An American Editor

May 18, 2016

The Business of Editing: Uniqueness & Being Valuable to Clients

Editors gain work by being skilled. But with all of the competition for editorial work, being skilled is not enough both to gain business and to charge (and be paid) higher rates. Recently, Louise Harnby wrote about generalization versus specialization and its effect on a freelancer’s job prospects (see The Proofreader’s Corner: The Generalist–Specialist Dichotomy and the Editorial Freelancer). Another facet to being valuable to clients and to getting them to pay higher rates willingly is providing unique skills and services that those clients see as valuable.

I have been negotiating a contract with a major client. The negotiations have been ongoing since December and are about to conclude to my (and presumably also to the client’s) satisfaction. Although it has taken nearly 6 months, both sides were willing to stick with the negotiations because each side views the other as valuable.

What makes me valuable are the usual editorial things, such as highly skilled editing that evokes praise from my client’s authors. For example, last week a client wrote, “The authors have started reviewing pages, and they have been pleased, so thanks for the quality work!” What also makes me valuable are some of the unique services I provide. (Unique is being used relatively, to say that I am providing services that few editors provide, not that I am the only editor who provides the services.)

An example of a unique and valuable service I provide to clients concerns the renumbering of references. One of the more difficult tasks an editor may undertake is renumbering references in both the reference list and in-text callouts. It isn’t too difficult or confusing when a chapter has 20 references and three need to be renumbered, but the situation changes when the chapter has 258 references in the reference list with more than 300 in-text reference callouts and they all need to be renumbered. The renumbering becomes even more complex when it is scattered: for example, instead of 0 becoming 1, 0a becoming 2, and 1 becoming 3, 0 becomes 21, 0a becomes 76, and 1 becomes 5.

Not only does this become difficult for the editor to follow, but it is also a significant problem for authors during their review of the editing and for proofreaders, one that can lead to expressed dissatisfaction and complaints about the editor’s work if the authors discover a renumbering error.

A vast majority of editors simply go slowly, renumber, check it twice, and make a note to the client or authors that references were renumbered and the renumbering should be checked. To track the renumbering, the editors use pencil and paper, which further slows the process, especially when there are a lot of references requiring renumbering, as is often the case for me.

I offer my clients something unique — a “report” that details the renumbering. It is a separate file that accompanies the edited chapter and bears a title that references the chapter. For example, if the edited chapter file is Jones Synthetic Fibers 19e chapter 13 edited.doc, the renumbering file is 13 Jones Synthetic Fibers 19e Ref Num ReOrder Checklist.rno.txt. The renumbering file is a comma-separated list, with the all the original reference numbers listed to the left of the comma, including a, b, and c references (e.g., 1, 1a, 1b, 2), and the the new number, if any, listed to the right of the comma. For example,

Original Ref Number,Renumbered to
1,8
1a,2
1b,3
2,9
3,10
4,11

Because I use EditTools’ Reference # Order Check macro, creating the renumbering file is easy — I just export the list I use to track the renumbering as I edit.

It is worth noting that using the Reference # Order Check macro to track references called out in the text — even when no renumbering is needed — makes it easy to catch skipped in-text callouts. Another chapter in the recent project of mine that I mentioned earlier has 199 references. Most of the references are called out in order, so no minimal renumbering was required (in fact, only eight references required renumbering). However, five reference callouts were skipped — 54, 99, 107, 125, and 161 — which I easily found using the macro. Here is a portion of the report that will accompany this chapter:

Original Ref Number,Renumbered to
160,
161,text callout missing
162,169
163,162
164,163
165,164
166,165
167,166
168,167
169,168
170,
171,

(If a reference number is called out only once and only in number order, I can easily find the missing callouts, too. But in the texts I edit it is not unusual for callouts to be repeated even though initially called out in order — for example, 90, 91, 92, 93–96, 92, 94, 97 — which can make order tracking more difficult.) In instances where a text callout is missing, I usually insert an Author Query as follows:

AQ: Reference 106 is cited above, but there is no callout in the text for reference 107. Please either (1) insert a text callout for reference 107 between the callout for 106 above and the callout for 108 here, or (2) delete the current reference 107 from the reference list and renumber all references from this point forward.

If there are a lot of skipped numbers, in addition to the AQ at the location of the skipped callout, I compile a mini-report and insert it as a comment at the beginning of the document. Where references have been renumbered, I insert a comment similar to this at the beginning of the document:

AQ: Please note that some [or ALL capitalized if all rather than some is appropriate] references in this chapter have been renumbered. In addition, several references do not have in-text callouts. Please see the file “13 Jones Synthetic Fibers 19e Ref Num ReOrder Checklist.rno.txt” for details on the renumbering and the missing text callouts.

This is one example of additional value that I provide clients. Clients have remarked on this, especially noting that the authors and proofreaders are appreciative. One client told me to be particularly careful about renumbering references because the authors were very unhappy with the poor renumbering another editor had done on the prior edition. I received the large project because the client knew I would provide a high-quality edit along with a report with each chapter that required renumbering, both of which would please the authors. More importantly, it also helped ensure that I had done the renumbering accurately.

Okay, we have determined that this is a valuable service, but what is its benefit to me? Here it is: clients seek me out because I make their life easier. They want to send me the types of projects I want to edit. And they are more willing to negotiate with me, whether about schedule or money or both or something else. Clients seek out my services because what I can offer is unique and of value to them. My clients are packagers and publishers. Both have tight schedules they want or need to meet, and both want work done that requires minimal redoing or fixing. Over the years I have heard many publishers and packagers complain about not meeting schedules because of mistakes made in such tasks as reference renumbering. And when they do not meet schedules, they lose money.

These clients — at least the ones who give it some thought — consider it better to pay me a little more and take advantage of the unique services I can provide than to save a little on the editing expense but then have to pay even more to fix avoidable errors later. It is also valuable to them to have happy authors.

Do you offer unique services to your clients? Do you find that doing so makes you more valuable to your clients? Does being valuable to your clients result in long-term benefits to you?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 9, 2016

The Proofreader’s Corner: The Generalist–Specialist Dichotomy and the Editorial Freelancer

by Louise Harnby

Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist? This question often arises in editorial freelancing circles. Actually, answering it isn’t straightforward because it depends on how one defines those terms.

One of my colleagues considers herself a specialist. She’s an editor who works solely with independent fiction authors, particularly in the field of speculative fiction. She doesn’t proofread. She doesn’t work for publishers, businesses, students, charities, project management companies, marketing communications agencies, or schools.

I’m a proofreader who works with publishers, independent authors, businesses, project management companies, and students. My focus is on the social sciences, commercial nonfiction, and fiction.

My colleague could be forgiven for thinking I’m a generalist because when you compare her range of clients (and the type of material she works on) with my range of clients (and the type(s) of material I work on), we’re worlds apart.

However, I still think I’m a specialist because I don’t provide developmental editing or copy-editing services, and I don’t work on, for example, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) material. When I promote myself to potential clients, I present myself as a specialist.

It’s not about me

In fact, it doesn’t matter whether my colleague, you, or I think I’m a specialist or a generalist. All that matters is that potential clients who are searching for someone to solve their editorial problems can find me and recognize my ability to help them.

The question I therefore need to ask myself is: “What does the client want to know?”

Imagine the following scenario. Gandalf is looking for someone to proofread an article he’s submitting to the Journal of Ethical Wizardry. His paper compares ten different countries’ legal instruments for controlling spell-making and spell-casting. It’s already been peer-reviewed by some other eminent wizards. Now he needs to get it checked to ensure that the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and consistency are in order. The references also need checking to ensure that they comply with The Sorcerer’s Bluebook, which is the definitive international style guide for magico-legal citation. He searches an online directory for proofreaders and takes a look at the first three profiles in the list. Who will he pick?

