An American Editor

June 15, 2016

On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting

In The Business of Editing: Ballpark Quoting for Copyediting, I discussed the logistics of giving a ballpark quote. The essay raised these questions, but left the answers to another essay:

  • Is it ethical for copyeditors to ever do ballpark pricing as a way to induce clients to hire them?
  • Does the editor have an ethical obligation to not give ballpark quotes because they can mislead a client about the real cost?
  • If the editor gives a ballpark quote, is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark price?

This essay discusses these questions.

Is it ethical for copyeditors to ever do ballpark pricing as a way to induce clients to hire them?

What is the purpose of ballpark quoting if not to induce a client to hire you for a project by demonstrating to the client your price competitiveness? No other purpose is served by quoting. The client wants to compare your price to the prices of other editors. Recall that the information a client needs to give is limited in this situation. (If you ask to see the manuscript before providing a quote, you are not giving a ballpark quote. A ballpark quote, by definition, is a very rough guess as to the expected cost based on very limited data.) The provided information is generally the word count, the subject matter/type (e.g., children’s nonfiction), plus the hoped-for schedule.

The ballpark quote has two purposes: (1) to enable the client to comparison shop and (2) to let the editor demonstrate her price competitiveness, which means the editor — consciously or subconsciously — wants the price to look as low as possible. And there’s the rub. The ballpark price may well have no close relationship to the ultimate, true price, and that gap between the ballpark quote and the real price will be a result of multiple factors, not the least of which is the editor’s desire to be hired.

It is certainly ethical to quote a price for a project; editors do that every day. But there is a great difference between quoting a price when the editor has all the necessary information to form a solid quote and making a quote when the editor has such minimal information that she knows beforehand that the ballpark quote will not withstand the test of editing.

I am aware of very few editors who will quote a price to which they are willing to be held without having the manuscript in hand (or at least a satisfactory portion of the manuscript). Yes, editors do have agreements with clients that act as a limit, but even then whether they accept or reject the project requires seeing the manuscript. The key to ethicality, I think, is to quote a price to which we are willing to be held. We are all willing to quote a price to which we will not be held.

In my view, to give a ballpark quote for copyediting a manuscript is unethical unless the editor is willing to stick to that price — that is, the quoted price is the maximum the client will have to pay. It is unethical for an editor to angle to be hired by using ballpark quoting to demonstrate the editor’s price competitiveness.

Does the editor have an ethical obligation to not give ballpark quotes, because they can mislead a client about the real cost?

As noted, the purpose of ballpark pricing is to show that you’re not overpriced in the editing marketplace, not to place a ceiling on what the client will ultimately be billed. The lack of a clearly stated ceiling can mislead a client, even if the quote is accompanied by disclaimers (caveats, if you prefer).

The disclaimers are a problem in and of themselves because they both delegitimize the ballpark quote and fail to stand out in the same way as the price number does.

Of what value is a quote of $500 accompanied by a disclaimer such as the following?

Price subject to change once the manuscript is received and reviewed for clarity of writing style and amount of editing work actually required. Price also subject to change based on what editorial tasks client requires as part of the copyediting; the extent and number of references, tables, and figures; the style to be applied; …

The disclaimer’s list can go on and on to cover all contingencies, and it needs to go on and on to avoid locking the editor into the ballpark price. (It is worth remembering that if a disclaimer is left unstated, the client will, justifiably, assume that it is inapplicable.)

But think about how we act as consumers. When we ask for a quote for repair work or a product we want to buy, our minds focus laser-like on the number we are given, not on all of the caveats that accompany the number. Should the work be done and the number then go up, we argue that we were quoted $X and shouldn’t have to pay more. (Of course, if the final number is less than $X, we think we are getting a bargain and do not argue to pay the higher quote price.) Studies show that the conditions get lost and the consumer only hears — and remembers — the quote number. The consumer loses the idea that the quote number was intended to be ballparkish and thus subject to upward revision as more foundational data is accumulated.

The editor who insists that the quote was only ballparkish is fighting a losing public relations battle. The client will tell everyone that the editor uses deceptive practices. The truth is that ballpark quotes for copyediting are deceptive and are structured to mislead the client as to the ultimate cost. Editors will not deliberately overquote (i.e., quote a price the editor knows will be higher than the real price), because the competition does not overquote; the competition often underquotes in hopes of getting hired. Editors know that in many cases the ballpark quote for copyediting is an underquote, which is why they attach disclaimers.

If the editor expects the ballpark quote to be accurate within, say, 10%, then the only disclaimer needed is to say that “the final price might be as much as, but no more than, 10% higher than the quote, based on the actual time and effort required to copyedit” or “the final price will not exceed the quote.” But editors rarely attach one of these disclaimers to the ballpark quote.

Because editors know, or should know, that ballpark quotes are misleading, how can it be ethical to provide such a quote?

If the editor gives a ballpark quote, is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark price?

We all know that editors will disagree about ballpark pricing; their opinions on its ethicality are largely based on their own practice. The editors who think it isn’t unethical give ballpark quotes (or approve of giving ballpark quotes). Each of us is smart enough to rationalize that the ballpark quote we give clients is ethical even if we believe that the quotes given by our competitors are not.

Which brings us to the question of limits to underquoting, or the limit to how much the final price can exceed the ballpark quote. Copyediting has so many variables, it is, in my view, impossible to give an accurate or nearly accurate ballpark quote.

When I am asked to provide a quote, I always provide a “firm” quote, never a ballpark quote. But if I were to stray outside my subject matter areas and types of clients — for example, were I to wander into fiction editing and dealing directly with authors — my quotes would be “softer” than the firm quotes I currently give. Because my experience dealing directly with authors and copyediting fiction is limited, it is likely that any quote I would give would be an underquote. Who should bear the burden of that underquoting?

I am of the conviction that the editor who makes the quote should bear that burden. If editors have sufficient experience to give a firm quote, they should stand by the quote and use it as a learning tool for future quotes. If they have the experience but deliberately choose to underquote, then they should be held to the quote, as there is no legitimate reason to have underquoted.

If the client has provided all the information asked for, then it is the editor who should bear the burden of an underquote, not the client. If the editor failed to ask for vital information, that is not the client’s fault. If the editor failed to define what she meant by copyediting, that is not the client’s fault. The bottom line is that when an editor is asked for a quote, it is the editor’s responsibility to ask for all the needed information to calculate that quote; it is not the client’s responsibility to guess what information the editor needs. It is also the editor’s responsibility to not give a quote in the absence of essential information. And it is the editor’s responsibility to take the information and create an accurate quote. The only responsibility the client has is to provide the information that the editor asked for.

Note the balance of responsibilities: All but one falls on the editor’s shoulders. Consequently, if a quote is an underquote, it is the editor’s fault. The editor should bear the burden of the underquote, and the quote price should be the maximum price that the client pays.

Is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark quote? Yes, there is. That limit is zero; clients should not be asked to reward editors for their unwillingness to bear the burden of underquoting. The client who asks for a quote is asking the editor to set a price; a professional editor does so and tacitly agrees that the quote price is the maximum price the client will pay. To do otherwise shifts the burden of underquoting from the editor to the client, which is both unethical and, in my view, impermissible. The one exception is when the quote has a disclaimer like that discussed earlier (“the final price might be as much as, but no more than, 10% higher than the quote, based on the actual time and effort required to copyedit”).

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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