An American Editor

July 5, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It

(The following essay was originally published on
An American Editor on February 19, 2014.)

In a previous essay, The Business of Editing: Worth in the Decision-Making Process, I wondered why editors and those who use our services attribute so little worth to the value of what professional editors do. As I noted, we are a large part of our problem because we accept — and even solicit — work at a price that cannot provide a sustainable lifestyle.

What brings this to my immediate attention, in addition to the experience I related in that essay, are the constant notes I see on various forums, including the “professional” LinkedIn forums, from “professional” editors who are willing to edit a manuscript for $10 or less an hour — and when questioned about the economics of such a fee, they vigorously defend it.

Let’s start with some data (all from “Opening Remarks,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, February 17-23, 2014, pp. 10-13):

  • Minimum wage for tennis ball boy in Chennai, India: 37¢
  • Price of a Starbucks Frappucino in New York City: $5.93
  • One-tenth of 1% of hourly pay of JP-Morgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon (based on 60 hours/week, 50 weeks/year): $6.66
  • Poverty wage for a single parent with 2 children: $9.06
  • Average price of 3 lbs ground chuck beef: $10.77
  • Prevailing hourly wage for NYC laundry-counter attendants: $11.62
  • Median hourly wage in Mississippi: $13.37
  • Hourly wage paid by Henry Ford to auto workers in 1913 adjusted for inflation: $14.71
  • What the hourly minimum wage would be if it had kept pace with productivity growth: $16.93
  • Hourly wage required to afford a 1-bedroom apartment in San Diego: $20.24
  • Living wage for single parent with 2 children in Pascagoula, Mississippi: $22.27/hour
  • Living wage for single parent with 2 children in San Francisco: $29.66/hour
  • Living wage for single parent with 3 children in Shakopee, Minnesota: $33.28/hour
  • Adjusted for inflation, Americans’ real incomes have fallen 8% since the start of 2000
  • U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty threshold: $18,123/year

I am a firm believer that each of us needs to set our own rate. However, to be able to intelligently set my rate, I need to know precisely how much my effective hourly rate must be for me to earn a sustainable livelihood.

(By sustainable livelihood, I mean an income that lets me live comfortably and not worry about meeting bills or whether I can afford to buy a book or go to restaurant or buy a toy for my grandchildren. For a discussion of how to determine what to charge, see my five-part series, “Business of Editing: What to Charge.” This link will take you to Part V where you can find the links to the other four articles. The articles should be read in order.)

So, when I say $10 an hour for editing is not sustainable, I base that on an analysis of fact. Let’s look at the $10 per hour rate. (The same analysis method applies regardless of your country.)

In the United States, $10 an hour equals a yearly income of $20,800 if you work 52 weeks in the year and every week you can bill and collect $10 an hour for 40 hours. If you can only work 30 hours a week for 20 weeks, 40 hours a week for 25 weeks, and 10 hours a week for the remaining 7 weeks, you will earn a maximum of $16,700. Similarly, even if you can earn $10 an hour for 40 hours and do so for 40 weeks of the year, your gross income will be $16,000.

Remember that these figures are gross income; let’s work from the best scenario, $20,800 per year. In the United States, you must pay the self-employment tax. This is the one tax that cannot be avoided. It amounts to 13.5% of earnings, which on $20,800 equals $2,808. Your yearly income has just been reduced from $20,800 to $17,992 — and nothing has been paid for except the unavoidable self-employment tax which is your contribution to Social Security and Medicare.

To do business these days, an Internet connection is required. I suspect it is possible, but I do not know anyone who pays less than $35 a month for the Internet ($420 per year). I also do not know any editor who does not have telephone service, usually at least cell phone service and often both cell and landline service, which runs about $50 a month ($600 per year).

I won’t add a charge for computer hardware and software; let’s assume that was bought and paid for last year. We now are at a “net” income level of $16,972. We haven’t yet paid for rent, food, gasoline, health care, television, clothing, heat and electric, and the like. In my area, the average rent for a studio apartment runs $972 per month. Assuming you can get one of the least-expensive studio apartments available and that it includes heat and electric, the cost would be $700 per month ($8,400 per year), which drops our available income for other necessities, like food and healthcare, to $8,572.

Food is always difficult, but I think $100 per week on average is probably reasonable, which means $5,200 per year, leaving us with $3,372. Do we really need to go on?

Can you scrape by on $10 an hour? Sure. People live on even less. But the biggest fallacy in this analysis is the base assumption: As an editor, you will have 40 hours of paying and collectible work every week for 52 weeks — that is, no downtime. It does happen, but the usual scenario is that an editor ends the year having worked fewer than an average of 40 hours per week and fewer than 52 weeks during the year.

