An American Editor

February 20, 2013

The Business of Editing: Difficult Clients

Who is a difficult client? What does difficult mean? Is it really the client who is difficult? These basic questions need resolution before any discussion can be had about what to do about difficult clients.

Editing is an interesting profession in the sense that there really is little that falls outside the purview of subjective; that is, very few of the decisions an editor makes are objectively made. Should it be since or because? Does it matter? Hasn’t English evolved to the point that since and because are synonymous? Should the commas be serial or not? Can their be both singular and plural? Does copyediting include fact checking? Reference lookup? Rewriting? And the list goes on.

Yes, we can point to a style guide, but let’s not forget that it is just a guide and that it only represents the collective opinion of a group whose members I may or may not recognize as being particularly noteworthy or valid. Besides, style guides change over the years, so what was a style guide no-no yesterday is a style guide yes-yes today and is likely to be a style guide perhaps tomorrow.

I raise this because we have to decide what makes a difficult client. In the first instance, is it the client who refuses to accept your recommendations as regards word choice or how a sentence can be better written? Or how complete a reference is needed? Or whether something is grammatical? Or something else that is really a subjective opinion by you?

Or, in the second instance, is the difficult client the client who hired you to do copyediting but wants you to also do developmental editing as part of the same work for the same fee? Or who wants you to add additional tasks at no charge to the tasks you agreed to perform for the quoted fee? Or who agreed to a delivery and review schedule but now ignores it yet expects you to meet your portion of it or that you will drop everything else you are doing because the client is now ready to work with you?

Or, in the third instance, is the difficult client the client who refuses to pay for your work for whatever reason? Or is it the client who will pay but instead of paying within the agreed time frame, has unilaterally decided to pay over a much longer time frame?

Or, in the fourth instance, is difficult defined some other way?

In the case of the first instance, I do not think the client is difficult. I know it bruises our professionalism to think that someone has the audacity to insist on describing people as that instead of who. It bruises our self-esteem to think that we who have devoted our careers to the perfection of the art of language are being dismissed like dirty dishwater by someone whose language skills are questionable. But isn’t the truth pretty simple?

We are hired to give our opinion, not to dictate terms. No matter how correct we may be in terms of standard and accepted language conventions, the bottom line is that we are simply being asked for our opinion, which the client has always been free to accept or reject or qualify. We may not like it, but it is the nature of being in business, especially a business such as ours. Consequently, I think if anyone is being difficult in this scenario, it is the editor, not the client. So let’s scratch this possible definition.

The second instance does present the possibilities for a difficult client. But even here, I have to ask, what didn’t the editor do to nip this type of behavior before it could even bud? Is there a written contract? Is it complete? Does it define both the editor’s and the client’s responsibilities? Did the editor discuss with the client the relationship before undertaking the project? Or, as is often the case, is it a matter of the editor having done everything correctly before starting the project and client simply choosing not to hear what the editor has said?

Even with a contract, these types of difficulties arise because clients rarely understand the world of publishing. A written contract can help to alleviate some of these problems but my experience has been that clients tend to ignore the contracts because they think it is not in their interest to follow it. Or, as is too often the case, the client views the editor-client relationship as a personal rather than as a business relationship.

In this second instance, I think an editor’s choices are really limited. The editor can grin and bear it and keep working for the client or the editor can call a halt to the relationship. Over my 30 years of editing, it has been my practice to halt the relationship. In the beginning I chose to grin and bear it, only to learn that once I took that stance, there was no end to difficulties with the client. Acceding to one request led to a demand for accession to a second, then a third, and so on. After my first such experience, I chose to terminate early and quickly such relationships in similar future situations.

I don’t think there is much one can do in second instance cases other than to talk to the client, explain the editorial process, point to the terms of the contract, ask for more money for additional tasks, and hope for the best.

Why do editors grin and bear it? Because of the money and because they have no other project to fill the void. Yet these are not good reasons, in my opinion, to keep the relationship going. Instead, the editor should view ending the relationship as an opportunity to work on fixing the editor’s deficits in obtaining work. Whether to keep or end a relationship is a conundrum that is not easily solved. I suppose that the other alternative is to grin and bear it for this project, but then decline future work from the client.

It is worth noting that an additional problem with the grin-and-bear-it solution is that it sets the client’s expectation standard for future work. Once the editor establishes that he is willing to fulfill the client’s demands, the client will always expect that her demands will be fulfilled and on the same terms as previously; that is, any agreements will be ignored and the client can demand and obtain additional work at no additional expense. Not a good way to run a business.

