The 2016 survey of freelance ELT editorial rates – some conclusions

ELT FREelance rates

A couple of months ago, my partner in ELT Freelancers, Helen Holwill, and I sat down to think about redoing the ELT Freelance Editorial Rates survey that we had first done in 2013. We’d been spurred into action by a number of comments about rates not going up in line with experience, etc., that we had heard at the Awayday we organised in January.

By no means a piece of scientific research, our questions were designed to gather a snapshot of where freelancers are right now so we could make some comparisons with the 2013 results. In total, we had 113 responses and briefly summarised the findings here. Anyone who had given us their email address when they completed the survey was also sent a full summary. (Of course, you can’t stop people forwarding a PDF to their friends, and this post on the Copyediting blog that I came across as I was collating the results makes some very good points about thinking about the bigger picture of survey results before blindly accepting them.) (More brackets, but if you ever fancy doing something like this, Google Forms are your best friend.)

So, what are the key points we’ve drawn from this year’s survey? There seem to be a few things that jump out …

  • Between us we have a huge amount of experience. Over 50% of responses were from people with over 15 years’ experience. That’s quite something, and should definitely give us bargaining power when we consider some of the issues that emerged from the questions about rates and set-fees questions.
  • Rates have, on the whole, stayed the same since 2013. This year 65% of responses to the question ‘What is your impression of the rates paid by publishers over the last few years?’ said that the rates have generally stayed the same. Given that a lot of the people who answered the questions in 2013 also answered them this year, the indication is that despite being three years’ more experienced, our income has not kept up. And looking back at the 2013 results, people were saying then that rates hadn’t increased in the previous couple of years, which is really worrying. Whether this is because people haven’t put their rates up and asked for more, or clients have refused to pay higher rates, isn’t clear. However, what we did find out is that the most frequent response to the question ‘What is your hourly rate for proofreading?’ was £25 per hour in 2013, and it’s remained the same in 2016. The same can be said for project management rates – £30 per hour was the most frequent response in both surveys for that area of our work.
  • There has been a considerable rise in the percentage of people responding to say that clients have been moving towards offering fixed fees rather than paying by the hour. 46% of respondents agreed with that this year, as opposed to 36% in 2013. Whether fees work out as well as hourly rates is still unclear, but the good news is that people are willing to challenge unfair fees, and renegotiation is possible in the majority of cases. This is good news because when one publisher announced that it was going to pay fees only, and that there was no room for manouevre if work was more involved or took longer than anticipated, there was a fair amount of concern. It’s good to see some evidence to the contrary.

For me, and a number of others that I’ve spoken to, the main concern is that rates are not going up in line with experience. It’s all very well to research market rates, talk to others to see what they’re charging, carefully calculate inflation rates and the cost of living and running a business from home (and of course we should all be doing that as a matter of course), if the client rejects your new rate and offers you last year’s rates. Of course, if you’re not happy to accept less, they will go away and find someone to do the work for the rate they have to offer. If you need work, you’re likely to accept the rate and get on with it, doing a professional job and planning to stand firm next time. (If you’re not sure what you should be charging, or need a recap, there is a great series of posts on the An American Editor blog on just this topic. In addition, the UK’s Society for Editors And Proofreaders’ suggested minimum rates for this year are here.)

I found myself in this position last summer. I was in a quieter period with work when a fellow freelancer contacted me and asked if I could take on a couple of stages of a project while she was on holiday. The job sounded interesting and I was happy to help out, so she put me in touch with the commissioning editor. When the commissioner contacted me and we were discussing the details, it emerged that the hourly rate was going to be considerably less than ‘my rate’ for that level of work. I couldn’t believe that the other editor, who had already stepped onto the plane, was being paid that either as we have similar levels of experience (and the evidence from both rates surveys shows the offered rate to be considerably below the average for the work), so I stated my rate. The commissioning editor said that wasn’t an option and offered me the rate halfway between the two, despite needing the work done there and then. What to do – stick to my guns, turn the work down, miss out on any money at all, and blot my copybook with that contact – or agree to the rate and get stuck in? I accepted the rate, immediately wished I hadn’t, and spent the next couple of weeks begrudgingly enjoying the project. Lo and behold, I handed the work in, the commissioning editor gave me some great feedback, and immediately offered me some more work at my usual rate. You win some, you lose some, but do you chance it and find out?

If I had turned the work down, the commissioning editor would have had plenty of other freelancers to choose from. With a rash of redundancies from most of the major UK-based ELT publishers in the last 12 months, I’m regularly contacted via the White Ink Facebook page for tips on getting started. I’m pretty sure that most new freelancers’ rates are lower than mine (I’ve been editing ELT materials since 1997 and freelancing since 2008), and making contacts and getting work is the name of the game when you’re starting out, so accepting a lower rate than I’m used to isn’t going to be an issue for lots of people. Which perpetuates the situation with the rates not going up. I’m fairly sure that this topic is going to come up at the 2017 ELT Freelancers’ Awayday, so there’s plenty more discussion to be had, and hopefully we can find some ways to address it.

