An American Editor

April 6, 2015

Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts

It never fails. There is nothing more sure than that today someone will ask “What should I charge [or pay]?” and someone will reply “Take a look at the EFA rate chart.” I think the publication of this chart is a great disservice to editorial freelancers.

Even if the chart was statistically valid, which it is a very, very long way from being, the publication of a rate chart by what purports to be the national voice for editorial freelancers is a disservice. If it has to exist, then it should be accessible by members only.

What is wrong with making the chart publicly available? What is wrong with using it to set your rates? What is wrong with clients relying on it to set limits?

False Expectations

There are several reasons why making the chart publicly available is bad for freelancing. First, it sets false expectations. The expectation is that someone new to freelancing can earn the listed rates. It also sets the expectations of clients. Why should/would a client pay you $50 an hour when the top rate for “basic copyediting” is $40 according to the chart? The one thing I definitely want when speaking with a client is for the client to be wholly ignorant of this chart because it sets false expectations — it bears no relationship to the value of my services or the services that I perform under the rubric “basic copyediting.”

I fall back on what I repeatedly say both here on An American Editor and on forums when I respond to these questions: How can you, the editor, set your rate if you do not know your required effective hourly rate (rEHR)? (For discussion on how to calculate your rEHR, see the “What to Charge” series of essays.) Of what value is it to “know” that the rate chart says you should charge $25 an hour if your rEHR is $50. It is not possible to sustain a business when you earn half of what you need to earn to pay your bills. And how can you, the client, know what to pay if you do not know what services are included and excluded, the experience of the editor, the editor’s skill level, and myriad other things that can only be learned via discussion with the editor?

Who Responded to the Underlying Survey?

Charts like the EFA’s chart become the gospel for rates. Rate charts never tell you to figure out what you need to charge; instead, they tell you what some group of unknown responders charge. Which is the second problem with the chart: Who are the people who provided the underlying data — the survey responders — and how many of them did so? In the case of the EFA rate chart, the responders to the rate survey are EFA members only, many of whom are “young” (in the sense of years of experience) freelancers. And if past EFA rate surveys are any kind of guide as to the number of responders, you are talking about a very small, statistically unrepresentative number; in the past, the number has been less than 10% of the group membership, which is not a lot of responders considering the overall number of editorial freelancers in the United States.

And the Definition is …

A third problem is definition. What precisely do “basic copyediting” and “heavy copyediting” include/exclude? How do they differ from “developmental” and “substantive/line” editing? How many of the responders to the survey from which these results were drawn listed themselves as providers of only “basic copyediting”? How many claimed to be “developmental” editors? More importantly, how did the responders define these terms in relation to their own practices? For example, if they provide “basic copyediting,” did their real-world practice include more, fewer, or exactly the same services as the EFA definition? Knowing the definitions is important because if you define “basic” as including services A, B, C, D, and E, but some responders only include A, C, and D, and others include only A, B, C, and E, and yet others include A to E plus F, the rate chart will not be pertinent to your business yet might well serve to limit what you can charge.

Does Experience Matter?

Which raises a fourth problem: How many, for example, developmental editing projects over how many years have those responders who claim to be developmental editors done? A person who has done one 25-page developmental project in 5 years is not someone on whom I would rely for what-to-charge advice. Of course, the same question can be asked of those who claim to do basic copyediting because the same problem exists with them. I would also want to know what the average yearly gross income has been for these responders. To me, it makes a world of difference if I am getting the advice from someone with 3 years of editing experience who has done 10 projects in those 3 years and has earned on average $25,000 a year as opposed to getting the advice from an editor who has 10 years of experience, edited a few hundred projects over that time, and has averaged $100,000 a year in earnings.

Are Our Clients Similar?
What About Subject Matter?

Bringing me to a fifth problem, which has two aspects: First, who are the responders’ clients and second, in which subject areas do the responders work? Who one’s clients are matters a great deal. I remember one EFA rate survey from many years ago where there was one responder who at that time earned $75 an hour when most of us struggled to earn $15 an hour. The reason for the disparity became clear when it was learned that the responder only worked for pharmaceutical companies and on documents that had to be filed with the Food and Drug Administration — a true specialty. At that time, university presses paid highly experienced editors $10-$12 an hour and large medical publishers paid those same editors $12-$16; fiction editors were paid $8-$10. The point is that clients matter and subject area matters. Are the responders’ clients publishers or authors? Are we talking fiction or nonfiction? Specialty or general? None of this is disclosed so how reliable or usable is the information provided?

