An American Editor

March 21, 2012

The Business of Editing: Reducing Fees

One of the hardest subjects to address in the editing world is that of fees: How much should I charge? The variables that go into the answer make a pat answer difficult.

Perhaps equally vexing is the included-but-unasked question: Should I ever reduce my fee? It is this question that I attempt to tackle here. (The final answer has to lie in your individual circumstances; there is no always-true answer.)

If I were to survey colleagues and ask the question, I have no doubt that very few, if any, would respond that yes, there are times when fees should be reduced. I expect most would say that fees should be raised and if that is not possible, at least held steady. Of course, in an ideal world this would be 100% sound advice, but few of us edit in an ideal world.

When considering the answer to the question, you should consider what kind of work you do and for whom do you work. I think the answer may be different, for example, if you work only for publishers, than if you work directly with authors. It also may depend on whether you work alone or as part of a group; whether volume is important; and myriad other variables.

Regardless, however, every editor should be asking and considering the question, especially if they have unwanted downtime.

I recently had to address this question in my own business. I admit that I didn’t struggle too long with the pros and cons.

I was offered the opportunity to have enough volume to keep myself and several editors very busy for many months. In exchange, the client wanted a lower per-page editing rate. Although it is very rare for me to have any downtime, it is not that it never happens. During the height of the recession, we did well, but I was still unable to keep all of my editors busy all of the time.

So, faced with the prospect of a large volume of work that conceivably could keep all of us busy year-round, I had to decide whether to lower my per-page rate. In the end, I did, because the economics were such that the exchange would be well worth accepting. So far, this has been true.

But I work in a narrow area (medicine) and for publishers and packagers only. I do not work directly with authors. Because of what my editors and I do, we are able to use techniques to increase efficiency and speed, and we are always searching for new ways to increase both without decreasing accuracy.

A willingness to consider reducing fees requires an understanding of your marketplace. When it comes to editing a book that is being translated from Chinese to English, an editor who is fluent in Chinese can probably charge more than an editor who knows no Chinese. Consequently, simply knowing what the Chinese-fluent editor is able to charge is not an indication of what you can or should charge if you are the non-Chinese-language editor.

On the other hand, if you are a Chinese-fluent editor with time on your hands and you know that you are competing with other similarly fluent editors, it may be in your interests to negotiate a volume contract at reduced prices. There is no medal for stubbornness when it comes to fees.

Colleagues will often argue that low-price editing lowers the price for all editors and, thus, we need to stick together at the higher price level. I know that they want me to take this argument seriously, but that is not possible.

First, the entry to editing is easy and the bar so low that virtually anyone can hang out a shingle that says “professional editor.” Every day, hundreds more “professional” editors appear, and these new editors have prices all over the rainbow. Granted that, once hired, their lack of skill may become apparent, but they still get hired first because a key factor in the hiring process is price.

Second, colleagues who ask you to hold the price may not themselves be doing so. When faced with the prospect of no work and thus no money to pay bills, they often work for less. The reality is that our business is not a cooperative business; we compete all the time with each other and, in doing so, we tend to look out for our own best interests.

Finally, we face the problem of establishing what should be a base price for all editors. In my 28+ years as an editor, although numbers have been tossed about, no one has been able to come up with a universal minimum price — or universal method for calculating the same — that is good for all editors and all situations.

Which brings me back to the question of whether lowering fees should be considered. The answer is so dependent on so many variables that there is no correct, universal answer. In my case, the resolution of the question was easy. Because of how I charge (per-page), how I work (i.e., the use of macros and other efficiencies), what I want (to know that I will have no downtime and that I will not have to constantly market), and because the amount in question was nominal on a per-page basis (although it would add up to a significant sum over the long-term), coming to the answer that I should agree to lower my rate was easy.

For you, the answer may be much more difficult or may be no, but it is a question that should be addressed and analyzed, not simply shunted aside with no as the foregone conclusion. This question is one that every business has to face regularly, and our business is no different.

