An American Editor

August 24, 2016

The Business of Editing: Is It Smart to Give Clients Freebies?

Back in the day, when I began my editing career, editors were viewed much differently than they are now. We weren’t gods, no matter how much we wished we were, but we were respected and both editors and clients debated whether editing was an art or a business. The idea was that if it was an art, then pay and work conditions were secondary considerations; the primary consideration was how to improve editing by increasing accuracy and decreasing errors in an endeavor for editorial perfection even at the editor’s expense. In contrast, if it was a business, then the editor needed to approach it like a business, including advertising and striving to produce what the client asked for, rather than to achieve perfection — basically, doing what you were paid for and not seeking perfection at your own expense.

Even publisher clients were in that game. The rate of pay was decent; editors could earn high middle-class incomes, and publishers actually gave raises to freelancers. (I can recall one publishing company was so pleased with my work that it insisted I accept a 20% increase. Those days are long gone.) More importantly, publishers promoted the artisanal approach to editing by being willing to go above the original budget if the striving for perfection required doing so. Publishers did two other things in those days, things that are very rarely seen now — altering schedules so that a manuscript could be edited by a particular editor and offering on their own a higher pay rate to get a particular editor to take on a manuscript. Both those things occurred often in my early editing years; they still occasionally occur, but with far less frequency.

The point is that the relationship between the editor and the client was once governed by the view that striving for editorial perfection was desirable and the primary focus of both editor and client. Which also meant that in exchange, editors would go beyond what the agreement with the client called for and throw in “freebies.” But the winds were changing.

Not long after I began my editing career, the publishing industry began consolidating. Previously family-owned publishing houses were being sold to larger rivals who were themselves being bought by even larger international rivals. Offices were being closed and consolidated; in-house staff were losing their jobs; and, most importantly, the publisher’s view of editing as artisanal was rapidly being displaced by business-centric views. The view that began its striking ascendancy, and which is now the dominant view, was that editing is invisible to the reader, so a less-perfect product at a lower price is all that is needed.

But, as very longtime editors know, although publishers decreased or simply maintained freelancer pay, they also began requiring freelancers to do more tasks in exchange for that pay. For example, things that in-house production staff did became the job of the freelancer.

The profession of editing evolved from an artisanal profession into a business. Many editors struggled with this evolution; for others it was an easy — even welcome — change. Which leads me to the question at hand: Is it smart to give clients freebies today?

In the early years of the evolution, I thought providing freebies, which simply means bonus services not paid for by the client, was a good marketing strategy that might entice the client to call again and do so quickly. The strategy had value then because the freebie reduced the workload of the in-house editor with whom the freelancer had a relationship. The practice seemed mutually beneficial. Unfortunately, not only did it change the expectation level of the in-house editor with whom the freelancer had an ongoing relationship, but it also changed what the rest of the in-house staff expected. What was once a freebie turned into a virtual requirement of the job.

Observing that change in expectation and seeing how much more business-centric my clients were becoming, I began reevaluating the freebie as a marketing tool. My approach has changed greatly. I no longer think it is smart business to offer a freebie per se. Instead, the freebies I now offer are natural products of my constant effort to make my editing business more efficient and profitable.

A good example is my reference renumbering report (see, e.g., “The Business of Editing: Keeping Reference Callouts in Number Order” and “Business of Editing: Dealing with Reference Renumbering”). The Reference Number Order macro in EditTools was created to help me keep easy track of renumbering. The report I can generate for a client takes the information I have already entered for my own use and exports it to a file that I can send as a freebie. The cost to me is virtually zero (to create the file takes a click of a button) but, as clients have remarked, the report is very valuable to their authors and proofreaders, and thus to them.

I steadfastly avoid giving something that costs me time or money or is something that the client should be paying for. I also am careful to not provide anything that will increase my workload and that the client will soon expect me to include at no additional cost.

Another example of a freebie I provide all my clients is my online stylesheet. My stylesheet offers three things to my clients — at no cost to me:

  1. As I am editing, an interested client can check the stylesheet and see whether I have made any decisions that this client would like altered. Perhaps I decided to spell out only numbers one to nine before learning that the client would prefer having numbers one to ninety-nine spelled out; or I used the first spelling of traveler in MW 11, but the client turns out to want the equal variant, traveller. The client can see whatever information I put on the stylesheet (but, no, the client cannot make any direct changes to the stylesheet; the client must tell me what changes I should make. This ensures that I know exactly what the client wants).
  2. Because the stylesheet is current to the minute (i.e., what the client can see is no more than one minute older than what I can see) and because the stylesheet is accessible by the client 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year-round and is downloadable at the client’s convenience and as often as the client wishes, the client can provide proofreaders with up-to-the-minute copies of the stylesheet.
  3. Five years from now, when the client plans to work up a new edition of the book, the client can access my website and again download the stylesheet for the edition I edited. No more lost stylesheets or even not getting a stylesheet — the client only needs to log in, locate the project, and download the stylesheet. Today, for example, clients can retrieve stylesheets from books I edited for them in 2006 — and doing so is not conditional on my editing the new edition.

The stylesheet is a valuable freebie that costs me nothing. I have to provide a stylesheet with nearly all my projects anyway, so why not take advantage of it? Clients like that they can check on how things are progressing without having to contact me. They also like that they can do so at their convenience. Most importantly, they like that they can give their proofreaders these up-to-the-minute stylesheets without waiting for me to send them one.

The ability to retrieve a stylesheet when preparing to do a subsequent edition is also something clients like, as it helps maintain consistency between editions. I, too, like it because it reminds them that I am already familiar with the book, have the stylesheet readily available, and would thus be a good choice to hire for editing the new edition — it’s a good way to market passively. This, too, costs me nothing because I am already maintaining a website for my business and the stylesheets take up very little server space. Plus the clients do the actual “work” of retrieving and printing the stylesheet; I am just making it easy for them to do.

Basically, the freebies of today need to be passive freebies. They need to cost the freelancer virtually nothing but still have value to the client. What those freebies are will differ for each of us, but the bottom-line principle remains the same: the cost must be almost nil to us so that if it becomes an expectation of the client, it does not result in a reduction of our profits. Freebies should arise out of things we are doing for our own benefit, things that we do or would do to make our own work flow better.

If giving a freebie does not meet those criteria, then the answer to the question is no, it is not smart to give clients freebies nowadays.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

2 Comments »

  1. I don’t think I give clients freebies, but I do sometimes feel as if a proofreading project is actually a copy editing one – sometimes a light edit, but more than “just” proofreading. It’s hard for me to ignore issues that might cross that line. However, I aim for rates or fees that are good enough to cover any extra effort I might make on a project.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — August 24, 2016 @ 11:36 am | Reply

  2. I suppose the only ‘freebies’ I give to my clients is my time in terms of communication. I like to maintain a good relationship with the writers I work with and my ongoing business clients, so I respond to their emails or phone calls asking for advice or to run an idea by me and I don’t charge them for this. That said, when quoting on a manuscript, I factor in a certain amount of hours for consultation time about the manuscript because some clients like to ring out of the blue and chat for hours about their MS when I’m trying to work on something else. Now I ask them to schedule a call for this purpose.

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    Comment by fullproofreading — August 24, 2016 @ 7:35 pm | Reply


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