An American Editor

September 10, 2014

The Business of Editing: The Pride of Price

Over the past several months I have “listened” to discussions of pricing and I have also received numerous applications for employment that include statements of minimum expected fee. What I have noticed about all of these discussions and applications is that there is a wide gap between market valuation and personal valuation.

Just one example from an application: The applicant expected to be paid a minimum of $50 per manuscript page for editing. Just one example from a discussant: The discussant believed her editing was worth not less than $85 an hour.

In neither instance do I think that it is impossible for their services to be worth the price they want. What I do think, however, is that (a) the market will not pay that price and (b) they have not provided sufficient justification for that pricing. BUT, more importantly, they have imposed pride of price rather than viewed the market, determined what the market will bear, and figure out how to convert what the market will bear into what they think their service is worth.

Editors are like most professionals: Because we view ourselves as highly skilled professionals, we value our services at prices we think are commensurate with our skills. All of us do this, myself included. Yet some of us recognize that the market will not and cannot value our services the same.

I have, on occasion, asked these editors how they justify whatever price they have determined their services are worth. I have yet to receive a well-reasoned, carefully mapped out justification. We know that, for example, the grocery store justifies the price of a can of tomatoes on the cost to the store for the can, the store’s overhead attributable to the can, and a percentage for profit, all tempered by what the store’s competition charges. Professionals can’t do this same objective analysis for myriad reasons, none of which do we need to address here. It is enough to say that pricing is an art not a science for the professional.

Yet it is this pride of price that, I think, hinders many colleagues from finding financial success. Too many colleagues set an unrealistic price, based on what the market will bear, and are not flexible enough to work for less — as one colleague, told me, “Why insult myself?”

As you have guessed, my view is different. I, too, think my services are very valuable and were I to place a dollar figure on their value from which I would not deviate, I would rarely work. The market in which I move simply does not value editorial services similarly. Consequently, I have placed greater value on having sufficient work to keep me fully occupied throughout the year. In other words, I would rather have sufficient work for 52 weeks at a rate that pays my bills and generates a profit than to have work for only a few weeks a year at a rate the recognizes the value of my skills.

As we have discussed numerous times before, I accept the market rate and work to figure out how to convert that market rate to an effective hourly rate that exceeds my requirements. (For those unfamiliar with the effective hourly rate concept or who would like to refresh their memory, do a search on AAE for “effective hourly rate” and/or begin with this essay: Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part I).)

I do not let pride of price interfere with business sense.

This always starts a heated discussion about pricing that revolves around these statements: Make your price too low and not only do you not earn a living but you make it harder for everyone else to charge a more realistic price. Never lower your price: Every year raise your price. Never accept less than you are worth.

First, none of these arguments are sound. They are emotional arguments that are not evidence-based. Second, from a business perspective they are not rational arguments, again because they are not evidence-based. Third, they fail to account for each person’s individual circumstances. It makes a difference if your editing income is the sole income that supports a family of six or is “play” money that allows you to supplement your day-job income so that you can take monthly vacations.

But it is the lack of an evidence basis that is the fatal flaw in these arguments. There is no evidence that any of the arguments can withstand scrutiny — or, more importantly, that they are of any intrinsic value.

Louise Harnby wrote a wonderful essay at her blog, The Proofreader’s Parlour, titled: “I’m a newbie proofreader – should I charge a lower fee?” Her article is well-worth reading for the insights it provides. Alas, I think she omitted the essential answer, which is the need to determine what rate is needed to meet one’s financial obligations and to figure out how to meet that needed rate when the market won’t bear it forthrightly. It matters not a whit what colleagues charge; what matters is what you can charge in your market and can you make that rate a profitable rate. I wrote in my comment to Louise’s article: “You could be the greatest editor of all time — the one that dozens of biographies will be written about — but it matters not one whit if you need to earn $100 an hour but can only manage to earn $25. The best starve as readily as the worst.”

The pride of price is a deadly trap. I know editors who are underworked (in the sense that they are not working every day and wish they were) who could be working more except for that pride of price. This is not to say that there is not a minimum price below which one should not go; there is such a price, but that price should be determined not by pride but by hard calculation that there is no way to convert a fee below that price to a rate that meets one’s needs.

