Laurie Lewis—Pricing strategies for freelance editors (Beyond the Red Pencil, 2015)

Laurie Lewis first published What to Charge: Pricing Strategies for Freelance Editors and Consultants in 2000, and when she revised it ten years later, she found that her strategies didn’t change. She shared her time-tested approach to pricing at Beyond the Red Pencil.

Choose the best method of pricing for the job

“I’m not going to tell you how many dollars to charge per hour or per page,” said Lewis. “There is no right price for a job.” Pricing methods include:

  • an hourly rate,
  • a page rate,
  • a word rate,
  • a project rate,
  • a per diem,
  • a retainer, and
  • a unit rate.

Most editors use the first four methods. Some freelancers choose to use only one type of rate, but Lewis suggests learning the different methods of pricing and figuring out which will work best for your particular circumstance. “Hourly is great if you work slowly, awful if you work fast, and great if you don’t know the scope of the project.” But not all clients are comfortable with the uncertainty of a per-hour rate.

Per-page rates used to be based on a 250-word page, but the client may not realize this. If they give you a page count for a manuscript, don’t take their word for it. Work out exactly what a page means to the client before quoting a rate. You and the client will also have to agree on how to count elements like tables and figures.

Per-word rates are common for writers but not so much for editors. If you do use a per-word rate, come to an agreement with the client about whether you’re using the word count before or after the edit.

The biggest pitfall with a project rate is not knowing enough about the project before setting your rate. Get as much information as you can from the client so that you can give an informed estimate.

Keep track of the hours you work, ideally using task-based logs

Regardless of which type of pricing you choose, the most important strategy is to log your time. Even if you’re using a project rate, keep track of the time you spend on specific tasks. “Editing” isn’t specific enough. Are you reviewing the manuscript? Corresponding with the author? Making a style sheet? Spell checking? Running a Find and Replace? Fact checking? Collating changes? Get into the habit of tracking time by task. (An audience member suggested using Freshbooks.) Consider this strategy an investment for future projects, when you’ll be able to look at your logs to see what you’re really spending your time doing.

Get as much information as you can before naming your fee

  • Ask your client for as many project details as they’re willing to give you. Ask for the manuscript or, failing that, a sample—and try to get one from the middle of the manuscript, not the beginning, which authors will probably have spent a long time polishing and thus won’t necessarily reflect the quality of the manuscript as a whole.
  • Ask other freelancers about their rates. “This is not price fixing,” said Lewis. “There is not such thing as price fixing in freelancing. Please be generous with your advice. We’re helping each other. We can only learn from teach other.”
  • Consult your own records: How much did you charge for a similar project? How long did it take you? Did you make what you wanted? Has the client forgotten about any aspect of the project—for example, preparing a reference list?
  • Listen to your gut. “If you’re going to hate the project because of the content, price accordingly.”

Whatever you do, “never give a client a rate off the top of your head,” said Lewis. “When a client says, ‘What do you charge?’ say ‘I’ll get back to you.’”

Determine your negotiating strategy

The two dollar figures you should have in mind when going into a negotiation are:

  • what you want to make
  • the lowest amount you’ll accept

If your client can’t pay you what you want for the work they want done, see if you can agree to change the parameters of a job. For example, you might do fewer rounds of editing or a different level of editing. Your client may agree to collate the changes or to change the schedule.

Consider also what non-monetary concessions you’ll make. For example, you may be willing to lower your rate for an acknowledgment, complimentary copies, or a testimonial. Ask to participate in your client’s activities—for example, an NGO’s fundraiser or a publisher’s book launch—where you might make connections and drum up further business.

“Be prepared to walk away from a job if you cannot agree to a price,” said Lewis. “You will kick yourself for working on a job where you’re not paid enough.”

“Freelance editors can be reluctant negotiators. Think of negotiating as clarifying the details of a job.”

Put your agreement in writing

Once you’ve clarified those details, make sure you get it in writing. Specify:

  • the nature of the project,
  • what you will do,
  • what the client will do,
  • the timetable for the work,
  • the fee and payment schedule,
  • how and why the contract might be terminated, and what you will be paid in that case, and
  • any other specific issues you’ve agreed upon.

These other issues might include what you’ll do in the event of scope changes or whether you can renegotiate if the material comes to you late. “Put wiggle room into the letter of agreement,” said Lewis.

“Formal contracts may frighten clients,” she said. “All you need is an email that puts your agreement in writing, with itemized tasks—but do ask clients to reply to the email saying they’ve agreed to the terms.” Written agreements show that you’re a professional.

Sometimes clients will have their own contracts. Read them, and never sign a contract that contains anything you haven’t discussed or anything you don’t agree with.

Learn from your experience

“The most valuable exercise is a ‘postmortem’ analysis of your projects.” See how much money you would have earned if you had used different pricing strategies. “Ask yourself, ‘How could I have made more money? What are my weaknesses in pricing?’”

At the end of the year, do an analysis of all of your clients, and figure out the average rate you made per hour. “If it’s higher than your usual hourly rate, that’s your new rate,” said Lewis. That new base rate reflects what your clients, on average, think you’re worth. Some may think you’re worth a lot more and will pay higher rates!

Informed-consent documents: Where legalese meets academic jargon

Ever since the Nuremberg Trials put on display the atrocities of human experimentation at the hands of Nazi doctors, the concept of informed consent has been a cornerstone of both medical treatment and biomedical research. [1] Although no country has adopted the Nuremberg Code in its entirety, most Western nations have acknowledged the importance of informed consent as a pillar of research and medical ethics. But if study participants or patients don’t understand the documents that describe the study protocol or treatment plan, are they truly informed?

