Anyone who has something to sell faces a dilemma when it comes to deciding on a price: ask too much and no one will buy; ask too little and you won’t earn enough money. In freelance editing, the second option carries an added danger: ask too little and you could be swamped with competing deadlines.
But you have to start somewhere, so keeping in mind that you can always make adjustments, consider the following when setting your fees.
It’s a fact of life that some services have higher value in the marketplace than others. Editorial services have a rough ranking according to the amount of skill or education they require. Proofreading generally pays less than copyediting, developmental editing, and translating because proofreading doesn’t require mastery of a style manual or the level of judgment and experience needed for editing. Copyeditors earn more than proofreaders because they do have that knowledge and experience. Developmental editing is assumed to be more intellectual and less mechanical than copyediting, and translating requires specialist knowledge of a second language as well as excellent writing skills, so both of those services normally pay more than copyediting.
Your own value as a worker increases as you gain experience. Confident new editors sometimes feel qualified to tackle anything, but even a beginner who has memorized the style manual won’t have the judgment and restraint that are learned from years of feedback from writers and supervisors. If you are just starting out, consider offering lower fees as an investment that will help you entice clients. Eventually, you’ll have the skill—and the résumé—to ask for more.
Some areas of publishing are more lucrative for editors than others. Technical editing (science, medical, legal) pays more. Proofreading a corporation’s annual report might actually earn you more per hour than copyediting a novel. Geography too can play a role. Publishers in New York City may be used to paying more for services than those in the hinterland.
Negotiating a Fee
Although some fees are determined by the employer, normally the freelancer sets the fee, and the employer is free to negotiate. Either way, you will want to be prepared by knowing what’s reasonable. This means you have to do some homework to find out the going rate. Once you’ve found it, you can make adjustments for your level of skill and experience and other relevant factors.
Remember: you can always simply ask potential employers to pay you their going rate. Ask them to compare your résumé to that of their other freelancers and pay you accordingly. Trust them; after all, they want to hire and keep good workers. After you’ve done a number of projects for a certain employer, ask whether they can raise you to the next pay level.
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Q. Do you have experience that could benefit new freelancers? Comments are welcome!
Editor’s Corner posts are the opinion of Carol Fisher Saller, editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and author of The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself). Find Carol on Facebook and Twitter (@SubvCopyEd).