An American Editor

February 1, 2021

On the Basics: Coping with — and heading off — problems

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Once again, I’ve been inspired by recent posts in various places, this time ones that focused on complaints — either how a writer or editor can respond to a client’s complaint about their own work, or how an author or their editor can respond when someone else creates problems with a project.

Heading off problems before they arise

Of course, the best way to eliminate client complaints is to do great work, regardless of your niche — writing, editing, proofreading, layout, production, etc. Just be very careful about what you offer. Guaranteeing or promising perfection is a landmine. Many of us do turn around essentially perfect work most of the time, but we’re all human, and mistakes happen — our own, on occasion, and by people farther along the publication process whom we can’t control. There also can be differences of opinion about style and voice that create appearances of imperfection in the eyes of clients, readers and others who see the work.

One preventive option is to use your website, and maybe even your e-mail sigline, to say that you don’t guarantee perfection. Most of us provide results that qualify as perfect, but I never guarantee such a level of performance — I promise excellence, but I don’t guarantee perfection. Too many things can interfere with achieving perfection on every single project, no matter what your editorial niche might be and how excellent your skills.

Depending on the editorial service(s) you provide, it’s also smart to include contract or agreement language saying that you do not guarantee perfection, and are not to be mentioned in a dedication or acknowledgment unless you’ve seen the final-for-release version of a client’s document and are assured that it won’t be changed after that point. Being thanked for work that gets changed for the worse after it leaves your hands can be horribly embarrassing.

When the complaint goes against you

Many writing, editing, proofreading and other publishing-world colleagues wonder about how to handle client complaints. Some say they can see themselves “firmly yet politely providing an explanation,” and possibly offering a (reasonable) refund or a discount on a future project if they were responsible for the problem. If the issue appears to be major and the client is furious, though, then what? And what if the error is someone else’s doing?

First and foremost, don’t panic. We all make mistakes, and many complaints are much less major than they seem at first. And the problem might not be your fault.

Sometimes all the client wants is your acknowledgment that you goofed, so it makes sense to apologize — but without offering anything until you have a better sense of what happened and what the client wants. A response might also depend on what the client thinks went wrong; the problem might have been caused by someone other than you (including the client!) or not even be a real deal, merely a difference in perspective or definitions.

Once you’ve identified the problem or issue, you can respond effectively. If you missed a couple of misspellings or similar somewhat minor errors in a document, apologize and consider offering to give the manuscript one more look at no cost, assuming it hasn’t already gone out into the world.

If the piece is already in print, the apology and refund or discount might do the trick. With some projects or publications, it also might be possible to redo the material and give the client a new version to republish or reissue. Bigger issues call for bigger approaches.

There have been plenty of instances of self-publishing authors finding a lot of errors in their published books, or being alerted to or criticized for errors by readers. One of the most-common reasons: Somehow the author, or someone on their behalf, uploaded the wrong file for publication. Maybe the author didn’t know how to accept an editor’s input and changes. Maybe the author misfiled the corrected, final version of the manuscript.

Another common reason for errors in published work is that a well-intentioned layout person or designer made changes in the text that introduced errors. Or that the author didn’t have the project proofread before publication.

That doesn’t only happen to independent authors, by the way, although it’s more rare in traditionally published books. I bought an expensive hardcover traditionally published book a few years ago that started with a missing map and was rife with typos on almost every page. It was so egregious and outrageous that I contacted the publisher and author, who were mortified. The publisher said the wrong version of the manuscript somehow got into production and publication, and that they’d reissue the correct version. (They sent me a different book by the same author to make up for it, and I have no idea whether they ever did a reprint of the messed-up one.)

Of course, readers find and comment about errors in published works because many independent authors don’t pay for editing or proofreading before leaping into print. That’s why it’s important for us to identify the actual problem and who was responsible for it — not to mention whether there even is a real error — if we do get a complaint.

When errors aren’t your doing

An editing colleague recently encountered a problem with work on a client’s book that had nothing to do with the editor. The colleague had completed a copyedit for a client who then used a book designer to complete the final layout and files for self-publishing on Amazon, and the designer made changes that created errors in the published version. The errors weren’t in the original draft that the author gave the designer, nor in the first proof. The copyeditor thought they were the result of a sloppy find/replace by the designer, and wanted to know how “egregious” this was.

My response:
“VERY!”

(Please note that I know a lot of talented, skilled designers who would never do something like this.)

I suggested that the author tell the designer something like: “I am very upset that you made changes to my book that introduced a substantial number of errors. This is not acceptable. I expect a refund for your services or a revision at no charge.”

I would advise an author to ask such a designer for a refund rather than a redo. Asking them to redo it at no cost is a big maybe, because that designer clearly can’t be trusted, maybe even with very clear, firm guidelines about not making any changes that you and the author don’t see. It would probably be smarter to find a new designer, and to insist on seeing the final version before letting it go into production and release.

