How much should I charge? That’s the burning question every editor and proofreader faces when they first decide to go solo. To start with, it feels like picking random numbers out of the air. If I charge X, am I selling myself short? If I charge Y, will anybody pay that? Then there’s the insecurity issue, aka imposter syndrome. Am I good enough to be selling my services as a proofreader/editor anyway?
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), offers guidelines on how much to charge. For 2020, the minimum recommended hourly rates are: proofreading £25.40; copyediting £29.60; substantial editing, rewriting, development editing £34.
These rates take into account the costs of running a business and factor in elements that we don’t bill our clients for: admin, training, marketing, our tools of the trade, even dare I say it, holidays.
When I left my newspaper sub-editing job in 2009 – salary £29,500 – I was hired back by the same company as a freelancer at a non-negotiable rate of £12 per hour. That rate increased by a mere £1 per hour over the seven years I freelanced for them. The regular work was a financial cushion, but I couldn’t predict when they would need me, so I had no idea how much I would earn in any given month.
I decided to branch out.
Have a list of questions for when clients get in touch
In 2017, I joined the CIEP (then SfEP) for the camaraderie, the training and a new perspective on how to use the skills I had acquired over three decades, namely writing, editing, proofreading, page design, headline writing, proficiency in Adobe InDesign, journalism training including essential law, and the ability to work to a tight deadline.
However, as you will see from the examples below, those low freelance rates tainted my self-worth and led me to undervalue my skills.
Here are three examples of what I did right and what I did wrong in my early days as a self-employed copyeditor/proofreader. I’ve also added a few lines explaining what I learned from each painful episode.
In May 2017, one of my business networking buddies recommended me to a client who had finished their first novel and was looking to self-publish. The author called me out of the blue and asked me to proofread their book, approximately 100,000 words. The author, like most people, didn’t understand the difference between proofreading and copyediting, so I asked them to email the manuscript across for me to look at before quoting a fee.
What I did right
- Asked about the book’s target market.
- Ascertained that they would need a copyeditor rather than a proofreader.
- Clarified that the edit would be done in Word track changes and they would be sent a tracked copy to accept or reject changes.
- Gave a timescale for when the work would be started and finished.
- Asked for half of the fee upfront with the rest to be paid on delivery of the edited manuscript.
What I did wrong
- Did not have a set of questions to ask on the phone before agreeing to take on the job. As a result, I was caught off guard when the author called me.
- Allowed the client to impose the deadline instead of booking in the project for when I was clear and not about to go on holiday.
- Underestimated how long the job would take. I had to take my laptop on holiday to meet the deadline.
- Quoted a price for the project which ended up paying me, pro-rata, less than minimum wage.
- Allowed the author to make demands outside the scope of the original job, such as suggesting alternative chapter headings … there were 62 chapters!
- Didn’t have a set of T&Cs in place.
- Tracked everything: every comma, every full point, every instance of double spacing, which must have been a nightmare for the client when they reviewed the tracked changes
I estimated I could complete the job in four days at a rate of – wait for it – £100 per day. In my defence, I offered a discount given my lack of experience in the specific area of fiction editing. They were pleased with the job and became a regular client over the next two years, always paying on time. However, because I set the fee so low for the first edit, I didn’t feel able to charge a realistic fee for subsequent work.
What I learned
If the same thing happened now, I would recommend a developmental edit and suggest the client comes back to me for a copyedit once they are happy with the story.
When prospective clients get in touch, I give them a realistic timescale of when I can start and finish the work. I only do next-day work for two valued clients.
My T&Cs are up to date and available to download from my website. Every prospective client gets a copy.
I have a client enquiry form which sets out clear guidelines and doubles as a contract.
Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
I built my first website in 2011, and have built several since then, so I would class myself as a proficient amateur when it comes to WordPress, web hosting, content marketing and domains.
In late 2017, a networking colleague got in touch. They desperately needed to update their website. It had been designed by a friend, who was also hosting it for free, and didn’t reflect the quality of their work. Although I edit web content, I don’t offer website design as a service. But in this instance, I caved. I agreed to produce a crisp, clear, responsive website and to rewrite the content. They wanted a site they could manage themselves, one they could to update with new products and services, and a separate blog section.
What I did right
- Arranged two face-to-face meetings where we discussed a plan for the website.
- Selected a UK-based web host, set up an account and chose a few themes for the client to pick from.
- Built a dummy website in the new hosting account so there would be no downtime when it came to deleting the old webpages and transferring the domain to the new site.
- Kept in touch with the client throughout the process, running everything by them and making sure they had the tools to take over the website when I had finished.
What I did wrong
- Ignored my gut instincts and forged ahead on the basis that this would be a straightforward job. Deep down, I knew there would be issues.
- Took on a job I didn’t want to do.
- Chose a theme that looked great but was too complex for the client to manage, which left me open to answering questions connected with the original job which I couldn’t charge for.
- My fee for the project was too low, just £450 for designing a completely new website, taking care of the admin and rewriting all the content.
