • and myriad other things

— all we need to do is gather and explore the data.

We’ve discussed several times how to calculate what to charge (see the five-part series, Business of Editing: What to Charge), but knowing what you need to earn and charge does not necessarily equate to profitability. It is not difficult to have calculated the rate you need to charge, charge that rate, yet be unprofitable. That’s because knowing what to charge is only part of the necessary information.

Consider the type of editing you do. I focus on long manuscripts, the longer the better, preferably 1,000 manuscript pages or longer. Offer me a manuscript that runs 15,000 pages and you will make me happy. Over the years I have been professionally editing, I have collected data on hundreds of projects — in fact, on every project that has passed through my office. Among the information I collected was project subject matter; whether single author or multiauthor; number of manuscript pages (which was calculated using my own formula); the time it took to complete the project; the number of projects I was offered, indicating the number I accepted and the number I turned down; the reason for acceptance or rejection; and the fee I was paid. (I gathered other data, too, but for our discussion, this list is sufficient.)

Analyzing Data

From this data, I learned what manuscripts were likely to be profitable for me. It is important to remember that we are not all alike; that is, what is profitable for me may be highly unprofitable for you. What is important, however, is to know whether what you are doing is, in fact, profitable for you.

Editors focus on editing — it is what they know best and what they feel most comfortable doing. But freelancers wear multiple hats. Not only do they wear an editing hat, but they wear the business owner’s hat. When wearing the business owner’s hat, editors need to assess their business objectively. It does not matter whether they love or hate editing; what matters is whether they are running a profitable business. To make that determination, editors must objectively collect and analyze data about their business.

One of the most important bits of data is time. How long a project takes to edit — not approximately, but exactly — is key information. It is information that is used to determine your effective hourly rate as well as the number of pages you can edit in an hour. It also is information that is needed when giving a client a quote. An editor needs to know whether, as a general rule, a heavy edit means 2 pages an hour or 6 pages an hour, because that helps you determine the likelihood of profitability at different price points.

The Excuses

I have heard editors say that data collection isn’t all that important for them because they bill by the hour, not by the page or project. Contrary to such sentiment, it is equally important to collect data regardless of how you charge, unless your clients have unlimited budgets (and I have yet to meet a client who does). It is also important because in the absence of data, it is not possible to determine whether you are making a sufficient profit.

Editors have told me that they know they are making a sufficient profit because they are able to pay their bills, put a little bit away in savings, and have money for entertainment, and that they are doing this without collecting and analyzing data about their business. Accepting that as true, data collection is still necessary because you may well discover, for example, that you can earn the same but in less time and with less effort. Or you might discover after analyzing the data that although you are making a profit, you are spending more time and effort to do so than is warranted and that making some changes in your business would increase your profit but require less effort.

The Reason

Data collection is key to business growth and profitability. Data inform decisions; data provide a foundation for action. It is a fundamental business error to not collect as much data as you can about your business.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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