September 16, 2007

The A Rate

Posted in business at 7:53 pm by India

Best rices in town

Somewhere once, I want to say it was in a Ruth Birmingham mystery, a former colleague found a passage about the different rates the private investigator would charge. This passage was read aloud to me, and I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to remember things I hear rather than read on paper; but in my probably flawed memory there were three tiers of fees: the B, or basic, rate; a lower rate for nice people or those especially in need, which may have been C for crazy (which doesn’t quite make sense—part of why I don’t trust this paraphrase); and the A, or Asshole, rate. The latter is the only part I’m sure of, because to this very day, that friend and I joke about charging certain clients “the A rate.”

In practice, of course, neither of us does this. (In my case, this is mostly because I tend to work for friends, who say to me, “This is all the money we have/are allowed to pay. Is that enough?” And it’s often not, but they’re my friends, so I do it anyway.) But some people do, and more power to them. Do you?

Via Tiny Gigantic, who propose a more mature and sensible way of coming up with fees.

Photo: Best rices in town by juicyrai / al; some rights reserved. See also: Prices by vasta.


  1. Maia said,

    I try to keep it simple:
    Calculate how many hours the job will take, multiply it by my hourly rate, and then consult the Graphic Artist Guild Handbook — and if I’m way off in one direction or the other, I re-jigger the numbers to fall mid-range in their national averages. I am usually charging too little, so this corrective measure gives me permission to value my work at a higher rate.

    When I worked for a small but very sought-after design studio, they followed the same basic steps: figure out the time it will take, multiply that by everyone’s respective rates, and come up with a grand total. Their corrective was not the GAG Handbook, but what their competitors would quote — they couldn’t go too high or they would lose jobs. They were fortunate enough to have a reputation that could win clients even if their bids were slightly higher than those of other design firms, so it’s nice to know that good work can be “cashed in” in that way.

    They didn’t have an “A rate” policy, but they did follow the “AA” principle: If the client changes his/her mind after approving a design direction, he/she will pay for it. (This is predetermined and stated in the contract, so there are no surprises.)

    Loved the article on consultants listing TAH as a line item on their invoices, though! Very classy.

  2. India Amos said,

    Welcome back, Maia!

    Wow—so you actually find the GAG guide relevant? I finally bought a copy a few weeks ago, when I was trying to come up with an estimate, and I found that what vague rates they did give for book design were way, way, way, way high compared with what I know my friends charge and what I know the publishers I work with pay.

    Specifically, the ranges for a “major trade” book design are $1,200–$3,000 for a simple book, $1,500–$4,200 for average, and $1,750–$12,500 for complex. These fees are considered “usual and customary” for

    consultation with publisher, preparation of design brief, two to three concepts showing layout of major design elements including: [sic; they left it out here, but the specific pages are listed elsewhere] composition order, checking of galleys, page proofs and dummying. Includes supervision of llustration/photography. Does not include billable expenses.

    Already, those are higher than what I’m used to seeing, though they helpfully note that “Some unsuual projects or books for small presses may not fit into [these] categories.” And GAG doesn’t make any mention of actual composition, which many small presses seem to think is part of “design,” and which I’m used to seeing billed as a flat rate per page, with swingeing fees for EAs/AAs.

    So in my estimate—which was rejected as too high—I broke it down as flat per-page and per-correction rates circa 2003, plus a very, very tiny fee for design. Like, probably what GAG would recommend charging for a set of proofs (which I said would be billed at ten cents per page, because really, I don’t want to be printing and FedExing proofs; that’s stupid). Plus expenses, plus a reuse fee if they sell the layout files to another publisher.

    In other words, my extravagant bid was near the low end of GAG’s “average” range, with typesetting essentially thrown in for free.

    Obviously—and I’m really not being facetious here—I am charging far too little. If I doubled my rates, I’d probably (a) get more business, and (b) be tormented far less by clients who think it’s okay to waste my time, because obviously I don’t value it very much.

  3. Maia said,

    Hmm, I’ve never checked the GAG re: book design. Too bad there isn’t a survey out there for pricing freelance jobs, like the AIGA annual salary survey.

    In the spirit of starting one, let me contribute: I know of an academic press that pays about $650 for a book design; the freelancer doesn’t have to show multiple design directions, though. Just one, and it’s usually approved. So, that fee covers: 1 book design, type specs, checking sample pages, and checking the first round of complete proofs. If there is interior art that requires sizing and layouts, that is priced at a small amount per image. If the freelancer designs the jacket as well, the design fee doubles. So if those trade numbers quoted by the GAG are for interior design only, I guess academic presses are a far cry from that! (But if you were designing an art exhibition catalog for a museum with a healthy endowment, maybe you could charge $12,500? Sign me up!)

    Your last paragraph is spot on —
    Recently, I submitted a proposal for a logo & identity system. I crunched my numbers, compared them to the GAG, then saw that I could charge a bit more. So I did. Because I knew my original estimate was based on an unreasonably low time estimate; I was going to spend way more time on it than I told myself I would. So I bumped up my fee, which allowed me to allot more hours to working on it (which I knew I would do regardless).

    So then, the client didn’t respond for a few days, and I got incredibly nervous. Did I high-ball it? Did I overvalue myself? It becomes very personal, putting a price tag on your time, talent, and smarts. But the client didn’t even bat an eyelash, and now I’m off and running on the job. I’m so glad I increased my bid. I now feel free to spend the time I need to on the design, and I’m not looking over my shoulder at the clock every 15 minutes; I’m actually able to enjoy the process. whee!

    The more you value your own time, the more valuable your work will be perceived. I think it’s true, although it may lose me some jobs to the cheapskates. But then again, that may not be a bad thing. As long as I don’t need the $, I can afford to stand up for my principles. (It feels good to be in that situation now… it wasn’t always the case.)

    The feminist in me says, “Stand up, sister! No more working for free!” I’m doing my best to follow my own advice. ;)

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