An American Editor

April 6, 2016

On Ethics: To Out or Not to Out Clients II

Part I ended with this general rule:

Ethically it is not improper to disclose the name of a client except when the client is a nonbusiness individual who would reasonably expect confidentiality.

and the statement that there is more to the issue of disclosure. One of the big questions is whether it makes a difference if the forum for disclosure is a private one (i.e., one not accessible by the general public) or a public one (i.e., one accessible by everyone).

In the world of Google, does it matter?

One problem with the private-versus-public dichotomy is that too often there really isn’t a dichotomy. Much too often “private” forums are indexed by Google and other search engines, and so what is thought to be private really isn’t — the information appears in a search result.

Even “private” Facebook chats aren’t very private, especially as Facebook keeps altering its terms of service in an attempt to defeat any privacy preferences.

Does the nature of the forum really change the ethics?

To my thinking, it does not matter whether the forum is private or public. Aren’t the real issues the client’s opportunity to respond, the client’s expectation of privacy, and whether the client is an individual or a business? Do either change based on your decision to reveal the client in a public forum rather than a private forum?

An argument could be made that disclosure in a public forum does give the client an opportunity to respond, but with the hundreds of thousands of forums in existence on the Internet alone, it is a false argument. And certainly it is a false argument if you go to a public editors’ group meeting and discuss the client when the client lives in Paris, France, and the meeting is a Thursday luncheon in Horsehead Falls, NY.

No matter how you construe the arguments, the type of forum — public or private — has no effect on the ethics of naming individual clients without permission. Again, naming a business is different because the purpose of a business is to make itself known, whereas individuals have an expectation of confidentiality.

What makes an individual a business?

Let’s begin with this truism: If the individual is incorporated (e.g., Jones LLC), uses a business name (e.g., Jones Enterprises), or otherwise holds himself out as a business, then the individual is a business. If the individual asks that you invoice in a company name, then the individual is a business. But if the individual does everything in his own name and clearly is not earning their living as an author (e.g., is a stock broker or marketer), then the individual is an individual. The point is less that these specific things make an individual a business but how the client presents himself.

A cautionary word: If the client has a business, that fact does not make the client a business within your relationship. The question is the client’s presentation to you within the confines of your relationship, not the within client’s general life.

Does what you want to disclose make a difference?

A lot of editors will include in their résumés or on their websites a list of books that they have edited. I do. The practice is okay if the client is the publisher rather than the individual author, unless you have permission from the individual author or the book has been published. Once the book has been published, I do not think the author can expect his book not to be listed as a book that you have edited. The book is now public.

Listing books you have edited for an individual author is more a matter of when than whether. The individual author’s expectations of privacy and confidentiality about the fact that you edited their book expires on publication. But other expectations of privacy and confidentiality do not expire, such as the client’s expectations regarding the details of your relationship.

Suppose a colleague sees on your website that you edited a book by John Jones. The colleague has been approached by Jones to edit a new book and the colleague contacts you, asking for all of the details of your relationship with Jones, such as the manuscript condition, payment, amount of handholding required, etc. Your relationship with Jones was problematic. The manuscript was in bad shape, Jones disputed every suggested change, and Jones refused to pay 100% of the final invoice, feeling that you overcharged by “fixing” problems that didn’t exist. What should you disclose to your colleague?

Is it okay to disclose relationship details to colleagues?

Our tendency is to disclose all of our miseries to our colleagues after first stating, “This is just between us and not for rebroadcast.” Alas, when an individual author is involved, I do not think starting the conversation with such a condition makes a difference. But with a business, such as a major publisher, I think the outcome is different — and it does not matter whether the conversation is preceded by the “between us” condition.

As I have said many times, the difference is expectation. Businesses may have the same expectation as the individual author, but in the absence of an express agreement to the contrary, businesses are not entitled to the same deference to that expectation, and that’s because of the difference in the relationship.

No matter how unsatisfactory our relationship was with Jones, we are not entitled to disclose the elements of the relationship even under the condition of its not being repeated. This is not to say that there is no response that we can give. We can respond succinctly and generally: “I would not agree to edit another book by Jones.” It is the details that we cannot discuss without client consent.

Why shouldn’t we discuss the details?

The primary problem with editing is that it is subjective. When we claim a client’s manuscript is poorly written, we are expressing our personal, subjective opinion — we are not expressing objective fact. It is the “tomayto”–versus–“tomahto” problem. I can’t even say that a client’s manuscript needs significant adjustment to meet Chicago style, because Chicago is not a set of rules that cannot be broken; Chicago is a collection of opinions from a group of people someone has declared have a more valuable opinion than mine.

