An American Editor

July 5, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It

(The following essay was originally published on
An American Editor on February 19, 2014.)

In a previous essay, The Business of Editing: Worth in the Decision-Making Process, I wondered why editors and those who use our services attribute so little worth to the value of what professional editors do. As I noted, we are a large part of our problem because we accept — and even solicit — work at a price that cannot provide a sustainable lifestyle.

What brings this to my immediate attention, in addition to the experience I related in that essay, are the constant notes I see on various forums, including the “professional” LinkedIn forums, from “professional” editors who are willing to edit a manuscript for $10 or less an hour — and when questioned about the economics of such a fee, they vigorously defend it.

Let’s start with some data (all from “Opening Remarks,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, February 17-23, 2014, pp. 10-13):

  • Minimum wage for tennis ball boy in Chennai, India: 37¢
  • Price of a Starbucks Frappucino in New York City: $5.93
  • One-tenth of 1% of hourly pay of JP-Morgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon (based on 60 hours/week, 50 weeks/year): $6.66
  • Poverty wage for a single parent with 2 children: $9.06
  • Average price of 3 lbs ground chuck beef: $10.77
  • Prevailing hourly wage for NYC laundry-counter attendants: $11.62
  • Median hourly wage in Mississippi: $13.37
  • Hourly wage paid by Henry Ford to auto workers in 1913 adjusted for inflation: $14.71
  • What the hourly minimum wage would be if it had kept pace with productivity growth: $16.93
  • Hourly wage required to afford a 1-bedroom apartment in San Diego: $20.24
  • Living wage for single parent with 2 children in Pascagoula, Mississippi: $22.27/hour
  • Living wage for single parent with 2 children in San Francisco: $29.66/hour
  • Living wage for single parent with 3 children in Shakopee, Minnesota: $33.28/hour
  • Adjusted for inflation, Americans’ real incomes have fallen 8% since the start of 2000
  • U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty threshold: $18,123/year

I am a firm believer that each of us needs to set our own rate. However, to be able to intelligently set my rate, I need to know precisely how much my effective hourly rate must be for me to earn a sustainable livelihood.

(By sustainable livelihood, I mean an income that lets me live comfortably and not worry about meeting bills or whether I can afford to buy a book or go to restaurant or buy a toy for my grandchildren. For a discussion of how to determine what to charge, see my five-part series, “Business of Editing: What to Charge.” This link will take you to Part V where you can find the links to the other four articles. The articles should be read in order.)

So, when I say $10 an hour for editing is not sustainable, I base that on an analysis of fact. Let’s look at the $10 per hour rate. (The same analysis method applies regardless of your country.)

In the United States, $10 an hour equals a yearly income of $20,800 if you work 52 weeks in the year and every week you can bill and collect $10 an hour for 40 hours. If you can only work 30 hours a week for 20 weeks, 40 hours a week for 25 weeks, and 10 hours a week for the remaining 7 weeks, you will earn a maximum of $16,700. Similarly, even if you can earn $10 an hour for 40 hours and do so for 40 weeks of the year, your gross income will be $16,000.

Remember that these figures are gross income; let’s work from the best scenario, $20,800 per year. In the United States, you must pay the self-employment tax. This is the one tax that cannot be avoided. It amounts to 13.5% of earnings, which on $20,800 equals $2,808. Your yearly income has just been reduced from $20,800 to $17,992 — and nothing has been paid for except the unavoidable self-employment tax which is your contribution to Social Security and Medicare.

To do business these days, an Internet connection is required. I suspect it is possible, but I do not know anyone who pays less than $35 a month for the Internet ($420 per year). I also do not know any editor who does not have telephone service, usually at least cell phone service and often both cell and landline service, which runs about $50 a month ($600 per year).

I won’t add a charge for computer hardware and software; let’s assume that was bought and paid for last year. We now are at a “net” income level of $16,972. We haven’t yet paid for rent, food, gasoline, health care, television, clothing, heat and electric, and the like. In my area, the average rent for a studio apartment runs $972 per month. Assuming you can get one of the least-expensive studio apartments available and that it includes heat and electric, the cost would be $700 per month ($8,400 per year), which drops our available income for other necessities, like food and healthcare, to $8,572.

Food is always difficult, but I think $100 per week on average is probably reasonable, which means $5,200 per year, leaving us with $3,372. Do we really need to go on?