As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to work year round. I know what pricing my market will bear and I can accept that pricing because I can convert it to meet my needs. That pricing is less than I think my services are worth, but I look at the broader picture — over the course of a year rather than over the course of a single project. I recognize that on an individual project I may lose money (in the sense that I do meet my needs), but that doesn’t factor into whether I will take on a project (see The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three). My decision is much more influenced by the number of projects I can expect over the course of the year, because experience has taught me that other projects will more than makeup for the losing project.

Pride of price requires one to focus narrowly on each individual project; meeting one’s needed rate allows for the more expansive view.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

11 Comments »

  1. Great article, Rich. I wanted to respond to your comment about my having omitted the essential issue. I don’t agree that I omitted it. Rather, I paid only little attention to it! While I concur that the focus needs to be on how to earn enough to make one’s business viable, first and foremost, the fact remains that pricing discussions in the editorial community often revolve around issues such as level of experience, newness to the business, newbie vs. oldie, and what the “market rate” is. All of these issues are problematic and can lead to new entrants to the field offering their services at a rate lower than that which the market will bear, and lower than that which enables them to run an economically viable business – and they do so because of a lack of confidence or because some of their more experienced colleagues are guiding them towards thinking like freshman students rather than professional business owners. My article was a response to this attitudinal problem. So I agree with your approach to price modelling, but I think we need to tackle this with the framework of wider misconceptions, too – if editorial service providers don’t recognize the problems I’ve identified, they will, I fear, struggle to get their heads around the wise financial approach that you recommend.

    What I loved about the above essay is that it also addresses the issue from the other end of the spectrum – those who are confident, but who are unwilling or unable to work out how to sustain their business because they demand a price that the market will apparently not bear. I have publisher clients who would fall into this market segment. Some publishers’ rates of pay are such that if I was to work only for them I would be out of business by the end of the year. However, balanced with other projects from other clients (from whom I earn a higher hourly rate), this is far from the case. So it’s important that I have an overall sense of what income I need, and for whom I can work, so that, by the end of my financial year, I know I can achieve those financial goals and live the life I want to live. I therefore completely agree with you that we should do our calculations “over the course of a year rather than over the course of a single project”.

    I think your approach to looking at an editorial business with a broad lens makes sense – being fully employed by a range of clients, which overall provides an annual income that makes life sustainable according to one’s particular needs – is a healthy one.

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    Comment by Louise Harnby | Proofreader — September 10, 2014 @ 5:34 am | Reply

  2. Hi, Rich — new to your blog here. I’ve seen the very worst of “pride of price” while acquiring work on freelancer sites; there, the dominant attitude from experienced editors advising newer community member is, as Louise so aptly put, “[think] like freshman students rather than professional business owners.” I never agreed with this idea, and until I established a firm foothold in that particular market, found myself justifying my significantly higher prices (aka, the price necessary to make a living wage) by citing my education, credentials and high customer service rating in every single RFP. So in that sense, I think those of us asking for more ought in every sense be able to articulate a “well-reasoned, carefully mapped-out justification”. Of course the question echoes: What about the new guy?

    I’ve recently made the acquaintance of a hugely qualified editor whose work has largely been in the non-fiction sector, and that work has come from a publisher who is, not surprisingly, cutting back on freelance contracts in favor of completing editorial in-house. The editor reached out for some advice about adopting a more sustainable freelance model, and while I won’t get into all the details here, suffice it to say I offered a mentorship of sorts — I’ll bring her on as a line editor, let her read my margin notes to authors, maybe listen in on a conference call here or there.

    I think the default mentality of freelancers is to protect their territory — fiercely, absolutely — because we know that bringing on help in times of plenty will leave us with extra mouths to feed when times are lean. I am 100% done with this style of thinking. Like any industry that wants to take itself seriously, we have to distinguish ourselves by caring for our community and encouraging its healthy growth. I will pay my new line editor a fair per-word wage — probably a higher one than she’ll ask for, frankly — and happily. I will encourage her to stand by her worth without being inflexible about how to express that valuation in dollars and cents. And I will also be sure to let her know that even when times are tough — when the whole world has stopped writing their novels because it’s Christmas and they’ve forgotten or it’s summer and they’re in Ibiza or it’s Tuesday and they just don’t feel like it — I decline work that is not quality enough to merit professional editing, because I am not a thief, and regardless of price fluctuations, my standards do not waver.

    Tl;dr: Asking for the right price is part of the answer. And the other part is bolstering the more communal aspects of our industry to encourage healthy growth and resiliency to market stress.

