The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
The rate for the job can often be a sticky subject for new and more experienced editorial professionals alike.
Some new entrants to the field have asked me whether they should charge a lower fee precisely because they are new to the field of proofreading.
And some experienced colleagues have argued that newbies aren’t worth the higher fee that an established editorial professional could justify, precisely because they don’t have experience.
So should the newbie offer a lower rate simply by virtue of their newbieness? There are three important considerations to mention first:
1. Relating newness to ability
It may be that because you are a new editorial business owner you've not yet acquired the skill to carry out a particular editorial function.
Imagine that you're asked to quote for copy-editing a medical journal article written by a client whose third language is English. You assess the sample and realize that the article needs a deep edit, and a knowledge of a particular style guide that you're only vaguely familiar with.
Overall the requirements are complex. The question is not: "Should I charge a lower rate because I'm new?" This question is: "Do I have the skill to do the work?"
On the other hand, it may be that you're experienced in some areas or editorial freelancing but still don't have the skill to carry out a particular job.
If I were approached to work on the above-mentioned project, I'd decline. The fact that I'm an experienced editorial business owner is neither here nor there. The fact that I'm a specialist fiction proofreader and copy-editor is the key issue. I don't have the skills to do this medical copy-editing job.
2. Lower than what? There is no one fixed rate
The terms "lower" and "higher" are problematic. There’s no one set rate here in the UK or anywhere else in the world for any editorial service. Different proofreaders and editors charge (and are offered) different rates of pay depending on whom they're working for and what service they're providing. It’s the same with other professions – e.g. plumbers, dentists, graphic designers and hairdressers.
There are some suggested minimum rates available from national editorial societies, but these aren’t the law – they’re guidelines, and they pay no heed to your individual circumstances.
So when you hear editorial colleagues talking about “low” or “lower” fees and “high” or “higher” fees, be cautious – what one person considers high may be considered low or medium to another. If you’re thinking about charging a “lower” fee because you’re a newbie, ask yourself the following: Lower than what?
Those are all quite different things!
3. We don’t always hold the balance of power
When an independent author or business contacts me (say, via my website or one of the directories in which I advertise) with a request to quote, I can control the price. I hold the balance of power. The client may not like my proposed price and choose to go elsewhere, but I decide how I'll price a job.
On the flip side, when I work for publishers, for example, the balance of power can shift in their favour. Negotiation is possible, but not always. Some publishers offer fixed fees for a whole job; others offer a fixed rate per hour and ask for work to be completed within a maximum budgeted number of hours.
If I don’t like the hourly rate, the fixed rate, or the time frame, I'm free to decline the job, but the publisher might attempt to find someone else who’ll do the job within their preferred budget.
Some agencies and businesses will expect to be charged a day rate, regardless of how long the work takes. Some clients will pay a premium for work carried out in unsociable hours.
The upshot of this is a follows: the amount of money a proofreader/editor can earn is not fixed.
I’m happy to throw some numbers at you based on my own experience, but don’t take these as The One and Only Way Things Are. They’re merely examples – other editors will have earned more and less, depending on job, client, complexity, etc. I’ve simply picked a few cases from my current and past years' annual schedules to show the variance.
Some examples of my (extrapolated) proofreading/copy-editing rates per hour
In a nutshell, these numbers are not what you should be earning per hour; they are simply examples of what I have earned per hour. Some editorial folk don't even like to value their services by the hour; I chose to do so here because I wanted a straightforward way to present the information.
USPs – then and now
When we do hold the balance of power, and we're quoting for jobs, it’s useful to frame our quotations around the value we bring to the table. This is about how we advertise ourselves.
Here’s a comparison of the USPs (unique selling points) I used at the beginning and middle of my editorial career and the ones I use currently. These are broadly the kinds of things that I use to talk to my clients in a value-on way – they tell the client why they should hire me.
Let’s imagine for simplicity that I currently charge an hourly fee of £30 for working for independent authors, based on my 2017 USPs.
But what if a new entrant to the field looks at the information about me in 2017? Should that person deliberately decide to charge only £15 per hour, even though they'd prefer to charge £30? To justify this to themselves they'd need to be able to persuade themselves and their potential client that they're not worth more. Why? Because, in this scenario, they'd have to believe that their newbieness means:
Is the above true?
