An American Editor

February 20, 2019

Sticking to Your “Rate Principles” … Essential, but Not Always Easy

By Elaine R. Firestone, ELS

“Rate principles” is a term I coined for that point when you say, “This is my limit for how low I’ll go in my rates for a given type of work,” and mean it and follow it.

I’ve been a freelancer for over six years now (and a professional editor for much longer), so I’ve heard my share of horror stories from colleagues who received e-mails that just didn’t “smell” right, and I’m always vigilant when I receive e-mails from previously unknown sources inquiring about my services. I recently got an inquiry from someone who was most obviously legit, even without researching the potential client’s name and affiliation. She sent a long and incredibly detailed description of the journals she oversees, including their respective subjects, the audience of each one, and even the voice each strives to maintain. She also stated what she wants a copy-/substantive editor to do, as well as from where she got my name (my Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) profile). That’s always good to know.

The next step was to respond if I was interested in the work, the areas in which I thought I could work most efficiently, and my rates for doing this type of work.

I didn’t respond right away. I wanted to think carefully about both whether I wanted to take on a new client at this time and — especially — the rate question. Because I have different clients who pay different rates (for various reasons not germane to this article), I was a bit torn about how to respond:

— Do I go with my lowest rate in hopes of getting the work?

— Do I go with my highest rate because I want to make as much as possible?

— Do I go with the middle-of-the-road rate to hedge my bets?

What should I do?

My thoughts went back and forth along a number of lines:
— If I go with the lowest rate, I’m definitely going to resent the work, both now and in the future.
— If I go with the highest rate, I doubt I will get the work at all.
— If I go with the middle-of-the-road rate … well … I still may resent the work over time, especially because learning their way of doing things won’t be easy, nor would learning the nuances of the new science area.

What did I do?

I started my response by thanking the client for the detail in her e-mail. I went on to reiterate, in a very short narrative, a few of my qualifications that made me an excellent fit for the work, citing things that she ideally already read in my EFA profile and website. (Doing this is an excellent strategy, by the way, because the client is reminded how great you and how impressive your qualifications are before reading the rate you’ll charge.) Finally, I said that yes, I was interested and thought the subject matter was fascinating (it never hurts to use a little flattery), and then gave my rate. Which rate, you ask? A rate that wasn’t quite my highest, but much higher than my middle-of-the-road one.

But why? Why did I do that? Why didn’t I quote a lower rate? Well, here are my reasons for not quoting a lower rate to help ensure — at some level — that I’d get the job:

  1. My time and expertise are worth money.
  2. There is no guarantee that — even at a low rate — I’d be chosen. Someone with an even lower rate could always undercut me.
  3. If I got the job, it would be fairly regular work, and I didn’t want to resent either the time I had to spend doing it or the work itself.
  4. My time and expertise are worth money.
  5. Once working for a low rate, I have found it’s often difficult to raise it any appreciable amount without losing the client. It sometimes takes years to do, and sometimes, it’s impossible. The rate I accepted from my lowest-paying client was to just get the work when I started out freelancing. That rate has never caught up to my higher rates, leading to, at times, resentment of the work. (See #1, above).
  6. I had more than enough other work at the moment, so the rate had to make it worth my while to juggle this with the work of another client.
  7. My time and expertise are worth money.

Notice that “My time and expertise are worth money” is repeated three times. It’s worth all of us repeating that phrase over and over again.

Some of you may be new editors, or maybe you’re seasoned professionals. Maybe you’re new to freelancing or maybe you’ve been freelancing for decades. Whatever stage of your career you are in, whether you’re just determining your rates, or if you’ve been “at it” awhile and you’re contemplating a rate hike, I highly recommend that you read Rich Adin’s column “A Continuing Frustration — The ‘Going Rate,’” where he talks about figuring out what your “effective hourly rate” is.

Whether I get this work or not, however, I feel like I’ve “won.” If I get the work at my stated rate, I gain a new client, at a good rate, in a potentially fascinating new-to-me science discipline, which in turn becomes résumé candy. If I don’t get the work, I still have my existing clients with more than enough work to keep me busy (but with my sanity intact), plus I can keep my self-respect because I didn’t compromise my rate principles.

Many of you don’t have the financial advantage of being able to turn down work just because it doesn’t pay well … you rationalize that any work is good work — which I understand, because I’ve been in that situation. Many of you don’t have rate principles to begin with (which we should all have, no matter what they might be), so you take anything offered even if you have some type of financial cushion as a fallback.

A number of colleagues have said over the years that if you lose a low-paying client, then you have time to market to higher-paying clients, but if you gain a low-paying client, you are probably doing the same amount of work as for a higher paying one, but without the benefits of a higher bank balance, along with less time to devote to seeking out the higher payers.

I urge everyone here to first determine your individual “effective rate,” then formulate your “rate principles,” and try to stick to them. Your self-respect, your happiness, and your bank balance will thank you for it.

Elaine R. Firestone, ELS, is an award-winning — and board-certified — scientific and technical editor and compositor specializing in the physical and agricultural sciences. After a 25+-year career editing for NASA, Elaine started ERF Editorial Consulting, where her motto is “‘ERF’ aren’t just my initials — it’s what you get: Edits. Results. Final product.”©

Editor’s note: Let us know how you approach setting and sticking to your rates.

