An American Editor

June 22, 2016

On Ethics: The Ballpark Quote in the Macrocosm

We’ve been discussing the ethics of ballpark quoting here on An American Editor. My two previous essays offer up my views on the subject. In her rebuttal (see On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting — A Rebuttal) to my second essay (see On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting), Louise Harnby defends ballpark quoting. And she is convincing — as long as one accepts the micro view of ethics.

The micro view of ethics essentially boils down to this: Because I can do something ethically, what I am doing must be ethical. If we were discussing a morality topic like killing, the defense would be: Because killing in my circumstances is justifiable, then killing must be justifiable.

We all know that this is incorrect.

The moral principle is “Thou shalt not kill.” But as with every moral (and ethical) principle, there are micro and macro perspectives. In the macro perspective, killing is unethical; in the micro perspective, it may be ethical, depending on the circumstances. This is the weakness of the micro view of ethics and of ballpark quoting.

Louise’s argument is that because she has experience and years of data, knows her required effective hourly rate (rEHR; for a discussion of EHR, see Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part I)), doesn’t underquote to show her competitiveness, and uses ballpark quoting to start a conversation about proof-editing with a client, her version of ballpark quoting is ethical and therefore ballpark quoting is ethical. But ethics are (or if not, should be) viewed in macro, not micro, terms.

Consider this: How many times have you seen the following question (or a variation of it) asked and discussed on editorial forums? “How much should I charge?” If the asker and the respondents had calculated their rEHR, they would not be bothering with the question, because they would know the minimal answer (which is “not less than your rEHR”). Yet this is a frequent topic among editors. More importantly, the reason that even editors who do know their rEHR keep asking this question or following the discussion is that they want to be sure that whatever they are charging is close to what their competitors are charging.

What is the purpose of a rate survey if not to establish a baseline that clients can rely on as a guide and that editors can use to justify their rates? That the rate surveys are invalid and misleading doesn’t stop editors from using them to support what they charge. And if competitiveness were not an issue, there would be no rationale for asking, “What should I charge to edit an 80,000-word romance novel?”

When answers such as $1 per page or $25 an hour are given, the readers of these answers are getting an informal survey of what their competition charges, and if they adopt such rates for themselves and incorporate them into their ballpark quote calculation, rather than using a number based on their rEHR, we might reasonably conclude that they’re trying to appear price competitive so that clients will consider hiring them. Look at it another way. If the purpose is not to be competitive, or to appear competitive, why ask others what they charge? What others charge is irrelevant if competitiveness does not matter or is not part of the decision behind ballpark quotes.

Thus, in the macro view, the purpose of ballpark quoting is simply to make a client consider engaging your services.

Louise does require that a message be sent to her personally before she submits a ballpark quote. Her rationale is that this gives her an opportunity to initiate a conversation with the client. But what about those editors or proofreaders who use a software application to generate an instant ballpark quote (i.e., the potential client will enter the requested information into various fields, click a button to generate a quote, and instantly see the quote)? How does that method of quoting generate a conversation with the client?

Yet there is an even more fundamental flaw — in my opinion — with the micro view. If one of ballpark quoting’s purposes is to have a conversation with the client about what the manuscript truly needs and what the real price will be, why have an intermediate step? Why not ask for all of the information you need to give a firm quote upfront? Why not say to the client, “I will edit your manuscript for $X”? Or, perhaps, say this: “Your manuscript requires these services. Based on my past experience, I believe it will take me Y hours to edit your manuscript. I charge $X per hour. To allow for the possibility that I have underestimated how long it will take to edit your manuscript but to limit the cost to you, the maximum it will cost you for my editing services is $Z. The reasons I anticipate it will take Y hours are as follows: [insert reasons].”

If the purpose is to have a conversation with the client, why not have the conversation from the get-go by asking for all the information needed to provide a firm quote?

