An American Editor

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

September 2, 2015

The Business of Editing: The Profitability Difficulty

In making any decision about my editing business, my number one consideration is profitability. I do not mean to denigrate other important matters, especially not ethical matters, but once past ethical considerations, profitability is the ultimate determiner as to whether I take on a project or retain a client.

Ensuring Profitability Is Difficult

What I have noticed is that increasingly, profitability is more difficult to ensure, not only on a project basis but over the course of multiple projects. I have always adhered to the Rule of Three (see The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three for more information about the rule). The rule has served me well for decades, but even that rule is coming under attack from the types of projects I am consistently being asked to take on in recent months.

As we have discussed many times on An American Editor, the underlying key to profitability is efficiency. It is that striving for ever-increasing efficiency that lies behind my EditTools macros. Yet even though they increase efficiency, the projects I have been seeing in recent months strain attempts to be efficient. It is nearly impossible, for example, to efficiently deal with references when they need to conform to a convoluted style like that of the American Chemical Society and the author has made little attempt to conform to that style.

The problem of efficiency and working style is what led me to abandon proofreading. When I first began my freelance career, I offered both editing and proofreading services. But because of how I work, I found it increasingly difficult to make a profit from proofreading. With the advent of PDF proofreading, my workstyle was such that I went from low profitability to loss.

(For those wondering how to determine profit and loss, the place to begin is my five-part series, Business of Editing: What to Charge. If you don’t know what you need to earn, you can’t possibly know whether you are making or losing money as a freelancer.)

Schedule and Profitability

Even more deadly to profitability than efficiency is schedule. Long-time editors probably remember the guideline that editors and publishers used to follow, but publishers and packagers seem to have abandoned, that set the editing pace. For example, an editor asked to copyedit a medical or science textbook that required a “heavy” or “high-level” edit was expected to edit two to four pages an hour; a “medium” edit’s pace was five to eight pages an hour; and a “light” edit’s pace was eight to ten pages an hour. An editing “week” ran 30 to 35 editing hours.

(An editing hour is the time actually spent editing, not the time you are open for business. I calculate an editing week as 25 editing hours because I have learned that after 5 editing hours, the quality of editing begins to deteriorate — slowly but steadily. Consequently, I try to limit my daily editing time to between 5 and 6 hours. In addition, an editing week is Monday to Friday exclusive of holidays.)

Thus, clients expected that with a medium-level edit, an editor could competently edit 150 to 280 manuscript pages a week, depending on the subject matter. The range for a high-level edit was 60 to 140 manuscript pages per week. But all of that has changed with the outsourcing of editing to companies (“packagers”) that are skilled at book layout and production but which themselves outsource the editing work to freelancers like me.

The Triad

What has occurred is that these packagers have a lot of competition and they need to separate themselves from the pack. So, when they seek work, they promise quick turnaround, excellent editing, and low price — the triad that editors often tell clients that they can pick one of, but not two of, and definitely not three of. When the packagers come to the editor, they refuse to accept that they cannot have all three. Unfortunately, too many editors simply acquiesce without a “fight” although whether the editing is excellent is definitely questionable.

All of this impacts on profitability. Although a key to profitability is turnover — the idea being that the faster a project can be completed, the more projects that can be undertaken, and the higher the gross revenue — the hoped for increase in number of projects doesn’t come to fruition in the absence of the quality editing.

What made me realize this was that I have not stopped telling my clients that they cannot have more than one leg of the triad. About two months ago, I was asked to edit a book that required “heavy” editing. The subject matter was quite technical and the extensive number of references were all in the wrong format. The problems were that the fee was low and the schedule unreasonable — the client expected 400+ manuscript pages to be edited per week when a reasonable and likely schedule was 125 to 150 pages.

The reason this would not be profitable work is that by rushing the project to meet the schedule, I could not provide the editing that the project needs. When the clients see the editing, they will complain and will insist on corrections being made — I know this from past experience — which will eat up ever more time. Consequently, additional hours will be spent on the project but without additional compensation.

