An American Editor

July 28, 2014

The Business of Editing: Do You Tell? Ethical Considerations & Subcontracting

In a comment to an earlier essay on ethics, The Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics, Teresa Barensfeld asked several questions. With her permission, I plan to give my view on some of them over the course of several essays. I begin with this question:

“Do you tell clients if you hire another freelancer to work on a job you’re doing?”

I think the formation of an answer begins with how hold yourself out to clients and your relationship with clients. How you hold yourself out to clients helps shape their expectations, and from an ethical perspective, I think it is the combination of your presentation and client expectations that determines the correct answer to this question.

It does not matter, in my view, whether you are a single-person operation or a corporation of many editors. What does matter is how you present yourself: Are you presenting yourself as a single-editor operation or as a company. We discussed the merits of solopreneurship versus company in several essays, including The Business of Editing: Why a Company?, Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (I), Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (II), and Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (III). The beginnings of the answer to the ethical concern lies in those articles.

The presentation as a solo editor is done in many ways. For example, do you use a company name or just your name? Are checks made payable to you instead of to a company name? Are electronic payments made to accounts that bear your name or a company name? Do you use a personal identification number (e.g., Social Security number) or a business tax identification number (e.g., the Employer Identification Number)? Do you answer your phone with your name or a company name? Does your email signature include only your name or does it include a business name? When asked about, for example, availability, do you speak of “my schedule” or do you indicate you will need to check whether you have “an available editor”? Does your website indicate that the only editor is you? And the list goes on.

It is these types of actions that build an expectation in clients. If you present yourself as a solo editor, which is how most freelance editors present themselves, then whether you tell clients if you hire a subcontractor depends on whether the client hired you because of your specific skills or hired you because the client needed an editor and you were available. The issue really is one of client reliance on the unique perspective that each of us has as we do our editorial magic.

Unfortunately, I do not know of a way to discern the level of the client’s reliance on individual uniqueness. Consequently, I think you should assume that you were hired for your uniqueness if you present yourself as a solo editor. If you presented yourself as being a solo editor, then I think it is reasonable for a client to expect to be told (asked?) when you subcontract.

Conversely, if you consistently present yourself as being a company, I think the client’s expectations are different. I think clients expect companies to have access to more than a single editor. Even if they do not, it is my belief that not discussing subcontracting with a client is consistent with the presentation as a company.

From an ethical perspective, in the case where you present as a company, there is no deception in taking the position that the client is hiring a company and that the company decides whom to assign to a project. This is subject to an important exception: If a client specifically asks you to undertake the editing, then, regardless of whether you present as a solo editor or a company, you are obligated to advise the client of any subcontracting and to give the client an opportunity to cancel the contract.

As I have mentioned in any number of previous essays, from the very beginning of my freelance editing career, I presented myself as a company. When approached to take on projects, I have always made it clear that I need to check “editors’ schedules” and I never promise to personally undertake a project — except when a client specifically asks, which has occasionally happened. I never discuss with clients editor assignments and I never ask if subcontracting is acceptable. I assume it is okay because the client knows I am a company. I have never had a client object; more importantly, it has often been the case that a client who hired me for one project would call again for a second or third project because the client expects me to have multiple editors.

Ultimately, as I previously indicated, I think the answer to the question lies in how you have presented your business to clients and what clients expect. I think it is unethical to not advise the client of subcontracting if the client views you as and expects you to be a solo editor because that is how you have actively presented yourself. In such a case, there is strong reason to believe that the client is hiring you personally.

In contrast, I do not think it is unethical to not advise a client of subcontracting if the client’s expectation is that you are a company. When dealing with a company, the client may hold you, as the focus of the company, responsible for problematic editing, but that is different from the issue of being notified about subcontracting.

A subsumed issue in the question, in the case of a company, goes to the arrangement between the editors. Is it an employer–employee or contactor–subcontractor relationship? And does that relationship affect the ethicality of not notifying a client that you intend to subcontract the work?

I think it makes no difference whatsoever. The employer–employee versus contactor–subcontractor relationship is a tax and insurance matter; it has no bearing on the editing. The client is still hiring the company and expects the company to have more than one editor (assuming that is how the company has been presented to the client). The arrangement between the company-owning editor and the employee/subcontractor editor is not a client matter.

So we are back to where we began. The answer to the ethical question is: What are your client’s expectations based on your presentation of yourself and your business?

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 9, 2014

The Business of Editing: Finding Editors

Last week I wrote about subcontracting and said it isn’t a difficult thing to do from an administrative perspective (see The Business of Editing: Subcontracting). I did mention the one stumbling block: finding competent editors.