If such a designer has control over the files of the error-filled edition, tell them to send the files to you (so a new designer can handle the new edition), but don’t say that you won’t use the designer again until you have the original files in hand or know whether the files will be provided. If they refuse, you and your author will have to correct the first edition and do the new edition yourselves from scratch, but that might be safer than trusting it to someone who has proven to be problematic. 

If you find yourself in a similar situation, make sure that (a) you and your client(s) don’t use that designer again and (2) all future projects include language requiring that you and your client(s) see any versions that a designer has changed before publication! 

No one should have to search for errors in their publishing projects caused by changes they don’t know that someone made. 

Other people’s errors in our work are painful. I recently had to explain to someone I wrote about for a newspaper profile that the typo in the article’s headline was introduced in production, when someone changed it from what I submitted; at least it could be fixed in the online version, but it lives on in the print copy. And I still bristle over a misuse of “its/it’s” — something I would never get wrong — that someone else introduced years ago in a big, bold callout quote for one of my favorite magazine projects back in the days before digital publishing; I felt that I couldn’t use it as a portfolio sample because there was no way to let prospective employers or clients know that it wasn’t my mistake.

Possible responses

When colleagues ask for strategies for dealing with upset clients, I’ve responded along these lines:

“I tend to work fast, so I consciously slow myself down and give everything a second look before sending projects back to reduce the likelihood of upsetting my clients by missing something. I also take time to go over details before I start on a project, ask about or check for style preferences, etc. In more than 35 years of writing, editing, proofreading and freelancing, I’ve only had a couple of bad experiences that were my fault. If an issue were to come up, I would remind the client that I promise and provide excellence, but don’t guarantee perfection.” 

If a client wants a refund or discount, look at the context very, very carefully before responding or acquiescing. I’d rather not set a precedent for a refund or a discount. If something really were my fault, I’d consider providing a partial refund that represents a reasonable response, or offering a discount — again, on a reasonable level — for a subsequent project. Some of us will provide a refund at a few cents per error; others offer a discount (I wouldn’t go higher than 10%) on a new project.

A sad reality

Today’s online world makes moments involving client or reader complaints very challenging. It can be difficult — sometimes impossible — to respond to allegations of poor performance, and some complainers won’t stand down even if you can show that an issue wasn’t your doing. We also can’t always know where someone is complaining or even attacking us; there are so many platforms where these things can appear that it might not be possible to counteract every instance of a problem. Engaging with complainers or attackers also can make them escalate their behavior; even when we’re right, we might not win.

It’s smart to do occasional online searches of your name to see if there are any issues “out there” that you might want — or need — to respond to. Testimonials at your website from clients whose projects went smoothly also can help balance out baseless complaints or criticisms.

In whatever role anyone here might play in a publishing project, we can only do our best and network together to maintain our reputations. Complaints might be one of those inevitable, but ideally rare, headaches that come with being in business and living in the current era of online visibility, with all of its unpredictable aspects — some that are scary, but many that are beneficial.

Have you encountered complaints about your work, or that of anyone else who’s part of one of your projects? How did you respond? What would you do differently in the future?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning creator of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide. She also created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and An American Editor. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

9 Comments »

  1. Ruth,

    As always, you are so right about perfection. No one can guarantee perfection, but we can get darned close.

    It’s those pesky errors that make it into print after the author, the editor, and the proofer have missed something many times that keep us up at night. If the error is something substantive (not a comma or a misspelled word) such as a name spelling or fact that is easily checked, I offer to pay for the fix so the author can have the designer redo the file and reupload. No one has ever asked me to pay for that. I fessed up to a funny one in my new book, Cover to Cover: What First-Time Authors Need to Know about Editing. In only one client interaction did I refund the edit cost entirely, and that was to clear my mind, knowing I had done everything I could to fix the perceived problem (which was another editor, after my work, introducing error and blaming it on me). For that, I sleep well at night.

    Sandra Wendel
    http://www.SandraWendel.com

    Liked by 3 people

    Comment by Sandra Wendel — February 1, 2021 @ 12:21 pm | Reply

  2. This is great advice. I have the no-perfection clause in my service agreement. I’ve had one issue with a client. This was multiple rounds with version-control issues on a book-length manuscript where I made between 15,000 and 20,000 changes, including a round one with developmental and structural reorganization. He sent back the edited product of round two and he was upset. It looked like there were more omissions than the 5% standard error rate. It was clearly a version control issue for reasons I won’t bore anyone with, but it involved consolidating multiple files in Dropbox and editing it in a Word file. It doesn’t matter. The client wasn’t happy and he had a point. I re-edited the whole thing, including the changes that he made in the document, and gave him about 1,500 words of free writing. I didn’t argue. In the process, I took a four-digit hit. It’s a matter of pride that I do excellent work and to not leave clients feeing ripped off.

