An American Editor

October 5, 2015

A Question of Ethics: If the Editing Is Running Behind Schedule…

The Background

A project I recently completed was originally scheduled to be done by August 31 — a 4-week schedule; it ended, instead, 3 weeks later. The price I quoted was based on the short schedule that the August 31 must-meet date represented. (For this particular project, a 4-week schedule was quite tight.)

The delay in completing the project was caused by delays in the client delivering the manuscript to me. The delays were such that it seemed as if nothing was going right with the project. For example, references were called out in the text using the author-date system, with all of the references appearing in a bibliography at the end of the manuscript, not in each chapter. Although I requested the references early in the process, I didn’t receive them until a few days before the absolute final extended due date. Consequently, the editor had no opportunity to check whether the bibliography actually contained all of the cites called out in the text or if there were references cited in the bibliography that were not called out in the text.

A fundamental part of editing is to check the references to make sure that all that are called out are cited in the bibliography/reference list and to identify any that are cited in the bibliography/reference list but not called out in the text. When the client insisted that I return the edited references on a particular date, I pointed out that to do so meant the editor could not check callouts against cites; all the editor could do was look for missing information in the cites, try to locate that missing information, and style the cites.

Because callout–cite checking is fundamental to editing, I required the client to explicitly direct us to not do the checking, which the client did. As the client noted, it was not our fault that there was no time left to do the job. I replied to the client, “It is not a problem from our end. We do the job you want as best we can within the limits you impose.”

The Questions

At least three questions arise out of these circumstances, each raising ethical issues:

  1. In the case where the client instructs you to not perform a service that is normally included because the client is late delivering the files, should the fee be reduced by the value of the service not provided?
  2. In the case where the client instructs you to not perform a service that is normally included because the you misjudged the time needed to edit the manuscript and so are now late in delivering the manuscript to the client, should the fee be reduced by the value of the service not provided at the client’s instruction?
  3. Does the answer to either of the previous questions depend on whether the editor is charging by the page, by the project, or by the hour?

The client delivers late

In the first scenario (client is late deliverer), I think the editor has no ethical duty to reduce the fee. The editor is willing to perform the service if given the necessary time to do so. That the client has schedule constraints that do not permit the editor to perform the service is outside the control of the editor. The decision for the editor to not cross-check the cites was made by the same party that was late in providing the material, which is outside the editor’s control.

However, the basis for the billing does affect the amount to be charged. If the editor is billing by the page or the project, the invoiced amount should be the same regardless of whether or not the cite cross-checking was performed. But if the editor is charging by the hour, the invoice should not include a sum for time that would have been spent doing the cross-checking but for the client stopping the cross-checking. It would be unethical for the editor to bill for time that was not actually spent because the basis of the hourly charge is that the editor gets paid for hours worked.

Some commentators would argue that the billing method is irrelevant because all billing methods are based on time; that when an editor sets a per-page rate or a project-fee rate, part of the editor’s calculation is based on an estimate of the time it is expected the work will require. This is one of the elements of creating a quote (see The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote).

I agree that every price calculation method contains a time-expected-to-spend-editing component, but there is a significant difference between hourly-based and per-page– and project-fee–based projects. With per-page– and project-fee–based projects, the expectation of the amount the editor is to be paid is set based on a factor other than time; that is, it does not matter whether the editor completes the project in 20 hours but took 50 hours nor does it matter what the editor’s or client’s time expectation was — the fee is not time dependent, it changes only if there is a change in some other factor other than time (e.g., if the page count changes). In contrast, with an hourly-based fee the amount to be paid rises and falls based solely on the number of hours the editor spends editing; that is, unlike with per-page and project-based fees, the final hourly-based fee is not calculable until the project is complete.

The editor miscalculated the time needed

In the case of the second scenario (the editor is taking longer than expected to edit), I think the client is entitled to a reduction in the fee, even though it is the client who instructs the editor to not perform the service. In this instance, the editor knows the schedule that binds the client and that must be met. It is the editor who is late as a result of matters that are within the editor’s control. It is the editor who miscalculated and now jeopardizes the client’s schedule.

The reason for the fee reduction is that the agreed-upon price included the service that is now not to be performed and the reason it is not to be performed is because of the editor’s miscalculation, not because of anything the client has done. It is, in my view, unethical for an editor to be paid for work not performed at the fault of the editor. If there were no reduction in fee, the editor would be rewarded for not adhering to the bargain the editor’s made.

