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Pricing Models IV; or Why Copyeditors Should Pitch a Flat Fee (and Why Clients Should Accept)

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Over a few weeks I’ve looked at hourly rates vs. word rates for copyediting. I’ve explained why I prefer a per-word as both a freelancer and a client—at least to start.

These days, however, I often convert my word rate to a project rate so I can pitch a flat fee to my clients.

So let’s look at project rates, or flat fees: what they are, why to pitch them, when to pitch them, and how to calculate them.

What Is a Project Rate?

A project rate is exactly what it sounds like: a flat fee to copyedit the project. On the surface, it dispenses with copyediting price calculations—except all that calculating goes on before the contract is signed.

Last spring my house needed a new roof. I got three estimates, like you do, and settled on the roofer with the best combination of price and reputation.

But what struck me most was my roofer’s attitude when I asked him how firm his quote was.

“That’s my fee. It’s firm,” he said.

“What about unexpected stuff?” I asked. “What if you find rotting plywood or something?”

He clarified. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and my estimates are usually right on target. But if I look at the job and miss something, and the job turns out to be bigger? That’s on me.”

I have adopted this attitude when pitching project fees. It’s my responsibility to evaluate the entire job when calculating a firm bid.

I’ll get into calculations later, but first let’s talk about the advantages project fees offer freelancers and clients alike.

Why to Pitch a Flat Fee for a Project

A project rate has the same advantages that a word rate does, for both freelancers and clients. So let’s review those:

Advantages for Freelance Copyeditors

  • Fairly compensates the experienced, efficient editor by tying payment to expertise, not time.
  • Potentially pays a higher EHR (effective hourly rate) than the editor could bill per hour.
  • Makes it possible to make more money in less time.

Advantages for Clients

  • Allows the client to budget at the beginning for copyediting.
  • Allows a client to reward a fast turnaround—because the faster the editor works, the higher his or her EHR will be.
  • Builds accountability and transparency into the client/editor relationship, because the client doesn’t have to worry about how the editor is tracking time.

When to Pitch a Flat Fee

I recommend pitching a flat fee, carefully calculated, whenever possible. There’s just very little downside for the freelancer or for the client.

Calculating that fee does require specific conditions. I’m talking to freelancers specifically here, but clients should also pay heed.

1. You need to see and assess the entire project up front. Without a word count and a timed edit, you will have a hard time calculating a confident estimate. Don’t just accept the client’s reported word count. You need to see the file, check the word count yourself (including notes), and then do a sample edit that you time.

You and the client might disagree on how much work the project needs. That’s a separate negotiation. But without the entire manuscript, you can’t even have that discussion.

Quoting a project fee without seeing the project is asking for trouble. It increases the likelihood of underestimating a project, which can create ill will on all sides.

2. You need to collect data across multiple projects to estimate with confidence. I use Excel to record my time for each project. My template calculates my EHR and other metrics. As a result, I know roughly how many standard pages per hour I can crank through for a light copyedit on an average manuscript for a scholarly press. From there I know my target EHR and per-word rates as starting points.

Regular Projects

Specific situations especially benefit from a flat fee. Here are some examples of special flat-fee contracts I’ve negotiated, and why they were advantageous to me and my clients.

I recommend pitching a flat fee, carefully calculated, whenever possible. There’s just very little downside for the freelancer or the client.

Newsletters and Reports

Last year two clients asked how much I would charge to copyedit their newsletters and corporate reports. After evaluating sample manuscripts, I calculated and pitched a flat fee that would be fair to me and my clients over time. We signed contracts to cover all the newsletters or reports for 2018, specifying flat rates for each publication type.

How could I do that without seeing each new manuscript? These publications have standard word counts and space limitations, and they’re written by the same people every time. So sample manuscripts from past issues allowed me to assess lengths and editorial needs.

Doesn’t the work still vary? Sure. But when one newsletter takes a little longer (reducing my target EHR), the next one goes quickly. It all comes out in the wash.

And my clients are happy because not only are they paying a fair market price, but they can budget their publication editing costs for the entire year. What happens when clients are happy? Sing it with me: “They come back.”

Fundraising Campaigns

One client develops several fundraising campaigns every year. The word counts range from 2,000 to more than 5,000 words for each campaign. So how did we negotiate a single contract with a flat fee covering all the campaigns for 2019?