  • The proofreader who tells him she “proofreads anything”?
  • The proofreader who tells him she has a politics degree and specializes in working with academics, publishers, project management agencies, and students working in the social sciences, with a particular focus on economics, politics, philosophy, international relations, development studies, and magic?
  • The proofreader and editor whose website tells him she is a former practicing lawyer who now specializes in working with academics, publishers, project management agencies, and students working in the social sciences, with a particular focus on economics, politics, philosophy, international relations, law and criminology, development studies, and magic?

Let’s assume that all three of the above proofreaders are experienced, well qualified, and members of national industry-recognized editorial associations.

If I were Gandalf, my first choice would be the third person in the above list because she has specialist legal experience (though I would also bookmark the entry for the second person as a fallback). It doesn’t matter that she offers two different types of editorial service, or that she works on many different subjects, or that her client base is wide ranging. Sure, some might consider her a generalist. However, even if you do consider her to be a generalist, the fact is this – she’s more likely to spot a citation that isn’t formatted in the style recommended by The Sorcerer’s Bluebook, and Gandalf knows this.

Clearly communicating what you do

When we market ourselves as generalists, we run the risk of saying nothing. When we market ourselves as specialists – even if those specialisms are many and cover a wide range of subjects/genres – we can say a lot.

Saying you do “everything” or “anything” is problematic for several reasons:

  • It’s not believable: Specializing is about being believable. If you don’t inspire trust in a potential client at the first point of contact, you’re unlikely to be hired by anyone with even a grain of an idea in their head about what their chosen proofreader or editor might look like. Think about it – who really can proofread anything? I’m comfortable tackling a lot of subjects, but veterinary medicine isn’t one of them. Nor is electrical engineering. Nor is cardiopulmonary medicine. And if you’re an editor who does feel comfortable working in any of those fields, how do you feel about tackling the third draft of a self-publisher’s YA fiction thriller that needs a substantive edit? I suspect that editorial professionals who can truly proofread or edit absolutely anything are few and far between.
  • SEO fail: Specializing is about being discoverable. If you don’t take the time to tell your potential clients what you specialize in, whether it’s one subject or twenty, your website will be less about SEO (search engine optimization) and more about SEI (search engine invisibility). When the search engines crawl over your website looking for keywords by which to rank you, they won’t find much and they’ll move on. Does that matter? After all, you proofread anything. That’s fine if your clients are searching for someone who does “anything.” In reality, many clients are more specific. Looking at my Google Analytics data, I can see that keyword searches include “academic editing,” “fiction proofreader,” “dissertation proofreading services,” “proofreading thesis Norwich,” “student proofreading,” “novel proofreading,” “PhD proofreading UK,” “medical proofreader England,” “academic copy editor,” “medical proofreading,” “scientific paper editing,” “CV proofreading,” “legal proofreading,” “self-publisher proof-reading,” “proof read my thriller,” and “proofread journal paper politics.” Given that I do provide services that match many of those keyword searches, I want Google to know that and rank me accordingly.
  • Customer disengagement: Specializing is about being interesting. Saying you do “anything” is far less interesting than saying you do “X, Y, and Z.” When we tell a client about our specialist areas, we are demonstrating competence, experience, and knowledge. Imagine I send a letter to a scientific publisher. I’m one of five proofreaders who, that week, have contacted the book production manager with a request to be added to the publisher’s bank of proofreaders. In their cover letters, two of my colleagues have explained that they are specialists in academic proofreading; the other two have stated that they specialize in working with scientific academic material. In my cover letter, I tell the production manager that I’m a generalist and will proofread anything. Who makes the deepest impression on the production manager? I suspect that I’m bottom of the pile in terms of client engagement. I’ve not presented myself in a way that shows I’m interested in what the press publishes. Nor have I presented myself in a way that shows I’m interesting.

Again, whether you work on one subject, with one type of client type, on one type of file, or you work on numerous subjects, with several different client types, in multiple media, present your narrow focus or your breadth of service in a way that marks you as a specialist.

Specialization and the new starter

I always recommend specialization before diversification to new starters. Especially at the beginning of your career, thinking like a specialist helps you to plan your client-building strategy in a targeted manner and focus your marketing efforts on the type of clients who are most likely to give you valuable first gigs that enable you to build your portfolio and gather testimonials.

For example, if you have a degree in electrical engineering, and you identify yourself as a specialist technical copyeditor, you’re more likely to be successful in securing your first paying job if you contact publishers with technical and engineering lists. Engineering students are more likely to be interested in asking you to check their Master’s dissertations and doctoral theses. Engineering businesses are more likely to ask you to edit their annual reports. Your specialist knowledge will count for a great deal, even though your editorial portfolio will be scant.

When I entered the field of editorial freelancing, I deliberately targeted social science presses because of my politics degree and previous career with an academic publisher, marketing social science journals. I was able to present myself as a specialist proofreader who understood the language of the social sciences. Those factors made me interesting to those presses and gave them confidence in my ability to work with the subject matter.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t expand your specialist areas, or that you have to decline work that comes your way if it falls outside them (as long as you are comfortable with what you are being asked to do). My current portfolio is far more diverse than it was back in 2006. Specializing, however, made it much easier to get my foot in the door and build my business.

Marketing that focuses on your business preferences

Some of us choose to specialize in very narrow terms. Some of us choose breadth. One isn’t “better” than the other. Rather, it’s a business decision. If you prefer to offer a range of services to a range of clients over a range of media, and you can do this in a way that makes your business profitable, then breadth is better for you. If, on the other hand, you prefer to focus on one or two services to one client type over one medium, and you can do this in a way that makes your business profitable, then a narrow focus is “better” for you.

Effective marketing will be key to whichever path you choose. If your preferred clients can’t find you, it matters little whether your client focus is narrow or broad – if you’re not discoverable, you’ll be unemployed either way.

Conclusion

When it comes to marketing communications, there’s no such thing as a generalist. Rather, there are two types of specialist – the specialist-specialist and the generalist-specialist. Either way, both are specialists and talk like specialists.

Even if you are, for all intents and purposes, quite the generalist – that is, you’ll edit and/or proofread a wide range of subjects for a wide range of clients – market yourself as a specialist.

You can present yourself as a specialist in a variety of ways:

  • Relevant training (e.g., as a proofreader), related career experience (e.g., you used to be a social worker), and educational qualifications in pertinent a subject (e.g., you have a degree in public policy and administration).
  • Industry-specific knowledge – you might be familiar with particular citation systems (e.g., OSCOLA for legal works), style guides (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style or New Hart’s Rules), markup language (e.g., the British Standards Institution’s BS:5261C).
  • Subject matter (e.g., sciences, social sciences, medicine, fiction).
  • Client base (e.g., students, businesses, publishers, independent authors, academics).
  • Editorial service (e.g., proofreading, copyediting, indexing, consultancy).
  • Clear statements of interest: for example, “…I specialize in providing proofreading solutions for clients working in the social sciences, humanities, fiction and commercial non-fiction…” (Louise Harnby | Proofreader, England); “…We are a group of highly skilled and experienced editors who specialize in editing nonfiction…” (Freelance Editorial Services, USA); “…I specialise in fiction editing, especially for independent/self-publishing writers…” (Averill Buchanan | Editor & Publishing Consultant, Ireland); “…I offer specialist legal editing services for publishers, law firms, businesses, academics, and students…” (Janet MacMillan | Wordsmith | Editor | Proofreader | Researcher, Canada).

Being a specialist is certainly about the choices you make as an editorial business owner in terms of the kind of work you choose to do. But it’s just as much about communicating with potential clients in a way that demonstrates enthusiasm, knowledge, skills and experience — even if you are a bit of a generalist!

