An American Editor

May 3, 2017

On the Basics: Being Businesslike

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

The other day, I met a colleague for coffee who’s a freelance writer, proofreader, and voice-over professional who has been doing well at finding and being recommended for projects, but confessed to being terrible at the business side of dealing with clients.

Many of us struggle with the business of editing (and writing, proofreading, indexing, desktop publishing; whatever editorial work anyone here might do). That struggle is one reason for Rich Adin’s book by that very title (The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper), and for this blog and the columns by its various contributors.

Some of the things we talked about inspired this column.

Setting policies and limits

Getting paid can be the hardest part of freelancing, no matter what service or skill you provide. My colleague did the smart thing with a recent project: She asked for an advance on a five-book project for a local arts institution. The plan was that she would be paid a certain amount before starting, receive a payment as she finished each book, and then receive a final payment when the last book was done.

The good news: She got the first payment. The bad news: She didn’t get it right away. Because she knew the project was on a tight deadline for publication, she felt obliged to start work based on the promise that the advance would arrive soon. Even though the first payment did show up soon after she got started and the subsequent payments did come in reasonably on schedule, she realized in hindsight that she ran a real risk of not receiving the advance and there was a constant sense of foreboding over each payment.

Version control

Another project was a great example of scope creep: Every time she turned around, the client added more to the project. Because she did not have language protecting against the ever-expanding project, she was expected to absorb the new requests without additional payment — and felt obligated to do so. She spent a lot more time on the project than she had planned and wound up only being paid what amounted to minimum wage.

Contract concerns

Many of us have had the good luck to work with clients without needing contracts, or ones who adhere to contracts to our benefit. The most frustrating part of another project for this colleague was that the client ignored almost all of the elements in the contract. Yes, they signed it, but then proceeded to violate almost every clause. She eventually asked why they had agreed to the conditions of the contract when they weren’t complying with it.

The client’s response? “We wanted you for this, and no one else.” That is, they were willing to agree to anything as long as she agreed to do the work. She was flattered — and floored.

Because she’s a self-confessed perfectionist with an “if I start something, I finish it” work ethic, she did not want to walk away despite the frustrations. She knew that she was being played, even as she basked in the sense of being wanted and supposedly the only person who could do the project. She couldn’t figure out how to stand her ground, nor could she walk away.

Reality checks

Being committed to providing excellent service can backfire. Whether it’s from a sense of perfectionism and a commitment-based work ethic, or a fear of negative consequences (not getting paid, having the client badmouth you to colleagues), remaining committed to a project when the client is behaving badly is not good business. It’s bad for the project, bad for your mental (and physical) health, and bad for your business. As hard as it is to stand up for yourself, it’s something we all have to learn to do.

Being told “We want you and only you” or “We’ll agree to anything to get you on board” feels great. Sometimes that’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship with a client who does value you and treats you with respect, but sometimes it’s bait for a situation that turns into a nightmare. The flattery can blind us to a headache-inducing client or project.

One way to handle a situation like this is to do a reality check. Some of us may really be so unusually skilled that we’re the only one — or the best one — for a given project, but most of us aren’t all that unique. We want to feel that we are, but we aren’t; except for rare circumstances, we can be replaced. Another editor might do things differently, but differently does not necessarily mean worse.

Feeling irreplaceable can interfere with all kinds of aspects of freelancing, and sometimes even with working in-house. It can blind you to the reality that a client is treating you badly and making you crazy, and that it would be better for your business and yourself to either reset the boundaries or walk away.

Getting help

One strategy that my beleaguered colleague and I discussed implementing has two aspects: (a) keeping a contract template at hand that includes language regarding both a fee advance or deposit and protection against scope creep, so you don’t have to reinvent the contract with every new client, and (b) using your website to state such a policy.

Possible language could be:

“An advance/deposit representing 50% or the first X hours of the project is required with a new project. Depending on the length and scope of the project, interim payments may be required. The finished project will be provided once full payment is in hand.”

And:

“Any requests for work beyond the scope of this agreement/contract will be charged on an hourly basis in addition to the original fee, and will not be provided or performed without such additional payment.”

Not all clients will go along with such a policy, but it could be a lifesaver, especially with an individual author or a graduate student. While most such clients can be trusted to pay as agreed, some either never intend to pay for editorial services or do not budget sufficiently to pay the tab. When they see the final amount in your invoice, they panic, go into sticker shock — and disappear. This can especially be a concern with students, because when they hand in that paper and get that degree, they’re gone, and you might not be able to reach them to chase down your payment.

If you require an advance and establish interim payments for a lengthy project, you protect yourself against not getting paid (or at least against not getting paid in full), and you also help the client. Most people find it easier to pay a couple hundred dollars at a time over a few weeks to months than a couple thousand all at once when the project is done.

Establishing your policy

I hadn’t thought of this until that coffee date, but establishing your business policy for payments and scope creep and posting it at your website is worth considering. Doing so could head off problem clients who could become nightmares of uncontrolled project morphing and payment hassles, no matter how appealing the project might seem on the surface. However, merely posting it at your website is not enough to make the terms part of the work agreement.

It is important that specific policies — regardless of what they address — be included in written contracts and, because many of us do not work under formal contracts, in your e-mail exchanges with the client. At a minimum, your correspondence should include a statement such as:

“Additional terms governing our work relationship are available at ________ and are made an explicit part of our agreement by incorporation by reference.”

(Caution: Do not make supplementary terms available only on social media like Facebook. Not everyone participates. Be sure that wherever they are posted, they are universally accessible without a client having to “join” some third party.)

Finally, having colleagues to lean on and consult can be a lifesaver in establishing good business practices. Even just meeting over coffee to bewail the trials and tribulations of a problem client or project can provide useful insights from someone who has been there and done that.

For more insights

A number of other essays at An American Editor relate to this one and are worth reading for additional insights on the business of editing, including (for additional essays, be sure to search the An American Editor archives):

 

Rich Adin’s book (with Jack Lyon and myself), The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper, provides additional practical insights on this important topic.

The key is to remember that being the world’s best editor is not enough for a profitable career; you must be a good businessperson as well!

How have you handled payment, scope creep, and other business concerns? How have you found supportive colleagues, either online or in real life?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: