An American Editor

June 8, 2016

The Business of Editing: Ballpark Quoting for Copyediting

In a recent essay found on “The Proofreader’s Parlour” (see Quoting for the Customer — Ballpark Prices and the Editorial Freelancer: Part 1 and Part 2), Louise Harnby discussed giving prospective clients ballpark quotes via her website (Get a Proofreading Quote). Although the essay was intended to be broadly applicable, I think it is most applicable to proofreading.

The underlying premise is that with her years of experience, Louise can give a fairly accurate, albeit ballpark, quote without any information other than the type of project (“suspense thriller, self-help psychotherapy book, or children’s book,” etc.), the deadline, and the word count. I admit I haven’t done proofreading in many years, so I will concede that Louise, who is a very experienced proofreader, can give an accurate ballpark quote for proofreading with just that basic information. In my view, this system does not work as well for copyediting. (However, see my essay The Business of Editing: To Post or Not to Post Your Fee Schedule?)

Copyediting is less mechanistic than proofreading. (I am not implying that proofreading is wholly mechanistic; I’m just saying that it is more mechanistic than copyediting.) The copyeditor has to decide whether OK or okay is the correct form; the proofreader has to make sure that, whatever the decision, it is consistently applied. The copyeditor has to decide whether Canal Street runs north–south or east–west; the proofreader needs to make sure that whichever direction it runs, it does so consistently.

I do not wish to be seen as trivializing the role of the proofreader, because the proofreader does play a very important role in the editorial process. But I want to emphasize that the decisions that the copyeditor makes are not remade by the proofreader; the proofreader is the enforcer of those decisions and catches the copyeditor’s mistakes when applying those decisions. (The proofreader does much more, but this essay is not intended to exhaustively describe the differences between copyediting and proofreading.)

Consequently, in determining a price for a project, a copyeditor needs to consider how well written the manuscript is; the proofreader expects to receive a decently written manuscript because it has already been copyedited. But how can the copyeditor determine the manuscript’s quality of writing from the minimal information outlined above and then give a reasonable ballpark quote?

Complicating the quote process are the subject area, the length, and the schedule for the project. Granted, these complications would be relatively easy to take into account if it were not for the question of how well written the manuscript is. A professional editor might be aware that, very broadly speaking, she can copyedit six pages an hour of biographical text that is reasonably well written, and she therefore knows that if a manuscript is 240 pages, it will take roughly 40 hours to copyedit. Thus, if the deadline is 2 weeks, the editor can surely say (1) I can meet the deadline and (2) because I charge $35 an hour, the price will be $1,400. Except that the editor does not know whether there are any footnotes, any references that need verification, any facts that need correction or questioning, or any of myriad other things that will affect the time required. Consider this: What is the effect on pricing of having to look up hundreds of acronyms because the author hasn’t defined them? Or ask yourself what the effect on pricing is of having 300 references that need to be in APA style but aren’t. For example, they should be in text this way: (Anderson, 2007); in the reference list alphabetically; and in the following form:

Anderson, A. (2007). Finding werewolves in prehistoric literature. Journal of Integrity & Nonintegrity, 35, 201–207.

Unfortunately, these references have been submitted to you in AMA style — in text as a superscripted number in number order and in the reference list as

Anderson A: Finding werewolves in prehistoric literature. J Integ Noninteg. 2007;35:201–207.

And what if the references have to be renumbered or alphabetized? (For additional discussion, see The Business of Editing: Journals, References, & Dollars, Business of Editing: Dealing with Reference Renumbering, and The Business of Editing: Uniqueness & Being Valuable to Clients.)

Ballpark quoting, as we can see, hits the copyeditor with a serious problem: it doesn’t permit or provide for sufficient information before the editor offers up the quote. The resulting number is likely to be far from even ballpark status — way past the left field bleachers.

The editor needs to get more information, but the more information you gather about the project, the less ballparkish the quote will be. And where do you draw the line? Is it sufficient to know that there are references? Or do you need to know how many? Does it matter whether there are both references and footnotes?

