Tips on How to Price Your Personal History Project
I was recently asked by a few listeners what boils down to the same question: how do you price your projects?
It’s no surprise that this is on people’s minds. It’s a common question, one that gets batted around a lot. I remember a conference I went to where they had a panel discussion on this very topic, and the crowd was huge. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got your own way of doing it, it seems like we’re all curious about how other people are doing it.
I’ve got to admit, pricing has never been easy for me. I’m not talking about earning money, or even collecting it. I’m talking about the psychological stumbling blocks. I hope you don’t have them. My guess is that people who come to personal history from a business background may have an easier time with it. But I didn’t. I’ve been a teacher, a social worker, a travel director. And mostly a stay at home mom. My business skills weren’t rusty as much as, umm, non-existent.
Know the value of your work
Not only that, I’ve never had a comfortable relationship with money. I can’t remember now if it was my dad or Miss Campbell, one of my high school teachers, who first taught me the old saying, “Money is power, and power corrupts.” Whoever it was, I took it to heart. It’s not that I dislike money as much as I fear its corrupting influence.
And then there’s the whole issue of putting a monetary value on something I create. And not in any abstract way. Of saying to a client, yes, I’m bringing these skills to the table, and I’m providing you with a service that equals x number of dollars.
I find the whole thing difficult. My dream is to hire someone to take care of all that so I can focus on what I’m good at, and what I like doing: interviewing and writing.
But until then, I have to put on my big girl pants and figure out the best way of tackling the pricing stuff. And invoicing. And bookkeeping.
And I’m telling you, if I can learn it, anybody can.
Let’s get to it. How does one price a personal history project?
Okay, now that you know I’m no expert, I’m going to walk through my process. Just keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules. Take whatever sounds good to you and adapt it any way that makes sense.
Roughly speaking, we all fall into one of two categories: those who price by the hour, and those who price by the project. And then, of course, the people who use a hybrid model.
I charge by the hour. And I tell every potential client in our initial sales consultation: That’s not going to mean anything to you. Because they have no idea what goes on when I’m not with them. They don’t know how long it takes to transcribe an interview, or how many hours go into shuffling the material into roughly the correct spots, or how much time is spent writing and rewriting, and entering corrections once the client goes through the draft, and then more rounds of edits.
And if you’re just starting out, you’re not going to know this either. And that’s one more reason it’s so valuable to have a sample project, a book you do for someone for free or low cost, your guinea pig. You’ll go through all the stages of the creating a life story book and be able to work out the kinks as you do.
Track your time
I highly recommend that you keep really good records of the time you spend on each main category of task. That would be interviewing—not just the number of interviews, but how long each lasted, whether it’s 90 minutes or 120 or 45–; the time you spend either transcribing, or the total cost to have it transcribed; the time you spend editing; the time spent scanning photos and, if necessary, doing some photoshopping to clean off the noise and speckles.
One thing I’ve tried to track separately is research, but it doesn’t work for me. There’s too much going back and forth between the draft and checking things on the internet; the processes are too intertwined. The only exception is if I’m going to a research facility to specifically look up something. For instance, a colleague had hired me to do some editing on one of her books about a man who had worked in the space industry, and I spent an afternoon or two looking through the McDonnell Douglas archives at a historical society. That’s when it makes sense to track and bill research as a separate line item.
What I don’t charge for
There are things I don’t charge for–like preparing invoices or travel time. Or drafting emails (mostly because I’m ridiculously slow at it, for some strange reason). I had a mentor early on who told me I was crazy, I should add every minute I spend to billable time, but whatever, I don’t. Maybe it’s something I should rethink.
At any rate, if you keep track of your time, it’s not going to do you much good on quoting a price for the current project, but it’s priceless for the projects going ahead. The numbers will shift as you get more efficient, but at least you’ll have a foundation or baseline to start from.
The other thing that shifts EVERY TIME is the project. Some will be bigger than others. Some won’t be bigger in terms of word count or page count, but they’ll take more time for other reasons–you’re interviewing all the kids and incorporating that material into the book; you’re doing a husband and wife together, and the structure is more complicated; there’s lots of primary source material, like letters and journals….lots of different reasons.
Set up metrics
So your target will always be shifting. That means you’ll want to set up some metrics; once you’ve done a few projects, you’ll be able to look at the metrics and see the averages. So, for instance, you might create a spreadsheet and for each interview track the number of minutes you spent interviewing, word count on the transcription (which is going to higher than the words you add to the edited draft), the number of minutes it took to fully process the transcript–that is, add and edit the material in the draft, total word count added to the draft, and the total dollar amount to process that one interview, including interview minutes multiplied by your hourly rate, editing time multiplied by hourly rate, plus the cost for transcription. If you keep track of all of these things, you’ll be able to calculate the total cost per word–which is how a lot of freelance writers charge; or by page, going by industry standard of 250 words per manuscript page (although this can vary a LOT, based on number of photos, trim size, font size, etc). You’ll also be able to calculate total cost per interview hour, and you can even drill down and see what it cost related to how many words in the transcript—which can be a good thing to track, because some people will speak much faster or slower.
