What Is So Bad about Discussing Fees?

August 20, 2015 JAlfonso 15 comments

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I have observed this scene countless times on social media and association conferences. A newbie colleague poses the question, “I don’t want to do our industry a disservice and charge too little. I was wondering, how much do you charge?” The response, “Oh no, no, we should not talk about prices!”

Judging the excited, panicked response, the perplexed newbie wonders why this is such a taboo topic but fears to ask any more questions. In fact, many experienced folks have expressed the same query because in the association and country from which they come, it is common for members to discuss how much they charge.

Last century, ATA ran into some legal trouble over this issue and received a stiff fine. ( Ted Wozniak informed me below in the comment section that this statement is an error. ATA was never fined in connection with the FTC investigation. It did incur somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 in legal fees in connection with responding to the allegations and settling the issue by signing a voluntary consent decree.) For this reason, it is very careful not to be anywhere near the subject, although each person is free to have that discussion in private. Discussing how much one charges (at least in U.S. associations) can be considered price fixing which is illegal in the United States courtesy of the Sherman Act.

However, this question from someone new to the profession or expanding into a new service is a fair one. It can be frustrating for those who have this simple question. Most professions do have an entry-level salary that is ascertainable.

I wrote about this in a previous blog, but recently a debate broke out on social media about fees. Some felt that our South Carolina rate is way too high. Others felt it was quite reasonable. Others felt it was somewhat low. What is wrong with this scenario? Feelings. Talking about fees should be objective, not subjective.

Increasingly, we interact on a national and global community in social media while, at the same time, working in our own individual micro community. There are many factors which determine price. What is the market fee in your specific area? What is the cost of living? The law of supply and demand also effects pricing. Also, only you can determine what your experience, knowledge, skills, ability, and training are worth to you. Competition tends to drive down prices while need increases demand and price. GPS systems used to cost over $500. Now it is cheaper to purchase a new system rather than pay for the map update.

After seeing a passionate debate over what price is reasonable, I realized that what can be considered standard in California may be deemed exorbitant in New York. Every state, even every community within each state, might have a different dynamic. Therefore, I doubt that social media is the best place for the discussion and its resolution.

Personally, the hair salon method of governing price is one of my favorites. A person typically starts out at a somewhat lower price. When the person realizes her clientele is too big, her rates increase a little. Some clients will leave, but the loss isn’t so noticeable because of the increased rates. The extra time is now used to find new customers. This process continues until a stylist seems to reach a balance of work at the highest fee possible. Since every place is unique, the answer will be diverse for each person. The results will also reflect skill, reputation, and the market.

Now let us return to what is so bad about discussing fees. If you belong to an association or group that has a policy not to talk fees, I respect that. However, if anyone were to ask me personally, I have nothing to hide and will typically send my fee schedule upon request. That might change later if I am elected as a board member of ATA. ( Another correction by Ted- Note that the restriction applies to ATA as an organization and the ATA policy applies to its members ONLY in ATA forums. ATA members can discuss specific rates all they want, as long as it is not on an ATA forum. (And becoming a board member does not impose any additional restrictions on you in that regard,

In this modern technical age, it is increasingly easier to locate prices on the internet. I would still be wary because as discussed earlier, every community can be different. Regretfully, I believe that in the beginning you must determine how much you need to at least survive and take your best guess. If you are attending the ATA conference this fall in Miami, Jonathan Hine will be presenting an ATA session that can assist you.

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15 Comments on “What Is So Bad about Discussing Fees?

  1. Jeff, discussion of entry-level or any-level rates, fees, retainers and such is one of several taboo topics in the PC-thinking ATA environment. But the issue is older than ATA’s brouhaha that cost it a fine years ago.

    When I arrived in NYC in late 1990, I had no idea, no concept of how to start working as a translator or interpreter. In a pre-CompuServe, pre-AOL, pre-WWW era, I used a directory of conference interpreters that I had requested and started making phone calls. That got me nowhere fast, since some conference interpreters felt discussing what their range of fees were was beneath them.

    How did I learn what to charge then? A translation agency, by word of mouth, would call me and offer a rate. Being the newcomer I was, I would accept. At the time, a respectable agency like The Language Lab was paying its freelancers around $0.08/word, which was pretty reasonable for a New Yorker like myself.

    I appreciate your open and fresh discussion on the topic. But here’s this Orwellian mindset coupled with the politically correct way of doing things so prevalent at the ATA: hush, hush, let’s not talk about rates at ATA conferences, meetings, even on corridors or during breaks, because some federal government representative might eavesdrop and report back to Uncle Sam!

  2. The ATA got into trouble because it was trying to set a “fair rate” for translators.

    The powers that be did not like it (because translators make too much in their opinion), that is why the ATA got sued.

    But there is a big difference between an organization that is trying to set one rate for all its members, a rather Quixotic proposition in any case, and discussing a rate freely online. Free speech is a right that is still afforded to all US citizens and residents, unless the US constitution has been revoked and they forgot to tell us.

    Translators in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa …. are free to do so, and so are their counterparts in the US of A.

    1. Thank you Steve! feel free to exercise free speech with me ant time. Just don’t go there with the weight issue. I’m a little sensitive when it comes to that.

  3. Hi Jeff,

    Some clarifications and (I hope) minor corrections if I may.

    Disclaimer: I am writing from memory and do not have copies of the pertinent documents at hand.

    1) ATA was never fined in connection with the FTC investigation. It did incur somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 in legal fees in connection with responding to the allegations and settling the issue by signing a voluntary consent decree. To the best of my knowledge, there was never an official “finding” or “proceedings” by the FTC. A notice from the FTC lead to huge legal bills and the decision to “voluntarily” sign a consent letter to avoid bankrupting the association due to legal costs.

    2) That consent decree is what fuels the still-standing ATA policy in discussions of rates in ATA-sponsored forums. Note that the restriction applies to ATA as an organization and the ATA policy applies to its members ONLY in ATA forums. ATA members can discuss specific rates all they want, as long as it is not on an ATA forum. (And becoming a board member does not impose any additional restrictions on you in that regard,)

    There is a good article addressing this topic in the Chronicle archives at

    https://www.atanet.org/business_practices/smarts_2009_january.php

    Hope this clears up a few pieces of misinformation.

  4. Under US law, “fixing” prices, i.e., making arrangements with your competitors such as to affect the price levels in your industry is illegal, regardless of whether it’s done in a forum of a professional organization or privately between as few as two individuals. However, “price fixing” is not the same as “discussing prices.” In my opinion, ATA, i.e., the ATA attorney, is interpreting the prohibition of the Sherman Act and its successors too broadly. If I wish to advertise my rates to the entire world, I should be free to do so, just as car dealers, supermarkets, and many other businesses advertise their prices. I should also be free to tell a colleague (competitor) what I charge, although not what he should charge. The blanket prohibition against discussing prices in any form was born right after the FTC investigation of ATA and reflects the (in my opinion) morbid fear of a costly lawsuit. I firmly believe that this prohibition is excessively restrictive and, after more than 20 years, it should be revised with the help of a competent attorney.

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