An American Editor

October 17, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Card — Don’t Leave Home Without Them

Filed under: Business of Editing,Marketing — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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A repeatedly asked question goes something like this: “Any tips on how to find clients?” There are any number of variations, but the question really is asking “how should I market and to whom should I market?”

The answers given are always the standard answers for today. Be on social media, have a website, ask for referrals, and so on. Never mentioned is one of the oldest and most effective methods of marketing: The Card.

“The Card” is the business card. That little scrap of heavier paper that acts as an introduction of the giver to the recipient — the one piece of paper that a businessperson should never leave at home. It is the gold mine of essential information about its giver.

Colleagues who have attended conferences at which I have spoken know that the first thing I do is make sure everyone present receives at least one of my cards. What they don’t know — because I never said so — is that I also made sure that every hotel or restaurant employee I came in contact with also received a card; I do not know who they know. Experienced conference colleagues also know that I expected to receive a card from them. Some gave me one, but some just made excuses for why they didn’t have a card to give me or for the quality of the card they were handing me. I’m willing to bet that since I stopped speaking at the conferences, the exchange of cards has withered — probably not thought of anymore because the value is not so evident in the internet age.

Yet that is a mistake. Sure, an online presence is important, and today’s young publishing professionals disdain the ways of the past. But I think of it more like I think of Sun Tzu (ca. 544–ca. 496 bc) and Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) and Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) — ageless, priceless, and still authoritative. Just as we study these past masters of war and politics because what they said hundreds of years ago is still relevant and accurate today, so the smart hunter of business views the business card.

If I were looking to edit indie fiction, I would attend local writers’ gatherings and I would hand out my card to every attendee every time. It doesn’t matter if they take it home and throw it away; what matters is that for at least a few seconds — and likely longer — the only editor they will think of is me. And the card reinforces my information because it isn’t easy (or polite) to refuse to accept the card, unlike an email that can be put on the spam list.

Years ago I did something a bit different when it came to the card: I had it made into a mini-chocolate bar and I handed out the bar freely, often several at a time. Because I wanted to make a “lasting” impression, I wrapped with the chocolate (sanitarily, of course) the paper version of the card — the recipient received a chocolate card and a paper card.

I’ve stopped using the chocolate card because I am semiretired and can’t make up my mind whether I want more business or less business — but every so often I think about doing it again. Why? Because people liked it enough to actually ask me for a card if I didn’t proffer one immediately — within my narrow market circle I became associated with the chocolate card.

The card is, as I noted earlier, a source for information about me. But it gets boring to read the same information repeatedly (although not to eat the chocolate :)), so I made it a point to redesign my cards every 12 to 18 months. I changed the text, its placement, the colors, the image, the feel. The card was my walking billboard and so it had to be treated as a billboard — it needed to reattract the recipient’s eyes.

The problems are several with relying on social media and online forums to spread your name and attract business. I’ll set aside for this discussion the amount of time it takes, much of which is unproductive (by which I mean not income generating), but will acknowledge that it takes a lot of time. A good example is this blog. It takes hours of work to produce a single essay and it would take even more hours to properly promote the essay across the internet. And the financial return is not commensurate with the amount of time spent to get that return.

Instead, I’ll focus on other problems. For a website to be effective you have to properly design it, maintain it, update it, and most importantly, provide some reason for someone to make the effort to come to it and once there, stay there, not just skate by. The card, on the other hand, requires minimal amount of maintenance and already has a reason for someone to accept it — you are face-to-face in the same room. People are generally social, so you do not need to entice them to say hello when you occupy the same space.

Which raises another problem with online selling — separating yourself from all of the spam that clutters the internet and that most potential clients try hard to avoid. You have to make the recipient of your message want to read your message and then act on it, usually by clicking a link to visit your website. We all know how reluctant most people are, just like we ourselves are, to click a link in an email from someone we do not know. But when I walk up to an author at a book signing, introduce myself and hand over the card, there is no resistance — the recipient sees I am real and has to do nothing more than what they would normally do.

The point is that the card has not lost its value in finding clients; we just need to use them differently in the internet age.

Business cards need to be well-designed and printed, not just slopped together on the home computer and printed on tear-apart business card stock on the home printer. The information on the card has to be just right for your audience. (At one time I used five different cards simultaneously. Each was designed for a different target market and I would hand to a recipient the card appropriate for the their market.)

I suspect few of my colleagues still use business cards to a great extent, which means there is a marketing opportunity for the adventurous. Old-fashioned marketing is still the most effective marketing in a business like editing because it is personal marketing of personal services. It gives us the chance to demonstrate our interpersonal skills, something that is greatly diluted by the internet.

If I were looking to build my clientele today, I would make business cards part of my effort, especially because it would force me to think about and define my market and how to reach it in a novel fashion.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

October 3, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Blame Game

I’ve always thought that the person who makes the decision should stand tall and accept the blame for anything that goes wrong as a result of that decision.

Consider, for example, where an author uses both ton and tonne in a book. If I were to decide to change tonne to ton on the (shaky) grounds that ton is the American spelling, who should accept the blame for having made the decision should it turn out to be a poor one? Usually, I would say me because I made the decision. But suppose I hadn’t made the decision; instead, those who hired me instructed me to make the change, and I did as I was told. When the author rightfully complains about the decision, who takes the blame — me or the person who gave me the instruction? I would have said that the instructor, not the instructed, should accept responsibility, but I am discovering that just as the chain of command has changed in publishing, so has responsibility.

