An American Editor

January 31, 2018

The Business of Editing: The Line in the Sand

Richard Adin, An American Editor

As I have gotten older, I have found that things in life have reversed, by which I mean that things that once irritated me no longer irritate me and things that didn’t irritate me now do irritate me. Yet there are a couple of things that irritated me when I began my editing career that continue to irritate me today, although today’s irritation level is more strident.

One example of a continuing irritation we have already discussed on An American Editor — the question that both inexperienced and experienced editors never seem to get tired of asking, even though they have been told hundreds, if not thousands, of times that there is no such thing: What is the going rate? (For that discussion, see A Continuing Frustration — The “Going Rate”.) Today’s irritant is the fast-schedule-but-low-pay project offer, which also has been previously discussed on AAE in, for example, Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations, Business of Editing: Workdays & Schedules, and The Business of Editing: The Standard Editing Workday & Workweek.

What brings this back to the forefront is that this month I have already declined four offered projects that combined amounted to 11,000 manuscript pages (which, of course, raises another issue, what constitutes a manuscript page, a topic previously visited on AAE; see, e.g., The Business of Editing: A Page Is a Page — Or Is It? and The Business of Editing: How Many Pages an Hour Do You Edit?). I declined the projects because I am already under contract to edit two books by the end of April that combined run a bit more than 19,000 manuscript pages.

I would have declined the four offered projects even if I were twiddling my thumbs and staring at an empty work basket because the pay rates were abysmal and the schedules Orwellian.

Consider just one of the projects. The client’s estimate was that the number of manuscript pages was 2,500. Based on past experience with this client, I know that the true number of pages (by “true,” I mean as calculated using my formula, not their formula) would raise that number by at least 25% and more likely closer to 35%. The size is fine; in fact, it is my preferred project size — bigger is better — since I do not like to tackle small projects (less than 1,000 manuscript pages), even though I occasionally will (most of the projects I take on run 1,500+ manuscript pages and many run 7,500 to 15,000 manuscript pages).

The client’s schedule was Orwellian: two weeks to complete copyediting. The schedule was matched by the abysmal rate offered: $2.60 per manuscript page. And, according to the client, the manuscript required heavy editing, which in the client’s parlance meant none of the authors’ primary language was English. (The subject matter was medical.)

Unlike some editors who have imaginary lines that they draw and claim they will not (but always do) cross, my lines are like those of the Great Wall — in stone, permanent, immovable, and I will not cross them. I told the client that I was declining the project because the schedule was Orwellian and the pay abysmal. For me to take on the project, the shortest possible schedule would be based on editing 400 manuscript pages per week with the count done using my formula and a rate of $15 per page. The more reasonable the schedule, the lower my per-page rate would become until we hit my absolute minimum, which was still higher than their offered rate.

My two uncrossable lines are these:

  1. The schedule must be doable in the real world, not a fantasy world.
  2. The compensation rate must correlate with both the schedule and the expected editing difficulties (i.e., does the client rate this as a light, medium, or heavy edit and what do those terms mean in the client’s parlance).

I know how fast I can edit because for 34 years, I have mostly edited manuscripts from the same subject area and I have kept careful records. In addition, I have created tools, like my EditTools macros, and use tools created by others, like Jack Lyon’s Editor’s Toolkit Plus, that are specially designed to make my work more accurate, efficient, and speedy.

I know how much I need to charge for my editing work because I have calculated my required effective hourly rate (also discussed in prior AAE essays in detail; see the series Business of Editing: What to Charge) and I know how much I want to charge for my work so  I make a profit, not just break even. And I know how much of a premium I require to be willing to work longer hours than my standard workday and workweek (see The Business of Editing: The Standard Editing Workday & Workweek for a discussion of work time).

The point is that if I cross those lines I have drawn, I hurt myself. Why would I ever want to hurt myself? In the olden days, before I knew better and before anyone with experience set me on the correct path, I thought if I accepted a project that was on a tight schedule with low pay, it would get me an in at the company, get me more work, and give me a chance to show how good an editor I am, with the result being that the company would offer me better-paying projects to keep me as part of their editorial stable. It didn’t take long for me to learn that the only fool in that scenario was me.

Sure, I got more work offers, but never at a better rate nor on a better schedule. As one project manager told me, I had already demonstrated I could handle the schedule and was willing to work for the offered rate, so that is all I would ever get.

I drew my lines and I never cross them.

I know that some of you are shaking your head and saying that you can’t afford to do that. I did the same until I realized I was always behind and never moving ahead — I was enriching my “clients” at my expense. Once I took my stand, I found that I was getting better projects and better pay — not starting the next day, but starting in the not very distant future.

