An American Editor

July 28, 2014

The Business of Editing: Do You Tell? Ethical Considerations & Subcontracting

In a comment to an earlier essay on ethics, The Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics, Teresa Barensfeld asked several questions. With her permission, I plan to give my view on some of them over the course of several essays. I begin with this question:

“Do you tell clients if you hire another freelancer to work on a job you’re doing?”

I think the formation of an answer begins with how hold yourself out to clients and your relationship with clients. How you hold yourself out to clients helps shape their expectations, and from an ethical perspective, I think it is the combination of your presentation and client expectations that determines the correct answer to this question.

It does not matter, in my view, whether you are a single-person operation or a corporation of many editors. What does matter is how you present yourself: Are you presenting yourself as a single-editor operation or as a company. We discussed the merits of solopreneurship versus company in several essays, including The Business of Editing: Why a Company?, Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (I), Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (II), and Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (III). The beginnings of the answer to the ethical concern lies in those articles.

The presentation as a solo editor is done in many ways. For example, do you use a company name or just your name? Are checks made payable to you instead of to a company name? Are electronic payments made to accounts that bear your name or a company name? Do you use a personal identification number (e.g., Social Security number) or a business tax identification number (e.g., the Employer Identification Number)? Do you answer your phone with your name or a company name? Does your email signature include only your name or does it include a business name? When asked about, for example, availability, do you speak of “my schedule” or do you indicate you will need to check whether you have “an available editor”? Does your website indicate that the only editor is you? And the list goes on.

It is these types of actions that build an expectation in clients. If you present yourself as a solo editor, which is how most freelance editors present themselves, then whether you tell clients if you hire a subcontractor depends on whether the client hired you because of your specific skills or hired you because the client needed an editor and you were available. The issue really is one of client reliance on the unique perspective that each of us has as we do our editorial magic.

Unfortunately, I do not know of a way to discern the level of the client’s reliance on individual uniqueness. Consequently, I think you should assume that you were hired for your uniqueness if you present yourself as a solo editor. If you presented yourself as being a solo editor, then I think it is reasonable for a client to expect to be told (asked?) when you subcontract.

Conversely, if you consistently present yourself as being a company, I think the client’s expectations are different. I think clients expect companies to have access to more than a single editor. Even if they do not, it is my belief that not discussing subcontracting with a client is consistent with the presentation as a company.

From an ethical perspective, in the case where you present as a company, there is no deception in taking the position that the client is hiring a company and that the company decides whom to assign to a project. This is subject to an important exception: If a client specifically asks you to undertake the editing, then, regardless of whether you present as a solo editor or a company, you are obligated to advise the client of any subcontracting and to give the client an opportunity to cancel the contract.

As I have mentioned in any number of previous essays, from the very beginning of my freelance editing career, I presented myself as a company. When approached to take on projects, I have always made it clear that I need to check “editors’ schedules” and I never promise to personally undertake a project — except when a client specifically asks, which has occasionally happened. I never discuss with clients editor assignments and I never ask if subcontracting is acceptable. I assume it is okay because the client knows I am a company. I have never had a client object; more importantly, it has often been the case that a client who hired me for one project would call again for a second or third project because the client expects me to have multiple editors.

Ultimately, as I previously indicated, I think the answer to the question lies in how you have presented your business to clients and what clients expect. I think it is unethical to not advise the client of subcontracting if the client views you as and expects you to be a solo editor because that is how you have actively presented yourself. In such a case, there is strong reason to believe that the client is hiring you personally.

In contrast, I do not think it is unethical to not advise a client of subcontracting if the client’s expectation is that you are a company. When dealing with a company, the client may hold you, as the focus of the company, responsible for problematic editing, but that is different from the issue of being notified about subcontracting.

A subsumed issue in the question, in the case of a company, goes to the arrangement between the editors. Is it an employer–employee or contactor–subcontractor relationship? And does that relationship affect the ethicality of not notifying a client that you intend to subcontract the work?

