An American Editor

September 13, 2017

The Business of Editing: Undercharging?

Recently, Jake Poinier wrote an essay titled “Stop Worrying About Freelancers Who Undercharge.” It is an interesting essay and one certainly worth reading, especially as the advice he gives, which is summed up in the article title, is sound — as far as it goes.

Overall, I agree with Mr. Poinier’s advice. However, two things particularly struck me about the essay. First, “undercharging” is never really defined. The implication is that people who charge on the low end of the fee scale are undercharging, or if your competitors charge less than you think is the correct rate, your competitors are undercharging. The second item that struck me is that the essay fails to give guidance as to what is a proper amount to charge. After all, undercharging only has meaning if there is a universally accepted amount against which to measure.

(Okay. Actually there is a third thing that I find bothersome: the use of “undercharge” to describe the issue. Undercharging and its opposite, overcharging, are generally associated with a seller–buyer relationship, not with a competitor–competitor relationship. Competitors underbid and undercut. The reason is that there has to be a universally definable and applicable sum against which under- and overcharging can be measured for everyone. That can occur with a readily defined product in a seller–buyer relationship, a good example being price shopping a specific model of automobile. In contrast, with undercutting [or underbidding] there is rarely [if ever] a standard sum; there are too many variables that are unique to each competitor so no standard price exists. Undercutting is relative to the competitor’s pricing strategy, not to identical goods and services. But for this essay, I’ll accept that “undercharging” is the correct term.)

These issues are not only intertwined but need to be tackled in reverse order. So I begin with the measure.

What is the proper amount to charge?

In the world of editing, there isn’t a readily definable, measurable, or acceptable “going rate.” When someone asks the question, “What is the going rate for copyediting?,” no single, universal rate is ever quoted. Just as importantly, there is no universal definition of what constitutes copyediting. True, there are some commonalities that nearly every editor will name but then there are the variations that appear when defining their own services.

If the service does not have a universally definition and if editors cannot state a “going rate” that every editor recognizes as the “going rate,” then how can anyone determine “what is the proper amount to charge?”

More importantly, this is a question that cannot result in universally accepted answer because for each of us the point at which loss becomes profit differs. As importantly, this number changes as circumstances in our life change. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t an answer to the question. It means that the answer is personal and cannot be found by asking in online forums.

The proper place to begin is — as I have stated numerous times — with determining your required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR). (For details on how to determine your rEHR, see the five-part series, The Business of Editing: What to Charge.) If you do not know what you need to charge in order to be profitable, you cannot know whether you are undercharging — you need something to measure against.

This raises another point, which is implicit in saying that the answer is personal: each editor’s rEHR is personal and different from that of another editor. For example, in my case, my rEHR 25 years ago was significantly higher than my rEHR of today. Twenty-five years ago I had to plan on paying for college for my children, I had to support two automobiles, I had a mortgage to pay, I needed to fund my retirement. Today, my children are years out of college, my mortgage is paid, I only need one automobile, I no longer need to fund my retirement. My circumstances have changed and so has my rEHR. If 25 years ago my rEHR was $50 an hour, then I needed to earn the equivalent of at least $50 an hour to meet my expenses. If I earned $49 an hour, I wasn’t earning enough to break even — I was losing money.

It made no difference if my colleagues were charging the equivalent of $20 per hour — I couldn’t charge that and put food on the table if my rEHR was $50. Were colleagues who were charging $20 undercharging? Or was I overcharging?

Colleagues charging $20 were undercharging if their personal rEHR was higher than $20; if they had calculated their rEHR and it was $15, then they were not undercharging for themselves. That they were able to charge less than me and still be profitable has nothing to do with undercharging — instead, it is a reflection of their business status (and, perhaps, acumen).

That today my rEHR is significantly less than it was 25 years ago and thus permits me to charge significantly less than what a colleague can charge for copyediting (assuming my colleague knows her rEHR and doesn’t charge less than her rEHR) does not mean I am undercharging — underbidding, perhaps, but not undercharging.