For human research subjects, the U.S.’s Code of Federal Regulations states:

46.116 General requirements for informed consent

Except as provided elsewhere in this policy, no investigator may involve a human being as a subject in research covered by this policy unless the investigator has obtained the legally effective informed consent of the subject or the subject’s legally authorized representative. An investigator shall seek such consent only under circumstances that provide the prospective subject or the representative sufficient opportunity to consider whether or not to participate and that minimize the possibility of coercion or undue influence. The information that is given to the subject or the representative shall be in language understandable to the subject or the representative. [Emphasis added]

In “Public Health Literacy in America: An Ethical Imperative,” Julie Gazmararian and her co-authors note that one of the “Characteristics of a health-literate America” is that “Informed consent documents used in health care are written in a way that allow people to give or withhold consent based on information they need and understand.” [2]

Unfortunately, actual informed-consent materials fall far short of promoting understanding. Informed-consent documents are used both for legal reasons and to explain research or treatment protocols; as a result, they’re susceptible to being filled with legalese and medicalese—the worst of both worlds. Giuseppina Terranova and her team reviewed consent forms used in various imaging procedures and found that

At qualitative assessment by consensus of the expert panel, the informed consent forms were complex and poorly organized, were written in a jargon style, and contained incomplete content (not including information about treatment options, long-term radiation risk and doses); for outcome probabilities, relevant information was not properly highlighted and easy to find. [3]

Having a complex informed-consent form rife with legalese only stirs distrust among participants and patients. In “Improvement of Informed Consent and the Quality of Consent Documents,” Michael Jefford and Rosemary Moore write:

Informed consent has two main aims: first, to respect and promote participants’ autonomy; and second, to protect them from potential harm. Provision of information in an understandable way lends support to both these aims…

The written informed-consent document (ie, consent form) is an important part of the requirement to disclose and advise participants of the details of a proposed trial. Although the form has been said to give “legal and symbolic documentation of an agreement to participate,” the length and complexity of informed-consent documents hinder participant understanding. Viewing the consent form mainly as a legal document tends to hinder attempts to create reader-friendly documents: “many sponsor and institutions appear to view them primarily as a legal instrument to protect them against litigation.” [4]

Ironically, “The high reading levels of most such forms precludes this understanding, increasing rather than limiting legal liability.” [5] What’s more, if a consent document is hard to understand, research participants will believe researchers are merely covering their own asses rather than prioritizing the participants’ well-being.

The obvious solution to this problem is to use plain language in informed-consent documents. In a test of a standard versus modified (plain language) pediatric consent form for parents, Alan R. Tait and co-investigators found that

Understanding of the protocol, study duration, risks, and direct benefits, together with overall understanding, was greater among parents who received the modified form (P<.001). Additionally, parents reported that the modified form had greater clarity (P = .009) and improved layout compared with the standard form (P<.001). When parents were shown both forms, 81.2% preferred the modified version. [6]

Further, not only do plain language statements (PLS) protect research subjects and patients, but they also benefit researchers:

In the most practical sense, a commitment to producing good quality PLS leads to faster ethics approval—an outcome that will delight researchers. However, the real reward that comes with commitments to high quality PLS is the knowledge that parents and participants are properly informed and that researchers are contributing to a positive change in meeting the information requirements of parents and young research participants.

Plain language information statements need to be clearly understood by research subjects if the ethics process for research approval is to fulfil its objective. [7]

I see an opportunity for plain language experts to advocate for informed consent by promoting clear communication principles at research institutions and health authorities. Although most institutional research ethics boards (REBs) have guidelines for consent forms that recommend using lay language, I would guess that most REB members are unfamiliar with the plain language process. Institutional REBs, such as the one at Simon Fraser University, consist of not only faculty members and students but also members of the wider community, so even if you are unaffiliated with the institution, you may still be able to join an REB and advocate for plain language from the inside. If you’d rather not commit to sitting on an REB, you might want to see if you could give a presentation at an REB meeting about plain language and clear communication principles.

In my ideal world, a plain language review of consent documents would be mandatory for ethics approval, but biostatistician and current chair of SFU’s REB, Charlie Goldsmith, warns that adding a further administrative hurdle to ethics approval probably wouldn’t fly. Most researchers already see the ethics review process as burdensome and a hindrance to their work. But if you could convince researchers that a plain language review before submission to the REB could accelerate approval, as Green and co-investigators had found, you might help open up opportunities for plain language advocates to work with researchers directly to develop understandable consent documents from the outset.

That said, plain language informed-consent forms address only one facet of the interaction and relationship between researcher and study participant, or between clinician and patient. Jefford and Moore write:

There are reasons for putting effort into the production of plain-language participant information and consent forms. However, evidence suggests that these forms should not be relied on solely to ensure that a person understands details about a trial. Plain-language forms should be seen as part of the process that aims to achieve meaningful informed consent. [8]

In other words, clear communication initiatives should extend beyond written materials to in-person interactions: researchers and clinicians should receive training in plain language debriefing and in techniques such as “teach-back” (asking someone to repeat the information they’ve just been given in their own words) to ensure that they are fulfilling their ethical obligations and are doing all they can to help patients and study participants become truly informed.

To learn more about research ethics, including informed consent, take the Course on Research Ethics, developed by Canada’s Panel on Research Ethics.


[1] JB Green et al., “Putting the ‘Informed’ into ‘Consent’: A Matter of Plain Language,” Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health 39, no. 9 (December 2003): 700–703, doi:10.1046/j.1440-1754.2003.00273.x.

[2] Julie A Gazmararian et al., “Public Health Literacy in America: An Ethical Imperative,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 28, no. 3 (April 2005): 317–22, doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2004.11.004.

[3] Giuseppina Terranova et al., “Low Quality and Lack of Clarity of Current Informed Consent Forms in Cardiology: How to Improve Them,” JACC. Cardiovascular Imaging 5, no. 6 (June 1, 2012): 649–55, doi:10.1016/j.jcmg.2012.03.007.

[4] Michael Jefford and Rosemary Moore, “Improvement of Informed Consent and the Quality of Consent Documents,” The Lancet. Oncology 9, no. 5 (May 2008): 485–93, doi:10.1016/S1470-2045(08)70128-1.

[5] Sue Stableford and Wendy Mettger, “Plain Language: A Strategic Response to the Health Literacy Challenge,” Journal of Public Health Policy 28, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 71–93, doi:10.1057/palgrave.jphp.3200102.

[6] Alan R Tait et al., “Improving the Readability and Processability of a Pediatric Informed Consent Document: Effects on Parents’ Understanding,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 159, no. 4 (April 1, 2005): 347–52, doi:10.1001/archpedi.159.4.347.

[7] JB Green et al., 2003.

[8] Michael Jefford and Rosemary Moore, 2008.


