An American Editor

November 27, 2017

A Continuing Frustration — The “Going Rate”

Sadly for me, I still read editing-related blogs and posts on forums like LinkedIn. I say sadly because there is little more frustrating to me than to read the repetitive, advice-seeking posts and the repetitive, well-meaning, but usually incorrect and nearly always factually incomplete responses.

How many times does it have to be said that what I charge a client and what Betsy charges a client is wholly irrelevant to what you should charge a client? Apparently, it is something that cannot be said either frequently or emphatically enough because rarely does a day pass without someone (or multiple someones) asking something similar to “What is the going rate?”

If I say I charge $50 an hour and Betsy says she charges $20 an hour and Phil says he also charges $20 an hour, what is the answer to the going rate question? Add Susan ($10), Robert ($15), and Jeremy ($25) to the mix. Does the answer change? Have you really gotten an answer? Even if the universe of editors is small (say, 1,000 editors in total), which we know is not the case (there are more than 100,000 editors in the United States alone), how representative of the whole universe of editors are the responses from me, Betsy, Phil, Susan, Robert, and Jeremy?

After getting a bunch of responses, the asker usually decides she now has an answer, say $20/hour. But she has such incomplete information that the number she has decided is the “going rate” is useless — too much necessary information is missing, information that qualifies (explains) each response.

For example, I didn’t tell you that I have been in the editing business for more than 30 years, bill at least 1,800 hours each year and have done so for at least the past 25 years, only work with tier 1 publishers, and only do copyediting of manuscripts that exceed 1,500 manuscript pages. Betsy didn’t mention that she does editing part-time (after her day job as a senior executive at a Fortune 100 company) for relaxation, has been editing for 3 years, and bills no more than 200 hours in a good year. Phil didn’t mention that he is struggling to find enough work to edit full-time and is slowly building his business, which is focused on working with university students to improve their research papers and resumes. Fortunately for Phil, his spouse is the primary household income provider and they live in a low-cost area where a household income of $35,000 lets one live decently. Phil also didn’t mention that he started his business only 3 weeks ago and has edited only two 5-page papers.

Susan, the low-baller, didn’t mention that she is a retired software engineer (retired 8 years ago) who took up editing to stave off boredom. She was a database specialist and now edits only technical articles intended for publication in specific database journals. She doesn’t need the income but feels she has to charge something for her work. And because she is retired, she limits the number of hours she is willing to work as an editor each month to 15 or fewer.

And so it goes.

Is this information important? Surely it is if you want someone else to tell you what to charge your clients. Why? Because you are a new fiction editor working with your first indie author on the author’s first novel and when you ask what the going rate is, shouldn’t you compare apples with apples, not apples with oranges? Doesn’t (shouldn’t) the response of the fiction editor who has edited 200 novels over the past 5 years carry more weight than someone like me or Betsy or Phil or Susan?

The usual response is that having an idea of what others charge is important so that the asker doesn’t price herself out of the market. Really!?

Suppose every responder to your question said exactly the same number — $15/hour. Now you feel confident that you, too, can (should) charge $15/hour. But you are still ignoring significant missing information and its impact on what you should (need to) charge. If you can only get enough work to enable you to bill for 20 hours a week, your gross earnings will be $300 per week. What if you can’t get enough work to bill for 52 weeks? Your gross yearly income will be less than $15,600 (the 52-week amount). Will that be enough to pay rent, utilities, and food, let alone anything else? Is the 52-week total ($15,600) enough?

My point is that not only do you need more information from responders to be able to make any use of their responses, but you need to have already analyzed your own economic needs. If you have analyzed your economic needs, then why do you need to ask the question? You already know what you have to charge in order to survive, so what difference does it make what the rest of the world charges? Either you can earn what you need to earn or you need to find a job (or a combination of jobs) that enables you to meet your financial needs.

The answer usually given is that if the going rate is $20 an hour, then that is all I can expect to charge, so it doesn’t matter that I need $50 an hour. And this is where the businessperson in you needs to come front and center.

Few editors can charge more than the “going rate” and actually get work. The confusion is in the terminology: for the businessperson, “I need to charge $50/hour” = “my effective hourly rate (EHR) needs to equal $50.”

The businessperson calculates what she needs to charge to make a profit and then figures out how to charge so that she makes that profit. It may mean using a different charging method; for example, charging by the page rather than by the hour, or defining a page by character count rather than by words, or something else. It may mean changing niches; for example, going from working with packagers to working directly with authors or changing from fiction to academic treatises.

The businessperson also plans what steps she needs to take to meet that EHR. As I have stated many times on An American Editor and elsewhere, I realized that to meet my financial goals I needed to streamline editing processes without sacrificing quality. My answer was macroizing as many tasks as I could and figuring out how to make Microsoft Word work for me. That process was what led to my creating and expanding EditTools. The process also led to my buying other software, like Editor’s Toolkit Plus, rather than reinventing the wheel.

Editors need to rethink their approach to the business side of editing. I know a lot of editors who are excellent editors but not-so-good businesspersons and who prefer to downplay, if not outright ignore, the business side of being an independent editor, that is, all the things that were done by someone else when you were an employee instead of a business owner. The balance needs to be changed so that editing skills and business skills are more in balance. It is one thing to have the scales tip in favor of editing, and quite another to have the scales heavily weighted toward editing. Perfect balance is not needed, just closer to balance.

One step in that direction is to get sufficient information about a responder’s business when a responder tells you what the “going rate” is. In addition, you might inquire how the responder decided to charge what she charges. Is she charging $20/hour because her client offered that amount, or because she calculated what she needs to earn an hour, or because someone else told her that was the “going rate”? I would give the least amount of credence to an answer that was based on someone else having told the responder that was the going rate, and the most credence to the number she actually calculated.

Regardless, it is time for editors to wise up to the fact that there is no such thing as a “going rate” — there is only what rate someone else is earning/charging and usually that rate is an arbitrary one, essentially grabbed from air and not supported by a solid informational foundation. With a new year arriving soon, it is time to become more of a businessperson and focus more on the business aspects of being independent editors.

Richard Adin, An American Editor


  1. You are so very right. Thank you for being a voice of reason. My rates are relatively high and reflect my experience, and I make no apologies for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Amy Heininger Spungen — November 27, 2017 @ 10:08 am | Reply

  2. You forgot the retired English teacher. Oh, and the new college grad who never took an editing class. And the beauty blogger who notices typos in things. 🙂
    When I see this topic come up, I have a standard answer: “There is no such thing as a ‘going rate.’ What I charge is irrelevant to what someone else might charge, because our training, experience, skill set and chutzpah level are not the same. You can use a previous full-time salary, including the value of benefits, as a starting point, and you can try to establish the client’s budget before you state a fee or rate, but your best bet is to understand what you need to earn and go from there.”


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — November 27, 2017 @ 10:26 am | Reply

  3. Rich, as usual you are the voice of reason. There are way too many variables to be able to state the “going rate.” I have been told I undercharged on several occasions and I ignore the comments. Sometimes I charge a high rate and sometimes I charge a much lower rate. What I tend to say to most questions from freelancers is that the answer varies. Thank goodness we are all different, as it would be a boring world if we were all the same. Thank you for you pearls of wisdom.


    Comment by Jacqueline (Jacqui) Frances Brownstein — November 27, 2017 @ 4:17 pm | Reply

  4. Thanks for posting this. I agree and I have bookmarked this post. It’ll save me a fair amount of time in the future.


    Comment by Tara M. Clapper — November 28, 2017 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

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