The ton/tonne example is a good — albeit simplistic — example. Both are correct American English spellings because they represent different things: tonne is the equivalent of 2204.6 pounds (or 1000 kilograms), a metric ton, whereas ton is the equivalent of 2000 pounds for the short ton or 2240 pounds for the long ton. (Generally, in American English, ton means the short ton; if the long ton is meant, it is specified as the long ton.) Neither the short ton nor the long ton is the equivalent of the tonne — one is too light, the other too heavy. Of course, tonne could be changed to metric ton, but why is it better to use a word’s definition than to use the word itself?

To blithely change tonne to ton because ton not tonne is “the American spelling” in a book that uses both terms is inviting trouble, especially as both are correct American spellings, just with different meanings. And an instruction to make that change will inevitably lead to shifting of blame to the end of the chain, the editor, and is likely to result in the editor’s loss of a client.

Why does this happen? What can the editor do in this unfair situation?

Unfortunately, once the blame game has started, the editor rarely has a clue that it is on. The revelation comes when a source of work dries up. The cause of the blame game is the change in how publishing produces books. When I began my career, my dealings were with the publisher’s in-house production staff: the chain, in its simplest form, was

author > publisher > independent professional editor

In this chain, the in-house production staff and the professional editor were in constant communication, and decisions like changing tonne to ton were discussed and mutually decided. But the chain, too, has undergone change. The usual chain today is

author > publisher > packager > independent professional editor

When this chain was born, packagers were less confident and often relied heavily on the professional editor to make editorial decisions, even to provide the packager with guidance. But with the passage of time that changed. Packagers increasingly turned inward for advice.

As every professional editor knows (and hopefully would admit), professional American editors are more likely to have fluent command of American English than Indian editors, just as Indian editors are more likely to have fluent command of British-Indian English than are American editors. This is not to say that a professional editor cannot be strong in multiple versions of English, just that most editors are not. Consequently, using our ton/tonne example, for a book that is to be conformed to American English, it is more likely that a professional American editor will make a better-informed decision about replacing tonne with ton than will an Indian editor. Yet an Indian packager is more likely to ask for and accept a language usage decision made by in-house staff without consulting the American editor. And thus the problem arises.

Should the author complain about the substitution, the author’s complaint will be made to the publisher, who will then complain to the packager. But there the trail will stop because the packager already knows that if the editor is asked, the response will be “You [the packager] instructed me to make the change.” So why ask the editor? Instead, blame the editor, because blaming the editor is politic if the packager wants to keep the publisher’s business.

To minimize this blame shifting, which can have negative economic impact on the editor, the professional editor can only marshal her arguments against making such a change and hope to convince her client, the packager, of the rightfulness of her position. If unable to do that, the editor has little recourse, as someone has to be the scapegoat when authors start complaining.

The more distance there is between the professional editor and the ultimate client (the author), the greater the possibility of trouble. Unfortunately, in the current publishing model the editor has no assured position. As editors who work directly with authors know, the direct relationship doesn’t eliminate the blame game. When a negative review comes out, it is not unusual for an author to blame the editor for not recognizing and dealing with the problems raised in the review. Quickly forgotten are the instructions from the author that narrowed the editor’s role and said that identifying and correcting the problems noted in the review were outside the editor’s remit.

What all this means is that to be a successful editor, the editor needs to develop a thick skin, to understand the dynamics of the editor’s place in the chain, and to be prepared to gain and lose clients. The best safeguard for the editor is to actively market herself, knowing that while most of the time everything goes smoothly, sometimes the editor becomes a victim of the blame game.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 29, 2016

Should You Be Calling Yourself a Freelancer?

I just read one of the most intriguing essays I have read in years and it raises a question I hadn’t thought about in my 32 years of professional editing as owner of my own business. And now I recommend it to you:

Why I Hate the Term “Freelance Proofreader”
– A Letter to Newbies
by Louise Harnby

As editors, we know that words matter. Yet how many of us have considered the import of calling ourselves freelancers instead of proprietors or business owners or something similar?

What would you call yourself if not a freelance editor? How would you market yourself absent the word freelance?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 14, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Kneecapped Editor

We all have goals, whether adding new clients, making more money, or having more time to spend with the grandchildren. Yet you’ll notice two distinguishing features: first, our goals are often not challenging; second, if they are challenging, they are often not met or accomplished.

If we look around, we see goal-attainers like Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla Motors, Solar City, SpaceX) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon, Washington Post, Blue Origin) and think “There but for the lack of luck go I!” Such thinking really amounts to self-deception. We deceive ourselves into thinking that the difference between being a Musk or Bezos and being ourselves is something other than vision and self-esteem.

Think about how you tackle your editing work. It isn’t with imagination or vision. You tackle it today just as you did yesterday, last week, last month, last year. After all, how “visionary” or “imaginative” can one be when dealing with spelling and grammar? More importantly, think about how you go about finding new business and increasing your rates and doing myriad other business-focused tasks. All of us are constrained by how we view ourselves — some more than others — but our sense of self-esteem figures prominently in the outcome.