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    Comment by Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial) — September 10, 2014 @ 6:39 am | Reply

  3. […] Pride of price requires one to focus narrowly on each individual project; meeting one's needed rate allows for the more expansive view.  […]

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    Pingback by The Business of Editing: The Pride of Price | E... — September 10, 2014 @ 7:10 am | Reply

  4. I’ve been people for years that rates are based on a combination of the freelancer’s skill, experience and chutzpah vs. the client’s budget, but I should start adding the freelancer’s budget to that equation. It’s probably also useful to rein in the chutzpah if it’s leading someone to over-rate and over-price the other elements of the equation.

    As far as I can tell, the only way to justify one’s rates to clients – who generally don’t care about how much we need to earn to cover our costs of living – is to present experience and demonstrate skills. It’s smart to try to find out what a given market – general vs. specialty – might bear and then work within that. Pricing ourselves so high that no one hires us is like pricing a house too high and having it sit on that real estate market. Sometimes we have to swallow that pride and settle for a more realistic price, whether it’s to get editorial (either editing or writing) work or sell a house. That doesn’t mean we have to work for pennies, but it might mean we have to set lower rates for some projects, clients or situations than we think we’re worth.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 10, 2014 @ 10:14 am | Reply

  5. The challenge can be to determine what is “the right price.”

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 10, 2014 @ 10:37 am | Reply

  6. Great article, Rich. One of the best you’ve written. You bring up some great points that will be discussed for quite some time.

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    Comment by Cassie Armstrong — September 10, 2014 @ 11:30 am | Reply

  7. I’ve been mulling over the post because as with most freelancers, I have some pretty strong opinions about rates. My main view is a from a business standpoint: you can charge as much as your market will bear. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from someone I didn’t even know, on LinkedIn: to work for clients who consider my services as adding value to their business or organization rather than clients who see my services as an expense to minimize as much as possible.

    I gradually moved my business to better-paying sectors of publishing world. The bonus is that the work is more interesting, too. Of course, I use software and hardware tools that help make my editing more efficient and better quality, which also help to make project rates pay well. Those two strategies go hand in hand.

    Having a family and a husband who is also self-employed (and now semiretired), I am serious about making a good living. I’m not going to price myself out of work, but neither am I going to underprice my services. The trick is to maintain a balance between the two.

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — September 11, 2014 @ 11:32 am | Reply

  8. I agree with Teresa. The right price is as much about the right balance as anything else. I’ve managed to inch my rates up over the years though it still falls lower than I desire; however, I’m at the top of what my clientele will pay, and the only real credential I can boast to support my wonderfulness is eight years of satisfied clients (as compared to educational degrees, decades of experience in the publishing industry, or important titles by important clients for whom I helped make their books succeed). So I’ve had to focus on continuity of work and quality of project more than getting what I think I’m worth. Since day one of freelancing I’ve considered survival in this shrinking field to be a measure of success, along with keeping the bills paid. With luck, continued skill development, and a full book of business, I hope to creep my profit margin ever higher.

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    Comment by Carolyn — September 12, 2014 @ 7:06 am | Reply

  9. Another approach is to charge as much as you can to work as little as necessary to meet your financial needs (and wants). Within the market’s tolerances, of course. But more on markets later.

    I used to bust my tail billing 40 hours a week at $25/hr (when I was new). Now I bill far fewer hours at more than double that rate and clear double the income. Much happier tail. Happier family too; though I am still working too much, in their eyes.

    So while I agree that the market will cap the fee, I do not agree that filling my hours is the goal of my pricing. And I’m on the lookout for better markets! As Teresa put it, I’m cultivating clients who “consider my services as adding value to their business or organization rather than clients who see my services as an expense to minimize as much as possible.”

    Always thought-provoking posts, Rich. Thanks for starting the discussions!

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    Comment by Adrienne Montgomerie (@sciEditor) — September 12, 2014 @ 10:31 am | Reply

  10. […] Here’s an interesting discussion on the business of editing and, in particular, how pride of price can interfere with an editor’s business sense. (An American Editor) […]

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    Pingback by The Nitpicker’s Nook: September’s linguistic links roundup « BoldFace — September 24, 2014 @ 10:02 am | Reply

  11. […] The Business of Editing: The Pride of Price […]

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    Pingback by So, How Much Am I Worth? | An American Editor — April 29, 2015 @ 4:01 am | Reply


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