Can you scrape by on $10 an hour? Sure. People live on even less. But the biggest fallacy in this analysis is the base assumption: As an editor, you will have 40 hours of paying and collectible work every week for 52 weeks — that is, no downtime. It does happen, but the usual scenario is that an editor ends the year having worked fewer than an average of 40 hours per week and fewer than 52 weeks during the year.

Yet the expenses don’t fluctuate. The rent will remain the same whether you work 52 weeks or 32 weeks, 40 hours or 20 hours. Similarly, the telephone and Internet bills will likely remain the same. The bottom line is that $10 an hour is only doable under ideal conditions and even then is barely doable.

The $10/hour wage has multiple effects in addition to not being a “living” wage. The more often editors say they will work for that amount, the more difficult it is to rise from it. If a goodly number of editors are willing to work for that price, then the market price is being set.

I have discussed the hourly number with a number of clients. I have asked them about the basis for the hourly rate they pay and when it was last raised. Several have told me that they have not raised the hourly rate since the early 1990s. The reason is that there is a flood of editors willing to do the editing for a price that equals or is less than their hourly rate, so why raise the rate — the market is not demanding that the rate be raised and because of industry consolidation, editorial quality is not high on the list of corporate objectives.

Consequently, we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to rate setting. I know that when people ask on the lists about what to charge there is almost always a response that points to a published survey that quotes a higher-than-$10-per-hour rate, but then the flood of “I’ll edit for less” messages begins. There isn’t an easy solution to the free market problem except for this: Before setting your rate and agreeing to work for a rate, know what rate you need. I think those who low-ball rates would be less likely to do so if they really analyzed their needs.

The only other point I constantly raise with clients and potential clients is that the truly professional editor cannot and will not edit a manuscript for a nonsustainable rate.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 20, 2015

On the Basics: Dealing with the Perennial Question of Setting Rates for Our Work

Dealing with the Perennial Question
of Setting Rates for Our Work

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Whether you’re a writer, an editor, or any other publishing professional, coming up with rates for your work is a constant challenge. We’ve talked about this before and we’ll be talking about it throughout this millennium and into the next one, but it’s always worth discussing, simply because it is a constant concern. Even established writers and editors have to struggle with this challenge, thanks to the continually evolving world of online communications, bidding websites or services, efforts by professional associations, self-publishing, newcomers to the trade, and more.

How to Charge

Publications usually pay for writing by the word and, equally usually, those rates are determined by the editor or publication. There rarely is much room to negotiate, but you might be able to push up a rate by demonstrating expertise on a given topic, general experience and a publishing history, and good old chutzpah. Some publications will increase the pay rate as you become more known and valuable to them, starting you out at the low end until they know you’ll produce the quality they need and meet the deadlines they set, and raising your rate as the relationship continues.

Some writers will accept a lower per-word rate than usual in return for a guarantee of ongoing assignments from a publication. Certainty can be a big factor in negotiating rates.

It also can be possible to justify a low per-word rate by how quickly you can wrap up an assignment. You might usually get $1 a word for magazine assignments, but really want to write up a certain topic or get into the pages of a certain magazine that doesn’t pay that rate. If you can dash off a 1,500-word article at 15 cents a word, research included, in an hour, you just made $225 for that hour. If it takes two hours, that’s still more than $100 an hour. That per-word amount is ridiculously low, but the assignment or project rate is quite respectable.

It gets more complicated for editing work. As you may recall from other discussions here about rates, editors (and proofreaders) might be paid by the word, page, hour, or project. Even by the character.

Keep in mind, by the way, that charging by the hour could work against you as you become faster and more proficient or efficient — the faster you do the work, the fewer hours you work, the less money you earn. By charging by the character, word, or page, you can increase income as you increase proficiency and speed because you get more done every hour. If you charge by the hour, you actually lose money by working faster and more efficiently, because you have fewer hours to charge for. More hours to spend on other projects, of course, but not more profit from any individual project.

As Rich Adin has discussed in a previous post (see Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts), membership organizations like the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) provide some publicly available guidance on rates based on what some of their members report, but those resources can be as problematic as they are helpful. There’s nothing wrong with sharing them with clients who haven’t worked with writers or editors before, but they shouldn’t be treated as the only option or as mandatory. Quote them with clients who offer rates that are lower than you accept if they support your preferences, and feel free to point out that they’re only guidelines when you want to charge more than such a chart shows, even at its higher ends of ranges. See below for some suggestions on “defending” the rates you want to charge.

