An American Editor

April 21, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: A Call to Action — Nudging the Customer to Work Out Whether the Fit is Right

The Proofreader’s Corner: A Call to Action — Nudging the Customer to Work Out Whether the Fit is Right

by Louise Harnby

Unless we’re a member of that small cohort of editorial freelancers who do it all, we’ll have good-fit customers and bad-fit customers. Take me, for example — I’m a proofreader who specializes in working for social science and trade publishers. I also proofread for independent authors whose manuscripts have been professionally edited.

Experienced writers (e.g., academics) and mainstream publishers know what a proofreader does, so they don’t ask me to index, copyedit, structurally edit, or write. They know the differences between these levels of editorial service. We all know we’re a good fit for each other.

Often, this isn’t the case with the customer who is unfamiliar with the publishing process. I’m regularly contacted by self-publishing authors whose first manuscript has been beta read by their mother and their best mate. The likelihood of this file being ready for proofreading is miniscule. Give me a badly written and poorly organized manuscript and I’ll do my best to eradicate spelling mistakes, ensure there’s subject–verb agreement, tackle any misplaced apostrophes and wonky homophones, and attend to overall consistency of the client’s preferred style. But the manuscript will still be badly written and poorly organized when I’m done with it. I won’t apologize for this any more than my dentist will apologize for not being a good plumber.

Then there are the infrequent (one or two a year) requests from students who want me to write sections of their doctoral theses. The likelihood of this being possible (I only have a Bachelor’s degree) and acceptable (surely that would make it our doctorate) is zero on both counts.

In the above two examples, there’s a knowledge gap — I know we’re not a good fit for each other but these customers don’t. Why would they? For them, proofreading is a catchall term that means “help me sort out the mess.” Alas, that’s not my job. So what to do?

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that every minute I spend responding either to a student asking me to collude in her cheating, or to an honest independent author who needs a deeper level of editorial support, is a minute spent communicating with a bad-fit customer, and that’s a waste of my time and a waste of theirs. I’d rather spend my nonbillable hours engaging with good-fit customers than explaining why I won’t, or can’t, take on a particular project.

Furthermore, like many of my colleagues, I’m keen to educate the customer so that they understand more about the different levels of editorial intervention, and what’s appropriate and when. Take self-publishing as an example: The massive growth of this market has meant a substantial increase in the number of independent authors facing a steep learning curve as they move from being writers to publishers. And while there’s a ton of advice for them out there, we are still a long way from a world in which we can be sure the indie author understands exactly what service is needed and who can provide it.

As I said, the solutions are out there. I’ve produced a free ebooklet, Guidelines for New Authors, and created an FAQs page at my website that summarizes key issues aimed at helping customers identify whether we’re a good fit. I’m not unique by any means. Many of my colleagues, too many to list here, offer excellent examples of this best practice that aim to guide their customers in the search for appropriate editorial services — in the form of blogs, terms and conditions, FAQs, guidance sheets, ebooklets, and other knowledge bases and resource centers.

Is the Information Discoverable?

I hit a problem early on. All the necessary information was available to help the customer determine whether we were a good or bad fit, but I was still receiving a huge number of inappropriate requests to quote, indicating the message wasn’t getting through. I stopped taking student proofreading work two years ago, but still the inquiries kept coming. My Guidelines for New Authors were popular, but not popular enough — I was still being asked to copy- and structurally edit, and receiving sample manuscripts that weren’t even close to being ready for proofreading. I concluded that I wasn’t enabling the customer to navigate their way to the information effectively, so they couldn’t ascertain whether we were a good match.