After I reviewed last year’s sample materials, I adapted the flat rate approach by suggesting a tier of flat rates:

  • up to 3K words = Flat Fee 1
  • 3-4K words = Flat Fee 2
  • 4-5K words = Flat Fee 3
  • more than 5,000 words = Flat Fee 3 + $.0X/word in excess of 5K

Some of the campaigns clocked in at 3,900 words and were billed at the Flat Fee 2 level. But one clocked in at 2,000 words—and I got to charge the entire Flat Fee 1, which I had calculated to be reasonable up to 3,000 words.

Once again, the variation works out to be fair for me and the client over time.

And once again, my client can budget for the entire year. That’s huge—for nonprofit clients especially.

How to Calculate a Flat Fee or Project Rate

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You can calculate a flat fee two ways: (1) by the word and (2) by your target EHR. I recommend calculating it both ways to see where you wind up.

Remember Rosita the copyeditor? Let’s go back to that 100,000-word scholarly book that a university press asks Rosita to copyedit. It is average in every way. The press suggests a low hourly rate. But Rosita wants to pitch them a project rate, after looking at the entire file. Based on her own records of time and income from previous copyediting projects like this one, she has a target word rate and EHR in mind.

First, Rosita double-checks the word count and calculates the job based on her target per-word rate of $.03 per word:

Potential Fee 1: 100,000 words × $.03/word = $3,000

Second, Rosita does a sample edit of 8 pages (including her usual tools and macros) and tracks her time. She determines she can edit the book at a pace of 2,500 words per hour (or 10 standard pages). Her target EHR is $40 per hour for routine copyediting:

100,000 words ÷ 2,500 words/hour = 40 hours
Potential Fee 2: $40/hour × 40 hours = $1,600

Calculating both ways—using target rates developed over years of collecting data—allows Rosita to weigh two estimates that are $1,400 apart. Now, how does she decide what to pitch?

Rosita knows that her client, a university press, has a smaller budget for copyediting books. So she has a few options. For example:

  1. She can pitch the lowest rate, $1,600, for the first round of copyediting, and risk walking away with money still on the table.
  2. She can split the difference and propose a flat fee of $2,300 for the first round of copyediting. She knows the press can always counter lower, so she leaves herself wiggle room.
  3. She can suggest $3,000 for the entire job, throwing in one round of cleanup editing as a perk (perhaps accepting the risk based on previous experience with the press or author).

Whatever Rosita decides, the crucial thing is to pitch the flat fee as a proposed rate. Couching it as a proposal allows her to ask the client how the fee fits the project’s budget. If the client counters with a slightly lower rate, then Rosita can review her numbers to see if the counteroffer is close enough for her to take the job.

Let's Review

A project fee offers all the advantages of a per-word rate. Variations from project to project can and do even out over time. This benefits the freelancer and the client alike, if they work together over the course of several projects.

A flat fee doesn’t eliminate the need to track time. Metrics allow you to get better and better at estimating future jobs. But when your metrics are proprietary, and you track data over the long term, you can focus on becoming more efficient and effective as a copyeditor—and work toward the fast turnarounds that make clients happy and net you a higher EHR.

So when quoting a flat fee or project rate, you have to take the long view. So does the client. But over time a flat fee benefits both parties.

Next week I’ll cover FAQs that have popped up during this series on pricing models. See you then!


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Charging a Flat Fee: Summary

Pros

  • Fairly compensates the experienced, efficient editor by tying payment to expertise, not time.
  • Rewards the editor for a fast turnaround—because the editor has an incentive to work efficiently.
  • Potentially pays the editor a higher EHR (effective hourly rate) than she or he could charge as a billable hourly rate.
  • Enables the editor to make more money in less time.
  • Allows the client to budget up front, with no surprises, because price is now based on the original draft’s word count.
  • Eliminates the risk that the client will receive an astronomically high invoice from a less experienced, less efficient editor.

Cons

  • Requires the editor to collect data over time to calculate flat fees more and more accurately.
  • Requires the client to provide the editor with the entire manuscript up front to calculate a potential flat fee.
  • Requires the editor to improve his or her skills to become more efficient and achieve a higher EHR.