Freelance proofreading won’t make you rich, but you can earn a reasonable wage from the job if you can build up a bank of regular, trustworthy clients.
With few set-up costs, no travelling expenses, and pretty much all the flexibility you want, it can be an exciting and fulfilling way of earning a crust. The question I get asked most often by those looking to break into our industry is "How much can you earn?"
There’s no straightforward answer to this – the following provide some food for thought.
Recommended or suggested rates
In the UK, the Society of Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) suggests a minimum hourly rate of £23,35 for proofreading (2017).
The rate for copyediting is higher and depends on what level of intervention is required.
Whether you can earn this will depend on who you work for and what skills you have. Some publisher clients are moving away from hourly rates, and towards fixed rates per job. Your efficiency and ability to work comfortably in different formats and using ancillary software (onscreen – Word or Acrobat, for example) will therefore determine your hourly rate.
You’ll probably improve your efficiency as you become more experienced, too. And if you work for a client on a regular basis, you’ll become familiar with their house style, which will speed you up.
Different specialty areas command different rates
In the mainstream publishing sector, expect to earn higher rates if you proofread science, technical or medical materials. Clients tend to prefer people with a background in these fields, and the level of technical expertise required can mean earnings at the higher end of the rates spectrum.
In the social sciences, on the other hand, the rates tend to average out lower. In my experience, social science publishers pay anything between £11 and £18 per hour. This is only a ballpark figure, however (see the point above about fixed rates per job).
The trade publishing sector rarely gets anywhere near the SfEP recommended rates. The books are diverse and fun, but you’ll have to compromise on the pay!
Setting your own rates
If you are bidding on proofreading jobs online, working for indie authors, proofing for students, or focusing on the business market, you can set your own rates.
Many proofreaders offer a per-word fee as well as hourly or flat-rate options. Bear in mind that work of this nature will not necessarily have been with an editor first, so it may require more intervention.
Make sure your client is clear about what a proofreader does – you don’t want to agree to proofreading rates only to find out you’re copy-editing the work.
You can offer higher rates for weekend work or a fast turnaround. Or you can offer discounts for lower-income groups such as students or people on benefits.
Working for publishers and project management agencies (packagers)
Publisher clients and project management agencies usually set their own proofreading rates. Should they decide to accept your services, you’ll have to decide whether to accept their rates. They vary enormously.
If you’re a member of the SfEP you can access their annual Rate for the Job survey. One thing to remember is that book publishing is an expensive business, and those publisher clients that don’t have other revenue streams (subscription-based products like journals, for example) have very tight margins.
Keeping editorial costs in line is crucial to profitability – meaning you may be disappointed with some of the rates being offered.
There’s little point in grouching about it – you’re self-employed now. No one’s forcing you to take the rate so think about what your goals are – how important the client is to you, whether they can offer you repeat work, what their name will look like on your CV – and make your decision.
Try negotiating by all means, but if your client won’t budge, consider this: The highest rate isn’t always the best deal in the long run – one client offering a one-off job worth £40 per hour isn’t as financially rewarding on an annual basis as another who’ll give you monthly projects at an hourly rate of £21.
Repeat work means you don’t have to spend money and time on marketing yourself, so do the maths.
Getting started – taking a lower rate or working for free to get experience
When you’re starting out, you need experience. This is not a good time to be worrying about whether you’re getting the ‘recommended rate’. Instead, think long term – go for whatever jobs you can get to beef up your portfolio; work for free if you need to.
Experience counts for a lot, as do good references. Working for little now will pay off in the future, allowing you to attract new clients and be pickier about who you want to work for and what rates you’re prepared to accept.
Should you work for below-recommended rates?
This is a hotly contested topic amongst working freelance editorial staff.
Some freelance editors and proofreaders think that every time one of us accepts a ‘low’ rate we undermine the entire industry, forcing down the price. I’m not unsympathetic to this view, but I’m a pragmatist.
My opinion is that it’s up to you. Once you become freelance, you’re running your own business. Don't waste time worrying about what others are charging. Their circumstances may be different to yours in so many ways.
You have to decide how best to achieve your strategic goals. If accepting a rate that is considered ‘low’ enables you to acquire clients who provide you with regular work, clear briefs, and timely payment, then you may consider this an acceptable compromise.
Take the long view
When making your assessments, don’t just think about the rate per job – think about what you might earn from this client over the course of a year … two years … five years.
In the past I've accepted work from clients who were paying below the SfEP's suggested rates, but I loved the books they published, I trusted them to put the money in my account as agreed, and they contacted me time and again. They helped make my business sustainable – because of them I’m self-employed, not self-unemployed!
UPDATE: Since writing this article I've considered other aspects of the financial side of editorial freelancing that are important to consider when assessing what you can earn. To read more, see Proofreading – Does it Pay? Part II: Hidden savings and earning cultural capital.
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I'm more than happy to tackle questions, especially from beginners. If there's something you want advice about, drop me a line and I'll post a solution to your problem here. The more focused your question, the more in-depth my answer will be! And if you want me to mask your identity, no problem.
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'.