An American Editor

August 5, 2020

On the Basics: The power of saying no as a reputation-builder

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Owner, An American Editor

As editorial professionals, whether in-house or freelance, how do we build our reputations for not only what we do, but how we do it and who we are?

It may seem self-evident that doing good work is the first and most-important element of establishing a reputation of someone worth hiring, recommending, referring or subcontracting with. There’s more to it, though.

How we do business contributes mightily to an editorial professional’s reputation as well. And a huge factor in that process is knowing when, and how, to say no.

Saying no

It might seem odd to think of saying no as a way of establishing or solidifying your professional reputation, but it can work. Saying no to projects or clients means you know what’s right — or wrong — for your editorial business.

It’s hard to say no to a client or project, especially when you’re just starting out or funds are low and you’re worried about how you’ll pay the mortgage or rent, but doing so can be essential to the health of both your editorial business and your reputation. Saying no means you’re standing up for what you need from your business and what you expect from the people you work with or for. It means you have standards for, and limits on, how you do your work, and are willing to enforce them. Having the chutzpah to say no when appropriate gives you power.

Those standards or limits, and how saying no relates to them, can include:

Hours when you’re available — and saying no to requests (or demands) that you work outside those hours.

Type of projects you will accept and work on — and saying no to projects that aren’t right for you.

Rates you will work for — and saying no to rates that are too low.

Deadlines you will accept — and saying no to ridiculous ones that would make you crazy.

Treatment you expect from clients — and saying no to rudeness, unreasonableness, demandingness (is that a word?) and any other behavior that disrespects you as a professional.

Getting the message across

You can use your website to present your policies on these kinds of topics, as well as creating a template for responding to messages so you’re prepared to deal with challenges when they occur instead of feeling as if you’re a deer in the headlights of an unreasonable, confusing or inappropriate request. Here are a few suggestions for relaying your “just say no” message without actually saying no (at least, not upfront).

Posting work hours

The best way to head off client calls or messages at hours when you prefer not to be available is to put your “office hours” at your website (you do have your own website, of course). Many colleagues use their websites to let potential and current clients know that they aren’t available on weekends or outside specific hours.

Some people will still push that envelope, but posting your office hours means you have a way to push back. It’s also possible to set up a form of autoresponse that says something like “Thank you for your inquiry. I will respond at 9 a.m. of the next business day to discuss your project.”

You also can still do work outside those posted hours if and when you want — or need — to do so. That can mean saying no to the client but yes to whatever you have to do for a project or deadline to work in your favor.

Choosing your projects

Many colleagues prefer not to work on projects with content that is erotic, violent, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic or involves some other aspect that might be difficult to read. That’s our right. Some of us also have specific preferences for the genres we want to work on: fiction vs. nonfiction, young adult vs. adult or middle grade, fantasy, sci-fi, memoir, etc. You can make those go/no-go decisions as your business policy, post them at your website and incorporate them into your e-mail template for responding to potential clients. Like posting your office hours, that can say no for you.

Again, some people just don’t read such material and might contact you anyhow with the offer of work you don’t want, for whatever reason. You don’t even have to quote a reason, but it’s immensely helpful to be able to couch your no in terms of “Thank you for your inquiry, but as you can see from my website, I don’t work on projects such as this.”

Standing up for your rates

Most of us start out charging at the lower end of rates or accepting salaries at the low end of the bar for a variety of reasons, from lack of experience to lack of confidence. If you haven’t had any formal training or experience in your corner of the editorial world, are just launching a freelance business, want to try working in a new genre or topic area, or have no way of confirming that you’re good at what you do (or want to do), it makes sense to charge less rather than more. That goes for salary levels when you’re job-hunting in the traditional work world, as well as for freelancing.

Keep in mind that if you under-charge, you run the risk of spending so much time on low-paying projects to generate enough income to pay your bills that you won’t have the time or energy to find better-paying work.

Just be sure to, first of all, research rates through professional organizations and resources (such as Writer’s Market information, the Editorial Freelancers Association chart of common rates, conversations with colleagues, etc.) for a sense of what you might be able to charge based on your training, experience and skills.

Second, look for ways to defend what you want or need to charge. Your rates or salary should reflect that combination of training, experience and skill level with the added factor of what you need to cover your expenses and have something left for fun. An American Editor founder Rich Adin calls this your effective hourly rate: the income you have to generate to live your life on a level that is not just sufficient but rewarding; a rate based on you, not on someone else, whether a colleague or a client.