The answer from those who use ballpark quoting tends to be that to provide a firm quote requires more work and that ballpark quoting weeds out those who want to pay less. My problem with this is that the client is making a decision that the editor is too expensive without having been given all the facts necessary to create an informed opinion. For example, if your ballpark quote is $500 and your competitor’s ballpark quote is $300, even though you both charge the same hourly rate, what justifies the gap? Why is it that you think it will take 10 hours to edit the manuscript — not having seen it yet — but your competitor thinks it will only take 6 hours?

The client facing these two numbers sees only that she gave both of you the same information and that you are significantly more expensive than your competitor. There are lots of possible explanations for the disparity, ranging from deception to the extent of the services included, but the psychology of comparison shopping indicates that the client will focus on the $300 quote while assuming that your editing services and those of your competitor are identical.

The micro viewers assume that the client will either go to the next step and have a conversation or decide that the quote is too high — outside the client’s budget. But the reality is that there is no assurance that the client will go to the next step when there is such a gap. Nor can you know that the reason the client didn’t engage in a conversation is because your quote is outside the client’s budget and not because the client incorrectly assumed that the quotes were for identical services.

The macro view recognizes that ballpark quoting is based on inadequate information, both received from the client and given to her. Yes, clients ask for ballpark quotes, but does the client understand that when an editor or proofreader provides these quotes, the client might well be unwittingly comparing apples to oranges, not apples to apples? Just as clients rarely understand what copyediting means, and just as editors define the term differently — no single set of services is universally understood as copyediting — so a ballpark quote from one editor is not truly comparable to a ballpark quote from another editor. On the other hand, firm quotes with a detailed explanation of what is included and what is excluded can be properly and usefully compared.

By its very nature, a ballpark quote, unlike a firm quote, is not comparable across editors. If you accept a micro view of ethics, then ballpark quoting is ethical even though it is an information-challenged process. If you accept a macro view of ethics, ballpark quoting is unethical because it doesn’t provide enough information to the client to make the quote meaningful or to enable the client to comparison shop. The micro view looks to the singular experience, whereas the macro view looks to the broader experience and purpose.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

10 Comments »

  1. What interests me about this conversation is that I had never thought of quotes – ballpark or otherwise – in terms of ethics before. Giving a ballpark or specific/detailed quote seems like basic business practice that wouldn’t involve shades of morality. But I guess almost any human activity can be seen through an ethical or moral lens – even ballpark quotes.

    That said, I wouldn’t provide a bare dollar amount even as a ballpark quote. I would include language to explain the basis of that quote. That language wouldn’t be extensive or deeply detailed, but it should let someone compare my quote to that from a colleague who might charge less, or less per hour, and make a more-informed decision about whom to hire. I also would say that I’d need the full ms. before I could provide a quote that would be more reliable and specific to that project.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — June 22, 2016 @ 9:21 am | Reply

  2. As I understand it, ballpark quotes can be useful for first-time self-publishers who genuinely have no idea how much editing or proofreading can cost. I can quite understand not wanting to put in the work to produce an accurate quote for somebody whose planned budget is around $50 for “proofreading” an 80,000-word romance novel (which the author has edited a couple of times but not shown to anybody else). You may not come across them in your work but such people do exist.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by joannacp — June 22, 2016 @ 10:04 am | Reply

  3. By your reasoning, any business or individual who says prices start at XYZ is being unethical. It’s not so long as one is clear up front that it’s a BASE. A lot of people don’t want to ask for a sample / quote if they’re unsure what the price range is, similarly to someone not wanting to go into a new restaurant with no idea what the price is. It’s potentially embarrassing. Not all clients are companies, a lot of them are individuals as as such they have slightly different concerns. One could also argue that it’s unethical to not provide some idea of your price range, thus forcing potential clients to contact you for a quote, at which point you can try to sweet-talk them into using you as an editor.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Anne — June 22, 2016 @ 10:11 pm | Reply

    • Anne, you make a good point. I do not see a ballpark quote as being a base. When I ask for a quote, I am asking for a price for a specific set of circumstances. A base price is a minimum price that one will need to pay regardless of what the project entails. My plumber, for example, tells me that I will have to pay a base price of $100, regardless of whether the job takes 5 minutes and requires just tightening of a nut or requires hours and the replacement of the furnace. No matter the job, I will have to pay a base price of $100.

