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.

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