If you’re low on training, get some. Look to professional associations, college certificate programs and business resources to do two things: improve your knowledge and skills, and bolster your credibility. If you’re low on experience, look for ways to do more editorial work, even if it’s on a volunteer basis or at a starting-out rate. If your skills seem below par, look for volunteer opportunities, whether with a professional association or a charity you believe in, to do the kind of work you’re interested in and build up those skills. You might even look for a mentor who could help you strengthen your overall knowledge and specific areas of weakness.

The more you can show that you’re skilled and qualified, the easier it will be to say no to prospective clients that only pay peanuts.

Practice makes perfect

Because the necessity to say no is going to crop up for all of us, be prepared. Write out a script for how to turn down work that isn’t right for you, rates that don’t respect you, deadlines that are impossible for you to meet, etc. It can be brief. It doesn’t have to go into any detail or offer any excuses for your no. You might also want to create a backup script for the insistent client who doesn’t want to hear your no.

If you think about and plan for these moments beforehand, it will be much easier to stand up for what you want your business and your reputation to represent.

The bottom line

So how do all these aspects of saying no contribute to establishing your reputation?

Steeling yourself to say no when appropriate creates the impression of someone who is confident enough to have standards and stand up for them. Someone who is strong enough to resist pressure to behave in ways that would undermine their success and their ability to continually improve the quality of their editorial business. Someone who is more than reliable and skilled.

If you develop your ability to say no, you will establish your reputation as someone who is not only an editorial professional worth hiring, but one who can’t be scammed, scolded, underpaid or pushed around. That’s a reputation worth having.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and — as of 2019 — owner of An American Editor. She also created and co-hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com), sponsored by An American Editor. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

May 4, 2020

Navigating that Request for Proofreading When the Work Really Needs Editing

By Richard Bradburn, Guest Writer

As professional editors, we’ve all had them — the inquiry that arrives in your inbox: “I’ve written my first novel and my wife/partner/best friend/dog told me it’s really good. I can’t wait to publish it but I read somewhere that you should always get books proofread first. Can you give me a quote?”

I’ll assume that we agree you need to see the manuscript to give a definitive quote. You let the prospective client know and receive it by return e-mail. You open the manuscript. It begins with a prologue — a 20-page dream sequence set in cursive. Skipping most of that, you start the book proper. There are five chapters of exposition and world-building before the main character is introduced. Skim-reading further, you see evidence of point-of-view fails, pacing issues, generally poor sentence structure and grammar, and atrocious punctuation.

What to do?

The potential client has asked for a proofread, but in your professional opinion, the book is nowhere near ready for proofreading. It needs some serious copyediting and, your editorial hunch is telling you, probably some major structural surgery.

It may be that if you primarily work, even freelance, for publishing companies, you haven’t faced this dilemma. I’d imagine that someone further up the production chain has assessed what help the author needs and sent the book to you for the appropriate editing. However, it’s a common situation for those of us at the sharp end of the fiction universe who are dealing largely with authors who have no prior experience of the publishing industry or the editing process, and little or no realistic concept of how high the bar should be set if you are producing work for sale.

What follows with the client is a rather delicate dance of managing expectation and massaging ego for the author, and securing the right commission for yourself. I’ve developed a … I hesitate to say method, because that smacks of science … a strategy, if you like, for dealing with the issue.

You could just go ahead and proofread the manuscript (for a monstrous fee). It’s what the client has asked for. There are two issues with this.

One is reputational. If you proofread a shockingly poorly written book, there’s always the chance that it will come back to bite you. Asking the author to kindly not mention that you had anything to do with their masterpiece is all very well, and they may not put you in the front matter, but you have no control over what they say about you in the wider world. The book is going to do very badly, the author isn’t going to understand why (“I spent a lot of money on editing!”) and is probably, given their unenlightened attitude to publishing generally, going to look for someone else to blame. That could well be you. The author might have no great expectations, is happy with a few sales, and brags on social media about what a super editor they had. Other potential clients, perhaps with more idea about what a good book should look like, will look it up and … that’s the end of that potential client relationship.

The second problem is that it’s darned hard to proofread a terribly written book. Ask me how I know. It’s extremely slow, very frustrating and, at the end of it, demoralizing because you know that the end product is still going to be awful, no matter how diligently you work away. It’s also very hard to prevent mission creep from turning the proofread into a copyedit, for which you’re not being paid.

