An American Editor

July 17, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: Killing Me Softly

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on July 25, 2012.)

I recently reviewed the various groups I am a member of on LinkedIn and was astounded to find a U.S.-based editor soliciting editing work and offering to do that work for $1 per page in all genres. Some further searching led me to discover that this person was not alone in her/his pricing.

What astounds me is less that someone is offering to do editorial work for such a low fee but that people actually believe that is a fair price to pay for professional editing. I recently spoke with an author whose ebooks are badly edited — yes, edited is the correct word — who told me that he/she had paid a professional editor $200 to edit the novel in question and so was surprised at all the errors the novel contained.

Recently, I wrote about the publisher who wants copyediting but calls it proofreading in an attempt to pay a lower price (see The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting). In my own business, I have been under pressure to reduce my fee or see the work offshored.

I am being killed softly. (And for those of you who enjoy a musical interlude, here is Roberta Flack singing Killing Me Softly!)

Unfortunately, so is my profession for the past quarter century being killed softly.

I write “being killed softly” because that is exactly what is happening. There are no trumpets blaring; clients aren’t shouting and ordering me to work for starvation wages. Instead, what they are doing is saying that they can get the services I provide for significantly less money because the competition is so keen, driving downward pricing.

There is no discussion about whether the services clients get for less money are valuable services. The base assumption is that any editor will do and any editor will do a competent, quality job. Alas, there is little to disprove the assumption in the absence of postediting proofreading, but that work is being driven by the same dynamic and so clients set a mouse to catch a mouse, rather than a cat to catch a mouse. If the proofreader’s skills match the skills of the editor, little by way of error will be caught. We see this everyday when we pick up a book and discover errors that should have been caught by a professional editor and/or proofreader.

When passing out the blame for this situation, we can look elsewhere — to the international conglomerate bean counters, to the Internet that has brought globalization to the editing profession, to the death of locally owned publishing companies that count quality higher than cost — or we can look to ourselves — to our insistence on being wholly independent and our resistance to banding together to form a strong lobbying group, to our willingness to provide stellar service for suboptimal wages, to the ease with which we permit entrance to a skilled profession. Looking at ourselves is where we should look.

Individually, we may strike gnat-like blows against this professional decline, but these will continue to prove of little avail. The profession of editing used to be a highly respected profession. It always was an underpaying profession, but it was a prestigious profession. All that has changed in recent decades. Our bohemian attitude towards our profession has worked to hurry its decline. It is now one of those work-at-home-and-earn-big-bucks professions that draws anyone in need of supplementary income.

It has become this way because we have let it become so.

I wondered if anyone was going to challenge the $1/page person, but no one did. There was no challenge of the price or of skills or of services. The idea that at this price level superior services can be provided is rapidly becoming the norm. That a good editor can often only edit five or six pages an hour — and in many instances even fewer pages an hour — does not seem to be a concern to either clients or to the editors advertising inexpensive services.

It is increasingly difficult to compete for business in the editorial marketplace. There are still pockets of clients who pay reasonable fees, but I expect those pockets to diminish and eventually disappear, and to do so in the not-too-distant future. Those of us with specialty skills are beginning to see the encroachment of downward pricing pressure.

What I find most interesting is that so many people do not even notice poor editing. There is a cadre of people who care about precision communication, but that cadre grows smaller with each passing year. A rigorous language education is now passé. The result is that there are fewer individuals who can recognize good editing from bad/no editing, and even fewer who care, being more concerned with cost.

I have no surefire solution to the problem. My hope is that some day someone in charge will see the light and decide that quality is at least of equal importance to cost control and recognize that it is not possible for an editor to provide a quality job at $1/page. Unfortunately, I do not see that day arriving any time soon.

What solutions do you propose?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 6, 2017

The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation

(The first part of this essay appears in “The Cusp of a New Book World: The First Day of Creation;” the second part appears in “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Fourth Day of Creation.” This is the final part.)

Donald Trump is late to the game. Reshoring of industry has been happening, albeit quietly, for the past several years. Also late to the game are publishers, but increasingly reshoring is happening in the publishing industry. The problem is that publishing-industry reshoring is not bringing with it either a rise in editorial fees or relief from the packaging industry. If anything, it is making a bad situation worse. It is bringing the low-fee mentality that accompanied offshoring to the home country.

Reshoring in the United States has meant that instead of dealing with packagers located, for example, in India, editors are dealing with packagers in their home countries. Yet professional editors continue to face the same problems as before: low pay, high expectations, being an unwitting scapegoat. Perhaps more importantly, the onshore packagers are not doing a better job of “editing” — the publishers are offering onshore packagers the same editing fee that they were offering the offshore packagers, and the onshore packagers having to pay onshore wages have the same or lower level of editorial quality control as the offshore packagers.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the packager system; there is something inherently wrong with the thinking of publishers as regards the value of editing, with the system of freelance editing, and with packager editorial quality control. These problems are not solvable by simply moving from offshore to onshore; other measures are needed, not least of which is discarding the assumption that high-quality copyediting is available for slave wages.

Publishing is in a simultaneous boom–bust economic cycle. Profit at Penguin Random House in 2015, for example, jumped by more than 50% from its 2014 level to $601 million. Interestingly, print revenue in the publishing industry overall is rising (+4.8%) while ebook revenue is declining (−20%). Gross revenue from print is expected to remain steady through 2020 at $46 billion per year while ebook revenue continues to decline.

The key question (for publishers) is, how do publishers increase profits when revenues remain flat in print and decline in ebooks? This is the question that the Trumpian economic view ignores when it pushes for reshoring. Trumpian economics also ignores the collateral issues that such a question raises, such as, whether it does any good to reshore work that does not pay a living wage. The fallacy of Trumpian economics is in assuming that reshoring is a panacea to all ills, that it is the goal regardless of any collateral issues left unresolved; unfortunately, that flawed view has been presaged by the publishing industry’s reshoring efforts.

My discussions with several publishers indicates that a primary motive for reshoring is the poor quality of the less-visible work (i.e., the editing) as performed offshore — even when the offshore packager has been instructed to use an onshore editor. Consider my example of “tonne” in the second part of this essay and multiply that single problem. According to one publisher I spoke with, the way management insists that a book’s budget be created exacerbates the problems. The budgeting process requires setting the editing budget as if the editor were an offshore editor living in a low-wage country and without consideration of any time or expense required to fix editorial problems as a result of underbudgeting. After setting that editorial budget, the publisher requires the packager to hire an onshore editor but at no more than the budgeted price, which means that the packager has to seek out low-cost editors who are often inexperienced or not well-qualified.

