Dealing with the Perennial Question
of Setting Rates for Our Work
by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
Whether you’re a writer, an editor, or any other publishing professional, coming up with rates for your work is a constant challenge. We’ve talked about this before and we’ll be talking about it throughout this millennium and into the next one, but it’s always worth discussing, simply because it is a constant concern. Even established writers and editors have to struggle with this challenge, thanks to the continually evolving world of online communications, bidding websites or services, efforts by professional associations, self-publishing, newcomers to the trade, and more.
How to Charge
Publications usually pay for writing by the word and, equally usually, those rates are determined by the editor or publication. There rarely is much room to negotiate, but you might be able to push up a rate by demonstrating expertise on a given topic, general experience and a publishing history, and good old chutzpah. Some publications will increase the pay rate as you become more known and valuable to them, starting you out at the low end until they know you’ll produce the quality they need and meet the deadlines they set, and raising your rate as the relationship continues.
Some writers will accept a lower per-word rate than usual in return for a guarantee of ongoing assignments from a publication. Certainty can be a big factor in negotiating rates.
It also can be possible to justify a low per-word rate by how quickly you can wrap up an assignment. You might usually get $1 a word for magazine assignments, but really want to write up a certain topic or get into the pages of a certain magazine that doesn’t pay that rate. If you can dash off a 1,500-word article at 15 cents a word, research included, in an hour, you just made $225 for that hour. If it takes two hours, that’s still more than $100 an hour. That per-word amount is ridiculously low, but the assignment or project rate is quite respectable.
It gets more complicated for editing work. As you may recall from other discussions here about rates, editors (and proofreaders) might be paid by the word, page, hour, or project. Even by the character.
Keep in mind, by the way, that charging by the hour could work against you as you become faster and more proficient or efficient — the faster you do the work, the fewer hours you work, the less money you earn. By charging by the character, word, or page, you can increase income as you increase proficiency and speed because you get more done every hour. If you charge by the hour, you actually lose money by working faster and more efficiently, because you have fewer hours to charge for. More hours to spend on other projects, of course, but not more profit from any individual project.
As 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 available guidance on rates based on what some of their members report, but those resources can be as problematic as they are helpful. There’s nothing wrong with sharing them with clients who haven’t worked with writers or editors before, but they shouldn’t be treated as the only option or as mandatory. Quote them with clients who offer rates that are lower than you accept if they support your preferences, and feel free to point out that they’re only guidelines when you want to charge more than such a chart shows, even at its higher ends of ranges. See below for some suggestions on “defending” the rates you want to charge.
Some organizations — the Editors Association of Canada is one — provide member-only rates information. That’s helpful in setting fees while reducing the number of prospective clients who might say things like, “But the EFA/EAC/whatever chart says this kind of work should only pay $X/hour, so why do you want me to pay you $X-times-2?” but it doesn’t help educate clients who try to pay ridiculously low rates.
Defending What You Charge
Once you figure out what you think you should charge, be prepared to defend that decision with some clients.
There will always be clients who try to bargain us down to lower rates for our work. You may have to explain the value that you bring to the client’s project — your years of training and experience, your skill level, your subject knowledge if appropriate; in short, why you’re worth what you charge. Not defensively, but from a position of confidence in that worth.
I tell prospective clients that my rates are based on my skills, experience, speed, and wide-ranging knowledge base. I don’t mention my need to pay my bills and cover my expenses; it’s too easy to let such “defenses” look whiny and unbusiness-like. I focus on why I’m a great match for that project or client. If that doesn’t work, I let it go. Life is too short to spend time on haggling over pay rates.
Sometimes you have to brace yourself to stand tough and tall about your rates. You probably will encounter prospective clients who say they can find someone less expensive. Fine. Don’t let them bully you into cutting your rate. Clients who try to bargain you down to less than you think you should be paid are likely to be headaches on other aspects of working together, including getting paid at all. Wish them luck, tell them you may still be available if the less-expensive options don’t work out — and consider increasing your quoted rate if they do come back to you because the cheaper editor turned out to be less than stellar at doing the actual work. (For another perspective, see Business of Editing: “I Can Get It Cheaper!”)
Of course, it’s always easier to hold the line on rates if you aren’t desperate for work. That’s why it helps to maintain a savings cushion, if at all possible, because when we’re desperate, we cave.
To Post or Not to Post
A tangent to the vexing question of what, how much, and how to charge is whether to publicize your rates once you decide what they should be.
The advantage of posting your rates at your website or creating a rate card that you can send to prospective clients is that the information is up and visible, and “tire-kickers” won’t bother you if your rates are too high for them. The disadvantage is that some clients who might be worth working for won’t contact you for the same reason, and some who would pay more than you expect will only offer what you post. By posting your rates, you lose your flexibility and ability to negotiate.
Many of us prefer not to post our rates because we like the option of negotiating payment client by client, even if doing so might involve more work each time. That’s certainly my preference. By not posting my rates, I can charge what I think a project is worth — or my time and skills for that project. I can charge some clients more and some clients less, depending on the nature of project or the client. I can benefit from a client with deep pockets and negotiate with one on a more limited budget.
Pressure to reduce our fees won’t go away. Neither will competition from newcomers, or clients with lowball rates, or websites where you bid for projects and are hired based on how little money you’ll accept. Beyond figuring out what we need to comfortably cover our expenses and administrative costs, as Rich Adin has often proposed (see, e.g., Business of Editing: What to Charge), we have to decide on our value and stand up for it.
Here’s to success in getting paid what you need and think you’re worth!
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.
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