An American Editor

April 27, 2016

The Business of Editing: 8 Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid II

Part I discussed the first four reasons why editing is undervalued by clients. Those reasons were as follows:

  1. Few editors know their required effective hourly rate.
  2. Our profession has failed to convince “clients” of editing’s value.
  3. The market views us as low-level professionals who provide an unnecessary service.
  4. It is too easy to open an editorial business.

Part II discusses reasons five through eight.

5. For too many editors, the income is a second income.

For many entrants to the profession, editing is a second income, not the primary source of household income. Consequently, they offer absurdly low rates (I have seen as low as 50 cents a page) with promises of high quality and speedy return. Those offers get published all over the Internet — just look at LinkedIn — and thus form the “standard” that clients expect. As a group, we have done nothing successful to combat those low rates and to keep them from becoming the standard.

As a second income, this is usually money for vacations or to buy a better car, not usually money needed for survival. The result is that there is no need to justify a rate other than that the rate brings in business. If your basic necessities of life are already covered by a primary income, then your primary (and often only) concern is getting business. Consequently, too many second-income editors set their rates low and that low level is seen repeatedly. It soon becomes the “standard” that clients expect.

6. We refer clients to “rate charts” to justify our fee.

In my view, we make the problem worse by referring to fee schedules that are published but are clearly not statistically sound, such as the EFA rate schedule.

The EFA chart, which is the fee schedule commonly referred to in the United States, is 100% statistically invalid. The history of the chart is that a small percentage of EFA members respond to the survey, not all of whom are editors or proofreaders, but all of whom are EFA members. In addition, not all the responders define what they do the same, and not all are freelancers. It is one of the least-meaningful guides available for setting rates.

One problem with past EFA rate surveys was that there was no uniform basis for how responders calculated (i.e., originally determined) their fee, or of the rationale for the amount charged, or of what services were included in the charge. One editor who participated in a past EFA survey told me she was retired and had cut her fee in half because she didn’t really need the money but wanted the occasional project to work on.

My point is this: Experienced editors should know better than to consider the EFA survey as having any value whatsoever as a guide for setting or justifying a fee, and they should not be telling clients (or colleagues) to look to it for guidance. The usual reply is that it is better than nothing, or that it is the only thing out there, or at least that it gives the range. But even to the casual observer it is clear that the EFA rate survey is so riddled with holes that it is an unreliable guide. Consequently, instead of helping us convince the world that editors are worth more than a pittance, we are reinforcing the client’s beliefs by being unable to point to something objectively valid that supports our view.

7. We fail to give a client a cogent explanation of why we can’t accept a job.

We compound the problem of inadequate compensation by failing to provide a detailed explanation of why we cannot accept a particular job at the price offered, and by failing to explain what services are included and excluded at various price points. When we buy an automobile, we are told how much the basic car costs and then how much each add-on package costs and what is included in each package. Why aren’t we doing the same for editing?

How many of us take the time to explain our editing workday and workweek? Clients assume that because we are freelancers working from home (usually), we are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Few editors I know ever say otherwise. When I respond to a client’s project offer, I carefully delineate the editing workday and workweek, explain what services are included and excluded, and I offer various options at different prices. I let the client choose the editing package and price. In my early years I didn’t do this; today I almost always offer choices. This reinforces to the client that I am a professional and that the client can have certain expectations at certain price points.

The failure to give a cogent explanation and to offer choices reinforces the perception of low-level professionalism and justifies, in the client’s mind, the low compensation.

8. The lack of standard definitions for editorial services.

As professionals we have failed to establish standard definitions of various editorial tasks that all professionals adopt. Each of us defines copyediting, for example, differently — sometimes the difference is small, and sometimes it is great — but we all call it copyediting. Consequently, when a client sees that A will do copyediting for $7.50 an hour and B will do it for $35 an hour, the client has no reason to think of the services as other than identical, and will often choose A because of price.

The lack of standard definitions means that we need to diligently explain to a client what is included and excluded for the price we are charging. Yet most of us do not provide that detailed explanation. Consequently, if editor B includes the kitchen sink as part of her copyediting services, the client hiring editor A expects the kitchen sink to be included by editor A regardless of the disparity between what editor B and editor A charge for copyediting. And if editor A explains that it is not included, the editor may well lose the client. To save the job, editor A will include the kitchen sink, thereby setting a standard to which all editors will be held — a low price that includes the kitchen sink.

Our failure as group to establish uniform standards results in our hurting our own cause and in our (generally) not being well paid. If we tackled these eight reasons using a national organization with accrediting authority, we could greatly improve how professional editing and editors are perceived, valued, and paid.

The eight reasons discussed are not all of the reasons for the low pay–high expectations syndrome in editing; I am confident you can add additional reasons. Ultimately, the question we need to face and solve is this: We know the problem and the reasons. What as a group are we going to do to solve the problem?

What do you suggest? What will you do?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 20, 2016

The Business of Editing: 8 Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid I

A recent discussion on another forum lamented over how underpaid (undervalued) editing is, pointing out that neither authors nor publishers appreciate and are willing to pay for the expertise editors bring to a project. Of course, this is not a new lament; it was the same 32 years ago, when I began my editing career, and it has been a constant since that day.