Here, also, the manner of calculating the fee affects the reduction. If the editor is charging by the hour, then no specific fee reduction is required because the client will not be billed for work not performed (i.e., hours spent editing). Only when the billing is per-page or project-fee based does there need to be a reduction in the set fee. How much of a reduction depends on the value of the service and whether the client will need to secure the service elsewhere. This is a matter of negotiation. But it is the to the editor’s advantage to initiate the reduction rather than wait for the client to raise the question or, perhaps more troublesome for the editor, for the client to not say anything but decide not to use the editor in the future.

A Question of Ethics

It is not unusual for an editor to ask on a forum whether a fee should be reduced or partially refunded. I do not consider the sense of ethics that governs my business to be a question of group ethics or group decision making; rather, I see it as a sense of my personal moral code, a sense of what I view as right and wrong. What does it matter whether 99 out of 100 editors would not issue a refund if I think one is warranted? That I would even ask the question is, to me, an indication that I think the client is entitled to some refund.

Ethics is a matter of taking the moral high road, of trying to seek a fairness balance, a balance of right and wrong.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. Richard,

    What a thoughtful, helpful piece on pricing your work. You do an excellent job of analyzing the criteria for price adjustment.

    I am especially amazed, frankly, by your assertion that we must each determine our own ethical decisions rather than put them up for group input. I’ve never considered this before and doubt if many other people have as well.

    Now that I think about it, I agree. When people pose pricing questions to the group, they are looking for encouragement to bill more and get “what they are worth,” not for ethical considerations that may require them to decrease the invoice.

    Diana Schneidman, author, Real Skills, Real Income: A Proven Marketing System to Land Well-Paid Freelance and Consulting Work in 30 Days or Less


    Comment by Diana Schneidman — October 5, 2015 @ 7:33 am | Reply

  2. Definitely agree about the editor raising a reduction if they are at fault; and that the primary question is ethics. However, taking the opportunity to introduce a positive note to the client’s less-than-ideal experience is good business sense too.

    Where it becomes more complex ethically is if the responsibility for the overrun is shared. For example, a client doesn’t send critical papers on time, so the editor takes another job to avoid being idle but misjudges their schedule. Part of the overrun is due to the editor taking too much work, but wouldn’t have happened at all if the client hadn’t delayed. As with you, I think ethically the editor owes some discount but working out how much is another issue.


    Comment by Dave Higgins — October 5, 2015 @ 9:28 am | Reply

  3. There is not very much difference between Questions 1 and 2 since it all comes down to charging fairly for services provided. (I’m ignoring the pure pay-per-hour deal here.) Regardless of delays, the editor has offered to do a certain amount of work for an agreed price. If for any reason the job is stopped before it’s complete then it is appropriate to charge less, and the editor’s reputation will probably be enhanced if he/she initiates that discussion.

    However if the job has been curtailed by the publisher’s delays or inefficiencies then the editor should expect some compensation for inconvenience, additional time in discussions, disruption of schedule, etc. in addition to a pro rata editing fee. If most of the planned work has been done then paying the full fee seems appropriate if only as a professional courtesy. Hopefully openness and professionalism would prevail on both sides, especially if they expect to work together again. Of course if it is the editor’s fault that the work is not completed then full payment can’t be expected.


    Comment by Jim Hart — October 6, 2015 @ 4:40 am | Reply

  4. 1) “In the case where the client instructs you to not perform a service that is normally included because the client is late delivering the files, should the fee be reduced by the value of the service not provided?”
    That may depend on how I’m charging or being paid. If it’s by the page and not including those services means having fewer pages to work on, or if it’s by the hour and this means working for fewer hours, the fee will automatically be lower without my agonizing over it. If there’s a flat or project fee, I’d probably take something off, although an argument could be made that you’re spending the time not used on the services not provided to be more thorough on the rest of the ms. And some colleagues consider a flat or project fee as un-cuttable.

    2) “In the case where the client instructs you to not perform a service that is normally included because … you misjudged the time needed to edit the manuscript and so are now late in delivering the manuscript to the client, should the fee be reduced by the value of the service not provided at the client’s instruction?”
    Probably yes, but only if it were really was my fault somehow. Although I would contact the client early to say that I need more time to handle the service in question. This possibility is why it’s important to see, and actually look at, the whole project before committing to a deadline and fee.

    These scenarios are a little different than the client providing the project, or parts of the project, later than promised. The same conditions hold for hourly and page rates, but if the client causes a deadline crisis, I’m less likely to provide a discount on a flat/project fee. Not doing something like the citation step would give me more time to focus on the other elements of the ms. in the time available.

    3) “Does the answer to either of the previous questions depend on whether the editor is charging by the page, by the project, or by the hour?”
    See response to #1.

    And yes, some of this is as much a matter of personal ethics as simple business policy. In essence, I don’t charge for work I haven’t done. That seems to be both a core ethical principle and a straightforward business policy.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — October 11, 2015 @ 7:50 pm | Reply

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