An American Editor

March 21, 2012

The Business of Editing: Reducing Fees

One of the hardest subjects to address in the editing world is that of fees: How much should I charge? The variables that go into the answer make a pat answer difficult.

Perhaps equally vexing is the included-but-unasked question: Should I ever reduce my fee? It is this question that I attempt to tackle here. (The final answer has to lie in your individual circumstances; there is no always-true answer.)

If I were to survey colleagues and ask the question, I have no doubt that very few, if any, would respond that yes, there are times when fees should be reduced. I expect most would say that fees should be raised and if that is not possible, at least held steady. Of course, in an ideal world this would be 100% sound advice, but few of us edit in an ideal world.

When considering the answer to the question, you should consider what kind of work you do and for whom do you work. I think the answer may be different, for example, if you work only for publishers, than if you work directly with authors. It also may depend on whether you work alone or as part of a group; whether volume is important; and myriad other variables.

Regardless, however, every editor should be asking and considering the question, especially if they have unwanted downtime.

I recently had to address this question in my own business. I admit that I didn’t struggle too long with the pros and cons.

I was offered the opportunity to have enough volume to keep myself and several editors very busy for many months. In exchange, the client wanted a lower per-page editing rate. Although it is very rare for me to have any downtime, it is not that it never happens. During the height of the recession, we did well, but I was still unable to keep all of my editors busy all of the time.

So, faced with the prospect of a large volume of work that conceivably could keep all of us busy year-round, I had to decide whether to lower my per-page rate. In the end, I did, because the economics were such that the exchange would be well worth accepting. So far, this has been true.

But I work in a narrow area (medicine) and for publishers and packagers only. I do not work directly with authors. Because of what my editors and I do, we are able to use techniques to increase efficiency and speed, and we are always searching for new ways to increase both without decreasing accuracy.

A willingness to consider reducing fees requires an understanding of your marketplace. When it comes to editing a book that is being translated from Chinese to English, an editor who is fluent in Chinese can probably charge more than an editor who knows no Chinese. Consequently, simply knowing what the Chinese-fluent editor is able to charge is not an indication of what you can or should charge if you are the non-Chinese-language editor.

On the other hand, if you are a Chinese-fluent editor with time on your hands and you know that you are competing with other similarly fluent editors, it may be in your interests to negotiate a volume contract at reduced prices. There is no medal for stubbornness when it comes to fees.

Colleagues will often argue that low-price editing lowers the price for all editors and, thus, we need to stick together at the higher price level. I know that they want me to take this argument seriously, but that is not possible.

First, the entry to editing is easy and the bar so low that virtually anyone can hang out a shingle that says “professional editor.” Every day, hundreds more “professional” editors appear, and these new editors have prices all over the rainbow. Granted that, once hired, their lack of skill may become apparent, but they still get hired first because a key factor in the hiring process is price.

Second, colleagues who ask you to hold the price may not themselves be doing so. When faced with the prospect of no work and thus no money to pay bills, they often work for less. The reality is that our business is not a cooperative business; we compete all the time with each other and, in doing so, we tend to look out for our own best interests.

Finally, we face the problem of establishing what should be a base price for all editors. In my 28+ years as an editor, although numbers have been tossed about, no one has been able to come up with a universal minimum price — or universal method for calculating the same — that is good for all editors and all situations.

Which brings me back to the question of whether lowering fees should be considered. The answer is so dependent on so many variables that there is no correct, universal answer. In my case, the resolution of the question was easy. Because of how I charge (per-page), how I work (i.e., the use of macros and other efficiencies), what I want (to know that I will have no downtime and that I will not have to constantly market), and because the amount in question was nominal on a per-page basis (although it would add up to a significant sum over the long-term), coming to the answer that I should agree to lower my rate was easy.

For you, the answer may be much more difficult or may be no, but it is a question that should be addressed and analyzed, not simply shunted aside with no as the foregone conclusion. This question is one that every business has to face regularly, and our business is no different.


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