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

May 4, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Agony & the Ecstasy of “No”

Contract negotiations and project negotiations are difficult to begin with. Rarely do we come to the bargaining table from a position of strength. But occasionally we do, when our client’s client has insisted we be hired. If we deal directly with authors, it is the authors who have the upper hand because so many editors are available. If we deal with a packager or a publisher, they, too, come to the table with the upper hand because there are a lot of editors to choose among.

Regardless of our negotiating strength or weakness, negotiation is something we need to learn to do and to do well. After all, editing is a business.

Negotiation does not come naturally to many people. In the United States, we are conditioned to not negotiate. We go into a store, see a price for an item, and either pay that price to buy the item or move on. Only in rare situations do we expect to be able to bargain.

What I find interesting is that unlike in many other service businesses, we professional editors often do not set our own price for our services. If we work for a packager or a publisher, the client offers us work at its price, and we either accept or reject the work and the proffered price. Yet, when we need to see a lawyer or doctor or to call a plumber, we do not offer them the job at a certain price — instead, they tell us what the price will be. As consumers of the service, we either hire or don’t hire the doctor, lawyer, or plumber at the price they dictated.

Editing is different. Even when we set our own price, as when we work directly with authors, we aren’t actually setting our own price. As previously discussed in other essays, most of us set our price based on unscientific rate surveys and what we think our competitors will/do charge.

Editing has become a service that is beholden to others to set a price. One reason for this shift of power away from editors is the unwillingness and inability of too many editors to negotiate contract terms with publishers and packagers. (That we may do so more often with individual authors is unhelpful to editing as a profession because the influence of such negotiations is too limited; they do not help establish an editing profession norm. In contrast, multiple successful negotiations with a packager or a publisher can help raise — or lower — standards for more than just the one editor or project.)

The key to negotiation is simple: It is being willing to say “no” and to walk away from a client or a project.

Over the years I have had many discussions with colleagues about negotiating terms with clients. Usually the response is that there is no negotiation — projects are offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and the colleagues need the work, so they take it. I admit that even with my negotiating experience from preediting days, I, too, sometimes succumbed to the take-it side in my earlier years.

Consequently, we need a cushion that acts as a support for our negotiating efforts. That cushion — being an in-demand editor — is not easy to come by, but it can be gotten with concentrated marketing efforts. As some colleagues are aware, I used to set aside a significant amount of money each year for marketing. The only way to create the cushion I needed was to acquire a sufficient number of clients to ensure that if negotiations with one failed, someone else could fill the potential gap. So, an editor’s first nonediting duty is marketing, to build the cushion that will provide the sustenance the editor needs to be willing to say “no.”

“No” is the most powerful word in the negotiation lexicon. It sets the impenetrable and immutable line in the sand beyond which you will not move. For example, I recently was offered a contract (whose terms I carefully read) that wanted me to agree to background checks, including fingerprinting and drug and/or alcohol testing, at the client’s request but at my expense. As a practical matter, I understand the desire for a background check and have no problem with it. It is a common condition of employment today, unlike when I first entered the job market decades ago.

I also have no problem agreeing to a credit check or a check of public records for a criminal record. Have at it. But fingerprinting and drug and alcohol testing are going too far, as is expecting me to pay for them. I am a copyeditor who never sets foot in a client’s offices. If the client doesn’t like the way I am copyediting a manuscript, the client’s option always has been to fire me and give the manuscript to someone else. I am not an employee; I am, as the client wants me to be, an independent business.

It happens to be the case that I don’t drink alcohol and that the only drugs I take are doctor prescribed, but that has nothing to do with whether I am willing to agree to testing — I am not. Fingerprinting is also unacceptable. If my work required me to be on the client’s premises, to care for the client’s infant children, to write the accounting or server software to run the client’s business, or any of myriad other tasks, fingerprinting might be acceptable and appropriate. But copyediting puts me in touch with no trade secrets, no intellectual property, and no final decision-making; thus, fingerprinting is an unwarranted privacy intrusion and unacceptable as a condition.

For me this line in the sand cannot be crossed. I am willing to say “no” if the clause is not modified to my satisfaction. That “no” is a powerful tool for me. My willingness to say “no” and my conveying that willingness to the client change the dynamic of the negotiation. If the client wants my services, it has to engage in give-and-take with me.

In the end, the question will come down to “How much am I willing to give to work with this client?” Some changes to the contract are what I view as indisputable, by which I mean the client can’t really object to striking or modifying the clause if what the clause demands has no relevance to the services for which I am to be engaged. The background check does have some relevance, which is why I am willing to agree to such a check; it is the fingerprinting and drug/alcohol testing that has no relevance, and so I only ask for that portion to be struck.

An example of a clause that has no relevance is one that requires that I carry a $1 million automobile liability insurance policy. There is no logical connection that I can see between copyediting and an automobile liability policy. This is one of those clauses that a legal department inserts into a form contract that the human resources department uses for everything. The problem is that if I sign a contract with this clause in it, I will have to buy such a policy — whether I really need it or not — and at my expense. Clauses like this are indisputable clauses and indisputably need to be struck from the contract.

More difficult are the clauses that are pro-client and antieditor but which do have a basis for inclusion, at least from the client’s perspective. An example of such a clause is an arbitration clause. I don’t mind such clauses — too much — except if they also cover fee payment. Most editor invoices are too small to resolve by arbitration because of the cost of arbitration. (Let’s not forget that statistically, even if the plaintiff is right, arbitrators will find for the company. The reason is that arbitrators earn their living by being selected to arbitrate and companies won’t pick arbitrators who rule against them. The likelihood of an editor having regular arbitration cases is exceedingly minuscule, unlike the likelihood for the company. In arbitration, the game is stacked ahead of time.)

But even in these instances, I am more likely to obtain a modification of particularly onerous clauses because I am willing to say “no.” If the client is unwilling to negotiate changes, I need to weigh the benefit of working for the client against the risks imposed by the contract terms. Often, but not always and in less than a majority of times, saying “no” with an explanation results in further negotiations. But there are times when only the “no” is heard by the client.

How prepared are you to say “no”?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 27, 2016

The Business of Editing: 8 Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid II

Part I discussed the first four reasons why editing is undervalued by clients. Those reasons were as follows:

  1. Few editors know their required effective hourly rate.
  2. Our profession has failed to convince “clients” of editing’s value.
  3. The market views us as low-level professionals who provide an unnecessary service.
  4. It is too easy to open an editorial business.

Part II discusses reasons five through eight.

5. For too many editors, the income is a second income.

For many entrants to the profession, editing is a second income, not the primary source of household income. Consequently, they offer absurdly low rates (I have seen as low as 50 cents a page) with promises of high quality and speedy return. Those offers get published all over the Internet — just look at LinkedIn — and thus form the “standard” that clients expect. As a group, we have done nothing successful to combat those low rates and to keep them from becoming the standard.

As a second income, this is usually money for vacations or to buy a better car, not usually money needed for survival. The result is that there is no need to justify a rate other than that the rate brings in business. If your basic necessities of life are already covered by a primary income, then your primary (and often only) concern is getting business. Consequently, too many second-income editors set their rates low and that low level is seen repeatedly. It soon becomes the “standard” that clients expect.

6. We refer clients to “rate charts” to justify our fee.

In my view, we make the problem worse by referring to fee schedules that are published but are clearly not statistically sound, such as the EFA rate schedule.

The EFA chart, which is the fee schedule commonly referred to in the United States, is 100% statistically invalid. The history of the chart is that a small percentage of EFA members respond to the survey, not all of whom are editors or proofreaders, but all of whom are EFA members. In addition, not all the responders define what they do the same, and not all are freelancers. It is one of the least-meaningful guides available for setting rates.

