An American Editor

April 8, 2013

The Business of Editing: Expectations

The clash between client and editor often is caused by unmet expectations — the client’s expectations as to what services the editor will provide within what time frame and for what price.

In the negotiations between client and editor, the client wants more for less and the editor wants more for less: The client wants more work for less money, the editor wants more money for less work. This is just like every other business negotiation, except for one thing: client and editor expectations are rarely expressed; the parties act as if the other side already knows what the other expects.

The clash arises because clients expect an editor to do whatever it takes to make the client’s manuscript near-perfect regardless of the balance between the expectation and the rate of pay/time given to do the work, and editors feel pressure to do whatever is need to make a manuscript near-perfect, even if the pay, the time given to do the work, or both are inadequate. Both parties are wrong.

The most difficult thing to impress upon colleagues, something I have repeated over the years, is that compensation (which includes the time allotted to do the work) and work must correlate. If you are being paid a copyedit wage, then you copyedit, not developmental edit. If the manuscript needs a developmental edit, alert the client, explain why it is needed, and explain for what should be at least the second time why you are not doing it. And, clearly, if you are expected to do a developmental edit within a copyedit timeframe, explain — multiple times, if necessary — why you cannot.

Recently, an editor lamented that a client had an unrealistic expectation as regards how many pages an hour the editor should churn on a particular project. (I use churn to mean move through, to edit. Although technically this is not a correct use of the word, I find that the number of pages to edit in an hour has much in common with the idea of the frequent buying and selling of securities, which is a meaning of churn. Churn out, the transitive verb form, is perhaps closer in meaning to my use as editorial churn, in that it refers to producing mechanically or copiously, to which I would add nearly robotically.) The manuscript needed a developmental edit and the client expected not only the developmental edit but a churn rate of 10 to 12 pages an hour. The editor, however, was not being paid for such an edit.

The editor’s obligation is to provide the best editing the editor can within the parameters set by the client. If the client’s parameters include churn of 10 to 12 pages an hour, then the editor should strive to meet that churn goal and do the best editing job that the editor can at that rate on that manuscript. If the editing level decreases because of the churn and the complexity of the manuscript, the editor also has an obligation to alert the client to the editing limitations that result because of the churn rate required. It is then the client’s obligation to determine what balance is desirable.

But the immutable law, as far as I am concerned, is this: An editor does not owe a client a near-perfect edit of a manuscript; the editor owes the client the best edit that balances against the fiscal and time constraints imposed by the client — nothing more, nothing less. It is unreasonable to give a Mercedes performance when you are given a Yugo to drive. It is unreasonable to provide a Yugo when you want a Mercedes performance. Give a Yugo, receive a Yugo; give a Mercedes receive a Mercedes.

I make it very clear to clients the difference between a copyedit and a developmental edit (I usually refer them to my article, Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) I also make it clear that the faster the churn rate, the less careful the editing will be. Some clients not only expect a high churn rate but a multipass edit. Perhaps if the churn expectation is 5 pages an hour, it is reasonable to expect at least a two-pass edit, which makes the effective churn rate 10 pages an hour, but that is certainly not true when the churn expectation is 10 pages an hour, which would make the effective rate 20 pages an hour with a second pass.

However, there are two problems that must be addressed. Both stem from how the editor is paid. If an editor is on an hourly rate, the client often sets a budget based on the expected churn rate (i.e., manuscript size ÷ churn rate = number of hours; number of hours × hourly rate = budget). However, an editor may not be aware of the budget and thus expect that every hour spent editing will be compensated. If there is an upper limit, a budget amount, the editor needs to determine the maximum number of hours for which the client will pay and scale the editorial services accordingly. If the client is not forthcoming about the compensation limitations, then the editor needs to make it clear upfront that the editor expects to be paid for the time spent regardless of whether or not it exceeds the client’s budget (subject, of course, to the ethical constraints discussed in The Business of Editing: The Ethics of Billing).