I think it makes no difference whatsoever. The employer–employee versus contactor–subcontractor relationship is a tax and insurance matter; it has no bearing on the editing. The client is still hiring the company and expects the company to have more than one editor (assuming that is how the company has been presented to the client). The arrangement between the company-owning editor and the employee/subcontractor editor is not a client matter.

So we are back to where we began. The answer to the ethical question is: What are your client’s expectations based on your presentation of yourself and your business?

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. This all seems straightforward, and nicely explained.

    I’ve had some trouble getting my own image straight, though. I’m a solo act and have always presented myself as such, using a business name on my letterhead, billing, website, taxes, bank account, card, e-mails, etc. In each case my business name is bigger and/or bolder and/or listed first.

    (I don’t conduct business via phone unless previously arranged with someone already acquainted with me, so answering it isn’t an issue).

    I do this to send the message I Am An Enterprise and We Are Doing Business Together. Clients act accordingly, and pay promptly. Yet 90% of them write their checks to my personal name — both individuals and corporate AP departments. I need to add a line to my invoice or cover notes to instruct them to pay to the business. So there’s some logic loop going on that I’m missing.


    Comment by Carolyn — July 28, 2014 @ 6:27 am | Reply

    • My invoices only have the company name — my name does not appear. In the early years, I had my name on the invoice, too, and when I received a check in my name, I called and asked if they would let me return the check and replace it with one in the business name.


      Comment by americaneditor — July 28, 2014 @ 10:01 am | Reply

  2. For the most part, I’ve done business as an individual even though I have a company name. I’m now trying to transition to a company image. Because I’m not sure at this point whether clients are hiring me or my company, I will say upfront that I often work with partners; if the client is interested in working with me specifically, they should speak up. So far, everyone has trusted me to work with reliable partners and for me to oversee the work and ensure quality.


    Comment by erinbrenner — July 28, 2014 @ 8:59 am | Reply

  3. Richard, how do you handle “quality control” if a client is not happy with the edit? My editors are an in independent contractor relationship with me, and I’m not part of the contract between the editor and writer. When I tried to subcontract to proofreaders who passed my tests (many years ago), it added hours to my work week because I needed to review the document if the client found an issue and brought it to my attention.
    Lynda Lotman


    Comment by Lynda Lotman — July 28, 2014 @ 10:40 am | Reply

    • When I hire a new editor, I review that editor’s work. I do that until I am comfortable with the quality of their work. I take a long-term view: I am expecting to create a very long-term relationship with the editor and so am willing to invest the necessary time upfront, expecting that “loss” to be made up quickly and profitably over the years. The editors who currently work with me have done so for many years; one has been with me for probably 20+ years.

      Even so, occasionally there are complaints about an editor’s work, including complaints about my work. Usually it is from someone who is either relatively new in their in-house position or someone who has their own definite ideas about editing but fails to communicate those ideas before editing has commenced.

      Then there are those complaints that are excuses for self-misconduct or for other political reasons. See “Relationships & the Unwritten Rules” for a good example of this problem.

      The bottom line is that doing it ourselves is no assurance of creating quality that will satisfy the client. Moreover, it assumes that the way we edit is the best way to edit rather than one way to edit. Editing is not a science; it is an art. As an art, it is subject to many interpretations and all we can do on behalf of our clients is give our best guess as to what the client wants. Most of the time we are right, but sometimes we aren’t and that doesn’t change whether we do the work or subcontract it. Quality assurance is not a clear-cut, black-and-white, objectively assessable item; consequently, I do not worry very much about it. I do the best I can and my editors do the best they can. Either we meet client expectations or we do not. But I cannot let worry about meeting that undefined goal determine how I will conduct my business.


      Comment by americaneditor — July 29, 2014 @ 4:55 am | Reply

      • Rich, you’re also working with the same clients over time, too, right? So a repeat client would come to trust your company’s work over time, likely leading to fewer complaints because they trust your work. I think that would be an important difference with Lynda’s work, which I believe is a lot more one-off clients. Correct me if I’m wrong about either situation.

        My main point is that a long-term relationship with the client also leads to trust and fewer complaints (all things being equal). This is true whether it’s one editor doing the work or several editors with one company. If the client trusts the company, that trust likely extends to the individuals at the company.


