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.

May 4, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Agony & the Ecstasy of “No”

Contract negotiations and project negotiations are difficult to begin with. Rarely do we come to the bargaining table from a position of strength. But occasionally we do, when our client’s client has insisted we be hired. If we deal directly with authors, it is the authors who have the upper hand because so many editors are available. If we deal with a packager or a publisher, they, too, come to the table with the upper hand because there are a lot of editors to choose among.

Regardless of our negotiating strength or weakness, negotiation is something we need to learn to do and to do well. After all, editing is a business.

Negotiation does not come naturally to many people. In the United States, we are conditioned to not negotiate. We go into a store, see a price for an item, and either pay that price to buy the item or move on. Only in rare situations do we expect to be able to bargain.

What I find interesting is that unlike in many other service businesses, we professional editors often do not set our own price for our services. If we work for a packager or a publisher, the client offers us work at its price, and we either accept or reject the work and the proffered price. Yet, when we need to see a lawyer or doctor or to call a plumber, we do not offer them the job at a certain price — instead, they tell us what the price will be. As consumers of the service, we either hire or don’t hire the doctor, lawyer, or plumber at the price they dictated.

Editing is different. Even when we set our own price, as when we work directly with authors, we aren’t actually setting our own price. As previously discussed in other essays, most of us set our price based on unscientific rate surveys and what we think our competitors will/do charge.

Editing has become a service that is beholden to others to set a price. One reason for this shift of power away from editors is the unwillingness and inability of too many editors to negotiate contract terms with publishers and packagers. (That we may do so more often with individual authors is unhelpful to editing as a profession because the influence of such negotiations is too limited; they do not help establish an editing profession norm. In contrast, multiple successful negotiations with a packager or a publisher can help raise — or lower — standards for more than just the one editor or project.)

The key to negotiation is simple: It is being willing to say “no” and to walk away from a client or a project.

Over the years I have had many discussions with colleagues about negotiating terms with clients. Usually the response is that there is no negotiation — projects are offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and the colleagues need the work, so they take it. I admit that even with my negotiating experience from preediting days, I, too, sometimes succumbed to the take-it side in my earlier years.

Consequently, we need a cushion that acts as a support for our negotiating efforts. That cushion — being an in-demand editor — is not easy to come by, but it can be gotten with concentrated marketing efforts. As some colleagues are aware, I used to set aside a significant amount of money each year for marketing. The only way to create the cushion I needed was to acquire a sufficient number of clients to ensure that if negotiations with one failed, someone else could fill the potential gap. So, an editor’s first nonediting duty is marketing, to build the cushion that will provide the sustenance the editor needs to be willing to say “no.”

“No” is the most powerful word in the negotiation lexicon. It sets the impenetrable and immutable line in the sand beyond which you will not move. For example, I recently was offered a contract (whose terms I carefully read) that wanted me to agree to background checks, including fingerprinting and drug and/or alcohol testing, at the client’s request but at my expense. As a practical matter, I understand the desire for a background check and have no problem with it. It is a common condition of employment today, unlike when I first entered the job market decades ago.

I also have no problem agreeing to a credit check or a check of public records for a criminal record. Have at it. But fingerprinting and drug and alcohol testing are going too far, as is expecting me to pay for them. I am a copyeditor who never sets foot in a client’s offices. If the client doesn’t like the way I am copyediting a manuscript, the client’s option always has been to fire me and give the manuscript to someone else. I am not an employee; I am, as the client wants me to be, an independent business.

It happens to be the case that I don’t drink alcohol and that the only drugs I take are doctor prescribed, but that has nothing to do with whether I am willing to agree to testing — I am not. Fingerprinting is also unacceptable. If my work required me to be on the client’s premises, to care for the client’s infant children, to write the accounting or server software to run the client’s business, or any of myriad other tasks, fingerprinting might be acceptable and appropriate. But copyediting puts me in touch with no trade secrets, no intellectual property, and no final decision-making; thus, fingerprinting is an unwarranted privacy intrusion and unacceptable as a condition.

For me this line in the sand cannot be crossed. I am willing to say “no” if the clause is not modified to my satisfaction. That “no” is a powerful tool for me. My willingness to say “no” and my conveying that willingness to the client change the dynamic of the negotiation. If the client wants my services, it has to engage in give-and-take with me.

In the end, the question will come down to “How much am I willing to give to work with this client?” Some changes to the contract are what I view as indisputable, by which I mean the client can’t really object to striking or modifying the clause if what the clause demands has no relevance to the services for which I am to be engaged. The background check does have some relevance, which is why I am willing to agree to such a check; it is the fingerprinting and drug/alcohol testing that has no relevance, and so I only ask for that portion to be struck.

An example of a clause that has no relevance is one that requires that I carry a $1 million automobile liability insurance policy. There is no logical connection that I can see between copyediting and an automobile liability policy. This is one of those clauses that a legal department inserts into a form contract that the human resources department uses for everything. The problem is that if I sign a contract with this clause in it, I will have to buy such a policy — whether I really need it or not — and at my expense. Clauses like this are indisputable clauses and indisputably need to be struck from the contract.

More difficult are the clauses that are pro-client and antieditor but which do have a basis for inclusion, at least from the client’s perspective. An example of such a clause is an arbitration clause. I don’t mind such clauses — too much — except if they also cover fee payment. Most editor invoices are too small to resolve by arbitration because of the cost of arbitration. (Let’s not forget that statistically, even if the plaintiff is right, arbitrators will find for the company. The reason is that arbitrators earn their living by being selected to arbitrate and companies won’t pick arbitrators who rule against them. The likelihood of an editor having regular arbitration cases is exceedingly minuscule, unlike the likelihood for the company. In arbitration, the game is stacked ahead of time.)

But even in these instances, I am more likely to obtain a modification of particularly onerous clauses because I am willing to say “no.” If the client is unwilling to negotiate changes, I need to weigh the benefit of working for the client against the risks imposed by the contract terms. Often, but not always and in less than a majority of times, saying “no” with an explanation results in further negotiations. But there are times when only the “no” is heard by the client.

How prepared are you to say “no”?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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