An American Editor

July 3, 2019

It’s All About the Benjamins! EditTools’ Time Tracker (Part I)

By Richard Adin

In the early years of my freelance editing career, I joined the EFA (Editorial Freelancers Association) as a way to “meet,” via its chat list, other freelance editors. One thing that struck me was how united — except for me and a very few others — EFA members were in their approach to the business of editing. We outliers viewed our chosen career as a business, while most of our colleagues viewed what they did as more like art; that is, they paid as little attention as possible to the business side of freelancing and as much as possible to the skill (editorial) side.

There were many discussions about financial struggles, poor pay, added tasks, multiple passes, and the like. There were few discussions (and very few discussants) regarding advertising, promotion, business practices, calculating what to charge, negotiating — any of the business-side skills. And when business-oriented discussions did start, they often ended quickly because colleagues piled on about how craft was so much more important than something as pedestrian as business and money.

As I said, I was an outlier. For me, it was about the Benjamins (the money). Freelancing was my full-time job — my only source of income. I had a mortgage to pay and two children to feed, clothe, keep healthy, and school. I had no trust fund or wealthy relative who couldn’t wait to send me money on a regular basis. Although how well I edited was very important to both myself and my clients, the money was equally important to me.

I recognized from the start that if I didn’t pay close attention to the business side of freelancing, my family and I would be in trouble. When my son needed $5,000 worth of dental work, it was my job to make sure he got it. It was not my job to tell the dentist, “Sorry, but I am an artisan without sufficient income to pay for your services.” When it came time for college, it was my job to try to get my children through with minimal or no debt for them to deal with upon graduation. And this doesn’t even address such things as providing for my retirement or providing health insurance and auto insurance and the myriad other things that are part of modern life.

In other words, for me, it was all about the Benjamins in the sense that my editorial work could not be viewed through rose-colored glasses as if the only thing that mattered was artisanship.

Which brings me to the point of this essay: EditTools 9 and the project management macros that are part of the just-released EditTools 9 (www.wordsnSync.com).

In Business, Data Drive Success

What seems a lifetime ago, I wrote a series of essays for An American Editor about calculating pricing and why it is important not to look at rate surveys or ask colleagues for guidance (see, for example, the five-part essay “What to Charge,” beginning with Part I, and “The Quest for Rate Charts.” ) Yet, when I go to chat lists like Copyediting-l, it is not unusual to find colleagues asking “What should I charge?” or “What is the going rate?” Nor is it unusual to see a multitude of responses, not one of which is really informative or meaningful for the person who asked the question.

When I meet or speak with colleagues and these questions come up, I usually ask if they have read my essays (some yes, some no) and have ever actually gathered the data from their own experiences and used that data to calculate their personal required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR) and their actual EHR, both for a project and over the course of many projects. Nearly universally, the answer to the latter questions (about data collection, rEHR, and EHR) is “no.” Why? Because “it is too much effort” or “the XYZ rate chart says to charge X amount” or “I can’t charge more than the going rate.”

But here are the problems: If you don’t collect the data,

  • you can’t determine what you are actually earning (as opposed to what you are charging; you can be charging $3 per page but actually earning $45 per hour, or you can be charging $5 per page but actually earning $9.25 per hour);
  • you can’t know what is the best way to charge to maximize your EHR for the kind of projects you do;
  • you can’t determine whether some types of work are more profitable for you than other types; and
  • you can’t easily determine what to bid/quote when asked for a bid/quote for a new project.

Ultimately, if you don’t know your rEHR, you don’t know if you are making money or losing money because you have nothing to compare your EHR against.

It is also important to remember that there are basically two ways to charge: by the hour or not by the hour (per word, per page, per project). Although many editors like to charge by the hour, that is the worst choice because whatever hourly rate you set, that is the most you can earn. In addition, it is not unusual to start a project and suddenly find that it is taking you less time — or more — to work than originally expected. If you charge by the hour and it takes less time than originally thought, you lose some of the revenue you were expecting to earn; if it takes more time, and assuming nothing has changed, such as the client making additional demands, you run up against the client’s budget. I have yet to meet a client with an unlimited budget and who doesn’t rebel against the idea that you quoted 100 hours of work but now say it will take 150 hours and expect the client to pay for the additional 50 hours.

However, to charge by something other than the hour requires past data so you can have some certainty, based on that past experience, that you can earn at least your rEHR and preferably a much-higher EHR. The way it works is this:

If you charge $3 per page for a 500-page project, you know you will be paid $1,500. If your rEHR is $30, you also know that you have to complete the job in no more than 50 hours. If you can complete the job in 40 hours, the client still pays $1,500 because the fee is not tied to the time spent but to the page count, and your EHR is $37.50. If you were charging by the hour and charged your rEHR of $30, you would be paid $1,200 — a $300 revenue loss.

