An American Editor

October 10, 2012

The Business of Editing: Best Price “Bids”

I was recently asked to give my best price on a possibly large project. My client was soliciting my bid for my editorial services on a project coming from one of its clients. In other words, I would not be directly working for the ultimate client.

It was an STM (Science, Technology, Math) project and supposedly would run 3,000 to 4,000 manuscript pages a month. My client wanted a price for both the original editing and for a review of the editing. A lot of detail was missing, so before I would give a price, I asked some questions.

Over my 29 years of editing, I have been asked many times to bid against myself with the client promising a large amount of work. What I learned was that there is a difference between what is promised/proposed in terms of quantity and what actually is delivered, which means that in the past, I lowered my price expecting lots of work only to do much less work than “promised” for that lower price. Consequently, I no longer simply bid against myself; I attach conditions.

Make no mistake. When you are asked to give a price in such a situation, you are being asked to bid against yourself (as well as against others). You should not bid against yourself without assurances that the work will really materialize in the quantities and on the schedule given in the solicitation.

The first question I ask is how many pages are expected for the entire project. To me, it makes a difference if I am pricing for 3,000 pages or 18,000 pages of manuscript. The closer the count is to 3,000, the less inclined I am to lower my price because 3,000 to 5,000 manuscript pages is a normal-size project for me. Conversely, the closer it is to 18,000 or more manuscript pages, the more inclined I am to discount my price.

But then I ask what often turns out to be the stickler question: What is the minimum guaranteed manuscript page count? That is, what is the minimum amount of pages for which I will be paid regardless of whether the client sends me that amount of pages. The answer to this question tells me a lot of things about a project.

First, it tells me whether the original request’s numbers are puffery or real. If the original request spoke of 3,000 pages a month for 6 months but the minimum guarantee is just 3,000 pages, it is likely that the project is no more than 6,000 pages. The more the client is willing to guarantee, the more likely it is that the project is as claimed.

Second, it tells me whether the client simply is trying to get me to commit to a lower price. This is a major problem. Even if the project turns out as advertised, I run the risk of establishing a price that the client will expect for all future projects, regardless of size. This is no different from consumer expectations in a host of areas, but that doesn’t mean it is a desirable result when it comes to my pricing.

Third, it tells me I need to be wary and make sure that I know a lot more about the project than I currently do before pricing it. The very worst thing I can do when being asked to bid is to not know as much as I can about the project and the likelihood of it really being as described before I make a bid. Once I make my bid, I am stuck, and I see value to having been the culprit who sticks me with what turns out to be an untenable bid.

Of major concern is how difficult the editing will be. The more difficult the editing, the less inclined I am to lower my price. Consequently, I need to to see several samples, something I do not ordinarily ask for.

In the instant case, one of the things that was supplied to me were a couple of samples showing the type of editing expected and a copy of the ultimate client’s guidelines for editors. When I saw the guidelines, I knew there would be trouble. The guidelines was a list of more than 60 items that the editor was expected to do — many of which are not normally done by a copyeditor, and certainly not done without an extra fee.

Editing is a labor-intensive business, which complicates the matter of bidding. How little are my services really worth? If I ask my clients, they don’t respond with a value of my services; rather, they respond that they can hire an editor for $x less than they pay me. There is never a discussion about quality or speed or knowledge; the only discussion is about market availability of editors who will work for less than I charge, and it is this single dynamic that has brought about the request for bidding for editorial services.

Sometimes there is little that one can do except participate in the auction. When I am in such a position, as with this recent request, I condition my bid on three things: (a) there has to be a minimum guaranteed number of manuscript pages within a certain period of time for which I will be paid regardless; (b) the quoted price is the price only for this project and not transferable to any other project; and (c) after x number of manuscript pages have been edited, the bid price will be revisited to be certain that there were no “hidden” complications that should have been included in the solicitation or that there are no problems that arise that are out of my control that warrant a higher price than the bid price.

A major problem of bidding against oneself is that it is difficult to protect oneself and still get the job. But experience has taught me to be suspicious of jobs that have no flexibility and I would prefer to not get the work than to get work on which I cannot make any money.

Which raises another matter about bidding. When I bid on a project, I have a firm grasp of exactly what services I am willing to perform for what price. Consequently, when I am asked to bid on a project that wants more services, I start my evaluation from the price point that I would normally charge for providing the requested services. It is a bad idea to have a single price for copyediting because that doesn’t consider the various services that can be provided, even if 99% of the time that single price is the price you charge or bid.

In this case, I bid much higher than my normal copyediting rate, but lower than the rate I would normally charge for editing performed with all of the required services. As I know who the ultimate client is, I do not expect to “win” this bid based on the price and conditions I submitted. I assure you, I will not shed a single tear should my bid be rejected.



  1. “I will not shed a single tear should my bid be rejected.”

    And therein lies the beauty of self-employment: the ability to choose, to make your own value judgments, to calculate your own risks.

    As pointed out, though, these need to be informed and carefully considered choices, judgments, and calcuations.


    Comment by Carolyn — October 10, 2012 @ 6:15 am | Reply

  2. I was excited a few months ago to get a call from a well-known and highly respected publisher. The per-page rate quoted to me sounded low, but I thought I could make up the time as I got familiar with the material and hoped the lower rate would be offset by being able to count on a high volume of steady work every month. When I got the material, there were many little pieces that I was expected to know and keep track of: coding to insert, style exceptions to memorize, difficult material that was not in my field of expertise. I truly liked the project manager and so I kept plugging away through a couple of rounds, trying to automate more of the work, looking for macros and other shortcuts. Eventually, I had to face the fact that there would be no way I could ever work up enough speed to earn even what I consider my minimum hourly rate. I finally told the project editor I would need more per page to keep working on this project and never heard one word in reply. I’m still fairly new to this business, and it was difficult for me to turn down work from this source, but I’m glad that I stood up for myself. Thanks for your continued advice on how editors should not undervalue our time and expertise.


    Comment by Tammy — October 10, 2012 @ 9:31 am | Reply

  3. Whilst it may be tempting to give a discount to get the job, it’s always worth asking ‘What else could I be doing instead?’ and ‘How much am I potentially losing by not working on another project for my normal rate?’. I was recently asked to bid for a job with an existing client at a rate 20% lower than my normal rate,’ because it was a large project’. When I worked out my potential loss on the project, I decided not to take it precisely because it was such a large project. The result was I spent an extra week tending to my garden and then was offered two other projects by different clients at my normal rate. I’d personally be inclined to only bid and offer discount on smaller projects which have a quicker turnover and an easier exit. The real problem for freelancers isn’t the amount you earn, it’s the speed with which you get paid i.e. cashflow.


    Comment by Frankie — October 11, 2012 @ 4:58 am | Reply

    • My view is opposite; that is, I think larger projects are more profitable, even with discounting, than small projects. A large project lets you build a rhythym. My experience is that the start of a project always goes slower than later parts. Given a choice, I would prefer to work on a project that runs 3,000 or more manuscript pages than on several projects that run 500 manuscript pages. I find that when I convert my earnings to an effective hourly rate, the rate is always higher on the larger projects than on the smaller projects, even factoring in the volume discount. However, my experience may not be the same as yours.


      Comment by americaneditor — October 11, 2012 @ 5:10 am | Reply

  4. […] 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”. […]


    Pingback by The Business of Editing: One Price Doesn’t Fit All « An American Editor — December 17, 2012 @ 4:04 am | Reply

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