Colleagues who are excellent editors think of themselves as just average — not outstanding and certainly not as “the best.” As a consequence, they struggle to raise prices, to say no, to find new clients, to move outside their lifelong comfort zone. Be assured that this problem of low self-esteem is not unique to editors; we have been taught it since our babyhood, usually framed in the message of how important it is to follow rules and not rebel.

Yes, we all need to follow rules for society to function well, but there are levels and degrees of rebelliousness, ranging from meek acquiescence to outright defiance. The key is to find the proper levels and degrees — the ones that paint a positive portrait of your skills and make you so desirable that clients are willing to at least negotiate with you.

The editor–client relationship is like a mating ritual. We need to be the colorfully feathered peacock who makes clients want to dance with us and not some other editor. As in other aspects of life, the first step is belief in yourself.

When I give presentations, I often introduce myself by saying something like “I am the greatest of all editors.” I am always amused at the reaction, especially as I tend to repeat that several times during the course of the presentation. Some editors take umbrage, some just shake their head, and some get the message, which is that I have confidence and that I believe in myself, which is the foundation to success.

It is important, not because I say directly to clients, “You need to hire me and pay whatever I demand because I am the greatest of all editors,” but because my belief in myself and my abilities gives me the confidence to say to a client, “No, I cannot accept this project at the proposed fee and schedule. If you want me, you must agree to my terms.” And, even more importantly, it gives me the confidence to decline a project because I know — with confidence and certainty — that another project will be coming my way.

How do I know this? Because I message the confidence that I have built in myself when I discuss whether or not I will accept a project. Because I have convinced myself that I am an editor any author would be thankful for; because I have convinced myself and conveyed to clients that I am the superstar of the editing world.

Okay, I can hear your derision even over the internet. But think about it. Do you approach business meekly or like a lion?

Most of us approach life meekly; we want to avoid conflict. And in many cases that approach works fine. But it doesn’t work when you are self-employed, reliant on what you earn, and in competition with thousands of others for the same jobs. It is not that you need to be aggressive; it is that you need to stand tall, even to yourself, and not be led by others.

You also need the confidence to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. For example, famous author Richard Adin (who, after all, is more famous than the author of the chart-topping book The Business of Editing?) asked you to read and critique his book. It doesn’t matter whether this is paid or volunteer work; what matters is that you were asked. If it were me, I would be adding to my spiel to clients that I helped Richard Adin perfect his book — I do not need to say that I just critiqued Chapter 3. But few editors do that. They think their contribution was too minor or insignificant or that clients wouldn’t consider it important. Or they do not want to sound boastful. Or they offer up myriad other excuses. Yet if you are the world’s greatest editor, it is only right that a great author has asked your opinion or had you edit their book or proofread it or whatever. You worked on it; so boast about it.

Understand the way business operates: money is attracted to money, and greatness is attracted to greatness. Setting aside Donald Trump’s sad campaign for president, he is a perfect example of the concept — not the execution — of the importance of outward self-esteem. What does Trump sell? He sells the image of prestige and luxury. How does he do it? By believing that properties that bear his imprint are the world’s finest examples of prestige and luxury, and by convincing others of the same. Of course, the properties that bear his name need to also meet that standard, but when he started, there was just his self-belief.

And that is what the most successful editors do — they project an image, which they back up with skilled editing. But the purpose of having self-esteem and confidence is to obtain the opportunities to demonstrate that you have the skills. It does little good to be highly skilled but have little work.

Remember that your editorial business is about you and how you, because of your great skill, can and will help clients achieve their goals. Be confident in yourself and your clients will be confident in you. Never forget that low self-esteem can kneecap the best of us. Believing in yourself is the difference between being one of the crowd and one of the few.

And if you do nothing else, watch the following video to its end, and especially note the final words.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 12, 2016

The Proofreader’s Corner: Testing Editorial Pricing Models

by Louise Harnby

(Editor’s Note: This is Louise’s last essay for AAE. Because of demands in her business, she has found it increasingly difficult to find the time needed to write the high-quality and informative essays she has been writing since she first began contributing to AAE in 2013. All of us at AAE wish her continued good fortune and hope that sometime in the future she will be able to resume writing for AAE.)

This isn’t an essay about what one should charge. What you should, want, or need to charge to make your editorial business sustainable may be different from what I should, want, or need to charge to make my proofreading business sustainable. Rather, I’m focusing on how even experienced editorial freelancers should regularly evaluate what they are charging and how they are determining the price for a job, and whether they should introduce new pricing models that could increase their income. We’re back in the world of testing.

Tracking the data

If you don’t know what you need to earn each fiscal year (required earnings) and you don’t know what you are earning each fiscal year and how many hours you are working to achieve this income (actual earnings), you can’t evaluate whether your business is profitable or unprofitable, nor whether it is in financial growth, stagnation, or decline. And if you can’t evaluate the health of your editorial business, you won’t be able to evaluate the impact of introducing new pricing models, new services, new working-week regimes…new anything, in fact!