Finding a competent editor to subcontract to is difficult. There are lots of reasons for this difficulty, such as the lack of universal certification with reliable standards. In some subject areas and some countries this is less of a problem than in the United States, but even in those countries and subject areas that have certifying organizations, the problem exists, if for no other reason than most editors lack the certifications that are available.

Don’t misunderstand: neither certification nor lack of certification is proof of an editor’s competence or incompetence. They may be indicators in some cases, but they do not rise to the level of proof.

The problem is that there is nothing that I know of that rises to the level of proof certitude. Editing is still an artisan’s career, which means that the same manuscript will be handled differently by equally competent and professional editors. Too much in editing is other than cast-iron rule for it to be otherwise (e.g., Is since synonymous in all instances with because? Should a serial comma be used even though the style is no serial commas?).

Another unsolvable problem regarding competency is subject matter competency. An editor may be an outstanding editor for historical romance novels yet abysmal as an editor of medical texts.

What it boils down to is that finding the right editor for a particular job is a difficult task that is not made any easier by the ease of entry into the profession.

In my early years, I assumed that an editor who was experienced in the areas in which I worked had to be competent. So if someone’s resume indicated that she had 3 years of medical editing experience, I assumed she must be competent. It took a while for me to grasp that in some cases, there was little correlation between competence and years of experience except, perhaps in the case of many years of experience, which tended to correlate very well.

Alas, even with a strong correlation between subject matter competence and years of experience, there was no assurance that the person would be a competent editor for the particular job(s). Editing is much more than knowing subject matter; editing is also much more than having edited a certain number of manuscripts.

I suppose we can say there are at least three levels of editing competency: no competency, mechanical editing competency, and inspired editing competency. The first, no competency, needs no discussion. It is represented by the person who hangs out a shingle, calls himself a professional editor, gets hired, and not only enrages the client with the poor work but gets the client to rant about editor incompetency to anyone who will listen.

Mechanical editing competency is probably where most editors fall on the editing continuum. They know grammar and the rules, know how to make sure that lists are parallel, tenses aren’t shifting every which way, and can quote the style manual rule that supports whatever editing decision they have made. They are good editors but uninspired.

Inspired editing competency is a label that, I think, can be given to a much smaller number of editors. These editors not only know the rules but know when to ignore them. (Imagine the difference between the editor who insisted on “to go boldly” versus the editor who understood “to boldly go.”) The inspired editor does not rewrite and reframe an author’s manuscript simply because he can; rather, he knows when it is necessary to rewrite for clear communication and when it is necessary to ignore the rules that have governed language for decades, if not for centuries, and leave the manuscript alone. The inspired editor understands the importance of language choices and understands when since is synonymous with because and when it should not be considered synonymous.

This is the problem of subcontracting. Which editor do you seek: the mechanically competent editor or the inspired editor? And how do you find them?

In part, the answer lies in what service you are providing and to whom you are providing it. Someone who works directly with authors on their novels and offers developmental-type services may want the inspired editor; in contrast, the editor who works with packagers whose budgets are small and tight, whose schedules are tight, and whose instructions from their clients are focused on the rules may want the mechanically competent editor.

In part the answer lies in what type of business you are trying to grow. You may already have a sufficient number of one type of editor and want the other type so as to be able to expand your business. In addition, you may be constrained by the type of clients you serve and the pay you can offer, which may dictate the type of editor you seek.

Knowing the type you seek allows you to configure your search methods to meet those needs. The one thing I have determined to be an absolute necessity (unless I know the editor and the editor’s work exceedingly well) is an editing test.

For many years I hired based solely on resume and an “interview.” What I found was that doing so was a crapshoot. Sometimes I struck gold, but most times I struck out. A test should be used to weed out, but not as the sole decision maker. I have found that since I instituted a test, 95% of applicants fade away. They do not return the test at all and so they make the decision for me. Of the 5% who take the test, fewer than 1 in 50 pass it. “Failing” my test does not mean the editor is not a good editor; it means that they will not fit my needs.

Even the editor who “passes” my test, should they be hired, needs some guidance from me, but the goal is to for them to be assigned a project and to run with it without supervision and with my having the confidence to know that I can take their editing and submit it to the client and not worry about a negative reaction.

