An American Editor

June 22, 2016

On Ethics: The Ballpark Quote in the Macrocosm

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

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

We all know that this is incorrect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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