Editor pondering floating pound signs

What are you worth?

by John Pettigrew

Most of us work to earn money. For freelancers and those hiring them, agreeing a fair rate is a perpetually difficult topic. So how do we decide what we’re worth?

This post originally appeared in slightly different form on DigitalBookWorld.

Publishing isn’t a high-paying industry, generally speaking, so I noted with interest GalleyCat’s post the other day listing the average salary of a Senior Editor at RH US — although it’s always difficult comparing salaries across the Atlantic!

When I worked as an in-house editor for large publishing companies, it was always interesting to know where you sat compared with others (and we always complained about the London weighting on salaries). However, there was very little you could do about it beyond trying to get a promotion or a new job. But when I became a freelancer for six years, it all became much more difficult.

So what about freelancers?

One of the hardest questions freelancers face when starting out is, “What should I charge?” It’s an even harder question than deciding whether the salary for an in-house position is ‘right’ because there are so many unknowns. Do you offer low rates to get work? Do you offer high rates but allow yourself to be negotiated down?

There are lots of sources of general data to give you the ballpark, of course. The Society for Editors and Proofreaders here in the UK conducts a regular survey of its members and publishes an annually revised list of suggested minimum rates. This makes an excellent starting point.

But many publishers will offer rates well below those the SfEP suggests — often 40% or even 50% lower. So what do you do?

Don’t undervalue yourself

One of the things that seems to surprise freelancer editors who haven’t worked in house is how little the rate you charge matters to the editor placing the work (not universally, but in many segments of the wildly variable publishing industry). It’s far more important that they believe you will do a good job, and in particular that you will actively relieve the editor of responsibility. That is, after all, why they’re outsourcing the work.

As I discuss on my own blog, work is usually outsourced for financial reasons. But the person who actually commissions the freelancer has other priorities. As long as the project budget overall remains viable, they’re looking for a supplier who will make their life easier.

And this is where offering low rates can work against you. If you don’t charge much, the in-house editor is likely to think that you’re either fairly new or not very good (or both).


If you’re getting work placed with you and your in-house contacts are happy, try raising your rate a little. And then a little more. See how far you can go before your clients really object. (And don’t mistake complaints for real objections. They’re bound to prefer lower rates, but the point is whether they stop placing work with you.)

Of course, it’s hard to experiment if you’re not getting work. But in that case, trying to compete on price alone isn’t likely to work. You need to focus on getting the message through that you’re competent, reliable and professional.

There’s a saying in the world of sales and marketing that once you’re at the point of negotiating the price, you’ve made the sale. Of course, you can blow it by charging too much, but a little firm negotiation can work wonders.

Remember: if you tell someone you’re worthless, they might believe you.

About the author

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has over 15 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.

Join the conversation


 Ana C – July 10, 2014

Hi John,
I am NOT an established translator yet – I have only worked for one online-based company so far for a few months. I don’t believe they pay that much, but I was ok with it because of my lack of experience. However, now I am about to sign a contract with another online company and the payment is even worse. I will sign because I need more experience and more work, of course. What is your advice? How should I try to get clients (translation mostly or translation+editing) without working for these companies? Thank you for your help and for your insightful posts!

     John Pettigrew – July 10, 2014

    Experience is a big issue in many cases. I’m not familiar with translation work but I’m afraid it’ll have to be your call, balancing your need for experience with your need to get paid. I’d be cautious about signing any long-term deal that pays you less that you need to earn (a goal you have to set for yourself), although taking the odd poorly paying job may be inevitable. Making contacts is often the best thing to do – get out there either online or face-to-face and meet the people you need to know. Establish relationships and you’ll be well placed to get work – but don’t make the mistake of just asking for work. Networking’s a dark art sometimes, but the principle of giving at least as much as you take is a good one.

    Sorry not to be more help!

 Walking the tightrope: life as a freelancer – October 7, 2015

[…] clear and bold about your value to your clients. Don’t be ashamed to ask for what you’re worth. And always give your best to your clients in […]

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