Experience Again

A sixth problem, which is related to earlier noted problems, addresses experience. For example, last year I edited a manuscript that ran close to 20,000 manuscript pages; I also edited several other projects that year. How much volume did the responders edit? Does it matter that a responder may have edited 50 documents ranging in size from 10 to 50 pages as opposed to the volume I edited? When discussing what to charge, should not the whole experience of the person giving the advice be considered? Yet the EFA rate chart makes no mention of the experience of the responders in each category.

Did You Make a Profit or Suffer a Loss?

The final problem I will mention is this: I have no idea whether the responders made a profit or suffered a loss by charging what they did. More importantly, I have no idea how they decided to charge whatever they charged. As I noted at the beginning, it does me no good to charge less than my rEHR because I will never have enough money to stay even with my bills. So, did a responder decide she could charge $20 an hour because her significant other was paying the household bills or because her retirement pension made up the difference or because she never calculated her rEHR but thought that $20 an hour was all the market would pay for her services? Or was there some other reason? Isn’t it important to know the basis for what the responders charge when deciding to adopt this rate chart for your own business?

What a colleague charges never enters into my consideration as to what I should charge for the same service except if it is significantly more than I charge or plan to charge. Then I add the information to the data mix. But I never consider any rate information provided by colleagues unless that rate information is greater than my rEHR. When I set my rates, I do so based on my skill level, the schedule, my market, and other data that are specific to me and my business. My experience and skills, honed over 31 years of specialty work, have a significance in my market that it may not have in other markets or in the markets of colleagues. That you and I both do “copyediting” is meaningless for determining the rate I should charge if your editing is solely for indie authors and in fiction and mine is solely with publishers in electrical engineering.

There are additional problems (e.g., how many responses were received for each category? What is the geographical distribution of the responders [e.g., do New York City-based editors receive higher pay than Sioux City, Iowa editors]?) with the EFA rate chart, but aren’t these enough?

It’s a Solution, But Not a Good One

The information the EFA rate chart provides is valuable if properly used. The problem is that it is not properly used and it is not properly displayed. Sure there are disclaimers, such as the chart should be used only as a “rough guide,” but those disclaimers cannot overcome the perception that this is what an editor should charge and a client should pay. Every time someone responds to a rate question with “Take a look at the EFA rate chart for guidance,” they do themselves and their colleagues a great disservice. The rate chart is the easy solution to a difficult problem, but the fact that it is an easy solution does not make it a good solution.

In my view, if the EFA feels it needs to have a rate chart, it should restrict access to members only and prohibit its being shared with nonmembers. By doing that it will minimize the damage the rate chart causes by setting client expectations. I think the EFA would do much better by its members and the public if it educated members on how to calculate what to charge based on a member’s individual circumstances and if it educated clients on what editors do, why what editors do is valuable, and why editors charge what they do.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

14 Comments »

  1. A good analysis of the situation, and I agree with all points. Still, I have found value in the EFA chart as-is, because when I began freelancing, with zero business experience and zero idea of what the market would bear, it helped me decide how to position myself. Discussing money directly with people still remains taboo in some areas, and as a newbie breaking in I did not have the gumption to ask colleagues directly. They did not specify their rates on lists. Few posted them on their websites. In looking around the Internet, I located a number of articles that gave rate ranges, no better or worse defined than the EFA’s, and saw that EFA lopped off the super-high and super-low and covered the middle. EFA was also the closest thing I could find to a professional editorial organization. So I appreciated their guidance. Still do.

    Once I got into the workflow, I saw that rates being offered me were lower than what EFA suggested, so I referred people to that source and helped change some expectations upward. Now with some experience under my belt, I would love to see the rate chart enhanced per AE’s suggestions, better defining scope of work and context. My own clientele runs the gamut and I charge differently for each project, and have to spend a lot of time during my pitches explaining what service and value I’m offering for the rate I now charge.

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    Comment by documania2 — April 6, 2015 @ 6:21 am | Reply

    • The question remains: Do you know your required effective hourly rate? If you do, how does that compare with the EFA or any other rate chart? And how does what you are actually charging/earning compare with your rEHR? If a rate chart acts as a brake on what you can earn with the result that you do not earn your rEHR, is it a good idea for it to be so readily available? Recall that I do not oppose the rate chart being available to EFA members, my opposition is to having it publicly available where it interferes with what non-EFA members can earn. If EFA members want the experience of a very limited number of members to govern their earnings, that is an associational choice they are welcome to make. But for those same handful of people to act as a brake on my earnings is unacceptable especially when there are so many unknowns.