This post is an excerpt (heavily edited to provide context) of a paper I wrote for one of my courses about the role of plain language in health literacy. Plain language experts might find some of the references useful in their advocacy work.

Book review: The Employer’s Guide to Hiring Freelancers and Managing Outsourced Projects

Jim Coutu is an arbitrator who works with freelance job sites; essentially he’s a judge in what he calls “project divorce court.” When a project goes sour, it’s his job to pore over correspondence between the client and freelancer, interpreting often vague contracts to figure out who ultimately gets the money. In other words, he’s an expert in what can go wrong in a project, and he’s written an ebook, The Employer’s Guide to Hiring Freelancers and Managing Outsourced Projects, to shed light on common problems and offer suggestions on how to avoid them.

This book fills a critical void: whereas freelancers have banded together to form communities online, whether for stress relief through humour or for advocacy, there aren’t that many resources out there for people on the other side of that relationship. Clients are left to feel out their first projects on their own, and, without guidance, many of them are liable to make mistakes—some of which may start out as minor but can snowball to the point of jeopardizing a project.

Coutu’s background is in software, but his book covers all kinds of outsourcing, from web and graphic design to writing and virtual assistance (although neither editing nor indexing are mentioned). Helpfully, he gives specific tips and examples for each of these areas, as well as more general advice about

  • writing a solid project description so that bidding freelancers will know what you’re looking for
  • assessing the quality of a freelancer
  • paying by the hour versus paying by the project
  • looking out for potential copyright issues
  • keeping projects on schedule
  • working across different cultures and time zones

Coutu offers advice about how best to use the freelance sites’ features to protect yourself. For example, some of these sites will take screen shots of the freelancer’s desktop as they work as proof that they’re billing only for work on your project; the sites will also allow you to hold money in escrow and store a record of all of your correspondence with a freelancer so that an arbitrator can easily review the contract (and any changes to it). Although Coutu advocates care and rigour on the employer’s part, what I appreciate most about the book is that he never describes the client–freelancer relationship as an adversarial one. In fact, one of the first suggestions he gives is to “set the freelancer up for success. Make sure that they have everything that they need before you accept their bid, including specific requirements of what you want completed.” Your aim when using a freelance job site isn’t to get away with paying the least; rather, “the goal for both parties should be to get the work done at a fair price. The employer is happy that the work got done for a fair price, the freelancer is happy that they are paid a fair wage.” He also urges wary employers to consider the freelancers’ perspective: “Remember, the worker is also taking a risk working with an unknown employer who may take their work and not pay them.”

Coutu gives sample arbitration scenarios to show how the process would assess and resolve different kinds of disputes. Not surprisingly, problems in projects often result from poor communication, and Coutu emphasizes that both parties share a responsibility of ensuring that they have a common understanding of the contract. “Ambiguous wording issues are the fault of the employer,” he writes, and if you’re not getting what you need, it’s up to you to communicate clearly what the issues are. “Unfortunately,” Coutu writes, “I have seen many cases where poor feedback and poor feedback alone has caused a project to fail.” When a freelancer doesn’t meet expectations, advises Coutu, “Even if you absolutely hate what has been delivered, resist the temptation to reply with an emotional response. Always be professional.” He adds, “Emotional responses lead to arguments, not discussions.”

Also commendable is Coutu’s attention to copyright issues. He tells employers to be vigilant about running images used in a design through a reverse image search and text through Copyscape or Google to make sure there’s no infringement or plagiarism. He also notes that “freelancers who come from countries where copyrights are not enforced are simply not aware of the issues.”

Although Coutu makes his living as an arbitrator, he advises employers to use arbitration as a last resort, encouraging self-mediation as a first step. “As an arbitrator, I am keenly aware that the arbitration process is difficult for all parties. Even if you have a rock solid case that clearly documents abuses by the other party, arbitration is going to cost time that would be better spent on other endeavors.”

Because this book focuses mostly on one-off projects through online freelance job sites, it probably won’t be terribly useful to managing editors and production managers in publishing, whose day-to-day work involves hiring editors, designers, and indexers for a steady stream of projects. It doesn’t, for instance, suggest places other than freelance job sites—such as member directories of professional associations—to look for skilled freelancers, nor does it address the all-important relationship building and need to create a strong network of professionals you know you can trust to work on project after project. These ties are essential to keeping training costs down and ensuring coverage for all of your projects through the publishing cycle.

In contrast, self-publishers may find a lot of value in this book; some of them may choose to use a freelance job site to find a cover designer, for example, or someone to convert a print book to an EPUB. Unfortunately, The Employer’s Guide isn’t a comprehensive reference for self-publishers, as it doesn’t talk about the role of editors or indexers at all. In fact, in his advice about how to give feedback to a freelance writer, he writes, “If something is awkwardly worded, give examples of what might work better”—a task that a professional editor would certainly be in a strong(er) position to do.

Incidentally, as a self-published book, The Employer’s Guide is clear and easy to read, although, as an advocate for my profession, I have to say that I’d have preferred the book if it had gone through a copy edit and had a linked index. In terms of its content, a managing editor’s manual it is not, but for those who want to explore what the global work force has to offer, this book brims with sage advice that will help maximize your odds of getting what you want while minimizing your risks.

PubPro 2014 attendees can enter a draw to win a copy of The Employer’s Guide.

Editors’ Association of Canada members who have contract disputes with clients can turn to EAC’s mediator for help:

Christene Hirschfeld—Canadian copyright: The new rules (EAC conference 2013)

“I was boring myself when I put together this presentation,” copyright lawyer Christene Hirschfeld joked as she started off her EAC conference presentation, adding, to audience laughter, “I could not find a way to make this topic interesting.” Her overview of the 2012 amendments to Canada’s Copyright Act stimulated a huge amount of discussion, however, and I think all of the editors in that room would agree that the talk was anything but boring.

Hirschfeld started us off with a bit of historial background: Canada’s Copyright Act was passed in 1921, with significant amendments in 1988, 1997, and 2012. In 1988, computer programs were added as “works,” new licensing arrangements for orphan works (works whose copyright owners cannot be identified) were added, and the extent of moral rights was clarified. Moral rights include the right to be identified or not identified as the author of a work, as well as the right to protect the integrity of the work. Moral rights can’t be assigned, so in a situation of work for hire, there has to be an explicit waiver of moral rights. (There are no moral rights in the U.S.)

