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.

February 20, 2019

Sticking to Your “Rate Principles” … Essential, but Not Always Easy

By Elaine R. Firestone, ELS

“Rate principles” is a term I coined for that point when you say, “This is my limit for how low I’ll go in my rates for a given type of work,” and mean it and follow it.

I’ve been a freelancer for over six years now (and a professional editor for much longer), so I’ve heard my share of horror stories from colleagues who received e-mails that just didn’t “smell” right, and I’m always vigilant when I receive e-mails from previously unknown sources inquiring about my services. I recently got an inquiry from someone who was most obviously legit, even without researching the potential client’s name and affiliation. She sent a long and incredibly detailed description of the journals she oversees, including their respective subjects, the audience of each one, and even the voice each strives to maintain. She also stated what she wants a copy-/substantive editor to do, as well as from where she got my name (my Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) profile). That’s always good to know.

The next step was to respond if I was interested in the work, the areas in which I thought I could work most efficiently, and my rates for doing this type of work.

I didn’t respond right away. I wanted to think carefully about both whether I wanted to take on a new client at this time and — especially — the rate question. Because I have different clients who pay different rates (for various reasons not germane to this article), I was a bit torn about how to respond:

— Do I go with my lowest rate in hopes of getting the work?

— Do I go with my highest rate because I want to make as much as possible?

— Do I go with the middle-of-the-road rate to hedge my bets?

What should I do?

My thoughts went back and forth along a number of lines:
— If I go with the lowest rate, I’m definitely going to resent the work, both now and in the future.
— If I go with the highest rate, I doubt I will get the work at all.
— If I go with the middle-of-the-road rate … well … I still may resent the work over time, especially because learning their way of doing things won’t be easy, nor would learning the nuances of the new science area.

What did I do?

I started my response by thanking the client for the detail in her e-mail. I went on to reiterate, in a very short narrative, a few of my qualifications that made me an excellent fit for the work, citing things that she ideally already read in my EFA profile and website. (Doing this is an excellent strategy, by the way, because the client is reminded how great you and how impressive your qualifications are before reading the rate you’ll charge.) Finally, I said that yes, I was interested and thought the subject matter was fascinating (it never hurts to use a little flattery), and then gave my rate. Which rate, you ask? A rate that wasn’t quite my highest, but much higher than my middle-of-the-road one.

But why? Why did I do that? Why didn’t I quote a lower rate? Well, here are my reasons for not quoting a lower rate to help ensure — at some level — that I’d get the job:

  1. My time and expertise are worth money.
  2. There is no guarantee that — even at a low rate — I’d be chosen. Someone with an even lower rate could always undercut me.
  3. If I got the job, it would be fairly regular work, and I didn’t want to resent either the time I had to spend doing it or the work itself.
  4. My time and expertise are worth money.
  5. Once working for a low rate, I have found it’s often difficult to raise it any appreciable amount without losing the client. It sometimes takes years to do, and sometimes, it’s impossible. The rate I accepted from my lowest-paying client was to just get the work when I started out freelancing. That rate has never caught up to my higher rates, leading to, at times, resentment of the work. (See #1, above).
  6. I had more than enough other work at the moment, so the rate had to make it worth my while to juggle this with the work of another client.
  7. My time and expertise are worth money.

Notice that “My time and expertise are worth money” is repeated three times. It’s worth all of us repeating that phrase over and over again.

Some of you may be new editors, or maybe you’re seasoned professionals. Maybe you’re new to freelancing or maybe you’ve been freelancing for decades. Whatever stage of your career you are in, whether you’re just determining your rates, or if you’ve been “at it” awhile and you’re contemplating a rate hike, I highly recommend that you read Rich Adin’s column “A Continuing Frustration — The ‘Going Rate,’” where he talks about figuring out what your “effective hourly rate” is.

Whether I get this work or not, however, I feel like I’ve “won.” If I get the work at my stated rate, I gain a new client, at a good rate, in a potentially fascinating new-to-me science discipline, which in turn becomes résumé candy. If I don’t get the work, I still have my existing clients with more than enough work to keep me busy (but with my sanity intact), plus I can keep my self-respect because I didn’t compromise my rate principles.

Many of you don’t have the financial advantage of being able to turn down work just because it doesn’t pay well … you rationalize that any work is good work — which I understand, because I’ve been in that situation. Many of you don’t have rate principles to begin with (which we should all have, no matter what they might be), so you take anything offered even if you have some type of financial cushion as a fallback.

A number of colleagues have said over the years that if you lose a low-paying client, then you have time to market to higher-paying clients, but if you gain a low-paying client, you are probably doing the same amount of work as for a higher paying one, but without the benefits of a higher bank balance, along with less time to devote to seeking out the higher payers.

I urge everyone here to first determine your individual “effective rate,” then formulate your “rate principles,” and try to stick to them. Your self-respect, your happiness, and your bank balance will thank you for it.

Elaine R. Firestone, ELS, is an award-winning — and board-certified — scientific and technical editor and compositor specializing in the physical and agricultural sciences. After a 25+-year career editing for NASA, Elaine started ERF Editorial Consulting, where her motto is “‘ERF’ aren’t just my initials — it’s what you get: Edits. Results. Final product.”©

Editor’s note: Let us know how you approach setting and sticking to your rates.

October 2, 2017

The Business of Editing: Do You Know Your Business’ Health?

