An American Editor

October 28, 2015

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

If you read your mortgage agreement, or the agreement you “accept” when you get a credit card, or the terms and conditions of any other contract you sign or agree to, you will note that all of the important terms are carefully, even if not intelligibly, defined. The bank, for example, wants no dispute over what default means.

Defining terms is a fundamental business practice. If you and the client do not define what is meant by copyediting, you may mean what editors generally define as a “light edit” and the client may mean an in-depth, detailed, developmental edit. You’ll quote your fee based on your definition and the client will expect its definition for the quoted price.

Let “error” rain (reign?): What constitutes “error”?

As part of our standard business practices, we need to include a definition of “error” in our discussion about whether we will accept a particular job. Just as failing to treat editing as a business is a fundamental error that editors make (see The Business of Editing: Fundamental Business Mistakes That Editors Make), so is failing to define “error” a fundamental mistake that editors make.

It is true that using “there” in place of “their” is an error, a “typo” if you will, that needs to be caught and corrected. And it is equally true that it is part of an editor’s (and proofreader’s) job to find and correct such errors. But if homophones formed the beginning and end of the definition of error, there would be little need for professional editors; computers can be “taught” to flag homophones (and homonyms) and, presumably, just about any educated person could correct the erroneous ones.

A fundamental mistake

There are at least four reasons why failing to define “error” is a fundamental mistake. First, in the absence of the definition, the editor sets no boundaries on her work. Second, clients are quick to note that an editor failed to catch an “error,” which does not boost an editor’s reputation, without either client or editor having first agreed on what makes something an error. Third, in the absence of a definition, it is difficult to set an appropriate fee — and get the client to agree to that fee — because the editor thinks oranges while the client thinks apples. Fourth, is the question of responsibility — who is responsible? —  and its companion, compensation — who pays?

An example

Not so long ago I copyedited a poorly written book. The client did not want to pay for the level of editing that the book truly needed, plus saddled the project with a very tight deadline. As a practical matter, I do not do fact checking unless specifically hired and paid to do so; consequently, it is the responsibility of the author to, for example, correctly spell names, with my job limited to checking for consistency in spelling and querying any inconsistencies.

In this project, the author twice, in a 200+-page manuscript, referred to a well-known person in the book’s subject area. Both times the name was spelled the same. From my perspective, there was no error. Alas, the book was published to scathing reviews. One of the errors the reviewers noted was the misspelling of the well-known person’s name. The author blamed the publisher, which blamed my client, which blamed me. I was asked to defend myself for this and a few other specific “errors” that the reviewers noted.

My first step was to point my client to our original correspondence in which I defined what the level of editing the client asked for meant — that is, its parameters — and, addressing the name situation more directly, the definition of “error” that was incorporated into that correspondence. I pointed out that there is a difference between what is commonly known (i.e., broadly known to general populations) and what is specially know within a specific discipline (i.e., known to subject-matter experts). There is also a difference between being hired for subject-matter knowledge and expertise and being hired for language–grammar expertise. I had been hired for language–grammar expertise, not subject-matter expertise. My definition of “error” was limited to well-recognized errors of language and grammar, not to subject-matter errors; in my definition, the author is responsible for the accuracy of all subject-matter “facts,” including the correct spelling of names of recognized-within-the-discipline experts.

I also pointed out to my client that “language–grammar errors” does not mean arguable choices. As an example I usually point to the debate regarding using “since” to mean “because” (for a short discussion of the temporal–causal distinction, see Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009, p. 748 “since,” but be sure to also read the discussion of “because” on p. 91, and compare it to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2015, p. 98 “because”). My definition of error does not say that because a dictionary or a usage guide permits substitution of one word for another, the use of an alternate constitutes error. In other words, my replacing “since” (viewing it to be restricted to time-related uses/senses) with “because” (or other appropriate word) in non–time-related uses/senses (e.g., “Since 1975 it has been customary to classify…” but “Because it has been customary to classify…”) is not an error just because a dictionary or usage guide views the words as interchangeable. My change has to either make meaning less clear or be inarguably wrong; in all circumstances, it is not error for me to not have corrected a fact that would not be known as incorrect in the absence of subject-matter–specific knowledge.

(In this particular case, I also noted that the author had several opportunities to correct the misspelled name but had, instead, continued to approve the misspelled version. As a technical book, the author presents herself as the expert and thus has to accept responsibility for technical errors.)

The publisher was demanding that the packager pay the costs for correcting the errors, buying back and destroying the initial print run, and reprinting a corrected version. The packager was looking for me to shoulder those costs. (I also pointed out to my client that it had chosen the proofreader for the project — as well as deciding whether there would be proofreading — and that these “errors” were not deemed errors by its chosen proofreader.)

Without having defined “error” and the parameters of the level of editing the client requested before accepting the job, my client would have been able to assign the responsibility to me. In addition, the fee I had quoted the client would not have considered the value of my accepting such responsibility.

Value and fee

I know that many of you are asking, “What value?” In the usual case, there is little to no value under discussion because it is rare for a client to expect an editor to accept financial responsibility for editorial decisions; this was that rare case in which my client expected me to accept financial and nonfinancial responsibility for its client’s dissatisfaction. In the more usual case, the client asks the editor to reedit at the editor’s expense, to “fix these errors.” Without having defined what constitutes an error and what the requested level of editing includes and excludes beforehand, the editor is at the client’s mercy — and what may have been a profitable project can suddenly become highly unprofitable.