In the discussion I just mentioned, the lament was tied to the client command (or observation) that the manuscript requires only a “light” edit. Let’s set aside the initial problem — what a “light” edit is (for my perspective, see The Business of Editing: Light, Medium, or Heavy?) — and instead focus on some — not all — of the reasons the value of editing is viewed so poorly as to act as justification for low rates of compensation from our clients.

Part I of this essay discusses the first four reasons.

1. Few editors know their required effective hourly rate.

Like all businesses, we can set our own rates of compensation. The problem is that too many of us set them in an information vacuum. Too many of us have no idea what our Required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR) is, and as a consequence we set our rate based on what some unscientific and invalid rate survey says is the “going rate.”

(For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of rEHR, and those who need a refresher on how to calculate it, see the five-part series Business of Editing: What to Charge. Additional previous essays worth reviewing are The Business of Editing: Fundamental Business Mistakes That Editors Make, the two-part essay The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote, So, How Much Am I Worth?, and Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts. Essays written by Ruth Thaler-Carter and Louise Harnby that touch on these and related topics can be found if you look for “On the Basics” and “The Proofreader’s Corner” in the Search field on this blog.)

Your rEHR is the minimum you need to earn for each hour of paid work if you hope to meet your living requirements. A survey that is of suspect validity to begin with can’t help you determine what you should charge if you do not know whether what the survey says is the “going rate” is more or less than you require just to have shelter, clothing, and food. When editors do not know their rEHR, they undermine themselves.

How are they undermining themselves? By helping to establish the validity of a rate that has no relationship to real-world economics. Haven’t you found that no matter how low your rate, a client readily comes back with a lower rate that was quoted by an editorial colleague? How was that lower rate established? Probably by waving an uncooked strand of spaghetti through the seas of Atlantis and watching the numbers magically appear. Or by going to one of the rate surveys that are constantly mentioned but aren’t any more valid than the spaghetti waving.

By approving and accepting rates that are lower than your rEHR, you are reinforcing the idea that editorial services are of little value.

2. Our profession has failed to convince clients of editing’s value.

In the olden days, when people like Bennett Cerf ran publishing houses and publishing houses were family-owned businesses, not international conglomerates, being an editor made you part of a prestigious profession. More importantly, high-quality editing was desired and properly compensated. I can still recall the lecture I received in 1987 from a Farrar, Strauss & Giroux editor about the publisher’s low tolerance for editorial errors. However, as the original family-owned publishers were bought up and merged into international conglomerates, bean counters took over and assigned a low value to editing, a low value from which the profession has not recovered.

As a profession, we have failed to convince our clients that they are devalued by poorly edited books. We have failed to demonstrate that consumers notice and care. We have failed to equate high-quality editing with reasonable compensation. By not making a concerted effort to convince clients of the value of editing, we have shored up the notion that cheaper is better for the bottom line. Finally, we have failed to make the consumer see that poor-quality editing means a poor reading experience, and that particular publishers and authors are noted for producing poorly edited books.

3. The market views us as low-level professionals who provide an unnecessary service.

Although we call ourselves professionals and think of ourselves as part of a profession, the market reality is that we are viewed as low-level professionals who provide an unnecessary service. This is a market view we have not successfully countered. Actually, as a group we have done little to nothing to counter that perception.

This is tied to number two above. We have let others determine whether our services are necessary. Look at how many times we see comments from authors saying that the author can edit his or her own manuscript as well as or better than any editor. Delve a little into the reason for the statement and what you find is that the author has had a poor experience with an editor and tars every editor with that tainted brush.

Of course, the author looked for the lowest-cost editor who claimed the most experience, and hired that editor. The author and the editor were both racing to the bottom, with cost driving both the author and the editor, who had set a low price to attract the business. The problem for many authors is that they personally have to foot the editorial bill, and so they look for the least cost. And the publishers? They assume that no one will notice if the editing is poor — not the author and not the consumer — and, unfortunately, too often they are correct. The publishers make the gamble and usually win.

If an author cannot get an editor cheaply enough, the author will self-edit or have friends do the editing, because the author does not view editors as high-level professionals who provide a necessary service in these days of self-publishing. It is our failure as a profession that we have not convinced clients of our professionalism and of the value of editorial services.

4. It is too easy to open an editorial business.

Unlike professionals who are able to charge much higher fees (e.g., doctors, lawyers, plumbers, carpenters, masons), we have no entry requirements in our profession — no apprenticeships, no degree requirements, no code of conduct, no licensing, no nothing. All a person has to do is declare to the world that she is a professional editor. (When you think about it, even McDonald’s fry cooks get some training from someone else, and cleaning-service personnel often need to be bonded. Our profession [different for content creators] has no insurance requirements, something most, if not all, other professions have.)

Let’s face it — even a sixth-grader could hang out a shingle as a professional editor. There simply are no professional standards. Writers and painters in the United States are better organized than editors and have more professional organizations (i.e., the organizations are more professionally organized and run) to create standards and promote codes of conduct than editors have.

Such ease of claiming membership in the editorial profession does us a disservice. It helps foster the notion that we are undeserving of better pay because there is no minimum standard of quality that a client can be assured of receiving in exchange for higher compensation.

Part II addresses reasons five through eight.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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