Some organizations — the Editors Association of Canada is one — provide member-only rates information. That’s helpful in setting fees while reducing the number of prospective clients who might say things like, “But the EFA/EAC/whatever chart says this kind of work should only pay $X/hour, so why do you want me to pay you $X-times-2?” but it doesn’t help educate clients who try to pay ridiculously low rates.

Defending What You Charge

Once you figure out what you think you should charge, be prepared to defend that decision with some clients.

There will always be clients who try to bargain us down to lower rates for our work. You may have to explain the value that you bring to the client’s project — your years of training and experience, your skill level, your subject knowledge if appropriate; in short, why you’re worth what you charge. Not defensively, but from a position of confidence in that worth.

I tell prospective clients that my rates are based on my skills, experience, speed, and wide-ranging knowledge base. I don’t mention my need to pay my bills and cover my expenses; it’s too easy to let such “defenses” look whiny and unbusiness-like. I focus on why I’m a great match for that project or client. If that doesn’t work, I let it go. Life is too short to spend time on haggling over pay rates.

Sometimes you have to brace yourself to stand tough and tall about your rates. You probably will encounter prospective clients who say they can find someone less expensive. Fine. Don’t let them bully you into cutting your rate. Clients who try to bargain you down to less than you think you should be paid are likely to be headaches on other aspects of working together, including getting paid at all. Wish them luck, tell them you may still be available if the less-expensive options don’t work out — and consider increasing your quoted rate if they do come back to you because the cheaper editor turned out to be less than stellar at doing the actual work. (For another perspective, see Business of Editing: “I Can Get It Cheaper!”)

Of course, it’s always easier to hold the line on rates if you aren’t desperate for work. That’s why it helps to maintain a savings cushion, if at all possible, because when we’re desperate, we cave.

To Post or Not to Post

A tangent to the vexing question of what, how much, and how to charge is whether to publicize your rates once you decide what they should be.

The advantage of posting your rates at your website or creating a rate card that you can send to prospective clients is that the information is up and visible, and “tire-kickers” won’t bother you if your rates are too high for them. The disadvantage is that some clients who might be worth working for won’t contact you for the same reason, and some who would pay more than you expect will only offer what you post. By posting your rates, you lose your flexibility and ability to negotiate.

Many of us prefer not to post our rates because we like the option of negotiating payment client by client, even if doing so might involve more work each time. That’s certainly my preference. By not posting my rates, I can charge what I think a project is worth — or my time and skills for that project. I can charge some clients more and some clients less, depending on the nature of project or the client. I can benefit from a client with deep pockets and negotiate with one on a more limited budget.

Pressure to reduce our fees won’t go away. Neither will competition from newcomers, or clients with lowball rates, or websites where you bid for projects and are hired based on how little money you’ll accept. Beyond figuring out what we need to comfortably cover our expenses and administrative costs, as Rich Adin has often proposed (see, e.g., Business of Editing: What to Charge), we have to decide on our value and stand up for it.

Here’s to success in getting paid what you need and think you’re worth!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

Related An American Editor  essays:

April 28, 2014

The Practical Editor: Define Your Terms, Then Negotiate

The Practical Editor:
Define Your Terms, Then Negotiate

by Erin Brenner

Recently, I saw a job ad that advertised for a copyeditor for a 5,500-word academic article. The article had already been accepted for publication, according to the ad, and the author was looking for a light copyedit, most likely to make a good impression on the assigning editor.

Even if the article will be edited in-house, this is a good call. The cleaner the copy, the more likely the assigning editor will hire this writer again.

I have an occasional client for whom I do such work, and she is thrilled with the results. The copyediting not only produces cleaner copy, it helps her to be more confident. The editing has led to her receiving more assignments. And why not? Assigning editors are busy folks, too, and the easier you make it to publish your article, the more likely they’ll call you again for another.

What’s a Page?

Back to the ad. The author is willing to pay $9 a page for the project. Does this sound good to you? Before you say yes, ask yourself this very important question:

What does the author mean by page?

Many folks in the publishing industry define a manuscript page as 250 words, and the Editorial Freelancers Association encourages that definition.

However, you can define a page in whatever way makes the most sense to you. As Ruth Thaler-Carter notes in a previous blog post (see The Commandments: Thou Shall Establish the Rules of Engagement Before Beginning a Project), Rich Adin uses a character count.

The key is to ensure you and your client are using the same definition of a page.