The 1997 amendments included a copying levy on blank tapes, new copyright exceptions for special groups (that allow the reproduction of large-print books for visually impaired readers, for example), and an increase in damages for infringement.

In Canada, Hirschfeld said, copyright doesn’t have to be registered, but if you do register, it’s relatively cheap ($65). You send in a copy of the work, and the copyright office sends it back with a certificate of registration. The problem is that they register the work based on the name of the item, and they don’t keep a copy of the work, so if you change its name, you essentially lose the registration.

Why would you bother registering? Hirschfeld pointed out that it reverses the onus of proof: rather than having to prove that someone infringed, the other party would have to prove that they didn’t infringe. Also, registering can make a difference in the realm of statutory damages that are awarded if infringement is found.

The 2012 amendments were much anticipated, with many false starts in 2010 and 2011. The legislation covers a huge range:


To align photography with other means of creative production, the photographer now owns copyright to a photo. Exceptions are when a photographer is an employee or there is a written contract assigning copyright.

(As an aside, Hirschfeld cautioned us all to be very careful about the photos and images that web developers may use when building a website for you. Even if your contract states that they are responsible for all licensing fees, if they go out of business or can’t be contacted, the big stock agencies such as Getty Images will come after you.)

Performers’ moral rights

Performers who own copyright will hold moral rights in a performance. Hirschfeld warned us, however, that music rights are complex and layered, and she told us that an arranger doesn’t have a copyright interest.

Non-commercial user-generated content

Known casually as the “YouTube exception,” this amendment essentially says that if you create a new work, showing skill and judgment, using protected work in a non-commercial context (for example, you record a video of your three-year-old lip synching and share it on YouTube), it isn’t considered infringement. However, attribution is required where reasonable, and the dissemination of the work can’t have any substantial adverse effect on the copyright holder. (Hirschfeld admitted, though, that there’s no standard test for “skill and judgment.”)

Format shifting

You may reproduce a work if

  • the original was not an infringing copy,
  • you legally obtained the original, and
  • the reproduction is for your private purposes.

You may record for later listening or viewing if

  • the program is legally received,
  • you make only one recording,
  • you use that recording for private purposes,
  • you do not distribute the copy, and
  • you keep the recording for no longer than reasonable to listen or view at a more convenient time.

Backup copies

It is legal to back up a source copy of a work if

  • the backup is only for use in case of loss or damage to the original,
  • the source copy does not infringe, and
  • you don’t break a digital lock.

You also have to destroy all copies if you lose title or license to the source copy.

Technical protection measures

You can’t break a digital lock. Consequences of doing so could be a fine of up to $1 million and a prison term of up to five years.

Internet service provider liability

It constitutes infringement to provide Internet-based service primarily to enable copyright infringement.

Fair dealing

Fair dealing is an exception to infringement. To be fair dealing, the purpose of your work must be

  • research,
  • private study,
  • criticism, or
  • news reporting.

As of 2012, the following were added:

  • parody,
  • satire, and
  • education.

Hirschfeld noted, though, that what constitutes “news reporting” could be open to a lot of interpretation. In fact, she offered a practical outlook to most issues of copyright, saying that although something may be law, enforcing it means you have to go to court, and lawyers are expensive. Further, it can be hard to find police officers and judges who take copyright infringement and intellectual property seriously.

Some audience members asked about the legality of keeping a copy of an author’s work on their computer for safekeeping. Realistically, said Hirschfeld, who’s going to know? Legally, though, you should spell this practice out in terms and conditions on a contract. State very clearly how and why you might keep a copy of a work but explain that you won’t distribute it without permission. Similarly, if you need text to use for an editing sample, inform the clients about this possibility (with details such as word count) through your terms and conditions, and make sure they sign off.

The good, the bad, and the “that could have gone better” about subcontracting

Patricia Anderson, PhD, runs an editing and literary and literary consulting business, Helping You Get Published, and has hired several editorial subcontractors over her company’s fourteen-year history. Amelia Gilliland holds an editing certificate from SFU and has worked in-house at Arsenal Pulp Press and Douglas & McIntyre; today she’s a freelance editor who occasionally subcontracts for the West Coast Editorial Associates. Eve Rickert is a Certified Professional Editor and founder of Talk Science to Me Communications Inc., which provides services including writing, editing, indexing, and design through a team of subcontractors. Anderson, Gilliland, and Rickert made up the panel on subcontracting at last week’s EAC-BC monthly meeting, moderated by Frances Peck. Peck asked the panellists questions to get the discussion going and also encouraged questions from audience members.

How did you get into subcontracting?

Rickert said that she started collaborating with others early on, mainly on big writing projects. When she took her first in-house position, she wanted to hang on to clients and began subcontracting to trusted associates. At a second in-house job, her responsibilities included a lot of project management, which she enjoyed. She integrated that element into her business when she struck out on her own to offer science communication services, and today she subcontracts to writers, editors, and designers.

Gilliland brought the perspective of someone who takes on subcontracting opportunities rather than offering them. She began subcontracting while she was still in school, working toward an editing certificate at Simon Fraser University. She asked Ruth Wilson, who was one of her instructors, to mentor her, and she began subcontracting for WCEA. “It was a great way to start,” she said. “When you’re that new to it, you don’t really know how to get into it.” She added that subcontracting gives you an opportunity to work on great projects if you’re working for people who’ve been in the business a long time and are trusted in the industry.

Anderson, who admits that she very much enjoys working on her own and always goes back to it, began subcontracting a year into taking her business online. “These were the early days of the Internet,” she said, “and after three weeks of being online I was so swamped my life was turned upside down.” She cobbled together a group of five subcontractors; the first subcontracting model she tried was to have a group of experts, each taking on one part of the business: marketing, proposals, literary consulting, etc. She said that the model worked, but because it was early in her business, she didn’t realize where the bulk of the business would be. As a result, she and her editor were overwhelmed with work.

The next model she tried was to have a combination of expert editors and some more junior subcontractors. The problem she encountered with that arrangement was that her subcontractors would regard her as an employer and would constantly expect her to give them more work. Anderson wasn’t fond of the pressure that expectation put on her and told us that if she tries other subcontracting models, she’ll emphasize that she’s offering freelance opportunities, not employment, and she’ll actively seek out entrepreneurial, proactive contractors.