Of course, much depends on the subject areas of the books you copyedit. If you work on only romance fiction, it may be possible to define a small number of parameters to produce a fairly accurate ballpark quote, whereas it might be nearly impossible to do so if you only copyedit biographies.

There is, moreover, another problem with ballpark quoting: the way clients often focus on the number — the ballpark quote.

The way ballpark quoting works is that a client asks for a quote to copyedit an 80,000-word spy novel that needs to be completed in 2 weeks, and the editor nearly instantaneously replies with a price (recall that the price is quoted with manuscript unseen). This number becomes a fixation point. It is the number against which quotes from other editors will be compared; more importantly, it becomes the price that you are expected to not exceed.

Ballpark quoting is often the first step in the client–editor relationship and the first contact of the editor by the client. Editors think that once a client has retained them, they can discuss what the client wants and what they as editors will do in step 2, and then they’ll be able to adjust the price accordingly. Sometimes this happens, but often it does not. The editor often finds the client unwilling to budge, unwilling to go higher than the ballpark quote. The problem arises because the editor and the client aren’t speaking the same language. That is, neither defines copyediting in the same way.

Once the editor encounters resistance, she has lost the opportunity to educate the client about why she should be hired and at what price. Ballpark pricing puts quoting to the forefront. Yet what editors need is for our clients to understand what we will and will not do within a certain time frame for a particular price. (For further discussion, see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Saying Yes, Then No, Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations, and The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote (II).)

The question then becomes, Is it ethical for copyeditors to ever do ballpark pricing as a way to induce clients to hire them? The follow-up questions that need to be asked and answered are these: (1) Does the editor have an ethical obligation to not give ballpark quotes because they can mislead a client about the real cost; and (2) if the editor gives a ballpark quote, is there an ethical limit to how much the real cost can deviate upward from the ballpark price? The discussion of these ethical questions must be reserved for another essay.

There is an important difference between ballpark quoting and having a set fee that is applicable no matter what the complexities of the manuscript are. For example, I have a contract with a major publisher to provide copyediting for a set per-page price. That price does not change; nor does how it is calculated change. I do, however, reserve the right to decline particular projects. If I accept the project, the client knows the fee that will be charged. This is different from ballpark quoting — there are no contingent factors that can affect the final price.

Do you give ballpark quotes for copyediting? How do you deal with the unknowns? Do you limit the amount that the quote can rise?

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 http://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/blog-the-proofreaders-parlour/value-on-or-money-off-putting-a-price-on-your-editorial-services) 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 16, 2015

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

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.

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

Part II presents 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.

“I’m not trying that!”

Editors, like any other professionals, can fall into the trap of resisting change – for example, not trying out a new marketing strategy; claiming they have no need for business tools such as macros; or refusing to take on work that requires using a new platform, software package, or format. All of us have either said, or heard one of our colleagues say, “I don’t work in that way,” “That’s a bad idea,” “I don’t like the idea of that,” “That’s not the way I do things,” or “I just couldn’t bring myself to do that” at some point in our careers.

We work in a highly competitive, crowded, and international marketplace. We’re business owners, not hobbyists. That means our businesses have to earn us a living. Our market isn’t static – it’s always shifting. New software and digital tools are developed; new platforms on which we can make ourselves visible emerge and expand in terms of their importance; our clients ask us to work in ways that colleagues in the editorial field 40 years ago likely never anticipated; the types of clients for whom we are discoverable, and the ways in which they find us, are more varied than I expected when I set up my proofreading business only a decade ago.

All of that means that resisting change and failing to learn the new skills or to try new methods (whether technical, promotional, or practical) simply doesn’t make sense for today’s editorial business owner. If we refuse to change, we refuse to compete – and that’s a path to business failure.

So why do we resist change? According to psychologist Edgar H. Schein, Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, it can be a result of “learning anxiety” (Diane Coutu, “The Anxiety of Learning,” Harvard Business Review, March 2002). Says Schein:

“Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that we will look stupid in the attempt, or that we will have to part from old habits that have worked for us in the past. Learning something new can cast us as the deviant in the groups we belong to. It can threaten our self-esteem and, in extreme cases, even our identity.”

