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What Low Editing Rates Teach Us

British pounds with text Freelancing Success

Freelance editing is tough. There are no regulations, no governing board, and no real manual to follow. There’s plenty of good advice out there, but you have to separate it from the bad, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference beforehand.

So it’s not surprising when a situation like this happens:

Hiring editor: I have a book project I’m looking for a contract editor to take on. I’d like to hire you. I’ll pay you 50% of the fee I get. It’s a full edit that pays $0.005 per word, and the manuscript is 37,000 words.

Contract editor: That’s $185 for a full edit (whatever that means), and I’d only get $111 of that? Even a read-through of 37,000 words will take a few hours. I’d be earning less than minimum wage! No thanks!

Editors are generally helpful, courteous people; it takes a lot to push us to the point where we won’t just say “no,” but we’ll say it loudly and maybe even rudely. One editing friend has commented that editors are more apt to be doormats than rabble-rousers.

How do we avoid situations like this?

Advocate for Yourself

I have to admit that I was surprised to hear that several editors had spoken out publicly against a low rate another editor was offering for contract work. I agree that we editors are not always good at advocating for ourselves—and when we finally do, we may go overboard. It’s important to stand up for ourselves while maintaining our professionalism.

It’s tempting to take low-paying work to actually get work when we’re in the famine portion of the feast-or-famine cycle. But the more editors who stand up for themselves and the more often they do it, the better the chance that we’ll see an improvement in rates.

It’s simple supply and demand: If enough editors say no to ridiculously low rates, clients won’t be able to find someone to take those rates. Ideally, clients will get the message and if they’re serious about getting the editing done and value it, they’ll raise their rates. This is one reason unions were created: to get fair wages for all workers.

There are a lot of obstacles in that ideal statement: enough people have to say no, clients have to get the message, they have to want editing anyway, and so on. But we’ll clear none of those obstacles if we don’t start by speaking up for ourselves and our industry.

Huzzah for those editors who spoke up!

Build a Healthy Business

Again, there’s no rule book on how to build an editing agency that makes money for both the owner and the contractors while still charging an affordable rate to clients. It starts with wanting to offer the client something of value and wanting to offer your contractors something of value.

Before you offer that first contract, know what the standard industry rates are. Certainly some types of editing command higher fees (e.g., medical editing pays more than fiction editing), and an editor’s skill can also command higher fees. Do your homework. Find out what’s acceptable in your industry. What kind of skills do you need? If you need a senior-level editor, be prepared to pay for that experience and skill.

Determine if your rates create a profitable business for you and your contractors. You want to earn a living, and so do other editors. Your contractors are the ones who are doing the actual editing for you. Without them, you’re doing all the work, which likely defeats the purpose of your business model. Protesting that paying substandard rates is the only way you can make a living is not acceptable. If that’s the case with your business, you need to change something.

Stand up for yourself and your contractors with the client. Self-publishing is a tough industry to work in right now. Sure, there’s lots of work, but writers haven’t yet learned that they have to pay professional rates for professional editing. Most of them don’t understand the value of editing, let alone what the publishing process is all about. That doesn’t change if no one educates the writers and just accepts working for $3.75 an hour. If you’re interacting with those writers, educate them!

If you can’t offer fair rates, don’t expect skilled editors to work for you. You’ve educated yourself on fair wages but you’re still offering contractors less-than-minimum wage? Don’t be surprised if no one wants to work for you.

There is enough editing work for everyone and we can get reasonable rates if we demand them. But editing agencies (even agencies of one) and contractors both have to fight for those wages. We have to speak up for ourselves and our industry. We have to educate the clients, and we have to be willing to walk away when necessary.

Nothing changes otherwise.

Originally published on February 19, 2016 on Copyediting.

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