One problem with past EFA rate surveys was that there was no uniform basis for how responders calculated (i.e., originally determined) their fee, or of the rationale for the amount charged, or of what services were included in the charge. One editor who participated in a past EFA survey told me she was retired and had cut her fee in half because she didn’t really need the money but wanted the occasional project to work on.

My point is this: Experienced editors should know better than to consider the EFA survey as having any value whatsoever as a guide for setting or justifying a fee, and they should not be telling clients (or colleagues) to look to it for guidance. The usual reply is that it is better than nothing, or that it is the only thing out there, or at least that it gives the range. But even to the casual observer it is clear that the EFA rate survey is so riddled with holes that it is an unreliable guide. Consequently, instead of helping us convince the world that editors are worth more than a pittance, we are reinforcing the client’s beliefs by being unable to point to something objectively valid that supports our view.

7. We fail to give a client a cogent explanation of why we can’t accept a job.

We compound the problem of inadequate compensation by failing to provide a detailed explanation of why we cannot accept a particular job at the price offered, and by failing to explain what services are included and excluded at various price points. When we buy an automobile, we are told how much the basic car costs and then how much each add-on package costs and what is included in each package. Why aren’t we doing the same for editing?

How many of us take the time to explain our editing workday and workweek? Clients assume that because we are freelancers working from home (usually), we are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Few editors I know ever say otherwise. When I respond to a client’s project offer, I carefully delineate the editing workday and workweek, explain what services are included and excluded, and I offer various options at different prices. I let the client choose the editing package and price. In my early years I didn’t do this; today I almost always offer choices. This reinforces to the client that I am a professional and that the client can have certain expectations at certain price points.

The failure to give a cogent explanation and to offer choices reinforces the perception of low-level professionalism and justifies, in the client’s mind, the low compensation.

8. The lack of standard definitions for editorial services.

As professionals we have failed to establish standard definitions of various editorial tasks that all professionals adopt. Each of us defines copyediting, for example, differently — sometimes the difference is small, and sometimes it is great — but we all call it copyediting. Consequently, when a client sees that A will do copyediting for $7.50 an hour and B will do it for $35 an hour, the client has no reason to think of the services as other than identical, and will often choose A because of price.

The lack of standard definitions means that we need to diligently explain to a client what is included and excluded for the price we are charging. Yet most of us do not provide that detailed explanation. Consequently, if editor B includes the kitchen sink as part of her copyediting services, the client hiring editor A expects the kitchen sink to be included by editor A regardless of the disparity between what editor B and editor A charge for copyediting. And if editor A explains that it is not included, the editor may well lose the client. To save the job, editor A will include the kitchen sink, thereby setting a standard to which all editors will be held — a low price that includes the kitchen sink.

Our failure as group to establish uniform standards results in our hurting our own cause and in our (generally) not being well paid. If we tackled these eight reasons using a national organization with accrediting authority, we could greatly improve how professional editing and editors are perceived, valued, and paid.

The eight reasons discussed are not all of the reasons for the low pay–high expectations syndrome in editing; I am confident you can add additional reasons. Ultimately, the question we need to face and solve is this: We know the problem and the reasons. What as a group are we going to do to solve the problem?

What do you suggest? What will you do?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 20, 2016

The Business of Editing: 8 Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid I

A recent discussion on another forum lamented over how underpaid (undervalued) editing is, pointing out that neither authors nor publishers appreciate and are willing to pay for the expertise editors bring to a project. Of course, this is not a new lament; it was the same 32 years ago, when I began my editing career, and it has been a constant since that day.

In the discussion I just mentioned, the lament was tied to the client command (or observation) that the manuscript requires only a “light” edit. Let’s set aside the initial problem — what a “light” edit is (for my perspective, see The Business of Editing: Light, Medium, or Heavy?) — and instead focus on some — not all — of the reasons the value of editing is viewed so poorly as to act as justification for low rates of compensation from our clients.

Part I of this essay discusses the first four reasons.

1. Few editors know their required effective hourly rate.

Like all businesses, we can set our own rates of compensation. The problem is that too many of us set them in an information vacuum. Too many of us have no idea what our Required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR) is, and as a consequence we set our rate based on what some unscientific and invalid rate survey says is the “going rate.”

(For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of rEHR, and those who need a refresher on how to calculate it, see the five-part series Business of Editing: What to Charge. Additional previous essays worth reviewing are The Business of Editing: Fundamental Business Mistakes That Editors Make, the two-part essay The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote, So, How Much Am I Worth?, and Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts. Essays written by Ruth Thaler-Carter and Louise Harnby that touch on these and related topics can be found if you look for “On the Basics” and “The Proofreader’s Corner” in the Search field on this blog.)

Your rEHR is the minimum you need to earn for each hour of paid work if you hope to meet your living requirements. A survey that is of suspect validity to begin with can’t help you determine what you should charge if you do not know whether what the survey says is the “going rate” is more or less than you require just to have shelter, clothing, and food. When editors do not know their rEHR, they undermine themselves.

How are they undermining themselves? By helping to establish the validity of a rate that has no relationship to real-world economics. Haven’t you found that no matter how low your rate, a client readily comes back with a lower rate that was quoted by an editorial colleague? How was that lower rate established? Probably by waving an uncooked strand of spaghetti through the seas of Atlantis and watching the numbers magically appear. Or by going to one of the rate surveys that are constantly mentioned but aren’t any more valid than the spaghetti waving.

By approving and accepting rates that are lower than your rEHR, you are reinforcing the idea that editorial services are of little value.

2. Our profession has failed to convince clients of editing’s value.

In the olden days, when people like Bennett Cerf ran publishing houses and publishing houses were family-owned businesses, not international conglomerates, being an editor made you part of a prestigious profession. More importantly, high-quality editing was desired and properly compensated. I can still recall the lecture I received in 1987 from a Farrar, Strauss & Giroux editor about the publisher’s low tolerance for editorial errors. However, as the original family-owned publishers were bought up and merged into international conglomerates, bean counters took over and assigned a low value to editing, a low value from which the profession has not recovered.

As a profession, we have failed to convince our clients that they are devalued by poorly edited books. We have failed to demonstrate that consumers notice and care. We have failed to equate high-quality editing with reasonable compensation. By not making a concerted effort to convince clients of the value of editing, we have shored up the notion that cheaper is better for the bottom line. Finally, we have failed to make the consumer see that poor-quality editing means a poor reading experience, and that particular publishers and authors are noted for producing poorly edited books.

3. The market views us as low-level professionals who provide an unnecessary service.

Although we call ourselves professionals and think of ourselves as part of a profession, the market reality is that we are viewed as low-level professionals who provide an unnecessary service. This is a market view we have not successfully countered. Actually, as a group we have done little to nothing to counter that perception.

This is tied to number two above. We have let others determine whether our services are necessary. Look at how many times we see comments from authors saying that the author can edit his or her own manuscript as well as or better than any editor. Delve a little into the reason for the statement and what you find is that the author has had a poor experience with an editor and tars every editor with that tainted brush.

Of course, the author looked for the lowest-cost editor who claimed the most experience, and hired that editor. The author and the editor were both racing to the bottom, with cost driving both the author and the editor, who had set a low price to attract the business. The problem for many authors is that they personally have to foot the editorial bill, and so they look for the least cost. And the publishers? They assume that no one will notice if the editing is poor — not the author and not the consumer — and, unfortunately, too often they are correct. The publishers make the gamble and usually win.

If an author cannot get an editor cheaply enough, the author will self-edit or have friends do the editing, because the author does not view editors as high-level professionals who provide a necessary service in these days of self-publishing. It is our failure as a profession that we have not convinced clients of our professionalism and of the value of editorial services.