Successful editors are successful businesspersons, too. Successful businesspersons do not do things that benefit others at their expense. They draw lines that they do not ever cross. I have drawn mine; are you ready to draw yours?

May 18, 2015

Compromise and Expectations — A Clash in the Making

Filed under: Editorial Matters,Professional Editors — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Engineer’s Lament” (The New Yorker, May 4, 2015), an article I highly recommend, when I came across this quote (p. 48 of the print version):

No one tells you to build a perfect car. People tell you to build a car in eighteen months that will sell for twenty-five thousand dollars.…[I]mperfections and compromise are inevitable.

If I were to write that quote for my editing business (and I suspect your editing business, too), it would read something like this:

Clients tell you to build a perfect manuscript. Clients tell you to edit a manuscript of one thousand pages in seven days that will be error-free and cost less than one thousand dollars.…[I]mperfections and compromise are unacceptable.

I wish I could say I was exaggerating, but I am not. I am finding that client demands are increasingly impossible. I try to be politic when responding to clients, but sometimes I just want to scream in frustration.

Recently, I worked on a book that had I known was going to be as much trouble as it became, I would have refused the project at any price. Not only was the schedule difficult, which I knew upfront, but the client became increasingly difficult as the project progressed.

I would turn in a chapter and two weeks later I would receive the chapter back with the in-house “editor’s” comments. I put editor in quotes because if the person is a qualified editor, he hides those qualifications very well.

Did the editor catch some errors? Yes, he did. In one 120+-page chapter he found a serial comma I missed. And he also found a few other minor errors. But when berating me for missing those errors, he ignored (or refused to recognize) that to meet the schedule, I had to edit 400 to 450 pages per week, that the authors of the chapter were not native English speakers/writers, and that the editing of the chapter was very extensive with significant rewriting. For the client, the key was that the editing wasn’t perfect.

Compounding my exasperation was all the time I had to spend explaining why, for example, a phrase was sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not hyphenated. I ultimately learned that it was decided by the client’s in-house editorial team that either a phrase was always hyphenated or never hyphenated and thus they changed the editing and assigned this as to editor’s error.

Which made me think of “The Engineer’s Lament” — editors are expected to be perfect but engineers are not.

I’ve decided not to accept work from this client again because the client is a very-high maintenance client. I wouldn’t mind so much if I thought the client’s in-house editorial staff had a good grasp of editing, language, and grammar — but my discussions with them indicated they do not.

The problems begin, I think, with the expectation of perfection. For there to be perfection in editing, there must be inflexibility. There must be a rule that is always applicable, in all circumstances, that is never deviated from, such as the client’s rule that a phrase is either always hyphenated or never hyphenated, not sometimes hyphenated depending on how it is used. There may be languages in which such a rule exists, but that language is certainly not U.S. English.

Once a client starts thinking in terms of perfection, the editor is bound to fail. Too much of editing is opinion for perfection to be achievable. What we can achieve can come close, but how close depends on many factors that are independent of but greatly influence editing. One example is schedule.

Schedule is interesting because clients set an editing schedule based on another schedule of which editing is but a part. It is best described as a schedule within a schedule within a schedule. Editing must be done by a certain date in order to meet a typesetting schedule that has to be completed by a certain date so as to meet a printing schedule, which has to be completed by a certain date to meet a marketing schedule. The concern is not for the difficulty of the editing but for how the editing schedule helps meet the other schedules. How quickly and accurately a manuscript can be edited depends on the quality of the writing, the subject matter, what the editor is expected to do in addition to spelling and grammar, whether the authors are native writers of the language involved, and myriad other things. But clients rarely consider any (or, at best, no more than one or two) of these dependencies when setting a schedule.

When an engineer is given a schedule, it is recognized that to meet the schedule means compromises have to be made. When editors are given a schedule, compromise on quality is not a consideration. That there has to be compromises means there will be a clash between editor and client. Usually the compromise is satisfactory to both parties. It is when the parties clash that there needs to be a reevaluation of the relationship — and when the editor should decide whether to continue with the client.

I try to get clients understand that perfection in editing is a goal that is nearly impossible to meet because so much in editing is opinion based and controlled by schedule. Usually clients understand and accept this; when a client does not, trouble is brewing. Much of the trouble can be averted with an appropriate schedule.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 17, 2013

Business of Editing: Workdays & Schedules

Filed under: Business of Editing — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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Every business has business hours. Some businesses are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In the Internet age, people too often assume that because they can access your website at any time, they can contact you at any time and get a response. Unfortunately, I have seen an increase in the number of clients and prospective clients who pay no attention to day or hour and calculate editing schedules as if an editor works 24/7/365.

When I am hired to edit a project, I make it a point to discuss schedule. This is important for many reasons, the most obvious one being an assessment of whether I can take on a project based on the expected starting date or does it conflict with current commitments.

