An American Editor

June 20, 2016

On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting — A Rebuttal

by Louise Harnby

In On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting, Rich Adin posed the following questions:

  1. Is it ethical for copyeditors to ever do ballpark pricing as a way to induce clients to hire them?
  2. Does the editor have an ethical obligation to not give ballpark quotes, because they can mislead a client about the real cost?
  3. If the editor gives a ballpark quote, is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark price?

1. The ethics of inducement

Rich states: “The ballpark quote has two purposes: (1) to enable the client to comparison shop and (2) to let the editor demonstrate her price competitiveness, which means the editor — consciously or subconsciously — wants the price to look as low as possible.” Rich’s concern is that ballpark quoters use an unrealistic (low) price, based on limited information, to induce the client to hire them.

He concludes that “to give a ballpark quote for copyediting a manuscript is unethical unless the editor is willing to stick to that price — that is, the quoted price is the maximum the client will have to pay. It is unethical for an editor to angle to be hired by using ballpark quoting to demonstrate the editor’s price competitiveness.”

I think Rich is missing the point regarding how the ballpark price works.

The ballpark price is just that — a ballpark, an approximation. It’s a rough guide, a preliminary quick quote that enables my potential client to decide whether they’d like to continue the discussion during the comparison-shopping stage.

It certainly is not binding — and it can’t be precisely because it’s a ballpark price based on limited information. It cannot be the maximum price a client will have to pay at billing stage because I haven’t seen the files. In order to provide the client with a price that will appear on the invoice, I must acquire this information. And that’s exactly what ballpark quoters like me do. We start with the ballpark price, then move onto a conversation, and then evaluate the project and firm up the parameters of the project; finally, we provide a confirmed quotation. That confirmed quotation, not the initial ballpark quote, is the price to which, ethically, we must be willing to be held.

In my view, the ballpark quote has three purposes: (1) to enable the client to comparison-shop; (2) to save me time by eliminating lengthy discussions with potential clients whose budgets are below my fee scale; and (3) to enable me to start a conversation with a potential client (whose budget is in accordance with my fee scale) about what the project looks like, what’s required, and what the true cost will be.

Rich states: “I am aware of very few editors who will quote a price to which they are willing to be held without having the manuscript in hand.” I agree. And if the editor supplied a ballpark quotation and, after that, failed to take the opportunity to evaluate the project before agreeing to be hired, completed the project, and submitted an invoice that was higher than the ballpark quote, justifying that higher fee on the grounds that more work had been required than anticipated, yes, that would be an unethical scenario. But it’s also an absurd scenario. That’s not how ballparking works.

Ballparking isn’t an alternative to confirmed true-price quoting — it’s an additional preliminary stage that occurs beforehand. It’s an invitation to a conversation that may end up in a confirmed booking or may end up with either party deciding to walk away before hiring takes place. It’s not unethical to invite a conversation.

2. The ethics of realistic quoting

In the second part of his analysis, Rich says: “The truth is that ballpark quotes for copyediting are deceptive and are structured to mislead the client as to the ultimate cost. Editors will not deliberately overquote (i.e., quote a price the editor knows will be higher than the real price), because the competition does not overquote.”

I reject this statement that ballpark quotes are designed to mislead. As I said above, the ballpark quote is designed to provide an approximate price that will enable the potential client to ascertain whether it’s worth spending additional time having a more detailed conversation about what’s required.

Editors (I use the term broadly) who have tracked their project data carefully will have a bank of rich data on which to base their ballpark quotes so that the prices are realistic (particularly if they’ve followed Rich’s invaluable advice about determining their effective hourly rates).

The proofreading I carry out for publishers (usually on copy-edited page proofs) is rather different from the so-called proof-editing I provide for independent fiction authors. The proof-editing I do for independent fiction authors is rather different from the proofreading I do for students whose second language is English. I have 5 years’ worth of Excel spreadsheets containing nearly 500 projects. With only a little filtering and formula-creation, I can tell you how long it takes me on average to proofread a 20,000-word politics dissertation, proof-edit a 40,000-word fantasy novella written by a self-publishing author, and mark up a 90,000-word PDF of economics page proofs supplied by a publisher. Since I know what I want to earn, working out the price isn’t that difficult. I’ve developed a little phone-based Excel tool with an array-based formula that can work out a price that takes into account the type of client, the type of project, and the economies of scale for larger projects. One of my Canadian editor colleagues has a website-based widget that works in a similar way.