Meeting the Triad

The danger is, of course, that not only will I lose money on the project, but the client will be wary of sending me additional work because by not providing a quality edit according to their schedule I caused delays, which cost them points with their client. It is a vicious cycle with the ultimate loser being me, the freelance editor.

Consequently, I have not given in to the demands that I accept these types of projects and the requirements of the triad. I prefer to turn down work, which I regularly do, than try to meet unreasonable requirements. When asked to undertake a project, I always do the page count myself and I always determine, myself, what the schedule should be. I advise the client of the page count, my proposed schedule, and what options they have.

The first option is my schedule at my “usual” fee; the second option is a shorter schedule with a higher fee; the third option is the shortest schedule I am willing to accept at a yet higher fee; the final option is for the client to find another editor. Note the relationship between schedule and fee: the longer the schedule, the lower the fee; the shorter the schedule, the higher the fee.

This fee–schedule relationship revolves around two very important bits of information that I possess: the first, is the page count. The method I use allows for figures without having to actually go through each figure and trying to determine how much of a page should be allotted to the figure. The major weakness in my method, and one that I have yet to ascertain how to overcome, is how much work the references will require. On that, I have just “bitten the bullet” and let the law of averages take over. (Now that I have had the experience of dealing with the ACS style, something I hadn’t done for many years, I will, in the future, apply a multiplier to ACS style projects.) Most importantly, I do the page count and tell the client what the count is; I do not ever accept or rely on the client’s page count.

The second bit of information I possess is this: I know how many pages an hour I can edit under various scenarios. Like the page count, I determine this number, not the client.

With this information in hand, I prepare my “report” to the client. Recall that I have not yet agreed to accept the project. What I am doing is justifying to the client my decision if it is “no, I cannot accept the project” or building the foundation for the terms on which I will accept the project. This tells the client I have carefully considered the offer and that I have business reasons for turning down the project or setting acceptance conditions.

My experience has been that very often the client either ups the price or extends the schedule. If I say “no” to a project, it is not unusual for the client to try to work something out with me. I think that these situations resolve in my favor more often than not because the client knows the quality of the editing I provide and wants to avoid discussions with their clients over quality.

The Lesson

The lesson is that an editor needs to know their price point and their editing rate and resist the idea that it is better to lose money (i.e., earn less than their Required Effective Hourly Rate as discussed in Business of Editing: What to Charge) and have the work than to say “no” to such work offers. Saying “no” to unprofitable work helps you establish ground rules with your client. After all, why be in business if you are not going to make a profit?

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 26, 2014

The Business of Editing: An Embarrassment of Riches

Over the past 28 years of my editing business, I have been consistently busy. Rarely did I have any down time and I nearly always had multiple projects going simultaneously. As things worked out, there was a steady flow of work and it was rare that I needed to tell a client I couldn’t undertake a project.

More importantly, those few times when I had to decline a project, the client modified the schedule so that I could ultimately accept the project. This year, however, has been significantly different.

This year the projects are more numerous and larger. I always handled large projects (greater than 2000 manuscript pages) but the projects this year are larger than the large projects of the past (one runs close to 20,000 manuscript pages, and several others exceed 5,000 manuscript pages). For the first time, I am facing the problem of advising clients that I cannot take on their projects even with a schedule change, unless the schedule is altered by months rather than weeks.

Within the past two weeks, I have had to turn away seven projects; within the past month, I turned away 11 projects.

The problem occurs from a mix of things: (1) client projects are bunching rather than being spread across the year; (2) this is the time in the publishing cycle when new editions of many large books are coming to fruition simultaneously; (3) books that had previously been offshored are being brought back; (4) authors are more faithfully fulfilling their commitments to deliver manuscript on time; (5) the books are larger than the “usual” large; (6) in-house production editors are having to handle a larger number of books and so want to minimize the number of freelance editors they need to supervise; etc.

The question is: How do I resolve the problem?