Packagers — both onshore and offshore — try to solve this “problem” by having inhouse “experts” review the editing and make “suggestions” (that are really commands and not suggestions) based on their understanding of the intricacies of the language. This effort occasionally works, but more often it fails because there are subtleties with which a nonnative editor is rarely familiar. So the problem is compounded, everyone is unhappy, and the budget line remains intact because the expense to fix the problems comes from a different budget line. Thus when it comes time to budget for the next book’s editing, the publisher sees that the limited budget worked last time and so repeats the error. An endless loop of error is entered — it becomes the merry-go-round from which there is no getting off.

Although publishers and packagers are the creators of the problem — low pay with high expectations — they have handy partners in editors. No matter how many times I and other editorial bloggers discuss the need for each editor to know what her individual required effective hourly rate (rEHR) is and to be prepared to say no to projects that do not meet that threshold, still few editors have calculated their individual rEHR and they still ask, “What is the going rate?”

In discussions, editors have lamented the offshoring of editorial work and talked about how reshoring would solve so many of the editorial problems that have arisen since the wave of consolidation and offshoring began in the 1990s. Whereas editors were able to make the financial case for using freelancers, they seem unable to make the case for a living wage from offshoring. The underlying premise of offshoring has not changed since the first Indian company made the case for it: Offshoring editorial services is less costly than onshoring because the publisher’s fee expectations are based on the wage scale in place at the packager’s location, not at the location of the person hired to do the job. In the 1990s it was true that offshoring was less costly; in 2017, it is not true — and editors need to demonstrate that it is not true. The place to begin is with knowing your own economic numbers.

Knowing your own numbers is the start but far from the finish. What is needed is an economic study. There are all sorts of data that can be used to help convince publishers of the worth of quality editing. Consider this: According to The Economist, 79% of college-educated U.S. adults read only one print book in 2016. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how many editors were part of that group and how many books, on average, editors bought and read? Such a statistic by itself wouldn’t change anything but if properly packaged could be suasive.

When I first made a pitch to a publisher for a pay increase in the 1980s, I included in the pitch some information about my book reading and purchasing habits. I pointed out that on average I bought three of this particular publisher’s hardcover titles every month. I also included a list of titles that I had yet to buy and read, but which were on my wish list. I explained that my cost of living had risen x%, which meant that I had to allocate more of my budget to necessities and less to pleasures like books. And I demonstrated how the modest increase I sought would enable me to at least maintain my then current book buying and likely enable me to actually increase purchases. In other words, by paying me more the publisher was empowering me to buy more of the publisher’s product.

(For what it is worth, some publishers responded positively to such a pitch and others completely ignored it. When offshoring took hold and assignments no longer came directly from the publisher, the pitch was no longer viable. Packagers didn’t have a consumer product and insulated the publisher from such arguments.)

With reshoring, imagine the power of such a pitch if it is made on behalf of a group. Reshoring in publishing is occurring not primarily because costs can now be lower with onshoring rather than offshoring, but because of editorial quality problems. And while it would be difficult to gain the attention of a specific empowered executive at an international company like Elsevier or Penguin Random House, it is easier to establish a single message and get it out to multiple publishers.

The biggest obstacle to making reshoring be advantageous for freelance editors is the reluctance of freelance editors to abandon the solo, isolated, individual entrepreneurial call that supposedly drove the individual to become a freelance editor. That used to be the way of accountants and doctors and lawyers, among other professionals, but members of those professions are increasingly banding together. In my view, the time has come for editors to begin banding together and for editors to have full knowledge of what is required to make a successful editorial career.

This sixth day of creation can be the first day of a new dawning — or it can be just more of the same. That reshoring has come to publishing is an opportunity not to be missed. Whether editors will grab for that opportunity or let it slip by remains to be seen. But the first step remains the most difficult step: calculating your rEHR, setting that as your baseline, and rejecting work that does not at least meet your baseline.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 1, 2017

The Cusp of a New Book World: The Fourth Day of Creation

(The first part of this essay appears in “The Cusp of a New Book World: The First Day of Creation;” the final part appears in “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation.”)

The world of publishing began its metamorphosis, in nearly all meanings of that word, with the advent of the IBM PS2 computer and its competitors and the creation of Computer Shopper magazine. (Let us settle immediately the Mac versus PC war. In those days, the Apple was building its reputation in the art departments of various institutions; it was not seen as, and Steve Jobs hadn’t really conceived of it as, an editorial workhorse. The world of words belonged to the PC and businesses had to maintain two IT departments: one for words [PC] and one for graphics [Mac]. For the earliest computer-based editors, the PC was the key tool, and that was the computer for which the word-processing programs were written. Nothing more need be said; alternate facts are not permitted.)

I always hated on-paper editing. I’d be reading along and remember that I had earlier read something different. Now I needed to find it and decide which might be correct and which should be queried. And when you spend all day reading, it becomes easy for the mind to “read” what should be there rather than what is there. (Some of this is touched on in my essays, “Bookmarking for Better Editing” and “The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud.”) So who knew how many errors I let pass as the day wore on and I “saw” what should be present but wasn’t. The computer was, to my thinking, salvation.

And so it was. I “transitioned” nearly overnight from doing paper-based editing to refusing any editing work except computer-based. And just as I made the transition, so were the types of authors whose books I was editing. I worked then, as now, primarily in medical and business professional areas, and doctors and businesses had both the money and the desire to leave pen-and-paper behind and move into the computer world. Just as they used computers in their daily work, they used computers to write their books, and I was one of the (at the time) few professional editors skilled with online editing.

The computer was my salvation from paper-based editing, but it also changed my world, because with the rise of computers came the rise of globalization. How easy it was to slip a disk in the mail — and that disk could be sent as easily to San Francisco as to New York City as to London and Berlin or anywhere. And so I realized that my market was no longer U.S.-based publishers; my market was any publisher, anywhere in the world, who wanted an American editor.

But globalization for me also had a backswing. The backswing came with the consolidation of the U.S. publishing industry — long time clients being sold to international conglomerates. For example, Random House, a publisher with a few imprints, ultimately became today’s Random Penguin House, a megapublisher that owns 250 smaller publishers. Elsevier was not even in the U.S. market, yet today has absorbed many of the publishers that were, such as W.B. Saunders and C.V. Mosby. This consolidation led to a philosophical change as shareholder return, rather than family pride, became the dominant requirement.

