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.

How to be the project manager’s favourite editor

Most of my work as a freelancer involves putting together teams of editors to work on multi-level, multi-component courses for ELT (English Language Teaching) publishers. Here are some of my top tips for getting to the top of my go-to list.

Let me know you’re getting my stuff.
 I don’t want to hear from you every five minutes, but I do want to know you’ve received the brief, successfully downloaded the files you need from the FTP site, and know when I’m expecting to receive a handover from you.
6Keep up to date. 
I expect team members to be comfortable with Word styles, comments and track changes. Knowing how to share your Skype screen, do PDF markup, and use Google Docs and Dropbox are also fairly fundamental these days. For anything else, there’s training.

2Know when to get in touch. Got a query about the brief? Let’s get to the bottom of that before we get underway. All clear? Great. Off we go. There are bound to be questions that come up, but it would be much more efficient all round if you sent them to me on a daily basis or a couple of times a week. Please don’t email me every time you come across something you’re not sure about. Chances are, if you press on a bit, you’ll work it out. If not, I’ll be happy to help, but not ten times a day.

5Tell me if you’re running late. The project manager’s job is to keep things on schedule. If we haven’t been in touch otherwise, I’ll drop you a line each week to check in and make sure everything’s going smoothly. I will ask you if you’re on track for handover on the agreed date. At this point I need to know if you’re not going to meet that date. Telling me everything is fine when it’s not doesn’t help either of us. Now is not the time to be economical with the truth.

1Don’t make excuses. There are a lot of medical conditions that I didn’t know existed before I starting project managing. I’ve learnt a couple of new ones in 2015. I don’t need to know any more in 2016.

4Tell me if you’re going over budget. One of the project manager’s other key jobs is to keep things within budget. If the number of hours agreed for the current stage of the project is 50 and you’ve already done 40 hours and are only half the way through, we’re going to go over budget. We need to talk about why this is. Does the manuscript need more work than anticipated? Do the proofs have a lot of overmatter? Are there a lot of facts that need checking? The next thing we need to do is agree whether the client is happy with the additional hours, and we need to do this in good time before the handover date.

3Keep it real. If you’re working on a long-term project, chances are that there will be some times when you’ll want to snap your laptop lid shut and walk away. (Please do a quick save before you do that.) Take a break, have a change of scene, do something else for a bit. But come back and drop me a line rather than get trapped in a spiral of bad feeling towards the project. It’s good to talk.

That’s what I’d like from you. What can I do for you in return?