An American Editor

September 13, 2017

The Business of Editing: Undercharging?

Recently, Jake Poinier wrote an essay titled “Stop Worrying About Freelancers Who Undercharge.” It is an interesting essay and one certainly worth reading, especially as the advice he gives, which is summed up in the article title, is sound — as far as it goes.

Overall, I agree with Mr. Poinier’s advice. However, two things particularly struck me about the essay. First, “undercharging” is never really defined. The implication is that people who charge on the low end of the fee scale are undercharging, or if your competitors charge less than you think is the correct rate, your competitors are undercharging. The second item that struck me is that the essay fails to give guidance as to what is a proper amount to charge. After all, undercharging only has meaning if there is a universally accepted amount against which to measure.

(Okay. Actually there is a third thing that I find bothersome: the use of “undercharge” to describe the issue. Undercharging and its opposite, overcharging, are generally associated with a seller–buyer relationship, not with a competitor–competitor relationship. Competitors underbid and undercut. The reason is that there has to be a universally definable and applicable sum against which under- and overcharging can be measured for everyone. That can occur with a readily defined product in a seller–buyer relationship, a good example being price shopping a specific model of automobile. In contrast, with undercutting [or underbidding] there is rarely [if ever] a standard sum; there are too many variables that are unique to each competitor so no standard price exists. Undercutting is relative to the competitor’s pricing strategy, not to identical goods and services. But for this essay, I’ll accept that “undercharging” is the correct term.)

These issues are not only intertwined but need to be tackled in reverse order. So I begin with the measure.

What is the proper amount to charge?

In the world of editing, there isn’t a readily definable, measurable, or acceptable “going rate.” When someone asks the question, “What is the going rate for copyediting?,” no single, universal rate is ever quoted. Just as importantly, there is no universal definition of what constitutes copyediting. True, there are some commonalities that nearly every editor will name but then there are the variations that appear when defining their own services.

If the service does not have a universally definition and if editors cannot state a “going rate” that every editor recognizes as the “going rate,” then how can anyone determine “what is the proper amount to charge?”

More importantly, this is a question that cannot result in universally accepted answer because for each of us the point at which loss becomes profit differs. As importantly, this number changes as circumstances in our life change. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t an answer to the question. It means that the answer is personal and cannot be found by asking in online forums.

The proper place to begin is — as I have stated numerous times — with determining your required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR). (For details on how to determine your rEHR, see the five-part series, The Business of Editing: What to Charge.) If you do not know what you need to charge in order to be profitable, you cannot know whether you are undercharging — you need something to measure against.

This raises another point, which is implicit in saying that the answer is personal: each editor’s rEHR is personal and different from that of another editor. For example, in my case, my rEHR 25 years ago was significantly higher than my rEHR of today. Twenty-five years ago I had to plan on paying for college for my children, I had to support two automobiles, I had a mortgage to pay, I needed to fund my retirement. Today, my children are years out of college, my mortgage is paid, I only need one automobile, I no longer need to fund my retirement. My circumstances have changed and so has my rEHR. If 25 years ago my rEHR was $50 an hour, then I needed to earn the equivalent of at least $50 an hour to meet my expenses. If I earned $49 an hour, I wasn’t earning enough to break even — I was losing money.

It made no difference if my colleagues were charging the equivalent of $20 per hour — I couldn’t charge that and put food on the table if my rEHR was $50. Were colleagues who were charging $20 undercharging? Or was I overcharging?

Colleagues charging $20 were undercharging if their personal rEHR was higher than $20; if they had calculated their rEHR and it was $15, then they were not undercharging for themselves. That they were able to charge less than me and still be profitable has nothing to do with undercharging — instead, it is a reflection of their business status (and, perhaps, acumen).

That today my rEHR is significantly less than it was 25 years ago and thus permits me to charge significantly less than what a colleague can charge for copyediting (assuming my colleague knows her rEHR and doesn’t charge less than her rEHR) does not mean I am undercharging — underbidding, perhaps, but not undercharging.

What is undercharging?

Editors do not define the services they provide under the rubric “copyediting” identically. Each of us defines what we will do in exchange for a quoted fee. That is the basis for the adage “quality, speed, cost — pick any two.” The idea is that something must be sacrificed and we often define “copyediting” based on this adage.