To increase shareholder return, publishers sought to cut costs. Fewer employees, more work expected from employees, increased computerization, and the rise of the internet gave rise to offshoring and the rise of the Indian packaging industry. So, for years much of the work that freelancers receive comes from packagers, whether based in the United States, in Ireland, in India — it doesn’t matter where — who are competing to keep prices low so work flow is high. And, as we are aware, attempting to maintain some level of quality, although there has been a steady decline in recent years in editorial quality with the lowering of fees. (One major book publisher, for example, will not approve a budget for a book that includes a copyediting fee higher than $1.75 per page for a medical book, yet complains about the quality of the editing.)

The result was (and is) that offshoring turned out to be a temporary panacea. The offshore companies thought they could do better but are discovering that they are doing worse and their clients are slowly, but surely, becoming aware of this. One example: I was asked to edit a book in which the author used “tonne” as in “25 tonnes of grain.” The instruction was to use American spellings. The packager for whom I was editing the book, had my editing “reviewed” by in-house “professional” staff who were, according to the client, “experts in American English” (which made me wonder why they needed me at all). These “experts” told me that I was using incorrect spelling and that it should be “ton,” not “tonne.” I protested but felt that as they were “experts” there should be no need to explain that “tonne” means “metric ton” (~2205 pounds) and “ton” means either “short ton” (2000 pounds) or “long ton” (2240 pounds). After all, don’t experts use dictionaries? Or conversion software? (For excellent conversion software for Windows only, see Master Converter.) Professional editors do not willy-nilly make changes. The client (the packager) insisted that the change be made and so the change was made, with each change accompanied by a comment, “Change from ‘tonne’ to ‘ton’ at the instruction of [packager].”

This example is one of the types of errors that have occurred in editing with the globalization of editorial services and the concurrent rise of packagers and lesser pay for editors. It is also an example of the problem that existed in the paper-based days. Although there is no assigning of fault in the computer-based system, when an error of this type is made, the author complains to the publisher, who complains to the packager, who responds, “We hired the editor you requested we hire and this is their error.” And the result is the same as if it had been marked CE (copyeditor’s error) in flashing neon lights. The editor, being left out of the loop and never having contact with the publisher becomes the unknowing scapegoat.

And it is a prime reason why we are now entering the sixth day of creation — the reshoring of editorial services, which is the subject of the third part of this essay, “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation.”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 30, 2017

The Cusp of a New Book World: The First Day of Creation

The world of business is an ever-changing world. When I began my publishing career, offshoring was not in the business vocabulary — publishers looked for local-market solutions to local-market problems. Of course, helping to maintain that local tether was that most editorial problems and solutions were paper-based — copyediting, for example, was done on a paper printout.

The general course of events went something like this:

  1. The paper manuscript was shipped by the in-house production editor to the freelance editor for copyediting;
  2. After copyediting, the copyeditor shipped the marked-up physical copy to the in-house production editor for review;
  3. After review, the in-house production editor shipped the finalized version of the marked-up manuscript to the typesetter; in some procedures, before shipping to the typesetter for setting into pages, the edited manuscript would be sent to the author for review and approval of the editorial changes. Which fork was taken depended on the publisher and on the author;
  4. The typesetter created a master copy of the final edited version and produced physical page proofs for author review;
  5. The authors received as little as the page proofs or as much as the page proofs, the original unedited manuscript, and the finalized copyedited version of the manuscript to review and make any final adjustments that were needed, especially the addressing of any queries;
  6. The author then returned the manuscript to the in-house production editor who would review the author changes, do any final accepting or rejecting, ensure that all queries had been addressed, and then send the manuscript to the typesetter for creation of a master file for printing.

Not mentioned in the foregoing are the rounds of proofreading done by freelance proofreaders, which also added to shipping costs.

Of course there was some variation in the foregoing procedure, but there were two notable things that did not change regardless of the exact procedure: (a) the process was very labor intensive and thus very expensive and (b) the process incurred a lot of shipping costs — somehow the physical manuscript had to get from person to person in each step.

For some publishers the answer was local-local; that is, if you wanted to be hired as a freelance editor, you had to be able to come to the publisher’s office to pick up the manuscript and return it the same way. In my earliest days, for example, Lippincott’s New York City office would not hire a freelancer who wasn’t a subway ride away from its offices. The problem the publishers faced was that book sales were growing and the way to earn more money was to sell more books, which meant more books had to be published, which meant more editors were needed. The solution was hire more editors but you had to have a labor pool from which to draw, so even companies like Lippincott had to broaden their geographical boundaries.

The other labor-related problem was that even the best editors had weaknesses and even the worst in-house production editors had weaknesses. These weaknesses were minor stumbling blocks in the early years of publishing, but then authors became less “wowed” by editorial expertise and publisher demands and began asserting their ownership of their words. It is important to remember that most books in the very early years were “owned” (i.e., the copyright was in the name of) the publisher. That put publishers at the top of the power chain. There were always authors who retained copyright, but for most authors, giving the publisher the copyright was an acceptable trade for getting published. The tide began changing after World War II but accelerated in the 1970s with the instant megahit authors; ultimately, what started as a gentle wave of change became a tsunami until the moment when calm returned because it became standard for authors to retain copyright.

But during this changeover, which occurred over decades, costs began rising. Where before publishers simply absorbed the costs, now the pressure to increase profits required an allocation of costs between those who caused the costs to be incurred. Thus the assigning of “fault” became more important — the assigning of something as a PE (printer error), AA (author alteration), or CE (copyeditor error) became an important tool in deciding who would be responsible for the cost of correction once the manuscript had been put into master proofs. A certain number of errors and changes were expected but once that number was exceeded, the costs were allocated and the responsible party was expected to “pay.”

The author usually had a “debt” deducted from royalties earned; the copyeditor, if the number was large enough, “paid” by not being hired again; the printer (typesetter or compositor) paid by not being able to bill for the costs incurred to make the fixes necessitated by PEs. Yet this was where the weakness of the system stood out.

We have had discussions before about grammar, copyediting, what is or isn’t error, the “authority” of the “authoritative sources,” and the like. What I consider to grievous editorial error, you may well think is so minor that it isn’t even worth mentioning. Which of us is right? The answer is that we can both be right, we can both be wrong, or one of us can be right and the other wrong — it all depends on the standards to be applied, who is to apply them, and whether the foundation of the standards is recognized universally as strong, weak, or crumbling. This is the discussion we often have as regards the authoritativeness of books like The Chicago Manual of Style and Garner’s Modern English Usage. It is the traditional argument whether prescriptivism or descriptivism should dominate.

