Laurie Lewis first published What to Charge: Pricing Strategies for Freelance Editors and Consultants in 2000, and when she revised it ten years later, she found that her strategies didn’t change. She shared her time-tested approach to pricing at Beyond the Red Pencil.
Choose the best method of pricing for the job
“I’m not going to tell you how many dollars to charge per hour or per page,” said Lewis. “There is no right price for a job.” Pricing methods include:
- an hourly rate,
- a page rate,
- a word rate,
- a project rate,
- a per diem,
- a retainer, and
- a unit rate.
Most editors use the first four methods. Some freelancers choose to use only one type of rate, but Lewis suggests learning the different methods of pricing and figuring out which will work best for your particular circumstance. “Hourly is great if you work slowly, awful if you work fast, and great if you don’t know the scope of the project.” But not all clients are comfortable with the uncertainty of a per-hour rate.
Per-page rates used to be based on a 250-word page, but the client may not realize this. If they give you a page count for a manuscript, don’t take their word for it. Work out exactly what a page means to the client before quoting a rate. You and the client will also have to agree on how to count elements like tables and figures.
Per-word rates are common for writers but not so much for editors. If you do use a per-word rate, come to an agreement with the client about whether you’re using the word count before or after the edit.
The biggest pitfall with a project rate is not knowing enough about the project before setting your rate. Get as much information as you can from the client so that you can give an informed estimate.
Keep track of the hours you work, ideally using task-based logs
Regardless of which type of pricing you choose, the most important strategy is to log your time. Even if you’re using a project rate, keep track of the time you spend on specific tasks. “Editing” isn’t specific enough. Are you reviewing the manuscript? Corresponding with the author? Making a style sheet? Spell checking? Running a Find and Replace? Fact checking? Collating changes? Get into the habit of tracking time by task. (An audience member suggested using Freshbooks.) Consider this strategy an investment for future projects, when you’ll be able to look at your logs to see what you’re really spending your time doing.
Get as much information as you can before naming your fee
- Ask your client for as many project details as they’re willing to give you. Ask for the manuscript or, failing that, a sample—and try to get one from the middle of the manuscript, not the beginning, which authors will probably have spent a long time polishing and thus won’t necessarily reflect the quality of the manuscript as a whole.
- Ask other freelancers about their rates. “This is not price fixing,” said Lewis. “There is not such thing as price fixing in freelancing. Please be generous with your advice. We’re helping each other. We can only learn from teach other.”
- Consult your own records: How much did you charge for a similar project? How long did it take you? Did you make what you wanted? Has the client forgotten about any aspect of the project—for example, preparing a reference list?
- Listen to your gut. “If you’re going to hate the project because of the content, price accordingly.”
Whatever you do, “never give a client a rate off the top of your head,” said Lewis. “When a client says, ‘What do you charge?’ say ‘I’ll get back to you.’”
Determine your negotiating strategy
The two dollar figures you should have in mind when going into a negotiation are:
- what you want to make
- the lowest amount you’ll accept
If your client can’t pay you what you want for the work they want done, see if you can agree to change the parameters of a job. For example, you might do fewer rounds of editing or a different level of editing. Your client may agree to collate the changes or to change the schedule.
Consider also what non-monetary concessions you’ll make. For example, you may be willing to lower your rate for an acknowledgment, complimentary copies, or a testimonial. Ask to participate in your client’s activities—for example, an NGO’s fundraiser or a publisher’s book launch—where you might make connections and drum up further business.
“Be prepared to walk away from a job if you cannot agree to a price,” said Lewis. “You will kick yourself for working on a job where you’re not paid enough.”
“Freelance editors can be reluctant negotiators. Think of negotiating as clarifying the details of a job.”
Put your agreement in writing
Once you’ve clarified those details, make sure you get it in writing. Specify:
- the nature of the project,
- what you will do,
- what the client will do,
- the timetable for the work,
- the fee and payment schedule,
- how and why the contract might be terminated, and what you will be paid in that case, and
- any other specific issues you’ve agreed upon.
These other issues might include what you’ll do in the event of scope changes or whether you can renegotiate if the material comes to you late. “Put wiggle room into the letter of agreement,” said Lewis.
“Formal contracts may frighten clients,” she said. “All you need is an email that puts your agreement in writing, with itemized tasks—but do ask clients to reply to the email saying they’ve agreed to the terms.” Written agreements show that you’re a professional.
Sometimes clients will have their own contracts. Read them, and never sign a contract that contains anything you haven’t discussed or anything you don’t agree with.
Learn from your experience
“The most valuable exercise is a ‘postmortem’ analysis of your projects.” See how much money you would have earned if you had used different pricing strategies. “Ask yourself, ‘How could I have made more money? What are my weaknesses in pricing?’”
At the end of the year, do an analysis of all of your clients, and figure out the average rate you made per hour. “If it’s higher than your usual hourly rate, that’s your new rate,” said Lewis. That new base rate reflects what your clients, on average, think you’re worth. Some may think you’re worth a lot more and will pay higher rates!