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      Comment by americaneditor — April 6, 2015 @ 6:52 am | Reply

  2. […] Every time someone responds to a rate question with "Take a look at the EFA rate chart for guidance," they do themselves and their colleagues a great disservice. The rate chart is the easy solution…  […]

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    Pingback by Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts ... — April 6, 2015 @ 7:31 am | Reply

  3. I agree that the chart is problematic, especially since no definitions are given on the page, nor does the page itself remind readers where the numbers come from. Adding those two items would help put the chart into perspective. Adding questions to the survey, like “did you make a profit with this hourly rate?” and “what subjects/media do you edit”? would help, too. Surveying more than just members would be a boon, too.

    But I do think it’s a starting point. As long as you know where the numbers are coming from, it gives you an idea of what some editors are charging and whether it’s successful.

    Even better, though, would be outlining the considerations for setting rates. Your series on EHR is one side of the discussion. A set of considerations from the client perspective (type of editing, topic, turnaround time, etc.) would be the other side.

    And, of course, we need to coach new freelancers that all of this takes research and time. You can pull a number out of the air, but that could be a disaster.

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    Comment by erinbrenner — April 6, 2015 @ 9:08 am | Reply

  4. I agree with documania: this is a good starting point for new freelance editors. I used the EFA rate list as a guide when I started out, and I referred clients who balked at my per/word rate to the list as a kind of back-up. Once I had enough experience under my belt, I was able to charge more and did not feel the need to have the EFA chart back me up.

    I also use the estimated pages per hour as a goal for me to work towards. I use it as part of my own spreadsheet to set my hourly rate and my per word rate so that they will be the same.

    I hope that the EFA does not take your advice and move the rate chart to “Members Only.” I found EFA because I was looking for what I should charge per word or per hour for my services. The fact that the chart was freely available to the public was a big factor in my decision to join EFA.

    The chart helped me tremendously with getting my business set up. It gave me a reasonable place to start. Without the chart, I may have continued to work for less than a penny per word on Elance until I finally just gave up trying to make a living in this field. Once I found that I could charge four cents per word, I felt like a millionaire. I used that rate to help me gain more experience. As I gain more experience, I raise my rates. As I raise my rates, I raise the quality of my clientele. I am increasing my income and workload in manageable increments every year. In a few years, I should have a living wage coming from my business without having to decrease the quality of my work in order to crank out more, more, more. I can live with this level of growth.

    The rate chart that the EFA provides is not perfect, but it says it is not perfect right at the top. It does what it says it will do: It guides the newest of us out of the swamps of the editing farms and onto the dry land of professionalism. Once we are on dry land, then we can start moving our businesses to ever higher grounds.

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    Comment by Veronica — April 6, 2015 @ 12:06 pm | Reply

  5. Your articles are excellent but I have an issue with rEHR (required effective hourly rate). Specifically, why should a client care about our rEHR?

    I live in Bolingbrook, a modest suburb of Chicago that is adjacent to Naperville, where the homes and taxes are substantially higher. Are you saying that if I move across the border, clients should be quite willing to raise what they pay me by perhaps a third for the very same work?

    I see these issues from the perspective of a client as well as a service provider. The last time I went to the dentist I was shocked at the price to have my teeth cleaned. The service was OK but nothing unusual, especially since the dentist sometimes uses hygienists from a temp service. I plan to shop around.

    -d

    Diana Schneidman, author, Real Skills, Real Income: A Proven Marketing System to Land Well-Paid Freelance and Consulting Work in 30 Days or Less

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    Comment by Diana Schneidman — April 6, 2015 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

    • The rEHR doesn’t matter to a client, it matters to you. You need to know it so that you set your rate appropriately. It is not unusual to have to convince a client that your services are worth what you have decided to charge, but it makes no sense at all to be in this business if every job means you earn less than you need to pay your bills.

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      Comment by americaneditor — April 6, 2015 @ 4:06 pm | Reply

  6. The clients aren’t the ones who care about your rEHR, it’s you who have to care, and then to charge accordingly within your area of editing and discipline.