Here’s the thing. My ballpark prices are pretty darn accurate. So when I provide a ballpark price (based on very little information) for proof-editing a novel for an indie author, and that author decides to get in touch to continue the conversation, and ends up sending me the project file for review, I’m almost always able to say, “Yup, the price I gave you will stand as a confirmed price. Let me know if you want to make a booking.”

What if the project needs a different level of intervention than anticipated and therefore requires a price that is higher than the one I ballpark quoted? Well, remember, the client still hasn’t hired me. So I can tell the client that, having now reviewed the project in detail, I feel that the service I was asked to ballpark quote for (e.g., proofreading) is not appropriate. If I supply the service that I think is required (e.g., copyediting), I can explain why, and provide a revised realistic quotation, or I can guide the client toward alternative suppliers. Either way, we’re still having a conversation — both parties can still walk away.

Here’s another thing. I don’t underquote. I don’t overquote. I just quote. I know what I want to earn. Either the client’s budget is within the range of my fee scale or it’s not. If it is, the ballpark quote might turn into a conversation that in turn becomes a confirmed booking further down the line. If it isn’t, the client and I won’t get beyond the ballpark quote — she asked for a price. I gave her a price. She considered it too high and she never contacted me again. Or she thanked me, told me it was too high, and said she was going elsewhere. Or she thanked me, said it was too high, and asked me to lower my price (and I said no).

I think that it’s unethical for an editor to provide a quotation that she knows is unrelated to the ultimate cost and then accepts a commission on the basis of that misleading quote. I also agree that it would be a public relations disaster. But the notion as applied to a ballpark quote is unrealistic precisely because it’s premised on the assumption that the ballpark quote is given instead of a review-based confirmed quote, rather than in addition to it.

I have a price. The client has a price. Either we fit or we don’t. The ballpark isn’t about misleading the client into hiring me for work that I’ll later charge a higher price for. It’s about enabling the two of us to start talking or start walking. That’s not unethical; it’s sensible.

3. The ethics of the final price

The final section of Rich’s essay asks: “Is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark quote?” His answer is, “Yes, there is. That limit is zero; clients should not be asked to reward editors for their unwillingness to bear the burden of underquoting.”

I disagree. Again, Rich’s view is based on a misunderstanding of how editors like me use, and justify using, a ballpark-quoting mechanism. My final bill is not based on a ballpark quote, and I suspect that’s the case for most ballparking editors. Rather, my final bill is based on a confirmed quote that I provided after the ballpark quote.

Just so we’re clear — the process works as follows. The client contacts me to ask for a ballpark quote. I provide one. If we’re on the same page financially, the client and I then begin talking. As part of our more detailed conversation about what’s required, I ask for a substantial sample of the work (perhaps even the whole project). If all goes well, we firm up a price (mine usually stays the same as the ballpark, but it could change). The price that’s signed off — one that’s realistic and based on work that both parties agree is required ­— is not the ballpark price, but the follow-on confirmed price.

Is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark quote? No, there is no limit because the final bill is on a different price, one that was agreed after the ballpark quote. Of course, if the editor agreed to be hired for a project without asking for any detail about the project and without asking to see what the project entails, and offered only a ballpark price, and the client accepted this ballpark price but didn’t realize that it was still approximate, and then the editor billed a higher fee on the basis that the price was only a ballpark, then that would be unethical!

The scenario is surely unrealistic, though. It’s unfathomable that I (or any other ballparking editor) would end up in such a situation. I’ve never had a client say, “Hey, Louise, I’d like to confirm a booking. Take your time. Do what you need to do. Money’s no object. Whatever it costs is good with me!” They always want a confirmed top-line price. (I have previously tested offering a confirmed ranged price — one that came with a guarantee that the invoice would be between £X and £Y — but I’ve abandoned that now).

Even if the client was prepared to agree to such approximate pricing terms, I wouldn’t agree to them! It’s a recipe for disaster (as Rich pointed out). I don’t want to waste a minute of my working day arguing with a client over the invoice I’ve submitted because it’s higher than the one-and-only approximate price I’d provided. Such an invoice may as well have “Don’t rehire me” emblazoned on it! I don’t confirm a booking from any client without knowing the clear parameters of a project, and without having discussed and agreed to those parameters (including price) beforehand.

