An American Editor

April 1, 2013

The Business of Editing: The Ethics of Billing

Consider this scenario:

You are asked to edit a manuscript that, according to the client, will require a “heavy” edit. The prospective client asks how much you will charge. You have three choices: (a) charge by the page; (b) charge by the project; or (c) charge by the hour. You’ve looked at a sample of the manuscript, and tell the client that you will charge $35 per hour to edit the manuscript. The client accepts and tells you that the budget for the project is $3,500. When you receive the complete manuscript, you find that the page count is 550 manuscript pages.

As you edit the manuscript, you discover that some chapters require more time to edit than others but that, on average, you are able to edit 12 pages an hour. Finally, the day has arrived when you have finished editing the manuscript. On finish, you have spent 46 hours editing.

Based on your hourly rate, your bill to the client should be $1,610 (46 hours × $35/hour), but you know that the client is prepared to pay $3,500, which is the budget for the project and represents the equivalent of 100 hours of work at the agreed-upon hourly rate. How much do you bill the client?

To me, this is an open-and-shut case: You bill for the 46 hours you spent, not a penny more. But what I have discovered is that many editors disagree with me, and believe that it is okay to bill for the budgeted $3,500.

These editors take the position that the client expects the editing to take 100 hours, expects to pay $3,500, and should not reap the benefit of having hired a more efficient editor who was able to complete the job in less-than-expected time. These editors go further and say that it is the editor who should reap the benefit of the editor’s efficiency.

Yet that is not quite the end of the discussion. What happens, I have asked, if instead of the editing taking 46 hours, it takes 120 hours? Who absorbs the 20 hours over the expressly stated budget? Here the position shifts and the usual — although not always — response is that the additional hours are billed to the client as well because the agreement is an hourly fee. To be fair, a small minority of the editors who believe it is okay to bill for the budget amount also believe that the budget amount is the upper limit and that if an edit takes longer, it is the editor who absorbs the overage. At least some of the editors who think billing for the budget amount is okay also believe that any hours over the expressed budget should be absorbed by the editor.

Another group of editors think that if it looks like the budget will be exceeded, at the moment of that revelation, the editor needs to contact the client and come to an agreement with the client about how to proceed. To me, this latter group belongs with the group who will bill for the overage because a client will be hard-pressed to say “stop” in the middle of editing.

The question of what to bill is a matter of ethics. Ethics are the rules and standards that govern the conduct of a person or a member of a profession. At least in the latter aspect (member of a profession), editing is not governed by standards of conduct; as a result, ethics decisions (yes, ethics is both singular and plural) are based on one’s personal standards.

Consequently, there is no ethical standard to which one can point and say that billing in the described scenario needs to follow a particular rule or standard of conduct. Regardless of that universal absence, I think there is a fundamental, universally agreed-upon, understood, and expected standard that applies: the keeping of one’s bargain or word; in other words, avoiding deceptive practices.

I think that standard (or expectation) should govern the question of how much to bill in the scenario described. The agreement was for $35/hour of editing with the understanding that the client had $3,500 at most to spend. If the editor could not fulfill that agreement, then the editor should decline the contract or choose an alternate method of billing in which the sum is fixed and not correlated to the number of hours, such as a project fee or a per-page rate.

Yet, as I noted earlier, many editors disagree with me. I recall having this discussion 20 years ago on an editorial forum, and 20 years later, the discussion still arises.

I hesitate to call the “bill-for-all-you-can” approach dishonest, but that is what it seems like to me. To my mind, the idea of a bargain between two parties is that each should be a winner, not that one be a winner and the other a loser. In the case of the scenario described, the editor is the winner in at least two aspects: (a) the $35/hour fee the editor desired has been agreed to, and (b) the editor has been awarded the job at the fee the editor desires. The client is the winner in at least two aspects: (a) in the event that the editor finds the project easier to deal with than the client expects and can do the job in fewer hours, the client expects to pay less money for the editing and save on its budget, and (b) the client expects its potential out-of-pocket costs are limited to the budgeted amount.

Under the ethics standards proposed by the editors who believe they alone should reap the rewards, the editor is the winner (a) because the editor will be paid more than the agreed-upon hourly rate should the editor complete the project more quickly than the client anticipates, and (b) because the editor does not accept the client’s budget as a ceiling, the editor is protected against a project taking longer and will bill for overage. For the reasons that the editor is a winner, only the client is a loser.

If in relationships there is supposed to balance, there is no balance in the situation where the editor always wins and the client always loses. (It also raises the question of what the incentive is for the editor to edit efficiently as the editor will earn more by being as inefficient as possible.)

The argument I have not yet made against the unbalanced approach’s inherent dishonesty, but which is an important argument, is this: The agreement between editor and client was for an hourly fee of $35, an amount that the editor proposed and the client accepted. If the editor finishes the project in 46 hours but charges the client’s budget of $3,500, the editor is really charging $76/hour — more than double the agreed-upon fee, and not the amount that was the basis of the bargain. That another editor might have taken 75 or 90 or 100 or more hours to do the same work with the same level of competency as the editor provided in 46 hours is, to me, a specious justification. Just as I can imagine an editor taking 75 hours to do the editing, I can imagine an editor taking 28 hours, yet none of the “bill-for-all-you-can” editors suggest that the client should be billed for just 28 hours because it is quite possible that another editor would have been even more efficient.

In editing, ethics is a personal matter. However, I do not see any acceptable justification being proposed for abandoning the “golden rule” — do unto others as you would have done unto you — just because an opportunity to do so arises. An agreed-upon bargain is one that should be kept and honored. That is how I conduct my business and how I expect those who do business with me to act.

