One of the biggest challenges in indexing services (and editing and proofreading as well, but I’ll focus on indexing for this post) is to accurately estimate the scope of a project in order to provide a flat fee or per-page fee that then translates into a reasonable hourly rate for the indexer.
We just recently had a project balloon out of original scope on us, so this challenge is top of mind. I’ll cover two aspects here: 1) how to prevent scope creep, and 2) what to do when it happens (and it will, despite your best efforts).
Estimating Scope in the Pricing Process
It pays to see your project, or at least a portion of it, before setting a per page rate, per word rate, or project fee. You may have standard per-page rates, but keep in mind that the time you spend on a project will depend more on total word count and complexity of the actual content.
For example, in indexing, page trim sizes can vary tremendously, from small guide books at 5.5×8.5 inches to coffee table books at 10×12 or larger. Way different word count per page, so your standard rate for trade books (6×9 trim) may provide a bonus for the little guide book, but it will be totally inadequate for the coffee table book (unless there are tons of pictures).
And word count is not just about counting words. A scholarly book will have often tightly packed overlapping concepts or people and historical events that will definitely add more potential index entries per page. We reserve our highest tradebook-size page rates for them. Meanwhile, an easy breezy how-to on Photoshop, with lots of white space and screenshots may call for a much lower page rate.
In the end, it’s all about the talent-plus-time factor when it comes to setting rates. Simple vs. comlex subject matter, smaller vs. larger pages of text.
Therefore, a sample is often a key element in presenting a flat-rate (or page-rate) bid for a book project. I normally ask the trim size and then have the client send a sample chapter. It can still be in Word/manuscript form so I can see how many words I’m dealing with, although a preliminary sample of the page proof with images and all gives a more accurate guide. I find it’s well worth my time to do a page count and image-vs.-text analysis to come up with a custom rate for a job.
Sometimes, I will lose a job to another indexer who hasn’t done their homework and gives a standard rate for the project, but I’m willing to take that risk to get an accurate rate for my work. Not much point in doing the work if you have no decent return on your time and talent investment.
When You Miscalculate…
Uh-oh! You thought your past projects in this area were a good model for this particular book, but no! The index entries required have just ballooned from five to twenty-five per page (names or sources usually)!
Mostly, since we’ve quoted the project ahead of time, we swallow the loss on these (get ready to make minimum wage here). And learn from the experience, we hope. Occasionally, we might have an understanding client editor who can see the monstrosity this suddenly every-name or every-source index has become and will renegotiate an alternative approach with the author. Author education on significant vs. every-name indexes can be helpful here.
I have also offered a more detailed subject/name combo index (providing access to significant names or sources as “subjects”) to substitute for an all-inclusive list of sources or names that has ballooned into a comprehensive catalog index that should cost three-to-four times the usual fee.
If the client doesn’t go for this alternative, though, I am potentially liable for doing the original work as contracted. In that case, I find a way to do the work and chalk it up to a lesson learned. Such is the price of scope creep.
So, lesson learned is to do a specific analysis of the job before assigning a rate. Assumptions can be bad for your bottom line.