Summing up

The ballpark price is an approximate price. It’s a conversation starter, another (initial) stage to the quoting process. It’s a way of increasing customer-engagement by enabling the client to comparison-shop quickly and efficiently. And for those of us with plenty of work offers, and a determination to reduce the amount of time we spend engaging with people whose pockets don’t fit our fee scales, it’s a time saver. The ballpark price is an effective tool that can, and I believe should, be tested by those editorial freelancers who have the necessary data to do so with accuracy. Those that don’t have that data should start collecting it.

Rich is right that behaving unethically is a PR disaster — that applies to pricing as much as to any other aspect of business practice. But there is no reason why the ballpark price has to be unethical as long as it’s used appropriately — as the starting point of the pricing discussion, which is exactly how I use it, and how every other ballparking editor I know uses it.

Can ballpark pricing ever be used unethically? Of course it can, just as confirmed quotations can be handled unethically. It can be handled honestly but badly, too, in the same way that other elements of editorial business practice can be handled honestly but badly. It would be wrong of me to deny that there are unethical and poor practices in our industry. But there is much good practice too. And where there is bad practice, I’m inclined to blame the individuals, not the mechanisms.

The discussion reminds me of scissors. In the hands of a tailor, they’re a superb tool; in the hands of a toddler, care and supervision are required; in the hands of a torturer, they’re a dangerous weapon.

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

June 15, 2016

On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting

In The Business of Editing: Ballpark Quoting for Copyediting, I discussed the logistics of giving a ballpark quote. The essay raised these questions, but left the answers to another essay:

  • Is it ethical for copyeditors to ever do ballpark pricing as a way to induce clients to hire them?
  • Does the editor have an ethical obligation to not give ballpark quotes because they can mislead a client about the real cost?
  • If the editor gives a ballpark quote, is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark price?

This essay discusses these questions.

Is it ethical for copyeditors to ever do ballpark pricing as a way to induce clients to hire them?

What is the purpose of ballpark quoting if not to induce a client to hire you for a project by demonstrating to the client your price competitiveness? No other purpose is served by quoting. The client wants to compare your price to the prices of other editors. Recall that the information a client needs to give is limited in this situation. (If you ask to see the manuscript before providing a quote, you are not giving a ballpark quote. A ballpark quote, by definition, is a very rough guess as to the expected cost based on very limited data.) The provided information is generally the word count, the subject matter/type (e.g., children’s nonfiction), plus the hoped-for schedule.

The ballpark quote has two purposes: (1) to enable the client to comparison shop and (2) to let the editor demonstrate her price competitiveness, which means the editor — consciously or subconsciously — wants the price to look as low as possible. And there’s the rub. The ballpark price may well have no close relationship to the ultimate, true price, and that gap between the ballpark quote and the real price will be a result of multiple factors, not the least of which is the editor’s desire to be hired.

It is certainly ethical to quote a price for a project; editors do that every day. But there is a great difference between quoting a price when the editor has all the necessary information to form a solid quote and making a quote when the editor has such minimal information that she knows beforehand that the ballpark quote will not withstand the test of editing.

I am aware of very few editors who will quote a price to which they are willing to be held without having the manuscript in hand (or at least a satisfactory portion of the manuscript). Yes, editors do have agreements with clients that act as a limit, but even then whether they accept or reject the project requires seeing the manuscript. The key to ethicality, I think, is to quote a price to which we are willing to be held. We are all willing to quote a price to which we will not be held.

In my view, to give a ballpark quote for copyediting a manuscript is unethical unless the editor is willing to stick to that price — that is, the quoted price is the maximum the client will have to pay. It is unethical for an editor to angle to be hired by using ballpark quoting to demonstrate the editor’s price competitiveness.

Does the editor have an ethical obligation to not give ballpark quotes, because they can mislead a client about the real cost?

As noted, the purpose of ballpark pricing is to show that you’re not overpriced in the editing marketplace, not to place a ceiling on what the client will ultimately be billed. The lack of a clearly stated ceiling can mislead a client, even if the quote is accompanied by disclaimers (caveats, if you prefer).

The disclaimers are a problem in and of themselves because they both delegitimize the ballpark quote and fail to stand out in the same way as the price number does.

Of what value is a quote of $500 accompanied by a disclaimer such as the following?