And it all this is overwhelming, because you’re trying to master a whole bunch of new skills, so it CAN be overwhelming, just keep track of the basics: add up the interview time and the time it takes you to edit that first interview, then the second, then the third.
Once you get a rough idea of how long it takes to process a transcript (by that I mean turn the recording into edited words), you can multiply it by the number of interview hours you’re recommending you have with the client.
Say it takes 15 hours to “process” an hour interview; can you do a complete life story on 8 or 9 interview hours? Probably. How about somewhat larger one for 15 or 18 interview hours? And for a client who wants to make a considerable investment of time and money, 24 or more may be required (and relished by the client!). Multiply these amounts by your hourly rate, plus what it will take for transcription and proofreading, and you’ve got three ballpark ranges to pitch to the prospective client. But make sure they know that’s for the interviewing and writing only; book production is separate.
Why you need to keep book production separate
Two major reasons.
First, the range on book production is enormous. Going with Createspace? You can pay a couple hundred bucks for the layout and ten bucks or less per book. Want custom design and three-quarter calfskin leather on the cover? You could be looking at several hundred dollars per copy.
Most likely, it will be something in between. But it’s extremely hard to come up with an estimate before the draft is complete and the images chosen. That is, before you know how much design work will go into creating the layout, and how many pages the final book will be. (There are more variables, but you get my drift.)
The second reason you want to keep book production separate is for tax purposes. On your contract or services agreement, you’ll want to specify all the “service” work–writing, editing, proofreading, layout, etc–this is where the lion’s share of the budget will go. And there’s no sales tax on service. But if you’re also selling the client the actual books, those are physical products and you’ll need to collect sales tax on them. So keep them separate.
Okay, that’s a brief rundown of how I price my projects. I use a timer app called Toggl to keep track of the time I spend on each portion of each clients project. And I have to say, I’ve been toying with the idea for awhile now of trying out a per project model. Mostly because with the timer running, it’s hard not to feel harried. I’m wondering if it’d feel more peaceful knowing just how much I was going to earn–a total project price–and just how many pages I would need to write.
Advantage of pricing per hour
But that leads me to what I see as the biggest advantage of pricing per hour. You and your client, do not need to decide ahead of time how big the book will be. I give drafts periodically as I go along, and the client can see how the book is growing, and can decide when it’s time to stop. Right now, one of my current clients has told all he wants to tell, and it took much less time that what I expected. he’s going to come in considerably under what my ballpark range was for him. And that’s fine. He’s happy with a smaller book. But in general, most people’s projects grow bigger. So many people are surprised by how profound the experience is of telling their stories, and they want to go on, and the scope then grows. Another current client wants the book to be about him and his deceased wife. What I didn’t know when I gave him an estimated range was the amount of material she had written. And I was so, so uncomfortable when I went, tail between my legs, and very apologetically told him I couldn’t honor the price range AND go through all the new material and get it into the book. I shouldn’t have worried. He didn’t bat an eye. Said it was worth it.
Because look, we want to give the client what they want, and what they’re willing to invest in what is after all a very, very important project for them. It’s a book about their life!!! So I guess that’s the main reason I’m still sticking with the hourly rate. If my clients have no way of knowing at the outset what they really want, I don’t want to even mess with pitching a certian number of pages with x number of photos for x dollars.
Even though I know that works for plenty of people. And maybe I’ll do a later episode with a guest who does it this way, and we can talk about it more in depth.
Before I finish, I want to address one more thing regarding the per hour vs per project issue.There are a lot of reasons that there’s no “best way”, but one of the biggest doesn’t have to do with money–it’s more about what matches up with your personality. And with the clients.
Some personal historians and clients want to know the exact parameters of a project from the beginning. And they’ll build in safeguards with extra charges if the scope expands. Others are fine with taking a more organic approach and letting the book develop without deciding in advance the size.
Word of warning
I want to stress that EITHER approach is fine—they both have advantages and disadvantages, but mostly you just need to find what works best for you. However, a word of warning. There’s the chance that your style won’t match up with the client’s. And then it might be best to adapt a little. For example, I had a woman years ago who was a very successful business owner. Smart and ambitious and –not the kind for small talk, kind of a tough nut to crack when it came to establishing an emotional connection. She was considering having a life story done on her parents and wanted me to tell her how much it would cost. Now, in my defense, she didn’t have the time to sit down for a consultation; she wanted a number up front, before she was willing to commit to even a free sit down with me. Today, I’d be more inclined to give her a really wide range, but even that would be hard because she was talking about a project for two people–both her parents, and that makes pricing even more complicated. Needless to say, I did not get the project. I happen to know her socially, and it doesn’t sound like she ever had it done with anyone else, either, which tells me she wasn’t all that interested to begin with. Still, it left me feeling frustrated. And made me recognize that I may be most comfortable with doing things a certain way, but I’ve got to be willing to adapt my style to that of my client.
I hope this has helped. If you have ideas or different ways you handle pricing, I’d love to hear them. You can share in the comments below.
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I’m Amy Woods Butler, personal historian, and your coach for building your own personal history business.
Now go out and save someone’s story.