Data tracking doesn’t have to be complicated. I use an Excel spreadsheet to track my work schedule and earnings (a very basic template, which you can adapt for your own purposes, is available on The Proofreader’s Parlour at “Editorial Annual Accounts Template (Excel)”). Each line in my annual spreadsheet tells me the name of the client, the client type, the title of the project, the word count, the price charged, the time taken to complete the job, the dates for arrival and completion, an invoice number, the number of words per proofread per hour, and £ per hour earned.

At the end of the year, I can see at a glance my total earnings, my average billable hourly rate, and my average billable rate per 1,000 words. I like to record previous years’ totals on my current spreadsheet so that I can make quick annual comparisons. In this way, I have a macro view of my business.

I can also look at micro issues including, but not limited to, whether particular types of work are proving more lucrative than others (e.g., students vs. indie authors vs. publishers). I can see what’s working well and what’s working less well. That tells me how I might want to focus future marketing activities in order to expand the amount of work I do in the most profitable sectors.

Importantly, I track all requests to quote, so I know how much work I turn down, refer, make an offer on, and whether those offers convert into bookings or are rejected by the client. I keep a spreadsheet on my mobile phone that logs all requests from new clients. This logs the type of client (e.g., student, agency, author, publisher), the date the request was received, the type of work (e.g., thesis, book, report), and my response (offer, referral, decline). If my offer converts into a booking or if the client declines my offer at a later date, I amend the spreadsheet. Requests to work for existing clients are logged in a separate file on my PC. All confirmed bookings are entered into my annual accounts spreadsheet.

The data that you need to collect and evaluate will not necessarily be the same as the data that I need to collect and evaluate. One thing’s for sure, though – the more data you collect, the more insightful your conclusions will be.

Testing different pricing models

Even experienced editorial freelancers can fall into the trap of not testing different ways of pricing. When I set up my proofreading business, most of my work was for publishers. In the main, the publisher offered an hourly rate and a budgeted number of hours in which they expected the work to be completed. I would accept, negotiate, or decline. I became used to thinking in terms of hourly rates and this model was the one I used to build a price when I was quoting for other client types, even when I was in control of setting a price. So when a student asked me to proofread a thesis, I’d estimate (based on a sample) how many hours the job would take, and then multiply the figure by my self-determined hourly rate.

There’s nothing wrong with this type of model. Many people prefer it and believe it to be the most profitable way of working. However, it is not the only option; and even if it is the most profitable way of working for person X, it may not be the most profitable way of working for you. Furthermore, different models may yield better returns depending on client type or editorial service.

What is certain is that unless you test different pricing models, and record the data acquired during your tests, you won’t know whether model A or model B is your best choice. Here’s a breakdown of how I went about testing an alternative pricing structure.

The pretest micro view

Note that my data tracking, reviewing, and testing decisions are particular to my business. I’m a proofreader who specializes in working on book-length projects for academics and independent authors. I sometimes work on postgraduate dissertations and theses, business reports, journal articles, and promotional material. In general, my proofreading service is fairly uniform in terms of what I’m required to do. Projects rarely overlap — it’s a case of project in, project out, move on.

After several insightful discussions with a trusted colleague/friend who used a different pricing model to my hourly rate one, I decided to take another look at my data. First, I looked at my macro-level totals. These told me that my business was growing year on year. That’s all well and good, but what about the micro data?

By looking at the micro data for each client, I was able to see which client types were giving me the best value for money for every hour I dedicated to working for them. Remember that at this point I was charging by the hour. My data told me, among other things, the following:

  • When I was offered an hourly rate by publishers, I earned less per hour on average for this client type than when I charged independent authors, students, and businesses a fee based on price per hour.
  • Three publishers were outliers and were competitive with my other client types.
  • Many publishers were offering uncompetitive (for me) rates, though they were low-risk clients — long-term customers who paid on time, offered regular work, and were thoroughly enjoyable to work with.
  • I was turning down a lot of work from indie authors and students because there was no room in my schedule. Some of those slots were being taken up by the less-competitive but long-term, low-risk, much-loved publishers!

The pricing-model test

I decided to take a leaf out of my colleague’s book and test the per 1,000 words pricing structure for indie authors, students, and businesses. I created a formula in an Excel spreadsheet that uses an array (see “Guidelines and examples of array formulas”). The array is useful because it takes a large number and break it into blocks of units. Those sections can be priced differently. So, for example, one could set up an array formula such that the following proofreading prices might be generated (these are fictitious examples for demonstration only):

  • Initial 2,000 words: £18 per 1,000 words
  • Next 3,000 words: £14 per 1,000 words
  • Next 5,000 words; £10 per 1,000 words
  • Next 20,000 words; £7.50 per 1,000 words
  • Next 10,000 words; £7 per 1,000 words
  • Next 10,000 words; £6 per 1,000 words
  • Next 10,000 words; £5 per 1,000 words
  • Next 20,000 words; £4 per 1,000 words


  • 100K-word novel = £658. Average rate per 1,000 words = £6.50
  • 40K-word novella = £348. Average rate per 1,000 words = £8.70
  • 10K-word business report = £128. Average rate per 1,000 words = £12.80
  • 2K-word children’s book = £36. Average rate per 1,000 words = £18

You could build different arrays for different client types or different services. These would reflect the different demands of the work. Fundamentally, the array formula allows you to build economies of scale into a pricing structure.