Although editing is not objective, whether the client pays invoices in a timely manner would appear to be objective. But even that is not objective. A client can be delaying payment because the client is unhappy with our work, or believes we are charging more than was agreed, or thinks we padded the invoice by adding hours that we didn’t actually work or need to work, or for any number of other legitimate reasons.

It is client identification that rules the roost

Which brings us full circle, back to the ultimate problem: The client cannot defend himself or offer explanations; the discourse is fully one-sided. Consequently, from an ethical perspective, we should not discuss our relationship with an individual client in the absence of the client’s agreement. The client has an expectation of privacy and confidentiality that as professionals we should uphold.

Remember that the key is client identification. We can discuss a manuscript’s quality if there is no way to connect the manuscript to the client. It isn’t the manuscript that has an expectation of privacy; it is the client. Thus the rule:

Ethically it is not improper to disclose the name of a client except when the client is a nonbusiness individual who would reasonably expect confidentiality. Consequently, it is unethical to discuss any facet of our relationship with a nonbusiness individual, including compensation problems and quality or condition of their manuscript, if doing so would be connected to the nonbusiness individual, in the absence of prior consent.

Do you agree? What is your opinion?

Richard Adin, An American Editor


  1. That’s a good rule for the most part, but it does create a problem if someone has had a bad experience with a client, especially an individual such as an independent author, that can be described objectively and factually. I’ve had one such experience recently. I wouldn’t “out” the client publicly or even in a somewhat private group, but I would warn want to colleagues against working with that client without very strong, self-protective contract language.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — April 6, 2016 @ 11:45 am | Reply

  2. Thanks again for exploring this important topic, Richard. And what would you say about publicly airing authors’ dirty laundry–e.g., disclosing authors’ major factual errors, misquotations of well-known texts, extensive appropriation of content downloaded without attribution from the web? When I worked in house for an academic publisher, staff shared such discoveries with one another (and sometimes with a freelance editor) only as necessary, for advice, support, and resolution. But we were extremely circumspect in discussing such problems, despite the temptation to tell self-validating stories of our heroic and invisible saves, out of consideration for our authors’ reputations–however undeserved in some cases–in their small and gossipy academic circles.


    Comment by Marilyn — April 6, 2016 @ 8:26 pm | Reply

    • Marilyn, how is “dirty laundry” different from a poorly written manuscript or billing/payment disputes?


      Comment by americaneditor — April 7, 2016 @ 3:45 am | Reply

      • Hmm, well, In the scholarly publishing environment poor writing is rather common and hardly worth a remark; most university presses pay freelancers’ bills without dispute–though not always promptly, it has to be said. BUT academic authors’ egregious factual errors, mangled quotations, and blatant plagiarism denote professional incompetence, or worse, and rumor of such deficiencies can seriously damage a scholar’s reputation. The peer review process is supposed to winnow the OCCASIONAL lapse, but pervasive errors constitute academic malpractice. Production editors and copyeditors in university publishing are not responsible for checking facts, verifying quotations, or identifying plagiarism, yet sometimes they must DISCREETLY emend manuscripts riddled with basic errors.


        Comment by Marilyn — April 7, 2016 @ 1:03 pm | Reply

        • My question really was addressed to the issue of disclosure. If you shouldn’t disclose a client’s name, what is it about dirty laundry that makes it so different that disclosure would be OK? In-house staff certainly can discuss a manuscript and problems amongst themselves because it is necessary to do their jobs, but in the absence of necessity for the freelancer to do her job, I do not think disclosure to the freelancer is warranted. I have been told by project managers to carefully check references for accuracy or to keep an eye out for clear factual errors, but I have not been told that author Johnny James is a plagiarist or continually makes factual errors or is a poor writer. The hint may be there in the instruction, but that is all it is — a softly whispered hint.


          Comment by americaneditor — April 8, 2016 @ 3:47 am | Reply

          • Richard, I think we agree on this: Disclosure is NOT okay even in the egregious circumstances I describe. Sorry to have been unclear. I was trying to point out that discretion is required not just in cases of ineptitude (e.g., your poor writing example) but also–and perhaps especially–in cases of professional incompetence and plagiarism (my examples), which might sorely tempt an editor to engage in whistle-blowing.


            Comment by Marilyn — April 8, 2016 @ 4:14 pm

          • The questions (re: whistleblowing and incompetence) are these: Who is the editor’s client and to whom is the editor going to whistle blow? For example, in my case, the client is almost always the publisher, not the author. It is the publisher who hires me, sets the job’s parameters, and pays me. In this case, don’t you think I am obligated to whistle blow — that is report, e.g., plagiarism — to my client? We do agree that disclosure should not be made to colleagues who are not involved in the project.


            Comment by americaneditor — April 9, 2016 @ 3:50 am

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