What are your options? You can come straight out with it: “This book isn’t ready for proofreading, because of x, y, and z issues. I suggest developmental (“structural”/“line” — whatever your terminology) editing to start, followed by copyediting …” It’s a tough call, but I’d suggest this is a poor way to start this delicate conversation. You’re giving the author lots of negatives. You’re telling them you’re not going to do what they ask. You’re telling them that their book needs substantial revision/rewriting when they thought they were a few weeks away from publishing. You’re telling them that fixing their book is going to be a lot more expensive than they thought, and require much more work on their part. You’re telling them, fundamentally, that they can’t write for <insert suitable expletive>, and that their relationship with you is going to be an intense and ongoing and expensive one, which they may not have been expecting.

You could just say, in as kindly a way as possible, that the book isn’t ready for editing, and the author should attend some writing classes, or join a local (or virtual) critique group and come back when they’ve gotten better at their craft. There are ways to phrase this so the author isn’t too crushed, but how helpful is that advice, really? Unless the author is local to you, you have no way of knowing what local classes the author has access to, whether the author can afford them, and whether those resources are any good.

As a freelancer, another issue is that you’re essentially rejecting this client. The manuscript might be such a horror show turning it down is an agreeable outcome for you, but let’s say that times are tight and you don’t want to flatly turn away any lead. How do you keep them engaged in your process, but start to realign their expectations?

My first step is always the same: Whenever you ask for the manuscript, always ask for a synopsis as well. A synopsis will tell you far more about the client and the book than actually reading their manuscript (that’s why agents and publishers insist on them in submission packages). With very little investment of your time, you can establish whether the client knows anything about novel structure, whether the characters have any discernible arc, and how distinct and cohesive the plot is. Even the very existence of a well-written synopsis tells you a lot about the client and their ambition, because synopses are hard to write. An author who has written one has read up about submission packages, has gone at least a little way down the path of analyzing their work as a reader would, and has put some thought into their character, plot lines, and overall structure.

This client is eminently worth pursuing, because an ambition to learn their craft is the one thing it’s particularly hard to instill remotely. If they have no synopsis and can’t be bothered to write one, my instinct would be to let that client go for the reputational and operational risks mentioned above. Money talks, but it would have to be shouting for me to take on that project. If they have no synopsis now but send one in later, and it’s a dreadful rambling mess, then at least you know where you stand: They are capable of taking instruction, they’re willing to learn, and they might prove to be a valued long-term client.

Armed with this information, you can begin the process of educating that author about how much work is going to be involved in molding their book into publishable material. If you have blog/website resources of your own, you can refer that author to articles you’ve written about plot structure or character arcs. If blogging isn’t your thing, there may be other resources written by editor peers that you can refer your client to (the “Talking Fiction” essays here at An American Editor, about editing fiction, would be a good starting point).

The big difference is that now this author is your client. You’ve established quietly and authoritatively your expert credentials, given them guidance, started them down a long road toward publication. You can send this client off anywhere on the web, but they will keep coming back to you because you are now, without really much effort on your part, their writing coach.

Why bother? Because ultimately you have no idea how far, under your tutelage and encouragement, this author might blossom into a productive, well-trained, and lucrative client.

I have one resource I’d like to offer: my book, Self-editing for Self-publishers. It’s a pretty comprehensive guide to all the major stumbling blocks that novice (and some even not so novice) authors have problems with: plot structure, character issues, point of view problems, etc. It also provides thorough explanations of common punctuation and grammar mistakes. I had never thought of marketing it to editor peers (I doubt there’s anything in it that a good fiction editor wouldn’t know already), but one of them who helped at the beta reading stage pointed out that it’s an ideal tool for exactly this situation. What if you really don’t want to engage in those long-winded e-mail coaching conversations that you may not have the appetite for and that have an uncertain financial payback? Tell your author, “Go buy this book. Work through it. When you’ve finished it, come back to me and we’ll have another look.” It’s the “silver bullet” that could save you an enormous amount of time and effort, and bring you a commission that you really want, rather than are struggling to avoid.

Richard Bradburn runs editorial.ie, a full-service literary consultancy. He’s a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders in the UK; member of the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders and Indexers in Ireland; partner member of ALLi; and approved supplier to Publaunch. He writes occasionally for the Irish Times and journals like The Arts and Letters Daily, and regularly talks about writing and editing at conferences in the UK and Europe.

January 20, 2014

The Business of Editing: Credibility

Filed under: Business of Editing,Professional Editors — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: , ,

For businesses, whether large or small, solopreneur or with employees, a key to success is credibility, and a cause of failure is a lack of credibility.

