Freelancing is often a feast-or-famine cycle. When a famine is on the horizon—or worse, standing in front of you—it’s easy to panic. After all, if you didn’t need money, you probably wouldn’t be working in the first place.
Most freelancers have experienced a work famine at one time or another. We know we need to get work in quickly. But how can we go about it?
You might be tempted to cut your regular fees and advertise a sale. While this might bring in some needed work, it can also do long-term damage to your business, especially if you cut your rates too deeply, such as 40% or more.
Slashing prices often works for big retailers. Black Friday deals that offer products for well-below their cost to produce them can bring in customers by the truckload. Cable companies will give you an introductory rate to entice you to sign a contract, which will obligate you to pay a higher price six months or a year into the contract. These businesses will lose money on the sale item, but they will make up the loss on sales of higher-priced items. In business, it’s known as a loss leader.
But will loss leaders work for editing services?
Financial education website Investopedia notes that while loss leader strategies can work, they come with a big risk:
Unfortunately, for business owners, consumers sometimes leave without buying anything else. The practice of jumping from shop to shop picking up loss leader items is called “cherry picking.”
If you can’t contractually obligate your client to hire you for more work at a higher rate later, then you risk attracting clients for whom price is the deciding factor. They don’t value quality nearly as much—if they understand the value of editing at all.
Let’s put the price argument into perspective. A recent ad from an editor advertised a sale rate for copyediting at $0.004 per word ($1.00 per page). The editor’s usual rate is $0.007 per word ($1.75 per manuscript page), a 57% cut. If the choice is earning half of what you usually earn or nothing, you might take the half.
But I’d argue that even the full rate isn’t something you can afford to work for. Let’s say you take on a fiction manuscript that will be self-published. The manuscript is 100,000 words, or 400 pages. At the full rate, you’d earn $700; at the sale rate, you’d earn $400.
Those numbers might sound good, but how long will it take you to earn the fee?
If you edit five pages an hour on this project, the low end of Editorial Freelancers Association’s (EFA’s) basic copyediting rate, you’d spend 80 hours editing those 400 pages—two full weeks of your time. At the full rate, you’d earn $8.75 an hour; at the sale rate, you’d earn $5 an hour.
You could earn more per hour working in retail, and you’d get benefits.
If you’re a fast editor and the manuscript is very clean, you might edit 10 pages an hour. Now you’re working 40 hours instead of 80 for the same money. That’s good, right?
At the full rate, you’re earning $17.50 an hour, and at the sale rate you’re earning $10 an hour. It’s an improvement, but can you live on either rate? And when other editors are charging anywhere from $30 to $100 an hour, are you cheating yourself unnecessarily? Clearly there are clients who will pay a reasonable price for quality work.
So what can you do?
In the short term, you might have to work for low rates to keep money coming in. The chances that you’ll attract clients who will become repeat clients for double your sale rate are slim, though. You won’t want to build your business on them.
In the long term, you need to attract clients who will pay you a fair rate—a rate that you can afford to live on, that reflects the value you add to the manuscript, and that respects the client’s budget. Your goal must be to bring in at least enough money to meet your personal budget.
Start by educating yourself on how to run and market an editing business. Here are some excellent resources:
- Louise Harnby’s business and marketing books
- Member organization courses, such as those offered by EFA, Society for Editors and Proofreaders, and Editors Association of Canada.
- Business-related courses in certificate programs, such as those offered by the University of California, San Diego.
- Copyediting’s Freelance Marketing Action Plan for Editors, The Art of Freelance Pricing, and Launching a Freelance Editing Business.
It takes time to build a base of clients who will pay you a fair rate and all of these resources charge a fee. The old cliché is true: you have to spend money to make money.
Many editors have taken jobs that pay less than a fair rate, often while building a business or filling in slow times. But it can’t be how you run your business. Keep the bigger picture in mind and work toward charging a rate you can live on.
Looking for another way to increase your income and grow your client list? Join us for The Art of Freelancing Pricing with Jake Poinier and Freelance Marketing: Action Plan for Editors with Adrienne Montgomerie.