An American Editor

October 14, 2015

A Question of Ethics: The Delayed Project Further Delayed

Over the years, one of the things that has concerned editors is the “problem” of overbooking that results in project schedules overlapping. In comments to my essay, A Question of Ethics: If the Editing Is Running Behind Schedule…, the following question scenario was posed:

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. (Dave Higgins, October 5, 2015)

Missing from the scenario are several important pieces of information:

  • Did the editor advise the client that because of the anticipated delay in the client’s producing the required material, the editor was going to accept other work that might cause a schedule conflict?
  • Did the editor inquire as to how much of a delay the client anticipated?
  • When the editor contracted for the project, was the editor aware of the potential for delay? If yes, did the editor advise the client at that time that if there was a delay, the editor would take on other editing work rather than sit idle?
  • How well did the editor evaluate the new waiting-period project in terms of schedule and difficulty?
  • How much of a delay will result to the original client’s project?

There may be additional bits of information that would be useful in analyzing the scenario, but the outlined ones are sufficient for our purposes.

A good habit to have

I know I have said and written this so many times that you are probably tired of hearing/reading it, but here it comes again: I am a business. I run a professional business. I am not an editorial hobbyist. Remembering this is important. Using it as a guide to my conduct is also important.

When I speak with clients or potential clients, I make it clear that providing editorial services is my full-time occupation; that I am a professional, not amateur or hobbyist, editor; and that I am running a business. I repeat this often because it is the foundation for my responses to myriad situations that arise in my editorial business.

It is an important foundation for resolving the scenario presented. When I agree to take on a project and a schedule is mutually agreed upon, I emphasize to my client that should there be a delay in the client’s delivery of needed and requested information or material, the schedule will be extended appropriately. Furthermore, and this is the critical part for the scenario under discussion, if the anticipated delay is longer than a few days, I will move on to my next scheduled project whose deadline I need to meet and will return to the delaying client’s project as I can. I make it very clear that I have work scheduled to start immediately after I complete the current client’s project as originally scheduled — there is no “free” time available to accommodate client-side delays.

Advising clients that your editing schedule has little flexibility is a good habit to get into. First, it signals your expectation that just as the client will expect you to meet the agreed-upon deadline, so, too, will you expect the client to timely fulfill its agreed-to obligations. Second, it signals that your services are in demand, that you are a professional whose time is valuable both to you and to clients. Third, it provides you with the means to justify taking on additional work while waiting for the client to fulfill its obligations. Fourth, the client has had fair warning of the effects of client delay and thus you are not obligated — neither ethically nor from a customer relations point of view — to provide a discount on my services.

But what if I don’t have the habit?

If I were an editor who didn’t habitually advise clients that I cannot sit idly by waiting for material that may never appear, then I need to consider additional pieces of information.

What (and when) did the editor advise the client?

When an editor learns from a client that there will be a delay, the editor should try to ascertain the expected length of the delay. It matters whether we are talking a day or two or weeks. In the case of a short delay (and what constitutes a “short” delay we each need to define for ourselves), I am of the opinion that the editor should not take on another project; instead, the editor should give a reasonable deadline (another length of time that we each need to define for our own business) by which the editor must receive the material or the editor will start another project. In this case, the editor needs to also explicitly state to the client that schedules are likely to overlap and that the new project will take precedence over the delayed project. The editor needs to do this immediately upon learning of the delay; the editor should not wait in the hope that the delay will be minimal. If the editor does this, then I do not think any discount is owed the client for not meeting the client’s schedule.

Could delays have been anticipated when the editor agreed to the project?

Experienced editors know that some projects are ripe for schedule delays, especially multiauthor projects. If the potential for delay existed at the time of contracting, then it was the editor’s responsibility to advise the client at that point in time of what the editor will do when the delay is encountered. It is also the time to come to an agreement as to what will constitute a “lengthy” delay that would free the editor to move to another project and make that project the primary project.

Where the editor has tackled the problem at the time of contracting, I think no discount is owed to the client as a result of the editor having taken on another project. Unfortunately, many editors do not have sufficient experience or insight to see the potential for delay and address it upfront; they tackle the problem when it arises. In this case, the editor may owe the client a discount; whether the editor does or does not depends on additional information, such as what was discussed above under “What (and when) did the editor advise the client?”

The new project & the overlapping schedules

When the editor decides to take on the second project while waiting for the delayed materials to appear, how well the editor evaluated the new project is important, I think, in determining whether the editor owes the delay client a discount.

When I tell a delay client I have to move on to another project, I also tell the client when I will be able to return to their project. I also indicate whether I think I will be able to do any work at all on their project while I am working on the new project. The date I give is a semifirm date; that is, I tell the client I can return to their project on X date, give or take a day or two.

I also reexplain to the client what constitutes an editing workweek. I do this because I have found that delay clients — like all clients — assume that because I am a freelance editor I work 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year when I have work. (That’s really two assumptions, the second being that there are days or weeks when I do not have work. Unless educated otherwise, clients tend not to think of freelance editing as a “full-time real job” like their jobs.) I reinforce the editing workweek idea to nip in the bud the expectation that I will work extralong days and weekends so as not to disrupt the client’s schedule. I also want to reinforce the notion that those hours and days can be worked but for a premium price, not at the regular price.

I am able to give the semifirm date because after 31 years of evaluating manuscripts, I have a pretty good idea of how long a project will take. If I have made the commitment but miscalculated, I entertain giving the delay client a discount. The discount amount varies and is based on whether I think I can make up the miscalculated time.

The snowball effect

The problem with schedules is that failing to meet them usually has a snowball effect. If editing is not done on time, then authors don’t finish their review on time, which means typesetting is delayed, which means printing is delayed, and so on. The question then becomes: Who should bear responsibility?

I think a sense of professional ethics and responsibility resolves as follows:

  • When the client fails to deliver on time, the snowball effects, which affect the client and not the editor, are chargeable to the client — no editor’s discount is warranted.
  • When the editor takes on a wait-time project and has properly prepared and notified the delay client, the snowball effects are chargeable to the client — no editor’s discount is warranted.
  • When the editor hasn’t properly prepared and notified the client, the snowball effects are chargeable to the editor — a small editor’s discount is warranted.
  • When the editor has miscalculated the time needed to complete the wait-time project, the snowball effects are chargeable to the editor — a larger editor’s discount is warranted.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Some related An American Editor essays that may be of interest:

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