How Lucrative Are Your Editorial Clients Really?
Keeping an Eye on Creeping Costs (Part I)
by Louise Harnby
In this two-part essay, I consider the care we need to take when making assumptions about how lucrative certain client types are.
I read with interest Jeannette de Beauvoir’s article on Copyediting.com about the pros and cons of regular vs. one-off clients: “Freelance Income: Recurring or One-Off?”. In it, de Beauvoir states: “in general, publishers don’t pay particularly well. And working with individual authors can be fantastically fun: nurturing the writer, working with them to bring a great project to publication.” While some may agree, my own experiences (and my preferred way of running my proofreading business) make me question this assumption.
Online discussions among editorial folk often allude to the issue of “poor” pay when it comes to publisher clients. And while there are some presses who, for various reasons beyond the scope of this article, offer rates that some freelancers consider to be unsustainable, it’s not always the case.
I’m a professional proofreader and I’ve explored several markets in my freelance career. I have extensive experience of working with regular publisher clients (around 400 books since I set up my proofreading business in 2005) and I’ve worked with businesses, independent academics, students and self-publishing authors, mostly (though not exclusively) on a one-off basis. I’ve enjoyed pretty much all of the projects I’ve worked on, but the jury is still out on who pays “well” and who doesn’t.
For the purposes of this essay I’m going to take a look at how working with a regular publisher client contrasts with working for a new nonpublisher client. I’ve chosen to use publishers precisely because they are a group that are often cited as being “low” payers.
In today’s essay, I consider two problems:
- How “well-paying” is defined
- How fee expectations can vary even within, as well as between, client types
I also look at the booking phase of proofreading work, and consider how the situation can vary between a regular publisher client and a new nonpublisher client, and what this means in terms of creeping costs.
In Part II, I look at the additional costs that can creep into the actual editorial stage of a booked-in proofreading project, and the phase after completion — again comparing regular publisher clients and new nonpublisher clients.
This isn’t to say that any of the scenarios considered here will always occur with each client type on each job. Rather, I aim to show that (a) extra costs are less likely to creep in with the regular publisher client, and (b) this needs to be accounted for when considering which types of client are “well-paying.”
How Do We Define “Paying Well”?
What’s a “good” rate of pay? This is the first problem that arises when we make statements about how lucrative particular clients groups are, and it can confuse the new entrant to the field. Some national editorial societies offer guidance on suggested minimum rates (see, e.g., the Editor’s Association of Canada, the Editorial Freelancers Association [United States], and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders [United Kingdom]). Note, though, that while many new entrants to the field will aspire to these rates, for others they may not be high enough. Rich Adin, An American Editor, advises using these guidelines as “a place to begin but not to stop” (“Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part I)”.
I agree with Adin’s advice. This is because there are 3 rates we need to be aware of:
- What we need to earn in order to meet our financial needs — the required rate
- What we want to earn in order to fulfill our aspirations — the desired rate
- What the client will pay for a particular job — the market rate
In reality, though, there is no precise number that makes pay rate “good” or “bad.” What we can do is to construct our own definitions of acceptable and unacceptable rates around our individual business requirements. Thus:
- Market rate is equal to or higher than our required rate = good
- Market rate is equal to or higher than our desired rate = great
- Market rate is lower than our required rate = poor
Consider the following (the figures are for demonstration purposes only):
- A client offers me a £20ph (the market rate) for a proofreading job. This is lower than my desired rate (£25ph) but higher than my required rate (£17ph). My professional society suggests a guideline rate of £23ph.
- A client offers me £27ph for a proofreading job. My required rate is £17ph and my desired rate is £25ph, so the market rate exceeds both my required and desired rates. I then find out that a colleague will accept no less than £30ph for any proofreading job. Again, my professional society suggests a guideline hourly rate of £23ph.
- A client offers me £13ph. This is below my required and desired hourly rates. Again, my professional society suggests a guideline hourly rate of £23ph.
In the above situations, which rates are good, and which are poor? Looking at the above three examples, you will have your own opinions about what’s acceptable.
In example 1, £20ph exceeds my needs. For me, it’s a good rate. Yes, it’s below the figure suggested by my professional society, but it doesn’t have to meet the needs of the professional society, because the professional society doesn’t pay for my rent, food, and bills. Rather, it has to meet my requirements. If your required rate is £25ph, it won’t meet your needs so it will be a poor rate.
In example 2, £27ph exceeds my required and desired hourly rate, so it’s a great rate. It also exceeds my professional society’s guidelines, though that has no bearing on my financial situation. My colleague still thinks it’s too low. Perhaps that’s because she needs to earn £30ph. But her needs are just that — hers. What she needs to earn has no bearing on my financial situation. It’s a poor rate for her but it’s still a great rate for me.
In example 3, the market rate of £13ph is lower than my required rate. I therefore consider the rate to be poor. This isn’t because a colleague or a society thinks it’s too low, but because it doesn’t meet my required rate of £17ph. If I wish, I can still choose to accept the job, if a broader analysis of my accounts tells me that my overall business earnings will compensate for the shortfall.