      But a ballpark quote does not establish a base price. The quote is not given as “this is the minimum you will have to pay for my editorial services.” Instead, it is given as “based on the information I have asked for and you have provided, it will cost $X for my services.” When the work is actually done or further investigation is conducted, it may be that the cost to the author is less than, equal to, or greater than the ballpark quote. The key is that it can be less than. The ballpark quote is guesstimate at best, but it is not a base price.

      I have not thought about base pricing, but my immediate reaction is that there isn’t anything unethical about saying that “the absolute minimum price that you will pay, regardless of the time or work involved, is $X. The final price can be more, but never less than $X.” Base pricing is much different than ballpark quoting.

      Two other differences are that a base price does not require any information from the client and that a base price is not project-dependent. A base price is applicable to all projects and does not change. You may have different base prices for broad criteria (e.g., nonfiction and fiction, Sci-Fi and nonfiction biography), but the base price applies across the entire category, regardless of whether the project is, for example, 10,000 or 80,000 words.

      Liked by 2 people

      Comment by americaneditor — June 23, 2016 @ 5:09 am | Reply

      • I agree with your points, but I think when most people post on their website, for instance, a rates guideline, they do so with caveats that they’re only posting a guideline. I suppose some people do charge the same rate across the board for everyone, but I think most editors who’ve been freelancing for long realize that 1,000 words from one author are not the same 1,000 words from another. And semantics aside, even Merriam-Webster defines a ballpark as being a “rough estimate.”

        Somewhat off-topic, but not by far–this sort of haggling is why vendors / service providers are loath to provide ballparks. It drives me crazy when I ask my mechanic something like this: “Okay. If it *does* turn out to be the wheel bearing, what sort of ballpark are we looking at?” Then they don’t want to answer, and I end up reassuring them. “Look, I get that it’s just a ballpark and I’m not going to hold you to it. I just want to prepare myself for what this might cost me.”

        I mean seriously. We’re all grown-ups. “Ballpark” should be understood by all to mean a rough estimate, and if someone e-mails me and asks for a quote on their book and I respond with “My base rate is XYZ per word. So for a 50,000-word novel, you’re looking at somewhere in the range of LOW END to HIGH END, but I won’t be able to give you a firm quote until I see a sample,” I don’t see a problem with it. I’m not sure how much clearer you can be. And as long as you’re up-front about it being a very rough estimate, no harm, no foul.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Anne — June 23, 2016 @ 4:42 pm | Reply

        • Anne, what you express is the microcosm view: “We’re all grownups. ‘Ballpark’ should be understood by all to mean a rough estimate. . .” Your view is that you understand it, it is a simple concept to you, and therefore everyone should understand it. But that is not how the world works. Your mechanic is hesitant because he has been burned before — experience has taught him that ballpark quotes are dangerous.

          Posting your rates (e.g., “I charge between $25 and $50 an hour to copyedit a book depending on the quality of the manuscript, how much work the manuscript requires, the subject matter, and what you, the client, want me to do” is not the same as saying “Send me [or input in this box] the following information and I will give you a ballpark quote for your project.” The former is clearly a broad guideline; no client can look at it and say “it will cost me $X to have my book copyedited by this editor.” And that broad guideline is not under discussion.

          A ballpark quote, on the other hand, is specific to the project and sets a parameter for the project. Just because you understand that your quote is not intended to be firm and only includes a,b,c services doesn’t mean the client thinks of it that way. Even if the client thinks that the price may go up or down, clients often do not consider that the price may go up or down because of the services that the client wants but were not included in your ballpark quote.

          It is important to remember that there are a lot of things left unsaid/unexpressed/undisclosed when a client is given a ballpark quote — and they are left undisclosed because the editor has not yet seen the manuscript and has not yet determined what services the client is expecting/wanting. If your ballpark quote is $300 and excludes fact-checking but the client thinks it includes fact checking because that is really the service that the client is shopping for, there is a disconnect and the ballpark quote is misleading.

