What’s a “Reasonable” Rate?

Back in February I wrote a short article describing the cost of copyediting, and six months later, that article needs an addendum.

When I quote on a project, I prefer to offer a total package price. It’s easier for me, especially because I dislike tracking time to the minute, and it reduces surprise fees for the writer. That’s why for a long time I based a large part of my quote on word count. And yet I keep explaining costs in terms of hourly fees. How come? Writers—and other project managers—don’t always understand how many work hours their project comprises.

Here’s a great example. A proofreading job for an 80,000-word vampire romance novel recently hit my inbox. Eighty-thousand words equals approximately 320 manuscript pages.[i] Assuming I could thoroughly proof twenty manuscript pages per hour,[ii] that’d be a solid sixteen hours of work. The projected budget? Sixty dollars. Friends, that’s $3.75 an hour, $3.50 less than the federal minimum wage. A more accurate low-end hourly rate for that project would have been $25 per hour, for a total project price of $400. Seems like a pretty profound disconnect, right?

This living wage conundrum is also why charging on a per-word basis falls apart for smaller projects. I frequently receive requests to line edit articles for publication or submission. I love this type of work: it’s short, varied, and there’s plenty of room for movement. (Writers seem more amenable to overhauling 1,500-word articles than they do 100,000-word novels. Go figure!) But each of these smaller projects takes at least an hour to complete.

What’s a “reasonable” per-hour rate for line editing? Sources differ, and prices vary by market.[iii] The Editorial Freelancers Association suggests a low-end rate of $40. I’d say $35, which is why most of my smaller projects are quoted at a $35 flat rate. But many posters on freelance boards are only willing to pay $15. “Reasonable,” here, seems to be the sticking point.

I get it—many indie writers seeking editors don’t want to shell out thousands of dollars for professional editing, even if they want a marketable book. It’s a high initial cost. Writers need to make the best choices based on their budgets and writing goals. Talk to the editor! Ask how long it takes them to read and perform specific services. Do the math!

Just remember—sometimes you really get what you pay for.


[i] A manuscript page is a double-spaced page with 250 words. This is a firm industry standard.

[ii] Which, honestly, could be a stretch.

[iii] Would you charge an independent author the same hourly rate as a corporate or government entity? Similarly, the hourly rate for technical material will be higher than the hourly rate for editing fiction; it’s a matter of time and complexity. 


2 thoughts on “What’s a “Reasonable” Rate?”

  1. Mark E. says:

    I see a certain trend among contracted professional individuals and business is that they don't know how to value their own time and capitalize on their costs.  I recommend looking at all of the things that you use in the course of working on a project and being able to build a sustainable business model around that. 

    Look at all the equipment that you use in the course of editing a paper and expense that as part of your budget for building a baseline quote. Let's take your computer as an example.  Assume that it has a cost of $2,000 and will last 3 years (52 weeks) and a 40 hour work week. Over that 3 years results in an hourly consumption of $0.32 (= $2000 / 3 years / 52 weeks / 40 hours).  If all equipment and software used in the process of editing is accounted for then you will find that the amount attributed to your actual salary is lower than just the hourly rate.

    It’s important to do this to be able to budget and build a sustainable practice so that you can understand how your cash is being utilized.

    1. J. Anderson says:

      Yeah, agreed. For many freelancers, especially those who don’t have a strong background in finance or business (like me), it’s difficult to figure out exactly how much their services are worth. I know I’ve made mistakes, particularly because I was working on a part-time, ad hoc basis. Detailed bookkeeping is a must, and I know from my own experience that it got easier once I had a year’s worth of data. (And honestly, with your background you could probably write an entire series on business planning for sole proprietors or freelancers.)

      I wrote this post primarily because many would-be clients (for me and for other freelancers) experience sticker shock when they receive a quote: “Wow, fixing this thing I already wrote is going to cost how much? That seems like way too much money.” While they may be new to the industry, it’s often the case that they just don’t understand the number of hours that go into a project. It’s one of the simplest ways to explain total cost. “If you want to pay X for this manuscript edit, you’d be paying your copyeditor sweatshop wages. I don’t think that’s what you want.” Not only that, but it’s detail-oriented work that requires a ruthless, word-loving mind. When one contracts with a copyeditor, they’re not only paying for a service, but also for experience and education. I could have offered a line-by-line accounting here, but I didn’t think it’d be quite as useful (or interesting) to a client. 

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