An American Editor

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

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