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

July 17, 2013

Business of Editing: Workdays & Schedules

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.

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