I enjoy looking at age-old business models from new perspectives. And few business models need a new look more than the one used by most copywriters, proofreaders, and copyeditors. I know because I’ve spent most of my professional life in that line of work.
What is the business model? It’s all about hourly rates, word counts, page counts, and debates with clients about the line between proofreading and editing. As a result, there’s a lot of overhead and accounting required to make the business model work.
Well, sort of work.
We’ve been majoring in the minors for too long. It seems that the same level of attention to the minutiae of the written word has fed a collective preoccupation with the minutiae of the freelance assignments themselves. And that isn’t good for anyone.
Why not? First, any hourly pricing model tends to put the emphasis on time spent as opposed to outcomes delivered. Second, clients just don’t think in terms of word counts or the nuances between copyediting and copywriting — they simply want us to solve their problem, which is almost always making a subpar piece of copy great.
By bogging down discussions with page counts, word counts and the like, copyeditors, copywriters and proofreaders shout to clients that the quality of the outcome comes in a distant second to our near-obsession with bookkeeping.
But if this system is broken and doesn’t really serve the needs of anyone in the industry, why does it persist? Sad to say, but I think it’s because no one really knows any better. And it could also be true that there’s not enough trust between the parties involved to usher in an era of value-based pricing. (Some proofreaders worry that if they charge flat fees, companies will take advantage. On the other hand, some companies equate higher fees with attempts to gouge them.)
The problem, of course, is that there are copywriters, copyeditors, and proofreaders on sites like UpWork and Fiverr who are more than comfortable doing these tasks for 25%, 50% and even 75% less than their colleagues from North America and Western Europe. Something has to give, and typically it means that these services are being brought in-house or simply outsourced to the lowest bidder. That means many in the industry are forced to lower their rates to unsustainable levels.
Whose fault it this? If you listen to many practitioners, it’s everyone else’s fault. They seem to argue that it’s almost a divine right for them to earn large hourly rates when performing — at least in the perception of hiring managers — the same roles as those overseas. On the other hand, though, they’ve done little or nothing to differentiate themselves to justify the additional spend. It’s axiomatic that if a company can’t see the value difference between two providers of the same type of service, the only arbiter they tend to use is price.
Many proofreaders, copywriters, and copyeditors are caught up in a transactional world, where the company needs X pages proofreader and pays $X. There’s little discussion of any added value that would justify higher fees.
Perhaps what needs to change is the business model itself. Why should it be the case that the hourly rate should reign supreme? Why should a copywriter or copyeditor not become a messaging or image consultant instead of a low-value service provider?
The answer is that we’ve trained our clients to deal with us based on an hourly rate. We’ve convinced them that keeping records of words and types of edits is really the best way to ensure that they get the highest quality work. And we’ve convinced them that cheap and fast is the gold standard. But is any of this actually true?
Through it all, we’ve given clients the impression that all copyeditors, copywriters, and proofreaders are a dime a dozen, with one not really much different than the other. How else do we expect to be treated in this world we’ve created for ourselves?
It’s time for copywriters, copyeditors, and proofreaders to flip the script and think about what additional value they can provide clients. It’s time to educate them about value and added value — which of course implies that we’re thinking about value in the first place.
The value we provide might not be strictly financial — indeed most of it may not. Why do people hire copywriters, proofreaders, and copyeditors in the first place? What outcomes do they seek beyond a grammatically correct deliverable?
How can we price based on value instead of by the hour? How can we simplify their pricing structures accordingly? What are we not currently providing to clients today that they so desperately need?
The answers to these questions might not be obvious, but they certainly deserve more thought. Otherwise, this industry will continue to feature a race to the bottom on price. And that doesn’t help anyone because it uses the wrong measures of success all around.
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering what all this means if you’re not a copywriter, copyeditor, or proofreader.
The answer? Everything.
No matter what industry you’re in, chances are good that one of your biggest ongoing challenges is avoiding commoditization. Your need is to stand out, to be different and to price accordingly.
How’s that working for you? Are you taking the time to look for new and better ways to uncover, price, and provide the value your customers really want? Do you know what that value even is? If not, take some time to reflect and let your creative juices flow.
In today’s economy, knowing, developing, and pricing the value you provide to customers is everything. Don’t give it short shrift while chasing other things that don’t matter nearly as much to the long-term health of your business.