An American Editor

December 17, 2012

The Business of Editing: One Price Doesn’t Fit All

Questions have risen, yet again, regarding pricing. Not how much, but whether to post prices on websites and whether to accept a “long-term” contract that sets a standard price for all editing services.

Of course, there is disagreement among editors on both questions.

I think it is a bad idea to post prices. The primary reason is that no two people agree as to what services are included under the rubric of, for example, copyediting, and what services are excluded. There are nearly as many definitions of copyediting as there are copyeditors, or so it seems.

Just as each manuscript is unique, so are the services that each manuscript needs different. By posting a price, you may turn away business that you might otherwise get if you had the opportunity to discuss what services are wanted and that you provide.

Not posting prices gives you an opportunity to interact with a prospective client. What editors do is personal; that is, it is not selling widgets but selling a very personalized service on a one-to-one basis. Consequently, price is only one element of the decision whether to hire or fire an editor (or client); a significant element is how well personalities mesh — are the editor and the client on the same wavelength?

Posted prices lock you into a set scheme. If you post that you charge $30 an hour for copyediting services, it doesn’t matter that the price includes, for example, fact checking. All the prospective client sees is the price you posted and that a competitor editor has posted copyediting services for $20 an hour. You lose the opportunity to demonstrate to the prospect the superiority or comprehensiveness of your services or your experience.

It also means that if you do take on the client and the project really should have been priced at $40 an hour, you are locked into the $30 an hour price. Yes, I know you can include a clause in your contract that allows for adjusting the price. But is that really the reputation you want — one of a bait and switcher?

Accepting a “long-term” contract that sets a standard rate for all editing services is, I think, a different matter. I have had this debate with myself in the past and have consistently ended up on the side of accepting the contract in exchange for steady work. We tangentially discussed this in The Business of Editing: Best Price “Bids”.

Perhaps the worst feeling I have had in 29 years of freelance editing occurred in slack times, those periods between jobs when I would wonder whether more work would be forthcoming. After experiencing slack times a couple of times in my early years, I decided it was better to earn less money when working but be always busy than to earn more money when working but not always be working.

Consequently, I did two things. First, I made an effort to figure out how to be more efficient and productive so that I could accept a lower pay scale yet earn the hourly rate I wanted. Second, I resolved to try to find clients who were interested in a long-term relationship in which they would keep me busy and I would accept the work for a fixed rate. I have been successful at both these endeavors.

But I did learn early on the important lesson that one price doesn’t fit all clients. Even though I may offer a client a single set price for all the work they send my way, I do not offer every client that same price. The reason is the same as for why I do not post prices at my website: The work that each client wants is different and the complexity — on average — of their projects differs, sometimes greatly.

For example, some clients do not want editors to check or style references; they just want the editor to make sure that all the pertinent information is present. Other clients want the editor to not only style the references but to check the references and to find and supply any missing material. Reference work for the former group of clients might take minutes whereas for the latter group, it could take hours.

I know that some editors are thinking that setting a single price for a client can be dangerous because some projects are more difficult than others. (This is also the argument that some editors use to justify sticking with an hourly rate rather than going to a per-page or project rate.) Yes, that is true, which is why I apply my Rule of Three (see The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three). My experience has been that few projects over the course of time are money losers; most are money makers if handled properly.

The keys are pretty simple: First, don’t box yourself in by posting prices on your website unless you intend to minutely detail exactly what services are included and excluded for that price. Second, consider, if you are working with publishers and packagers, trying to work out a long-term deal in which you offer set services for a lower price in exchange for a steady stream of work. Third, spend time trying to figure out how to streamline your editing and implementing the procedures you discover. Remember that the more you can automate, the more you can earn, especially if you work on a per-page or project fee basis.

One last thing. I have been asked whether my advice not to post prices still holds if one posted a minimum price, for example, “copyediting from $30 an hour.” My answer is yes. If someone had a very simple project but is only willing to pay $25 an hour, posting your minimum price would eliminate you from consideration, even though you would jump at the opportunity to take on the project were it offered.

An editor’s mantra must be that just as each author’s book differs from books in the same genre written by other authors, so do editing services differ based on the editor and the project, which means that pricing differs – one price doesn’t fit all!

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