The test results

I introduced the test pricing model in August 2015. One year later, my average earnings per hour are now 40% higher. That increase is a piece of macro information that’s pleasing to note, but the micro data are worth discussing, too. My posttest evaluation of the data told me the following:

  • When I charged indie authors, students, and businesses on an hourly basis, I earned less on average than when I set the fee on a per 1,000 words basis.
  • When I set my fees on a per 1,000 words basis, I earned more per hour from businesses than from students and indie authors.
  • The business projects tended to be much shorter in length. Therefore, the total earnings per project were higher when I worked with indie authors and students.
  • All of the businesses wanted a fast turnaround, which incurred a premium rate (hence the higher per-hour earnings mentioned above) because of the out-of-hours nature of the work.

The posttest evidence-based decisions

Evaluating the micro and macro data (and talking to a trusted colleague) helped me to work out where I might have been guilty of basing my pricing structure on untested assumptions, and where there could be room for improvement. Testing, and evaluating the results of that test, enabled me to make evidence-based decisions about client focus and marketing. Personally, I prefer to have fewer short turnaround projects on my books, and a greater number of longer, but profitable, projects. That means:

  • I’ve whittled down my publishers to a those few whose rates are competitive with my other clients. That meant saying goodbye to some long-term clients whom I had very much enjoyed working with.
  • I’ve increased my promotion focus on the student and independent-author markets.
  • I now favor a price per 1,000 words model (there are exceptions) over a per-hour model.
  • Fast-turnaround work for businesses on a per 1,000 words basis is very lucrative but rarely fits comfortably into my standard proofreading schedule because of the large amount of book projects I am commissioned to work on (especially fiction). I prefer not to work out of hours so I’ve increased my out-of-hours premium levies (from double to triple) to reflect this position.

If I’d not recorded and evaluated my data, I would not have been able to evaluate the then current state of my business and identify opportunities for potential growth.

Following on from that, I’d not have been able to take actions (e.g., the pricing-model test) that would affect the future state of my business.

In my case, it’s not just the change in pricing model that impacted on the increase in my average billable hourly rate; looking at the micro elements of my work schedule and accounting information helped me to fine-tune my existing client base (e.g., publishers aren’t out of the mix — I do still accept work from a small number of competitive presses, even though they set the fees and even though these fees are based on hourly budgets; and my out-of-hours premium rates have increased).

Using your business ownership to make
choices for growth

Owning an editorial business means you have choice — choice about what to charge and how to charge, and choice about what to accept, negotiate on, or decline. What works for your colleague may be less fruitful for you. Some pricing models may work better for particular client types. And different types of editorial service may favor different fee structures.

When it comes to pricing, what you know is as important as what you charge. If you are basing your fee structure on untested assumptions, you may not be getting the best out of your editorial business. I’d recommend that we all regularly look at our work schedules and accounts in detail, evaluating the data at micro and macro levels. We should ask ourselves whether there’s room for improvement and consider testing new models (pricing, of course, isn’t the only thing we can test). In this way, we can make evidence-based decisions about how to charge, where to target our marketing, and which clients to say goodbye to and which to retain.

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.

August 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 20, 2016

Thinking About Retirement

I am at the age when I can say “Enough — it’s time to retire.” I don’t plan to do so anytime soon, but I have actively reduced my workload from what it used to be.

One of the most difficult things I’ve done over the years has been to set aside money for retirement. My income was the primary family income, and the trappings of a middle-class life are not cheap. Mortgage, college, automobiles, house maintenance, health insurance, braces, and other everyday expenses really can cut into an income. In addition, being self-employed increased the taxes I paid.

When I first began setting aside money for retirement, I followed the standard advice of putting the money into tax-deferred accounts. The theory behind that advice is that when I finally do retire, my income will be less and so I will pay less in taxes, and deferring taxes seemed like a cash-back savings plan.

But a few years ago, I took another look at the tax-deferred savings in light of my reaching the traditional retirement age, and I considered what my real plans for retirement were — that is, not to fully retire, ever. The truth was that I wasn’t going to save any (or very little) tax money, and I would probably have to keep on working just so I could afford to pay the deferred taxes and the rising living expenses. Which made me rethink how I was investing my retirement money.

To take advantage of tax-deferred savings, investments pretty much had to be in mutual funds. The wonderful thing about mutual funds is that they spread risk. In contrast, buying individual stocks not only didn’t defer taxes but also focused risk: If the stock went up, I became richer; if it went down, I became poorer. The mutual fund might also have its ups and downs, but they tended to be more controlled — until 2009, when down was all there was.

After reviewing my retirement funding in light of my real plans, not the imaginary plans I had earlier in my career, I’ve put less emphasis on tax-deferred savings and more emphasis on investing with after-tax dollars. By using after-tax dollars, I do and will pay tax based on dividends and long-term capital gains. If I don’t sell any of the stocks, then I just pay tax on the dividends, a much lower tax burden than will be imposed when I am forced to start drawing down the tax-deferred accounts.

Of course, this raises another issue. Most of the mutual funds that are the base for tax-deferred accounts charge management fees. In some cases, a fee is assessed annually; in other cases, no fee is incurred until you start drawing from the account. Each fund needs to be looked at individually for the answers to “when” and “how much.” But regardless of when and how much, there is still another charge against the tax-deferred savings. Not only do you pay taxes on an ordinary income basis as you withdraw from the accounts, you also pay the management fees.

