What is a packager?
Let’s begin with a definition of a packager. A packager is a company that provides complete production services – including editorial – to a publisher. When a manuscript needs copyediting or proofreading, it is the packager who hires and pays the freelancer, even though the manuscript is for a well-known publisher. Today, most publishers use packagers for at least some of their titles, and some publishers use them for all (or nearly all) of their titles.
What that means is that there is another layer of person/company that needs to get paid for the service that the freelancer will provide. Which means that the freelancer gets less money than if she worked directly for the publisher. This leads to the question: how can working for a packager be profitable for the freelancer?
Packagers and the bidding process
The problem with packager pay for freelancers is how the packager bids for the work from the publisher. Most editors and proofreaders (editors from now on) calculate what to charge by calculating the number of pages in the project. Even if we charge by the hour, this is still the base method of calculation because we calculate that we can edit x pages an hour and thus need to charge $y per hour. Many editors fail to understand that the page is the single most important item determining what to charge.
(This raises another issue: Too many editors do not charge realistically. They do not know what their required effective hourly rate is, which is a number that every freelancer needs to know regardless of whether they charge by the page, the hour, the character, the project, or something else. To learn how to calculate your required effective hourly rate and what to charge, see my 5-part series Business of Editing: What to Charge.)
When a packager bids for work, they are bidding based on typeset pages. Thus, if the manuscript in question is intended to be 256 printed (typeset) pages but the manuscript that is to be edited is 550 pages, the 550 pages are ignored and the bid is made on 256 pages. Generally, packagers do not separate out functions and place bids on each function; they make their gross bid and then assign a budget to each function.
For most packagers, their skill and expertise is in the typesetting, not in the editing. It is not that they do not have a knowledgeable in-house editing supervisor; rather, it is that the freelance editor’s skill and expertise with the language is usually much greater, often because the language of the editing (UK English, US English, etc.) is not the in-house person’s primary language. The bottom line is that, as is true of most businesses, the packagers try to minimize the budget for editorial and maximize the budget for typesetting, which leads to low compensation for freelance editors.
Smarter editing for profit
If you ask freelancers, they often will say that packagers pay too low and they are difficult to make profitable. I agree that for the level of skill and the service they want, packagers pay too low, but it is still possible to make a profit (depending on what your required effective hourly rate is). The key is smarter editing.
I have been a professional freelance editor for 31 years. I am pleased to say that I make an excellent living from editing. My secret is that I am always seeking ways to make my editing more accurate, faster, and more consistent, with the goal of high-quality one-pass editing. I look for those tasks that are “mechanical” and look for ways to do those tasks more efficiently, usually by using macros. I am always amazed, and simultaneously amused, by the number of colleagues who do not exploit the power of macros.
Consider journal names. Most of the books I edit use PubMed style for journal names (e.g., New England Journal of Medicine becomes N Engl J Med). I also edit chapters with long reference lists, with several hundred not being unusual. By using a macro (the Journals macro in EditTools) I can edit the journal names in minutes. That isn’t all that needs to be done to the references, but it is one less otherwise-time-consuming task that is done.
Efficient editing is not limited to macros. Other steps can be taken as well. For example, studies show that using two monitors can increase productivity by as much as 50%. Add a third monitor and gain up to another 15%. That is a lot of improvement.
Using the correct resources for a particular job can also increase productivity. I usually, for example, prefer to use print reference material rather than online searches. Why? Because with print I can see other possibilities that I may not have thought of, such as surrounding words or names of species. That may not be true for all things or for everyone, but finding what works best for you is key.
The point is that the key to financially successful editing is to find ways to speed up the editing process without losing any accuracy. If you take such steps, even editing for packagers can be profitable.
Parameter setting for profit
Louise Harnby recently wrote for my An American Editor blog a two-part article, The Proofreader’s Corner: How Lucrative Are Your Editorial Clients Really? Keeping an Eye on Creeping Costs. It illustrates why it is important to make sure that everyone agrees on what a job will entail. It also illustrates why something as simple as an exchange of emails that describe a job’s parameters can be the difference between profit and no profit.
The point is that it is more efficient, and thus can lead to greater profit, to have an advance agreement over the terms of an editing assignment. The greater point is that each of these items of productivity and efficiency add up, and if you have enough of them in your stable of editing tools, even low-paying clients can be profitable.
The Rule of Three
One more thing: I use the Rule of Three when evaluating a client. Basically, that means I do not decide whether a client is a profit maker or a profit loser until I have done at least three jobs for that client. Sometimes your efficiencies need time to become efficiencies. (For a detailed explanation of my Rule of Three, see The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three at An American Editor.)
A final reminder ...
The final word of caution is this: No client can be profitable if the pay is less than your required effective hourly rate. That is the minimum you must earn. Keep that in mind when evaluating a client and you will be profitable.
Richard Adin, An American Editor
Richard Adin is a professional editor with 31 years of experience. His editorial practice, Freelance Editorial Services, is focused on nonfiction books. Adin is the writer and owner of the acclaimed An American Editor blog and author of The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper (ISBN: 978-1-4341-0369-7). He is also a frequent speaker at conferences on editing and editing more efficiently. Finally, Adin is the creator of EditTools, a set of Microsoft Word macros designed to increase editorial efficiency and productivity.
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