In a recent essay found on “The Proofreader’s Parlour” (see Quoting for the Customer — Ballpark Prices and the Editorial Freelancer: Part 1 and Part 2), Louise Harnby discussed giving prospective clients ballpark quotes via her website (Get a Proofreading Quote). Although the essay was intended to be broadly applicable, I think it is most applicable to proofreading.
The underlying premise is that with her years of experience, Louise can give a fairly accurate, albeit ballpark, quote without any information other than the type of project (“suspense thriller, self-help psychotherapy book, or children’s book,” etc.), the deadline, and the word count. I admit I haven’t done proofreading in many years, so I will concede that Louise, who is a very experienced proofreader, can give an accurate ballpark quote for proofreading with just that basic information. In my view, this system does not work as well for copyediting. (However, see my essay The Business of Editing: To Post or Not to Post Your Fee Schedule?)
Copyediting is less mechanistic than proofreading. (I am not implying that proofreading is wholly mechanistic; I’m just saying that it is more mechanistic than copyediting.) The copyeditor has to decide whether OK or okay is the correct form; the proofreader has to make sure that, whatever the decision, it is consistently applied. The copyeditor has to decide whether Canal Street runs north–south or east–west; the proofreader needs to make sure that whichever direction it runs, it does so consistently.
I do not wish to be seen as trivializing the role of the proofreader, because the proofreader does play a very important role in the editorial process. But I want to emphasize that the decisions that the copyeditor makes are not remade by the proofreader; the proofreader is the enforcer of those decisions and catches the copyeditor’s mistakes when applying those decisions. (The proofreader does much more, but this essay is not intended to exhaustively describe the differences between copyediting and proofreading.)
Consequently, in determining a price for a project, a copyeditor needs to consider how well written the manuscript is; the proofreader expects to receive a decently written manuscript because it has already been copyedited. But how can the copyeditor determine the manuscript’s quality of writing from the minimal information outlined above and then give a reasonable ballpark quote?
Complicating the quote process are the subject area, the length, and the schedule for the project. Granted, these complications would be relatively easy to take into account if it were not for the question of how well written the manuscript is. A professional editor might be aware that, very broadly speaking, she can copyedit six pages an hour of biographical text that is reasonably well written, and she therefore knows that if a manuscript is 240 pages, it will take roughly 40 hours to copyedit. Thus, if the deadline is 2 weeks, the editor can surely say (1) I can meet the deadline and (2) because I charge $35 an hour, the price will be $1,400. Except that the editor does not know whether there are any footnotes, any references that need verification, any facts that need correction or questioning, or any of myriad other things that will affect the time required. Consider this: What is the effect on pricing of having to look up hundreds of acronyms because the author hasn’t defined them? Or ask yourself what the effect on pricing is of having 300 references that need to be in APA style but aren’t. For example, they should be in text this way: (Anderson, 2007); in the reference list alphabetically; and in the following form:
Anderson, A. (2007). Finding werewolves in prehistoric literature. Journal of Integrity & Nonintegrity, 35, 201–207.
Unfortunately, these references have been submitted to you in AMA style — in text as a superscripted number in number order and in the reference list as
Anderson A: Finding werewolves in prehistoric literature. J Integ Noninteg. 2007;35:201–207.
And what if the references have to be renumbered or alphabetized? (For additional discussion, see The Business of Editing: Journals, References, & Dollars, Business of Editing: Dealing with Reference Renumbering, and The Business of Editing: Uniqueness & Being Valuable to Clients.)
Ballpark quoting, as we can see, hits the copyeditor with a serious problem: it doesn’t permit or provide for sufficient information before the editor offers up the quote. The resulting number is likely to be far from even ballpark status — way past the left field bleachers.
The editor needs to get more information, but the more information you gather about the project, the less ballparkish the quote will be. And where do you draw the line? Is it sufficient to know that there are references? Or do you need to know how many? Does it matter whether there are both references and footnotes?
Of course, much depends on the subject areas of the books you copyedit. If you work on only romance fiction, it may be possible to define a small number of parameters to produce a fairly accurate ballpark quote, whereas it might be nearly impossible to do so if you only copyedit biographies.
There is, moreover, another problem with ballpark quoting: the way clients often focus on the number — the ballpark quote.
The way ballpark quoting works is that a client asks for a quote to copyedit an 80,000-word spy novel that needs to be completed in 2 weeks, and the editor nearly instantaneously replies with a price (recall that the price is quoted with manuscript unseen). This number becomes a fixation point. It is the number against which quotes from other editors will be compared; more importantly, it becomes the price that you are expected to not exceed.
Ballpark quoting is often the first step in the client–editor relationship and the first contact of the editor by the client. Editors think that once a client has retained them, they can discuss what the client wants and what they as editors will do in step 2, and then they’ll be able to adjust the price accordingly. Sometimes this happens, but often it does not. The editor often finds the client unwilling to budge, unwilling to go higher than the ballpark quote. The problem arises because the editor and the client aren’t speaking the same language. That is, neither defines copyediting in the same way.
Once the editor encounters resistance, she has lost the opportunity to educate the client about why she should be hired and at what price. Ballpark pricing puts quoting to the forefront. Yet what editors need is for our clients to understand what we will and will not do within a certain time frame for a particular price. (For further discussion, see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Saying Yes, Then No, Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations, and The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote (II).)
The question then becomes, Is it ethical for copyeditors to ever do ballpark pricing as a way to induce clients to hire them? The follow-up questions that need to be asked and answered are these: (1) Does the editor have an ethical obligation to not give ballpark quotes because they can mislead a client about the real cost; and (2) if the editor gives a ballpark quote, is there an ethical limit to how much the real cost can deviate upward from the ballpark price? The discussion of these ethical questions must be reserved for another essay.
There is an important difference between ballpark quoting and having a set fee that is applicable no matter what the complexities of the manuscript are. For example, I have a contract with a major publisher to provide copyediting for a set per-page price. That price does not change; nor does how it is calculated change. I do, however, reserve the right to decline particular projects. If I accept the project, the client knows the fee that will be charged. This is different from ballpark quoting — there are no contingent factors that can affect the final price.
Do you give ballpark quotes for copyediting? How do you deal with the unknowns? Do you limit the amount that the quote can rise?
Richard Adin, An American Editor