There is no sure-bet method for finding an editor who fits when looking for subcontractors. There are steps one can take, but nothing is guaranteed — which is why when a good fit is found, it is worth working hard to maintain the relationship. Finding the editor is the hardest part of subcontracting, but it is not an impossible part. It just requires a bit more upfront work, but it can be well worthwhile.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 2, 2014

The Business of Editing: Subcontracting

On another list recently, there was a “discussion” regarding subcontracting. It really wasn’t much of a discussion — some participants said they have never done it and never will, some said they tried it once and decided it wasn’t for them, and a few said they do it regularly. No one really discussed the merits and demerits of subcontracting.

What surprised me most about the discussion was how little people understood about subcontracting yet how firm they were in their view of it, even if they understood little about the mechanics of it.

One of the solutions suggested last week in response to The Business of Editing: An Embarrassment of Riches was subcontracting. I have subcontracted with other editors for many years and I have had employees. Neither is particularly difficult, but as between the two, subcontracting is the easier.

An advantage to subcontracting is that it enables you to take on more work than you otherwise could handle. There are limits to how much work a solopreneur can handle, both effectively and efficiently. There are just so many hours one can edit.

The primary argument made against subcontracting is “my clients hire me to do the editing and would be very unhappy to learn that I subcontracted the work.” This is the guild/artisan argument and it does have some merit. The key to overcoming this client expectation is to promote your company rather than yourself. For example, from the very beginning of my business, I always told clients they were hiring my company, not me. My invoices were in my company name and all my communications emphasized the company connection.

Having been in other businesses before editing, I knew that marketing myself, rather than my company, would ultimately limit my opportunities for growth, especially financial growth. If there is only me, there is only so much work I can do and thus only so much money I can earn.

I also recognized that focusing on me would not play to one of my business strengths — rainmaking (i.e., the ability to bring in work). Honest editors recognize their business strengths and weaknesses, and for many editors one prime weakness is marketing; a second is scheduling.

The result was that I focused on growing my business brand, not my personal brand. Even if clients are unfamiliar with the business name, they do recognize me as a company and they expect me to have “employees” and they expect one or more of my “employees” may be assigned their project. Clients do not lower their expectation as regards schedule adherence and quality of work; that remains the same regardless of whether I or someone else is doing the editing. And clients hold me responsible.

That responsibility — of quality editing — is the biggest drawback to subcontracting. Government paperwork is easily handled. The subcontractor sends me an invoice, I pay the invoice, and at the end of the year I send the subcontractor a 1099 Form and file copies with the IRS. (Note the process I am speaking of is the one I am familiar with, that of the United States. What is necessary or required in other countries is beyond my knowledge.) Generating these forms takes less than 5 minutes. I buy the ready-to-use/-print forms at an office supply store, put them in my printer, and generate the information using QuickBooks Pro. (Using an accounting program like QuickBooks makes bookkeeping easy. I use the software to print the checks and to generate many of the reports I use to track my business, such as a comparison Profit & Loss Statement.)

In the beginning, I reviewed the editor’s work. That took time, but significantly less time than if I had done the editing myself. After a while, reviewing of the editor’s work is no longer necessary. The editors with whom I currently subcontract have worked with me for many years; one editor has been working with me for close to 20 years.

The subcontracting relationship is a symbiotic one. At least in my case, the deal is that in exchange for my keeping a portion of the fee, I get all of the administrative duties, I pay the subcontractor regardless of whether the client pays me, and, perhaps most importantly from the subcontractor’s perspective, I do the marketing and am responsible for finding enough work to keep them busy much of the year.

It is this last responsibility that is the hardest. But because I have marketed my services as that of a company of editors, I am able to generate demand. Because the editors are highly skilled and have demonstrated that skill over the years, clients are not reluctant to contact me and ask “Can one of your editors handle this project for me?”

I grant that subcontracting is not for everyone. There is a reluctance to be a subcontractor because “Why should I pay someone else when I’m doing the work?” And there is a reluctance to do subcontracting because it takes the editor away from editing and into business administration, where many editors do not wish to be.

Yet subcontracting allows a busy editor to take on more work and allows editors who are reluctant promoters of themselves to focus on what they want to focus on — the editing rather than the marketing. If done correctly, subcontracting is a win-win-win: a win for the client, a win for the subcontractor, and a win for the administering editor.

Some editors say they would prefer to refer work they can’t handle themselves. Although referral is certainly an option, why refer when you can enlarge your business by subcontracting? I refer work that is outside my focus areas, for example, romance fiction. But I use employees and subcontractors for work that is within my focus areas. I want to retain as much of that work as I can, and subcontracting is simply one method by which I can do so.

If you haven’t considered subcontracting, you should; if you have considered it but dismissed it as being too troublesome, you should rethink it. Subcontracting can be a path to fiscal growth. The hard part is finding competent editors who are willing to work as subcontractors.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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