If, for example, “copyediting” usually includes basic fact checking but the client wants the 500-page manuscript edited in 2 weeks and is willing to pay $500 for our efforts, our definition of copyediting might change to exclude any fact checking. The point is that the definition of the services we each provide is both fluid and not universal.

Yes, some professional organizations and some editors do post online a definition of copyediting, but those are not universally accepted definitions and, at least in the United States, not mandated. So, in the absence of a universally accepted and applied definition of what constitutes copyediting, how can it be determined that someone is “undercharging” for copyediting services? If you include fact checking and I exclude fact checking, our services are not comparable and my lower price may reflect my exclusion of fact checking.

In the end…

What all of this amounts to is this: Ignore what colleagues are charging unless you can determine that everything about your and your colleagues’ services (both as defined and as provided) are identical in every possible way and that everyone’s rEHR is identical. Absent that you should focus your energy on determining what your rEHR is and making sure that you can meet (or better, exceed) that number.

Asking what a colleague charges is a waste of time except for satisfying curiosity. Your fee should be based on your needs (your rEHR). There will always be someone who charges less and the reasons are many, including they are less skilled, they offer a lower-quality end product, their rEHR is very low, or, most likely, they have no clue what their rEHR actually is and have picked a number out of the air because it seems in line with what others charge or has been mentioned online somewhere.

If you haven’t read it recently (or at all), in addition to reading The Business of Editing: What to Charge, take the time to read The Business of Editing: “I Can Get It Cheaper!” A client can always get it cheaper because there is always someone who is willing to work for less. Fighting back by lowering your price is a losing proposition. Instead, learn how to set a correct price, stick with it, and convince clients you are worth it.

Remember this: If you do not think you are worth at least your rEHR, you probably aren’t, and clients will think the same. Clients almost always believe the same about you as you believe about yourself.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 6, 2017

The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation

(The first part of this essay appears in “The Cusp of a New Book World: The First Day of Creation;” the second part appears in “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Fourth Day of Creation.” This is the final part.)

Donald Trump is late to the game. Reshoring of industry has been happening, albeit quietly, for the past several years. Also late to the game are publishers, but increasingly reshoring is happening in the publishing industry. The problem is that publishing-industry reshoring is not bringing with it either a rise in editorial fees or relief from the packaging industry. If anything, it is making a bad situation worse. It is bringing the low-fee mentality that accompanied offshoring to the home country.

Reshoring in the United States has meant that instead of dealing with packagers located, for example, in India, editors are dealing with packagers in their home countries. Yet professional editors continue to face the same problems as before: low pay, high expectations, being an unwitting scapegoat. Perhaps more importantly, the onshore packagers are not doing a better job of “editing” — the publishers are offering onshore packagers the same editing fee that they were offering the offshore packagers, and the onshore packagers having to pay onshore wages have the same or lower level of editorial quality control as the offshore packagers.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the packager system; there is something inherently wrong with the thinking of publishers as regards the value of editing, with the system of freelance editing, and with packager editorial quality control. These problems are not solvable by simply moving from offshore to onshore; other measures are needed, not least of which is discarding the assumption that high-quality copyediting is available for slave wages.

Publishing is in a simultaneous boom–bust economic cycle. Profit at Penguin Random House in 2015, for example, jumped by more than 50% from its 2014 level to $601 million. Interestingly, print revenue in the publishing industry overall is rising (+4.8%) while ebook revenue is declining (−20%). Gross revenue from print is expected to remain steady through 2020 at $46 billion per year while ebook revenue continues to decline.

The key question (for publishers) is, how do publishers increase profits when revenues remain flat in print and decline in ebooks? This is the question that the Trumpian economic view ignores when it pushes for reshoring. Trumpian economics also ignores the collateral issues that such a question raises, such as, whether it does any good to reshore work that does not pay a living wage. The fallacy of Trumpian economics is in assuming that reshoring is a panacea to all ills, that it is the goal regardless of any collateral issues left unresolved; unfortunately, that flawed view has been presaged by the publishing industry’s reshoring efforts.