- Failed to factor in time spent on chasing up other parties whose co-operation was essential to tieing up all the loose ends. Underestimating the time the project would take was another reason for my low fee.
- Took too much on my shoulders. I should have stayed within the limits of our agreement. Mea culpa!
What I learned
Some jobs are not worth the money. Don’t be afraid to say no to a client if you suspect this is a project you will regret taking on.
It’s important to set clear boundaries. Don’t fall into the trap I fell into, which was being available to answer questions every time the client ran into difficulties with the web host or posting a blog. It’s not your job to hold their hand.
Know when it’s time to cut your losses
Moving on to scope creep, when the original project keeps growing and the client makes extra demands that fall outside the original remit
This example outlines the worst job I’ve ever had and the only one where the client disputed the fee on the grounds that she was ‘disappointed’ with my work. In February 2019, I received an enquiry from the writer of a screenplay she was planning to enter in a screenwriting contest in the US. The deadline was about three weeks away. She was anxious to hit the early entry deadline to pay a reduced entry fee.
She wanted to pay me £90 to copyedit her 48-page script – about 9,000 words. I said I was already very busy and that the fee was on the low side, but good luck. She persisted to the point that I agreed to edit a sample and we settled on a fee of £150.
When the script arrived, the goalposts began to change. We went from a straightforward copyedit, to could I look at the characters’ tone of voice, could I critique the play, could I format the play into script format as it had to be submitted in that form. It was obvious she was determined to get her money’s worth. I said no to the first two but agreed to format the text for her. Big mistake! You can’t just format a script in one go, you have different paragraph formats for character, description, dialogue, parenthesis, slug line and transition. It takes forever. An added complication was that English was not her first language, so I sometimes had to second guess what she wanted her characters to say.
Finally, I returned the script showing changes, plus a final version in PDF form which she needed for her submission. I then received a panicked email about how she didn’t understand all the markings on the script i.e. the tracked changes. As she was working in Open Office, I sent her a tutorial on how to accept or reject changes. She settled the invoice and that, I hoped, was the end of it. No such luck.
A few days later, I had another panicked email. She’d just read the contest rules and realised she was 22 pages short of the entry requirements and wanted to pad it out with bits and pieces from an earlier draft. She sent me another script, with an extra 5,000 words sewn into the original script in blue type. Could I please only edit the bits in blue and answer the questions in red? The script arrived with sections in violet, two shades of blue and green and questions in red caps. That day, I spent six hours making corrections and knitting it together into a cohesive whole. I took it on as an urgent job and had it back within a day, along with my invoice for £90, our agreed rate of £15 per hour. Silence.
Three days later an email arrived, saying she was disappointed with my changes and that she was only prepared to pay for two hours’ worth of work, not six. I should have guessed. During the three weeks from start to finish, she sent over 40 emails, questioning things I’d done, demanding other services. It was exhausting. I decided to cut my losses and waived the second invoice if she agreed not to contact me again.
What I did right
- Sent a contract outlining the exact nature of the work, the format in which it would be delivered; the start and finish schedule, the fee and charges for any extra work.
- Stayed in contact.
- For the first set of work, I agreed to release the script once I had received payment.
What I did wrong
- Allowed the client to widen the scope of the job.
- Replied to every email instead of nipping it in the bud.
- Let the client get to me.
- Took on a job littered with red flags.
What I learned
Adjusting your rates to what you think the client can afford is a losing game.
Set parameters. There should be no need for a barrage of emails back and forth once terms have been agreed.
Demanding clients who nit-pick and quibble are likely to be poor payers, so trust your instincts.
Know your worth and don’t let hard-to-please clients tell you otherwise.
Choose a rate you’re happy with – but allow some wiggle room
This brings me back to my original question. How do you price up a job? Well, this is what I do.
I have a standard rate that I am happy with – £40 for the first hour and £25 per subsequent hour. My minimum charge is £40, even if the job only takes 20 minutes.
Sometimes I quote for a whole project. That’s a little trickier but it helps if you can see a sample of the work. So, I ask for around 750 to 1000 words to give me an idea of the level of editing needed. Very occasionally, I edit the sample and send it back to the prospective client, especially if I want the job. Other times I just read the sample and base my quote on the level of editing I think the manuscript needs.
Occasionally, the publishers set the fee. Usually, it’s a pleasant surprise. On one occasion, it worked out twice what I intended to quote.
If it’s a job I really want to do, I’m happy to be a bit flexible about my fee. The same applies to valued clients. However, I do have an absolute minimum hourly rate of £15 and I only quote this rate for charities or social enterprises.
Check your Terms and Conditions; you may need to cite them if a client is giving you grief. The CIEP has a T&Cs template which you can adapt to your own business. Make sure you review them regularly and include a section on what happens if the scope of the job changes. Never promise perfection. Anyway, perfection is subjective.
Remember, time is money and working for free takes up time that could be better spent on Continuing Professional Development (CPD). And with plenty of training under your belt, you’ll feel more than justified to charge a fee that reflects what you’re worth.
- Please feel free to comment below if you’ve had a nightmare scenario with a client. Let us know how you fixed it.