Yet the expenses don’t fluctuate. The rent will remain the same whether you work 52 weeks or 32 weeks, 40 hours or 20 hours. Similarly, the telephone and Internet bills will likely remain the same. The bottom line is that $10 an hour is only doable under ideal conditions and even then is barely doable.

The $10/hour wage has multiple effects in addition to not being a “living” wage. The more often editors say they will work for that amount, the more difficult it is to rise from it. If a goodly number of editors are willing to work for that price, then the market price is being set.

I have discussed the hourly number with a number of clients. I have asked them about the basis for the hourly rate they pay and when it was last raised. Several have told me that they have not raised the hourly rate since the early 1990s. The reason is that there is a flood of editors willing to do the editing for a price that equals or is less than their hourly rate, so why raise the rate — the market is not demanding that the rate be raised and because of industry consolidation, editorial quality is not high on the list of corporate objectives.

Consequently, we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to rate setting. I know that when people ask on the lists about what to charge there is almost always a response that points to a published survey that quotes a higher-than-$10-per-hour rate, but then the flood of “I’ll edit for less” messages begins. There isn’t an easy solution to the free market problem except for this: Before setting your rate and agreeing to work for a rate, know what rate you need. I think those who low-ball rates would be less likely to do so if they really analyzed their needs.

The only other point I constantly raise with clients and potential clients is that the truly professional editor cannot and will not edit a manuscript for a nonsustainable rate.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 19, 2014

The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It

In a previous essay, The Business of Editing: Worth in the Decision-Making Process, I wondered why editors and those who use our services attribute so little worth to the value of what professional editors do. As I noted, we are a large part of our problem because we accept — and even solicit — work at a price that cannot provide a sustainable lifestyle.

What brings this to my immediate attention, in addition to the experience I related in that essay, are the constant notes I see on various forums, including the “professional” LinkedIn forums, from “professional” editors who are willing to edit a manuscript for $10 or less an hour — and when questioned about the economics of such a fee, they vigorously defend it.

Let’s start with some data (all from “Opening Remarks,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, February 17-23, 2014, pp. 10-13):

  • Minimum wage for tennis ball boy in Chennai, India: 37¢
  • Price of a Starbucks Frappucino in New York City: $5.93
  • One-tenth of 1% of hourly pay of JP-Morgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon (based on 60 hours/week, 50 weeks/year): $6.66
  • Poverty wage for a single parent with 2 children: $9.06
  • Average price of 3 lbs ground chuck beef: $10.77
  • Prevailing hourly wage for NYC laundry-counter attendants: $11.62
  • Median hourly wage in Mississippi: $13.37
  • Hourly wage paid by Henry Ford to auto workers in 1913 adjusted for inflation: $14.71
  • What the hourly minimum wage would be if it had kept pace with productivity growth: $16.93
  • Hourly wage required to afford a 1-bedroom apartment in San Diego: $20.24
  • Living wage for single parent with 2 children in Pascagoula, Mississippi: $22.27/hour
  • Living wage for single parent with 2 children in San Francisco: $29.66/hour
  • Living wage for single parent with 3 children in Shakopee, Minnesota: $33.28/hour
  • Adjusted for inflation, Americans’ real incomes have fallen 8% since the start of 2000
  • U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty threshold: $18,123/year

I am a firm believer that each of us needs to set our own rate. However, to be able to intelligently set my rate, I need to know precisely how much my effective hourly rate must be for me to earn a sustainable livelihood.

(By sustainable livelihood, I mean an income that lets me live comfortably and not worry about meeting bills or whether I can afford to buy a book or go to restaurant or buy a toy for my grandchildren. For a discussion of how to determine what to charge, see my five-part series, “Business of Editing: What to Charge.” This link will take you to Part V where you can find the links to the other four articles. The articles should be read in order.)

So, when I say $10 an hour for editing is not sustainable, I base that on an analysis of fact. Let’s look at the $10 per hour rate. (The same analysis method applies regardless of your country.)

In the United States, $10 an hour equals a yearly income of $20,800 if you work 52 weeks in the year and every week you can bill and collect $10 an hour for 40 hours. If you can only work 30 hours a week for 20 weeks, 40 hours a week for 25 weeks, and 10 hours a week for the remaining 7 weeks, you will earn a maximum of $16,700. Similarly, even if you can earn $10 an hour for 40 hours and do so for 40 weeks of the year, your gross income will be $16,000.

Remember that these figures are gross income; let’s work from the best scenario, $20,800 per year. In the United States, you must pay the self-employment tax. This is the one tax that cannot be avoided. It amounts to 13.5% of earnings, which on $20,800 equals $2,808. Your yearly income has just been reduced from $20,800 to $17,992 — and nothing has been paid for except the unavoidable self-employment tax which is your contribution to Social Security and Medicare.