    I agree wholeheartedly with AE on this topic. Although I’ve been freelancing for three years, I have an almost-30-year editing career, mostly for NASA. When I first heard about the EFA rate chart, I was curious and went to the web page. In that I’m primarily a science, math, and technology substantive editor, I was gobsmacked (and not in a good way) to see the rates that were posted.

    A simple addition for the chart is to have categories for editing in the same manner that they have for writing, i.e., fiction, grants/proposals/sales/PR, journalism, medical, nonspecified, and technical/trade, and add “sciences (not medical)” and “math”.

    And for the record, the rate chart doesn’t say anything about guiding “the newest of us out of the swamps of the editing farms and onto the dry land of professionalism”.

    No, I’m not bashing the EFA. I’m a proud member of the organization…an organization that does a terrific job for it’s members and provides many types of educational programs (through the headquarters and through the individual chapters). However, the rate chart is a sticking point for me.

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    Comment by Elaine R. Firestone, ELS — April 6, 2015 @ 2:45 pm | Reply

  7. I have over 20 years of experience. I prefer to work with indie authors (international, even). I have to keep my rates where my target clientele can afford them, and that means I’m not making a living doing this. Thankfully, I am not my sole source of income; my mother would have called this “pin money,” used for wants but not for needs.

    I’m not a member of the EFA, but I have looked at that chart many times and wondered how I could possibly charge what “they say” and have any paying clients at all.

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    Comment by grammargeddonangel — April 6, 2015 @ 4:29 pm | Reply

  8. I agree with AE and Elaine Firestone’s comment above. EFA has been a great help to my career, but I could really do without that rate chart! Or at least make it only accessible to members — and have big disclaimers about what it means. Yes, I raised the issue with the folks at EFA.

    I bid on a book by an author-duo client last year who used the EFA rate chart to argue that my quoted project rate was too high. Grumbling to myself, I decided to really look at the chart, instead of the cursory glance I had previously given to it. The pages and rates are all ranges, so it’s really meaningless, as you could put a low page throughput with the high end of the prices, or vice versa, or match up the middle of the ranges. Since the book I was bidding on was finance, I decided to do an analysis and send it to the authors as a last-ditch attempt to land this job and also to satisfy myself that if anyone ever again tried to use the EFA chart “against” me, I could counter with numbers that would both satisfy me and fit into the rates chart. Here’s what I replied to these clients:

    “Actually, my rates are within the EFA rate chart parameters (see below). I do charge on the high end, commensurate with my 23 years of experience and high level of skills and knowledge.

    “My earlier per-page numbers were ballpark estimates, as I did not have enough information to make a more accurate estimate. I initially estimated X to Y cents per word [I used actual numbers in my note to these clients], but I would not give a more precise estimate until I saw the manuscript. After I did the sample edit, and after I received the whole manuscript and did a quick pass to get a feel for the level of editing needed (especially the references, which need a lot of work), I used Y cents to Y+1 cents per word to figure my fee. The word count on the complete file I received was zz,000; at Y cents per word, the total is $2650; at Y+1 cents per word, it is $3180; I rounded to $3,000. After running through various hour and page rate scenarios on my estimate spreadsheet, I came to the conclusion that $3,000 was the fee that I would need to charge to do the work necessary.

    “A note on the EFA rates: They are averages based on responses to surveys they issue to the membership every few years. The high and low ends of the range are also averages, not true endpoints. (I know the person in charge of the rates survey.) I have been editing technical and scientific material for 23 years now, and with my advanced skills and knowledge, I do charge more than a beginning or intermediate editor.

    “But even if we just look at the EFA rates chart, the price I figured for your book does indeed fall within that range. For example, heavy copyediting (2-5 pp/hr): at 4 pages/hr, and at $50/hr, the price would be $2650; at 3 pages/hr, at $50/hr, it would be $3533. (Manuscript pages are defined on the EFA website as 250 words.) The average page rate per hour of a project is the number of manuscript pages divided by the number of hours spent on the entire project—including editing, checking references against text and styling citations and references, preparing a style sheet (which I do for all my work), email, phone calls, and anything else that needs to be done.

    “I hope this sheds some light on how I figured my price. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I have gotten very good at doing estimates. I use a spreadsheet and run through several scenarios to make sure that I’m on target.”

    Yes, I got the job and the clients turned out to be very good to work with. And these clients found me via EFA, too.

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — April 6, 2015 @ 6:34 pm | Reply

  9. I’m glad to see someone take on the EFA rate chart. I do feel it may have some value if only insofar as it’s a professional editors’ association saying, effectively, “no, $10 an hour is not in the realm of reasonable rates,” but my problems with it are numerous.