4. It is too easy to open an editorial business.

Unlike professionals who are able to charge much higher fees (e.g., doctors, lawyers, plumbers, carpenters, masons), we have no entry requirements in our profession — no apprenticeships, no degree requirements, no code of conduct, no licensing, no nothing. All a person has to do is declare to the world that she is a professional editor. (When you think about it, even McDonald’s fry cooks get some training from someone else, and cleaning-service personnel often need to be bonded. Our profession [different for content creators] has no insurance requirements, something most, if not all, other professions have.)

Let’s face it — even a sixth-grader could hang out a shingle as a professional editor. There simply are no professional standards. Writers and painters in the United States are better organized than editors and have more professional organizations (i.e., the organizations are more professionally organized and run) to create standards and promote codes of conduct than editors have.

Such ease of claiming membership in the editorial profession does us a disservice. It helps foster the notion that we are undeserving of better pay because there is no minimum standard of quality that a client can be assured of receiving in exchange for higher compensation.

Part II addresses reasons five through eight.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 13, 2016

The Business of Editing: How Many Pages an Hour Do You Edit?

This question was asked, probably for the umpteenth time, on another editorial forum. I wondered then, as I wonder now, what the value is of a response like “4 to 6 pages an hour” or “10 pages an hour” — or any number.

I find surfing editorial forums interesting in so far as doing so reveals how colleagues think. Both questions and answers are revealing. Editorial colleagues want to be helpful to one another. Consequently, no matter the question, someone, if not many someones, will respond. I think that sense of community is heartening and helps make editing a great profession to be in. That surface impression of community helpfulness, however, begins to slip as the answers pile up.

A Great Question But of Little Value

“How many pages an hour do you edit?” is a great question that elicits a world of responses, the majority (possibly all) of which are valueless. While seeming to be a good way to measure one’s own efficiency and productivity, it isn’t. If my own speed is slower than the reported average and I consequently think I need to speed things up, I’ve simply elevated the responses to a status they do not deserve. If my speed is faster, must I be more efficient and productive? And if my speed is slower, must I be less efficient and productive? In reality, no.

Editing speed in itself is not indicative of anything, largely because the number leaves out myriad bits of necessary qualifying information. If I tell you that I edit, on average, 12 pages an hour, what have you learned about my editing? Nothing. Among other things you haven’t learned are what types of projects I handled; what the parameters were for those projects; what tools I use to speed up (or slow down) my editing; or, most importantly, how good an editor I am. I may be the greatest of all editors but only edit 4 pages an hour, or I could be the worst of all editors and edit 25 pages an hour. Conversely, I may be the worst of all editors but only edit 4 pages an hour, or I could be the best of all editors and edit 25 pages an hour.

The number of pages I edit each editing hour is a statistic with no meaning or value, even though colleagues and clients are intrigued by it. After all, if you can edit 20 pages an hour and I only edit 5 pages an hour, isn’t the client going to be better served economically by you than by me?

Type of Editing Matters

It matters whether my speed is reflective of my copyediting or of my developmental-editing speed. It also matters how I define the type of editing. For example, does copyediting include more than one editing pass over the manuscript? Does it include coding or styling of the manuscript? Do I include fact checking? What about references — are they APA or AMA style or some other convoluted style that requires a significant amount of work? And do I include formatting and verification of those references? The bottom line is that there are a number of variables in what we include and exclude as part of our definition. In the absence of having a uniform definition for editing type, the number of pages an hour that I can edit has no relevance in a discussion about how many pages an hour you should be editing.

What Makes a Page?

Another vital element that needs to be known is: What makes a page? Is it number of words, characters without spaces, characters with spaces, formatted pages, something else? And once the measure is chosen, how much of the measure makes a page? For example, is it 250 words, 300 words, or 350 words that make a page? Suppose there are a large number of words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Do words like that count as one word? Two words? Three words? If you count characters, how many characters make a page?

Type of Manuscript Matters

It matters greatly whether my statement that I edit 12 pages an hour refers to editing advanced physics textbooks or cookbooks or illustrated children’s books or western novels. It matters whether the book is laden with photographs or with statistical tables. Without knowing what I am editing, how can you determine whether my speed is fast, slow, or middling?

Client Instructions Matter

Also relevant to determining the value of an editing speed are client instructions. It matters greatly whether I am instructed to simply run spellcheck and look for misspelled words or if I am asked to do a comprehensive edit that includes verifying Latin names for organisms against a particular database or to convert the form of measure the author uses to a more universally used measure. It matters whether there are 50 references or 1,000 references in a chapter and whether my instructions are to check each for accuracy and then format them, or accept them as accurate but format them, or just look for missing information and provide it but not format the references. (If you think a chapter cannot have 1,000 references, let me assure you that I often edit chapters with that number of references and more; I have edited chapters with nearly 2,000 references. Of course, such chapters tend to be “book length” in and of themselves.)

How Well Written Is the Manuscript?

Experienced editors know the importance of this bit of information. A poorly written manuscript slows editing to a crawl, whereas a well-written manuscript often means faster editing. Yet using terms like light, medium, and heavy to describe the difficulty of editing is not helpful because there are no universal definitions of these terms. In addition, there are gradations within each category — one editor’s medium-level edit may be another editor’s heavy edit.

Did You Consider This?

Okay, you tell me you know the answers to all of the previous questions and therefore are in a position to assign value to my being able to edit 12 pages an hour. But did you consider this? Do you know how many errors I create or miss as I edit that at the 12-page speed? This is important information. If I introduce an average of three errors per page or miss three errors per page, perhaps I need to slow my speed down because I am making/missing too many errors. Perhaps editing at 12 pages an hour is inappropriate for the material. On the other hand, if I am not introducing any errors and I am missing, on average, one error for every 5 pages, perhaps I am editing an appropriate speed or maybe can even edit a little bit faster.

Of course, there is the problem of what an error is.

The Universe of Editors

Another problem with the numbers generated by the main question is the representativeness of the responders. Getting 20 responses out of a universe of many thousands of editors is not very representative. The 20 responders may be the 20 best editors or the 20 worst editors or the 20 most middling editors. Or they may be a mix. But unless the responders are a match for you, their numbers are of no value. And even if they are a match for you, their number is too small to be statistically meaningful or indicative of average speed of editors irrespective of any other criterion.

The Bottom Line

Some questions we ask our colleagues will provide valuable information, but asking how many pages a colleague edits is not one of them. In the absence of universally agreed-upon terms and definitions to describe what we do, comparing my editing speed with your editing speed simply produces two unhelpful numbers.

When asked why they think this information is useful, editors often reply that if the majority of responders give a number that is faster than their number, then it is an indication that they are going too slow and need to take a look at how they can improve their number. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it is false reasoning. Because others are faster (or slower) than you is not an indication that there is anything wrong with your speed. There are too many variables.

Whatever my speed is, it is my speed and it is the speed at which I can produce a high-quality edit for a particular project. I keep detailed records and I know that over my 32 years of editing, I was able to edit some projects at what I think of as grand prix speeds and others at slower-than-turtle speeds. Speed was governed by the particular project, by my editing peculiarities, and by how much I could automate certain functions. This number was/is unique to me and meaningless to colleagues.

The One Thing Never to Do!

The one thing that no editor should ever do is estimate a project based on editing speeds claimed by colleagues. Estimates should always be based on your editing speed, your editing day, and your editing workweek. What a colleague does is at best anecdotal, not anything to use as a foundation for your work and business.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 6, 2016

On Ethics: To Out or Not to Out Clients II

Part I ended with this general rule:

Ethically it is not improper to disclose the name of a client except when the client is a nonbusiness individual who would reasonably expect confidentiality.

and the statement that there is more to the issue of disclosure. One of the big questions is whether it makes a difference if the forum for disclosure is a private one (i.e., one not accessible by the general public) or a public one (i.e., one accessible by everyone).