A “perk” of being self-employed is that I can set my own work hours. The reality is that I am not wholly free to do as I please when it comes to setting my work hours. For example, once I accept a project I commit to meeting the deadlines that accompany it and so my freedom to determine my work hours is curtailed to the extent that I need to accommodate the project schedule. In addition, if I want to remain in business, clients have to have some idea of when they can reach me.

Yet I am a business and I want to be treated as a business. At the same time, I want to make it clear to clients that I — not they — determine my work hours. Consequently, I always have the schedule discussion.

Editors are effective for a limited number of hours a day. Some editors can effectively edit for 5 hours a day, some can do more, some can do less, but the longer the editing workday, the more likely errors will be missed or introduced. Productivity and efficiency are subject to the bell curve phenomenon.

I have set my workday hours to be 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Monday to Friday, excluding holidays. That doesn’t mean I am not in the office at other hours or on holidays (alas, I usually am at my desk much earlier than 10 a.m.); rather, it means that a client can expect to be able to reach me during my business hours.

Having those hours is, of course, less important these days because most communication is done electronically and the expectation is that if you are available, you will respond promptly; if you are not available, you will respond as soon as you become available. But those hours are important — very important — for project scheduling. They establish a standard against which expectations can be measured.

I scrutinize schedules that I receive from clients. I make sure that clients understand that the normal workweek for an editor is 5 hours a day, Monday through Friday, exclusive of holidays. Thus the client who wants a “heavy” edit of a manuscript and wants the first 500 pages returned in one week is told that such a schedule is impractical for a single editor. It would require churn of 20 pages an hour, which is much too high for a “heavy” edit. (For a discussion of light, medium, and heavy editing, see Business of Editing: Light, Medium, Heavy?)

I also make it a point to explain clearly to the client that I cannot require editors to work on weekends in the absence of extra compensation. Too many clients just pull schedules out of the air. (For a discussion about schedules, see Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations.) I want clients to see me as an equal, as a partner, and to reinforce that view, I make sure that I act as an equal, as a partner, as a business. One way I do that is by having established business hours and by making it clear that when I consider a project’s schedule, I weigh the proposed schedule’s demands against my established standard workweek.

The standard workweek is also important when negotiating the rate of pay for a project. The worst bargaining tactics that can be employed are those that have an aura of desperation about them. A client who knows you are desperate for work is less likely to negotiate pay or schedule. But a client who wants you to do the work and knows that you are willing to say no as readily as you will say yes, is more willing to negotiate. Again, this status of negotiation with an equal is one that is gained by making it clear that you are a business, an equal, a partner, and by reinforcing that impression each and every time you speak with a client or potential client.

Even one day matters. A client recently approached me to edit a book. The end date for the project was scheduled for July 31 and the start date was to be July 8. The first chapter had to be edited and submitted by July 12. I replied to the client thanking them for asking my company to undertake this project, but that I had to decline. I would not have an editor available until July 15 and I would need until August 5 to complete the project.

The client came back the next day and after stating they wanted us to do the editing, said they could modify the schedule so that the end date would be August 5 with a July 15 start date, but that they needed the first chapter by July 16. The first chapter was 84 manuscript pages. I pointed out that it was not possible for me to guarantee to meet that deadline, and countered with my own deadline for the first chapter. In my counter, I explained, yet again, that we work a 5-hour day, Monday through Friday and that I could not assume that we would be able to edit the 16 pages an hour that would be required to meet the one-day deadline. Until we actually start on the project, we have no idea of how well or badly written the manuscript is or whether such things as references are in proper format or need to be modified to meet the style. If it is well written and if the references are in proper format, it might be possible to meet the deadline; if not, then more time will be needed. Consequently, any deadline has to accommodate the possibility of problems.

In the end, we got the project with a modified schedule that fit my needs. But we got it because the client negotiated with us as an equal. I was as willing to turn down the project as to accept it. More importantly, when I explained our workweek to the client, it was the umpteenth time they had heard the explanation. I have been consistent over time as to what constitutes our workweek and workday. Similarly, I am consistent about the cost of working weekends and holidays. Even if a client is prepared to pay for such work, I make it clear that doing so is voluntary, not something I can require an editor to do.

The reality is the editors who work for me, and myself, set our own work schedules based on the time we need to devote to a project to meet the deadlines. But those are schedules we set; they are not imposed on us. That may seem like a small difference, but it is not. It is the difference between being regarded by a client as a business and thus as an equal and a partner, or not being regarded as a business but as someone to whom the client can dictate.

The first step toward negotiation equality is to have well-established business hours that you faithfully maintain and repeatedly letting the world know what those hours are.