16 Comments »

  1. For me, the rate question is part of my daily business. Opposite of Rich, I work solo, I work in multiple categories, I work for huge corporations and struggling individuals and a variety in between, as well as work hourly, per page, per project, or per word, depending on the client’s needs.

    In many of these situations, I have no say in the rate: It’s offered, and my choice is to accept or reject. In a few situations I can negotiate, but more often than not the number is inflexible, so I bargain for time and other upgrades of conditions.

    There are times, though, where I am in the driver’s seat and then I charge a rate calculated to be middle or high-middle of what research has shown to be the going range for the editing or writing I’m being hired to perform. I only drop if it that means losing the job, and that particular job is important to me. Otherwise I stand firm.

    I do not believe I can charge tip-top dollar for my services because my skills are horizontal — broad, not deep — so I am not a specialist in any subject or skill. Therefore, it seems unreasonable to charge specialist rates. This is probably naive, since most businesses charge what the market will bear.

    But my priorities are clear: Keep food on the table. Build a reputation of honesty, integrity, and good-quality work, delivered on time. This approach has been successful, although it’s slow; only now, six years into full-time freelancing, am I enjoying the luxury of work coming to me now and then. Most of the time, I have to go get it. Which is a task I hate and am terrible at. My logic, though, is if I keep building a good reputation and steadily spread my name around, the day will come when a large percentage of my business is repeat and/or solicited, even in a struggling market. To achieve this, I must remain flexible about rates.

    Like

    Comment by documania — March 21, 2012 @ 6:24 am | Reply

  2. This pricing scheme seems to make sense and probably works out well for your peace of mind, but in my 10+ years editing I’ve never seen it done.

    I have, though, seen this when negotiating typesetting per page rates, but always with India-based compositors. These deals, though, involve signed contracts by both parties to ensure that the volume is in fact there.

    I could see this happening with India-based editing (which I am sure is going to become more prevelant in the coming years) but it’s interesting it was proposed to you and your team.

    Like

    Comment by Chris — March 21, 2012 @ 8:12 am | Reply

  3. Hear, hear! There are so many variables to consider, as you point out, Rich. The biggest one, of course, is supply and demand. Do you have an excess supply of work? Then you don’t need to lower your rates. Is there an excess supply of editors who will work cheaper (whether they’re good or not)? Then you’ll need to lower your rates to compete.

    Like

    Comment by erinbrenner — March 21, 2012 @ 8:46 am | Reply

  4. I have a question for you and other editors out there. I charge by the word, not the page, because what about a page at the end of a chapter that only has a paragraph or a few sentences on it? And what about the first page of a new chapter, which has fewer words? Not to mention font, font size, paragraphing, diagrams and other images, how much white space, etc. How do you work all those variables when you charge by the page?

    Thanks!

    Jodie Renner, freelance editor, http://www.JodieRennerEditing.com

    Like

    Comment by Jodie Renner — March 21, 2012 @ 10:10 am | Reply

    • Jodie, a page isn’t a literal page but rather a number of words or characters. For example, a common formula is 1 page = 250 words, so an editor would calculate how many words there are in a chapter and divide by 250.

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      Comment by americaneditor — March 21, 2012 @ 10:56 am | Reply

    • I define a page as 250 words, as do many other editors. Divide the total word count of the project by 250 and that will give you an accurate page count.

      Like

      Comment by erinbrenner — March 21, 2012 @ 10:56 am | Reply

  5. I’m a specialist. A large percentage of my work is editing medical-journal articles written by non-native speakers of English. Because my editing has produced provable good results (lots of the articles I edit go on to be accepted for publication) and because there aren’t many US editors out there doing what I do, I can command good fees. But there are times when I do lower what I charge, which is generally a project fee rather than an hourly or page rate. Just this last week, I reduced my fee for a radiologist in Egypt who was asked to write a review article for a themed issue of a US journal. I did so because (1) she is paying for my editing out of her own pocket rather than from a grant or funds from her institution; (2) her career is on the ascendancy, so she doesn’t yet pull in a large income; (3) physicians in Egypt generally earn less than those in the United States; (4) she has lots of colleagues to whom she can refer me (and whom she has promised not to tell about my lowering the fee I charged her); (5) she has just been named head of research for her department and will be writing many more articles; (6) her new radiologic analysis technique will increase the health of a great many women around the world; (7) she’s a woman succeeding in a profession in which few women succeed in her culture, so I’m cheering for her; and (8) her get-up-and-go reminds me of my daughter’s admirable drive.