February 28, 2018

On the Basics: Making the Best Use of Interaction with Colleagues

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Networking and Etiquette

It seems to occur almost every day — someone in a Facebook group or on an e-mail discussion list says they’re available for projects and asks colleagues in the group to send work to them. They might ask for referrals or recommendations or say they’re available for overflow or projects, that they’re starting out and need work, that they’re having a slow period or just lost a major client; some even ask group members to share contact information for clients. It doesn’t matter exactly how they phrase the request, but the basic message is “Please give me work.”

These messages invariably are from people who have never been seen or heard from before. They haven’t introduced themselves, haven’t asked any questions, haven’t contributed anything useful in response to other group members’ questions. Some are new to editing or freelancing, with little or even no training or experience; some have been working for a while, but have hit a dry spell.

Just this past week, a new member of a professional association showed up at its discussion list with the fast-becoming-classic “Hi, I’m new here, please give me your contacts or overflow work and recommend me to your clients and colleagues” message as his first post to the list. He did present his credentials, but still — he posted the same information about his background (essentially his résumé, which is not considered de rigueur on a list) — six times in an hour or so. This did him little, if any, good in terms of respect or interest from listmates.

As with most online communities, it is important to understand that people we “meet” in these collegial environments can be generous with advice and insights into our craft — both editing and freelancing — but that there is a certain etiquette for becoming part of these communities. It is becoming clear that we can’t say it too often: Not only is networking a two-way street, but newcomers should listen, read, and contribute before asking to be referred, recommended, hired, or subcontracted with.

Perhaps even more important, newcomers should remember that established colleagues, both freelancers and in-house workers, are invested in their contacts and clients, and in their reputations. We have put many years into building up our relationships and reputations by providing skilled, high-quality work and respecting the privacy of those we work with. Most of us are more than glad to offer advice and resources, but are not going to risk our reputations, and our relationships with clients or employers, by handing off contact information to strangers.

Keep in mind that there’s a difference between saying “I have openings in my schedule,” “I’m looking for new clients,” “Expected payments are running late and I could use some new projects” versus “Give me your contacts” and “Send me your overflow work when you don’t know anything about me.”

Some editors (and freelancers in other aspects of publishing) may list our clients and projects at our websites. That is not an invitation for others to contact those clients to offer their services, although we have no control over whether someone might do so. We can only hope that anyone who does take advantage of that information doesn’t pretend to know us in the process, or suggest that we’ve referred or recommended them.

With this as a basis, how do we make the best of getting to know each other either in person at meetings and conferences or online in discussion lists and groups without ruffling feathers and crossing lines?

Newcomers to a group can (some would say should) sit back and observe — “lurk” — after joining to develop a sense of what is appropriate for discussion, the tone of the community, and more. Once that is clear, ask questions about the profession, the skills needed, worthwhile resources for enhancing one’s skills, how to break in (most of us love recalling and recounting our early years in the field or in business).

Look for opportunities to establish a professional image and be helpful. Answer colleagues’ questions (if you can). Suggest new resources that haven’t been mentioned or vetted. Relate experiences that demonstrate skills in doing editorial work or dealing with difficult clients. Announce good news about new training you’ve taken, clients and projects you’ve snared, even kudos from clients who are happy with your work. Dial down any boasting, but let colleagues know how your work and business are progressing.

It takes time to gain the trust, confidence, and respect of colleagues. Once you’ve done so, it might be appropriate to ask for referrals and recommendations. Before doing that, though, stop and think about how you would feel if someone you don’t know anything about were to ask you for the contacts and clients you have worked so hard to build up. Use that insight to influence how you word your requests, whether one-on-one or in a group setting.

On the Other Side of the Fence

For colleagues who have established successful editing careers and businesses, today’s culture can be annoying, but it can’t hurt to provide some kind of response to pleas for help.

I try to live by the good ol’ Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — and “What goes around, comes around” (or, as Billy Preston sang it, “Nothing from nothing leaves nothing”). When I was ready to start freelancing, I figured out most of what I needed to know on my own, but I also had some very generous colleagues. I tried not to take advantage of their time and knowledge, but it was so reassuring to know that they were available if I needed them.

Nowadays, even established, experienced editors and freelancers need help with the occasional sticky language, client, or technological matter, or even with financial dry spells. No one is immune. It makes sense to give back when possible, because we never know when we may have to ask for help ourselves.

I keep a list of useful resources to offer when someone asks for help in finding work. I also have a boilerplate response for people who ask — whether privately or in a group of some sort — for my client contact information, and for referrals, recommendations, “overflow work,” and other elements of my editorial business.

Helping colleagues feels good — and is an investment in karma: It might seem selfish, but you never know when helping someone out, even with just a list of resources, will come back to help you out in the future. I aim to enhance that karma through avenues like the An American Editor blog (both my own posts and those of our wonderful contributors), participating in lists and groups of colleagues, hosting the Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference, referring colleagues whom I know for projects outside my wheelhouse for any reason, and even hiring or subcontracting to colleagues I know and trust.

