Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Back to School for Business Math

When you decided to become a wordsmith, you may have thought you could leave the world of numbers behind. No such luck! Today’s authors are entrepreneurs: even if traditionally published, once sales are involved, your writing becomes a business.

For a multitude of reasons often expounded upon at this site, one of your main expenses may end up being editing services.

Why does editing cost so much?

Since editing is my business, I hear that question all the time. I thought I’d embrace BRP’s “Back to School” theme to provide a business math lesson as applied to editing.

“Back to School” isn’t just a late summer theme for me, it’s the theme of my life. To keep up-to-date on trends in the publishing industry, I’m constantly seeking out new learning opportunities. Here’s a peek at what I spend each year on my continuing education alone (previous investment in post-graduate college education assumed):

Conferences $500
Workshops/Classes $200
Professional dues $120
Resource materials $125
Travel/lodging $750

That comes out to almost $1,700 per year, or $17,000 for the past ten years. And I don't count here the money I pour into the industry by purchasing newly published novels, the reading of which is a valuable part of my ongoing education.

I’m sure many of our readers spend this and more.

My number is skewed to the low side. For one thing, I’m naturally frugal, and take advantage of many free and low cost resources. It also doesn’t reflect the fact that every few years I spring for a major conference requiring costly travel: the Maui Writers Conference and the Sewanee Writers Conference each cost me about $1,500. In addition, I’ve paid to have my own writing edited, another valuable part of my education.

(If you are an author who invests similarly in your education, may I please take this opportunity to thank you? You are, no doubt, a delight to work with. May your efforts provide the springboard to success that you deserve. Yet I’m not really writing this for you—chances are, you already can see the numerous benefits of purchasing a developmental edit.)

What if you work full time, have a family, and can’t devote the time and monetary resources to a $30K MFA program, or community college classes, or even the frugal education outlined above? You may not even have the time to join a writer's group, but you have a book that’s itching to be born. How can you make it competitive if all you have time for is the writing and promoting of it?

In addition, what if—and yes, I actually heard this on the phone one day—you flunked high school English, are dyslexic, and use creative spelling when you write, yet believe you have a good, marketable story to tell? After such a compelling pitch is no time to dicker about the editor’s stated fee.

By purchasing developmental editing services, you are taking an educational shortcut. You are receiving the sum total of your editor’s 10- or 20- or 30-year education, and all of her writing experience and developed analytical skills and natural aptitudes and insider knowledge, applied to your specific project.

That’s a huge jumpstart.

Suddenly, when you do the math, that $1200 fee for developmental editing services you might have griped about doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

As the former owner of the aging farmhouse in which my home-based business was located, I’ve paid that much for a single plumbing emergency. When presented with the bill, I had no choice but to pay my plumber’s stated hourly rate.

“But that’s different,” you might say. "Any business needs plumbing."

Fair enough. But as an author you own a special kind of business, with specific kinds of start-up and maintenance costs. One of them is good editing.

So next time you want to complain about the math, think instead in terms of the investment you're making in your business goal. The goal is not publication—that is simply a means to an end. The goal is connecting with readers in a way that results in repeat sales. That's how any entrepreneur stays in business.

What are you willing to do to make your book competitive?


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, was published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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  1. To look at it another way: It can easily consume 40-80 hours working with an author on developmental revisions (much longer when you get into ghostwriting). Easily. Translate that into what a person needs to earn per week to live. That gives you an idea of what an editor needs to charge to do their job.

  2. Dani: What it takes to survive--love the added variable. I guess that makes your comment "Business Algebra," lol. But some potential clients seem to think that writing and editing are endeavors blown about by the winds of passion. To get the respect we deserve, we must conduct ourselves as business owners.

  3. The same can be said for writing - we have to survive, yet without investing in our product, we'll never sell books. One conference can counteract a small publisher's advance, and without a sell-through, that's all you'll see.

    If you're writing to make money -- find another job!

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Terry: How true. Very few authors make enough money to live on, and the up-front investment is hard to substantiate when the reward is so uncertain.

    Editing, however, is one way to obtain the reward you can control: the knowledge that you've put forth your best effort.

  5. Kathryn, thanks for stepping out to cover this topic. Since most of us who edit are writers, too, there is that tension between not wanting to gouge a writer, yet needed to be fairly compensated for our time and expertise. I have been lucky that this past year, I have had fewer clients question my rates. They seem to understand the importance of getting their work edited.

    And as I have stated before, I fully intend to get my current WIP professionally edited before I try to market it.

  6. Maryann: I think you're right that more and more "educated" clients--educated in the ways of this changing industry, that is--now understand that they will have to pay for editing that is more thorough than what they are able to get for free from critique partners.

    This post is for the others. ;)

  7. so what do you charge to edit a book of 39,500 words?

  8. Star: Ah, more math! I charge $3/page. The pages must be formatted per industry standards, outlined at my website, That formatting usually works out to about 250 words/page.
    So 39,500 ÷ 250 = 158 pages.
    158 x 3 = $474.
    For PA residents I must charge a 6% state tax on that amount.

    This puts me nowhere near the industry standard set by the Editorial Freelancers Association, which suggest charging $60-$80 per hour for developmental editing (my specialty), because I also type up a detailed manuscript evaluation. But it keeps me in steady work, and my clients can more easily budget if they know how much I charge per page--hourly is too frightening for many.

    You have me intrigued though--that's a short book! Is it a short middle grade novel? Or some sort of gift book? Or are you taking advantage of the greater flexibility that e-publishing can offer?

  9. A good way to look at this issue! Well-said.!

  10. I think you can write and make a living at it. I know many authors who do. Part of the issue might be the brainwashing we have been exposed to about getting rich through our bestsellers. I think a good exercise for authors is to determine how much money they need every month (just to live), and then break down what book products they need "out there" to bring the income flow. It's pretty easy math to figure out 5,000 e-books in one month at $.99 = close to $5,000 in income. This is not an unusual scenario these days in self-publishing. If you have more than one books in the pipeline, even better. Consider a combination of self-publishing and traditional publishing. Lots of old titles are being offered via e-books. There are more options than ever and especially if you can break out of old patterns of thinking. Like how much money you REALLY need.

  11. Oh, and be sure to edit your edits, too. All that revision can cause problems. Especially when you're talking about more than one books. ;)

  12. Great! Thanks for this interesting info!

  13. Dani's last comment, about editing the edits, is so true. Chiropractors know the same, that adjusting one element of the spine can throw another part out of whack. Many books need more than one developmental edit. But when that arc has the right spring, and it all comes together, it suddenly doesn't feel like craft at all. It feels like magic.

  14. After the developmental edit for all the "big-picture" issues, do your clients then go elsewhere for a copyedit and final proofread, Kathryn? Or how does that work, after they've done revisions based on your suggestions re plot, characterization, pacing, point of view, etc.?

  15. Jodie: For clients dedicated to going the distance, I offer a diminishing price for developmental edits: $3/page first round, $2/page next round (includes copy edit), $1 each for the pages affected by any remaining changes. Since at this point I'm in it up to my eyeballs, I suggest they go elsewhere for a proofread. Sadly, very few clients take advantage of this. When they do, it is so rewarding for me.

    But I get it--the economy is tough, the outcome so uncertain--but I like to believe that they at least take advantage of knowledgeable critique partners at this point so that all our hard work isn't thwarted by typos!


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