Rickert hasn’t found the same kinds of expectations from her subcontractors; if anything, her problem has been the opposite, in that she’s lost a few freelancers who’ve sought out other opportunities.

Trust is a big issue in subcontracting. Those of us who are freelancers are used to doing our own work and answering for ourselves. With subcontracting you’re trusting someone else to work with your client. Did you have any initial fears about getting into subcontracting?

Gilliland responded, “I was terrified. I was new to the industry. I was terrified I was going to do something unbelievably stupid and scared that I wouldn’t represent [WCEA] well. That fear—that I wouldn’t do a good enough job—came with being new; I didn’t have the confidence. It’s different now. There’s always a bit of apprehension, but there’s less about my not representing well.”

Anderson joked that she was fearless because the business was so new she didn’t know what she was getting into. Rickert said that she started off the same way but, “I certainly have a lot of fears now. With a new subcontractor, there’s always wondering if their work is up to standard. And the relationship with clients—do I manage the relationship, or do I have subcontractors work with them directly?” She said that she eases into that arrangement with a new subcontractor; after she’s confident the subcontractor’s work is up to standard, she has them work directly with the client and keep her posted on milestones. She says she’s clear about accountability and who is responsible for what: “Subcontractors are working for me, not for my client. If my client has issues with performance, those can come to me.” Getting the right distance between the person requiring the work and the person doing the work is the balance she strives to achieve.

Both Rickert and Anderson mentioned that their business models involve a markup. Rickert described her work as trying to maintain a sweet spot—a balance between what subcontractors are paid and what clients are charged. At first she was reluctant to charge a markup, but she came to realize that she puts a lot of time into finding good people, managing projects, training, and building a brand. The subcontractor also gets value from being part of a managed project.

How much do you check up on their work? Do you rely on their background?

Rickert replied that it depends how well she knows their work. For newer subcontractors, she’ll usually work behind them and check their work, giving them feedback on areas for improvement. For more established editors, she may not have to do this.

Anderson added, “I analyze the project, decide what the major issues are and  what the best strategies are, and I convey this to the editor. I make myself available non-stop. I go through the project line by line.” It’s an intensive commitment, Anderson said, but she was quick to add, “There are junior editors who do certain things better than people with more experience,” suggesting we should play to people’s strengths and worry less about whether they are junior or senior.

Gilliland explained that when she first started out, she did have her work checked and asked for feedback, especially if she was in a situation where the editor hiring her was trying to maintain a client and just couldn’t take on a specific task. Today, most of the subcontracting work she does is when an editor isn’t interested in a project or doesn’t have time to take on the work and asks her if she wants it—in which case it’s more a referral and less a subcontract.

What is the difference between a subcontract and a referral?

Peck said, “We pride ourselves on being a collegial bunch of people; it’s not a cutthroat business and we’re often quite happy to hand off work. In a much earlier life, I was a real estate agent. In that world, you always received a referral fee that was 25 per cent of the commission. Should there be a fee for a referrals?”

“That’s a tough one,” said Gilliland. “It depends where it comes from.” She explained that the West Coast Editorial Associations, for instance, were sought out by clients and contacted because of the reputation they had built; she could understand paying a fee for projects they referred.

Rickert tries not to give referrals; she has a big enough team of subcontractors that she can usually keep projects in house. However, she does offer clients a referral bonus: if they refer new clients to her, she’ll offer a discount on the next project.

Anderson said, “I have strong feelings on this. I work hard on my websites. I put in hours and hours. If a potential new client comes to me, it’s still time invested. I’ve laid the groundwork, counselled the editor about a reasonable fee, and set the client up. I want 15 per cent. People say, ‘Why should I give you 15 per cent when I do all the work?’ Well, editing is work, but it’s not all the work in a business.”

Anderson told us that she was looking online to see who else had a referral model and discovered a site that purported to be a database of editors. In order to be listed in this database, you first have to pass an editing test—which you have to pay for. Once you’re in, the owner of the site charges you a monthly fee to remain listed. If you get work (which, according to some posted reviews of the site, may never happen), you pay 30 to 40 per cent of what you earn. We wondered whether any editing was actually going on, but the owner of the site claims to have some high-powered clients.

The last story raises a point about ethics. Have you ever encountered any concerns from the client’s point of view or concerns about ethics?

Gilliland said that she had a client who initially wasn’t comfortable with the idea that his project was being handed off to her from the editor he’d approached.  “I think his attitude was, ‘Well, why doesn’t she want to work with me?'” In the end, Gilliland met with him and gained his trust. The fact that the other editor expressed confidence in her work catalyzed that process.

Rickert said that she’s never had ethical issues because she is always responsible for the final quality of the work; she never takes herself out of the project.

Anderson takes a similar approach: “I come in at the beginning, so the client knows the work comes from me, with input and assistance from another editor.” She said she’d never pass off someone else’s work as her own.

A growing concern for Anderson is that she has so many return clients that she can barely handle them. “How do you hand off a loyal client?” she asked.

How do you decide on your markup?

Rickert explained that with established associates, her markup is 100 per cent, which is standard for the industry. For senior editors she brings in on occasional projects, the markups are lower, but they’re never less than 30 per cent.

Do you have formal contracts with subcontractors that specify editorial credit, and payment—or that stops subcontractors from absconding with your clients?

Rickert is adamant about having contracts with her subcontractors and contracts with her clients. She does have a non-soliciation clause that prevents her subcontractors from working independently with her clients for a certain period.

Anderson admitted to being a bit lax about contracts. She does have house rules and a general expectation of the level of work and editing, but she doesn’t have formal contracts.

Gilliland said that she usually has a contract directly with the client or author and has a separate contract with the editor who subcontracted the work.

What are the top one or two lessons you’ve learned through your subcontracting experiences?

Anderson said (only somewhat jokingly), “Consider not subcontracting. There’s a lot to be said for the one-person business. If you’ve got solid clients, you’re enjoying your work, and you’re able to handle it efficiently, why torture yourself?” A second lesson is that if you have to subcontract, make a plan. Decide on the kind of model that will work best for your business and the kinds of editors that will be the best fit. A last piece of advice for editors looking to subcontract is to think of themselves as independent professionals. “This is not being an employee. This is being a proactive professional fulfilling a freelance opportunity.”