What do you think? With which view are you aligned? Do you think billing for the budget amount if you take fewer hours to perform the job is ethically justifiable? Do you think it justifiable, especially without the concurrence of the client, to ignore the client’s expressed budget limit and bill for overage?

March 25, 2013

The Elusive Editorial Higgs Boson

Physicists believe that they have discovered the subatomic particle, Higgs boson or “God particle,” that will help explain what gives all matter in the universe size and shape. For us editors, that “God particle” of editing remains elusive.

As we have discussed many times, editing is much more than looking at Chicago section 8.18 and applying the “rule” that president is lowercase unless the president is named, as in “The president boasted…” versus “Boasting about his tenure, President Smith….” So, just as physicists search for the Higgs boson of life, I search for the Higgs boson of editing. What is the essence of editing that gives it life? That gives a well-edited manuscript style? That makes editing a great and learned profession? That sets editors apart from other users of the same language?

It is true that, these days, a goodly portion of an editor’s time is spent on mechanical work. There is little genius in play when we manipulate a reference to make it conform to a set style. The genius is not in fixing those references, but in helping authors communicate their intent and meaning to readers, which is done by word choice and sentence structure.

It is true that today, for example, the meanings of since and because have so blurred and merged that they are nearly synonymous. Consequently, authors and editors often don’t choose between them — each is viewed as a 100% substitute for the other. (And I also admit that there are only a handful of us editors, like me, who still insist on the difference and who are reluctant to embrace the “new” English. The dinosaurs, perhaps, of editing.)

Yet isn’t there a subtle, oh so slight, yet meaningful difference between the two words? Doesn’t since still cast off an aura of time passing? Doesn’t because still conjure up its root in causation?

I raise the since/because issue because I see it as a good representation of the subtleties of the editorial “God particle” and the difficult search for that element. Just as we have a whisper of difference in today’s meanings of since and because, so we have just a whisper of the existence of the editorial Higgs boson.

I asked a colleague whether she ever thought about the philosophical underpinnings of editing. She looked at me as if I was from another planet and said: “No, and I don’t know of any editor who has done so.” To be truthful, neither do I know any editor who has spent even a fleeting moment thinking about the philosophy of editing. Instead, we tend to focus on the job at hand; after all, thinking about philosophy (or philosophically) pays no bills.

But as the years have passed, I have been increasingly thinking about the philosophy of editing. I know what good editing does (and perhaps why I am a good editor), which is this: Good editing enhances the communication between an author and a reader, making sure that the author says precisely what the author intends to say and that the reader understands what the author says as what the author intends it to say. Diagrammatically, the editor sits between the author and reader as the “translator,” ensuring that communication flows unerringly. But that is only what makes for good editing; it doesn’t address the loftier philosophy of editing.

The philosophy of editing seeks to answer the why questions, rather than the what or how questions — the philosophy, rather than the mechanics. Why do we choose particular structures? Why do we resist the singular their? Why does English lack…? Why is “to go boldly” not the same, or as understandable, as “to boldly go”? Why is the editor’s role more like that of a librettist than a composer (and why is it that the composer gets all the credit)? Why is it that, in editing, there are only guides and not written-in-stone rules as in other learned professions?

And on and on go the questions — the questions for which there are no style guides to provide answers or to point the searcher in a search direction. But perhaps the overarching question — the question that truly embraces the philosophy of editing concept — is this: Why does editing lack a universally accepted and applied moral and ethical code of conduct, that is, one that is universally understood and accepted by all parties to the editorial transaction and to which all parties subject themselves?

Sure, there are rogue scientists and rogue soldiers and rogue priests and rogue politicians and rogue whatevers — but there are no rogue editors, because there are no ethical and moral expectations, outside the standard, run-of-the-mill, societal expectations, that are applicable to and bind the parties of an editorial transaction. And that is because there are no editors hunting for the editorial Higgs boson.

Editing should be a serious profession. Yes, I know that we editors claim we are a serious profession, but then we act otherwise. We do little to no deep thinking about our profession. (Consider this: Nearly all professions have a “think tank” — except editing. Nearly all professions have a lobbying group to promote the their ideas and goals among policy makers and the public — except editing.) Individual writers may do little deep thinking about the philosophy of writing, but that gauntlet is picked up by those whose focus is on “literary criticism” — the H.L. Menckens and George Bernard Shaws and Michel Foucaults and Harold Blooms and Noam Chomskys who are both writers and literary critics.

Literary criticism is based on the philosophical discussion of literature’s methods and goals. The editorial Higgs boson could be defined as being “the philosophical discussion of editing’s methods and goals.” Where are the editors who focus on the philosophy of editing? Where are “the philosophical discussion of editing’s methods and goals?”

As I wrote earlier, increasingly I am thinking about the philosophy of editing and I am searching for that editorial “God particle” — that wisp of truth that will change the profession of editing at its core, that will ultimately lead to the “laws” of editing. Just as physics and chemistry and language and business have their immutable laws (Murphy’s being the most commonly invoked one that crosses all professional boundaries), so does editing — they just wait to be discovered.

Think about how a pursuit of the editorial Higgs boson could reshape the conversations that editors have amongst themselves. Instead of “What does Chicago say about xyz?” the question would become, “Why does Chicago say this about xyz?” and the discussion would be less about a supposed “this is the way it must be” to more like “should this be the way it is done?”

Such discussions might eventually lead to the creation — or perhaps more accurately, the recognition — of the Ten Editorial Commandments, which might govern all parties to the editorial transaction. At that moment in time, editing will be able to take its place in the pantheon of the great professions; the editorial Higgs boson will have been found.

What do you think? More importantly, if you were asked to contribute to the creation of the Ten Editorial Commandments, what would your contribution be?

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