It’s the moment every new freelance editor dreads. You’re finally about to land your first client, and they ask, “How much will this cost?”
Panic sets in. How do you figure out cost? What pricing structure should you use? Hourly seems logical, but some editors you know insist that the project rate is the only way to go.
Each pricing structure has its benefits and drawbacks. What works for one project may not work for another. Let’s review the most popular pricing structures for editors to help you make an informed choice.
Selling a service means selling your time and expertise, so setting an hourly rate makes sense. Plus all those example rate charts put fees in hours, and it’s easy to quote a reasonable-sounding number.
The hourly fee is especially useful for short projects, such as articles and short stories. Estimating a project fee for something so short could take more time than actually doing the work (but see “By the Word or Page” below).
I work with a few clients who send me press releases and short articles, often needing to be edited within one to two business days. Agreeing to an hourly rate at the start of the relationship means I don’t have to review each document to determine a fair rate.
To charge by the hour, you need to decide how you’ll time your work:
Whatever you decide, be sure you’re not double charging. For example, if you’re billing on the quarter hour, don’t include short work breaks in your time. Those will be covered with rounding. And, yes, it’s OK to always round up.
If you get close to your estimated time or the hours cap and you think you’ll go over, stop. Let the client know the situation and together decide how to resolve the issue.
This pricing structure is standard with many publishing houses and presses. Common variations include per-1,000 words or per-2,500 words. Once you determine a word rate, it’s easy to adjust it for a page or more.
Make sure you and your client agree on when you’re counting words: before or after the edit. Most often, editors calculate the word count before they edit. You have to read all those words and determine what to do with them; you should be paid for that work.
With per-page fees, you and the client should have the same definition of a page. For manuscripts, 250 words is common, though I’ve seen 400 words with one client.
For layouts (as when proofreading), a page will likely be the literal page in the file, no matter how many words are on it. Because some pages will take far longer to review than others, estimate whether the rate is fair on average for the entire project.
This is a good fee structure for both small and large projects. As with the hourly rate, a per-word rate allows you to set a price that you won’t have to negotiate for every short document that comes in. Plus you’re rewarded for speed, unlike with the hourly rate.
With larger projects, not only are you rewarded for efficient editing but the client knows exactly how much the project will cost, and billing in installments keeps the money flowing in.
Many experienced editors prefer charging one fee for an entire project whenever possible. As with a word or page fee, you’re rewarded for editing speed, which often comes with experience.
Project fees are most often used for larger, more complex projects. Think editing a book or a series of documents, such as a set of grant proposals.
You might choose a project fee, too, when the project will include tasks other than editing words, such as formatting the document or meeting with the client.
A project fee doesn’t absolve you from defining a word or hourly rate, though. You’ll use one or the other to calculate a fair project fee. Be sure to get an accurate word count for the project. A manuscript that comes in 10,000 words longer than you estimated means the project will take longer and you will earn less overall. For this reason, I include a cap on words with a project estimate. Anything that comes in above that cap means renegotiating the fee.
A per-piece fee, such as a fee per footnote or glossary headword, isn’t as common. However, if it fits the project, go for it! As with a per-page fee, make sure you and the client agree to a well-thought-out definition for the piece. Each piece should look very similar to the others. Also be sure to have an accurate estimate of how long each piece takes you to edit.
A less common fee structure is the retainer. This is a set fee for a set time, such as $X,XXX per month, for any work that might be handed to you during that time. Basically, the client is booking time with you in advance every month. You’ll want to set limits for the number of hours you’ll be available and how much work you’ll do for that fee. The amount of work or number of hours should be fairly consistent over time so that the fee is fair on average.
Also discuss turnaround times in advance. Often with retainers, you’re expected to drop whatever work you’re doing to start the retainer client’s project. Retainers are paid upfront in part to give the client priority with your time.
No matter which pricing structures you choose, define your desired rate by the hour and the word. Should a fabulous new client want something other than your usual structure, you can quickly show flexibility. Your rate card is for your reference, though. Don’t feel you have to share it if you don’t want to.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of pricing structures. You can measure your work and time in whatever way works best for you, your client, and the project. You can also choose different pricing structures for different projects or clients. I regularly use hourly, per-piece, and project rates for my clients. If someone wanted a per-word fee, I’d be happy to do that.
This is your business. You get to make the rules. The key is ensuring that you get paid fairly for your time and expertise.
Header photo by David Travis on Unsplash.