Gilliland advised, “Only work for top-drawer people. Work with the best people you can, especially if you’re just starting out. They’ll be good examples, teach you, and offer you better work.”

Rickert’s advice: have a contract—with both client and subcontractor. Get a line of credit. She added, “Be clear that you’re still responsible for the work. You’re responsible to everyone: client and subcontractors. Don’t think you’re getting out of anything by subcontracting.”

Editing books in translation

Yesterday I gave a talk at the EAC-BC meeting about editing books in translation, and I was buoyed by the thought-provoking discussions that came out of the audience, which was packed with expertise. Here’s a short summary of my presentation.

Why translations?

Unlike a piece of visual art, which virtually anyone can see and appreciate, a book has an audience limited to those who understand the language in which it’s written. When you work on a translation, you’re bringing a work of art, a point of view, or a piece of knowledge to a much broader audience than it previously had—a pretty powerful idea, when you think about it. Canadian historian of translation Louis Kelly declared that “Western Europe owes its civilization to translators,” and although that statement may seem grandiose, the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance wouldn’t have played out the way they did if the Bible and classical Greek and Latin texts hadn’t been translated into the vernacular.

On a more practical level, publishers like translations because, in a way, they mitigate a bit of the risk of cultural production. If you know that the source text has done well in its native territory and your target audience has a comparable culture, there’s a decent chance the translation may also do well. (On the flip side, publishers have to contend with the notion—whether it’s real or merely perceived—that the reading public is loath to buy translations.) Publishers also like translations because they’re often subsidized. Grants from the Canada Council for the Arts or from other funding bodies are available to offset the cost of producing translations for certain kinds of books (eligibility criteria vary depending on the type of program).

If you’re an editor, translations are a great way to cut your teeth: with the odd exception, they involve no structural editing, and most of the work is copy editing, with a bit of stylistic editing. You also get to work with translators, who, because they are language professionals like you, understand the role of the editor and often come into the working relationship with an eagerness to start a dialogue about the text. Many translators are also editors (in fact, I often like to think about stylistic editing as translating from English to English), and because both parties are, in a sense, working with what one translator called “borrowed words,” the relationship can be really collaborative and dynamic. You would normally be working with a translator who’s translating from the source language into his or her mother tongue, so, even if you don’t know the source language, there’s no language barrier to worry about.

Copyright and contracts

As the editor of a book in translation, you have to be aware of three different contracts:

  • the contract for the translation rights
  • the contract with the translator
  • the agreement with the funding body

The contract for the translation rights is usually between the publisher of the translation and the publisher of the original text, although occasionally it’s between the publisher of the translation and the author. An author has to authorize a translation before it can be published, and the translation rights have to be assigned to the publisher—this contract typically serves both of these functions. For an illustrated book, those rights may or may not include image rights. This contract may also specify an approval process for the translation, as well as the format of the copyright notice on the translation’s copyright page.

The contract with the translator defines the scope of the translator’s work—any tasks that fall beyond that scope (e.g., translating praise quotes for marketing copy) may mean the publisher has to pay extra—as well as project timelines. This contract will also specify how the translator will be credited. (Because a publisher will often try to downplay the fact that a translation is a translation, the translator’s name may not have to appear on the cover but would appear on the title and copyright pages.)

The agreement with the funding body, whether it’s the Canada Council or a foreign organization, such as the Goethe-Institut or China Book International or NORLA (Norwegian Literature Abroad), will usually include the exact wording of an acknowledgement clause, and possibly a logo, that must appear in the published translation. If you fail to include this clause, the publisher may lose its translation funding.

A publisher might not allow you to see these contracts directly, but you should know to ask for these specific pieces of information so that you can complete the project properly. Any tasks that these agreements don’t cover—for example, clearing image rights or handling text permissions—may fall to you as the book’s editor. The publisher may also ask you to approach well-known people to write a foreword or cover blurb for the book.

Working with a translated manuscript

When you receive the finished manuscript from the translator, the only structural work you’d be expected to do is a quick concordance check to make sure that all of the paragraphs in the original appear in the translation. Otherwise, you’re mostly copy editing, although you’ll want to offer stylistic suggestions when something in the translation doesn’t sound quite right.

You don’t have to know the source language to edit a translation, although, in my experience, having some experience with the source language can help you know what to look out for (and, as we’ll see later, can help you land work), including problems such as false cognates. Also pay attention to idioms that don’t work in the target language; you may have to suggest different idioms that convey the same concept. Prepositions are by far the most idiomatic part of speech, so if a sentence sounds a little off, check the prepositions to see if the appropriate ones have been used. When a translator is switching back and forth between languages, it’s really easy to use a preposition that works for the source but not for the target language. Finally, punctuation is treated differently in different languages, so be sure that the punctuation in the manuscript is appropriate to the target language.

As you would for any manuscript, keep an eye out for quoted passages that may require permission to reproduce. Text permissions in translations are an especially tricky issue, because they can be multilayered—for example, even if a passage in the source text is in the public domain, the translation of the passage in the target language may still be under copyright. Avoid what the Chicago Manual of Style calls “the sin of retranslation”—if the quote in the source text had been translated from the target language, the translator must track down the original quote rather than translating it anew.

Always ask the publisher for a copy of the source text. Not only do you need to do an initial concordance check, but you’ll want to be able to refer to the source if you run into passages in the translation that sound strange or awkward because of possible homonym confusion. Tools such as source language–target language dictionaries, Google Translate, and terminology databases like Termium can come in handy in those situations. (Of course, you’d never send a whole novel through Google Translate, but the tool can be useful for interpreting one or two problematic sentences as a starting point to a discussion with the translator.)

Other translation-related issues that you often hear about—including whether the translation should be literal or free, whether a translator should define unfamiliar terms with footnotes or glosses, how to approach culturally sensitive topics—are usually, if you’re working with an experienced professional translator, within the translator’s domain. You should absolutely be aware of these issues, since the translator may look to you for discussion or advice, but in many cases you won’t be expected to play too hands-on a role. With a less experienced editor, however, you may be called on to offer more input on these matters.