All of this is based on knowing your data. During my years as a freelancer, I accumulated reams of data. The data were not always well-organized or easy to access until I got smarter about how track the information, but it was always valuable. Within months of first collecting data, I learned some valuable things about my business. I learned, among many other things, that for me (I emphasize that this applies solely to me and my experience):

  • medical textbooks earned a higher EHR than any other type of project;
  • charging by the page was better than charging hourly;
  • calculating a page by number of characters rather than words was better;
  • high-page-count projects that took months to complete were better than low-page-count projects (I rarely edited books of fewer than 3,000 manuscript pages and usually edited texts ranging between 5,000 and 7,500 manuscript pages; I often edited books that ran between 15,000 and 20,000+ manuscript pages);
  • working directly with an author was highly problematic and to be avoided;
  • limiting my services to copyediting was best (I phased out proofreading and other services);
  • working only with clients who would meet my payment schedule was best;
  • saying no, even to a regular, long-time client, was better for business than saying yes and not doing a topnotch job because I hated the work.

I also learned that investing in my business, such as spending many thousands of dollars to create and improve EditTools, paid dividends over the long term (the more-important term).

And I learned a lesson that many editors don’t want to accept: that sometimes you lose money on a project, but that is no reason not to try again. Too many editors have told me that when they have charged by a non-hourly method, they lost money, so they returned to hourly charging. How they know they lost money, I do not know, because they had no idea what their rEHR was, but their assumption was that if they earned less than they would have had they charged by the hour, they lost money. This is not only incorrect thinking, it is short-term thinking.

Such decisions have to be made based on data. Because collecting and analyzing accurate data is a stumbling block for many editors, EditTools 9 includes the Time Tracker project management macro, discussion of which will begin in Part 2 of this essay.

Richard (Rich) Adin is the founder of the An American Editor blog, author of The Business of Editing, owner of wordsnSync, and creator/owner of EditTools.

July 11, 2016

The Business of Proofreading: Taking a Long and Interconnected View

by Louise Harnby

I love a list! Recording the stuff I need to do helps me to organize my thoughts and steers me away from procrastination and toward action. So what follows is by no means a call for the abandonment of the to-do list. New starters and old hands alike can benefit from a list of actionable points.

More than a to-do list – linear vs. interconnected thinking

Caution is required, though. The to-do list does have the potential to encourage linear thinking, and this can be a hindrance when it comes to the business of proofreading (or any other type of editorial service for that matter).

Linear thinking can lead one down a road of focusing too heavily on one part of our business in the belief that if we get X just right everything else will fall into place, or that X is more important than Y and therefore must be completed in full before Y is considered. Interconnected thinking (I call this joined-up thinking elsewhere), on the other hand, recognizes that X impacts on Y, which impacts on Z, and that, together, X, Y, and Z drive success.

In this essay, I’ll look at the interconnectedness of our business practices, and the time it takes to build connections.

A simplified example

Isabel is in the process of setting up a proofreading business. She’s completed a comprehensive training course followed by mentoring. She’s confident in her skills and believes that she’s fit for the purpose. And she is – from a technical point of view. She has a potential problem, however. She’s been so focused on her training that she’s not spent any time considering how she’ll make herself visible to paying clients. Training was at the top of her list – and while this is certainly no bad thing to be at the top of any freelance business owner’s list, focusing on this alone will not bring in paying work.

Isabel’s business to-do list

  1. Training – courses and follow-up mentoring
  2. Buying relevant equipment – hardware and software
  3. Networking: joining a society, setting up social media accounts, attending meetings
  4. Design brand: name of business, logo, color way
  5. Officially launching the business – tax authorities, bank, insurance policies if required
  6. Creating a promotion plan: website, business cards, leaflets, adverts, directories, domain name, and custom email address
  7. Create pricing matrix for different client types
  8. Create additional resources: consider blog, information sheets, terms and conditions, process documents outlining service
  9. Create stationery: letterhead, invoices, email signature, postage labels
  10. Create work schedule to track jobs, payments, time, etc.

An alternative view: Isabel’s business wheel

I’m a firm believer that Isabel would benefit from looking at her proofreading business in a different way. What if, instead, she visualized it as a wheel rather than a list? I’ve regularly promoted this approach specifically in relation to editorial marketing (see, for example, “The Marketing Wheel – Visualizing Your Editorial Business’s Promotion Strategy,” Proofreader’s Parlour, January 2016), but it’s a useful tool for thinking more broadly about editorial business practice.

The Business Wheel

The Business Wheel

Both the list and the wheel address the same issues, but the wheel has the advantage of helping Isabel to visualize the interconnectedness of the various aspects of her business development.