And that was the problem of the AA versus CE assignment of fault. More importantly, it was even more so the problem of the world that had but three possibilities: AA, CE, and PE. There was no possibility that the error was an in-house (IH) error, because just as some editors today always respond with “Chicago says…” or “Garner says…” and whatever Chicago or Garner says is inalienable, unalterable, infallible, so it was true of in-house staff. At no point was there a discussion regarding why the CE was not a CE; it was marked a CE and so it was a CE — now and forever.

There was another wrinkle to this process. Quite often the initial designation of CE, AA, or PE was made by the freelance proofreader, who often was a copyeditor who was doing this particular project as a proofreading job rather than as copyediting job. This, of course, meant that what we really had was a spitting contest between copyeditors. Once again, there was no designation for proofreader error because the proofreader couldn’t make an error. By definition, the proofreader was supposed to only correct and mark objective errors such as a clear misspelling, or the failure to have sentence-ending punctuation, or other indisputable errors. And so that was true on the first day of creation, but by the third day the role had expanded and proofreaders expanded from pure proofreading to a hybrid proofreading-copyediting role. This became by creation’s fifth day the expected standard.

And so we have come full circle — it was not unusual for a strong copyeditor to find that she was being “graded” by a weak proofreader or in-house production editor. As between the proofreader and the copyeditor, both were trying to impress the client with their skills because they both were freelance and both dependant on gaining more business from the client. The in-house editor had to assign fault because accounting demanded it. In addition, the IH was becoming swamped with work and so had to increasingly rely on the proofreader’s judgment calls.

All of this worked because everything was kept local, that is onshore as opposed to offshore, because it was a never-discussed-but-well-understood system, and, most importantly, because once the book was published, there was no customer complaint system. How many readers (or reviewers, for that matter) were concerned with the finer points of editing and the production process. Rarely was a book panned because of poor editing as opposed to poor story, dull writing, factual error — none of the things that those outside the production process would ever associate with poor editing.

This world began changing not long after I became a freelance editor with the introduction of computers, word-processing programs like XyWrite, Word, and WordPerfect, and, ultimately, globalization — the material for the second part of this essay, “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Fourth Day of Creation.” (The third part of the essay is “The Cusp of a New Book World: The Sixth Day of Creation.”)

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 30, 2016

On Politics: The Future of American Education

Most editors recognize that the foundation of our business lies in the education we received. It is hard to tackle grammar issues in a manuscript without having been taught grammar. And deciding whether the correct word is there or their requires having been taught the difference.

Of course, there is the issue of subject matter knowledge as well. Granted that editors are rarely expected to be subject-matter experts — especially not at the common rates paid to editors — but editors are expected to have some familiarity with the subject matter and to be able to understand what they are editing.

I have lamented in past essays about the decline of editing and of education. Now I worry even more with the nomination of Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos to be Secretary of Education in the forthcoming Trump presidency. Her selection is tantamount to declaring war on public education and on education standards — public and private. If her views on education permeate the educational system, what I see as a decline in quality of editors may well become a tsunami.

The foundation of America’s education system is that it is a public education system, meaning that every child has access to a “free” public education (and, yes, there is really no such thing as “free” in this context; public education is an expensive taxpayer burden, but a burden that since the early days of the republic taxpayers have been willing to bear in hopes that their children will do better economically and socially than they did). In DeVos’ world there would be no “public” education — all education would be by private schools, largely charter schools.

I admit that there was a time when I thought charter schools would be a panacea to our declining school systems, but that fantasy didn’t last long. The truth is that to fix our schools, we need to fix the way our teachers are taught and compensated. Rather than mid-level students choosing teaching as a career path, we need to find a way to make the highest-level students seek that career. And we need to require teachers to be subject-matter experts not generalists whose expertise is in classroom administration with a minor in subject matter.

Whereas I have progressed from thinking charter schools are the panacea to education’s ills, DeVos has not. In fact, DeVos not only abhors public schools, but she opposes setting standards for charter and private schools to meet. DeVos has been supporting proponents of her education views for years in Michigan. The result is that Michigan not only has more charter and private schools than any other state, but its educational ranking (in comparison to other states) has been steadily slipping, with no end in sight. (For an excellent review of DeVos’ history, see “Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Pick, Has Steered Money From Public Schools” by Kate Zernike [news item], The New York Times, November 23, 2016, and for why she would be a disaster for American education, see “Betsy DeVos and the Wrong Way to Fix Schools” by Douglas N. Harris [opinion piece], The New York Times, November 25, 2016.)

What does this mean for the future of editing? Even though education has been on the decline for years and this decline has been evident in the quality of new-generation editors and editing — as witnessed by the number of people hanging out shingles, proclaiming themselves editors, and then failing to do a quality job — there were rays of hope as colleges began to realize that they are a major part of the problem of education failure and steps have slowly been taken to revamp education curriculum and requirements for a teaching degree and license.

But what little progress has been made is now jeopardized because all of the controls that are exercised over education in public schools are nonexistent in the DeVos education world. DeVos believes that the free market, unfettered by chains of requirements to obtain a teaching license and unfettered by educational goals that part of standards such as the Common Core or national tests, will supply the needed fixes — even though this has been untrue in the 30 years she has pushed such an agenda.

If education further, significantly declines, then editing may be a doomed profession. After all, why would an author want a manuscript edited by someone without the skills necessary to edit her manuscript better than she can edit it herself? Why would publishers pay someone to simply run spellcheck?

This is not to say that our current system is the answer; it definitely has proven itself to not being able to solve the education crisis. The problem is that with DeVos we will swing from one extreme to another extreme, which is problematic when both extremes have conclusively shown that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Do I have a solution? No, I don’t. I do know that for years I have complained about the low standards that have to be met to graduate from a college education program with a teaching degree (I attended such a college in my college days). I know that I have clashed with teachers who should never have been given a teaching license but who were teaching my children in public schools. And I know that the way to fix the problem is not to replace it with another “solution” that is just an exacerbation of the existing problem.

Betsy DeVos should not be confirmed as Secretary of Education because her “solutions” have proven, in Michigan, to be worse than the existing problem. To institute those policies nationally would be to jeopardize America’s future. I encourage you to petition your U.S. Senator to not confirm Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos as Secretary of Education. Her confirmation would be disastrous for America and for the future of editing.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 14, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Decline & Fall of Editing

For quite some time, I have been concerned about the decline of editing. Increasingly, few books are receiving anything more than cursory editing. Increasingly, the focus is more on preparing a document for publication, for example, by applying styles to designate something as the heading for a second-level bulleted list, than on sentence structure, word choice, grammar, and other language (as opposed to structural) needs.

This is particularly evident in ebooks, especially self-published ebooks.

