An American Editor

January 22, 2018

The Business of Editing: Explaining the Price of Editing

Richard Adin, An American Editor

The hardest thing to do is to explain to a client why she should be willing to pay the price you are asking for the work she wants done. It is even harder to explain to a publisher/packager client why their offer is too low and why they should pay you more.

Ultimately, the reason for the difficulty is that we have no concrete way to demonstrate the value of quality editing. Based on conversations I’ve had with colleagues, I’m not convinced that most colleagues truly understand the value of their work.

Sure we all know that editing can improve a manuscript, and some clients not only know that but believe it. Too many colleagues and far too many clients (which includes potential clients), however, are of the mindset that only price matters because anybody who can spot the typo is a “great” editor.

There is at least a partial solution to the explanation problem, and it is something that every author and editor, regardless of where in the world they are from, is likely familiar with — Star Wars: A New Hope, the original Star Wars movie. The video that follows tells how this iconic story was headed for disaster but was saved by great editing, which resulted in a multibillion dollar empire:

(A special thanks to Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader for bringing this video to my attention.)

The video should be watched from beginning to end by editors and authors alike because it shows the value of high-quality editing. More importantly, it illustrates why making price more important than editing quality is putting the cart before the horse.

Carefully consider what the editor did to bring logical flow and interest to a story that was understood by the author but was garbled in the transformation from author’s imagination to movie. Exactly what occurred in the editing of Star Wars: A New Hope is what occurs when a well-qualified editor applies his skills to a manuscript.

Imagine if George Lucas had limited his editor search criteria to least-expensive editor, rather than setting his criteria to find the editor best-suited for the task and price demoted to a secondary consideration. The Star Wars franchise likely would never have been and Star Wars would have remained a fantasy in his imagination rather than a fantasy shared by millions across the globe.

Complicating the problem for editors is that every person who has identified a typo on a printed page thinks she is a skilled editor, thereby creating an endless supply of “editors” from which a client can choose. Compounding the oversupply problem is that few editors have any understanding of how to value their work and set a price. Too many editors charge too low a price for high-quality editing, largely because they either have no clue as to what they truly need to charge or what they should charge so that clients view editing as a desirable, needed, skilled service. The consequence is that the editing profession as a whole suffers from oversupply and underpayment.

Editors need to rethink how they approach their profession. They need to show clients that there is a measurable difference between an editor of low skills and and an editor of high skills and that high-skilled editors both deserve and require fees commensurate with their skill level. In addition, highly skilled editors need to refuse work from clients who refuse to recognize that they are highly skilled and thus worthy of higher pay. It strikes me as wholly unacceptable for a client to insist on paying an editor with decades of experience editing hundreds of manuscripts in the subject area the client seeks the same amount as the editor with a year or two of experience with little to no subject matter expertise or experience. It also strikes me as wrong for the experienced editor to grumble about the low pay yet accept the job.

I recognize that few editors are willing to turn away low-paying work, preferring some work to no work. In that case, however, the editor needs to adjust the level of editing quality to match the level of pay. An editor being paid a Yugo fee should not give Rolls Royce quality editing in return.

I encourage colleagues to prepare a “pitch” for the value of high-quality editing, including an explanation as to why smart clients will pay for that level of editing. The “pitch” could (perhaps should) include a video, similar to the Star Wars one above, that illustrates how high-quality editing can be the difference between disaster and hit, and include an explanation of not only how you can provide that high-quality editing but why you are worth the higher price you are asking. Creating a marketing pitch can be a key step on the path to better pay, better job offers, and better clients.

Do you have a pitch to share? Or a video that you use to explain the value of editing?

September 21, 2015

The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote (II)

Part I (The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote (I)) discussed the required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR), the churn rate, and calculating a page. Part II discusses additional elements and how to put the quote together and present it.

The style manual

Few editors consider the style manual to be applied to the project when calculating a quote. The reason is that we tend to fall into niches and to use, and thus become facile with, a particular style manual. Many editors rarely, if ever, use any style manual but one. Consequently, few editors think about the impact of the style manual on the project.

Then there are editors like me who work with and use multiple style manuals. The projects may be similar but the clients have different style manual preferences. Even so, there may not be much difference between the style manuals or not enough difference such as which style manual is required has an impact on the project price.

But after my recent experience with The ACS Style Guide (see Style Guide Terrorism: A Formula for Failure), I realize that I do need to factor into the calculation the impact of the choice of style manual. This is especially true when the client-selected manual is so radically different from other style manuals and/or when it is accompanied by a house exceptions manual (even if not by a difficult style manual).

The choice of style manual impacts the churn and the schedule. I suspect that no other allowance for it needs to be made in the calculation.

The schedule

Another element, and a very important one, is the client’s schedule.

What usually happens is that a client contacts an editor and says something like this:

I have a 320-page manuscript on eating your vegetables that I need edited in 2 weeks. It requires a medium-level copyedit and the files will be ready to send you tomorrow. The fee is xyz. Can you take it on?