The third instance, lack of payment or untimely payment, is not really a definition of a difficult client. It is a business frustration, but not much more. Recourse ranges from chalking it up as a loss and moving on to filing a lawsuit to claiming a copyright interest in the edits you made to the client’s manuscript and trying to enforce the copyright interest. But no matter how you cut it, these are just standard, run-of-the-mill business problems.

The fourth instance is so nebulous that it isn’t worth discussing.

The real crux of the difficult client is the second instance — the client who wants more, expects more, and ignores the negotiated terms of the relationship. In the end, it boils down to just how much abuse you are willing to accept in exchange for the promised fee. The more desperate you are for work, the more abuse you will be willing to accept. Consequently, the real solution is for you to improve your business to the point that you are willing to say, early in the relationship, “You are fired!”

It is not that difficult to reach that point. And sometimes, even if you are not yet at that point, it is better for you to say goodbye to a client rather than to agonize over every interaction you have with the difficult client. From experience, I can tell you that firing the first client is difficult; subsequent clients become increasingly easy to fire.



  1. Excellent article, Louise. I am lucky not to have had many difficult clients (yet!) but your experience and advice are very valuable and a timely reminder of what to do if and when I do get one!


    Comment by Helen Birkbeck — February 20, 2013 @ 6:14 am | Reply

  2. This is Rich Adin’s column. If you meant Louise Harnby, she’s not only not “An American Editor,” she isn’t an American editor.

    Anyhow, I’ve been lucky to encounter very, very few of these, but I define a “difficult” client as one who is rude or unreasonably demanding. I can deal with clients who miss their own deadlines but expect me to meet the original ones, or who ask for one level of editing but really expect another that’s more time-intensive, etc. – most of those can be educated, and will respond to tactful responses about deadline realities or project scope.

    I can also deal with disagreements over style matters, as long as I’m not held responsible for not reading minds about how someone diverges from a given standard and the client version isn’t truly wrong according to grammar or spelling conventions. Those can usually be settled by referring to a style manual or dictionary, and agreeing to accept the client’s preference.

    The few times I’ve had to interact with clients who are rude or unreasonable, I do my best with the project and make myself unavailable for future ones.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — February 20, 2013 @ 10:40 am | Reply

  3. Knowing when to cut your losses is probably one of the hardest things to learn. Good article. That and useful information on how to BE a client (remember it’s a business transaction and proper business etiquette applies… and that the other party has probably run into those with no clue so be careful how you phrase things if you want to hire them to do other things to the same manuscript. 🙂 )


    Comment by anansii — February 20, 2013 @ 3:47 pm | Reply

  4. Thank you so much for writing about this topic! As a new freelancer, my primary issue is my not establishing boundaries clearly enough with the “difficult client.” I can see that I definitely bear part of the burden for my woes. The second instance in the column is especially a problem for me right now because I find myself waivering on client demands that exceed our original agreement. I know I shouldn’t, but I want to work. I am learning so much and hope that I can overcome this problem soon as my confidence builds.


    Comment by Susan G. — February 20, 2013 @ 4:10 pm | Reply

    • Susan, it is not that one should never accede to a client request to do more than originally bargained for; it is that one needs to know when to accede and when to fire the client. The line is not so firm that even experienced editors don’t cross it. You will learn more quickly when to turn left or right (i.e., accede or fire) if you carefully track your time and calculate your effective hourly rate. You need to know how much your left/right decision is costing you.


      Comment by americaneditor — February 20, 2013 @ 5:43 pm | Reply

  5. Thank you for posting this!


    Comment by nowwhatsmyname — February 21, 2013 @ 2:36 am | Reply

  6. Always a timely subject to discuss. The comment: ‘carefully track your time and calculate your effective hourly rate. You need to know how much your left/right decision is costing you.’ by Americaneditor is of particular value.


    Comment by Alison Vaughan — February 21, 2013 @ 5:17 am | Reply

  7. Often the complainer i.e. “difficult customer” is not the REAL complainer. The person doing the complaining is voicing the complaint that someone else (customer, client, association, acquaintance, family, friend) has brought up and your complainer does not have the answer to their complaint. When your customer has a monkey on their back, guess who the customer wants to do with the monkey . . . put it on your back.

    A complainer may be the BEST customer you have because by complaining the customer is telling you that the (s)he still wants to do business with you otherwise the customer would seek out someone else . . . . plus tell many others not to use your services.

    Always take the attitude that difficult customers, by complaining, are giving you a “kiss on the cheek — the cheek that is under one of your eyes”



    Comment by Alan J. Zell — February 27, 2013 @ 5:51 pm | Reply

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