I have pondered this situation for months without coming up with a satisfactory explanation as to why the original, traditional goals of editing have been stealthily replaced and the lack of “uproar” from readers. Then came the 2016 U.S. elections and it dawned on me that authors and publishers are making this transition because the average reader either can’t separate fact from fiction or doesn’t care whether something is fact or fiction.

I have no plans to dwell on or discuss the past election except as the actions of the voters really were actions that could have been predicted had attention been paid to the evolution that has been ongoing in editing.

Consider the Trumpian cry that Hillary Clinton was a liar and Donald Trump told it like it is. The fact checkers — that is, every nonpartisan fact checker — agreed that Trump’s statements were outright lies and falsehoods 75% of the time and Clinton’s were 25% of the time. They also agreed that Clinton’s were closer to the proverbial “white” lie and Trump’s were just outright lies. Yet if you asked Trump voters, they would tell you that Clinton never told the truth and Trump nearly always did tell the truth.

What this tells me is that the average American has little interest in separating fact from fiction; that errors of language in books really do not matter as long as the package is attractive. If there is no concern about fact truth in presidential politics as long as appearances are kept up, then it is logical that there is little worry or concern about fact truths in books, and thus little concern about whether a book is edited at all, let alone whether it is properly edited.

I have noticed in my local newspaper, which is part of the Gannett chain, that copyediting is clearly a very low interest. It is the rare local-origin article that has fewer than five or six errors (the articles that originate elsewhere seem to be better edited), and many of the local opinion pieces, including letters to the editor, are riddled with language errors.

When I was in public school in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the things that we did was get a student subscription to The New York Times for classroom use. The primary reason for the subscription requirement was to learn grammar and language. There was some, but not much, interest in the classroom for the news as news; the newspaper was used to teach English grammar. Sometimes we would also get a copy of the local paper and compare and contrast how each wrote about a particular news event, the words chosen, and the sentence (and paragraph) structure. Using the newspaper as a teaching tool died out as the acrimony over the Vietnam War grew.

Today, there seems to be less concern on the part of readers, publishers, and authors about how a book is viewed from a grammar perspective because what used to be the bastions of quality editing have become haphazard. Consequently, students do not learn by example and absorption quality language skills; they learn indifference.

The learned indifference carries over to all spheres of life. Incorrect language use peppers political debate, resulting in two voters hearing the same words but understanding them differently. Incorrect language use acts as a barrier to progress because there is no agreement on the import of the words.

We struggle with the idea that there are class distinctions. We often attribute the distinctions to financial wealth when, perhaps, the core of the separations are really language and understanding. We perpetuate the class problem by failing to unite around language use, by failing to communicate clearly so that the message we send is understood the same by all.

Quality editing was, in my early years as an editor, a sought-after prize. It was not unusual (although it did not happen often) to learn that an editor had been fired from a project or that a publisher had removed an editor from the approved list of editors because of poor editing. In-house editors would often return manuscript pointing out missed errors or wanting to discuss why a particular editing decision was made. The editing pay scale was a range, with new editors at the bottom rung and very experienced and highly sought after editors at the top.

Contrast that with the editing world of today. Today, the pay is pretty uniform. Today, an editor is chosen more often based on price than on excellence. Today, editing is often outsourced to offshore companies whose primary goal is to keep editorial costs minimal. There is no time or money for fact checking or for second or third language passes. There is an increased belief that “anyone who can spot a spelling error can edit” or that the best (and least-expensive) editor for a manuscript is the author of the manuscript.

As the mistakes appear in print, they begin reinforcing incorrect knowledge about language. Eventually the erroneous becomes the normal and few recognize that the normal is erroneous. Which is how we end up with mislabeling and a disregard for true editing.

If this trend continues, there won’t be much need for skilled editors; the only need will be for low-cost editors who know how to style but who have few to nonexistent language skills. Schools will teach using books edited by these editors and another low-language-skill generation will take over.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 6, 2016

The Business of Editing: Keeping Records

Information is the most powerful tool any businessperson — including the freelancer — has in her armory. Inadequate information can lead to poor decisions. Information makes smarter decision-making possible.

Businesses keep track of all kinds of information. For some businesses, tracking the political climate is important because they may see sales increases and decreases that depend on what is happening in the local city council or in another country’s energy market.

To be successful as a business, an editor needs to keep records of all kinds. To determine what our baseline price for our services should be, we must keep records that are sufficiently detailed that we can calculate our required effective hourly rate (rEHR). To determine if we are earning at least our rEHR, we need to keep careful records for each project and for all our projects in aggregate; that is, we need both a micro and a macro view.

The information we need is more than just our costs of doing business or of running our homes. We also need to be politically aware. For example, how would Donald Trump’s isolationist positions, should he be elected president, affect the business of editors who have clients outside the United States? If Trump were, for example, to anger China with his protectionist policies, what is the likelihood that China would retaliate in a way that could limit American editors’ work with Chinese authors?

That type of political information, although important, is difficult (if not impossible) both to obtain and to evaluate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. As the election season proceeds, the gathering of such information might lead us to change our marketing strategy — for example, to do less targeting of foreign clients and more targeting of domestic clients.

The thoughtful gathering of information can be the difference between a struggling business and a successful business. I found it very worthwhile in my early years as a freelance editor to track the types of editing I was being hired to do (e.g., copyediting, developmental editing), the types of manuscript (e.g., book, journal, business document, white paper, thesis), the subject matter of the manuscript (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, medical, legal, thriller), the type of service I was providing (e.g., editing, proofreading, desktop publishing), and who was doing the hiring (e.g., large publisher, boutique publisher, author, agent). I also kept track of earnings for each.

As a result of the information I gathered, I discovered early in my career that I needed to focus on book-length nonfiction manuscripts from medium to large publishers. I also narrowed the subject-matter fields.

I reconstructed my business to appeal to the potential clients who fit the profile I had determined was best for my business. (A lot of factors went into the decision of what was to be my business profile, and many of those factors were personal to me. You should not view my business profile as being the one you should emulate; what you should do is recognize the need for extensive data gathering about yourself and your business so that you can determine the correct business profile for you.) I stopped taking on small projects; I stopped accepting developmental-editing work outside certain subject areas; I stopped accepting occasional work from local clients; I stopped accepting manuscripts directly from authors; and so on.

I also redesigned my marketing approach so that I focused on those potential clients who I thought could best use my services. I redesigned my business procedures so that I could efficiently handle large volumes of work. And I also established a network of other editors who were willing to subcontract with me but under set conditions.