Back in 2002, Schein discussed the issue in relation to the challenges of organizational change and transformation, corporate culture, and leadership. But that quotation can apply just as well to the editorial solopreneur in 2015. We may be anxious about making a change for fear of not doing it well; equally, we might have heard or read negative opinions from our colleagues about using a particular technical tool, testing a new marketing effort, or changing to a new way of working — and that makes us wary of being seen publicly to be trying such things, lest they draw negative attention.

So how might we go about tackling learning anxiety so that we can embrace change rather than resisting it? There are several options:

  • Plan the change so that it’s considered and systematic
  • Redefine “failure” as “lessons learned”
  • Do a cost-to-benefit analysis

Plan the change so that it’s considered and systematic

If you think there are changes that should be made, or new skills learned, approach them as you would a business plan. By breaking the changes down into components, they will seem more manageable and less anxiety-inducing.

  • Write down the proposed changes (e.g., learning how to use macros; working with a new editorial tool; working in a new format, such as PDF using digital markup; studying a new editorial skill such as proofreading or localization; testing a new marketing technique or pricing model; making yourself visible to a new type of customer group such as self-publishers, students, or publishers).
  • Make a list of the objectives (e.g., increased productivity, new work stream, more diverse skill base to offer potential customers, enhanced customer engagement).
  • Make a note of how difficult you think the task(s) will be to learn and implement.
  • Make a note of how making the process of bringing in these changes makes you feel (e.g., reluctant, anxious).
  • Record the financial outlay required to make the changes to your business.
  • Consider the time frame in which you think you could make the changes. If there are several, you can stagger them so as not to overload yourself in terms of action and pressure.
  • Ask yourself whether you will need assistance to make the changes (e.g., a trainer or mentor) or whether you can implement them on your own.

Redefine “failure” as “lessons learned”

We must accept that change always brings risk. However well we plan change, however well it appears to meet our business objectives, the outcomes aren’t always what we hoped for or expected. The key here is to redefine those results in a positive light whereby “failure” becomes “lessons learned.” What if that cold-calling session to local businesses doesn’t bring in any immediate new clients? What if that training course in a particular software program won’t pay for itself because no clients will ask you for that skill? What if some people in your social media network think that the directory you’ve chosen to advertise in is disreputable and encourages a race to the bottom, rates-wise?

All those outcomes could occur; but it’s also possible – particularly if you’ve made thoughtful, informed decisions about what changes to test – that you might acquire a new lead, take on a piece of work using your software skills, or generate interest from your online colleagues about your marketing efforts. And even if you do end up in the worst-case scenario, who’s to say that the changes you’ve made won’t reap rewards farther down the line? Who’s to say that those colleagues who were disparaging about your efforts are correct in their assumptions?

Being prepared to try new things is how we learn. When the outcomes are not as expected, that’s not failure; that’s information on which we can make future decisions about what not to do, what needs tweaking, and what needs retrying. Not being prepared to learn and change in a competitive market is more likely to lead to failure that trying something new. If you don’t try, you don’t know.

There’s nothing wrong with trying something new, only to find that it didn’t work. Any normal human being trying to be creative when running their business is not going to get it right every time. And if things don’t go to plan, you’ll be in great company. Here’s Woody Allen: “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” And here’s Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Do a cost-to-benefit analysis

If you’re nervous about making a particular change, do a cost-to-benefit analysis by considering the following questions:

  • What will I gain from the change?
  • What will I lose if I change the way I do things?
  • What will stay the same, even though I’ve changed things?
  • How will the changes make me feel once I’ve completed them?

Working through these questions can highlight benefits and challenges, and help you to think through ways to maximize the former and minimize the stress of the latter.

In Part II, I’ll discuss how I used a cost-to-benefit analysis to help me introduce a change to the way in which I invited customers to engage with me over pricing. I wanted to make things as easy and as quick as possible for my customers to ask me for a price, but in a way that wouldn’t ignore value. Up until this point, I’d let my anxiety stop me from testing a new method. However, by thinking about what I might gain, what I might lose, what would stay the same, and how any changes would make me feel, I was able to come up with a solution to test.

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.

