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.

October 30, 2017

“Net 15” or “Net 30”? — Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

by Elaine R. Firestone, ELS

Part of being a good (and profitable) freelance professional is understanding the business side of business — both yours and your clients’. Even though I’ve been an editor for more than 30 years, I’m also a businessperson who understands the vagaries of accounting departments (I come from a long line of accountants and bookkeepers).

Unfortunately, what most freelancers lack is basic knowledge of bookkeeping and accounting systems in Corporate America. I’m not talking about what software your clients use for their accounting. I’m talking about what happens on the other side, that is, what happens to an invoice once you submit it and how it gets processed, which ends in you getting paid. You need to have verbiage in your contracts that spells out the payment terms and the schedule for payment(s), and the client has to agree to your terms. There’s more about contract terms later.

First let’s talk about corporate accounting departments. Most firms have an accounting cycle that is made up partly of their particular business practices and partly by when certain filings are due for local, state, and federal reporting and taxes. Large firms have separate Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivables departments, whereas in smaller firms these accounting functions are often in the same department or even the same person doing all of the bookkeeping work. Checks are “cut” (made out) on a given date every month; entries may be put into ledgers on a given date; various reports are run on certain days; various taxes are paid on certain days; and a whole host of other things go on in between.

That’s all well and good and nice information to have, but how does this affect you and your business? As an example, let’s say you have “net 15” in your contract with a client. You finish a project on June 4, and send the invoice to them on June 5. According to the net 15 terms in your contract with them, you expect to have a check in hand on June 20 because June 20 is 15 days after June 5, that is, the “net 15” in your contract. But…you don’t get the check until July 20. You are frustrated, annoyed, ticked off, etc., because in your mind it’s a month overdue. To the company, however, this is acceptable. Why? What are you missing? You are missing two vital pieces of information: knowledge about (a) the review process for your invoice — and every firm has a review process in place, even if it is nothing more than the person who ordered the services writing “OK” on the invoice, and (b) when the company actually cuts checks.

Let’s talk about the review process first. Sometimes the review process is to see whether your work is up to the client’s standards. On occasion, someone other than your immediate point of contact may insert his opinion into the review process; and sometimes the review process is to make sure everything is there and complete.

Sometimes, having your work go through a review process before you can get paid greatly slows the timing of your payment. Two examples of this are:

  1. When the customer thinks it knows what good English is when it doesn’t (or its related problem of when the customer insists an element of style is a grammatical “rule”); and
  2. When the customer (or someone higher in the approval cycle) decides something should be added or deleted in the text and refuses to OK your invoice until everything is as they think it should be — regardless what it said in your original scope of work and/or your contract with the company.

It is, however, the customer’s right to see if your work is OK. The review alone could take a week or two depending on how big the project is and what else your contact has on her plate to do.

Once your client says the work is fine and approves the invoice, your invoice is sent up the chain for further OKs through however many approval levels it has to go before it gets to Accounts Payable (AP). Now, let’s say (using the example above) it finally gets to AP on June 18, but AP only cuts checks on the 10th of each month. Because AP has already cut the checks for June, it won’t cut any more until July 10. The check is cut on July 10, and then the check may or may not go to a junior person to put into an envelope, seal, and mail. However, because of the distance between where you are and the company, and mail delivery service what it is, you don’t get it until July 20. See?

Most firms are not going to drop everything to cut a check just for you if it’s out of their regular cycle, even if payment is to be made electronically, directly to your bank.

Some of the payment problems you might face may be contractual, especially if you didn’t specify payment terms in your contract. If you just put “Net 15” on your invoice, the client might not be capable of meeting a 15-day payment schedule. This needs to be kept in mind when negotiating your fee. Actually, during contract negotiations is the time to learn your client’s payment procedures and to account for —in your fee —any payment delays that are likely to occur.

Other problems might be because of the client’s internal logistics. For example, your contact OKs your invoice right away, but the next person in line to OK it is on vacation for a week and didn’t appoint someone to approve payment during their absence. (Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen too many times to count, although, thankfully, not in my freelancing career.)

The two primary methods for dealing with a client’s failure to pay on time are:

  1. Don’t work for them — which would be a shame if you value them, and they value you; and
  2. Grin and bear it and work in the time the client takes to pay into your personal budgeting and, as noted earlier, in your fee.

If you didn’t find out ahead of time and put it in your contract, ask what the AP schedule is so you can submit your work and invoices in time for you to get paid at the earliest possible date. That said, you should always try to have a financial cushion to draw from if the need arises, such as the case here with late payers, or if you lose a customer (or your health). You should never depend on just one or two clients for the bulk of your livelihood.

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.©

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