The information I gathered about my business over the first few years of my freelancing also led me to establish certain business policies. These policies concerned such things as my editing day and week, which we have discussed before (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: The Standard Editing Workday & Workweek), payment terms, and even, back in the 1980s and early 1990s, before the switch to online editing by the vast majority of publishers, that I did online editing only — no hardcopy editing, which was still the primary method.

The information I gathered also let me evaluate whether I was earning enough money to consider remaining a freelance editor. It was from this information that I realized it was wrong to evaluate a client based on a single project, and I created my Rule of Three (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three). I recognize that my Rule of Three is not readily usable when you do not have repeat clients, which is another reason why I changed my potential client focus. To reach the goals I had set for myself, I needed repeat clients, not one-time clients. With one-time clients, each project needs to stand on its own, which can be difficult. No matter how carefully we evaluate a manuscript before agreeing to edit it, we do not know its difficulty until we actually edit it. With repeat clients and limited subject areas, the risk of financial loss on a client (not a particular project) is greatly reduced, so much so that I have rarely had to “fire” a client for lack of profitability during my 32 years of editing.

It is clear that we need information to guide us. The ultimate question comes down to how much detail do we need to track and keep. The answer is that the more detailed the information, the more useful the information. Consider this: When a client approaches you to undertake a project, do you track the time you spend evaluating whether to take on the project? Very few editors track that time; most begin tracking time from the moment they begin editing. Yet the amount of time spent evaluating a project and negotiating on it affects your editing day and week and your profitability. Even if you reject the project, the time spent coming to that conclusion is time you spent and cannot recover.

We tend to think of ourselves as editors first and businesspeople second. That is the opposite of how we should think about what we do. You can be the greatest editor in the world and still starve, be homeless, have no health insurance because you avoid the business aspects. Conversely, you can be one of the worst editors but still eat well, own a home, have health insurance because you paid attention to business.

The key is to balance the requirements of business and editing so that you are both the best businessperson and the best editor you can be. To meet this balance, you need to view yourself as a businessperson first and editor second. Doing so will force you to pay attention to the nitty-gritty details without which you won’t attain the financial success necessary if you want to devote yourself to perfecting your editing, which is what drives us as editors. With business as the first focus, the need for data becomes clear. The next natural steps are to gather the data, interpret the data, and apply the data to your circumstances, but to do so honestly and objectively.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

December 14, 2015

The Proofreader’s Corner: Tackling Editorial Learning Anxiety (or Embracing Change Rather Than Resisting It) — Part II

by Louise Harnby

In this two-part series, I consider how resistance to change can stop us from learning new skills or testing new methods to make our editorial businesses more successful.

In Part I, I discussed “learning anxiety” and how it can stop us from embracing change. I introduced three ideas for how to tackle anxiety: planning the change so that it’s considered and systematic; redefining “failure” as “lessons learned”; and doing a cost-to-benefit analysis.

In Part II, I present a personal case study of how I dealt with anxiety about offering a new customer-engagement service with regard to quoting. I explain how I used a cost-to-benefit analysis to identify my concerns and come up with a solution that enabled me to move forward rather than rejecting change outright.

Case study

I recently carried out an exercise with regard to a new marketing technique. My colleagues Adrienne Montgomerie and Nick Jones were the inspiration for it. Nick’s Full Proof website includes a Get a Quote button and a page that details a range of rates per 1,000 words. Adrienne’s Right Angels and Polo Bears website has an Instant Estimate tab.

I love the customer-centric nature of these websites – when I’m considering buying something, I want to have a rough idea of what it’s going to cost, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that my customers are the same. Nick and Adrienne already provide this sense of immediacy and customer engagement, though in different ways. Up until recently, I’d resisted including such a device on my own website. I’d read a lot of opinions on the issue, most of it focusing on how one can’t offer a quotation unless one’s seen a sample of the work. That’s all well and good, but is it what the customer wants? Both Nick and Adrienne make it clear that their instant quotations are preliminary and nonbinding. I wanted to take this idea and run with it in my own way – provide a quick way for the customer to engage with me, a device that would give them a sense of immediacy. I wanted to be able to provide them with a ballpark price for proofreading that they could use to decide whether to continue the discussion. So I tackled the questions above, and the answers helped me to map out a solution that I could test.

What are the potential gains from the change?

  • Customers who previously passed me over because they wanted an immediate sense of what the cost would be might be more inclined to contact me.
  • In particular, I might be a more attractive prospect for self-publishing authors (a client group that I particularly enjoy working with) scouting for editorial assistance but who have a fixed budget in mind.
  • I’ve always provided detailed value-on quotations in the past (see “Value-on or money-off? Putting a price on your editorial services”, Proofreader’s Parlour, September 2013 but these take time to produce, and if the price isn’t even in the customer’s ballpark I’ve invested a lot of time for no return. The quick-quote option would be an interesting alternative to test.

What will I potentially lose if I introduce a quick-quote function?

  • I’m always “on” – customers can contact me whenever they want and I’ll be committed to responding to them accordingly.
  • An instant quotation is all about the money, not about the value.
  • If I want to avoid placing prices on my website, I’ll need to have a device with me that enables me to calculate a price – this could be a challenge, as I want to offer different rates for different client groups, and I want to introduce economies of scale for larger word counts.

What will stay the same, even though I’ve made this change?

  • My proofreading website is still focused on providing comprehensive advice about the value I bring to the table. The customer comes through that medium and so will see this information.
  • My current client list is not affected.
  • I’m still offering a proofreading service.
  • I can still refuse the work after I’ve seen a sample if I don’t think I’m a good fit for the customer – the quote is preliminary with no obligation on either side. Critics can argue that no matter how much one protests that the quote is not binding, it gives the user a number around which to wrap their thinking. If my quote is £150 but then I see the manuscript and realize that the real quote needs to be £450, I have a major hill to climb to move the client off the £150 mark. However, I’d counter this as follows: I’m a proofreader. If the sample file arrives with me and it needs so much work that there is going to be a significant difference between the preliminary quote and the post-sample quote, the manuscript is not ready for me to work on and I’ll decline the work anyway.
  • I’m still in a position to turn down the work if it doesn’t fit in my schedule.

How will the changes make me feel once I’ve completed them?

  • I hope I’ll be glad that I’ve tried something new.
  • I’ll be excited to see what the results are.
  • It will give me even more confidence to embrace future ideas for change that I might have rejected in the past.
  • I’m in control of my website, so I’ll still feel secure in the knowledge that I can withdraw the quick-quote service instantly if I deem this to be necessary.