So, if you’re a new entrant to the field and you hear someone say, “Publishers don’t pay particularly well,” or “Businesses offer great rates,” bear in mind that your colleague’s experiences may not be the same as yours because the yardstick by which she’s measuring rates of pay is different than yours. What she needs to earn will probably be different than what you need to earn, and what’s “good” for you might well be “poor” for her. Define “well-paying” clients first and foremost according to your needs, not those of others.
Comparing Publishers with Other Client Types
Another problem that arises when considering how lucrative publisher clients are is that of comparison. Are we comparing their rates with students, self-publishing authors, academics, multinational corporations, charities? The fact is that even clients from within a particular customer group have will have different budgets and expectations (not every academic will be prepared to pay the same fee per word/page/hour for proofreading; not every publisher will offer the same rate for copy-editing a 300-page sociology manuscript). You may well find that “bad,” “good,” and “good enough” rates of pay (as defined by your own needs and wants) can be found both within and between customer groups.
The rates that I earn from proofreading for publishers vary a great deal. I record detailed data for every job I take. This allows me to make some comparisons between clients, and more broadly between client groups. In my own experience, the income I can earn from some publishers is what I consider to be a “good” or “great” rate of pay. This isn’t just because the fees offered for the jobs are flat-out higher than what’s being offered by other clients; it’s not just because I’ve been able to introduce more productive ways of working (see “The Proofreader’s Corner: Rates, Data Tracking, and Digital Efficiencies (Part II)” for more detail on how this can be achieved); it’s also because there are, in my experience, fewer creeping costs.
One financial issue that has often snuck up and tapped me on the shoulder when working with nonpublisher clients is that of creeping costs. I’m not going to pretend it’s never happened with publisher clients, but I’ve found it to be less likely. This is because publishers understand what I do, and I’ve trained to proofread in a way that enables me to offer them a solution to their problems. This isn’t always the case with a nonpublisher client.
Some nonpublisher clients do, of course, have extensive experience of working with editorial professionals, so the process is well understood. But for many nonpublisher clients, the decision to hire a copy-editor or proofreader will be new — it’s the first time the independent author has self-published; the first time a marketing agency has hired a copy-editor to work on its promotional material; the first time a business executive has hired a proofreader to check its reports. First-time clients may need a level of support that publishers don’t.
Support and clear communication take time — and inexperienced editorial folk can fall into the trap of not building the cost of this time into their quotations.
Creeping Costs During the Booking Phase
When a regular publisher client hires me to proofread for them, the communication goes something like this:
Are you free to carry out a hard-copy proofread of the following book: Author/title? The job is as follows:
- 300 pages; 100,000 words
- PDF proofs delivered: xxx (hard copy will arrive two days later)
- Proofs to be returned: xxx
Please let me know whether you’re able to take on this project.
There’s no need for the publisher and I to have a discussion about what “proofreading” entails; there’s no need for me to assess the manuscript prior to proofreading; there’s no need for us to agree on how I will annotate the manuscript; the payment structures are already set up and proven to work; and my client isn’t asking for a free sample proofread before I get cracking on the job. We have a mutual set of expectations about how the process will work. It will take me no more than 5 minutes to read the project manager’s request, check my schedule, and reply accordingly with a Yes or a No. The only thing that might extend the conversation is if I want to ask whether there’s any flexibility on the deadline, owing to my busy schedule. I can’t send the publisher an invoice for those 5 minutes, but we are only talking about 5 minutes.
This contrasts quite sharply with an enquiry from a nonpublisher client with whom I’ve never worked. It’s not uncommon for me to receive requests to quote for proofreading jobs without having any idea of what kind of state the writing is in (and thus whether it’s ready for proofreading), what format it will be in (paper, PDF, Word), what the required time frame is, what the writer’s budget is, what other stages of editing the manuscript has been through, or whether the client knows how to work with Track Changes or other digital mark-up tools.
It’s right and proper that the freelancer and the client do have an in-depth discussion about these issues so that both parties are in agreement about the overall terms and conditions of the project. But this is rarely a discussion that will take 5 minutes.
Additionally, a client who’s not previously used a freelancer’s services might request a free sample proofread so that he or she can assess the supplier’s proficiency (for a good discussion of why free sampling isn’t acceptable to every editorial professional, take a look at Jamie Chavez’s “No More Missus Nice Gal”), just as the freelancer should request a sample of the manuscript in order to confirm that her skill set matches the customer’s requirements. Such negotiations can be lengthy and may even result in the customer needing to find an alternative supplier. All of which is right and proper.
It’s therefore essential to consider the bigger picture when considering the degree to which a particular client or client group “pays well.” Even in the booking phase, there are costs to acquiring business, and these have to be accounted for. Time is money.
In Part II, I look at the additional costs that can creep into the actual editorial stage of a booked-in proofreading project, and the phase after completion.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.