Let’s say the author from the ad is using the 250-word definition. That’s a 22-page document, resulting in a $198 payday:

5,500 words/250 words per page = 22 pages
22 pages × $9 per page = $198

If you can edit seven pages an hour, you’ll complete the project in 3.14 hours. Even if you round up your total to 4 hours to account for administration work on the project, you’ll earn $49.50 an hour. That’s a good rate in my book.

Even if the editing take longer, say four pages an hour, you’ll spend 5.5 hours on it. Round it up to 6.25 hours, and you’ll earn $31.68 an hour. Depending on your circumstances, this could still be a good rate. (However, it’s always a good idea to calculate your required effective hourly rate [see Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand] ahead of time.)

But let’s say the author means one page is equal to a page in the Word file, not an uncommon occurrence. How many pages is this according to our 250-word definition? The total will vary greatly depending on several variables, including font, font size, leading, length of paragraphs, and margins. If you haven’t seen the document or been given a page count, you’re taking a risk on being able to make a decent hourly rate on the project.

How much of a risk?

In Ariel 12-point type, with a couple of boldfaced headers per page and a 1-inch margin all around, 5,500 equals about 10 pages. At $9 a page, I’d earn $90 on this job. If I edit at seven pages an hour, I’m earning just $22.50 an hour. If I edit at four pages an hour, $14.40 an hour. Ouch!

And let’s not forget that this is an academic article; it’s very likely the article includes citations. Are these footnotes or endnotes, which aren’t automatically included in Word’s word count? If you’ll be responsible for editing those citations, your editing pace and subsequent hourly rate dropped again.

Define and Negotiate

It’s crucial, then, that you’re using the same definitions as your client. This could be a good, quick job or a miserable money loser. Ask your author the following:

  • How do you define a page? Offer your own definition and see if they’ll accept it.
  • What do you mean by “light copyedit”? Try to discover what the author specifically wants done to the article.
  • What are my responsibilities regarding citations? Are they included in the word count?
  • Can I see the entire manuscript first? Determine for yourself whether you can edit it to the client’s satisfaction in a timeframe that earns you a decent paycheck.

At this point, you should have enough information to determine whether that $9 per page is acceptable. If the answer is no, it’s time to negotiate:

  • Tell the author how much you would charge to do what’s needed or wanted. Emphasize what the eventual outcome of such an edit would be. Sure the manuscript will be cleaner, but so what? Your job is to explain the “so what”: higher quality leads to better reception by the assigning editor, a greater chance for more work, a more positive reception by readers, and a rise in the author’s reputation.
  • Tell the author what you would do for the offered rate. If the author is truly cash-strapped but wants your services—and you want to work with this author—you could do less editing for less money.

Define your terms with the client. Negotiate for what you want. And if you and the author can’t agree, gracefully let them go on their way.

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

February 19, 2014

The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It

In a previous essay, The Business of Editing: Worth in the Decision-Making Process, I wondered why editors and those who use our services attribute so little worth to the value of what professional editors do. As I noted, we are a large part of our problem because we accept — and even solicit — work at a price that cannot provide a sustainable lifestyle.

What brings this to my immediate attention, in addition to the experience I related in that essay, are the constant notes I see on various forums, including the “professional” LinkedIn forums, from “professional” editors who are willing to edit a manuscript for $10 or less an hour — and when questioned about the economics of such a fee, they vigorously defend it.

Let’s start with some data (all from “Opening Remarks,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, February 17-23, 2014, pp. 10-13):

  • Minimum wage for tennis ball boy in Chennai, India: 37¢
  • Price of a Starbucks Frappucino in New York City: $5.93
  • One-tenth of 1% of hourly pay of JP-Morgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon (based on 60 hours/week, 50 weeks/year): $6.66
  • Poverty wage for a single parent with 2 children: $9.06
  • Average price of 3 lbs ground chuck beef: $10.77
  • Prevailing hourly wage for NYC laundry-counter attendants: $11.62
  • Median hourly wage in Mississippi: $13.37
  • Hourly wage paid by Henry Ford to auto workers in 1913 adjusted for inflation: $14.71
  • What the hourly minimum wage would be if it had kept pace with productivity growth: $16.93
  • Hourly wage required to afford a 1-bedroom apartment in San Diego: $20.24
  • Living wage for single parent with 2 children in Pascagoula, Mississippi: $22.27/hour
  • Living wage for single parent with 2 children in San Francisco: $29.66/hour
  • Living wage for single parent with 3 children in Shakopee, Minnesota: $33.28/hour
  • Adjusted for inflation, Americans’ real incomes have fallen 8% since the start of 2000
  • U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty threshold: $18,123/year

I am a firm believer that each of us needs to set our own rate. However, to be able to intelligently set my rate, I need to know precisely how much my effective hourly rate must be for me to earn a sustainable livelihood.