Finding work as an editor of translations

If you’re interested in editing books in translations, start, as you would for any kind of book editing, with a query letter to a publisher, but specify your interest in translations. (Of course, it helps to know someone on the inside, which is why it’s important to build relationships with publishers in other ways.) You can check the Canada Council website for a list of translation grants that have been awarded to find out which publishers in the country publish translations. Try also to build relationships with translators—such as members of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada—because a translator who knows you and trusts your work may recommend you to his or her publisher.

If you know a second language, you can offer your services as a reader. Publishers return from the London Book Fair in the spring and the Frankfurt Book Fair in the fall with boxes of books in languages they may not know how to read; they’ll offer readers a fee to read and evaluate whether translations of these books might be good fits on their lists. If you identify a promising project and the publisher goes ahead with it, you’d be a natural choice to edit it.

Do a bit of research into funding programs for translations that are available outside of Canada. Many countries are eager to export their literature and have ministries of culture or associated organizations that subsidize foreign translations. If you approach a publisher right before a book fair with the pitch that you’re available as a reader, you’ve built connections with several literary translators, and you’re aware of a specific funding body that might subsidize the cost of a translation, that’s a pretty compelling package.

When evaluating books as a reader, consider the following:

Does it fit on the publisher’s list?

This point may seem obvious, but it can be tempting to recommend a book project even if it’s not a good fit just so that you’ll get to work on it. Doing so would only sabotage your credibility with the publisher.

How much localization does the work need?

Would the book need to be changed in any way to be comprehensible to the translation’s readership? Would the book benefit from a foreword?

How long will the translation be?

French texts are about 20% longer than English texts, and Spanish about 25% longer than English. if the original is short to begin with, will a translation be too slight to publish? Length is less of a concern for ebooks but is definitely a consideration for print books.

Are there image or text permissions to worry about?

Flag these for the publisher, because they may add to the schedule or to the budget, and they may affect how the publisher approaches the contract for translation rights.

For illustrated books, is there reverse type?

If the publisher of the translation hopes to use the same printer as the originating publisher, reverse type means added production costs: rather than replacing just the black plate, the printer would have to replace all four CMYK plates. Flag instances of reverse type so that the publisher is at least aware of them.

Further resources

If you’d like to learn more about the world of books in translation, I highly recommend Translators on Translating by Andrew Wilson and Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman. You may also find resources on the websites of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council, the Society of Translators and Interpreters of British Columbia, and similar groups in other provinces.

February EAC-BC meeting

A week from today, on Wednesday, February 20, I’ll be giving a talk at the EAC-BC meeting about editing books in translation. I’ll talk about copyright, the editor–translator relationship, special issues in translation projects, and strategies for getting work as an editor of translations. I’ll also be giving away a couple of books that I’ve recently reviewed: Science in Print and Book Was There. Come join us (but leave all of your tough questions at home)!

There’s a pre-meeting pay-as-you-go dinner:

Elephant & Castle
385 Burrard Street (Marine Building)
RSVP here by the end of the day Monday, February 18

followed by the meeting at the usual location:

535 Hornby Street, fourth floor

I start blathering at 7:30pm.

For those of you who can’t make it but still care, I’ll post a summary of my talk here by the end of next week.

Writing Rights—personal perspectives

In his Writing Rights session, David Scott Hamilton made an incredibly important point when he described asking for a royalty in his contract negotiations with Anvil. The publisher showed him the numbers and said, *We just can’t do it.”

That conversation really underscored that building a productive publisher–translator relationship is a two-way street—mutual respect is key. The subsequent discussions during the workshop about concerns over relinquishing control by assigning copyright and ways to negotiate the best contract might imply an adversarial relationship, but having worked at a publishing house, let me offer this perspective:  publishers, in the vast majority of cases, aren’t out to screw authors over, just as authors who leave a small press after achieving some success to work with a bigger company aren’t trying to screw over their former publishers. Publishing is a business—one in which, especially in the literary world, margins are simply razor thin. Of course I’m by no means suggesting that artists shouldn’t try to negotiate a favourable contract—on the contrary. However, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that most publishers, particularly small literary presses, aren’t prolific money-making enterprises. Most are doing the best they can with what they have, and I think a more productive relationship would ultimately result if writers and translators approached their negotiations with that understanding in mind. It’s not so much that publishers want to hand artists the short end of the stick but that, in Canadian publishing, both ends of the stick can end up pretty short.

That said, I did very much appreciate and admire Martha Rans’s fervent advocacy on behalf of the artistic community. For artists whose work is exploited, having support like the Artists’ Legal Outreach can be invaluable.

When I attended Chang Han’s intellectual property session at Freelance Camp, I was left with a niggling question. Sure, you’re theoretically protected by a framework of copyright laws, but if someone infringes, not only do you have to discover the infringement, but you also have to be prepared to pursue legal action in the infringer’s jurisdiction. Rans’s comment about the difficulty of enforcement, particularly across borders, filled in the critical missing piece in my understanding.

Carolyn Swayze’s session consisted mainly of anecdotes from her work as an agent, and they were interesting—I didn’t know much about literary scouts before her talk—but the outline of the workshop implied she’d be discussing the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada’s model contract, which she didn’t address. I would have liked to see the anatomy of a translation contract to discover how much it jibed with my own experiences working with translators for a publisher. Luckily, it appears that the comprehensive LTAC booklet accompanying the workshop has all of that information and more—including foreign funding sources for translations.

Overall, Writing Rights was a very informative workshop, and I got to meet some terrific people. I’m amazed that it was free—another big thank-you to LTAC, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Department of Canadian Heritage for sponsoring the event. If I could have made one suggestion, it would have been to make the day’s program available on the Word on the Street website prior to the workshop. I could find very little information about it, even the morning of, and I didn’t know what kinds of speakers and sessions would be featured until I arrived; knowing the workshop structure would have allowed for better planning on my part.

Writing Rights, Session 3—Carolyn Swayze on negotiating the best possible contract

Carolyn Swayze is the president of Carolyn Swayze Literary Agency, where she represents authors of literary fiction and nonfiction for adults and children. She spoke at the Writing Rights workshop about contracts.