Let’s consider Isabel’s training in relation to other aspects of business development.

  • Training provides her with skills. But it’s also a valuable message that she could use in her promotion materials, and that will make her more interesting to potential clients.
  • Her qualifications include rich keywords that potential clients will use when searching online for people with her skills, so there will be SEO benefits, which will enhance her discoverability further.
  • Her training program has also instilled in her a desire to provide proofreading work of the highest quality, and these high standards mean those new clients who discover her will be more likely to retain her and recommend her, thus leading in the longer term to a more consistent work flow and income stream. This will give her greater choice as to the work she accepts and the prices she can charge.
  • Training has also contributed heavily towards her application for a higher-level tier of membership in her national editorial society, and this membership tier will provide her with the right to take an entry in its online directory. She can link her new website to this directory, so that’s increased professional credibility, SEO and visibility.
  • The training organization she used might be interested in featuring a guest article that she could write about her experiences. This will add to her professional credibility, and will provide her with an opportunity to create inbound and outbound links between her website and the training organization’s website. The organization has a large following on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. It will share a link to her guest article with its followers. Some of its followers will link with Isabel, thus expanding her own professional community. That’s training, professional credibility, brand enhancement, business networking, SEO, and social media engagement in one fell swoop.

I could go on, but I expect you get the point. Training isn’t something you do before marketing. Rather, it’s connected to marketing. They are but two spokes on a wheel and they link the hub (the business) to the rim (clients). Training gives substance to the marketing message. Marketing generates visibility and, therefore, new clients. New clients become regular clients because of the standards embedded by training. And up and down the spokes and round the rim we go.

We might carry out a similar exercise when considering the links between pricing, an accounting schedule and stationery; or resource creation and business promotion; or brand design, accounting and stationery.

Taking the long view

Developing a successful proofreading business doesn’t happen overnight. No matter how good your skills, how creative your marketing, how professional your practice, it takes time to become so discoverable that you’re never without work offers; it takes time to build a list of regular clients who trust your skills and judgment so that they return to you time and again. And, even then, you can’t sit on your laurels because our industry, broad as it is, is always changing.

  • What your clients wanted 5 years ago may not be what they want next year (consider, for example, the number of publishers who now require PDF markup).
  • What your clients were paying 5 years ago may not be what they are paying this year (you may be worse off in real terms).
  • The types of clients who were using people like you 5 years ago may have become more varied as of today (consider the expansion of the self-publishing market).
  • The software or hardware you used 5 years ago might no longer be fit for the purpose or compatible with what your current potential clients are using and expect you to use.
  • Two companies you worked for 5 years ago might merge tomorrow; or one might acquire the another. This could reduce the number of editorial freelancers hired, and you could end up on the cut list.
  • The publisher you work with directly today might outsource its proofreading and editing to a packager in 2 years’ time. That could affect the rate you are paid and even the security of your freelancing relationship.

Moving from entitlement to investment

This means that, as business owners, we need to be keeping our ear to the ground so that change is something we embrace, not resent, and something we view as providing opportunity, not marginalization.

When we own our own businesses, we don’t have the luxury of spending time on blaming a lack of success on others who are now doing things in ways that don’t suit us. We’re not entitled to be paid X by a publisher whose profit margins may be being squeezed its own customers (consider, for example, the impact of university library budget cuts on academic publishers in the past two decades); we’re not entitled to work on paper because that’s the way we prefer it (for example, most independent authors want us to work in Word or on PDF).

Instead, we have to invest in what makes us interesting and discoverable to those we want to work for and who will pay us what we want/need to earn if our businesses are to be profitable. Whether that means acquiring new skills, learning how to use new tools, changing the way we do our tax returns, targeting new client types, replacing old equipment, or testing and evaluating new and innovative marketing activities that increase customer engagement, the responsibility lies with us, and us alone.

It takes time and hard work

Furthermore, we may not see the fruits of our labor for months, even years. None of us can say how long it will take for an individual’s marketing strategy to put them on pages 1–3 of Google. None of us can predict whether a favorite publisher client will merge with another press and freeze its freelance rates. None of us can know whether the skill we learned back in 2008 will still be relevant in 2020 (proofreading on paper? Are you mad?).

I do know one thing, though. There are no shortcuts — building an editorial business takes time and effort (and even courage when we are pushed out of our comfort zone). Taking the short view leads to disappointment and stagnancy: disappointment that the creation of a website alone didn’t generate 50 new leads a month — only 2 eight weeks after launch — or that the client you’ve worked for almost solidly for 6 years is now squeezing 200 additional words on a page but still paying you the same page rate; and stagnancy because you didn’t keep up to date with new developments and are no longer able to compete with colleagues who are providing a service that you consider unusual but that they consider run-of-the-mill (editing and proofreading onscreen might be a current example).