April 29, 2013

Business of Editing: Taking On Too Much

This past week, I was hired to help on a massive project that had been started by other editors who were now behind schedule. I was given a copy of the stylesheet the other editors had created in hopes that I could adopt it for the material I was asked to edit.

The project, as I said, is massive. The portion I received is nearly 5,000 manuscript pages and the client would like that material edited within 6 weeks in hopes of partially salvaging the schedule.

The first problem I faced was what to do about the stylesheet. As provided, it had numerous problems. First, there is no clear pattern to some of the decisions. For example, sometimes the suffix like is hyphenated and sometimes not. This is not a problem where the suffix is attached to, for example, an acronym (APA-like), but it is a problem when it is attached to a standard word that doesn’t end in the letter l (e.g., boatlike vs. tomb-like; why hyphenate the latter but not the former?).

The hyphenation issue didn’t stop with suffixes; it extended to prefixes as well. Sometimes a particular prefix is hyphenated and sometimes it isn’t.

To complicate matters, some of the decisions are contrary to the dictionary that governs the project and certainly contrary to the appropriate style manuals.

A second problem with the stylesheet is that it contains spelling errors. Not just one or two, but a significant number. These are errors that should have been flagged if the editors are using specialty spell-checking software. I do not mean to imply that an editor can rely on spell-checking software; rather, spell-checking software serves a purpose and an editor should use specialty spell-check software to flag possible errors at so they can be checked and a determination made whether they are in fact errors.

The first problem was readily solved by a discussion with the client. It was determined that the most important things for this project are chapters being internally consistent (which makes sense because some chapters are longer than many books) rather than consistent across chapters, and that the schedule be met if at all possible. Consequently, I need to have my team of editors do what they have always done and strive for chapter consistency first and cross-chapter consistency second (ignoring, of course, chapters we are not editing).

The second problem was also easily solved because my team uses appropriate software, including specialty software and EditTools, to help us with these projects. We are ignoring the stylesheet from the other editors for the most part.

However, this scenario does raise a few questions. First, am I ethically obligated to advise the client of the errors in the other editors’ stylesheet? If I do, I am questioning the competency of the editors previously hired and I am creating more work for the client who now has to either correct edited manuscript in-house or ask proofreaders to do it (or possibly just ignore them). I believe an editor’s obligation is to the editor’s client and thus in this instance believe that the correct course is to notify the client of the errors. I think, too, this holds true with my own stylesheets should I subsequently discover I have made an error. In the case of my stylesheets, I make it a practice to both update the stylesheet and to alert the client that I discovered an error (or more) made by me or another team editor, that I have corrected the stylesheet and the corrected version is now available for download, and I list the errors made and their corrections.

The second question that is raised is whether an editor has an ethical obligation to advise a client when a project is too large for the editor early enough in the project’s schedule for the client to attempt to salvage its schedule? A companion question is whether an editor has an ethical obligation to tell a client when the editor lacks the skill to properly edit the subject matter at hand of that lack of skill so that the client can hire an editor with the necessary skill?

Again, I think it is an editor’s obligation to let a client know when a project is too big for the editor to edit in a timely fashion. I also think an editor should decline projects for which the editor does not have the requisite skillset.

There is yet another issue involved in projects such as this one: having and using the correct tools to do the proper editing job. It is here that I think many editors fail.

The project in question is a medical tome, as I suspect you have guessed. Should not an editor have current medical spell-checking software and not rely on either one that is years out of date or on the general spell-checking software that comes with Microsoft Word? Should not an editor have current drug manuals or software? How about specialty word software (or books) and dictionaries? More importantly, shouldn’t the editor both have these resources at her fingertips and actually use them?

I also think that editors should have and use all of the tools that are available (and appropriate) to make the editor’s work more accurate and more consistent. Yet, I have been told by some editors that, for example, they do not use spell-checking software because they have a “sharp eye for misspellings and we all know that that spell-checking software is not always accurate.” I have also heard laments about how the software costs money. (I view such costs as investments in my business and profession, and as part of the requirements to do business.)

When an editor overreaches, both the editor and the client suffer. The editor becomes stressed and jeopardizes his relationship with the client, who is also stressed. In the end, the editor may well lose both the project and the client. I recognize that it is difficult to give up projects that will bring in money, especially a lot of money, but there are times when saying “No” or “I can’t” is the better strategy.

In the case at hand, the original editors and the project were a mismatch. Whether the mismatch was one of size or skill or both, I do not know. I wonder whether the client’s confidence in the original editors is shaken. I’d like to think that a professional editor would not have been swept up in this scene, that a professional editor would place the client’s interests before her own interests.

What would you do in a situation like this? What do you think an editor’s ethical obligations are?

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