From a marketing perspective I’ve always been a keen believer in focusing my blurb on what I can do rather than on what I can’t. I still believe that this is an appropriate strategy for my website’s home page. However, there comes a point for many of us when too many bad-fit customers choose (understandably — they’re busy, too) to move straight from the home page to the contact form. No matter how many other pages there are on our websites detailing our areas of expertise, there’s still a good chance that our customers miss these (or don’t spend much time reading them). Jakob Nielsen sums it up nicely:

How long will users stay on a Web page before leaving? It’s a perennial question, yet the answer has always been the same: Not very long. The average page visit lasts a little less than a minute. As users rush through Web pages, they have time to read only a quarter of the text on the pages they actually visit (let alone all those they don’t).

(“How Long Do Users Stay on Web Pages?”, 2011)

This was my problem—the information was there but it wasn’t discoverable enough. I needed to nudge my customer with a stronger call to action.

Nudging the Customer With a Call to Action

Given that I was receiving inappropriate requests to quote via my Contact page, I decided to nudge my customer about the good-fit issue by placing a strong call to action right above my email address — a statement saying:

“Help me to help you…Whether you’re a colleague or a potential client, if you have a question for me, you may find that I’ve already provided the answer on the FAQs page. If you wish me to provide you with a quotation, please click on the button below. This will open a one-page PDF that summarizes what I need to know about your project. Then call or email me to discuss your proofreading requirements in more detail.”

Underneath, I placed a large gray button—”What I need to know when you contact me…” Clicking on this button links through to the guidance sheet.

It’s early days so I don’t have anything statistically significant to report at this point. But already I’m receiving much more detailed information from potential clients that proves they’ve read the guidance sheet and have considered the different levels of editorial intervention. This means I’m able to assess whether we are potentially a good fit much earlier in the process. The results? Fewer email exchanges, much less time wasted quoting for projects that ultimately I’d have had to turn away, and happy customers who’ve learned a little at no cost to them.

What I’ve Learned

The primary lesson for me throughout this process is this: What I place on my website and what my customer chooses to read might well be two entirely different things. If I really want them to read something, I need to nudge them at the point where I have their attention. And that nudge — the call to action — needs to be obvious. Says Ginny Soskey, “In the land of calls-to-action, the motto is go big or go home. You can’t make a tiny little button that appears at the bottom of the page and hope that people will click on it — chances are, people are going to miss it.…” (“The Complete Checklist for Creating Compelling Calls-to-Action”, 2013).

If you feel you’re spending too much time fielding inappropriate enquires, or it’s taking too long to establish whether you’re a good match for your potential client, consider introducing specific guidelines to help your customers do their own assessment first. If you already have these guidelines, but you feel they’re not being read, then consider how best to nudge your customer in the right direction. Perhaps it’s your Contact page, or perhaps it’s somewhere else. That’s for you to test. There are no wrong or right answers when it comes to testing — just a gradual, practice-based understanding of what works best for you.

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 the forthcoming Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

May 22, 2013

Business of Editing: Liability Insurance — Nyet

One problem with working as an editor for large organizations is the contract that the organization wants you to sign. Some of the clauses have validity, others I wouldn’t sign regardless of the promised fee (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Contracts — A Slippery Slope and Editors and Contracts: Editor Beware!). Recent discussions on various lists have focused on another requirement: the requirement to carry liability insurance (an errors and omissions policy) for such things as defamation and other events that have nothing to do with editing.

These contracts are boilerplate and prepared by attorneys who rarely have a clue about what an editor does for the express purpose of covering all of the possible arcane matters that can affect a publisher. As editors, we need to say “Nyet!” to these inapplicable clauses.

When I am faced with a demand for errors and omissions insurance, I ask the client to specify clearly and precisely against what risks I need to insure myself and against which the client will seek indemnification. I point out, for example, that defamation is not something an editor does; it is something a writer does. I make it a point to educate the client as to what precisely an editor does and does not do, after which I ask the client whether I am being hired as an editor or to perform some other function, one that has the potential to make me wish I were insured.