In my next post I’ll be looking at ways ELT freelancers are finding to supplement (or even replace) their income from editing, but in the meantime, if you have any thoughts on the rates issue, please do comment.

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7 thoughts on “The 2016 survey of freelance ELT editorial rates – some conclusions

  1. A few points, if I may. (1) I have been editing medical texts (by doctors for doctors) for 32 years as a freelancer that almost always exceed 1500 manuscript pages and run as high as 25,000 to 30,000 pages. (2) The pay rate I am offered by publishers is exactly the same as I was offered in 1995 (and probably in 1990, but I no longer have those records available). (3) The primary changes in editing over my 32 years have been the rise of online editing (when I first started, online editing was a rarity), the change (increase, not decrease) in the type of work expected to be done as part of copyediting (i.e., the definition of copyediting has changed), and the rise of packagers. (4) With the rise of packagers, the amount offered as compensation has actually declined. A few weeks ago, I was offered a take-it-or-leave-it fee from an Irish packager that amounted to 96 cents a page on a short schedule. (I left it.)

    But three points I particularly want to address are these: (5) The primary problem with copyediting as a freelance career is that it is now a price-driven service. When I edited my first book, I received a multipage critique of my editing — what I had done right and what I had done “wrong” — from the publisher and was told that if I expected my level of compensation to rise, I had to not repeat what I had done wrong. (Wrong, FWIW, is a very subjective term. What I had done “wrong” was wrong only in the reviewing PE’s eyes as her colleague praised those wrongs as rights on the next project.) The point is that in the beginning, quality ruled over price. With the consolidation of the publishing industry into the large international conglomerates, price replaced quality. Today, price is the key — no matter how good an editor you may be, if your price does not fall within the packager/publisher range — regardless of how low that may be — you are unlikely to get the work.

    (6) Along with the rise of outsourcing has come a decline in the quality of editing. Editors are simply not as skilled (as a group; not talking about individual editors) as they once were. Everyone who has read a book, whether it be a comic book or a physics treatise, thinks they can be an editor because they found a spelling error. And in times of need, they hang out their open-for-business sign and price their services at a rate that a skilled, experienced editor cannot or will not match. I see both in those who apply to work for me. They offer to work for 50 cents to $1 a page and fail the editing test they need to take. Of the 207 applicants in 2015 who returned editing tests, only 1 passed — and the test is not all that difficult.

    (7) This last point is a key point (and I apologize for the length of my comment): Too few editors take the time to figure out what their required effective hourly rate (EHR) has to be. They look at surveys that are faulty at best or see what others are willing to work for and mimic those numbers without actually analyzing whether they can really survive on that fee. Which brings up the issue of hourly vs project/per-page fees. I stopped charging an hourly fee in 1985 when I realized I could make a much higher EHR by per-page charging (ppc). The thing about ppc is that you need to figure out how to increase your editing speed without decreasing your quality and invest in the tools to do so. It can be done. Whereas IO might only be able to charge $25 an hour in order to get work, if I charge by the page, I may earn an EHR of $50 or more per hour. Editing is a business and must be treated as such.

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    1. Hi Rich, thank you so much for taking the time to write such a detailed comment – very much appreciated.
      I agree with everything you say in principle, although thinking about the type of work I, and many of my freelance colleagues working in the ELT field, do, charging by the page is difficult for a lot of projects. At the moment I’m working on the development edit of what will be a 160pp approx student’s textbook. The work will take me about 12 months, seeing the ms through to handover to design and three proof stages. Charging by the hour is really the only way to go about this, and I think the publisher and I have agreed an EHR that is effective. I do encourage other freelancers in my network to make the same calculations, but as you say, it is now a price-driven service, in which the sellers and buyers in the industry must match expectations between cost, quality and resourcing. (I was also contacted this week about a temporary position at a well-known publisher in the UK at a rate of <£13 per hour. I'm sure you can imagine my reply.) Best wishes, Karen

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      1. Karen, there is a major difference between copyediting and developmental editing. I agree that developmental editing cannot be done on a per-page basis at the rates normally offered. Most developmental editing I have done has been hourly, too. On occasion I do accept the job on a project/per-page fee but those fees begin at significantly higher rates. I clearly misunderstood as I thought you were writing about copyediting, not developmental editing.

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      2. Sorry, Rich, I’m relatively new to blogging and tend to assume my readers are all ELT editors with the same project/editorial background as me! Note to self to be clear and concise in future, for the whole readership.
        The whole EHR issue remains the same, however, whatever type of project any of us are working on, and I would encourage everyone to read your posts on that.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your illuminating experiences. It appears that quality, alas, remains often under-appreciated and underpaid – in both ELT publishing and the larger publishing world.

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