My solution was to offer a “Within 1 hour” service via text messaging to customers requiring a preliminary ballpark price. I require a few words of description, a deadline, and a word count. I commit to responding within 1 hour to any request that comes in prior to 10 p.m. GMT. I don’t want to have to carry around a tablet or laptop all the time because I won’t always have internet access, but my phone is always with me and I can always take calls or texts. I’ve set up a spreadsheet in the Excel app on my phone; this contains formulae that calculate the preliminary price based on different word-count ranges and client types. When a text comes through, I can place the word count into the spreadsheet; the fee is calculated automatically. I reply to the customer with the preliminary price and an invitation to continue the discussion, this time with a sample. At that point, I’ll be able to demonstrate the value I can offer.

I’ve placed this quick-quote service on a dedicated “Get a quote” page of my website. I’ve copied some of the client testimonials onto the page so that customers have a sense of the quality of service I offer.

On the same page I also offer a “Within 1 day” service via email. This provides customers with a confirmed quotation (rather than a preliminary ballpark figure) but requires them to furnish me with additional information and a sample of the work.

The quick-quotation tool has been up for a month at the time of writing, and early results are encouraging. I’ve had around 20 enquiries via text messaging, 4 of which have led to commissions to proofread works of self-published fiction. I also acquired a small, fast-turnaround job for a business client. I’ve turned down requests to proofread a business book and several theses, owing to the time frame.

I’m delighted that I decided to work out a creative solution to my earlier resistance. I’m even more delighted that the outcome has been positive. My fears about what I’d lose have been overshadowed by the decisions I made on how to manage the service: The time limit means that I’m not available 24/7; the fact that I’ve limited the service to text messaging means that I’m using a device that is always with me, so there’s no added inconvenience on that front; I’ve not been so inundated with requests that the service has felt intrusive; I can tweak the Excel spreadsheet at will; and if I decide to withdraw the service, I can update my website in an instant, even from my phone. I’ve also found a way to display the information in a way that provides social proof of the quality of service I offer.

Even more importantly, perhaps, carrying out this exercise has forced me to think more broadly how customer trust relates to pricing transparency, and about whether I want to increase my customer engagement further by being more explicit on my website about my pricing model – but that’s another test for another time! For the next few months, I’m going to focus on monitoring the “Within 1 hour” text-messaging service.

Taking professional responsibility

Resistance to change is a normal human emotion. However, we are business owners. We work for ourselves. There’s no one in the HR department to walk us through the changes we might need to make even though we feel nervous about them. Change is inevitable. The fact that it can be anxiety-inducing needs to be acknowledged. The key is to ensure that anxiety doesn’t get in the way of action. The decision I’ve made about my quick-quote service will not be something all my colleagues will agree with or want to implement. That’s fine – they have their businesses to run and I have mine. They make the decisions that are best for them while I make the decisions that are best for me.

Still feel reluctant to make a change, or learn something new? Break it down into smaller components so that it seems more manageable. View it as an opportunity for discovery rather than failure. And analyze it in terms of what you stand to gain and what you stand to lose. Chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results. Whatever happens, you’ll know that Woody and Thomas would pat you on the back for it!

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.

November 11, 2015

The Business of Editing: A Fifth Fundamental Business Mistake That Editors Make

Profit & Business Model

A business has to either be profitable so that its owners can earn a living or it has to have investors who are willing to fund the business for years and let the business lose money during those years because of greater future profit expectations or the business has to go out of business.

The first option is usually the option of the freelance editor. We rarely can convince people to invest in our business and let us generate losses for years (the Amazon model), because of the type of business editing is — personal and hands on. Amazon sells goods; the goods are not unique and buyers of the goods do not care whether Jeff Bezos has ever touched the goods. Amazon sells to us based on customer service and price.

Editing, as we know, is different. We are usually hired because of our skills (there are semi-exceptions as in my business model in which clients hire me because of my skills and because of the skills of the editors who work for me) and those skills are hands-on skills. We are hired to read each and every word and pass judgment on the words, the sentence structure, the grammar, and so on. Editors are hired to exercise judgment and improve a product; we do not expect Amazon to edit the book we buy from it.

As a result of this difference, Amazon can go years without making a profit, but freelance editors cannot. And Amazon can get people to invest money in it based on a not-written-in-stone promise of future rewards; outside editors themselves and immediate family, it is the rare person who will invest in an editor’s business with the expectation of a future profit.

Yet there is something in our business model and in Amazon’s business model that is identical (aside from the need for stellar customer service): We both need data to determine how we are doing and what we should be doing. The types of data we need are different, but we both need data.

Why Collect Data?

And this is where editors make a fundamental business mistake. Many editors simply do not collect data or if they do collect data, they make no business use of it. Yet data can tell us lots of things about our business. For example, data can tell us whether

  • a client should be kept or fired
  • certain types of projects should be avoided or sought
  • we are charging too little or too much
  • our focus is wrong or right
  • we need to start a marketing campaign now or can wait
  • our marketing campaign is a success or failure
  • making an investment is likely to increase or decrease our profitability
  • subcontracting would be a smart or dumb direction to go
  • and myriad other things

— all we need to do is gather and explore the data.

We’ve discussed several times how to calculate what to charge (see the five-part series, Business of Editing: What to Charge), but knowing what you need to earn and charge does not necessarily equate to profitability. It is not difficult to have calculated the rate you need to charge, charge that rate, yet be unprofitable. That’s because knowing what to charge is only part of the necessary information.

Consider the type of editing you do. I focus on long manuscripts, the longer the better, preferably 1,000 manuscript pages or longer. Offer me a manuscript that runs 15,000 pages and you will make me happy. Over the years I have been professionally editing, I have collected data on hundreds of projects — in fact, on every project that has passed through my office. Among the information I collected was project subject matter; whether single author or multiauthor; number of manuscript pages (which was calculated using my own formula); the time it took to complete the project; the number of projects I was offered, indicating the number I accepted and the number I turned down; the reason for acceptance or rejection; and the fee I was paid. (I gathered other data, too, but for our discussion, this list is sufficient.)

Analyzing Data

From this data, I learned what manuscripts were likely to be profitable for me. It is important to remember that we are not all alike; that is, what is profitable for me may be highly unprofitable for you. What is important, however, is to know whether what you are doing is, in fact, profitable for you.

Editors focus on editing — it is what they know best and what they feel most comfortable doing. But freelancers wear multiple hats. Not only do they wear an editing hat, but they wear the business owner’s hat. When wearing the business owner’s hat, editors need to assess their business objectively. It does not matter whether they love or hate editing; what matters is whether they are running a profitable business. To make that determination, editors must objectively collect and analyze data about their business.