If the client expects me to undertake tasks that could make me liable for such things as would be covered by an errors and omissions policy, I know I need to decline the job — because it is not an editing job. Copyeditors don’t decide dosages or medicines, don’t determine whether a beam’s angle is correct, do not determine whether a street is a dead end or a highway on-ramp, or whether a named person is properly described.

I also ask the client whether the client truly believes that anyone would issue an errors and omissions insurance policy that protects against subjective decisions. What I mean is this: What insurance company will insure against my choosing to refer to people as “that” instead of “who” (as in “the patients that” vs. “the patients who”) or will reimburse the client for my use of “followup” (which the American Heritage Dictionary 5e says is OK, along with “follow-up”) as opposed to “follow-up” (which is the only form accepted by Merriam-Webster Collegiate 11e)?

“And what,” I ask clients, “if I use recur when it should be reoccur” (in case you are wondering, except, for example, in medicine, recur means to occur repeatedly whereas reoccur means to occur again once; in medicine, recur is used for both meanings)? “Do you really think an insurance company is going to pay a claim for my using one over the other?” What if I don’t use serial (Oxford) commas or if I do use them and the nonuse/use changes meaning (as in the infamous “eats, shoots and leaves”)?

Every editor knows that issues of language and grammar are rarely right-wrong matters; rather, they are matters of opinion in the sense that both sides of a language and grammar question can be, and often are, correct. How do you insure against making a decision that can be correct but just doesn’t tickle a client’s fancy? Perhaps spelling is in a separate category most of the time, but as followup versus follow-up illustrates, spelling is not in a separate category all of the time.

Clients are intelligent; what clients are not is omniscient. Consequently, when I am faced with a contract clause that requires me to obtain errors and omissions insurance, I endeavor to educate the client. First, I ascertain what the client thinks my job is. Then I educate the client as to what my job really is. If we cannot come to agreement on the parameters of the job I am being hired to do, I say thank you and walk away. To do otherwise is to bring me trouble.

A fundamental rule of editing is that client and editor must agree on the parameters of the job or the client needs to find someone else to do the job. Any editor who fails to grasp and embrace this rule is bound to have unsuccessful client relationships.

After I educate the client about what my job is, I undertake to educate the client as to why the insurance clause should be stricken. The usual response by a client is that if the clause has no relevance to my work, then we’ll leave it and ignore it. Alas, to agree to leave and ignore is to invite danger (for me) into the client-editor relationship. Meaningless clauses need to be struck, not ignored, because once a contract is signed, the unstruck clause is no longer meaningless. It may be that I cannot be held liable for defamatory text written by the author, but I still need to buy the insurance or be in breach of the contract. And do I really want to incur the expense of defending against a client’s attempt to make me liable for not catching that the dose should be 12 mg, not 120 mg?

If the client insists on retaining the clause, I send a revised estimate for the project. I take my original price and add to it a price for the purchase and administration (i.e., my administration) of the insurance. I submit that revised price to the client and explain that my other clients do not require such insurance and that it will be a special purchase just for this client, thus the additional charge. In addition, because the purpose of the insurance is not to protect me but to protect and indemnify the client, the only beneficiary of the insurance is the client, so it is only fair that the client pay the cost.

My experience has been that at this point the client is willing to strike the clause. But I am prepared for when the client simply says sign or go. I always will (and have occasionally had to do so) choose go and refuse to sign.

The only insurance I carry specifically for the benefit of clients is Worker’s Compensation. I maintain such a policy because it proves to the IRS that I am an independent contractor and clients who worry about proving that I am not an employee accept the certificate of insurance in lieu of all other items of proof, such as copies of tax returns or lists of clients, that they would otherwise require (and which I do not wish to divulge).

Part of being a businessperson is drawing lines that I will not permit clients to cross. Those lines are important. They form the basis of the relationship between me and my clients. One of my lines is that I will not sign contracts that contain terms that are not applicable to what I am hired to do, especially if those terms will cost me money.

What do you when faced for a demand for an errors and omissions insurance policy for your copyediting work?

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