Summing up

First, you may be the type of person who is perfectly capable of looking at a list without feeling compelled to move through it only from top to bottom. In that case, list away! However, if you think that your to-do list is leading you into a mode of thinking that ignores the connections between the various aspects of running your business, try redrawing it as a wheel. It may be just the ticket to seeing your editing or proofreading business in a whole new interconnected light – and focusing your energy accordingly.

Second, be realistic about the time it will take to build your editorial business. The hard work you put in at the beginning will not generate immediate results. Taking the long view will keep you on your toes and prevent disappointment and stagnation.

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

July 3, 2013

What Makes an Editor a Professional?

The world is filled with editors and wanna-be editors. I suspect not a day goes by when, on some forum on the Internet, someone declares their passion for books and how much (and how long) they desire to be an editor. They then go on to ask how to become an editor.

Nearly any college graduate can be an editor — or claim to be one. Editing (setting aside the business aspects of the profession) is more of a knack skill than a taught skill. Yet even with that ease of entry into the world of editing, there is a difference between a professional editor and an editor.

Consider this: Would you consider an editor to be professional who did not own a dictionary? I wouldn’t, because I think one of the differences between a professional editor and an editor is that the professional invests in the tools of her trade. How much more fundamental to editing can something be than a dictionary?

Does the editor have to own the hardcopy version of the dictionary? No, but she should then have a subscription to the unabridged online version of the dictionary. There are lots of dictionaries available, but in my experience, there are only a couple that are generally recognized as being authoritative and not one of them is called The Free Dictionary.

Would you consider a person who asks what the differences are between the unabridged and the free versions of a standard dictionary, other than that the unabridged has more words (which one would expect if it is unabridged), to be a professional editor? I wouldn’t, and I would wonder what other necessary things they skip or resources they lack. What shortcuts will they take with my manuscript?

The standard response is that anything can be found on the Internet. That’s true as far as it goes. Anything can be found, but nothing assures that what is found is correct or accurate. Consider the cheap, heavily discounted medicines that you can buy over the Internet. Sometimes you get lucky and the medicine is exactly what it is supposed to be; more often, you have been scammed. The same is true with information resources. Anyone can set up a dictionary on the Internet — it doesn’t mean either the spelling or the definition of a word is correct. Editing has “standardized” on certain resources because, over many years, those resources have earned a reputation for reliability and accuracy.

The professional editor recognizes that a resource’s reputation is important and that using such resources is also a reflection of the type and level of work a client can expect from the editor. How does that fit with the idea of using the free version of an accepted reference?

What does the editor do if what she is looking for doesn’t appear in the free version? After all, we know that it costs money to create and maintain accurate resources; even Wikipedia has to raise millions of dollars annually (have we forgotten so quickly when Wikipedia was on the verge of having to shut down for lack of money?). So we know that the free version of a standard resource is not as complete as the paid-for version. Thus, we know that the editor who relies solely on free versions is not making full use of available resources.

What about someone who won’t use the unabridged version of that dictionary because there is a small fee? If an editor skimps on basic, standard resources, what else do/will that editor skimp on to the client’s detriment?

The professional editor takes pride not only in her skills but in the quality of her work. Quality is affected by the kinds and extent of resources of which the editor makes use. It is one thing to claim to be an editor, which many people can and do claim, but it is quite another thing to be a professional editor with full access to the basic resources needed to give a quality edit.

When I hire an editor, one of the things I ask for is a list of the resources on which they rely and whether they are using the free or premium version. I want to know because it helps me to “rate” the applicant’s professionalism. For example, much of my work is in medical editing. I would expect a medical editor to be a subscriber to medical spell-checking software. I think a medical editor should have, and be using, the two leading medical dictionaries.

I learned to ask these questions the hard way. A client once asked me how it was that the editor of a chapter didn’t correct misspellings of a several important medical terms. When I asked the editor, I discovered that the editor didn’t own a medical dictionary and didn’t use spell-checking — either medical or nonmedical. He thought his background as a medical transcriptionist was sufficient and that spell-checking software was distracting. That was a costly lesson to me.

Ultimately, the point is that the professional editor will invest in her business and will have access to the premium versions — whether in print or online — of the basic, standard tools used in the type of editing she performs. The nonprofessional editor will rely on free versions and alternates-to-the-standard resources that are free. The nonprofessional does not run his business as a business; he does not invest in his business; cost governs everything.

To be a professional editor, one must act as a professional and conduct one’s business in a professional manner. To be compensated as a professional one must be — and behave as — a professional. Cheapskating on basic resources is not professional.

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