In the world of Google, does it matter?

One problem with the private-versus-public dichotomy is that too often there really isn’t a dichotomy. Much too often “private” forums are indexed by Google and other search engines, and so what is thought to be private really isn’t — the information appears in a search result.

Even “private” Facebook chats aren’t very private, especially as Facebook keeps altering its terms of service in an attempt to defeat any privacy preferences.

Does the nature of the forum really change the ethics?

To my thinking, it does not matter whether the forum is private or public. Aren’t the real issues the client’s opportunity to respond, the client’s expectation of privacy, and whether the client is an individual or a business? Do either change based on your decision to reveal the client in a public forum rather than a private forum?

An argument could be made that disclosure in a public forum does give the client an opportunity to respond, but with the hundreds of thousands of forums in existence on the Internet alone, it is a false argument. And certainly it is a false argument if you go to a public editors’ group meeting and discuss the client when the client lives in Paris, France, and the meeting is a Thursday luncheon in Horsehead Falls, NY.

No matter how you construe the arguments, the type of forum — public or private — has no effect on the ethics of naming individual clients without permission. Again, naming a business is different because the purpose of a business is to make itself known, whereas individuals have an expectation of confidentiality.

What makes an individual a business?

Let’s begin with this truism: If the individual is incorporated (e.g., Jones LLC), uses a business name (e.g., Jones Enterprises), or otherwise holds himself out as a business, then the individual is a business. If the individual asks that you invoice in a company name, then the individual is a business. But if the individual does everything in his own name and clearly is not earning their living as an author (e.g., is a stock broker or marketer), then the individual is an individual. The point is less that these specific things make an individual a business but how the client presents himself.

A cautionary word: If the client has a business, that fact does not make the client a business within your relationship. The question is the client’s presentation to you within the confines of your relationship, not the within client’s general life.

Does what you want to disclose make a difference?

A lot of editors will include in their résumés or on their websites a list of books that they have edited. I do. The practice is okay if the client is the publisher rather than the individual author, unless you have permission from the individual author or the book has been published. Once the book has been published, I do not think the author can expect his book not to be listed as a book that you have edited. The book is now public.

Listing books you have edited for an individual author is more a matter of when than whether. The individual author’s expectations of privacy and confidentiality about the fact that you edited their book expires on publication. But other expectations of privacy and confidentiality do not expire, such as the client’s expectations regarding the details of your relationship.

Suppose a colleague sees on your website that you edited a book by John Jones. The colleague has been approached by Jones to edit a new book and the colleague contacts you, asking for all of the details of your relationship with Jones, such as the manuscript condition, payment, amount of handholding required, etc. Your relationship with Jones was problematic. The manuscript was in bad shape, Jones disputed every suggested change, and Jones refused to pay 100% of the final invoice, feeling that you overcharged by “fixing” problems that didn’t exist. What should you disclose to your colleague?

Is it okay to disclose relationship details to colleagues?

Our tendency is to disclose all of our miseries to our colleagues after first stating, “This is just between us and not for rebroadcast.” Alas, when an individual author is involved, I do not think starting the conversation with such a condition makes a difference. But with a business, such as a major publisher, I think the outcome is different — and it does not matter whether the conversation is preceded by the “between us” condition.

As I have said many times, the difference is expectation. Businesses may have the same expectation as the individual author, but in the absence of an express agreement to the contrary, businesses are not entitled to the same deference to that expectation, and that’s because of the difference in the relationship.

No matter how unsatisfactory our relationship was with Jones, we are not entitled to disclose the elements of the relationship even under the condition of its not being repeated. This is not to say that there is no response that we can give. We can respond succinctly and generally: “I would not agree to edit another book by Jones.” It is the details that we cannot discuss without client consent.

Why shouldn’t we discuss the details?

The primary problem with editing is that it is subjective. When we claim a client’s manuscript is poorly written, we are expressing our personal, subjective opinion — we are not expressing objective fact. It is the “tomayto”–versus–“tomahto” problem. I can’t even say that a client’s manuscript needs significant adjustment to meet Chicago style, because Chicago is not a set of rules that cannot be broken; Chicago is a collection of opinions from a group of people someone has declared have a more valuable opinion than mine.

Although editing is not objective, whether the client pays invoices in a timely manner would appear to be objective. But even that is not objective. A client can be delaying payment because the client is unhappy with our work, or believes we are charging more than was agreed, or thinks we padded the invoice by adding hours that we didn’t actually work or need to work, or for any number of other legitimate reasons.

It is client identification that rules the roost

Which brings us full circle, back to the ultimate problem: The client cannot defend himself or offer explanations; the discourse is fully one-sided. Consequently, from an ethical perspective, we should not discuss our relationship with an individual client in the absence of the client’s agreement. The client has an expectation of privacy and confidentiality that as professionals we should uphold.

Remember that the key is client identification. We can discuss a manuscript’s quality if there is no way to connect the manuscript to the client. It isn’t the manuscript that has an expectation of privacy; it is the client. Thus the rule:

Ethically it is not improper to disclose the name of a client except when the client is a nonbusiness individual who would reasonably expect confidentiality. Consequently, it is unethical to discuss any facet of our relationship with a nonbusiness individual, including compensation problems and quality or condition of their manuscript, if doing so would be connected to the nonbusiness individual, in the absence of prior consent.

Do you agree? What is your opinion?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 4, 2016

The Proofreader’s Corner: Offering Additional Services to Existing Clients — Up-/Cross-Selling (Part II)

by Louise Harnby

In this two-part essay, I consider how offering relevant additional services to existing clients can increase the editorial freelancer’s income-per-client in a framework of high-quality customer care.

In Part I, I defined up-selling and cross-selling, discussed why these strategies are key to an effective marketing strategy, and tackled freelancer fears of appearing sleazy when offering add-on services that haven’t been directly requested.

Part II considers how the editorial freelancer might create relevant up-/cross-selling bundles that are “wins” for both parties. I also offer a short case study on how I up-sold my proofreading service to an existing client — a bundle that was affordable and valuable to him, and profitable for me.

Making sure everyone wins…

Up-/cross-selling needs to make both parties feel like they’re winners.

  • The editorial freelancer’s win: When considering, and costing, your up-/cross-selling bundles, consider the economies of scale you can bring to a project when you carry out different but related tasks, and how those might save you billable time. For example, if you offer a pre- and post-design proofreading bundle, the second pass will not take as long as it would have done if you had not worked on the raw text beforehand – possibly thousands of punctuation, spelling, grammar, and layout errors have already been attended to; you’ll already have built your style sheet; and you’ll be familiar with the content of the book, the author’s style of writing, and the way in which the book is structured. This means your bundle can be priced such that it is cheaper than if you had been commissioned to carry out both passes as independent projects.
  •  The client’s win: Even if budget is an issue for your client, this strategy could still be effective if the client feels they are going to gain from the proposition. In order to make a client feel that they are gaining something, the editorial service you up-/cross-sell must be relevant. This requires you to understand what the client wants. Since you already have your client’s attention (precisely because they are an existing client), you’re in the perfect position to have the conversation; then, from the information they share with you, you can assess how you might be able to offer additional solutions to their problems.

Everyone loves a deal. If you’re asking your client to spend more with you, they may be more likely to agree if there is an incentive or reward. This doesn’t have to be monetary, but that is one obvious option.

When the editorial freelancer finds a way to present an up-/cross-sell in a way that combines both relevance and a deal, the chance of acceptance increases (see “Selling more to existing customers,” The Marketing Donut).