          Finally, your example (“My base rate is XYZ per word. So for a 50,000-word novel, you’re looking at somewhere in the range of LOW END to HIGH END, but I won’t be able to give you a firm quote until I see a sample”) is not a ballpark quote. In addition, the range itself indicates that there are other factors that come into play and a discussion is required. A ballpark quote does not give a range; it gives a single number based on editor-requested and client-provided information. Basically a ballpark quote says “my editing services will cost $X.” A ballpark quote does not inherently, unlike your example, say we must have a more detailed discussion to determine a firm quote price. The editor may understand and think that is a given with ballpark quoting, but it is not necessarily understood that way by the client.

          Like

          Comment by americaneditor — June 24, 2016 @ 3:43 am | Reply

          • We’ll have to agree to disagree. However, I think your definition of “ballpark” is off. Merriam-Webster defines it as being ” a range (as of prices or views) within which comparison or compromise is possible.” Oxford: “An area or range within which an amount or estimate is likely to be correct.” Other dictionaries define it as being “(of prices or costs) approximate; rough.” or “an approximation.” When you consider the meaning behind the phrase–to hit the ball within the ballpark ( a fairly large area), it’s clear that a ballpark is not and never should be considered a firm quote. Consider also that “Ballpark estimate” is an actual mathematical concept (https://youtu.be/yM49L6oiQAQ). And, finally, a quick check of Google using “Ballpark estimate roofing” (or most other similar terms) comes up with results for calculators and rate charts that have verbiage similar to: “When it comes to getting a new roof, the first question is usually, “What’s it going to cost?” Use our roofing calculator and estimator to first get a ballpark price.”

            So it’s not just me who has this definition of “ballpark estimate.” And yes, there will always be people who don’t have a clear understanding of the term. I do agree that it is in everyone’s best interest to make clear that a ballpark is just that–a rough estimate and subject to change as more information is provided. But I certainly don’t think it’s unethical to provide a rate guideline / starting point / rough idea of costs and call it a ballpark.

            Liked by 2 people

            Comment by Anne — June 24, 2016 @ 11:47 pm

  4. [groan] To be truthful, I’m slogging through these recent posts while trying to grasp the various viewpoints on ethics, quoting, and editorial rates. With this post, I stopped trying when I encountered the following part of a reply:

    “But a ballpark quote does not establish a base price. The quote is not given as “this is the minimum you will have to pay for my editorial services.” Instead, it is given as “based on the information I have asked for and you have provided, it will cost $X for my services.” When the work is actually done or further investigation is conducted, it may be that the cost to the author is less than, equal to, or greater than the ballpark quote.”

    With this, it became clear that there was a stunning difference between the blog’s definitions and mine.

    If an editor gives a quote as defined above “…based on the information…etc”, to me, that isn’t a ballpark — that’s a quote — period!

    If the project is begun and, at some point, it becomes obvious that the project is moving toward a scope that is different than the original information presented–the original quote becomes compromised and potentially void. If this situation occurs, it is UNETHICAL for the editor to ignore the change in scope and assume that they will simply add costs at a later date.

    Using the painful analogy of the plumber (god, I just cringe at this as I am NOT a plumber), the example would be that the plumber comes to fix your leaking kitchen sink, gets into the project, and discovers that the fitting to the faucet, which couldn’t be seen or suspected, is also contributing to the leak. The ethical plumber will tell you about this additional issue and the cost to thoroughly repair the leak.

    In my world of editing, communication is always the dominant force. If you communicate clearly at the outset, establish parameters to the best of your ability, protect your behind by asking for all the defining information you require to accurately quote…you never have to be concerned if your actions, or charges, are ethical.

    If you present a quote, regardless of if you call if by a certain term, that quote needs to be as accurate as possible. You need to define each project as accurately as possible as well, so you can recognize when/if the potential for a change in scope occurs.

    If you present a quote that is guesswork, is under-defined, is made without proper consideration — and the project changes mid-operation — and you don’t tell the client additional costs will be incurred — you deserve to ‘eat’ the loss.

