There is a lot of debate in the editing world about whether one should charge clients for a sample edit. My view is that there is no ‘right answer’, only an answer that is ‘right for you’. It really depends on whether you look at the time spent on the edit as a marketing expense (admin time) or as paid work time. I choose to think of free samples as a marketing strategy, so this article is about how I use this and why it works for me.
The first question is whether a sample edit is necessary; I think that many times it is. Editing is not well understood. Even within professional editing circles, the definitions of copyediting and line editing vary. If we can’t even come up with a standardised set of tasks then how can we expect potential clients to know what they are asking for? As most of us have probably experienced, many authors think that their document just needs a ‘quick proofread’ rather than anything more comprehensive. The other issue is that people seriously underestimate how long it takes to read something, let alone edit it. The result is that clients are asking us for something that takes a lot longer than what they are anticipating. Throw in the fact that many people are not self-employed and don’t understand the costs of running a business, and that they may be writing their book as a passion project without expecting any income from it, and you can see why they may be shocked when they see our quotes.
I don’t always do a sample edit, but when I do then the client at least gets to see how much better their work reads after an editor has been through it. That is, they can see the value that editing brings. This value then provides some context for the price. Even if my quote is outside their budget, they can appreciate why it might cost so much and better understand what an editor does. This benefits the profession as a whole.
How do I know when it’s worth doing a sample edit? It depends on the client and the project. Recently I had an academic who said she had a few papers that needed editing. They were relatively short (5,000–10,000 words) but were highly technical. I decided to do a short sample (less than 500 words) to see whether I wanted to do the work and also to show the client what I could do. She was happy with my sample and has hired me for quite a few projects since then. These days when I work for her I just estimate a price range, based on the word count, and she’s happy to proceed on that basis. So, I look at that one-off sample edit as a worthwhile investment for a long-term client.
The only long documents I edit these days are PhD theses. Budgets can be tight, but I know from experience that students can see the benefits of having their thesis copyedited, which gives them some context for the price. So, again, if I think it’s a project I’d like to do, I offer a short, free sample edit (again, less than 500 words). Sometimes the clients can’t afford it but often they say that they are willing to make the investment because they feel more confident in the outcome (the edited document) that they are buying.
The other thing worth mentioning is that I can afford to spend half an hour here and there doing sample edits, because my hourly rate is high enough to cover admin time for marketing and other tasks. If you are not charging enough to cover unpaid admin time then, yes, you will be wanting to charge for sample edits, so that you can be paid. (But, I do advise working out how much admin time you are doing each week and trying to cover that cost in your hourly rate for billable work.)
Charging for sample edits can be a good strategy if you are getting lots of enquiries and don’t have time to be doing lots of free samples.
As with anything when running your own business, just do what suits you. And then, if you want to change your mind, you are free to do so. It is one of the best things about being self-employed!