In the olden days of editing, credibility meant proven knowledge of subject matter and proven grasp of the fundamentals of language and language usage. I recall being both interviewed and tested before being hired as a freelance editor for a publisher. I also recall how difficult it was to get added to a publisher’s list of approved freelancers.

Over the ensuing years, I have noted a change. The staffs at publishers have diminished in numbers yet workload has increased. An early casualty of this numbers change was the interview. Increasingly, publishers relied on the resume and the test. With the rise of the Internet, some publishers added to the mix a quick look at the freelancer’s website. (Of course, it didn’t help that the people responsible for hiring freelancers had tenuous editing and interviewing skills themselves.)

Today, credibility seems to mean something different than what it meant in my early freelancing days. Today, credibility’s meaning seems to change like a chameleon. Credibility appears to mean different things at different times and for different reasons. I find that some clients are only interested in what books I have edited; others have scrutinized my website or read my LinkedIn profile or even the An American Editor blog; others want a test completed. These people, if they have not worked with me before, are contacting me based on my reputation, not on my credibility.

Credibility and reputation, although similar, differ in their audience. Reputation is addressed to the broader audience, which can include clients and prospective clients; credibility is what is built up with individual clients. Each includes the other, but which is in the dominant position depends on the audience. Prospective clients who are searching for editors search based on reputation; they lack the direct experience with an editor to test the editor’s credibility. Clients who have worked with particular editors before offer work to an editor among that group based on the editor’s credibility.

I have been contacted about editing because clients have looked at my website, especially the list of past projects, or read my LinkedIn profile, or this blog, which are advertisements for me, and decided that I would be a good fit for their needs. But what they do not do is interview me, and often do not test me. They are relying on my reputation without any sense of my credibility, except for that sense that can be garnered by looking at my past projects and equating the past projects with the notion that I must be credible.

With the rise of the Internet, substitutes for traditional methods of hiring have also risen. How well these substitutes work remains unresolved.

Years ago I hired freelancers based on their resumes and an interview. I rapidly discovered that not requiring a test, too, was a mistake. Today, whether I require a test depends on how well I know the freelancer and the freelancer’s work, which brings me back to the matters of reputation and credibility.

There are many types of freelance editors, but in broad terms, editors fall into two basic types: those who do everything that comes across the transom and those who “specialize,” focusing on narrower areas. Similarly, reputation and credibility come in multiple flavors, but in the broadest senses there are reputation as an editor and credibility in editing and credibility in subject-matter editing. My observation is that the greater opportunity to build credibility lies with the specialists who can build credibility in both editing in general and in subject-matter editing, but within a tighter knit community of clients and potential clients.

Credibility and reputation are important because of the strength they give me when I negotiate terms for a project. The stronger my credibility and reputation are in relation to the project under discussion and the client with whom I am negotiating, the greater the likelihood that my complaints, concerns, and objections will be considered seriously and dealt with in a manner satisfactory to me.

We all recognize the importance of reputation, but not necessarily the importance of credibility. How important is credibility? Credibility is the handmaiden of opportunity and reputation’s sidekick. As credibility increases, so does positive reputation. The greater one’s credibility and reputation as an editor, the more opportunities that will present to the editor, which means the greater the likelihood of meeting or exceeding one’s goals.

In addition, the greater one’s credibility, the less argument one gets about editing decisions. When I first started as a freelance editor, I had little credibility. As a result, many of my editorial decisions were questioned; I was asked to justify them, and my client would then decide whether my decision was “correct or incorrect.” As my credibility and reputation grew, such questioning decreased. Now I am rarely asked to justify a decision and am usually given broad instructions, with the application of those instructions left to my discretion.

In other words, I went from an editor whose work was to be watched and carefully reviewed to an editor who could be relied on to deliver high-quality work.

When I am asked if I am interested in undertaking a project, the client tells me what they are hoping for. When I review the project and say that, for example, the desired schedule cannot be met unless certain adjustments are made, my clients generally try to work with me rather than tell me that there is no latitude or that they will find someone else. This cooperation, which is good for both the client and me, is a direct result of my credibility with the client.

Reputation and credibility also serve as magnets to draw new business. As word spreads, the greater the likelihood that I will be on someone’s radar.