What is undercharging?

Editors do not define the services they provide under the rubric “copyediting” identically. Each of us defines what we will do in exchange for a quoted fee. That is the basis for the adage “quality, speed, cost — pick any two.” The idea is that something must be sacrificed and we often define “copyediting” based on this adage.

If, for example, “copyediting” usually includes basic fact checking but the client wants the 500-page manuscript edited in 2 weeks and is willing to pay $500 for our efforts, our definition of copyediting might change to exclude any fact checking. The point is that the definition of the services we each provide is both fluid and not universal.

Yes, some professional organizations and some editors do post online a definition of copyediting, but those are not universally accepted definitions and, at least in the United States, not mandated. So, in the absence of a universally accepted and applied definition of what constitutes copyediting, how can it be determined that someone is “undercharging” for copyediting services? If you include fact checking and I exclude fact checking, our services are not comparable and my lower price may reflect my exclusion of fact checking.

In the end…

What all of this amounts to is this: Ignore what colleagues are charging unless you can determine that everything about your and your colleagues’ services (both as defined and as provided) are identical in every possible way and that everyone’s rEHR is identical. Absent that you should focus your energy on determining what your rEHR is and making sure that you can meet (or better, exceed) that number.

Asking what a colleague charges is a waste of time except for satisfying curiosity. Your fee should be based on your needs (your rEHR). There will always be someone who charges less and the reasons are many, including they are less skilled, they offer a lower-quality end product, their rEHR is very low, or, most likely, they have no clue what their rEHR actually is and have picked a number out of the air because it seems in line with what others charge or has been mentioned online somewhere.

If you haven’t read it recently (or at all), in addition to reading The Business of Editing: What to Charge, take the time to read The Business of Editing: “I Can Get It Cheaper!” A client can always get it cheaper because there is always someone who is willing to work for less. Fighting back by lowering your price is a losing proposition. Instead, learn how to set a correct price, stick with it, and convince clients you are worth it.

Remember this: If you do not think you are worth at least your rEHR, you probably aren’t, and clients will think the same. Clients almost always believe the same about you as you believe about yourself.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

4 Comments »

  1. Dear Rich,

    I’m a subscribing reader of your blog, and previously, your posts on the copyeditor’s list. I came across this short film on Medium this morning, and it brought to mind your occasional posts of links to music and video:

    https://preview.arraythemes.com/medium/2014/12/08/lennon-poster/

    If you are like me you avoid unsolicited email bearing strange links — I promise you, I’m one of your subscribers and not a spamming robot!

    Saludos,

    Luz Guerra

    luzguerra@me.com 512-367-9499

    >

    Like

    Comment by Luz Guerra — September 13, 2017 @ 8:45 am | Reply

  2. Thoughtful piece, Rich, and thank you for using my post as a jumping-off point for further analysis. I agree with your reasoning and conclusion that pricing is very individual, and that running a successful business (freelance or otherwise) demands an understanding of your rEHR or similar rock-bottom-price metric.

    Like

    Comment by Jake Poinier — September 14, 2017 @ 10:38 am | Reply

  3. I can’t even remember for how long I’ve been responding to “What do you charge?” questions from colleagues with “What I charge isn’t relevant, because we don’t have the same skills, experience and personal budget requirements as each other. Figure out what you need to earn and what you think you’re worth, and do your best to get paid in line with that.” I was saying something along those lines long before ever meeting Rich and learning about his rEHR approach, which is essentially the same concept – his is better stated, but the same idea.

    When I think of undercharging nowadays, I think of people who respond to organizational job service postings by offering to do the work for less than the postings offer, and of outsourcing and similar “services” that pay extremely low fees – and still get people to work for them. I feel very, very lucky not to be new enough, desperate enough or uninformed enough to think that I have to accept what such services offer.

    Like

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 18, 2017 @ 3:28 pm | Reply


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