Usually, when you invest through a stockbroker, you have to pay buy and sell fees. That was always a downside to direct investing with after-tax dollars. Another downside was the minimum purchase amounts; brokers avoided fractional shares, or if they did allow fractional-share purchasing, the fees made the purchase unwise. Some brokers also charged minimum service fees when the accounts had fewer than a certain number of shares or less than a fixed value. In recent years, this has changed as competition among brokerages has increased and investing options have changed. The original impetus for the change was the rise of the Charles Schwab discount brokerage.

A while ago I read a newspaper article about an online brokerage called Loyal3. It is one of a newer type of brokerage that offers no-fee or fixed-fee options. (Three examples are Motif, Folio Investing, and Betterment.) With no-fee brokerages, if I invest $100, I receive $100 in shares; if I sell $100 worth of shares, I receive $100; if the shares earn a $10 dividend, I receive $10.

(Note: I am a client of Loyal3, and I am referring to it only because of my personal experience dealing with it; I haven’t dealt with any similar brokerages. I am not affiliated with Loyal3 and I receive no compensation for my mention of it here.)

What attracted me to Loyal3 were these features: no fees, IPOs (initial public offerings), fractional shares, and low purchase requirements for scheduled monthly purchases. I saw the brokerage as a good way to advance my financial interests without having to incur any undue expense.

Again, I want to state that while I am talking about my personal experience, there are similar brokerages available and the services they offer may differ. Loyal3 has certain limitations, some of which are important. The first limitation is the number of stocks available — currently, 70. Why only 70? Companies have to agree to both sell fractional shares and pay the brokerage fees. But there are high-quality investments available, such as Amazon, Coca-Cola, Twitter, Facebook, Tesla, Alphabet, Apple, Netflix, and Berkshire Hathaway.

A second limitation is that Loyal3 doesn’t have joint accounts, at least right now. A third limitation is that it doesn’t have TOD (transfer on death) accounts, which makes the process of transferring stock ownership after death a little bit more cumbersome but not difficult.

A fourth limitation is that transactions are not instantaneous. This can be a serious limitation if you are looking for short-term investments. A regular brokerage will receive your buy or sell order and execute the transaction within minutes, if not more quickly. Loyal3 works, instead, on daily batch buying and selling. Once a day it batches together all of the orders to buy and sell it has received and executes them. Consequently, if you see your stock take a dramatic rise at 10 a.m. and send the instruction to sell, you may get a different dollar amount from the sale than you expected, because the execution occurs only once a day.

But there are plus sides to investing via Loyal3 or other similar brokerage. First, no fees that reduce the value of your investment. Second, an opportunity to participate in IPOs at the same price and time as Wall Street.

I have always wanted to have a chance to invest in IPOs. I realize they are a gamble because they can drop like a cement block, but they can also be rewarding. How many of us could participate in, for example, Facebook’s IPO. The Facebook IPO price was $42.05 per share; at the time of this writing it is $116.42 a share. Amazon’s IPO price was $18; at this writing it is $734.75. Small investors like me couldn’t participate in these IPOs in the absence of a service like Loyal3 for a variety of reason, not least of which was the minimum number of shares that had to be bought.

Granted, I came too late to Loyal3 for those IPOs, but I have been able to participate in others and have experienced a significant increase in share value. (For information on how IPO investing works at Loyal3, click here.) Unfortunately, IPO investing is limited and infrequent, but some opportunity is better than no opportunity.

The third plus is the ability to buy fractional shares, as I’ve said before. I am not as wealthy as I wish I were. I cannot afford to buy 100 shares of Amazon at $734.75 a share or even Microsoft at $53.70 a share. And I want to gamble on Tesla because I love its cars and its dreams for the electric automobile, but $220.40 a share is a bit steep for me. Loyal3 gives me an opportunity, however, to become a shareholder by allowing me to buy fractional shares in those companies. I can choose to invest any amount from $10 to $2500 — either once or monthly — in any of the stocks, and whatever that amount will buy is what I get.

Loyal3 has a fourth plus: I can invest in stocks and amounts of my choosing either one time or on a monthly schedule that I can alter at any time. It is easy. I’ve set up my account to take a certain sum from my checking account each month on a particular day (you pick the day, such as the first, the seventh, the fifteenth, or the twenty-first of each month) and divide that sum among stocks of my choosing. There is no limitation except the $10 minimum and $2500 maximum. Consequently, you could tell Loyal3 to take $250 from your checking account on the first of each month and invest it as follows: $25 in Disney, $25 in Pepsi, $100 in Amazon, $50 in Apple, and $50 in Tesla. If Disney shares are selling for $100, your $25 will buy one-quarter share. That would remain your standing order until you change it. You can change the amount, the date, the stocks — anything, including canceling the investments altogether.

When a company declares a stock dividend, it appears in your Loyal3 account and you can either leave it and have it applied to your next scheduled investments or have it electronically transmitted to you.

