An American Editor

November 27, 2017

A Continuing Frustration — The “Going Rate”

Sadly for me, I still read editing-related blogs and posts on forums like LinkedIn. I say sadly because there is little more frustrating to me than to read the repetitive, advice-seeking posts and the repetitive, well-meaning, but usually incorrect and nearly always factually incomplete responses.

How many times does it have to be said that what I charge a client and what Betsy charges a client is wholly irrelevant to what you should charge a client? Apparently, it is something that cannot be said either frequently or emphatically enough because rarely does a day pass without someone (or multiple someones) asking something similar to “What is the going rate?”

If I say I charge $50 an hour and Betsy says she charges $20 an hour and Phil says he also charges $20 an hour, what is the answer to the going rate question? Add Susan ($10), Robert ($15), and Jeremy ($25) to the mix. Does the answer change? Have you really gotten an answer? Even if the universe of editors is small (say, 1,000 editors in total), which we know is not the case (there are more than 100,000 editors in the United States alone), how representative of the whole universe of editors are the responses from me, Betsy, Phil, Susan, Robert, and Jeremy?

After getting a bunch of responses, the asker usually decides she now has an answer, say $20/hour. But she has such incomplete information that the number she has decided is the “going rate” is useless — too much necessary information is missing, information that qualifies (explains) each response.

For example, I didn’t tell you that I have been in the editing business for more than 30 years, bill at least 1,800 hours each year and have done so for at least the past 25 years, only work with tier 1 publishers, and only do copyediting of manuscripts that exceed 1,500 manuscript pages. Betsy didn’t mention that she does editing part-time (after her day job as a senior executive at a Fortune 100 company) for relaxation, has been editing for 3 years, and bills no more than 200 hours in a good year. Phil didn’t mention that he is struggling to find enough work to edit full-time and is slowly building his business, which is focused on working with university students to improve their research papers and resumes. Fortunately for Phil, his spouse is the primary household income provider and they live in a low-cost area where a household income of $35,000 lets one live decently. Phil also didn’t mention that he started his business only 3 weeks ago and has edited only two 5-page papers.

Susan, the low-baller, didn’t mention that she is a retired software engineer (retired 8 years ago) who took up editing to stave off boredom. She was a database specialist and now edits only technical articles intended for publication in specific database journals. She doesn’t need the income but feels she has to charge something for her work. And because she is retired, she limits the number of hours she is willing to work as an editor each month to 15 or fewer.

And so it goes.

Is this information important? Surely it is if you want someone else to tell you what to charge your clients. Why? Because you are a new fiction editor working with your first indie author on the author’s first novel and when you ask what the going rate is, shouldn’t you compare apples with apples, not apples with oranges? Doesn’t (shouldn’t) the response of the fiction editor who has edited 200 novels over the past 5 years carry more weight than someone like me or Betsy or Phil or Susan?

The usual response is that having an idea of what others charge is important so that the asker doesn’t price herself out of the market. Really!?

Suppose every responder to your question said exactly the same number — $15/hour. Now you feel confident that you, too, can (should) charge $15/hour. But you are still ignoring significant missing information and its impact on what you should (need to) charge. If you can only get enough work to enable you to bill for 20 hours a week, your gross earnings will be $300 per week. What if you can’t get enough work to bill for 52 weeks? Your gross yearly income will be less than $15,600 (the 52-week amount). Will that be enough to pay rent, utilities, and food, let alone anything else? Is the 52-week total ($15,600) enough?

My point is that not only do you need more information from responders to be able to make any use of their responses, but you need to have already analyzed your own economic needs. If you have analyzed your economic needs, then why do you need to ask the question? You already know what you have to charge in order to survive, so what difference does it make what the rest of the world charges? Either you can earn what you need to earn or you need to find a job (or a combination of jobs) that enables you to meet your financial needs.

The answer usually given is that if the going rate is $20 an hour, then that is all I can expect to charge, so it doesn’t matter that I need $50 an hour. And this is where the businessperson in you needs to come front and center.

Few editors can charge more than the “going rate” and actually get work. The confusion is in the terminology: for the businessperson, “I need to charge $50/hour” = “my effective hourly rate (EHR) needs to equal $50.”

The businessperson calculates what she needs to charge to make a profit and then figures out how to charge so that she makes that profit. It may mean using a different charging method; for example, charging by the page rather than by the hour, or defining a page by character count rather than by words, or something else. It may mean changing niches; for example, going from working with packagers to working directly with authors or changing from fiction to academic treatises.

The businessperson also plans what steps she needs to take to meet that EHR. As I have stated many times on An American Editor and elsewhere, I realized that to meet my financial goals I needed to streamline editing processes without sacrificing quality. My answer was macroizing as many tasks as I could and figuring out how to make Microsoft Word work for me. That process was what led to my creating and expanding EditTools. The process also led to my buying other software, like Editor’s Toolkit Plus, rather than reinventing the wheel.

Editors need to rethink their approach to the business side of editing. I know a lot of editors who are excellent editors but not-so-good businesspersons and who prefer to downplay, if not outright ignore, the business side of being an independent editor, that is, all the things that were done by someone else when you were an employee instead of a business owner. The balance needs to be changed so that editing skills and business skills are more in balance. It is one thing to have the scales tip in favor of editing, and quite another to have the scales heavily weighted toward editing. Perfect balance is not needed, just closer to balance.

One step in that direction is to get sufficient information about a responder’s business when a responder tells you what the “going rate” is. In addition, you might inquire how the responder decided to charge what she charges. Is she charging $20/hour because her client offered that amount, or because she calculated what she needs to earn an hour, or because someone else told her that was the “going rate”? I would give the least amount of credence to an answer that was based on someone else having told the responder that was the going rate, and the most credence to the number she actually calculated.

Regardless, it is time for editors to wise up to the fact that there is no such thing as a “going rate” — there is only what rate someone else is earning/charging and usually that rate is an arbitrary one, essentially grabbed from air and not supported by a solid informational foundation. With a new year arriving soon, it is time to become more of a businessperson and focus more on the business aspects of being independent editors.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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

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