Imagine a scenario, if you will. You’re at a networking event for entrepreneurs and freelancers, and you start talking with someone in a different industry. They ask you what you do, and here’s how the exchange often goes from there:
“I’m a copyeditor.”
“How cool! What kinds of things do you edit?”
“Fiction and nonfiction books, mostly, but I also work for some large corporations, editing their white papers and promotional materials.”
“Oh, wow! I’m actually writing a book, and I’ve been looking for a good editor. What’s your rate?”
Cue immediate, knee-buckling panic.
This question strikes fear in many a talented freelancer’s heart, and with good reason: it gives the client a hard number, which they will then (they can’t help it) compare to any hourly rate they’ve ever seen for freelance editing.
If they were searching for copyeditors on Fiverr before meeting you, they probably have an extremely low number in their head—say, $15 an hour for copyediting, and $300 to edit an entire book. If you tell them you charge $60 an hour, they instantly view your services as a commodity, which invites price comparison because they don’t understand the unique value you bring to the table.
Even if the client thinks your hourly rate seems feasible, they still have no idea how long it will take to edit their book. They’ll probably try to estimate their own costs in their head, and they’ll likely be far off from the actual number.
Giving someone a number without connecting it to an individual project (ideally in the form of a project rate that shows the value you offer) invites commodification, which leads to nickel-and-diming and also creates a confusing situation for the client.
But that’s a topic for another (long!) article. Let’s learn how to handle this scenario by first looking at what not to do.
Here are four ways not to respond to your networking friend:
1. “What’s your budget?”
2. “Well, I usually charge $60 an hour.”
3. “My rate is $60 an hour, but the freelance editing market is all over the place in terms of how much people charge.”
4. “How does $50 an hour sound?”
What do all of these answers have in common? They open you up to nickel-and-diming clients, and they make your rate seem negotiable.
Answers 1 and 4 also dilute your credibility and professionalism in a big way. Talking with a client about their budget is completely fine, but using that as a way to gauge what to charge them will almost always lead to being paid less than you’re worth. (It also attracts hagglers and people who will push your every limit.) Ideally, the budget conversation should only come up if they respond to your bid with a price objection. Then, you can negotiate fewer services, less time, etc. until you’re both happy.
Answers 2 and 3 invite potential clients to try and get you to lower your price, and answer 3 shows that you’re insecure about your rate, which definitely won’t inspire confidence in your client.
So, how should you answer this dreaded question? Simple: do what you can to avoid offering up your hourly rate.
Instead, gracefully “pivot” by answering with a question that will give you more insight into the project:
“What is your book about?”
“How many rewrites have you done so far?”
“What word count are you shooting for?”
“Do you want to be traditionally published, or are you going to self-publish?”
Most authors love to talk about their own work, so it shouldn’t be difficult to get the main project details from them. You should also be deciding whether or not this project is right for you, and whether or not you want to work with this potential client. (Hint: anyone who says, “I hate rewriting and revising. That’s what editors are for, right?” is trouble with a capital T.)
Okay. Let’s assume that you’re interested in the project. If your new networking friend keeps pushing for your rate, explain how you price your projects, and use time as your secret weapon. You are under absolutely no obligation to provide any kind of number on the spot.
Here’s a good response that doesn’t invite any needling:
“I charge a project rate for the books I edit, and I always need to see the manuscript before I can give an estimate. Editing is like sculpting: I need to see the raw material before I know how much work I’ll need to do. I’d be happy to look at your manuscript and give you a detailed estimate—here’s my card so you can get in touch with me.”
Bam! You’re all done. And if a potential client continues to ask for your hourly rate, even though you just met them, you probably don’t want to work with them anyway.