Proofreading – Does it Pay?
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 Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) suggests a minimum hourly rate of £25.40 for proofreading (correct in 2019).
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 CIEP 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 CIEP 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 among 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 CIEP'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.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with independent authors of commercial fiction, particularly crime, thriller and mystery writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, connect via Facebook and LinkedIn, and check out her books and courses.
8/12/2011 12:29:11 pm
Fabulous post, Louise.
8/12/2011 12:51:34 pm
Thanks for your comment, Doreen. It's especially important at the moment to have a clear idea of what works for you - I doubt our clients are going to be putting their rates up in the near future!
12/12/2011 07:25:38 am
Great post, especially the points about hourly rates. I charge per job as most of my clients so far are private individuals and like to know how much it's going to cost at the outset. I find the SfEPI guidelines on converting hourly rates to word count charges helpful.
12/12/2011 08:33:55 am
Apologies... I meant AFEPI, not SfEP...
12/12/2011 08:43:08 am
Thanks, Gill - this is really useful. For anyone else interested in the advice given by the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders & Indexers mentioned by Gill in her comment, go to: http://www.afepi.ie/faqs.htm#F13
26/12/2011 09:29:07 pm
Great post, Louise. Even though I am from Canada, the information is relevant. Very useful, especially the hourly rates based on level of intervention or expertise.
30/12/2011 12:30:12 pm
Thanks very much, Eva. Glad to hear the information was of use to you even though we're on different sides of the pond!
2/12/2012 02:56:11 pm
thanks for your website, I have been thinking about proofreading for a while. Was thinking 21 pound an hour yes that's good, but reading your taking less and the job is repeated makes complete sense. Keep the work going is it not? Also I would consider working for free to get exprience and their name on my c.v. thanks for the info, Kery.
2/12/2012 03:09:39 pm
22/5/2013 06:15:08 pm
Really useful, thank you. I've been looking at sfep recommended rates and then trying to get perspective on what is realistic.
Lisa Benson Alarcon
24/9/2014 09:38:46 pm
Excellent information! Thank you!!...I´m looking into this field right now as I´ve been living in Argentina for the past five years as an expat, teaching English...American AND British! ;) What a great blog-Thanks very much once again and hope to get the ball rolling very soon! Cheers! Lisa
26/10/2015 11:22:27 pm
I found this very sound advice and helpful. I have been working freelance for a year or two, mostly postgraduate students' dissertations and PhDs. There are various "companies" out there who charge these students a small fortune to proof, edit or even rewrite their work, something I would not do. I offer these student clients a rate they can afford that is realistic, and payment in installments which they like as well. The majority are non-native speakers of English. On the other hand, I recently worked with a University department, copy-editing a publication and I charged just below the recommended rate for copy-editing, which they seemed fine with. It worked out to £125 a day, for 3 days work. I just wish so could find that kind of project each week! I would also add that it is important to hold a recognized training qualification, such as one of the courses run by the Publishing Training Centre in London. It's money well spent I found. If you combine it with other work, e.g. tutoring, and/ or a part-time job, you can make a living once you have some experience and contacts.
25/2/2016 07:20:14 pm
Thank you for this article. I'm new to proofreading and don't know how to calculate an amount to submit a proposal. How do I work out my hourly rate against the number of words or pages? It's a minefield!
28/2/2016 04:43:02 pm
Very broadly, I ask for a word count. Then, because I know roughly how fast I proofread, I divide the word count by the number of words I proofread per hour. Then I multiply this by my hourly fee.
28/2/2016 08:19:16 pm
29/5/2016 02:26:41 pm
Translate into US$ for chrissakes!
29/5/2016 03:53:34 pm
Would you like euros, kroner, yen, Canadian dollars and rupees, too, Grant? On second thoughts, how about typing words "currency converter" into Google?
18/9/2016 12:10:53 am
22/3/2018 02:45:31 pm
You hit the bulls eye on every point and put my apprehensions to rest. Thanks for taking the effort to write and guide novices like me.
23/3/2018 12:31:30 pm
Thank you, Viju. You're very welcome!
29/2/2020 09:51:12 am
Did you miss the error in £23,35 deliberately when you were proofreading this? Or was that a test to see how observant we are?
29/2/2020 11:55:12 am
No games here! I just made a mistake. My day job is editing whereas much of my blog writing takes place out of hours, sometimes late at night. I'm only human - I miss things when I'm tired! And self-editing, as everyone knows, is less likely to result in the quality that fresh eyes bring to text.
29/2/2020 12:41:32 pm
I just can’t believe that it hasn’t been pointed it out in over 8 years 😂👍
29/2/2020 01:03:12 pm
Maybe someone emailed me but I just forgot to update it. More than possible.
12/5/2021 06:01:53 pm
Hi, Toni. I've rejigged my website a lot since that was written. Go to my Resource Library and pick a topic of your choice. https://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/resource-library.html
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