An American Editor

April 1, 2013

The Business of Editing: The Ethics of Billing

Consider this scenario:

You are asked to edit a manuscript that, according to the client, will require a “heavy” edit. The prospective client asks how much you will charge. You have three choices: (a) charge by the page; (b) charge by the project; or (c) charge by the hour. You’ve looked at a sample of the manuscript, and tell the client that you will charge $35 per hour to edit the manuscript. The client accepts and tells you that the budget for the project is $3,500. When you receive the complete manuscript, you find that the page count is 550 manuscript pages.

As you edit the manuscript, you discover that some chapters require more time to edit than others but that, on average, you are able to edit 12 pages an hour. Finally, the day has arrived when you have finished editing the manuscript. On finish, you have spent 46 hours editing.

Based on your hourly rate, your bill to the client should be $1,610 (46 hours × $35/hour), but you know that the client is prepared to pay $3,500, which is the budget for the project and represents the equivalent of 100 hours of work at the agreed-upon hourly rate. How much do you bill the client?

To me, this is an open-and-shut case: You bill for the 46 hours you spent, not a penny more. But what I have discovered is that many editors disagree with me, and believe that it is okay to bill for the budgeted $3,500.

These editors take the position that the client expects the editing to take 100 hours, expects to pay $3,500, and should not reap the benefit of having hired a more efficient editor who was able to complete the job in less-than-expected time. These editors go further and say that it is the editor who should reap the benefit of the editor’s efficiency.

Yet that is not quite the end of the discussion. What happens, I have asked, if instead of the editing taking 46 hours, it takes 120 hours? Who absorbs the 20 hours over the expressly stated budget? Here the position shifts and the usual — although not always — response is that the additional hours are billed to the client as well because the agreement is an hourly fee. To be fair, a small minority of the editors who believe it is okay to bill for the budget amount also believe that the budget amount is the upper limit and that if an edit takes longer, it is the editor who absorbs the overage. At least some of the editors who think billing for the budget amount is okay also believe that any hours over the expressed budget should be absorbed by the editor.

Another group of editors think that if it looks like the budget will be exceeded, at the moment of that revelation, the editor needs to contact the client and come to an agreement with the client about how to proceed. To me, this latter group belongs with the group who will bill for the overage because a client will be hard-pressed to say “stop” in the middle of editing.

The question of what to bill is a matter of ethics. Ethics are the rules and standards that govern the conduct of a person or a member of a profession. At least in the latter aspect (member of a profession), editing is not governed by standards of conduct; as a result, ethics decisions (yes, ethics is both singular and plural) are based on one’s personal standards.

Consequently, there is no ethical standard to which one can point and say that billing in the described scenario needs to follow a particular rule or standard of conduct. Regardless of that universal absence, I think there is a fundamental, universally agreed-upon, understood, and expected standard that applies: the keeping of one’s bargain or word; in other words, avoiding deceptive practices.

I think that standard (or expectation) should govern the question of how much to bill in the scenario described. The agreement was for $35/hour of editing with the understanding that the client had $3,500 at most to spend. If the editor could not fulfill that agreement, then the editor should decline the contract or choose an alternate method of billing in which the sum is fixed and not correlated to the number of hours, such as a project fee or a per-page rate.

Yet, as I noted earlier, many editors disagree with me. I recall having this discussion 20 years ago on an editorial forum, and 20 years later, the discussion still arises.

I hesitate to call the “bill-for-all-you-can” approach dishonest, but that is what it seems like to me. To my mind, the idea of a bargain between two parties is that each should be a winner, not that one be a winner and the other a loser. In the case of the scenario described, the editor is the winner in at least two aspects: (a) the $35/hour fee the editor desired has been agreed to, and (b) the editor has been awarded the job at the fee the editor desires. The client is the winner in at least two aspects: (a) in the event that the editor finds the project easier to deal with than the client expects and can do the job in fewer hours, the client expects to pay less money for the editing and save on its budget, and (b) the client expects its potential out-of-pocket costs are limited to the budgeted amount.

Under the ethics standards proposed by the editors who believe they alone should reap the rewards, the editor is the winner (a) because the editor will be paid more than the agreed-upon hourly rate should the editor complete the project more quickly than the client anticipates, and (b) because the editor does not accept the client’s budget as a ceiling, the editor is protected against a project taking longer and will bill for overage. For the reasons that the editor is a winner, only the client is a loser.

If in relationships there is supposed to balance, there is no balance in the situation where the editor always wins and the client always loses. (It also raises the question of what the incentive is for the editor to edit efficiently as the editor will earn more by being as inefficient as possible.)

The argument I have not yet made against the unbalanced approach’s inherent dishonesty, but which is an important argument, is this: The agreement between editor and client was for an hourly fee of $35, an amount that the editor proposed and the client accepted. If the editor finishes the project in 46 hours but charges the client’s budget of $3,500, the editor is really charging $76/hour — more than double the agreed-upon fee, and not the amount that was the basis of the bargain. That another editor might have taken 75 or 90 or 100 or more hours to do the same work with the same level of competency as the editor provided in 46 hours is, to me, a specious justification. Just as I can imagine an editor taking 75 hours to do the editing, I can imagine an editor taking 28 hours, yet none of the “bill-for-all-you-can” editors suggest that the client should be billed for just 28 hours because it is quite possible that another editor would have been even more efficient.

In editing, ethics is a personal matter. However, I do not see any acceptable justification being proposed for abandoning the “golden rule” — do unto others as you would have done unto you — just because an opportunity to do so arises. An agreed-upon bargain is one that should be kept and honored. That is how I conduct my business and how I expect those who do business with me to act.

What do you think? With which view are you aligned? Do you think billing for the budget amount if you take fewer hours to perform the job is ethically justifiable? Do you think it justifiable, especially without the concurrence of the client, to ignore the client’s expressed budget limit and bill for overage?

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