(By sustainable livelihood, I mean an income that lets me live comfortably and not worry about meeting bills or whether I can afford to buy a book or go to restaurant or buy a toy for my grandchildren. For a discussion of how to determine what to charge, see my five-part series, “Business of Editing: What to Charge.” This link will take you to Part V where you can find the links to the other four articles. The articles should be read in order.)

So, when I say $10 an hour for editing is not sustainable, I base that on an analysis of fact. Let’s look at the $10 per hour rate. (The same analysis method applies regardless of your country.)

In the United States, $10 an hour equals a yearly income of $20,800 if you work 52 weeks in the year and every week you can bill and collect $10 an hour for 40 hours. If you can only work 30 hours a week for 20 weeks, 40 hours a week for 25 weeks, and 10 hours a week for the remaining 7 weeks, you will earn a maximum of $16,700. Similarly, even if you can earn $10 an hour for 40 hours and do so for 40 weeks of the year, your gross income will be $16,000.

Remember that these figures are gross income; let’s work from the best scenario, $20,800 per year. In the United States, you must pay the self-employment tax. This is the one tax that cannot be avoided. It amounts to 13.5% of earnings, which on $20,800 equals $2,808. Your yearly income has just been reduced from $20,800 to $17,992 — and nothing has been paid for except the unavoidable self-employment tax which is your contribution to Social Security and Medicare.

To do business these days, an Internet connection is required. I suspect it is possible, but I do not know anyone who pays less than $35 a month for the Internet ($420 per year). I also do not know any editor who does not have telephone service, usually at least cell phone service and often both cell and landline service, which runs about $50 a month ($600 per year).

I won’t add a charge for computer hardware and software; let’s assume that was bought and paid for last year. We now are at a “net” income level of $16,972. We haven’t yet paid for rent, food, gasoline, health care, television, clothing, heat and electric, and the like. In my area, the average rent for a studio apartment runs $972 per month. Assuming you can get one of the least-expensive studio apartments available and that it includes heat and electric, the cost would be $700 per month ($8,400 per year), which drops our available income for other necessities, like food and healthcare, to $8,572.

Food is always difficult, but I think $100 per week on average is probably reasonable, which means $5,200 per year, leaving us with $3,372. Do we really need to go on?

Can you scrape by on $10 an hour? Sure. People live on even less. But the biggest fallacy in this analysis is the base assumption: As an editor, you will have 40 hours of paying and collectible work every week for 52 weeks — that is, no downtime. It does happen, but the usual scenario is that an editor ends the year having worked fewer than an average of 40 hours per week and fewer than 52 weeks during the year.

Yet the expenses don’t fluctuate. The rent will remain the same whether you work 52 weeks or 32 weeks, 40 hours or 20 hours. Similarly, the telephone and Internet bills will likely remain the same. The bottom line is that $10 an hour is only doable under ideal conditions and even then is barely doable.

The $10/hour wage has multiple effects in addition to not being a “living” wage. The more often editors say they will work for that amount, the more difficult it is to rise from it. If a goodly number of editors are willing to work for that price, then the market price is being set.

I have discussed the hourly number with a number of clients. I have asked them about the basis for the hourly rate they pay and when it was last raised. Several have told me that they have not raised the hourly rate since the early 1990s. The reason is that there is a flood of editors willing to do the editing for a price that equals or is less than their hourly rate, so why raise the rate — the market is not demanding that the rate be raised and because of industry consolidation, editorial quality is not high on the list of corporate objectives.

Consequently, we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to rate setting. I know that when people ask on the lists about what to charge there is almost always a response that points to a published survey that quotes a higher-than-$10-per-hour rate, but then the flood of “I’ll edit for less” messages begins. There isn’t an easy solution to the free market problem except for this: Before setting your rate and agreeing to work for a rate, know what rate you need. I think those who low-ball rates would be less likely to do so if they really analyzed their needs.

The only other point I constantly raise with clients and potential clients is that the truly professional editor cannot and will not edit a manuscript for a nonsustainable rate.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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