    Forgive the semi-rant, but at this point, I am frustrated over the pursuit of an ethics discussion concerning the term ‘ballpark’, wherein the blog’s definition drastically clashes with my own. Plus, most of the responses have been defining individual definitions of that term and relating how it doesn’t apply to the poster’s practices, or how it is guarded against by their practices.

    For me, ‘ballpark’ implicitly means that I’ve not sufficient information to give an accurate quote. It means the same thing as an ‘estimate’ of costs. Alternatively, ‘base’ price equates with ‘minimum’ charge. For example, my assessment charge is a flat fee, regardless of length, genre, or status of the manuscript. That flat fee is an amalgamation of all the different types of assessments I’ve done over the past 20 years. The fee has changed over those years, as I became more skilled at producing assessments–reducing my time and the subsequent cost to my clients.

    Have I missed something — somewhere — in the point of this discussion? I feel I have, or I wouldn’t be so frustrated. :o))

    Regardless, I’ve enjoyed the posts and everyone’s responses…which is, in the end, the actual point of a good ‘chat’, eh?

    Thanks as always for your variety and pointed stick.

    ciao

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by tigerxglobal — June 23, 2016 @ 2:30 pm | Reply

    • I understand your frustration and I’ll try to end it🙂.

      There are 3 terms being bandied about” ballpark quote, base, and firm quote. A ballpark quote is a quote given a potential client based on minimal information, often just word count and type of project (e.g., nonfiction biography or fiction Sci-Fi). So if a client has a novel they want copyedited, they tell the editor it is 80,000 words in length and a romance novel. Using some undisclosed formula, the editor determines that it will take Y hours to edit 80,000 words of a romance novel at $X per hour, which equals a ballpark quote of $Z. This is a guesstimate because the manuscript has not been seen nor a schedule set. More importantly, there has not yet been a discussion of what the client wants/expects the editor to actually do as “copyediting.” A ballpark quote (i.e., the $Z) can change up or down once the manuscript is examined and further discussion is had.

      A base is a minimum fee that is fixed. It does not depend on the editor having any information about the project. It tells a client that the minimum the client will pay is $X, regardless of whether the manuscript is 10,000 words or 100,000 words, and regardless of whether it takes 1 hour or 100 hours to edit. The price can go up from $X but never down.

      A firm quote is a price for the project that cannot change. Usually it means the editor has reviewed the manuscript in its entirety. If the author only has a partial manuscript available, the price is firm for the partial manuscript but subject to increase when the rest of the manuscript is provided. It also assumes that the client and the editor have come to agreement on what services the editor is to perform and the schedule. A firm quote can only go up if something very material to the project changes and could not have been anticipated when the firm quote was given. For example, if the editor is given the entire manuscript to review and then gives a firm quote, the fact that it is taking 5 hours to edit a chapter rather than the expected 3 hours does not justify a change in the price. If, however, the editor was given version 1 of chapters 5 to 10 for purposes of quoting but is given version 3 for actual editing, a change in price may be justified is version 3 requires more work than version 1.

      Does this help?

      BTW, there will be at least 1 more essay on this subject by Louise Harnby. I have offered her the last word on the subject, regardless of how many back-and-forths we engage in.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by americaneditor — June 23, 2016 @ 3:14 pm | Reply

      • Thanks — it clarifies the definitions being used within the posts. It appears my difficulty is that if I discuss a project with an author, I don’t quote until I’m doing a firm quote. Any other kind of quote leaves itself open to confusion or apples/oranges comparisons or complete misunderstandings with the client.

        Along Ruth’s line of thought, I’ve never considered ethics being attached to quotes, as I’ve never considered using them as a means to cheat a client or to over-charge. In the end, I figure it doesn’t matter which unethical action is taken when quoting, it’s the idea that an editor chose to be unethical.

        Look forward to the continuing saga…

        Like

        Comment by tigerxglobal — June 23, 2016 @ 3:31 pm | Reply


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