Rating Editing Rates
If you look at the websites of most editing service providers (including my own), you'll see that they either list a wide range of fee structures or no pricing at all.
Believe me, this is not because all of us editors and proofreaders want to spend the first week of your interaction debating fees. Instead, it's because - in this field - no two jobs are ever the same.
I was checking, recently, with some other freelancers, asking them about their rates. A number of them (typically those who work with long-form manuscripts which are going to become books) said that a lot of work comes directly from publishing houses, and the rates are set in advance - typically set at a certain rate per word. And, when I'm working on a book, I tend to look at a per-word rate of my own, as well.
Yet, on the flip side, there are the freelancers who do copywriting, editing, and proofreading for "short-form" projects (which could go on for months, but will typically produce shorter individual pieces and not one long book). This is the type of work that most often results in freelancers bidding for jobs based on the number of hours they expect to spend on it. The quotes could be per hour or they could be per project.
Newer freelancers often have lower rates than people who have been at it for a while - in the same way that an actor no one has ever heard of will most likely ask for a lower salary than an A-list celebrity. At the same time, however, there are some companies (and individuals) who simply live where the standard of living is less expensive, and so they can charge less and still make a living.
(Cautionary side note: When you're looking for freelancers, if you start to see rates that seem really low compared to the competition you might ask where they are from. As with many other industries, a lot of very cheap labor can be found outside the United States. But... well... you'll most likely get what you pay for - caveat emptor as Ralph Nader would say.)
My suggestion for finding out whether you're paying a fair rate? It's the same as when you're traveling on an airplane:
Shop around before you buy. (Compare prices, ask what your friends are paying, etc.)
Compare freelancers whose skills match your needs. (If there is only one airline flying to your destination, you're probably going to pay higher rates.)
Ask for samples of their services. (Okay - you probably don't do this when traveling.)
Make your decision based on your budget and your timeframe. (Cheap flights that get you to your destination after your friends' wedding may not really be practical.)
And, once you make your choice, don't ask the people sitting on either side of you what they paid (unless you truly want to know). (Yes, this might be important to consider when you're booking your next flight, but don't try to negotiate a lower rate when you're already in the sky.)
As with rating the success of your work, determining whether or not a rate is "fair" is much more about perception than hard-and-fast rules. (I discussed this topic in the realm of "success" about a year ago, in this post on my personal blog.)
Finally, let's say that you have a tiny budget for editing, and the freelancer you contact completes a successful sample but doesn't fit your budget. You might think you only have two options: expand your budget or go somewhere else. But there are more choices, depending on your timeframe and your level of chutzpah. You could:
agree to do the edit in pieces, paying for each chunk as you have the money to pay;
contact the freelancer and ask about a reduced rate (this might work best if you've already established a relationship, but could work on the first try. Please remember that not everyone is interested in this - or able to do it);
offer some kind of payment-in-kind (for instance: are you editing a restaurant menu and could you pay with a gift card to the restaurant?); or
work out a promise to make referrals and drum up business in the future (this might work best with a new editor, as opposed to someone who has been in the business for a while).
Yes, there's a chance that the freelancer will turn down many of these, but if you really think this is your freelance soulmate, it's worth a shot.
I fully admit that I'm horrible at asking people for discounts - I think it's because I've spent too many years working in various forms of retail and customer service. However, even if you're good at haggling at the farmer's market, one thing I'd be very careful about doing is asking for reduced rates from freelancers with whom you don't have a previous working relationship.
You might look at a rate and think "Who needs to make $50 per hour? After all, she's only sitting at a desk and maybe going online a bit." But you need to consider that that $50/hour has to cover everything in that freelancer's life - from rent and electricity to access to the Internet, and from a subscription to online style guides to pens and paper. In a corporate environment, someone else is paying for the office supplies (and the plumbing and heating), but in a freelance world, it's pretty much sink or swim.
What it really all comes down to is figuring out what you're willing to pay, and finding a freelancer whose rates match up with that - and whose skills (and timeframes) AND temperament meet your needs.
Cheap but flawed is fine from time to time when you're buying something just for fun. But paying a little extra to get what you really want - especially on something you're as personally invested in as a manuscript - will probably make you happier in the end.