If the editor is paid on a per-page or project basis, the total fee does not change regardless of the number of hours. Consequently, if the editor spends 20 hours or 100 hours editing, the fee remains the same. As in the hourly situation, the editor needs to balance the fee the editor will receive against the client’s editorial expectations — before beginning editing or by the time the first pages are edited. Exactly what services the editor will provide for the fee to be earned needs to be spelled out so that there is no confusion on the part of either party. However, should the editor not take this step and discuss any editing limitations, then, in the circumstance of the per-page or project basis for compensation, the client is entitled to Mercedes performance even if the editor is paid a Yugo fee — as long as the client has made the Mercedes expectation clear before the compensation was agreed to.

Sometimes there can be no meeting of the minds: the client is unwilling to lower expectations or raise the fee or do both. In this instance, the editor should bail from the project, assuming that this discussion is taking place at the beginning of the project and not in the middle. If in the middle of the project, the editor should offer the client the option to either pay for work done and find another editor to complete the project or to accept a defined level of editing that meets the client’s churn expectations, even if it doesn’t meet the client’s editorial expectations, and which balances against the fee being paid.

The more clarity the editor brings to the project, by which I mean the more the editor explains the balance, the more likely it is that the editor and the client will work together amicably. It is important to remember that it is the editor who is initially dissatisfied with the lack of balance between expectations and pay; thus, it is the editor’s obligation to educate the client as to the need for the balance and as to what will meet that need. The client’s obligation is to listen, understand, and correct the misbalance in a way that is satisfactory to both the client and the editor.

But under no circumstance should the editor voluntarily (especially not while grumbling about it) accept the misbalance between expectation and compensation. Ultimately, the editor must say, “This is what I will do for this compensation — nothing more, nothing less — and I will do it expertly and professionally, but I will not provide [fill-in the blank, e.g., developmental edit] for the price of [e.g., a copyedit].” Editors must educate their clients about editing, and not assume that clients are already educated about it.

Most importantly, editors must realize that this is a business relationship and must be treated as one. I understand the need of editors to do the near-perfect edit on every job. Unfortunately, our creditors are unwilling to accept a near-perfect edit as payment. An editor who feels she cannot compromise on the edit to be delivered, such as doing a one-pass edit when she would normally do a two-pass edit, should then decline jobs that require compromised editing; happiness in what we do should be our number one motivation.

7 Comments »

  1. THANK YOU for writing this~

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    Comment by Ann — April 8, 2013 @ 1:08 pm | Reply

  2. The key is “If the manuscript needs a developmental edit, alert the client, explain why it is needed, and explain … why you are not doing it. And, clearly, if you are expected to do a developmental edit within a copyedit timeframe, explain — multiple times, if necessary — why you cannot.”

    That is: Explain. Tell the client that the document needs X level of work and that you can only do Y level of work for the fee currently being paid; giving the document more time will require being paid more money. There are firm yet tactful ways of saying this, but it must be said. We can’t making our livings by constantly doing more work than clients will pay for, even if personal or professional pride pushes us to do so. Some clients will pay what a deeper edit requires, but only if they know what is involved; they can’t read our minds.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — April 8, 2013 @ 4:25 pm | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on Wendy Reis Editing (Blog) and commented:
    I have just begun working with signed contracts which spell everything out. Expectations need to be clear and in writing.

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    Comment by Wendy Reis Editing — April 9, 2013 @ 8:28 am | Reply

  4. I’m a book designer and as I layout the text, I alert the authour(s) if I find anything that I find that I think may be in error. If there is a developmental error that I find, I work with the authour to rewrite it to fit the existing layout (because these are usually found at the end of the initial text layout and it’s a bitch if the spacing changes cause bumps with photo placement and pagination).

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    Comment by Frank Wendeln — April 10, 2013 @ 6:57 am | Reply

  5. […] The second opportunity I passed on was more problematic. In this instance, I was well-suited to the task and the schedule was one that I could work with. The problem was a lack of balance. We have discussed balance in prior posts, including “The Business of Editing: Expectations.” […]

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    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Standing One’s Ground | An American Editor — December 2, 2013 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  6. […] of Editing: The Ethics of Billing“, “Ethics in a World of Cheap“, “The Business of Editing: Expectations“, and “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line”, to cite a few […]

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    Pingback by Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics | An American Editor — July 9, 2014 @ 4:03 am | Reply

  7. […] discussed expectations before (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Expectations, Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations, and Great Expectations: A Recipe […]

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    Pingback by How Much Is That Editor in the Window? | An American Editor — August 6, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply


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