An American Editor

March 2, 2016

The Business of Editing: Saying Yes, Then No

This past week has been nightmare week for me. A couple of weeks ago, a long-time client asked me to take on two large projects. After dickering back-and-forth over price and schedule, we finally came to an agreement.

As we were getting ready to begin the two projects, the client wrote saying that its client wants faster schedules, essentially cutting the schedules in half. That began the downhill slide.

The only way these projects could be edited at the level requested and in the style required by my client and their client was to add additional editors to each project and for each editor to work longer than the standard editing workday and workweek.

Not only were these projects long and the writing problematic, but the one project had 6300 references and the second had 3000 references, none of which were in the correct format. And this became battle number one because the problem with the references wasn’t that they weren’t either in or very close to a standard style, but that my client’s client was insisting that they be wholly changed. For example, in the 3000-page manuscript, if the author had submitted journal names as N Engl J Med, that had to be changed to N. Engl. J. Med. I suggested to my client that its client should be persuaded to accept the author’s basic style, which is a standard style, and make sure that all references conform to that standard style rather than trying to redo all of those references.

That was complicated by how the author called out references in the text. The author used a numbering system but not of the style required. In addition, the references were not called out in order. Instead of 1, 2, 3, 4, it was 135, 17, 55, 1, which meant the references had to be reordered.

The troubles piled on.

It isn’t that each of these problems couldn’t be dealt with; they could be dealt with. The problem was that all of the problems needed to be corrected and the manuscript given a “medium” edit and everything completed in less than 4 weeks — and neither the client nor the client’s client would budge, even though this was 6 fewer weeks than agreed upon when I agreed to take on the project.

(The second project had similar, but not identical problems, and its schedule was cut from 6 weeks to 3 weeks.)

It is my policy not to accept work where the schedule and price do not relate. These projects had changed from ones where they did gel to ones where they did not gel. Consequently, I advised my client that we could not do the work under the new schedules without additional compensation and without my client doing some of the mechanical work inhouse.

I sent a proposal outlining what work needed to be shifted to my client and the new price I wanted. Negotiations ensued but in the end, neither my client nor its client were willing to pay more money. As a result, I said no to the projects.

Truthfully, I am perplexed by how clients think about freelancers. None of the people I deal with would donate their time to their companies, yet they expect freelancers to do so. How do they come to the conclusion that we will?

I guess the answer is that many freelancers are willing to do whatever is demanded in order to have some work. The result is that expectation becomes the expectation about all freelancers. This argument has gone on for decades, albeit usually in the guise of hourly or per-page rates, that when a freelancer accepts a low rate, the freelancer makes it difficult for other freelancers to earn a higher rate.

So far this year I have turned down eight projects because there was no balance between the fee and the requirements, including schedule. What bothers me is that I know that the projects I have turned down are being gobbled up by someone else, which makes me wonder how other freelancers earn enough to survive.

Over my 32 years as a freelancer, I have learned that it is not wise to undercut myself by accepting work that makes excessive demands and refuses to compensate appropriately. I realize that once I do accept such work, it is difficult to say no to that client on future projects.

In my early years, before I became wise, I once agreed to give a client a break. I thought I would demonstrate I was a “team player” and concerned about not only my own well-being but my client’s well-being. Foolish me. What I learned is that corporations have no soul, just bean counters. The one who made out was my inhouse contact. My client demanded the same break on the next project and told me that it was clear I could accept those terms because I already had.

That was a valuable lesson for me. I learned that if I didn’t watch out for myself, no one else would watch out for me. I also learned that how I deal with a client sets that client’s expectations for dealing with me. If I want my services to be viewed as valuable, then I must treat them as valuable. If I cheapen the value of my services, my clients will do the same.

When it comes to my clients, I need to be their leader and not be led by them. I know that some of my colleagues think I go into too much detail when I explain to a client why I require certain things or cost more than other editors. But I view that detail as education — education for the client who may not understand why a particular project needs to cost more than the usual fee; education for the client about why my services are valuable, perhaps much more valuable than that of my competition, to the client and to me; and education of the client as to how projects should be evaluated before offering the project to me or to any freelancer.

The bottom line is that we should not be afraid to say no to a project whose parameters have changed — we should not be afraid to say yes, then no.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor


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