July 10, 2013

The Ethics of Editing

Most professions have a code of ethics that governs what members can and cannot (or should and should not) do. Editing, unlike many professions, lacks a standard code of conduct or ethics. Whatever code governs editing, it is unwritten and unique to the individual.

Consider this issue regarding billing. The editor and the client agree that the editor will be paid on an hourly basis but that the client has a budget. In the course of the negotiations, the editor asks the client what the budget is, and the client tells her. Let us assume that the budget is 100 hours at the agreed upon hourly rate.

The project goes much more smoothly than either the editor or the client expected, taking the editor 50 hours to complete. The question is: Should the editor bill for 50 hours or 100 hours?

I would have thought the answer was obvious, but in discussions with colleagues, I find that opinion is split. Some editors believe that the agreement was for an hourly fee and thus only 50 hours should be billed; others believe that although the fee was based on an hourly rate, the client expects to pay for 100 hours and the project was completed in less than the budget number because of the skill of the editor, consequently, the editor should bill for 100 hours — the client should not be rewarded for the editor’s extraordinary skill.

My follow-up to the latter argument is to ask what would happen if under these circumstances the editing took 125 hours: Should the editor bill for and the client pay for those additional 25 hours? In this case, there is yet a further split among the editors, this time among those who would charge for the 100 hours. Some say no, the client is not responsible because the editor knew there was an outside limit; others say yes, the client is responsible because the agreement was for an hourly rate, not a project rate.

Setting aside for the moment whether I agree or disagree with any of my colleagues, the bottom-line issue is one of ethics, and editors have no ethical code, outside of their own moral code, to guide them as to which decision is the correct decision. This is a failure of the editing profession and does harm to our clients.

A client really has no recourse against an editor except to not pay the invoice, not hire the editor again, not recommend the editor, and to sue the editor. The last option, to sue, is really a weak remedy except in the case of billing disputes. A number either adds up or it doesn’t, but word choice and quality of editing are matters of opinion.

In the example at hand, I think the only ethical editor is the one who bills for the 50 hours. When the editor bid her price, she did so knowing her skill level. The editor was in the best position to determine the likelihood of finishing within budget. That the client is getting an unexpected “bargain” as a result of the editor’s skills doesn’t really play into the equation. After all, doesn’t the editor include her skill level in determining her fee rate? Isn’t that one of the arguments editors make to justify why they charge more than another editor?

I think the other editors are wrong because the client doesn’t expect to pay the budgeted amount; the client expects to pay only for the actual hours the editing took with the budget amount acting as a maximum. In the instance where the editor went over the budgeted time, the editor’s underestimating the amount of work involved is not the client’s fault or problem; the editor is supposed to be the expert when it comes to editing and have the experience to estimate the time more accurately. Neither charging the client the budget amount nor for additional hours strikes me as justifiable.

That is the problem: They do not strike me as justifiable, but I cannot point to an ethical rule that governs the situation.

The scope of the problem is readily seen when it is understood that there are no guidelines for what constitutes a proper edit; no uniform rule that governs how a page is calculated; no clear outline of what copyediting, for example, includes or excludes; no universally accepted guidelines that have to be met to call oneself a professional editor. In terms of professions, editing is a Wild West.

What it means is that each editor should make these things clear to clients, preferably in writing. Doing so serves both the editor and the client because it clarifies the duties and responsibilities of each party and the remedies in case of violation. What is really needed is a code of ethics and conduct to which editors can subscribe and to which they can point clients. With such a code, a body of guiding principles, explanations, and opinions can be created. Essentially I am talking of the creation of a “style guide” for editor ethics.

Until that happens, however, we are stuck with personal ethics. It is not that personal ethics are necessarily or inherently bad, it is just that no one has an idea what action will be taken until the problem arises and the editor has to apply her personal code of ethics to the problem at hand. By that time, it may be too late; the problem may have gotten out of hand.

I do not know how one finds an editor whose personal code of ethics matches a client’s expectations. There are so many possible ethical disagreements that it is impossible to ask about them in advance. In the end, it comes down to trust. Trust can be a very shaky foundation for a business relationship in which the end product is but a collection of opinions, especially as loss of trust can be the result of misunderstanding.

What suggestions do you have?

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