Case study

I’ve been working with a fabulous fiction self-publisher in the past year. He initially asked me to proofread in Word with Track Changes switched on. During an email conversation about his plans for publication, he told me that in addition to publishing his book on Kindle Direct Publishing, he also planned to produce a print version. As a gesture of customer care, I offered (free of charge) to help him source a professional typesetter; he thanked me for the offer but told me that he was confident in his design skills (acquired during his previous career) and would therefore be doing his own print layout. He also mentioned that he was glad of his skills because budget was an issue. Our conversation made me wonder whether there was a possibility of up-selling him an additional proofreading service that would be affordable for, and beneficial to, him ­— a service that was genuinely relevant, too, given that he’d commissioned only one pass of editorial assistance (proofreading) prior to the print formatting stage.

I offered him two solutions:

  • Option 1: This option comprised several hours’ work on the prepublication typeset PDF, and was priced at a little over £100. I’d dedicate those hours to checking running heads, chapter drops, page numbering, facing recto and verso page balance, bad end-of-line word beaks, and consistency of layout regarding the different text elements; cross-checking the contents list and page numbers with the chapter pages; carrying out a spelling-error and -consistency check; and I’d run a macro to identify any potential confusables (see, for example, Louise Harnby, “Using proofreading macros: Highlighting confusables with CompareWordList,” Proofreader’s Parlour, 2016).
  • Option 2: This involved all the work from Option 1, but also included a full proofread. The price was 40 percent cheaper than the first-pass proofread, but 2.8 times more expensive than Option 1.

My client went for Option 2. Price-wise, it was far enough away from the original pass to make him feel that he was getting a great discount; value-wise it was much better than Option 1 because he was getting another full proofread to complement the first pass, plus all the layout checks.

Did I lose out financially? Not at all. My hourly rate for the second-pass proofread was a few pounds lower than that of the first pass, but it still met my required and desired rate. The reasons are as follows:

  • Physically, I was able to work through the designed book at a faster speed because I wasn’t having to make thousands of changes in the file. I’d already done all the hard work on that front.
  • I’d created a style sheet during the first round of proofreading. In the second round, because all the build work was complete, it served simply as a useful reference tool for me. No creation work was required. This saved me more time.
  • Finally, during the second pass, I wasn’t distracted by the engaging story line — I knew what was going to happen, so I was able to focus on ensuring that any final spelling, punctuation, grammar, and layout issues were attended to.

All of that saved time enabled me to save my client money while still earning a comfortable and profitable hourly rate for myself. That made both of us happy. We’ve agreed that this will be our standard workflow for future books in the series — that’s important because it’s a demonstration of how the initial up-sell to an existing client can have long-term benefits for both parties.

Summing up

Ask yourself whether you’re taking advantage of opportunities to offer your clients additional services that will be of relevance and benefit to them. Then work out how you can introduce incentives to make your up-/cross-selling bundles more economically attractive. Relevant value-adding services that are profitable for you and affordable to your client are a win for both of you.

Remember that securing additional work from existing clients is easier and cheaper than securing new work from potential clients. Existing clients have already made the leap from wondering whether they should work with you to actually hiring you.

When you offer additional services that you consider to be relevant and beneficial to your client, you are not being sleazy; rather, “[t]he fact that you’re telling them about other useful products or services shows that you understand their needs and care about their satisfaction” (“Selling more to existing customers,” The Marketing Donut). In other words, you are providing high-quality customer service. Good customer service is good business practice because it makes customers happy. And, as we all know, happy customers are far more likely to retain your services and recommend you to their friends and colleagues.

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

March 30, 2016

On Ethics: To Out or Not to Out Clients I

In response to my last essay, Editing for a Client’s Direct Competitor, a colleague asked about my thoughts regarding identifying a client to other colleagues or to the world at large. I have always considered information about my clients to be confidential, but I never gave much thought to the extent of that confidentiality or to its basis.

In the beginning…

As with the above essay, it must be noted that editors do not have a universal code of responsibility and conduct to which we are subject. Instead, we have to govern our actions by common sense and by comparing them to an existing code that governs other professionals. However, regardless of the positions other codes may take, in the end our decision needs to be based on our individual concepts of right and wrong. That this should not be the case if we want to be perceived as professionals of the same level as, for example, doctors and lawyers does not matter; until editors are subject to a licensing system — whether it be local, regional, national, or universal — each editor must be judge, jury, and executioner of right and wrong in editing.

The blanket statement that client identities are confidential and not disclosable is wrong because it is too broad, too all-encompassing. The purpose of confidentiality in the doctor–patient, priest–penitent, and attorney–client scenarios is to encourage the patient/penitent/client to disclose information to the doctor/priest/attorney that the client would otherwise be reluctant to disclose for fear that everyone would learn the information and it would be held against the client. Imagine telling your attorney that you had committed a murder using a handgun but not a knife. This might be very important information for your attorney to know, especially if the person you are accused of murdering was knifed rather than shot. Would you confess to your attorney that you had committed an uncharged murder if you thought your attorney would need to tell the prosecutor?

In my 32 years of editing, I have never been in a position where disclosing the identity of my client, in and of itself, could be harmful to the client. If my client is Simon & Schuster, Simon & Schuster is also the client of hundreds of others. The name itself does not warrant a level of protection similar to the privilege afforded to doctor–patient, priest–penitent, and attorney–client relationships. Consequently, a blanket prohibition on disclosure is excessive.

So the first general rule is that it is not improper ethically to disclose the name of a client. But what if there is an expectation of nondisclosure?

Narrowing the rule

The general rule that it is not improper ethically to disclose the name of a client begins to break down when we separate our clients into categories of individuals and corporations (“corporations” is being used broadly to cover all business entities, including an individual who holds herself out to be a business). John James, indie author, has a different expectation of privacy than does Betsy Kong, Professional Editor, or Kong Editorial Services, or Simon & Schuster, Publishers.

An important point to note is that an expectation of privacy/confidentiality is not the same as a right of privacy/confidentiality. An expectation can become a right if there is a written agreement expressing that disclosure is forbidden, but in the absence of a written agreement that expressly says the client’s name is not to be disclosed to anyone, an expectation remains a hope, not a requirement.

Again, however, I think the requirement of nondisclosure rises higher on the required scale when the client is an individual person — the indie author — who is not presenting himself as a business and is not engaging with you in a business-to-business manner.

So my general rule changes according to the client; my revised rule is this:

Ethically it is not improper to disclose the name of a client except when the client is a nonbusiness individual who would reasonably expect confidentiality. In this instance, I would weigh the benefit to the client against the detriment of disclosure.

It’s the injury to the client…

When balancing the scales, it is always the benefit and detriment to the client — not to us editors — that is weighed. Perhaps telling our colleagues that John James is a deadbeat client will prevent a colleague from experiencing the same problem that I had should James try to hire him or her. But when I tell my colleagues that James is a deadbeat, what am I really saying? I am saying that I had a problem with James and I will relate the problem — for example, James refused to pay his invoice because he disputes its accuracy — but what I relate is solely from my perspective; James is not given a chance in the same forum to explain the problem from his perspective.

In this instance, James is likely to have expected that I would keep his name confidential. Few people want it known that they do not pay their bills. The detriment to James by my disclosing his name is far greater than the benefit to me. It may be of benefit to colleagues, but isn’t the benefit really only to the editor that James might subsequently approach? And that editor only gains a benefit if that editor happens to be a member of the forum where James’ name was disclosed.

Contrast this with disclosing a business’ name. Although the same arguments could be made, the detriment to the business is not, to my way of thinking, the same as to the individual. If Simon & Schuster doesn’t pay my invoice in a timely manner and I complain about it, hundreds of others can rise to the company’s defense because hundreds of others also work for the company. The detriment is not the same, if there is a detriment at all.