Even if the newbie does believe that their miss rate will be higher, and that their less extensive time in the job and their smaller portfolio of work mean that they're not such a good bet for the client, how will the newbie frame this information?
Value-off pricing – not a professional message
When we quote for clients, whether we are new entrants or old hands, we're telling that person what we CAN do for them, not what we can’t.
Ask yourself whether, as a newbie, you’d seriously consider supplementing your list of USPs with any of the following statements:
If you were a client and you received a quotation framed around all of the above, would you hire the editor?
Your potential client doesn’t need to hear what you haven’t done or can’t do, and therefore why you think you're worth less than your colleagues. Rather, your client will appreciate the following:
In a nutshell, if it doesn’t sell you in a good light, don’t mention it.
And if you’re not mentioning it to your client, why would you use it to justify a fee structure that is deliberately lower than the one you want/need to charge?
What’s your message? Newbie or editorial professional?
You may think of yourself as a newbie, and your colleagues may know that you’re a newbie, but your client does NOT need to know this. Your client needs to know that you are capable of solving their problems.
On the inside you are a newbie, but as far as the world of potential clients is concerned you are an editorial business professional offering a specific editorial service based around a defined set of USPs. This is a value-on way of thinking, not value-off.
Given that you are an editorial business professional, you're entitled to build a fee structure that reflects this. Offering yourself on the cheap because you ain’t all that is not an option. It isn’t how business professionals in any field market themselves.
As my colleague Kate Haigh (personal correspondence) has reminded me more times than I care to mention: If you price yourself cheap because you think you’re worth nothing more, and you tell your client this, then you are indeed worth nothing more. Who wants to hire someone like that? Who feels confident about hiring someone like that? (See also Kate's excellent Because you're worth it! Charging what you're worth.)
Recall the balance of power section above – you may still decide to work for clients who hold the balance of power and pay less than the fee structure you've defined for yourself when you're in control. But that’s not about being a new entrant to the field. That’s about making decisions about who you want to work for and what you will accept.
Even established editorial folk make those decisions. I've worked for some publisher clients who offer an hourly rate way lower than the one I charge when I’m setting the price.
Why? Because I wanted to and it was my choice. I liked their books. I enjoyed the work. I got tons of satisfaction from the jobs. I liked the regularity of the work on offer. And because it gave me some smashing thumbnail piccies on my site of well-known books by big-name authors.
Pricing is part of the marketing mix …
Pricing is part of marketing. When you set a price you're telling the market what you think your services are worth.
If you can do the job, then you should do the job, and tell your clients you can do the job.
If you want to reduce your fee to an amount below that which you think your services are worth, I’d recommend coming up with a better reason to do so than your newness.
Charge what you want to charge, but make your decisions based on the worth you bring to the table and your ability to do the job, not the empty space you’ve yet to fill, or the youth of your business compared with some of your colleagues'.
If you don't think you have the skill to do a job, don't charge less. Instead, refer the client to someone who has the skills.
Furthermore, put yourself in your customer’s shoes – the client to whom you’re pitching wants to know what you can do, not what you can’t. Your pricing needs to reflect this.
The minute you start knocking down your price through lack of confidence is the minute you shift the balance of power to your client – you’ve focused their attention on the money they’re forking out rather than the service you provide.
It becomes all about how little they can spend rather than what they can gain from your capability. You encourage your client to become what Rich Adin calls a "shopper", "where the single dominant expectation is that price is the determining decision factor" (How Much Is That Editor in the Window?).
So what should you charge?
There’s no ready answer to this because it depends on so many factors. However, guidance can be found by returning to the “lower than what?” issue mentioned above:
You might also like to take a look at these articles that I published on The Proofreader's Parlour: “I want to be an editor – when will I start earning $?” and other unanswerable questions and Value-on or money-off? Putting a price on your editorial services.
Don't forget that no pricing structure or quotation framework is set in stone – testing provides you with your very own market research.
Even negative results are learning opportunities that you can use to tweak your pricing models and help you to identify which frameworks work best for you in particular situations.
If, after visiting the resources above, you still feel yourself bending towards lowering your prices either because of a lack of confidence and/or because your business is young, take a step back and make sure you have your business hat planted firmly on your head.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and copyeditor. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
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Winner of the Judith Butcher Award 2017 in respect of 'highly visible contributions to the SfEP and its membership'.