One of the most important bits of data is time. How long a project takes to edit — not approximately, but exactly — is key information. It is information that is used to determine your effective hourly rate as well as the number of pages you can edit in an hour. It also is information that is needed when giving a client a quote. An editor needs to know whether, as a general rule, a heavy edit means 2 pages an hour or 6 pages an hour, because that helps you determine the likelihood of profitability at different price points.

The Excuses

I have heard editors say that data collection isn’t all that important for them because they bill by the hour, not by the page or project. Contrary to such sentiment, it is equally important to collect data regardless of how you charge, unless your clients have unlimited budgets (and I have yet to meet a client who does). It is also important because in the absence of data, it is not possible to determine whether you are making a sufficient profit.

Editors have told me that they know they are making a sufficient profit because they are able to pay their bills, put a little bit away in savings, and have money for entertainment, and that they are doing this without collecting and analyzing data about their business. Accepting that as true, data collection is still necessary because you may well discover, for example, that you can earn the same but in less time and with less effort. Or you might discover after analyzing the data that although you are making a profit, you are spending more time and effort to do so than is warranted and that making some changes in your business would increase your profit but require less effort.

The Reason

Data collection is key to business growth and profitability. Data inform decisions; data provide a foundation for action. It is a fundamental business error to not collect as much data as you can about your business.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays include:

May 11, 2015

On the Basics: Don’t Burn Those Bridges!

Don’t Burn Those Bridges!

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

I’m a firm believer in “What goes around comes around,” in both personal and professional circumstances. The other day, I got a message from a colleague who had just heard from a former client with an urgent request to proofread something that had to go to the printer in two days. She had done freelance work for this organization for a couple of years, until a new communications director came in and, as is common with newcomers to a workplace who want to create an impression of being effective and activist, made a lot of changes, including canceling my colleague’s contract and bringing her work in-house.

My colleague’s reaction to the proofreading request? Not the understandable “Go to blazes, you jerks; you shouldn’t have dumped me in the first place,” but a chuckle, and the professional and smart “Glad to help, despite the tight turnaround time.” She charged for, and was paid for, her time. And it looks like the client will keep using her now, even though not as much as during their previous relationship.

She did the right thing: She didn’t burn that bridge in the first place, when the new director pushed her out of work she loved doing. She was understandably annoyed and disappointed at the time, but handled the situation professionally by accepting it and telling the new person, as well as the people she had been working with, to keep her in mind if things changed. Nor did she burn it when this new opportunity popped up to do so. (Of course, she might have had to say no if she was booked up at the time, or if the fee was too low because the new person changed the organization’s pay rates. There are good reasons to turn down work, but that can be done politely and professionally, without burning the bridge in the process.)

We never know when bad situations might turn around and change for the better. When you leave a job or “fire” a client, do it with care, because you may need that employer or client again in the future — sometimes just for a good reference, but sometimes for new work as well, as my colleague discovered. Even if you’re treated badly, be the one to take the high road.

One way to cope with being mistreated by a current, past, or prospective client is to write a response in the heat of the moment — but not send it. Let it sit and simmer for a day or two, then go back to it and either rewrite it in a more tempered voice, or delete it unsent completely. Some people will react well to a carefully written response and reconsider their decision or behavior, while others simply aren’t worth responding to because nothing you say will change the situation. By writing out your initial response, you get to vent your feelings; by not sending that initial response, you maintain your professionalism and stay on that higher road.

This can also relate to unfairly hurtful or insulting messages. Another colleague recently received an utterly horrible response to applying for an editing project. The prospective client apparently didn’t understand that the colleague was doing what had been requested — providing a sense of what the colleague would fix for the client’s material — and responded by insulting her professionalism in terms that were almost unbelievably crude.

Of course, that took care of any interest the colleague had in working with that prospective client, but she wasn’t sure whether she should respond to the insulting message. It didn’t feel right to let such unpleasantness go unanswered, but it also seemed unwise to continue to engage with the person. Advice from the discussion list where she posted about the situation was unanimous: Don’t respond, because this person is clearly unhinged on some level and responding would probably only escalate the behavior even further. Sometimes it’s better to let ugly behavior go unpunished than put oneself at risk of further ugliness, especially because most people who behave the way that prospective client did are unlikely to change their natures.

There are times when it might be worth responding to unpleasant messages from prospective or current clients. One option would be, as another colleague suggested, to say something like “Thank you for taking the time to respond to me. I tried to give you what you asked for. Because I consider it important to understand how I failed so I can improve myself, I would appreciate your taking a few moments to give me guidance. Your help in my education is greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for your time and effort.” This kind of approach is a slight dig at the bad behavior but couched so that the recipient shouldn’t be able to take umbrage, no matter how they might like to do so.

It probably also is worth remembering that apparently wacko, out-of-control messages could have been triggered by trauma in the sender’s life with no relation to the matter at hand — not that that’s ever a good reason for behaving badly, of course. Refraining from responding, especially with anything snarky, could be a bridge-builder if the sender comes to their senses later and gets in touch to apologize (although some situations are clearly unlikely to fall into that category).

A “don’t burn bridges” policy can also apply to being turned down for a project in a pleasant and professional way, rather than an insanely inappropriate way, even when you were sure you were the perfect candidate, invested a lot of time and effort into your application, or received an encouraging response to the application. You can ignore the “Thanks, but no thanks” or “We chose someone else” message; you can go ballistic over having been strung along; or you can respond with something like, “Thank you for letting me know of your decision. Please keep me in mind for future assignments or if the chosen candidate doesn’t work out.” It might even be worthwhile to send the occasional message to such prospects to remind them of your existence and availability, although that should be done carefully, and not very often.

Another related aspect of protecting bridges is saving files from finished projects and past clients. Since it’s constantly getting easier to save material electronically without cluttering up your home office with paper copies of completed projects, most of us can easily and inexpensively retain versions of almost everything we’ve ever written, edited, proofread, translated, indexed, or otherwise worked on. Doing so can mean rebuilding the bridge to past clients, because people do get back in touch after years of not hearing from them, wanting to receive old files or get help in updating or republishing such projects. That has happened to me on occasion over the years, and just happened to a colleague who was able to profit from restoring an old document for a long-lost client, thanks to having that project file stashed in her online storage system.

We can’t predict how people will respond to our queries, applications, and projects. We can’t control the behavior of people who seem worth working with until they turn into clientzillas. We can, however, control our own responses and behavior. Taking the high road rather than burning bridges can only strengthen our editorial businesses.

Have you ever received horrible messages from prospective or current clients? How have you responded to difficult prospects or clients, or kept from burning a bridge in a way that paid off for you later?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

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