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.

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

July 21, 2014

The Practical Editor: 11 Standards for Ethical Editors

11 Standards for Ethical Editors

by Erin Brenner

In a follow-up to my article on the possible need for editor certification, Rich Adin wrote about the need for an ethics portion of a certification program.

It’s a good thought. If we American editors are to organize ourselves to create a certification program that identifies expertise and skill (and that’s a big if), demonstrating an understanding of ethical considerations would be a worthwhile addition. While some ethical practices  are universal (“be honest and fair in your business dealings”), experienced editors should be aware of pitfalls that new editors may not be, such as whether one should bill for breaks when billing a client hourly.

Rich’s article listed several ethical situations editors could find themselves in, and Teresa Barensfeld and Harriet Power list several more in the comments section.

It’s helpful, though, to think of all of these questions more broadly. when considering creating a own code of ethics to follow. Mark Allen framed the questions at Copyediting this way:

  1. What is my responsibility to the truth?
  2. What is my responsibility to the reader?
  3. What is my responsibility to the author?
  4. What are my business-related responsibilities, such as following contract expectations, billing honestly, and maintaining confidentiality?
  5. What is my responsibility to my own convictions?

I’d add “What is my responsibility to the publisher?” as the author’s and publisher’s goals do not always align.

But we don’t have to start from scratch on deciding what ethical editing looks like. Several organizations have already put thought into the matter, and we can crib from them.

The American Medical Writer’s Association’s Code of Ethics is probably the best, most concise outline  I’ve seen so far. While the code is written particularly for medical communicators, we can easily apply most rules more generally. For example, fiction editors might not need to worry about scientific rigor in the text, but they should certainly maintain an objective outlook of the text to help make the manuscript the best it can be.

Two other organizations, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and the Editorial Freelancers Association, offer codes of practice for their members. Longer and more complex, these codes nevertheless guide members with ethical standards.

All of these rules, ethical questions, and suggestions boil down to some broad practices (some of which I noted on Copyediting) every editor can observe, whether they’re codified or not:

  • Be honest and fair in business dealings. Treat others with respect and fairness. Act like a professional at all times. Respect confidentiality. Only take on jobs that you can actually do. Resolve conflicts fairly.
  • Follow any applicable legal guidelines. This will matter more for some editors than others, such as those working on copy closely regulated by a government agency (think medical copy).
  • Set expectations at the beginning of each project. Be clear about the kind of results you can or are willing to provide for the pay and time available. If you’re  hired to do copyediting, clients can’t expect you to do context (substantive) or developmental editing instead or in addition to copyediting.
  • Outline the details of the project. Spell out each party’s responsibilities, payment terms, project schedule, dispute settlement, and other details important to the project, preferably in a contract.
  • Follow directions. Keep your end of the bargain.
  • Be prepared to defend your edits. The author has a right to understand the reasoning behind any edit.
  • Explain opaque edits upfront. Be sure the author can follow your reasoning. Also explain any edit that might push the boundaries of what you’ve been asked to do.
  • Respect the author’s opinions. This is the author’s work. You don’t have to agree with the author’s opinions, but you do have to respect them.
  • Bill clients based on the agreement and the work you actually do. If your contract allows for 75 hours on a project and you complete the work in 50 hours, only bill for 50 hours.
  • If you can’t meet a deadline, let the project manager know as soon as you know. Adjust expectations and help resolve any conflicts. How much personal detail you share is up to you.

We might lack a national code of ethics for editors, but there is plenty of material out there from which editors can form a personal code and stick to it. Savvy editors will put the code in writing and share it with clients as a way to instill confidence and offer a guarantee of quality and professionalism.

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

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