Playing the Rates Game & Negotiating the Fair Win


Erin Bass: PSU publishing program student
Esa Grigsby: PSU publishing program student
Ted Leonhardt: Negotiation expert and advisor to creatives

Announcement About Rates Discussion

In order to steer clear of any potential for liability in presenting or discussing rates, the Guild recommends that any reviewer, presenter, or member adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Do not suggest or encourage the adoption of any particular rate or rate structure in a way that would make the member rates more uniform than they otherwise would have been.
  • Any data exchange or statistical reporting that includes current prices, or information that identifies data from individual competitors, can raise antitrust concerns if it encourages more uniform prices than otherwise would exist. In general, information reporting cost or data other than price, and historical data rather than current or future data, is less likely to raise antitrust concerns.
  • Members may share or discuss their typical individual rates or rate structures with other members consistent with the above guidelines.


PSU NWEG Editorial Rates Analysis (pdf on Google Drive)
2018 Industry Report: Northwest Editors Guild (pdf on Google Drive)

We looked at the 2018 rate survey conducted by the NW Editors Guild. We developed a research question: Is experience a factor in how much an editor gets paid for their work, and how does that change based on whether they are freelance or work in-house?

We focused most of our attention on the relevant data sets (rather than trying to take on all of the fantastically dense information the Guild did such a great job gathering). When we looked at that data, we also looked at the differences between freelance and in-house editorial rates to see what kinds of insight could be provided there.

We had more information for freelancers than in-house editors because there was a higher number of freelance responders, which is important to take into account when looking at the data as well.

Overall, in-house editors reported a higher correlation between experience and rate, but it still wasn’t a significant correlation. We tracked rates through seven different editing types: content, copy, developmental, web and blog, proofreading, substantive, and technical.

After analyzing the data, we came to the conclusion that there is no correlation between rates and experience for most editors right now.

In-house editors are more likely to report some correlation, but the correlation is still lower than other industries where, in general, the longer you work, the more you get paid. Possible reasons for the difference in correlation for in-house editors:

  • Perhaps because freelancing takes a certain amount of social capital and networking
  • Generally there’s a more structured nature of the experience/raise correlation in most business organizations

There isn’t really a true, consistent correlation between experience and pay rate for editors. However, there is a small pattern which suggests experience is more likely to affect rates if the editor is in-house rather than freelance.

  • Content editing and copyediting are similar in that both reflect higher experience levels having high rates.
  • Freelance substantive editing rates seem random in terms of experience and pay, whereas in-house substantive editor rates show that more experienced workers actually make less than those less experienced.
  • Blog and web editor rates also don’t vary based on experience level.
  • Technical editing consistently showed a higher pay rate for more experienced workers, making it an outlier.

Proofreading rates do not change based on experience for either freelance or in-house editors.

Fewer answers for dev editing make it more difficult to accurately determine developmental editing rates. Contrary to the overall pattern of responses, there were more answers provided by in-house dev editors than freelance. This may imply that you’re more likely to be a developmental editor in-house than freelance (though it’s impossible for us to say for sure). But the responses we did get follow a pattern which implies that experience matters some if you’re an in-house developmental editor.

Regardless of experience, there seems to be a relatively consistent expectation for rates in terms of who gets paid what. There’s no real consistency in these charts, only that the distribution of pay is relatively constant—even if it doesn’t reflect experience as a determining factor. It’s impossible for us to know the reason behind these patterns, but we have a few theories:

  • Freelancers who work both in-house and freelance mirror their in-house pay in their freelancing business
  • The number of people willing to pay a certain price for editing work is fairly consistent—these clients don’t seem to care whether the editor is more experienced or less experienced

Rate charts

Rate charts can be difficult to compare (hourly vs. fixed)

Negative aspects to rate charts

  • No normalized rate—hard to know what to charge / clients feel like they can negotiate

Positive aspects to rate charts

  • No fixed rates means freelancers are free to create their own rates
  • Use the charts that correspond best with your price and how you want to charge
  • We can’t choose the tools, but we can choose how to use them.

Reedsy provides their recommendations in a price-per-word format. This is a good path to take when you’re not sure how to determine a fixed rate, but it doesn’t take into account the level of edit needed (light copyedit or heavy copyedit will take different amounts of time and effort). Also, because there isn’t a range of prices in this chart, it doesn’t allow consideration of an editor’s experience in determining rates.

Thumbtack: It’s unclear whether this price ($30-$50) is per hour or not, but we’re choosing to believe that it’s per hour and not a fixed rate…we hope. Thumbtack is useful for editors who want to charge within this general range or even higher (due to other factors like experience and portfolio). If you choose to charge more here, you’ll have to be prepared to make your case with the client.