My discussions with several publishers indicates that a primary motive for reshoring is the poor quality of the less-visible work (i.e., the editing) as performed offshore — even when the offshore packager has been instructed to use an onshore editor. Consider my example of “tonne” in the second part of this essay and multiply that single problem. According to one publisher I spoke with, the way management insists that a book’s budget be created exacerbates the problems. The budgeting process requires setting the editing budget as if the editor were an offshore editor living in a low-wage country and without consideration of any time or expense required to fix editorial problems as a result of underbudgeting. After setting that editorial budget, the publisher requires the packager to hire an onshore editor but at no more than the budgeted price, which means that the packager has to seek out low-cost editors who are often inexperienced or not well-qualified.

Packagers — both onshore and offshore — try to solve this “problem” by having inhouse “experts” review the editing and make “suggestions” (that are really commands and not suggestions) based on their understanding of the intricacies of the language. This effort occasionally works, but more often it fails because there are subtleties with which a nonnative editor is rarely familiar. So the problem is compounded, everyone is unhappy, and the budget line remains intact because the expense to fix the problems comes from a different budget line. Thus when it comes time to budget for the next book’s editing, the publisher sees that the limited budget worked last time and so repeats the error. An endless loop of error is entered — it becomes the merry-go-round from which there is no getting off.

Although publishers and packagers are the creators of the problem — low pay with high expectations — they have handy partners in editors. No matter how many times I and other editorial bloggers discuss the need for each editor to know what her individual required effective hourly rate (rEHR) is and to be prepared to say no to projects that do not meet that threshold, still few editors have calculated their individual rEHR and they still ask, “What is the going rate?”

In discussions, editors have lamented the offshoring of editorial work and talked about how reshoring would solve so many of the editorial problems that have arisen since the wave of consolidation and offshoring began in the 1990s. Whereas editors were able to make the financial case for using freelancers, they seem unable to make the case for a living wage from offshoring. The underlying premise of offshoring has not changed since the first Indian company made the case for it: Offshoring editorial services is less costly than onshoring because the publisher’s fee expectations are based on the wage scale in place at the packager’s location, not at the location of the person hired to do the job. In the 1990s it was true that offshoring was less costly; in 2017, it is not true — and editors need to demonstrate that it is not true. The place to begin is with knowing your own economic numbers.

Knowing your own numbers is the start but far from the finish. What is needed is an economic study. There are all sorts of data that can be used to help convince publishers of the worth of quality editing. Consider this: According to The Economist, 79% of college-educated U.S. adults read only one print book in 2016. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how many editors were part of that group and how many books, on average, editors bought and read? Such a statistic by itself wouldn’t change anything but if properly packaged could be suasive.

When I first made a pitch to a publisher for a pay increase in the 1980s, I included in the pitch some information about my book reading and purchasing habits. I pointed out that on average I bought three of this particular publisher’s hardcover titles every month. I also included a list of titles that I had yet to buy and read, but which were on my wish list. I explained that my cost of living had risen x%, which meant that I had to allocate more of my budget to necessities and less to pleasures like books. And I demonstrated how the modest increase I sought would enable me to at least maintain my then current book buying and likely enable me to actually increase purchases. In other words, by paying me more the publisher was empowering me to buy more of the publisher’s product.

(For what it is worth, some publishers responded positively to such a pitch and others completely ignored it. When offshoring took hold and assignments no longer came directly from the publisher, the pitch was no longer viable. Packagers didn’t have a consumer product and insulated the publisher from such arguments.)

With reshoring, imagine the power of such a pitch if it is made on behalf of a group. Reshoring in publishing is occurring not primarily because costs can now be lower with onshoring rather than offshoring, but because of editorial quality problems. And while it would be difficult to gain the attention of a specific empowered executive at an international company like Elsevier or Penguin Random House, it is easier to establish a single message and get it out to multiple publishers.

The biggest obstacle to making reshoring be advantageous for freelance editors is the reluctance of freelance editors to abandon the solo, isolated, individual entrepreneurial call that supposedly drove the individual to become a freelance editor. That used to be the way of accountants and doctors and lawyers, among other professionals, but members of those professions are increasingly banding together. In my view, the time has come for editors to begin banding together and for editors to have full knowledge of what is required to make a successful editorial career.

This sixth day of creation can be the first day of a new dawning — or it can be just more of the same. That reshoring has come to publishing is an opportunity not to be missed. Whether editors will grab for that opportunity or let it slip by remains to be seen. But the first step remains the most difficult step: calculating your rEHR, setting that as your baseline, and rejecting work that does not at least meet your baseline.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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