The editor responds almost instantly with “sure,” thinking that 160 pages a week is easily done. And it may be easily done — or not. (I know that many editors insist on seeing a “sample,” or even the whole manuscript, but unless you are going to read it all — word by word, beginning to end, which is an editing task being done at your expense — you can never really know for certain what problems you will face during actual editing.)

Whether it is easily done — or not — depends on many of the factors discussed earlier. Is the page count accurate? What does a “medium-level copyedit” entail? And so on. Once you have all of that information, you can then evaluate the schedule.

Over my 31 years, I have learned that my best editing is done within a 5-hour window. What I mean is that of a typical 8-hour workday, only 5 hours can be spent editing if I want to provide a high-quality edit. After 5 hours of concentrated editing, the mind tires and error creep begins.

This does not mean that I do not ever edit for longer than 5 hours in a day. Some projects are easier than others and editing can go on for longer; some are so difficult that editing for 5 hours is very difficult if not impossible.

What it means is that I have determined that an editing day is 5 editing hours and an editing week is Monday to Friday. Note that it is Monday to Friday and not 25 editing hours. This is important when calculating a project fee. It means that I work Monday to Friday and weekend or holiday work is not part of the workweek; weekend and/or holiday work, or more than 5 editing hours in a day, are premium services.

So, when I calculate the viability of a schedule, I calculate it based on an editing workweek or 5-editing-hour days, not on a 7-day workweek of unlimited hours.

The First “Rough” Calculation

Assuming that the proposed 320-page manuscript is really 320 pages, then to meet a 2-week schedule means a maximum of 9 editing days (not 10, because I cannot start a project within seconds of receipt from a client; I always figure next day), which means 45 editing hours, which translates into a required churn of approximately 8 pages an hour (actually 7.11, but I always round up to the next whole number; I don’t know how to edit 0.11 pages). I check that against my churn rate for a “medium-level copyedit” and, depending on the subject matter, may conclude that the schedule is doable.

But the calculation is based on a lot of assumptions, not least of which is that the page count is accurate.

Getting more information

At this point, I have not yet responded to the client. Now is when I make my first response, which is that I am interested but need to have the manuscript sent to me so I can do a page count. Even if the client doesn’t have the whole manuscript, I want what they do have. I also tell them it is not necessary to send me any figures except tables and all-text figures; I do not need the 30 photo images to do my count or evaluate the project.

The Second Calculation

Once I receive the manuscript, I do a page count using my preferred method. It is rare that my count and the client’s count match. It is not unusual to find that the client’s count is anywhere from 25% to 50% (and sometimes more) lower than my count.

With the page count in hand, the next thing I do is open a couple of chapters and look at the references. If the references are close to the preferred style, that is a good sign. I have found that where the references are pretty much in what is to be the end format, the author has paid attention to detail and the text generally is in decent shape. But if the references are a mess, are missing a lot of information, are not close to the desired end style, I know that I need to spot check the text of several chapters to get a flavor of the author’s writing style.

Next, after the page count and checking a few chapters, I determine how many pages a day and an hour will need to be churned to meet the client’s schedule. For example, if the page count in our hypothetical is really 500 instead of 320, instead of 8 pages an hour, I will need to edit 12. I now need to determine whether it is possible to churn that many pages during my editing workweek. If I can, then the schedule is fine; if I can’t, I need to be able to explain why I can’t and what is a more realistic schedule.

With the information in hand, it is time to put together the project quote.

The Quote

In my quote, I outline exactly what I have found: the level of edit required (and what that means), the number of pages I found, what is included and excluded from the service requested, and the difficulties, if any, presented by the requested style manual in light of the condition of the manuscript. I use all of this information to justify the price I am asking and any schedule changes. I also include a description of the services I will provide, as well as what I will not do, and I include an explanation of the editing workweek to forestall any expectations that I will work 7 days a week, 24 hours a day to meet the client’s requirements.

One caveat

My price is never less than my rEHR. In fact, it is usually more than my rEHR because the rEHR really is my breakeven number, not a profit-making number. The rEHR is simply the line below which I will not go. I do not consider it my job to subsidize my clients; they do a fine job of protecting their interests without my help.

Why this quote-building process?

An editor needs to go through this quote-building process to be sure she can justify her requested fee when challenged by the client. I used to wait for the challenge before justifying my fee, but for many years I have included the justification in my quote as a means of educating the client about the project. Most clients have a fee in mind and any deviation from that fee is unacceptable to the client — unless you can explain its necessity. In addition, most clients assume that because we are freelance editors, we have no other life interests and that we can devote all our waking hours to their project.

The more professional your quote is made to appear, the fewer problems you will have with a client, the more likely you are to receive your wanted fee, the more likely you will receive the project on your terms, and the more likely you will be treated as an equal.

What do you do? Do you do things in addition to those listed here?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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