Discussions in online forums are fascinating. Pick an editorial forum and you are bound to find that sometime in the forum’s recent history, at least one, and even more than one, editor has asked “What should I charge?” or “What’s the going rate?” Both persons new to editing and experienced editors ask that question.

There are a lot of things wrong with the answers that are usually given, and we have discussed any number of times how to calculate what you, individually, should charge for your services. Yet there is another aspect to why the answers are generally wrong and why the question should not be asked of colleagues — your business’ health.

Let us assume that you ask “What should I charge?” and that the consensus responses are $25/hour. That is the extent of the online exchange. No analysis of the response is made that goes beyond “This is what I charge” or “The XYZ survey says” or “This is what seems to be what most responders to such questions give.” It is the lack of analysis that will hurt your business the most.

When someone responds $25/hour, what do you know about the responder’s business? For example, do you know

  • how many hours of editing they do a year
  • how many clients they have
  • how many years of experience they have
  • what types of manuscripts they edit (e.g., fiction or nonfiction, romance or biography, academic or nonacademic, STEM or medical)
  • who their clients are (e.g., independent authors, bestselling novelists or barely selling novelists, doctoral students, well-known publishers, small presses, academic presses, packagers, law firms, pharmaceutical companies, journals, English-as-a-second-language authors)
  • among their client types, the percentages of each type
  • their annual gross income solely from editing for the past year; the past 5 years
  • whether editing is their full-time occupation
  • whether they have another, primary source of income so that the household is not dependent on their earnings or if they are the sole income source for their household
  • whether their editorial business is profitable year after year
  • what their local cost of living is in comparison to yours
  • what debts, if any, they have that would affect the amount they charge

The list can go on but you get the picture. You are taking advice for your business from someone whose circumstances you do not know.

General advice about how to calculate what you should charge doesn’t require in-depth knowledge of the person offering the advice — but advice on precisely what to charge does. It matters greatly whether the person offering the advice runs a business that loses money year after year or turns a large profit. It matters greatly whether they work 25 hours a week for 40 weeks a year or 35 hours a week for 50 weeks a year. And it matters greatly whether what they earn is supplemental income on which the household is not dependent for survival or their income is the only household income and its absence would jeopardize survival.

In other words, you need to know your business’ health and their business’ health.

A healthy business is one that is satisfactorily profitable. The profit may be $1 or $100,000 — the number that satisfies you is personal to you. But profitable it must be; it cannot be costing you money to be in business.

So we come back to the fundamentals of the required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR) and the desired Effective Hourly Rate (dEHR). You need to know your rEHR before you can accept advice to charge $x/hour or that $x/hour is the “going rate.” Even if $x is truly the going rate, what does it matter if by charging $x/hour you do not earn enough to be profitable?

When assessing your business’ health, you need to have all your data at hand. You need to know, for example:

  • how many hours and weeks of work have you averaged over the past few years
  • the likelihood of your being able to maintain that amount of work over the coming year
  • how much you owe others
  • your living expenses
  • how much you need for a rainy day fund
  • your costs of doing business (e.g., marketing, internet access, computer hardware and software)

With this information, you can calculate your rEHR, which represents the minimum amount you can earn per hour to support your lifestyle. This number is fundamental to many business decisions you need to make, starting with whether you can afford to continue editing space opera novels for independent authors and ending with figuring out how to expand your business through marketing.

If your rEHR is high, that is, higher than you think or know the market will bear, then it will also act as an impetus for you to devise ways to make your workflow more efficient. I’ve told the story before about the origins of my EditTools macros, but I’ll repeat it here. I found that to earn my dEHR (not my rEHR) I had to either work longer hours every day or become more efficient in my workflow. The smarter way for me was to become increasingly efficient. As my efficiency grew, my work hours became fewer but my EHR grew. Eventually, I found that I could reduce my working hours by 25% yet raise my EHR so that it approached my dEHR. I was able to do this by creating EditTools macros. I invested upfront time, money, and effort so that I could repeatedly, over the long term, increase efficiency.

The dEHR is the hourly rate I would like to earn. It is not an hourly rate I can charge my clients, few would be willing to pay it. It is an EHR that is greater than my rEHR, which represents the minimum EHR I can earn to meet the costs of lifestyle. When I earn more than my rEHR, my business is healthy and profitable; when I earn just my rEHR, my business is healthy but not profitable; and when I earn less than my rEHR, my business is unhealthy and unprofitable — it is losing money and thus costing me money.

When someone online tells you that the going rate for copyediting is $25/hour and you do not know your rEHR, you do not know whether your business will be healthy, healthy and profitable, or unhealthy and losing if you charge that $25/hour. If you know your rEHR, then there is no need to ask others what to charge because you will know what you need to earn. Instead, you will need to focus on determining how to calculate your fee — hourly, page, project, word, character — to meet your rEHR and to work toward your dEHR.

It is important to think in terms of efficiency and EHR. And it is important to remember that if you charge your client by the hour, whatever you charge as your hourly rate does not change — $25/hour remains $25/hour — whereas if you charge by the page, project, word, or character, your EHR can fluctuate up and down so that the more efficient you are the higher your EHR can be.

Regardless of how you calculate your fee, the bottom line is that your business being healthy relies on your knowing your rEHR, not on what someone responds in response to “What should I charge?” or “What is the going rate?”

Richard Adin, 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

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