The operative phrase, of course, is “colleagues I know and trust.” I might not have met some of them in person, but I’ve learned enough about them to feel comfortable with referrals or projects.

How do you respond to people who make what you feel are unreasonable or inappropriate requests for client contacts or business leads?

February 21, 2018

On the Basics: Developing and Posting Business Practices

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter 

Several things came together recently to make me think about aspects of my freelance business that I usually “just do” without conscious thought or planning.

It isn’t that I fell unthinkingly into being a freelance writer/editor. I did freelance writing for several years while working full-time, and one newsletter writing and editing project saved my bacon when I lost one of those jobs. That taught me to have at least one substantial freelance project in hand at all times, even with a satisfying full-time job. But I did reach a point in one of those jobs when I felt burned out and decided I was ready to freelance full-time.

Although I didn’t take what is common advice (including my own nowadays) to save several months’ worth of expenses beforehand, I did consciously plan the launch of my business: I negotiated turning that full-time, in-house communications manager job with a trade association into a freelance contract, along with finding two onsite editing projects. That meant I could start out with a known income and didn’t have to panic about finances, unlike unfortunate colleagues who experienced “involuntary freelancing” by being laid off unexpectedly, RIFFed (a government worker who was part of a Reduction in Force), or fired.

My approach was more reactive than proactive. I didn’t have a formal business plan, marketing strategy, set of policies, contracts, work process, or any of the other elements of what some people would say are important to a successful business. And I launched Communication Central with nothing but a list of conference topics and speakers jotted on a napkin! I would query potential clients — mostly publications and organizations I wanted to write for — and respond to unsolicited offers of projects, but none of it was especially organized, even though it was successful.

I did make a point of joining and being visible in professional associations even before going out on my own as a freelancer. Using the job bank of a regional writers’ group resulted in those two onsite projects that constituted two-thirds of my business when I officially launched my business, and helped me garner a variety of writing assignments as well.

I’ve done quite well over many years without a formal business structure for either my freelance business or Communication Central. Income went up and down over the years, but never down enough to be frightening. New work sometimes seemed to appear almost magically when needed. However, these recent developments made me think:

  • A friend and colleague posted about developing a mission statement for her coaching and presentation business. (She works primarily in the not-for-profit sector, where mission and vision statements are standard.)
  • A prospective client asked me about my process for handling editing projects.
  • Another prospective client asked how I handle deadlines.

I decided that it couldn’t hurt, and could help, to develop some formal guidelines for my business this year. Clients — whether current, prospective, or even past — might be reassured by knowing something about how I work and what my principles are.

My Business Principles

In thinking consciously about what I do and how I do it, I realized that I do have both a process and a set of principles or ethics to guide my editorial business. They may need some further fine-tuning — with each item I thought of, another one came to mind — but the essence is there.

Clients (and colleagues) can expect that I will do the following for the core services I provide.

Writing

Do research as needed for each assignment.

Write in a clear, active, direct voice.

Produce original material.

Quote or paraphrase sources accurately.

Include diverse voices as sources whenever possible.

Check facts.

Editing

Confirm and maintain client’s preferred style.

Maintain (and learn from) a library of current style manuals and grammar guides.

Retain/Respect the author’s or client’s voice and style.

Maintain consistency and accuracy throughout each document.

Check everything twice.

Proofreading

Stick to the proofreading perspective — maintain the distinction between proofreading and editing.

Any and all projects

Be reliable.

Meet or beat deadlines.

Provide quality and consistency.

Be accessible and responsive.

Provide new insights and resources.

Respond to clients promptly, pleasantly, and tactfully.

Track and respond to new trends and tools as they arise.

Continually learn new techniques and adapt to new technology.

Give clients more than they ask for.

Develop a network of colleagues for support in case of an emergency.

Respect and learn from colleagues.

Share resources and opportunities with colleagues.

Process

Provide prospective clients with background information.

Discuss project in detail.

Confirm client style preferences, project scope, rate/fee, deadline(s), revision policy, kill fee, cancellation policy, payment process, etc., before beginning project.

Request information about client — website, past issue(s)/previous edition, annual report, previous publications, CV or résumé, etc.

Obtain full contact information for interviewees and details of other research sources.

Alert client to any problems or concerns immediately.

Ask client before going beyond original hours or budget.

Complete project on schedule.

Invoice as agreed with client (advance and interim payments or on completion).

Do not accept projects involving unfamiliar technology or tools.

Wrapping Up

Now that I’ve clarified what I provide and how I work, maybe I should add something about what I expect from clients! In initial conversations about any new project, I do make a point of confirming as much of the project elements as possible and asking pertinent questions about how the client and I will work together (as noted in those process points). It might be worth posting the other side of the equation to my website. Something to think about.

Do AAE subscribers have written business practices, policies, or processes? If so, do these include any elements not discussed here? How do you relay them to prospective and active clients? Do you state any requirements for how you expect clients to work with you?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the editor-in-chief of An American Editor; an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, and companies worldwide; and the owner of Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for current and aspiring freelancers. Ruth can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: