An American Editor

December 12, 2012

The Business of Editing: Burning Bridges

A few weeks ago I watched a video of The International (2009), which stars Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. It was an okay movie, nothing great, but Clive Owen’s character made a very profound statement:

Sometimes in life the hardest thing to know is which bridge to cross and which bridge to burn.

Sometimes in editing the hardest thing to know is which bridge to cross and which to burn.

The issue comes up in at least three ways in editing: first, is the non- or slow-paying client; the second is the client from at least one, if not more, level of hell; the third is in deciding whether to fight or pass on a contentious issue with an author. This article discusses the first two issues and leaves the third for another day.

For those who deal directly with authors and expect to be paid directly by authors, I think the problem of burning the bridge is less traumatic. For the editor who works with publishers and packagers who send multiple titles to them for editing, the problem can be very traumatic. Yet, this is a problem that all small businesses have to face and deal with.

The first question an editor needs to ask is this: What are my lines in the sand, the things beyond which I will not ever tolerate? This is important because if you do not have expressible lines in the sands, you will not know against what criteria to evaluate the errant client.

For example, if your invoices are payable within 30 days, how much past that 30-day due date are you comfortable waiting for payment? If you know that a client will pay promptly on day 45, is that acceptable or are you adamant that you must be paid within 30 days? If you know that a client will pay promptly on day 60, are you willing to wait 60 days for payment? What if you do not know on what day a client will promptly pay? How long are you willing to wait?

Every editor needs to establish those criteria, those lines in the sand that will trigger a reaction. You must know, just like all businesses must know, what is and is not acceptable behavior from a client.

The second question that needs to be asked is: What am I willing to do should that line in the sand be crossed? Are you willing to tell an author that you are claiming a copyright interest in the edits you made to the author’s manuscript (not to the original, unedited manuscript)? Are you willing to tell publisher X that you claim a copyright interest that can be discharged upon payment in full of your outstanding invoices? And if you are willing to make such a claim, are you willing to fight for that claim or is it just bluff and bluster?

You need to know exactly what you are willing to do to enforce your lines in the sand, because what you are willing to do by means of enforcement dictates what lines you are really willing to draw in the sand. If you are not willing to stand up for a copyright interest claim, why make the claim?

The third question that needs to be asked is this: If I enforce my claim, what will be the short-term and long-term consequences of doing so? This is important because it forces you to think about the consequences of any action you may take, which gives you the means to weigh your options and be sure that you are comfortable with them.

The fourth question that needs to be asked is this: If I fire client X, what effect will this have on my future income? I do not mean the very short-term future, but rather the long-term future. If I fire the individual author, will that cause me to lose the business of other authors? I know that if I fire publisher X, I will no longer receive work from X, so in this instance the effect is pretty easy to determine.

But the willingness to fire a client and live with the consequences is key to being a business. What good is it to be in a business that causes you heartburn on a daily basis? We all know that a client from hell can cause such distress that it affects both other business and personal time. How many times have you been grumpy with a spouse because you have been exasperated with a problem client?

Throughout the course of my 29 years of editing, I have run into authors I would like to shoot and publishers/packagers who had chips on their shoulder that were more like boulders than chips. I long ago decided that it was better to fire a client and lose the prospect of future work than to deal with constant problems and be curt with my family.

I recall a client who sent me a large volume of work every year (approximately $50,000 to $60,000 worth every year). In the beginning they were a good client to work with, even though they were parsimonious with the fees. About my fourth or fifth year of working with them, they changed production directors. Previously, if they had a rush project, they would be willing to pay a premium fee (we are talking about editing projects of 1500+ manuscript pages). The new director felt that I should consider myself blessed to have their work.

I finished a project, unhappy that I had undertaken the project but glad that it was over, about a month prior when I received an e-mail from the director saying a new chapter had arrived and they wanted me to edit it within two days. This was my line in the sand. I replied that I could not get to the chapter for two weeks as I was in the midst of a project for someone else. I could do it over the weekend, however, for a premium price, as I do not usually work on weekends. What I got back was an e-mail demanding that I set aside other work and tackle this chapter; what I replied was: “I write with great pleasure: You are fired! Please do not call me again.”

Although I lost a lot of revenue, I felt greatly relieved to be rid of what had turned into a client from hell. My point is this: You must know and accept the limits of your tolerance of clients. And you must be willing to act on those limits. Firing/losing a client is not the end; it just means you need to take steps to replace the client with a better client, which is what being a business is about. Sometimes it is better to burn a bad bridge than to cross it!

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