    I also learned the lesson that if I’m doing a round-two copyediting gig after a round-one developmental and structural gig, there needs to be a significant lapse of time between the two. Like more than three months. So I now will not include copyediting in the brief of a developmental or structural edit, especially where, as here, there was a significant difference between the original and edited manuscript in round one.

    I agree that not being defensive or combative pays even if the client is being unreasonable and especially when the client has a point, like in the case I’m talking about here. I resolved this in favor of the client and learned something from the experience. Almost everybody is honest (especially if you have skill in filtering out red-flag queries) and it’s best to treat your clients accordingly. I also give clients the benefit of the doubt when payments are late (I take payments in advance).

    Liked by 3 people

    Comment by karincather1 — February 2, 2021 @ 8:35 pm | Reply

  3. Thank you for the insightful post! I am relatively new to editing and so far did not have any significant issues with my clients, but this is useful for knowing how to handle such situation in the future (knock on wood that they never happen).

    Have you ever had issues with clients regarding using past work as sample for future clients? Have any ever refused permission to use their deliverables as samples?

    Olga
    https://www.olgamazurproofreadercopyeditor.com/

    Liked by 3 people

    Comment by Olga Mazur — February 2, 2021 @ 10:17 pm | Reply

    • I would never use a client’s edited project as a work sample unless they’ve given permission, and even then, I’d do my best to anonymize the material. If a prospective client asks for such samples, I say that I prefer to do a brief sample edit on something from them because most clients prefer that no one sees the “before” versions of their material, and I would give the new client the same respect as I give my previous and current clients. That usually does the trick.

      Liked by 2 people

      Comment by An American Editor — February 3, 2021 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

    • Some of my editing and proofreading clients have made it clear that their material is proprietary and may not be shared in any way. Even if you don’t receive such guidelines, though, never use work for a past client as a sample without asking first. And even if they give permission, do your best to anonymize the excerpt.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by An American Editor — April 7, 2021 @ 10:49 pm | Reply

  4. I just remembered another example of a project issue that illustrates the importance of identifying who did what to a document. A colleague recently asked for help with working on a Word document that was a real mess because of something the client had done with formatting that my colleague couldn’t fix. She wanted to work on the document over the weekend; it was due on a Monday and she had just spent most of the previous Friday on it, with no success. She ended up missing that Monday deadline because the document just couldn’t be fixed and thus couldn’t be edited. If the client complained, she was prepared to point out — tactfully, of course — that the mess was their doing, not hers. Another important aspect of a situation like this: She reached out to colleagues for help, which strengthened her ability to explain to the client not only what was wrong, but what she had done to try to fix it. Networking helps!

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by An American Editor — February 4, 2021 @ 3:18 pm | Reply

    • I have a clause in my service agreement that speaks to corrupted files and says that AU has to supply an uncorrupted file and the deadline will be affected.

      FYI: One thing that I noted as a common cause of files hanging up, taking forever for comments to load, cursors taking forever to move, Word ceasing to respond when doing any of those things (or when switching from All Markup to Simple Markup) is when changes to a document involve significant repagination between the original and edited version. I have yet to find a workaround for it, and Maggieing the document does not help with this. The biggest issue is that it seems to consume an unreasonable amount of computer memory (my computer is fine and is in good working order, although I’m going to replace my decent machine with a more powerful one in anticipation of this issue). This issue is magnified when there are a lot of figures. In my most recent case, the author had introduced tons of random section breaks, probably having to do with the way that they wrote the book, which compounded the problem.

      Keeping the Show Codes (pilcrow symbol) on helps a little for some unknown reason, but my client had to accept all changes to work with the document and then do compare/combine.

      Like

      Comment by karincather1 — May 8, 2021 @ 11:49 pm | Reply

  5. […] and, of course, the On the Basics column of the An American Editor blog – On the Basics: Coping with — and heading off — problems […]

    Like

    Pingback by Current writing activity by Ruth Thaler-Carter — March 5, 2021 @ 10:43 pm | Reply

  6. “Sometimes all the client wants is your acknowledgment that you goofed, so it makes sense to apologize…” Excellent advice! I copyedited a journal article on how communication relates to malpractice suits in health care. The article said that doctors who own up to their mistakes and take responsibility tend not to get sued, even when they are clearly at fault. I suspect there is a similar dynamic in publishing. When a mistake is the editor’s fault, I think acknowledging that and being humble and honestly apologetic can go a long way toward repairing the relationship with the client and building trust. Stuff happens; it’s how you deal with it that makes all the difference.

    Like

    Comment by jeancassidy2 — May 8, 2021 @ 1:20 am | Reply


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