For Freelancer Editors: How to Set Fees

Editor’s Corner

money jarAnyone 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.

The Service

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 Experience

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.

Who’s Paying

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.

Associations for freelancers like those of American Copy Editors Society and the Editorial Freelancers Association occasionally survey their members about fees and earnings and post the results.

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!

Photo © Pictures of money

Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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5 thoughts on “For Freelancer Editors: How to Set Fees

  1. “Proofreading a corporation’s annual report might actually earn you more per hour than copyediting a novel.”

    Never mind per hour; in some cases, proofreading a corporation’s annual report might earn you more in total than copyediting a novel—even if the annual report takes you a day and a half and the novel a week.

  2. To be considered an independent contractor, a freelancer must set the rate for his or her work. Otherwise, freelancers are de facto employees and may be entitled to the same pay and benefits as actual employees. Some publishers have been stung over this in employment lawsuits and now use a third party as a clearinghouse for managing their freelancers.

    Even so, all of my publisher clients (as opposed to individuals) set project rates, though some will negotiate a teeny bit.

    • I’ve worked as a technical editor on Department of Defense (DoD)-related material for over 15 years. I have been both a full-time federal government employee and an independent contractor. There are IRS and DoD rules for independent contractors that regulate time limitations of a contract (after which the contractor must be hired as a full-time employee or the contract must be terminated) and terms of payment (that often include a predetermined pay scale). I am currently in a hybrid work situation in which I was put on the payroll after the time limit on my contract ran out, but I still work primarily from home and do not receive employee benefits. There is wiggle room for both the employee and the employer in contract situations, as long as the contract terms are clear and are not an attempt to disadvantage the employee or circumvent employment law.

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