The questions

The questions are really these: In the absence of defining “error” and the parameters of the work to be done, am I implicitly promising the client an error-free job as defined after-the-fact by the client? Do I owe the client any compensation for not providing an error-free — as defined after-the-fact by the client — document? If I do owe the client any compensation, how is that compensation calculated?

The answers to these questions are for another day.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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October 21, 2015

The Business of Editing: Fundamental Business Mistakes That Editors Make

Editors are often connoisseurs of language first and of business last. People become editors for many reasons; few become editors because they have evaluated editing as a business and decided that they can make their fortune as an editor. People become freelance editors for a variety of reasons, often including as a reason the desire to be their own boss — but without fully understanding what it means to run a business.

Ask your colleagues to show you their business plan — the one they used to decide to setup Gonzo’s Editorial Services and storm the editorial barricades. Both of us will be surprised if they have one to show you.

This is not anything unusual in the business world. Many, if not most, small businesses are established without a business plan and without fully understanding what is involved in running and maintaining a business. But editors seem to be especially neglectful of acquiring the skills to run a business successfully before starting the business — they often look for courses on editing, but not on business, and most editing programs offer little by way of business skill development. And in the United States, there is no national organization that offers a comprehensive editorial business skill-building course.

When I started as an editor (in January it will be 32 years ago), I had a leg up on nearly all my competition when it came to business skills — I had already been involved in and had run several successful small businesses. Having those business skills, combined with the editorial skills I had developed working for a publisher in-house, I was able to rapidly grow my editing business.

Not having those basic business skills is a fundamental mistake that editors make. Perhaps an even more fundamental mistake is the refusal to recognize that they are running a business and need to learn and develop basic business skills. Too many times have I been told by colleagues that they are editorial artisans, not tradespersons or businesspersons. Such thinking limits an editor to earning a basic living (maybe; too many do not even earn at that level) but not much more.

If editors were more businesslike, the first thing they would do is evaluate whether editing was the business for them. Knowing how to do something, even knowing how to do it well, is usually not enough to ensure success. You can be the world’s greatest editor yet have no clients and no income or too few clients or too little income, all because you haven’t the necessary business skills to succeed. Perhaps, then, being a freelance editor is not the correct business for you.

What I often hear is that “I am satisfied with what I earn” or “I am satisfied with the number of clients (projects) I have.” But delve a bit deeper and what one discovers is that the person has come to terms with their situation; they have become satisfied out of necessity, not from choice.

A sure sign of weak business skills is charging a fee that is not enough to raise the editor above the poverty line (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It). When a colleague tells me that they do not need more, it is sometimes because they have supplemental income, such as a pension or a significant other who is paying the bills. But in that case, they are not treating editing as a business; it is more of a hobby — a business needs to stand or fall financially on its own. When they tell me that their clients cannot afford more, I wonder why they aren’t seeking clients who can pay more. I also wonder how they know their clients cannot afford more. For most of us, our clients are from all over the country and world — we do not know them except via impersonal contact. At what point have we crossed that line that divides our interests from our client’s interests to say that our clients are always honest and are more important than ourselves? As far as I know, editing is not a path to sainthood.

Not objectively evaluating what we need to charge is a fundamental business mistake editors make. When you buy groceries, the prices you pay are not arrived at via crystal ball gazing or tossing dice in the air and seeing how they land. A lot of calculation goes into determining the price to charge for a container of yogurt. The grocery wants to charge enough to be sure that it can meet its expenses and open its doors tomorrow, but not so much that you will shop elsewhere. There is also a psychology to pricing: charge too little and clients do not respect you or your skills; charge too much and clients will go elsewhere.

Why do editors think editing is any different a business than, say, a grocery? Probably because editors do not view editing as a business and do not think we have a product to sell. Consider how you set your rate (see, e.g., On the Basics: Dealing with the Perennial Question of Setting Rates for Our Work). Many editors will say they looked at what other editors were charging for similar services. (How do they know the other editors’ services are similar? All that we really know is that they are doing “copyediting,” not how they define “copyediting” nor how good they are at copyediting.) Or they checked out some “national rate chart” (needless to say, without checking out how valid that rate chart is; see, e.g., Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts). And when they found that their colleagues were charging $20 an hour, they charged $20 an hour — even though to meet their expenses they need $30 an hour (see Business of Editing: What to Charge).

It is not that editors do not survive at these rates; they do. But one needs to look at how “well” they are surviving at such rates. In some cases, they are able to survive because someone else in the household is bringing in sufficient money to make up the difference. Or because they are retired and have a supplemental income. What happens to the editor when that other income is lost? It is a question not posed and not answered.

What editors miss is that they are a business and they need to evaluate what they are doing as a business, which means as if they had no other income source. How successful are they if they cannot stand on their own?

Once we begin to view our editorial services as a business, we can apply all of the business fundamentals to our service — not just fees, but also invoicing, marketing, defining our services, deciding which projects we will accept and which we will reject, and determining what constitutes our business day and week, and more. When we get a handle on these things, we will see that our path has changed — for the better.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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