Let's Talk About Money
By Michelle Seaton
The other day I got an email from a friend asking for advice on how to bid on a freelance editing project. It was substantial project, with a lot of unknown variables, including the quality of the prose. She would be working with a group of novice writers to mold whatever they have written into a publishable state.
I suggested $10,000.
“That’s a lot,” said my friend.
Yes, that’s a lot, because they are asking you to do a lot. And in this case, they are trying to hire someone with 25 years of experience creating narrative, someone who can solve their enormous problem better than almost anyone else can.
And that number should be just a starting point in my friend’s head. I want writers like my friend, like you, to realize that you have a rare expertise for which people must pay.
In writing and editing, this task of putting a price tag on our work makes our hearts freeze every time. Yet, I’m so glad my friend asked for advice. It’s easier to bid on a project when you have a friend or group of friends with whom you talk bluntly about what you charge and what they charge.
So let’s talk bluntly about how to make a bid:
- Never give an hourly rate if you can avoid it. Stop offering to do things at X dollars per hour. Talk instead about the problem you are solving. Imagine that your sink is stopped up. You call a plumber and ask, “What do you charge to fix this?” If the plumber says, “I charge $150 an hour,” you think, “Isn’t that a little steep?” But if the plumber tells you it will cost $150 to do the job, you think, “Is that all I have to pay to get my sink back? I really want my sink back.” Take the price tag off of yourself and put it on the editing or writing problem that needs to be solved. That’s where it belongs.
- But always have an ideal hourly rate in mind when you bid on a project. Consider the hourly rates that people in other professions charge. I think no writer or editor, not even new freelancers, should charge less than $25 an hour. Make that $35. If you have five years of experience or more, you should be charging at least $50 an hour. If you are solving high-level problems, such as creating book proposals or pulling book chapters out of someone’s head, writing speeches and creating op-eds and magazine stories for experts, you should be at $75-plus an hour, and $100 is not out of line.
- Make a list of everything the project requires from you. Note how much time you think each task will take. In terms of a scholarly anthology, for example, that means contacting lots of different writers, hounding them for the chapters, editing each one, sending it back, more hounding, dealing with each writer’s ego during revisions, doing a top edit on the entire text in accordance with a style guide, and going back and forth with the project’s supervisor. That’s a lot of hours. You need this list to determine what to charge for the entire project. You might even detail this list when making your bid, so the client can see everything you are going to do. And you should track how much time you spend on these activities, so you know what future projects will really cost you in terms of time.
- Know which projects merit a discount and which ones require a surcharge. You can always charge less for projects that are important to you. If someone wants me to do work at a lower rate, I start asking myself questions: Is this a nonprofit or is there a higher social purpose? Is this work fun or exciting? Is it leading to more work or similar projects? Will I learn something fascinating that very few people know? A “yes” to any of those questions changes everything. On the other side, I may charge more in certain circumstances: Is the work thankless or dull? Am I working for a group of supervisors? Is the point person difficult or indecisive? Is the project a one-and-done deal? Any of these situations can increase the rate I charge.
Using this formula won’t guarantee that you get every project on which you bid. But it will guarantee that you are putting value on your expertise, your time, and your quality of life.
Michelle Seaton’s short fiction has appeared in One Story, Harvard Review, Sycamore Review, The Pushcart Anthology among others. Her journalism and essays have appeared in Robb Report, Bostonia, Yankee Magazine, The Pinch andLake Effect. Her essay, “How to Work a Locker Room” appeared in the 2009 edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is the coauthor of the books The Way of Boys (William Morrow, 2009) and Living with Cancer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), and Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life (HarperWave, 2018). She has been an instructor with Grub Street since 2000 and is the lead instructor and created the curriculum for Grub Street's Memoir Project, a program that offers free memoir classes to senior citizens in Boston neighborhoods. The project has visited fourteen Boston neighborhoods and produced five anthologies.See other articles by Michelle Seaton