In recent discussions about pricing of services it was suggested that perception of worth was an important factor in the battle to obtain higher fees. It was suggested that by setting pricing too low, potential clients would balk at hiring the freelancer because of the perception that the freelancer cannot be very good, which perception is based solely on the low price. The advice then being that it is better to turn down low-priced work than to give the market opportunity to misperceive the worth of your services and your skill level. (See “The Real Problem with Low Freelance Rates” by Jake Poinier for the original argument.)
At first blush, the argument appears to have value, but after thinking about it for a while, I think the argument of market perception is a very minor matter.
We need to begin at the very beginning: How does a freelancer know what is too low a price to charge? No discussion regarding pricing can have any merit if this riddle is not solved first. We have had this discussion before, and the resolution begins with knowing your required effective hourly rate (rEHR). (For that discussion, see the multipart series “Business of Editing: What to Charge.”) In the absence of knowing your rEHR, it is not possible to know whether the price you are contemplating charging a client is too low.
The second prong of the answer lies in knowing what price is the general price for the services required in your market. Each market has its own pricing scheme. Editing reports that are going to be submitted to a government agency is likely to be more expensive for the client than the editing of the novel that will be self-published. And working for a packager will carry a different market price than working directly with researchers seeking to polish an article for journal publication.
The third prong is delineation of the services. Too often we use a general term, such as copyediting, and assume that everyone understands the term to mean exactly the same thing. Of course, the reality is much different and you cannot compare my copyediting with your copyediting unless we have come to a mutual agreement as to what copyediting entails. We have to compare apples with apples, and even then, we need to compare cooking apples with cooking apples rather than cooking apples with eating apples.
A fourth prong is also fundamental to the answer: Under what conditions are you working? By this I mean are you in a position to turn down low-paying work and hold out, perhaps for months, until something comes along that meets the definition of “not too low paying”? In other words, are you the sole source of income in your household? If not, does the other person in the household earn enough that you can sit idly by waiting?
This fourth prong is the most often overlooked prong when discussions about pricing occur. It is easy if you have a lot of money in the bank or a spouse who has a secure job and earns enough to pay all the bills; it is not so easy if your income is the primary (or lone) income in the household. Yet when the argument about market perception is made, it is rarely disclosed why the argument’s author believes he can take the high road.
These prongs (and others not mentioned) are key to understanding why it is easy to make the market perception argument but not so easy to abide by it. Yet there is an even more fundamental flaw with the market perception argument, which relates to how many of your clients actually view the market that way. That is almost an unanswerable. In the absence of actually getting a prospective client to tell you why you are not getting a particular project and telling you honestly, measuring market perception’s effect on your business is nigh impossible.
My experience among my market is that I lose work because my prices are too high. In 31 years of editing, I have never had a prospective client tell me my prices were too low; only that they are too high. And when you peruse the various forums, you rarely see someone say that they didn’t hire an editor because the editor’s price was too low; invariably, the reason is that the price is too high. (When I do read a comment questioning pricing that is too low, with a little investigating I discover that commenter is a colleague, not a buyer of services.)
Is this to say that there aren’t clients who do not react negatively to low pricing? No, because I have no doubt there are such people. But the key is that they are not in my market and that is the market with which I need to be concerned.
There is another fundamental flaw with the market perception argument. The argument rails against low pricing but never identifies what is correct pricing or the maximal pricing. It is always couched in low pricing terms (which also is never really identified — is $25 an hour too low? How about $35? Or $50? Or $100? Or is $50 too high and $35 both correct and maximal?), which leads us back to where we began: How can pricing be judged if we do not know our rEHR?
And equally important: How can our pricing be judged if our EHR remains unknown?
I have made this argument numerous times yet still colleagues talk in terms of too low pricing. The key is not the pricing but what you can turn that price point into. If your rEHR is $20 and your EHR is $40 and your price point is $2 per manuscript page, is your price point too low? I think not.
One other point about the market perception argument. It is always couched in terms of how clients view you but is really based on how colleagues view you and the desires of colleagues. I think we would all agree that high-quality editing is a very valuable service. I know that we could come to an agreement as what is a fair rate that every editor should minimally charge. I also know that we can all agree that some colleagues charge too little for their editorial work. But when we make these agreements they are made base on our desire to be better compensated for the work we perform.
What we want is for everyone else to adhere to a standard we impose so that we can be part of a rising compensation tide. That is, the market perception argument is not based on what is good for you, but on what is good for me. And that is the ultimate flaw of the argument: the lack of agreement as to what is good for me.
Regardless of how you come down on the validity and worth of the market perception pricing argument, in the absence of knowing your rEHR and your EHR and understanding your market, it is not possible to determine where your pricing fits in the market perception scheme.
Does the market’s perception of your pricing affect your market’s view of your skills? Do you agree or disagree with the market perception argument. Do you know your rEHR and EHR?
Richard Adin, An American Editor