One more thing

Editors often want to boast that they are working for certain large, repeat-business clients. Many editors list them on their websites. It is not often that editors want to publicly complain about working for such a client. We know (or should know) that if we complain about Simon & Schuster, the publisher will rethink its approval of us and we could be removed from the approved list. In addition, other major, repeat-business clients are likely to take notice. Thus, when we disclose the name of a business client, we do so less to complain and more to associate ourselves with that client.

This is just the opposite of the usual individual indie-author client about whom we want to complain, and we are not overly concerned about possible repercussions with other clients. Our motivation is different, and the purpose of disclosure is different because of the client’s status.

So the rule is…

My rule is that I never disclose the name of a client who is an individual person to a general list, regardless of whether it is an open- or closed-access list. I may, if asked privately by a colleague, disclose an individual’s name to that one colleague, but I never broadcast an individual’s name. To my thinking, the detriment to the individual has the potential to far outweigh any benefit to me, so the scales of privacy/confidentiality skew in the individual’s favor.

I will disclose the name of a business if I think it necessary to do so. I must admit, however, that even in the case of a business, I am reluctant to do so because usually the problem with the business is with a single person, not the whole business. Again using Simon & Schuster as an example, I do not actually work with Simon & Schuster; I work with a project manager at the company. In fact, I am likely to work with several project managers at the company. Experience teaches that some are great to work with, some are good to work with, and some are a struggle to work with. And if payment of an invoice is late, it is likely that the problem lies with the project manager, not with the company.

On the other hand, some companies have changed policies, and the new policy adversely affects working with them in a more general sense. For example, the company may have changed its payment terms unilaterally, now paying freelancer invoices in 90 days rather than 30 days. In this type of instance, disclosure of the company name is both necessary and ethically okay when you are discussing payment terms and unilateral changes to a working relationship.

Broadly speaking, I think it wrong to disclose the name of an individual and okay to disclose the name of a business. But there is more to the issue than we have discussed here, and so the discussion will continue in Part II, starting from this general rule:

Ethically it is not improper to disclose the name of a client except when the client is a nonbusiness individual who would reasonably expect confidentiality.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 23, 2016

Editing for a Client’s Direct Competitor

Ethics are a set of principles that govern and define “right conduct.” They are the rules or standards that govern one’s conduct. And that is where the editing profession separates from many other professions — e.g., law, medicine, accounting, even securities sales — the editing profession does not have a set of standards or rules of conduct against which we are measured and for which we are held accountable. This is a major failing of the editing profession; it is a failing that if corrected — by which I mean not only is there a standard code of conduct with authoritative interpretations, but there is also a means of enforcement — would, I think eliminate many of the “ethical” problems we encounter and make us more professional and valuable in the eyes of our clients.

In the absence of such a code, there is only peer pressure and guidance when questions arise. Instead of addressing our questions to a recognizable authority whose decisions would bind us, we resort to posting our questions in numerous online forums, and accumulate answers from a variety of people whom we do not know.

And so I add to this confusion.

The questions

A colleague asked whether it is ethical to accept editing work from a direct competitor to the colleague’s primary client. The competitor publishes the same type of publication in the same field and on the same topics as the primary client. The questions my colleague had were these:

  1. Can I accept the proffered work from the competitor?
  2. If I accept the work, do I need to tell either the competitor or the client or both that I have accepted work from the other?
  3. If I work for a packager who has several of the same clients as I have, am I obligated to reject direct offers of work from those clients?

As is true of most questions of ethics, there are more questions that arise from these scenarios that can be asked. These questions, however, provide us with a fine start.

Can I accept the proffered
work from the competitor?

I begin with the supposition that the person asking the question is a freelancer. My answer would be different if the asker were employed by one of the parties.

The very essence of being a freelancer is that I work for multiple clients, many of whom have overlapping products. My clients recognize this and do not put obstacles in my path designed to limit with whom I can contract. (Some packagers are notorious for attempting to do precisely this — limiting whom a freelancer can contract with — by requiring noncompetition contracts. For a discussion of these contracts, see “The Business of Editing: Noncompetition Agreements.”) It is part of the “grand bargain” between freelance editor and publishing client.

There is also a practicality involved. If Jones and Davis have written a book for Publisher X on the history of penguins in the American Civil War, and Smith has also written a book for Publisher X on the same topic, and you have been asked to edit both, there is no obvious reason why you shouldn’t take both projects (assuming they meet your other criteria for project acceptance). It is unlikely, in the absence of plagiarism, that the two books will be the same below the surface of general subject matter. All else being equal, there is no ethical reason why you couldn’t edit both books.

Suppose the Jones and Davis book was being published by Publisher X and the Smith book was being published by Publisher Y and you have been asked to edit both books. The only thing that has changed is that instead of a single publisher there are two competing publishers. All else being equal, there is no ethical reason why you couldn’t edit both books.

The point is that in publishing, except in the case of plagiarism, no two products are identical; they may be similar, but they are not identical. Consequently, there is no reason why you cannot accept work from multiple publishers. In the same vein, every publisher competes with every other publisher in the sense that they are all publishers. But freelancers are expected by the publishers to work with multiple publishers; in fact they want that because to do otherwise raises the question of whether you are a freelancer or an employee — just ask the IRS.

If I accept the work, do I need to tell
either the competitor or the client or both
that I have accepted work from the other?

There is no ethical obligation to disclose to other clients who your clients are. Just as your clients would not disclose to you whom they are hiring to edit their books or the amount they are actually paying a particular freelancer, you are under no obligation to notify your clients of new clients.

The easiest way to think about this “obligation” is to think in terms of whether the IRS would consider required disclosure to be a sign of an employee. The more control a publisher exercises over your business dealings with others, the less of a freelancer you are. If you are truly an independent business, you have no obligation — legal or ethical — to disclose your clients.

Besides, what would be the value of disclosure to the client of accepting work from a competitor? Remember that your client has no obligation to send you a specific amount of work or any work at all. Consequently, today’s client may be tomorrow’s past client. Disclosure serves no purpose.

Just as you have no ethical obligation to disclose the competitor to your client, you have no ethical obligation to disclose the client to the competitor. Except as a statement to demonstrate experience in the field, disclosure serves no purpose for the competitor.

If I work for a packager who has several
of the same clients as I have, am I obligated
to reject direct offers of work from those clients?

Here the answer is a little trickier. If you have signed a noncompetition agreement, then the answer is “maybe.” If you have not signed such an agreement, the answer is no.

Few copyeditors sign noncompetition agreements and when they do, the agreement is usually limited to clients of the packager that are not already clients of the freelancer. (If the clients you are not supposed to solicit work from are not specifically named in the agreement, then you should absolutely refuse to sign the agreement. Importantly, you should make sure that none of your current or past clients are included as a named client.) Some less-scrupulous packagers refuse to name specific clients that you are not to solicit work from and insist the agreement covers any of the packager’s current, former, or future clients. If you have signed such a blanket agreement, then you need to reject offers that do not come through the packager.

In the absence of such an agreement, there is no reason why you should reject such proffered work. Nor is there a reason why you should only accept work that comes through the packager. Remember that you are an independent business. That you have overlapping clients is just part of being in business in the same field.

Deciding ethical questions

Ethics are moored in one’s view of what is honest and just, tempered by what is necessary and, in the case of the independent business, what is businesslike. Because we have no universal code of ethics and conduct, what is ethical is left up to each of us to determine. However, there is nothing wrong with asking: “What would [insert name] do under these circumstances?”

It is also okay to ask colleagues you know and trust, especially those who you believe exercise good ethics. I do not think that ethics is a matter of voting, which is often what asking a question on a public forum amounts to. Being ethical is doing right. It is as simple as that.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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