The EFA rates chart is probably the most famous one, and it’s the one that the Northwest Editors Guild [currently] points to in the rates section on their website. They have a disclaimer that could be used when asking a client for a price that’s outside of their ranges (as long as this discrepancy is explained and backed up by reasons). They also list a range of pay and a range of paces for each type of editing work. This allows wiggle room for harder editing work that will take longer, and for adjusting your price along the range depending on the client (some editors charge more when they’re working with a publishing house than they would if they were working with just an author) or, again, depending on the individual experience of the editor. This is my favorite chart because it gives actual reasons as to why a project may cost more or less. It’s transparent about the wiggle room that’s necessary for an editor to come up with a fair price.

Use these charts creatively. Know your tools so you can use them well, and understand the way you work best and use these charts to justify this to clients.

  • Rates
  • Charge per word, per page, per hour, fixed price?
  • What’s the least amount of money you personally need for expenses—factor this in to your price
  • How much experience do you have? Is this something you want reflected in your pricing?
  • Be firm in these convictions


Rate Negotiation Presentation (pdf on Google Drive)

I started as an illustrator, but I didn’t like drawing what they told me to draw. I worked for a small design shop for a couple years, and then started my own business because nobody would hire me. That company grew from 4 to 50 people working on branding and corporate communications. I worked all over the world on many big brands. I moved to London in 1999 and became the creative director overseeing 500 people, which was impossible and ridiculous. After selling that company, I started representing the corporate interests instead of the people I love—the creatives. I also noticed how difficult it is to ask for the money.

I still have trouble asking for money—it’s hard! The Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP) was designed for MBAs and doesn’t really work for creatives. I found that my own techniques for asking for the money were unique to my experience. So I started writing, and now I Skype with people around the world teaching them my methods.

Group Exercise.

  1. One team reached a deal by adding to the scope (3 Skype calls to discuss progress and including a book map).
  2. One team didn’t reach a deal but decided to adjust the scope of work.
  3. One team discussed what the deliverables would be and one side went down and one side went up (compromised).
  4. One team discussed what could be delivered within a certain time period; agreed to do half for X amount and then to renegotiate before doing the rest. One participant pointed out that trying to find someone else in the timeframe would take the hirer too much time and money.
  5. One team did not reach a deal, but left the table with to-dos for each side (asking the manager if time was important, providing a proposal).

The reason for the exercise is that its easy to talk in a room full of adults in a friendly environment—we can be analytical in that situation—but when under stress and emotional pressure, we lose our ability to be rational. Anxiety prevents us from accessing our frontal lobe.

Blog post: Why we struggle asking for the money:

I have closed so many deals prematurely because I Just wanted to get on with the work and get out of the negotiating room.