I’ve spent a lot of time explaining how Loyal3 and similar brokerages work, and for a good reason. These brokerages offer the small investor — like many of us freelancers — an opportunity to prepare for our future. This is an opportunity that many colleagues are unaware of. This type of investment should not be your sole investment. Mutual funds offer stability and greater security, but the penalty is often lower return and fees. For example, my tax-deferred funds are currently returning less than 5%, whereas my Loyal3 investments, in the aggregate, are returning over 15%. That imbalance is unlikely to last, but I’ll enjoy it while I can.

Because we are responsible for our own retirement preparation, we need to learn about and explore multiple ways of increasing our net worth. Firms that offer no minimum required account balances and low minimum investment opportunities via fractional shares can be important parts of our future. It is never too late to start.

If you know of firms like Loyal3, Motif, Folio, or Betterment, whether in the United States or another country, please mention them in the comments.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 22, 2016

On Ethics: The Ballpark Quote in the Macrocosm

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

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

We all know that this is incorrect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 20, 2016

On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting — A Rebuttal

by Louise Harnby

In On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting, Rich Adin posed the following questions:

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

1. The ethics of inducement

Rich states: “The ballpark quote has two purposes: (1) to enable the client to comparison shop and (2) to let the editor demonstrate her price competitiveness, which means the editor — consciously or subconsciously — wants the price to look as low as possible.” Rich’s concern is that ballpark quoters use an unrealistic (low) price, based on limited information, to induce the client to hire them.

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

I think Rich is missing the point regarding how the ballpark price works.

The ballpark price is just that — a ballpark, an approximation. It’s a rough guide, a preliminary quick quote that enables my potential client to decide whether they’d like to continue the discussion during the comparison-shopping stage.

It certainly is not binding — and it can’t be precisely because it’s a ballpark price based on limited information. It cannot be the maximum price a client will have to pay at billing stage because I haven’t seen the files. In order to provide the client with a price that will appear on the invoice, I must acquire this information. And that’s exactly what ballpark quoters like me do. We start with the ballpark price, then move onto a conversation, and then evaluate the project and firm up the parameters of the project; finally, we provide a confirmed quotation. That confirmed quotation, not the initial ballpark quote, is the price to which, ethically, we must be willing to be held.

In my view, the ballpark quote has three purposes: (1) to enable the client to comparison-shop; (2) to save me time by eliminating lengthy discussions with potential clients whose budgets are below my fee scale; and (3) to enable me to start a conversation with a potential client (whose budget is in accordance with my fee scale) about what the project looks like, what’s required, and what the true cost will be.

Rich states: “I am aware of very few editors who will quote a price to which they are willing to be held without having the manuscript in hand.” I agree. And if the editor supplied a ballpark quotation and, after that, failed to take the opportunity to evaluate the project before agreeing to be hired, completed the project, and submitted an invoice that was higher than the ballpark quote, justifying that higher fee on the grounds that more work had been required than anticipated, yes, that would be an unethical scenario. But it’s also an absurd scenario. That’s not how ballparking works.

Ballparking isn’t an alternative to confirmed true-price quoting — it’s an additional preliminary stage that occurs beforehand. It’s an invitation to a conversation that may end up in a confirmed booking or may end up with either party deciding to walk away before hiring takes place. It’s not unethical to invite a conversation.

2. The ethics of realistic quoting

In the second part of his analysis, Rich says: “The truth is that ballpark quotes for copyediting are deceptive and are structured to mislead the client as to the ultimate cost. Editors will not deliberately overquote (i.e., quote a price the editor knows will be higher than the real price), because the competition does not overquote.”

I reject this statement that ballpark quotes are designed to mislead. As I said above, the ballpark quote is designed to provide an approximate price that will enable the potential client to ascertain whether it’s worth spending additional time having a more detailed conversation about what’s required.

Editors (I use the term broadly) who have tracked their project data carefully will have a bank of rich data on which to base their ballpark quotes so that the prices are realistic (particularly if they’ve followed Rich’s invaluable advice about determining their effective hourly rates).

The proofreading I carry out for publishers (usually on copy-edited page proofs) is rather different from the so-called proof-editing I provide for independent fiction authors. The proof-editing I do for independent fiction authors is rather different from the proofreading I do for students whose second language is English. I have 5 years’ worth of Excel spreadsheets containing nearly 500 projects. With only a little filtering and formula-creation, I can tell you how long it takes me on average to proofread a 20,000-word politics dissertation, proof-edit a 40,000-word fantasy novella written by a self-publishing author, and mark up a 90,000-word PDF of economics page proofs supplied by a publisher. Since I know what I want to earn, working out the price isn’t that difficult. I’ve developed a little phone-based Excel tool with an array-based formula that can work out a price that takes into account the type of client, the type of project, and the economies of scale for larger projects. One of my Canadian editor colleagues has a website-based widget that works in a similar way.

Here’s the thing. My ballpark prices are pretty darn accurate. So when I provide a ballpark price (based on very little information) for proof-editing a novel for an indie author, and that author decides to get in touch to continue the conversation, and ends up sending me the project file for review, I’m almost always able to say, “Yup, the price I gave you will stand as a confirmed price. Let me know if you want to make a booking.”