One client suggested I hire more editors. I explained that the problem with that solution is that I cannot get a commitment from my clients for enough work to keep additional editors busy year round. The suggestion might cure the short-term problem, but it will create a long-term problem. Besides, it would add to my workload as I would need to monitor and supervise their work until I was comfortable that I could rely on the new editors to submit work that met my and the client’s expectations.

The embarrassment of riches (i.e., having too much work offered) is a real problem that freelance editors need to face at various points in their career. The editor doesn’t want to turn work away for a number of reasons, not least of which is a fear that the client will not call again. In addition, there is the worry that when the editor is ready to take on more work, there will be no more work to take on — that is, the editor will have hit a dry spell, which means a loss of income.

As you can see, the problem and the worries are not unique to the solopreneur; the problem is one faced by all forms of business. The solutions are not easy and all solutions amount to a form of gambling.

I see basically two alternative solutions (when change of schedule is not possible). The first is to accept the work and increase the number of hours the editor works. This solution has its own problems, such as trying to extend the workday may jeopardize the quality of the editing; most editors can only effectively edit for a maximum of five hours a day. And what happens when the next project comes along? How do you extend yourself even further? At some point, editing quality diminishes and you then jeopardize your relationship with the client.

The second is to say no to the new work and hope that the client will call again. The merits of this solution depends on the nature of the client. If the client is new, then you really are taking a big gamble that the client will return. If the client has been a regular client, the gamble is not very large because the client already knows the quality of your work and wants you to continue working for them. Here the gamble is more that when you are ready for additional work, the client has additional work for you, than whether the client will return.

In both instances — extending yourself to take on the additional workload and saying no — whether the client returns has much to do with the niche you have carved for yourself. For example, in my case, my “brand” is that of excellent editing service by a cadre of editors who require minimal supervision (basically, “here are the files, here are the peculiarities of this manuscript, please return edited files as quickly as possible”) and who use tools designed for large projects, including multieditor projects.

Clients return because they know they can rely on my company to handle projects with minimal problems and supervision, thereby freeing the in-house production editor to deal with other freelancers, other projects, and the myriad other things they need to deal with on a daily basis. Consequently, I feel more comfortable saying no to projects that cannot be squeezed into the schedule.

I admit that I did not feel so comfortable 25 years ago. The comfort with saying no has grown over the years as my reputation grew and the demand for my services grew and when I discovered that I had more work than time each year. (I would add that a good part of that rise in comfort came about as a result of my recordkeeping habits, which gave me a better picture of how I was really doing and, more importantly, what I should be doing. It is not enough to know how much I earned and how much it cost me to earn that; good data can give lots of insight into a business. See The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping I and The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping II.)

Scheduling remains a problem for the freelancer. We’ve previously discussed the problem; see, for example, Business of Editing: Workdays & Schedules and Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations. All I can do is hope that I am making the right business decisions. My data say I am, but the tricky thing about data is that data are ever-changing.

I keep searching for a better solution than saying no, but I have yet to find one. Do you have any suggestions?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 5, 2014

The Business of Editing: Worth in the Decision-Making Process

Within the past few weeks I had a single experience that was an initial up and a subsequent down. It is not that I haven’t had this type of experience before; rather, this time I had a little bit more information and so the experience registered with me at a different level of consciousness.

In the beginning…

I received a call from a publisher who was having a very unhappy experience with the editing of a series of books. The final straw had arrived, and the publisher called me to ask about my availability. The deal was somewhat typical of many of the convoluted deals I experience in today’s global editing world.

  • The publisher was not actually doing the hiring; its packager was responsible for the editing (and composition).
  • The author–series editor was unhappy and had been unhappy with the editing of the past several books in the series and wondered why I hadn’t been hired to do the editing. (I had edited the first book in the series and the author–series editor was pleased with my work on that first book.)
  • The publisher intended to strongly suggest to the packager that it hire me for this book, if I was available.

I advised the publisher that I would make myself available and would be interested in the project as it fit within my specialty of large projects. Consequently, the publisher made the suggestion to the packager and the packager contacted me.