  • Never negotiate through email! You can’t understand what the other person is thinking or feeling.  You commoditize yourself when you negotiate through email.
    • Example: A college professor got an opportunity for a job in a big-city school, they sent her money and a plane ticket. She loved them, they loved her, and she went home with an offer. She made a list of questions about the job that she emailed to the hirer, and they took away the job offer. She could have had a back-and-forth phone or Skype conversation with them and gauged how they were reacting to her questions, but she didn’t give them the opportunity. The email seemed more like a list of new demands.
  • Don’t avoid preparation—do your homework
    • Example: A chicken company wanted me to brand chicken for high-end East Coast grocery stores. All the other big branding agencies had more experience than me. I wanted to give it a shot, but I just didn’t prepare. Got on the plane, got to the motel, went to the diner in the small town to prepare my presentation on a large paper pad. The diner employees helped me and gave me background on the company. I thought I nailed it, but I misspelled the CEO’s name on the presentation. My contact was so embarrassed, she left, so I left. I was afraid of failing so I just stuck my head in the sand. But I learned to love doing deep-dive investigations from my experience with the diner staff.
  • Make lists: fear avoidance. Make a list of your successes 20-30 minutes prior to the interview. This preloads your frontal lobe with confidence. Anxiety reduces your access to rational thought.
    • Example: Right before a meeting, I used to handwrite a list of the things I’d done that I felt good about. The lists were always the same! I didn’t share the successes with the clients; making the list just put me in the right headspace and prevented anxiety.
  • Get a coach: Get a buddy who knows what you’re going through. Tell them your situation and have a conversation. You may not agree with your buddy, but the conversation helps you analyze the problem.
  • Use your curiosity. We like discovering things and comparing things and playing with words. Sharing your curiosity with your clients gets them excited. It makes the client feel good about you and the project.
  • Inspire them. Don’t say “I’ll do X, Y, and Z.” Share your vision of the final result with the client.
    • Example: Anne Traver was redoing her kitchen and talked to people in all the trades. They talked about square footage costs and different materials, etc.—none of it felt good to her. One contractor looked at the outside of her house first and helped her visualize the light she would get by opening the kitchen wall; he shared his vision of what he could create, and she bought off on it right away. She had previously told her clients the benefits of her work [no errors, no typos, etc.]; now she talks about what the document will be.
  • Expertise power: Our power is in our expertise. We may be thought of as a commodity, but your clients can’t get what you do the way you do it from anyone but you. You’re different from everyone else in the room. Your experience is different (professionally and as a human being).
  • Negotiation is the first step in research and is part of the creative process. What are the possibilities? Asking questions during the negotiation puts you in control and leads you into asking for the money because you’re in the flow of the conversation.
  • Sit on the same side: Metaphorically and physically. Look at stuff together so you’re working on the problem together. Sitting across from someone is confrontational; change seats to be collaborative.
  • We talk too much (when we’re nervous). Ask don’t tell. Create a list of questions. The more the other person talks, the better they will feel about you. It’s kind of a trick, but its also in the best interest of the client because you get more info to help you do the project well. Also ask questions about issues larger than the specific job at hand so you have better overall context and can demonstrate your interest.
  • Change the context: What is the best possible course of action? Collaborate with the client to combine your expertise and insights with their experience and knowledge. Ask questions beyond the project and you might be able to suggest a new context/project description.
    • Example: I was working on a bid but didn’t have the amount of experience my competitors had. So I asked client if I could meet with her. In the middle of the meeting, someone interrupted and was acting like a pain—it was her brother. Oh yeah, this is a family business. I helped her improve her status in the company and I won the job.
  • Know the range— Every project and position has a price range. Find out what the range is. Use online searches, friends, colleagues in the business, past clients, industry organizations know what the range is before you’re going in. AND THEN:
  • Exceed the range! Ask for 20% more than the top of the range. You can’t ask for more money than you have the confidence for.
    • Once I was in a pitch meeting and I was tired and wondering why I was even there, and the chairman looked at me and asked, “Why do you want so much fucking money?” I answered, “Respect.” There was a looong silence, then the CFO said, “I think we’ve found our man.”
  • Know your bottom line. Never go into a negotiation without knowing your bottom line. You have to know the number in your head so you don’t get lulled into wanting to make them feel good and going too low. At least if you go below it, your alarm bells will go off.
  • Anchoring: Always anchor high (the most you feel good asking for); they may give you the rate or they may negotiate you down.
  • Vulnerability. Share your vulnerability with the audience so they empathize with you and want to support you.
    • Example: “I have more than the usual performance anxiety today, my boss is in the audience today. Hi Jim. Bear with me.”
  • Read the room. Make up stories about the people in the room. Right or wrong, the exercise humanizes the other party and reduces your own stress.
  • Ask for something.
    • Example: I was the last presenter in a day-long affair and there were no outlets in the room for the video projector, etc. Every other team just had the clients huddle around their laptop. I asked if we could we just wait until someone grabbed an extension cord. And we got the job.
  • Manners matter. They will forget the specifics of the job and rates, but they will never forget how you made them feel.


What are the consequences of taking a lower rate?

Don’t go lower than your bottom line. You can say something like: “Lowering my fee for you wouldn’t be fair to my other clients who do pay my fees in full.” I love this phrase because it’s a little shaming.

Always try to get a project rate, because you’ll have more maneuvering room. Always have something to say in response to common client questions.

What if their budget is too low, like when you’re working with a nonprofit.

“Our budget is X.” Always ask why. How did you arrive at that number?

Nonprofits always use their status as an excuse and it’s bullshit. They have the money for other people, they have it for you.

I used to negotiate by cutting the deliverables or scope I had suggested. This undermines your expertise because you as an expert know what the scope of the project should be (unless you change the goal).

“Why so much money?” Respect for my skills my experience, what I’ve accomplished for others and what I’ll accomplish for you.

Use the three-step close: How much? How long? What’s included? (And “How does that sound?” to get the client engaged in the discussion.)

How do you discourage email, especially on a small project?

I tell them I don’t start a project if I can’t have a conversation with the client. People choose to hire you based on they feel about you, not on the facts. They feel good about you and the conversation you had. You can’t have a conversation over email.

How did you get so confident?

I still get the same anxiety when I’m negotiating as you, but I know those feelings are going to happen, so I prepare for them.