To do business these days, an Internet connection is required. I suspect it is possible, but I do not know anyone who pays less than $35 a month for the Internet ($420 per year). I also do not know any editor who does not have telephone service, usually at least cell phone service and often both cell and landline service, which runs about $50 a month ($600 per year).

I won’t add a charge for computer hardware and software; let’s assume that was bought and paid for last year. We now are at a “net” income level of $16,972. We haven’t yet paid for rent, food, gasoline, health care, television, clothing, heat and electric, and the like. In my area, the average rent for a studio apartment runs $972 per month. Assuming you can get one of the least-expensive studio apartments available and that it includes heat and electric, the cost would be $700 per month ($8,400 per year), which drops our available income for other necessities, like food and healthcare, to $8,572.

Food is always difficult, but I think $100 per week on average is probably reasonable, which means $5,200 per year, leaving us with $3,372. Do we really need to go on?

Can you scrape by on $10 an hour? Sure. People live on even less. But the biggest fallacy in this analysis is the base assumption: As an editor, you will have 40 hours of paying and collectible work every week for 52 weeks — that is, no downtime. It does happen, but the usual scenario is that an editor ends the year having worked fewer than an average of 40 hours per week and fewer than 52 weeks during the year.

Yet the expenses don’t fluctuate. The rent will remain the same whether you work 52 weeks or 32 weeks, 40 hours or 20 hours. Similarly, the telephone and Internet bills will likely remain the same. The bottom line is that $10 an hour is only doable under ideal conditions and even then is barely doable.

The $10/hour wage has multiple effects in addition to not being a “living” wage. The more often editors say they will work for that amount, the more difficult it is to rise from it. If a goodly number of editors are willing to work for that price, then the market price is being set.

I have discussed the hourly number with a number of clients. I have asked them about the basis for the hourly rate they pay and when it was last raised. Several have told me that they have not raised the hourly rate since the early 1990s. The reason is that there is a flood of editors willing to do the editing for a price that equals or is less than their hourly rate, so why raise the rate — the market is not demanding that the rate be raised and because of industry consolidation, editorial quality is not high on the list of corporate objectives.

Consequently, we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to rate setting. I know that when people ask on the lists about what to charge there is almost always a response that points to a published survey that quotes a higher-than-$10-per-hour rate, but then the flood of “I’ll edit for less” messages begins. There isn’t an easy solution to the free market problem except for this: Before setting your rate and agreeing to work for a rate, know what rate you need. I think those who low-ball rates would be less likely to do so if they really analyzed their needs.

The only other point I constantly raise with clients and potential clients is that the truly professional editor cannot and will not edit a manuscript for a nonsustainable rate.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 25, 2012

The Publisher’s Search for Savings

The current issue of The Atlantic has a very interesting article, “Making It in America,” which asks a very difficult question: The article explores manufacturing jobs and wonders what will be the future for the unskilled laborer. The article is well-worth reading and thinking about, even though the professional editor is skilled labor, because just as manufacturers seek cost savings, so do publishers, especially in the Internet Age.

One problem with publisher attempts to save costs is that much too often the effort is focused on editorial costs, the so-called hidden costs, which generally means reducing the compensation paid to freelance editors. I would be less concerned about taking a cut in my compensation if my compensation had risen over the course of years. However, it hasn’t; the rate being offered by many publishers today is the same rate publishers were offering in 1995. Another way of saying it is that publishers have been the beneficiaries of editorial cost savings since 1995 because they haven’t increased the rate of pay in the past 17 years commensurate with the increases in costs of living.

But advocating that is beating one’s head against a reinforced brick wall. Why? Because editorial costs are hidden costs in the sense that, unlike a book cover that buyers see immediately and that can either improve or lessen chances of a sale, editorial matters are not noted until after the book is already purchased, usually weeks after purchase, when the return period has already expired. We may curse the publisher of a book riddled with editorial errors, but whereas we might “blacklist” an author, we don’t “blacklist” a publisher. Consumers simply do not shop for books by publisher; publisher brands are weak brands. When was the last time you asked a bookseller for the latest book published by Harper & Row?

Regardless, recently, I received a communication from a major publisher with its latest idea for lowering costs. I applaud the publisher for thinking about ways to save costs and for experimenting; this is something that too few publishers do, yet need to do in the ebook age. But I’m not convinced that the approach being taken will result in any significant savings.

The underpinnings of the approach is that there is a difference between editing and reading: the former is time-consuming, the latter less so. I have been thinking about this division and have asked colleagues for their view of whether the reading effort while editing differs from the reading effort when looking only for errors such as misspelling and homonym misuse, but not “copyediting.”