With every project that I undertake, my goal is twofold: to further reinforce my reputation as an outstanding editor and to build credibility with the particular client so that the client will turn to me first for all of its editorial needs. I know whether I have succeeded in attaining these goals by the quantity and quality of the requests I receive for my editing services and by how negotiations on new projects go.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 15, 2010

Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall

There have been lots of articles and comments regarding Rupert Murdoch’s views on making online news pay. Many commentators have suggested that putting the news behind a pay wall is bound to fail. I’m not so sure that Rupert is wrong. If we want original news reporting (i.e., news origination) and in-depth reporting rather than just the 10-second blurb TV gives us, we need to pay for it. Newsgathering is not free and costs need to be covered.

I subscribe to the New York Times. Daily delivery runs me about $50 per month. I am willing to pay for the subscription because I want to first know what is actually happening in my world before I start listening to the pundits tell me what those facts mean. I can’t imagine relying on Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Stephen Colbert, Ariana Huffington, or Al Franken for the facts of what is happening in my world.

I rely on the New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and similar papers because of the reputation for original reporting that they have built over the decades. Because I cannot do the original investigation myself, I do not know with absolute certainty that what they report as fact is truly fact — no more so than I can know any fact that I have learned from any source outside my own original investigation; instead, I rely on the reputations they have built as fact-gatherers. Similarly, I rely on the opinion shapers — the Becks, Limbaughs, Wills, Pitts’, Harrops, and other op-ed folk — to add interpretation from a philosophical or biased perspective to those facts the NYT, WSJ, and The Economist and the like have reported.

Sources like the Drudge Report are aggregators not originators; that is, they take from already published sources their “news.” Consequently, relying on an aggregator for one’s news does not address the problem of paying the originator of the news. News aggregators don’t have paid investigative, professional reporters in Des Moines, Iowa, let alone in Tajikistan — they are not news originators.

How can we rely on the veracity of the reported “facts” if the news originators are forced to give their content away free online? Ultimately, something has to give in a free economy; in the case of news, it is credibility and accuracy that ultimately gives. We are beginning to see the effect that free has on veracity and accuracy of reported “facts” online if a recent study of online magazines is to be believed.

The Columbia Journalism Review, as reported by the New York Times, recently surveyed the editing and fact-checking practices of magazine websites. Of the 665 magazines surveyed, 59% copyedit less rigorously or not at all the online content and 43% do less rigorous to no fact checking of the online content. The likelihood of these numbers decreasing with free content probably is nil; it is more likely that the numbers will increase.

Yet our discussions about our surrounding world have to start from some base. Granted they can start from one’s imagination in which we simply declare certain things as truth, but that seems to me to be a poor base from which to decide anything. News aggregators won’t have anything to aggregate and political and social commentators anything to comment on in the absence of news originators.

Not all newspapers either can be or should be behind paywalls. For example, my hometown newspaper is generally bereft of any real news origination and at best is worth $10 a year (although it costs closer to $200 a year by subscription), but that is because it lacks any real credibility and because most of its efforts are as a news aggregator, not originator. But there are certain newspapers, those that are true news originators, whose efforts should be behind a paywall. Their credibility, earned over decades of origination efforts, not only deserves financial support but warrants such financial support.

It has been reported that Internet and TV news (local and national/cable) are the leading sources for news today. Newspapers run distantly behind. On the surface, this indicates that paywall support is undeserved by newspapers. But the reality is different. TV news operations are scaling back on reporting; ABC News, for example, recently announced it was cutting its news gathering staff by one-third. Many of the covered stories originate in newspaper exposés, not in original TV reporting, and there is a significant difference in the depth of analysis provided in a 10-second TV blurb compared with a multipage newspaper article. Besides, TV news is behind a paywall; just an indirect one. Most of us get our TV via cable/satellite for which we pay a monthly fee. The cable/satellite operators pay the TV channels a per subscriber fee. And we also pay those same cable/satellite providers for Internet access. So why not also pay news originators for their work? Why should it be free just because it is on the Internet?

Many Internet news sites are nothing more than aggregators, not original news reporters. Without the originators, there would be no aggregation possible. More important, perhaps, are the findings of the Columbia Journalism Review. Its survey (see the New York Times article linked earlier) found that 16% of the respondents didn’t fact check online-only content at all and that of those that did fact check online content, 27% used a less-stringent process than they used for their print offering. How reliable can those sources be? Would you want your lawmakers or your doctors to make decisions based on unverified information?

Consequently, I’m inclined to think that Rupert is right. I’m not sure that the New York Post is worthy of being behind a paywall, but I have no doubt about the worthiness of, for example, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Economist, and the New York Times — that is newspapers with high credibility and well-deserved reputations as news originators. Keeping news originators alive and healthy is important to keeping alive and healthy democratic institutions.

Perhaps Rupert is right this time.

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