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    Comment by kokedit — March 21, 2012 @ 12:12 pm | Reply

  6. Like many here, I’m also a solo entrepreneur. I accept some editing rates as offered, set others and negotiate still others, but I have a rate below which I will not go. I can certainly see negotiating a lower-than-usual fee in return for steady assignments or a commitment to a huge amount of work – as long as that rate doesn’t go below my personal minimum. I figure the variations end up evening out to what I want to get as a whole.

    I’ve never understood charging for editing by the word, because editing can involve adding and deleting words. Colleagues who use that model base the word count on what’s in the original ms., regardless of any changes they make to the document. My editing and proofreading clients pay by the hour or the (250-word) page, and I have one that pays by the PowerPoint slide, which is interesting, since some slides have a lot of words in them and others only a couple of words; again, it seems to even out.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — March 21, 2012 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

  7. By the way, for Jodie and whoever else struggles with defining a page: I tell all my clients that I define a page as 250 words – it’s one of the few standards we have in our profession or industry (there’s also a somewhat standard character count, but I don’t remember what that is). That protects me against someone who says she has a 10-page ms. for proofreading and sends it to me single-spaced, in 6-point type, with margins so close to the edges of the “page” as to be nonexistent. If I get something like that, I use Word for a word count and send back a note saying something like, “I’ve looked over your document and it’s actually 25 pages, rather than the 10 you mentioned initially. This is based on counting the total number of words and dividing by the industry standard of 250 words = 1 page, which is the formula I use. Before I start working on your document, please confirm that you are aware that billing will reflect this difference.”

    Regardless of how someone might set up a document, 250 words = 1 page in my world.

    Like

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — March 21, 2012 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

  8. I work for both corporations with set rates and individuals with more flexibility. I accept a lower rate if the project will be valuable for me in the long term, for example, if it involves learning a new style manual or software program or gaining experience in an unfamiliar subject. Years ago I edited an academic journal at a low rate in order to learn to edit in XML format. That led to better-paying clients who needed editors with XML experience.

    Like Ruth wrote, a per-word rate has never seemed ideal to me, though I have a corporate client who pays that way. When working with a new client, I prefer to establish a per-page or per-project rate because it feels more intuitive.

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    Comment by Erin — March 21, 2012 @ 2:54 pm | Reply

  9. Regarding the question of how per-word rates work, it is based on the original manuscript, just as page rates are. I have one client who pays a per-word rate that works out very well. I actually kind of like it better than page rates, because I never have to explain how I divide the word count by 250 to get the number of pages. I’m working on a book right now for the per-word client, and I’ve been asked to trim the book down somewhat; my fee is still based on the original since that’s what I’m editing.

    If I were asked to add text, then I would charge for the finished files rather than the original, but usually I’m not asked to do that, and the number of words that get added and deleted during a regular edit is usually a wash.

    Re the main theme here of lowering rates, I hate to do that, but sometimes it does work out. I just did it with a bid recently, and it worked out well. I have a client who puts work out to bid to a small group of science editors, and I had gotten a job with a bid I quoted that gave me a healthy page rate. On the next job I bid a comparable amount but lost the bid; I asked what the winning bid was (always do that when you lose a bid) and used that info to structure my bid for the next job, and I got it. On this one I did even better than the first book I did, even though my rate was lower — go figure. Easy client to work with, too, so it was worth my while to reduce my fee a bit and see if it would work out, which it did.

    The trick here is to be able to reduce your fee without losing income over the long run, or not losing too much!

