Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ghost Guide: How to Price Your Editing Services

We asked, you answered. Last week, one of our ghostwriters wanted to know:
"What is an average fee that one of your writers would request to edit a full (80,000-90,000) manuscript?"
We turned his question—how much to charge for a book-editing project—over to our writer listserv, and from their collective wisdom we've compiled

What We Think About When We Think About Editing Fees 

The Job
Everyone who weighed in agreed: you and your client have got to settle on a shared set of realistic expectations. Are you line/copy editing a manuscript that's in pretty good shape, or are you tackling organization, focus, tone, and fact checking? If it's the latter, says Sheila Buff, a best-selling health writer, "that's something else entirely"—and you should up your rate accordingly.

The Project
To assess what needs to be done, accomplished writer and former editor Allen Mikaelian advises fellow editors to follow his lead in conducting a preliminary check-up. "I always get at least a sample of the manuscript first. Some 90,000 word manuscripts are easy, some take forever." David Lauterborn, who edited big-name travel guides before assuming his current post at Weider History Group, seconds the point, noting "heavy scientific or financial content can double the required hours." After you've seen a representative chapter, you'll be able to estimate the number of hours you'll spend editing, and you can calculate your fee based on your hourly rate (hours of work x dollars per hour = fee).

The Fee
The short version: pay rates vary. A lot.
It's up to you whether to bill hourly or charge a flat fee for the project, but even if you go with a fixed rate, you'll still need a rough idea of how many hours you'll spend on the manuscript—if anything, it's even more essential when you're charging a fixed price. Business author and ghostwriting guru Brian Solon warns, "if you quote a flat fee which is too low, and the editing process inevitably ends up taking way longer than expected, your effective hourly rate will plunge." He also recommends taking the author's personality into account. With a difficult writer, he says, "you could spend an entire day getting them to approve a handful of pages."
Solon talks us through his thinking: If you think you can edit 10,000 words per week, and you're taking on an 80,000 word manuscript, then that's eight weeks of work. "How much is eight weeks of your time worth?" he asks. In his example, a week's work is worth $2,000 ("if you are brilliant and the best at what you do," he qualifies), so $2,000 x 8 = $16,000. And that's your price.
Buff's numbers are decidedly more modest. According to her, the industry base rate starts at about $35/hour, increasing from there depending on your experience and your publishing record. She advises you assume five to ten pages an hour for a solid line-edit. If the manuscript has 250 words per page, and 80,000 words total, then you're looking at 320 pages of editing—or, using Buff's rubric, between 32 and 64 hours of work. Charging hourly, that's between $1,120 and $2,240 dollars.
Lauterborn comes in somewhere between the two. The average Lonely Planet-type manuscript "ran some 40,000 words, with a 6-week allowance for the project," he says. For an 80,000 or 90,000 word piece, then, "a good editor should request a three-month window of time and request a minimum of $10,000 for services rendered, more if the client has a solid publishing track record."

The Conclusion
Even if our math is a tad rusty, our skills are sharp enough to confidently note that there's a huge difference between $1,120 and $16,000. The "industry standard" isn't so standard after all, it turns out—hardly surprising, considering the case-by-case nature of the business. What IS standard, though, is the roster of things to consider:
  • What are the (shared) expectations between you and your client as to the scope and nature of your edits?
  • What is the time frame? Is this a drop-everything-and-stop-eating editing bonanza or a more leisurely gig?
  • How long will the project take you?
  • How much is an hour of your editing expertise worth (in dollars)? Where are you in your career?
From there, you've got to bite the bullet and quote a rate, but you can quote it with the confidence that you're within the realm of the reasonable.

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