Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Fee Conundrum

For several years, I worked very part-time as a freelance copy editor on foreign-language college textbooks. It didn’t pay much, but it was interesting, and besides, I just love making sure that commas are in the right place, and ensuring that if a photo caption says that Juan and Miguel are sitting by a fountain, the photo shows two guys and water. I’ve also done translation from Italian to English, and had a few interpreting jobs (once in a courtroom, which was fascinating).

So when I’m thinking of ways to earn a bit of money after next May 11, these writing-related activities occur to me.

The major problem is—how do I decide what to charge?

I’ve read a lot of articles on charging for freelance writing, and I just can’t wrap my mind around the most common advice: Figure out how much you need to earn, divide that by how many hours you’re going to work, and then set that as your hourly rate.

Huh? How do I know how many hours I’m going to work? Forty a week is unrealistic; if I were going to do that, I might as well stay in my teaching job and get health insurance and an IT department that will fix my computer when it seizes up. Ten hours? Twenty? And just because I want to work X number of hours, I have no idea if I actually will.

A fee per word is unrealistic too.  A word of legalese takes much longer to translate than a word in an instruction manual. Sometimes you don’t know until you get into something how difficult it will be.

And as for how much I need to earn—I suppose I could come up with a minimum, but who wants to earn their minimum?

Some professional organizations publish recommended fees, but often you have to belong to the organization in order to get access to those lists. I can’t afford the dues for all of them, and anyway, the range of fees is huge. Where do I fit?

So, those of you who do this—how do you decide what to ask? How much negotiating are you open to?


  1. From all the things that I have read it seems like the process is pretty much trial and error when you first start out freelancing. You may have to complete a number of jobs before you get a real solid idea of what your fees will be. It seems to be something very subjective from one freelancer to the next.

    Also, don't forget to estimate your costs for each job: phone calls, paper, printer toner, travel etc. Some projects may be more resource intensive than others. This is just as important as calculating the number of hours needed to complete the job. You might want to include some type of provision in any agreements about any unforeseen costs etc.

    Don't forget to ask for part of the fee up front and than ask for the rest upon completion of the project.

    I'm enjoying your blog about this subject. I need to keep some type of day job so instead I am looking for some type of position where I can work at home. Finally tired of the long drives! So some of the things being discussed here pertain to my search also.


  2. For my freelance work (which is all my work), I start with a base rate of $25 per hour and then shift that up or down depending on a) how much fun the work will be, b) how much it will help my career, and c) how much I need the money right then. So if a job sounds miserable, won't help my career, and I don't really need the money, the price goes up. (I know a computer guy whose freelance rates vary between $100 and $500 per hour depending on how much he hates the person and their job. But he has a full-time job to pay the bills.)

    I have spoken at a local conference for $100 and free meals, even though it involved prep time and drive time/expenses, because it offered a promotional opportunity and a chance to network with the attending editors.

    If I'm going to write an article, I figure out roughly how long it will take me, how much fun it will be, and whether the networking is valuable (for example if I'm interviewing editors). I really don't need resume items like that anymore, so that's not a factor.

    I offer a manuscript critique service, which I price at $1.50 per page for novels and $40 for picture books or short stories. Obviously some manuscripts are in a lot worse shape than others, but I'm not line editing -- I'll make quick notes about point of view shifts, telling versus showing, grammatical problems, etc., and cover those issues in my editorial letter, but I focus more on the big picture than line editing. My rates are comparatively cheap, but because I'm not a big name, I feel I have to offer better value.

    I also teach through a correspondence school for less than I would like to make for that work, but because it's reasonably steady, I can't afford to give it up.

    In summary, "it all depends."

  3. I pretty much follow Chris Eboch's approach. My standard hourly rate is comparable to hers, and I would stress that I originally established my rate by surveying several other professionals in my area. If my region were marked by a higher cost of living or higher base wages, my rate might be higher. With that rate in mind, I eventually came up with a standard estimate for researching and writing feature magazine articles ($200 to $500, depending on the number of finished pages, required number of interviews, etc.). Like Chris, I have no qualms about adjusting the numbers and being flexible when I think a particular job will advance my career. Also, if I suddenly found myself in huge demand, my rates would rise.

  4. Hi Tracy,
    Congrats on your move to freelancing, by the way.
    The old saw about figuring out how much you want or need to make divided by hours worked is bogus. It ignores the reality of the market. I'm glad you tossed that methodology.
    The best suggestion I can make, and it's trite but true in my opinion, is find out "what the market will bear".
    An example arose recently when my editor at Odyssey magazine tried to sign an artist we both loved. We needed the artwork for a monthly feature. The gig would have provided steady work and great exposure for an untested artist.
    Unfortunately, we suspect the artist took advice from an established artist (who wouldn't have been interested in such a small job) or a professional organization with a fee schedule of the one size fits all variety.
    As a consequence, the artist quoted a price in the four figure range, per month mind you, for a job paying in the low three figures.
    The artist hadn't a clue what the market would pay for that type work and consequently lost a valuable opportunity.
    You also are confronting a second issue. You have a highly specialized skill. You have the potential for earning top dollar. The trick is to learn what top dollar pay is for translation work.
    I think your task boils down to this: research. That should not be a big deal to you, I shouldn't think.
    Find writers/editors who have done or are doing the type of work you want to get into then ask them straight up: What is the range of fees that you are paid? You can also ask the same question of those you would wish to work for. That has a double bonus because it provides you the opportunity to introduce yourself to a potential client without the tension of trying to work out a business deal.
    Finally, negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. It's expected and must be done to fully protect your interests. However, and this is where freelancers can get lost. Negotiation is not demanding. It's a reasoned give and take that aims to benefit both parties based upon the needs of both parties. Follow that principle and you'll be respected by the potential client, even when they can't say "okay". Respect will lead to further opportunities.
    That's all from the peanut gallery. Luck to you! Dan

  5. As some other folks said, it's important to understand what the market you're working in will pay. When I began freelancing full-time 20 years ago, I found a very helpful book that listed charges for different types of rating. Unfortunately, that book has never been updated. You must remember to figure that 20 percent or so will go to taxes, then you have expenses, which of course are different for each individual depending on your personal situation (like if someone else provides your health insurance). I figure everything I do between $40 and $50 an hour and I live in a relatively low-paying area. I can't really make a living charging less than that. That's one of the reasons I emphasize to my writing students to charge professional rates. When one person who writes well is willing to do it for $10/hour, it's not good for any of us. But that's another blog post!

  6. What great advice, everybody! Thanks for all the comments.

  7. I know this is completely beside the point, but I, too, love making sure the commas are in the right place, and the fountain example made me laugh. Good luck figuring out the actual issues!

  8. Tracy, I'm late commenting on this but wanted to add that in many cases, the project has a budget (or at least a semblance of one), and the person contracting you will sometimes give you an idea of what they can pay. For instance, when I quoted a rate at a local publishing house >ahem<, my editor (who also happens to be a friend) "suggested" that I was quoting too low. I learned from that. On a different project at a different house, when I was asked about my hourly rate, I asked if they could give me a range of what they usually pay. They were happy to! I placed my fees in the middle of that range. If you feel comfortable enough with your contact, I say asking what they WANT to pay is a good way to start the fee-speak. Good luck!
    -Kristin Tubb