As an agent, she works with authors to decide who will handle the rights in translation. Often publishers with large rights departments believe they are the best to handle them, but Swayze finds that they often don’t do anything with those rights. As a result, she’ll try to sell Canadian English rights only, sometimes North American English, and occasionally North American French and English rights so that the author can retrain translation rights to sell elsewhere. A problem Swayze encounters is that publishers in France usually insist on buying World French rights, whereas she’d like to retain North American French rights to sell separately.

Swayze works with a network of co-agents and literary scouts around the world to sell translation rights. After a while, “You get to know what kinds of books do well in different markets,” she said. Co-agents range from individuals to big international agencies, whereas scouts are paid by publishers, film companies, etc., to seek out appropriate projects for their clients. Scouts play an important role; with the number of books out in the marketplace, “it’s impossible to bring a book to enough people” for their consideration, said Swayze.

Echoing David Scott Hamilton, Swayze emphasized the importance of developing relationships. Seek out publishers and co-agents in countries in which your language of choice is spoken, she advised, and ask scouts for their client list. (On the topic of how to find scouts, Swayze was a bit coy: “Do a little research. There’s all sorts of online material.”) Promote yourself so that people know you exist. Once you’ve established some credibility, you can start negotiating for a bigger cut in your contracts.

Translators often complain about having difficulty getting a royalty split, but Swayze has seen it happen; she even told us of a translator in Italy who managed to secure a split of 50%. The other side of that coin are those who are essentially paid a fee for service, and some translators don’t even get billing on the front cover. If you have an agent, he or she will usually negotiate the contract on your behalf. How do you find a good agent? Swayze suggests researching online and carefully reading an agency’s submission requirements to make sure that you’re a good fit. Also, read the acknowledgements in books in your genre; authors will often thank their agents, and you can get some names that way. If you write nonfiction, prepare a good proposal for an agent’s consideration; for fiction, especially a debut work, you may have to complete it before an agent will look at it.

Swayze is realistic with her advice, warning that if you secure one contract but don’t earn out your advance, it becomes much harder to sell another book.

Writing Rights, Session 2—Martha Rans on copyright law

Martha Rans is a copyright lawyer who co-founded the Artists’ Legal Outreach. The ALO runs a legal clinic at which artists and arts organizations can, by donation, have a thirty-minute consultation with a lawyer or law student about a problem related to their artistic discipline, including issues relating to contracts and copyright. Rans spoke to Writing Rights participants about copyright issues, particularly as they relate to writing and translation.

Copyright exists so that creators can protect their intellectual property and allow them to earn money from their work, which encourages creative production. It’s an important value for artists, and most artists’ organizations are vocal in advocating for copyright. Of course, since, as Rans said, “everything about who we are as people is connected to culture and creativity,” we have to strike a balance between artists’ ability to protect their work and users’ ability to gain access to that work; we’ve built into the copyright structure the concept of the public domain.

What’s copyrightable? Books, songs, images, plays, software—forms of creative expression. Copyright doesn’t cover a compilation of facts or titles or utilitarian goods. Concepts and ideas are not covered by copyright; it’s the expression of those ideas that are covered. Copyright covers original work, which means that it must be original to the creator. For example, two people could take photos that happen to look identical, but both images are protected by copyright. Copyright takes effect as soon as you’ve created your work and fixed it in a tangible (including digital) form, and you don’t have to register your copyright. However, if you’re collaborating with other people and it may become necessary for you to clearly establish when you created a work, you might want to register it. Most importantly make sure your name is associated with your work. Including the phrase “All rights reserved” with your copyright notice means that your permission is needed for any use involving your work.

Copyright lasts for a term of death plus fifty years in Canada (now true for photographs, too). In the U.S. and E.U., the term is death plus seventy years; Canada’s shorter term allows our homegrown artists more freedom to explore. Rans said that the issue is not whether you can play around with a work under copyright but, once you’ve done that, whether you can then sell it for commercial purposes. What’s considered commercial? The line isn’t always clearly defined—for example, in cases where you give content away online but charge for advertising on your website or where the content is used by a non-profit or educational institution.

Associated with copyright are moral rights, which includes paternity (the right of attribution) and integrity (the right to prevent your work from being mutilated, distorted, or modified in a way that damages your reputation). Homages are culturally important—they’re genuine creative expressions in their own right—but, Rans advised, put yourself in the shoes of the artist you’re imitating. Often artists care less about the money and more about how their work is being used. Rans also noted that the U.S. doesn’t include moral rights in its copyright act.

If you own copyright to a work, you can assign it, or you can license it. When you assign your copyright, as a writer usually does with a publisher, you retain very little other than moral rights—you essentially sell your ability to control it. Licensing allows others to use your work under specific conditions and often within a specific time frame. Rans stressed that contract negotiation is hugely important, since you’re likely giving up a huge amount of control when you assign your rights. “You need to get independent legal advice when entering into an agreement with a publisher,” she advised, and the ALO clinic offers artists the opportunity to do that.

So what constitutes infringement? Again, there’s no bright-line test. The criterion of “substantial similarity” can be subjective, and something that is infringement to one person may not be infringement to another. If you find yourself accused of infringement, it doesn’t mean that you’ve infringed—but do be prepared to answer the accusation. Rans warns that if you happen to find something you’d like to use—like archival material or old photographs—it’s your obligation to search for the original copyright owner. On the flip side, if you discover your copyright has been infringed, you have to sue the infringer in his or her jurisdiction—which can be tricky for artists of limited means. “It’s important to understand that when you upload something to the Internet, you’re giving up a good deal of control.”

Built into the Copyright Act are exceptions that allow works under copyright to be used in some situations. The most important exception is fair dealing, where works can be used for research, private study, news reporting, and criticism. Bill C-11 recently added three purposes to fair dealing: education, parody, and satire. The education provision is a very contested area at the moment, as it changes the game for educational publishing. (As an aside, Bill C-11 also makes it illegal to circumvent digital rights management.)

Artists hoping to make their work more available can turn to Creative Commons, which is not an alternative to copyright but a licensing framework that is part of copyright. Creators can choose licensing, for example, that allows others to modify their work but requires attribution or that allows others to redistribute their work freely but requires that it remain unchanged.

If you’d like to learn more about Creative Commons, Rans will be a panellist at a Creative Commons Salon on Monday, October 15, from 7pm to 9pm. Admission is free, but you do have to sign up.