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Freelance Editors, Stop Discounting Your Rates

Q. This is kind of a copyedit, but I don’t have to edit footnotes. What should I charge?

A. Charge your copyediting rate.

Q. This is a developmental edit, but it’s a second pass. What should I charge?

A. Charge your developmental editing rate.

Q. This is mostly a proofread …

A. (say it with me:) Charge your proofreading rate.

Why do we freelance editors want to discount a project because it’s not exactly one thing or another? No two projects are the same, and many projects do not align perfectly with the type of editing that’s being asked for.

Instead, we must adjust our work methods to do the job. We may actually need longer to do the edit because we can’t use all of our usual efficiency tools.

Why does that mean a discount?

Editors provide a valuable service. Just because the service doesn’t fit into predetermined boxes—yours or the client’s—doesn’t mean they’re worth less.

Next time, instead of reflexively discounting the rate, determine what level of editing the project mostly or best fits, and then charge that rate.

Charge a Premium Rate

If the project requires a lot of upsets to your usual process, increasing the time and effort needed to complete it, consider charging a premium rate instead.

For example, a client insists that you perform a copyedit in something other than Word. Maybe it’s another word-processing software (e.g., Google Docs) or maybe it’s completely different (e.g., InDesign). Editors work primarily in Word for a reason. Even in Google Docs, you will miss out on Track Changes, macros, and other important timesaving and accuracy-increasing tools. You may even have to learn new software.

In such a case, you should be charging a higher rate because the project will require more work. If you’re charging by the hour, this could simply mean you’ll charge for more hours; but consider whether a higher hourly rate is warranted as well.

How can you sell that increase to a client? They don’t care how much work a project is. They care only that it gets done, accurately, on time, and on budget.

Here’s where you can position your problem as your client’s benefit. Some editors will refuse to edit in anything but Word; they put a lot of value on how Word allows them to work. That you will work in another software program gives you a competitive advantage. You are offering something the client can’t get from just any editor. That makes you more valuable to them. And you should be paid accordingly for that value.

Charge for the Value You Bring

Let’s keep thinking about the client’s point of view. When you perform an edit, you improve the manuscript, right? A better manuscript has a better chance of meeting its goals.

For example, you’ve been asked to edit a romance novel that a first-time author will shop around to literary agents. You’ve been editing romances for a long time and you have helped many authors get agents because they had a better manuscript to shop around. You can prove that you’ve helped authors reach their goals. The risk the author is taking with you is less than with, say, an editor who has never edited a romance.

You should be paid for the reduced risk and increased chance of landing an agent.

Not every potential client understands the value that editing brings, however. Some have a vague notion (“It just needs proofreading!”); others just know it’s part of the publishing process but don’t know why. That puts editors on the defensive: we have to explain what we do and how it helps the client. We have to prove we are doing something valuable.

As a result, I think we tend to discount our worth in order to land that client. And, yes, sometimes we do have to compete on price. But first we should educate the client on our value and then simply state our price. Without qualifications. Without hedging. Without excuses. “For this work, I would charge you $X,XXX.”

You’d be surprised how often clients accept the first rate offered when they understand what they’re getting out of it and when it’s offered with confidence.

And if the client does hesitate or state that the price is too high? Then you can consider negotiating points.

Negotiate the Editing Work, Not Its Value

Sometimes we do have to negotiate to win the day. Should you negotiate your rate?

First, consider whether negotiating is worth the effort. Too many discounted projects won’t get you to your financial goals. And a lot of negotiating can take precious time away from actually earning your fee.

Ask yourself why you want this client or project. Consider what value it brings to you. For example:

  • It means steady work in the long run, becoming a bread-and-butter client.
  • It will teach you something you can then charge other clients to do.
  • It will connect you with a lot of potential clients.
  • The rent is due.

Knowing your reason for wanting the client will help you determine how best to negotiate. And while the last point is important, you don’t want to build a career on it. In general, it’s better to negotiate on scope rather than price.

Perhaps you can do the job for a reduced rate if you don’t edit the time-consuming bibliography and citations. Or you can limit the edit to one round rather than the two you usually offer. Consider what tasks you typically perform that you could skip, saving considerable time without sacrificing a lot of quality.

Work with the Client’s Budget

One of my clients sends me reports to edit on a semiregular basis. The editorial director understands the value of editing, but she is new to the company and is trying to educate her supervisors on its value; she’s got a budget that was set before she was hired. The workload is enough that I want to keep this client.

So rather than reduce my hourly rate, I reduce the workload and charge her a smaller project rate. The result is that the client pays the rate that will be authorized and I make the hourly rate I’m aiming for.

For another client, I reduced the hourly rate slightly to fit her budget, but I also increased the turnaround time. The initial fee would have covered rush jobs and allowed for a same-day turnaround time, which is often a demand for this type of client. For a slightly reduced fee, the client can still have my services, just not as immediately. Again, she sends enough work that the volume and the extended deadline make the reduced fee worthwhile.

Can You Afford That Rate?

Sometimes, though, price is the only thing the client will negotiate on. Consider whether you can afford to take the project for the reduced rate. Will doing so mean you can’t take on a better-paying project? Or is nothing on the horizon and the wolf is at the door? Will you be locked into this rate for the foreseeable future? Is there anything else the client can offer you, such as free access to software you otherwise would have to purchase, to balance out the loss?

Before you negotiate your rate downward, think a little creatively. Consider whether you can reduce your workload for the proffered rate or gain something in addition to offset the loss.

And if you can’t justify the lower rate?

Just say no.

This article originally published as a two-part series on Copyediting.com.

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