Price subject to change once the manuscript is received and reviewed for clarity of writing style and amount of editing work actually required. Price also subject to change based on what editorial tasks client requires as part of the copyediting; the extent and number of references, tables, and figures; the style to be applied; …

The disclaimer’s list can go on and on to cover all contingencies, and it needs to go on and on to avoid locking the editor into the ballpark price. (It is worth remembering that if a disclaimer is left unstated, the client will, justifiably, assume that it is inapplicable.)

But think about how we act as consumers. When we ask for a quote for repair work or a product we want to buy, our minds focus laser-like on the number we are given, not on all of the caveats that accompany the number. Should the work be done and the number then go up, we argue that we were quoted $X and shouldn’t have to pay more. (Of course, if the final number is less than $X, we think we are getting a bargain and do not argue to pay the higher quote price.) Studies show that the conditions get lost and the consumer only hears — and remembers — the quote number. The consumer loses the idea that the quote number was intended to be ballparkish and thus subject to upward revision as more foundational data is accumulated.

The editor who insists that the quote was only ballparkish is fighting a losing public relations battle. The client will tell everyone that the editor uses deceptive practices. The truth is that ballpark quotes for copyediting are deceptive and are structured to mislead the client as to the ultimate cost. Editors will not deliberately overquote (i.e., quote a price the editor knows will be higher than the real price), because the competition does not overquote; the competition often underquotes in hopes of getting hired. Editors know that in many cases the ballpark quote for copyediting is an underquote, which is why they attach disclaimers.

If the editor expects the ballpark quote to be accurate within, say, 10%, then the only disclaimer needed is to say that “the final price might be as much as, but no more than, 10% higher than the quote, based on the actual time and effort required to copyedit” or “the final price will not exceed the quote.” But editors rarely attach one of these disclaimers to the ballpark quote.

Because editors know, or should know, that ballpark quotes are misleading, how can it be ethical to provide such a quote?

If the editor gives a ballpark quote, is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark price?

We all know that editors will disagree about ballpark pricing; their opinions on its ethicality are largely based on their own practice. The editors who think it isn’t unethical give ballpark quotes (or approve of giving ballpark quotes). Each of us is smart enough to rationalize that the ballpark quote we give clients is ethical even if we believe that the quotes given by our competitors are not.

Which brings us to the question of limits to underquoting, or the limit to how much the final price can exceed the ballpark quote. Copyediting has so many variables, it is, in my view, impossible to give an accurate or nearly accurate ballpark quote.

When I am asked to provide a quote, I always provide a “firm” quote, never a ballpark quote. But if I were to stray outside my subject matter areas and types of clients — for example, were I to wander into fiction editing and dealing directly with authors — my quotes would be “softer” than the firm quotes I currently give. Because my experience dealing directly with authors and copyediting fiction is limited, it is likely that any quote I would give would be an underquote. Who should bear the burden of that underquoting?

I am of the conviction that the editor who makes the quote should bear that burden. If editors have sufficient experience to give a firm quote, they should stand by the quote and use it as a learning tool for future quotes. If they have the experience but deliberately choose to underquote, then they should be held to the quote, as there is no legitimate reason to have underquoted.

If the client has provided all the information asked for, then it is the editor who should bear the burden of an underquote, not the client. If the editor failed to ask for vital information, that is not the client’s fault. If the editor failed to define what she meant by copyediting, that is not the client’s fault. The bottom line is that when an editor is asked for a quote, it is the editor’s responsibility to ask for all the needed information to calculate that quote; it is not the client’s responsibility to guess what information the editor needs. It is also the editor’s responsibility to not give a quote in the absence of essential information. And it is the editor’s responsibility to take the information and create an accurate quote. The only responsibility the client has is to provide the information that the editor asked for.

Note the balance of responsibilities: All but one falls on the editor’s shoulders. Consequently, if a quote is an underquote, it is the editor’s fault. The editor should bear the burden of the underquote, and the quote price should be the maximum price that the client pays.

Is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark quote? Yes, there is. That limit is zero; clients should not be asked to reward editors for their unwillingness to bear the burden of underquoting. The client who asks for a quote is asking the editor to set a price; a professional editor does so and tacitly agrees that the quote price is the maximum price the client will pay. To do otherwise shifts the burden of underquoting from the editor to the client, which is both unethical and, in my view, impermissible. The one exception is when the quote has a disclaimer like that discussed earlier (“the final price might be as much as, but no more than, 10% higher than the quote, based on the actual time and effort required to copyedit”).

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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