What if the project needs a different level of intervention than anticipated and therefore requires a price that is higher than the one I ballpark quoted? Well, remember, the client still hasn’t hired me. So I can tell the client that, having now reviewed the project in detail, I feel that the service I was asked to ballpark quote for (e.g., proofreading) is not appropriate. If I supply the service that I think is required (e.g., copyediting), I can explain why, and provide a revised realistic quotation, or I can guide the client toward alternative suppliers. Either way, we’re still having a conversation — both parties can still walk away.

Here’s another thing. I don’t underquote. I don’t overquote. I just quote. I know what I want to earn. Either the client’s budget is within the range of my fee scale or it’s not. If it is, the ballpark quote might turn into a conversation that in turn becomes a confirmed booking further down the line. If it isn’t, the client and I won’t get beyond the ballpark quote — she asked for a price. I gave her a price. She considered it too high and she never contacted me again. Or she thanked me, told me it was too high, and said she was going elsewhere. Or she thanked me, said it was too high, and asked me to lower my price (and I said no).

I think that it’s unethical for an editor to provide a quotation that she knows is unrelated to the ultimate cost and then accepts a commission on the basis of that misleading quote. I also agree that it would be a public relations disaster. But the notion as applied to a ballpark quote is unrealistic precisely because it’s premised on the assumption that the ballpark quote is given instead of a review-based confirmed quote, rather than in addition to it.

I have a price. The client has a price. Either we fit or we don’t. The ballpark isn’t about misleading the client into hiring me for work that I’ll later charge a higher price for. It’s about enabling the two of us to start talking or start walking. That’s not unethical; it’s sensible.

3. The ethics of the final price

The final section of Rich’s essay asks: “Is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark quote?” His answer is, “Yes, there is. That limit is zero; clients should not be asked to reward editors for their unwillingness to bear the burden of underquoting.”

I disagree. Again, Rich’s view is based on a misunderstanding of how editors like me use, and justify using, a ballpark-quoting mechanism. My final bill is not based on a ballpark quote, and I suspect that’s the case for most ballparking editors. Rather, my final bill is based on a confirmed quote that I provided after the ballpark quote.

Just so we’re clear — the process works as follows. The client contacts me to ask for a ballpark quote. I provide one. If we’re on the same page financially, the client and I then begin talking. As part of our more detailed conversation about what’s required, I ask for a substantial sample of the work (perhaps even the whole project). If all goes well, we firm up a price (mine usually stays the same as the ballpark, but it could change). The price that’s signed off — one that’s realistic and based on work that both parties agree is required ­— is not the ballpark price, but the follow-on confirmed price.

Is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark quote? No, there is no limit because the final bill is on a different price, one that was agreed after the ballpark quote. Of course, if the editor agreed to be hired for a project without asking for any detail about the project and without asking to see what the project entails, and offered only a ballpark price, and the client accepted this ballpark price but didn’t realize that it was still approximate, and then the editor billed a higher fee on the basis that the price was only a ballpark, then that would be unethical!

The scenario is surely unrealistic, though. It’s unfathomable that I (or any other ballparking editor) would end up in such a situation. I’ve never had a client say, “Hey, Louise, I’d like to confirm a booking. Take your time. Do what you need to do. Money’s no object. Whatever it costs is good with me!” They always want a confirmed top-line price. (I have previously tested offering a confirmed ranged price — one that came with a guarantee that the invoice would be between £X and £Y — but I’ve abandoned that now).

Even if the client was prepared to agree to such approximate pricing terms, I wouldn’t agree to them! It’s a recipe for disaster (as Rich pointed out). I don’t want to waste a minute of my working day arguing with a client over the invoice I’ve submitted because it’s higher than the one-and-only approximate price I’d provided. Such an invoice may as well have “Don’t rehire me” emblazoned on it! I don’t confirm a booking from any client without knowing the clear parameters of a project, and without having discussed and agreed to those parameters (including price) beforehand.

Summing up

The ballpark price is an approximate price. It’s a conversation starter, another (initial) stage to the quoting process. It’s a way of increasing customer-engagement by enabling the client to comparison-shop quickly and efficiently. And for those of us with plenty of work offers, and a determination to reduce the amount of time we spend engaging with people whose pockets don’t fit our fee scales, it’s a time saver. The ballpark price is an effective tool that can, and I believe should, be tested by those editorial freelancers who have the necessary data to do so with accuracy. Those that don’t have that data should start collecting it.

Rich is right that behaving unethically is a PR disaster — that applies to pricing as much as to any other aspect of business practice. But there is no reason why the ballpark price has to be unethical as long as it’s used appropriately — as the starting point of the pricing discussion, which is exactly how I use it, and how every other ballparking editor I know uses it.

Can ballpark pricing ever be used unethically? Of course it can, just as confirmed quotations can be handled unethically. It can be handled honestly but badly, too, in the same way that other elements of editorial business practice can be handled honestly but badly. It would be wrong of me to deny that there are unethical and poor practices in our industry. But there is much good practice too. And where there is bad practice, I’m inclined to blame the individuals, not the mechanisms.

The discussion reminds me of scissors. In the hands of a tailor, they’re a superb tool; in the hands of a toddler, care and supervision are required; in the hands of a torturer, they’re a dangerous weapon.

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.

June 15, 2016

On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting

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

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

This essay discusses these questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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