    FIrst, for me, as a fiction editor who works with indie authors, the figures given for pages edited per hour are way off–I can edit far more quickly than the chart indicates. There are several reasons for this: my authors are almost all native English speakers; I don’t have to deal with references and acronyms and abbreviations; fiction is more “readable” than many other types of texts and thus goes more quickly; and so on. But there’s the risk that a client familiar with the EFA chart will see my pricing and think it is too low, thus concluding I must not be a professional–either I’m rushing through projects or I’m making too little per hour, or both. (Though as your recent post on market perception suggests, to what extent this phenomenon really occurs is itself debatable.) On the other side of the coin, I’ve seen authors post on forums and say, basically, “I’ve decided to start doing editing on the side, and I’m charging X per word, consistent with the EFA chart.” Because the EFA chart’s page-per-hour figures are so far off for the needs of fiction editing, these completely green editors are thus charging more than most seasoned professionals (at least, they try to until they can’t find any authors willing to pay these rates, I’m guessing). I also see authors advising other authors that “Editors charge X” based on the EFA chart, upon hearing which inflated figures some authors decide they can’t afford editing at all. Of course, for a different type of editing, like medical editing, the numbers may be way off in the other direction.

    Another issue: you touch on the lack of information provided as to how we should distinguish between “basic copyediting” and “heavy copyediting,” but surely, whatever we might decide is meant by either term, the distinction must pertain to the quality of a particular text–Text A is in bad shape and needs heavier copyediting than Text B, which is in good shape–or to the amount of intervention desired–Author A only wants egregious objective errors corrected, while Author B wants heavy input from the editor to make sure everything flows as well as possible. I can’t see where either of these distinctions pertains to my qualifications or experience as an editor rather than to the needs of the author or the text. I can’t imagine there are editors who are capable of doing basic copyediting but not heavy copyediting, though maybe I’m being obtuse… so why in the name of all that is holy should an editor charge less *per hour* for basic copyediting than heavy copyediting? Per word/page, sure–heavier editing means fewer pages per hour–but per hour? Why? To me, this mystery only further indicates the pronounced lack of rigor or meaningful methodology underlying this chart.

    And do these page-per-hour ranges and associated hourly rates take into account non-editing tasks that nonetheless take up the freelancer’s time? Does the EFA envision us making the $40 per hour, every hour we work, or only when we’re doing certain tasks? And if so, which ones? As long as we’re defining things, what constitutes a (billable) hour?

    Personally I don’t charge by the hour, only by the word/project, so my clients are aware of neither my hourly rate, effective or otherwise, nor my rate of productivity. If I did charge by the hour, I imagine it might get annoying having to deal, as others have noted, with clients who wonder why I charge more than $X per hour or edit more or less than Y pages per hour.

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    Comment by Eliza Dee — April 6, 2015 @ 11:19 pm | Reply

  10. I figured out my own rates long ago, based on a combination of what I earned at my best full-time job (complete with benefits, overhead, etc.), what I need to cover my expenses (as if I were still single), and what I think my skills and experience are worth. I mention the EFA rate chart in discussions about what to charge only because it’s the only such resource I know of that’s accessible outside a membership. I always include caveats about it representing a limited database, since it’s only based on responses from the EFA membership and not even of all members. It’s useful with potential clients who think a penny a word or less or $5 or $10/hour is appropriate, or $5 for writing a 500-word (or longer) article or blog post, and similar lowballers. If someone tries to quote it to me to get me to lower my rates, I say it’s only a guideline, and that my rates might be higher for some tasks in the chart because of my skill and experience levels. Most of the people who try to argue my rates down aren’t worth working with in the first place.

    Of course, all of this may be different for someone just starting out in editing/proofreading/writing, or in freelancing in general.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — April 7, 2015 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

  11. […] Rich Adin has discussed in a previous post (see Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts), membership organizations like the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) provide some publicly […]

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    Pingback by On the Basics: Dealing with the Perennial Question of Setting Rates for Our Work | An American Editor — April 20, 2015 @ 4:02 am | Reply

  12. […] like the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) to publish such charts publicly (see “Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts“). That got me wondering: How much am I worth as an […]

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    Pingback by So, How Much Am I Worth? | An American Editor — April 29, 2015 @ 4:00 am | Reply


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