The colleagues I spoke with regarding whether the “copyediting read” differed significantly (or at all) from the “error read,” were similarly minded — amongst themselves and with me. Their was universal agreement that the reading effort remained the same and was equally time- and effort-intensive. Asking an editor to read for errors but not copyedit is like asking a fish to swim in air — the editorial skills are not so easily shunted aside.

In my case, there could be no cost savings even if there was a difference because I charge by the page, not the hour. Fifty pages are still 50 pages, whether thoroughly read or not. Consequently, while I think the publisher has the right idea — look for cost savings — this attempt is unlikely to result in significant savings. The publisher would likely save more by simply switching from an hourly based fee for editing to a per-page rate. Such a move, although many editors cannot see it, also would greatly benefit editors. (For a discussion comparing hourly and per-page rates, see Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand. You can also search past articles using the search term per-page rate.)

Let’s begin with human nature. If I am paid by the hour, I have no incentive to do a job either faster or more efficiently. (I assume that the quality of the editing would not differ regardless of how the editor is paid.) If I am happy earning $21/hour, I am as happy earning it for 40 hours as I am earning it for 50 hours; after all, what I am happy with is the $21/hour, which is constant, and having the work in an increasingly competitive environment.

But think about if I am paid by the page. If I am paid $3.50 a page, I can earn my comfortable $21/hour by editing at a rate of 6 pages an hour. Imagine how luxurious it would feel if I could edit at the same level of quality but at 10 pages an hour — I would then earn $35/hour. There is now an incentive for me to increase my efficiency and speed without sacrificing quality.

For the publisher, the per-page rate sets a maximum fee for a project. There is no more budget speculation about what a project will cost because hours are no longer part of the formula; instead, the focus is on saving time by getting the project completed sooner — a shorter turnaround. The costs are controlled because an editor can’t dally over the manuscript in the belief that the longer it takes to edit, the greater the editor’s income.

It also gives the publisher an opportunity to weed out from its stable of editors those who are inefficient and more costly because of their inefficiency. Remember that savings are not only gotten by reducing payout to an editor; even greater and more important savings can be had by shortening the time from manuscript to published book, especially in the eBook Age when faster-than-instant gratification is demanded.

Shifting to a per-page payment also frees a publisher to evaluate ways to increase accuracy, efficiency, and productivity. A colleague who was discussing EditTools with me (trying to find out what enhancements are coming in the near future :)), told me that as a result of using tools like EditTools, she has been able to increase the number of pages she can edit in an hour by as much as 50%, with an even higher level of quality than previously, both of which have resulted in increased work opportunities. Whereas many publishers and editors currently have little incentive to experiment with these types of tools, switching to a per-page rate from an hourly rate would provide that incentive. The ultimate results would be cost savings for the publisher and increased income for the editor.

Unfortunately, in the cost savings game, win-win situations are rare. Neither publishers nor editors are willing to break the traditional path. One of my clients told me that they are unwilling to insist that editors accept a per-page rate; in fact, the client expressed reluctance to use editors who want to work on a per-page rate, saying that they fear editors would make less money and thus exacerbate the problem of finding quality editors. The client went on to say that even after 15 years of my working for them on a per-page rate, they consider me an exception and the per-page rate experimental; additionally, few editors have asked for a per-page rather than an hourly rate. Similarly, no matter how many presentations I have made over the years demonstrating why the per-page rate is better for editors as a general rule (as with anything, whether it is better depends on what you do; there is no universal rule that applies in every circumstance), many editors refuse to try it and of those who do, a goodly number have told me that “they lost their shirt” on project X on a per-page rate and thus refuse to use it ever again.

I am at a loss how to convince publishers of the benefits of the per-page rate for their bottom line; corporate thinking runs in hourly segments, and, as one client noted, there are too many “approvals” required. But those publishers I have talked with who have moved many of their freelance editors to the per-page rate tell me that they can see overall cost savings.

As for the editors who “lost their shirt” on a project, the answer is this: First, you cannot evaluate the profitability of a client based on a single project. Similarly, you cannot evaluate the profitability of a payment method on a single project. You must evaluate both on the basis of at least three completed projects. There are lots of reasons why the shirt could have been lost on the single project, not least of which was the editor’s continuing to approach the project as if it was hourly paying. I can tell you from my own experience that it takes time to learn how to efficiently address a manuscript and that even today, I occasionally get a project on which I lose my shirt. But if I lose my shirt on one out of 100 projects, the other 99 more than makeup for the one’s loss.

Perhaps a discussion of the factors that can cause you to lose your shirt should be another day’s topic. Until then, do you stick with hourly only projects, do a mix, or per-page/project fee only? Why and what is your experience? Why are you reluctant to move from an hourly based fee to a per-page fee? Are you really satisfied with the hourly rate publishers pay?

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