    Like

    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — March 21, 2012 @ 6:50 pm | Reply

  10. As Rich points out, it depends partly on what you want. I want to stick to my niche (social science articles), work alone and within my comfort zone (fairly heavy edits), and not have to negotiate terms with every client. So I work for individual authors; this gives me the freedom to offer a specific service at a set rate. Because I don’t want to lose an established client, I do offer my regular clients a slight discount on book-length manuscripts—but my time is still worth the same to me, so I don’t lowball.

    Like

    Comment by Laurie Rendon — March 21, 2012 @ 7:23 pm | Reply

  11. The whole model here is based in general long-term view of it all on a) all-around prosperity will increase, and b) any outside influences are fairly negligible. This is an example of the normal, average, common inside-the-box thinking. It has always been so, for many generations. So why would it ever change, right? That something might change enough to influence our model does not seem to be happening, so we don’t worry. Well… we might need to do something about editors from India with very low rates who are coming onto the market. And similar ones from other so-called 3rd-world countries. That’s not going to happen, folks; protectionism via the web? Hah!.
    What we’re also playing ostrich with is a rapidly increasing world population using up steadily decreasing resources. We ostriches can continue to play that game, no problem — until our current pensioned-off oldsters are faced with the choice between letting their grandchildren go hungry or cut their own throats. Literally.
    We’re already past the stage where getting rid of all our cars, freezers, AC, TVs, cell phones, computers, any electrical devices, etc. would have helped. So we might as well enjoy life while still possible. It would be a great joke on ourselves if the Maya calendar prophecy were to come true, even if delayed 2, 5, 20 years.
    So let’s worry about abysmally insignificant details such as how to pay for a 3rd car in the 1st-world countries. Or should we charge by the word or the page…

    Like

    Comment by F. Scott Ophof — March 22, 2012 @ 6:58 pm | Reply

  12. Off topic request here: I noticed in several posts that you mention you work primarily with medical publications and publishers. I would like to get your insight into my search for a publisher for a topic related to medicine. May I contact you?

    Julie Yamamoto
    jyam28@yahoo.com

    Like

    Comment by Julie Yamamoto — March 22, 2012 @ 8:26 pm | Reply

  13. “So let’s worry about abysmally insignificant details such as how to pay for a 3rd car in the 1st-world countries. Or should we charge by the word or the page…”

    OK, so because the world’s going to hell in a hand basket, and because the publishing industry is going through a sea change, we’re supposed to stop figuring out how to appropriately charge our services for the business we currently have and will continue to have until life as we know it ends?

    How and how much to charge will always be a valid concern as long as we have some sort of media and people providing services to other people within it.

    Like

    Comment by Carolyn — March 23, 2012 @ 7:04 am | Reply

    • Re ‘[…] will always be a valid concern as long as we have […]’:
      Oh no, please do let us all continue what we as biological entities do best; to work toward ensuring and improving the chances of our continued existence. Do let us forget – ostrich-like – that this is small-scale, short-term thinking. Let us do continue ignoring the big picture.
      The issue of adjusting one’s personal editing rate is a drop in the bucket of all editing rates seen world-wide. There are thousands such buckets (world-wide translation rates, car companies outsourcing to get cheaper labour, etc, etc.). And even these thousands of buckets aren’t noticeable in the immensity of the oceans, let alone the insignificance of one personal rate-adjustment.
      Let me stop wasting our time so we can all continue ignoring the big picture of homo sapiens having dug itself a hole so deep that there is absolutely no way out anyway. And let’s stop wasting money, effort, and time on ecological measures that are too late anyway. Let’s all support ‘America for prosperity’ and carpe that old diem while we still can. I too find it much more interesting and humorous to wonder about issues such as what an ‘American’ is, let alone an ‘American editor’, how one could ever have come up with a name like ‘An American Editor’. Or what truly ‘thinking outside the box’ would be like, and whether it is even possible.

      Like

      Comment by F. Scott Ophof — March 23, 2012 @ 8:13 am | Reply


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