        Comment by erinbrenner — July 30, 2014 @ 4:59 pm | Reply

        • Speaking for my business, the answer is yes and no. Yes, many of my clients are long-time clients, but no, not all of them. My clients are rarely one-off. However, at some point my long-time clients were new clients and even then I made it clear that I was a company of editors.

          Although the point you make has some validity, to my thinking it has little weight. Of much greater importance is how you present yourself, the consistency with which you make that presentation, and your attitude. By the latter I mean, “do you stick to your view?” I have always made it clear that a client hires my company, not me. A client can always request that I do the work and that request will be factored in the decision-making process as to who will be assigned a project, but it is never THE factor. If I can accommodate a client’s request, I will; however, I make it clear that asking for a particular editor is a request and if the client is insistent, I suggest that perhaps this project is not a good fit for us. I do offer the alternative of extending the schedule by several weeks or more so that the requested editor could take on the project upon completion of the project the editor is currently working on, but my experience has been that schedule is more important than editor.

          Bottom line is this: I do not tell my clients how to run their companies or lives — they would be offended if I did — and, similarly, they are not in a position to tell me how to run my company. It is just like with invoices (remember our discussion in The Business of Editing: Thinking About Invoices?): I submit only my company’s invoice form, not the client’s form, if it has one. I am a business of equal stature to that of my clients and I expect to be treated as they expect (demand) to be treated.

          As I have said before: The biggest failing of editors is that they do not think and act like a business. If General Motors wouldn’t do it, why would I do it?


          Comment by americaneditor — July 31, 2014 @ 5:11 am | Reply

  4. Years ago I made the mistake of disguising the fact that I hired another editor to do a project a client had given me. The client found out (because the editor’s name was in the Track Changes). Duh. The client was rightfully upset, and I was mortified and ashamed. Since then, I’ve always been 100% clear about whether I’m personally doing a project or whether an editor on my team is doing it. There’s a lot of hot air blown these days about “transparency,” but this is a case in which transparency is essential.


    Comment by Samantha Enslen — July 28, 2014 @ 2:35 pm | Reply

    • Isn’t your case a matter of the client expecting to hire you because the client saw you as a single-editor business? Would things have been different if you had always presented yourself as a multieditor company?


      Comment by americaneditor — July 29, 2014 @ 4:59 am | Reply

      • Rich, you are correct. This happened at a time when I was transitioning from being a sole practitioner to actually running a business, which is what I do today. For me, making that transition with current clients was awkward, and I clearly didn’t handle it well in all situations. Now that I’ve established my role as business owner/project manager, it’s easy to talk with new clients about our “team of editors and writers,” and there is never any confusion about who is doing a given project. But it took me time to get there.


        Comment by Samantha Enslen — July 29, 2014 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

        • Which is a great case study in “you can make the transition from sole editor to company and survive the learning process.”


          Comment by erinbrenner — July 30, 2014 @ 5:00 pm | Reply

  5. I present myself to clients as a sort of hybrid. I do jobs myself but can also assembly a team for big projects — that’s stated clearly on my website. I’ve had clients contact me specifically for the team option in order to get a big project done in a timely way. I’ve also had clients who ask that I do the editing myself and not sub it out. I do most of my editing jobs myself, but sometimes bring in freelancers to do parts of a project like matching and styling references. In those cases, I might say that I have an assistant who is helping me on the job, or I might not mention it at all, because I’m doing the editing read-through after my sub is done with her part, and thus I’m doing QA on her work as I do mine. When a client wants the job edited by me, they’re talking about the read-through part, and don’t care if someone else made sure the references were styled per CMS or APA or another style. If I sub out an entire job, I tell the client. Mostly this happens for clients I have worked with for years who already know that I occasionally sub out work, so we don’t go through the discussion every time. As long as the finished product is good, that’s all they care about.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — July 29, 2014 @ 12:50 am | Reply

  6. Also, I want to thank Rich for using my question as the topic of this blog post. I don’t have the time or patience to write a blog, but I sure like participating in this one!


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — July 29, 2014 @ 12:56 am | Reply

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