The packager made an offer, which was not acceptable. I advised the packager of the terms under which I would accept the project, which terms included payment, schedule, page counting, and fee. The initial stumbling block was the fee. The packager’s offer was too low. The packager said it would contact the publisher because the amount I was asking was more than was authorized. We never got past the fee.

Eventually, the packager notified me that the publisher would not authorize the increased amount and so I would not get the project. As far as I was concerned, that was not a problem and it even worked out well as not an hour later, I was contacted by another publisher offering a larger project at a higher fee. But back to the original tale…

Because it was the publisher who originally contacted me, I kept the publisher in the loop by sending blind copies of my correspondence with the packager to the publisher. As it turned out, the publisher had authorized the increased fee. How do I know? Because the publisher called me, told me so, and asked if I would still be available if the miscommunication with the packager was straightened out. The publisher expressed surprise that the packager had made the decision on its own.

In the end, I did not get the project — to the publisher’s surprise, the packager told me no and immediately found someone else to do the project without consulting the publisher — but I did come to realize how differently various parties to the decision-making process view the worth of editors and editing. It is likely that the tale would have been simpler had the publisher originally set a price for editing that was commensurate with both the needs of the job and what the publisher wanted and needed both editorially and politically. In such event, the publisher would have had the packager contact me and the price would already have been “agreed to.”

But pricing is rarely set by those on the frontlines. The price decision is usually made by someone whose only contact with the project is a balance sheet. Although there may be flexibility in the price decision, it requires back-and-forth communication and justification, causing delay, which also affects other project aspects, such as schedule.

Yet it also raises another possibility. If the intermediary can obtain services for less than the approved price, who, if anybody, reaps the benefit of the difference between the accepted price and the available price?

More importantly, it raises the question of worth. What role does worth have in the decision-making process? For example, what is it worth to have a happy author? Or to know from experience with a particular editor that if you pay a little more you are unlikely to have to spend money fixing erroneous editing or consoling an irate author?

Worth is a two-way street.

Worth is not only involved in the question of how much should be offered to the editor, but how much should the editor require. I knew that the packager would have no problem finding an editor who would jump at the opportunity to do the project for the original price. I also know that at the original price and the level of editing required and the schedule to be met (remember that I had already done one book in the series), the editing could not be high quality — the combination of factors simply prohibits it; if it didn’t, I would have said yes immediately.

Which makes me wonder what is the worth of editing to editors?

If we value our services too cheaply are we not perpetuating the low-pay plague that has befallen editing as a result of globalization of editorial services and the rise of the transformative packaging industry? At what point does editing become a mere commodity, where an oversupply of editors forces the cost of editing downward because “editing is editing”? Unlike the maple syrup market, there is no market based on gradations; rather, “editing is editing” and all that matters is cost and speed as there is nothing to distinguish grades of quality.

Isn’t this what the indie author market has been telling editors since the explosion of the ebook and self-publishing market? That editing is editing and only price matters? Isn’t this what is both put forward and reinforced on forums like LinkedIn where editors are told they charge too much and too many are not good editors or don’t understand editing and the sacrosanctness of the author’s words as written and misspelled/misused; that authors can do better by self-editing or peer editing; that “I lost [dislike] my job and so am thinking of becoming an editor.” And let us not forget those editors who move us along that path by proclaiming to the world that they will provide not only a “perfect” edit, but do so for as little as 25¢ a page.

Increasingly, editing is viewed as having little financial value (worth). Increasingly, editors are shoring up that belief. It becomes particularly troublesome to me when I see that the ultimate client (in my tale, the publisher) is willing to extend itself but the intermediary is unwilling to take advantage of that willingness and is unwilling to provide the service that the ultimate client wants.

The problem of worth is hydra-headed; the solution requires cooperation of a type that will never be in the passionately independent world of editing, which world also suffers the plague of easy entry. I have my own solution: I provide high-quality editing in a form that allows me to specialize. As a consequence, although clients pay me more, they save other expenses that they would have to otherwise incur, and so find in my services that balance of cost and worth.

Where are you in this editing world?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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