How to Alienate an Editor

IMG_5934^ReadWriteEditThe conversation began October 9: “What would be your charges for editing 300 page ms?”

Seems like a simple answer would be in order, right? Just quote a figure and wait for his reply.

But the cost depends on what kind of editing the potential client might need, and whether or not we’d work well together, and–to be honest–whether or not I want to expend much energy on his manuscript. After all, I have to like the story, too, if I’m going to spend weeks or months helping an author prepare a novel for publication.

So, I asked a question or two in return, and included a list of services and fees.

A couple days later, he asked for that information again. I sent it.

Four days after that, he told me a little about himself–he’d spent several years as an editor, too–and then asked for a break on the fees. He also asked (“since you live in Vancouver”) if I’d read an article he’d written.

I don’t live in Canada.

My reply:

Let’s do this: send your first five pages — or any set of five consecutive pages, the rougher the better — and I’ll provide edits for free, which is a courtesy for new clients.

Then we can evaluate one another, and decide if we’ll be a good team.

Not only do I freelance as an editor, but I currently work for a publishing company, so I’m almost always working on a project for someone else, in addition to producing my own writing. If you need a quick turnaround (within a month, for instance), I may not be the editor you need. However, if you have a couple of months, I can accept the assignment.

…If we decide to work together, I’ll propose a flat fee for the manuscript then. Sound good?

If we decided to work together. If.

Another couple of days, he sent his five pages, I edited and returned them, and all seemed well with the world.

The potential client:

Thanks for sending  a sample edit and your comments. Where do we go from here?

He asked questions about the editing process and, once more, inquired about the fees.

Me:

In answer to your question about changes: Sometimes I make changes directly in the text, but the author always sees those changes and can make his own revisions or leave things the same. As for the comments in the margins, I use those to explain why I made a change, or why an author should consider a change.

…As for the fee, I must be honest: It’s probably going to be expensive. I’ll consider dropping the…rate down to $__/page, but that’s still a hefty price.

…Are you sure you want to pay for an editor at this stage…?

…I’d like to find out whether or not we’ll work well together. To that end, there’s a questionnaire…(By asking these questions, I get to know you as a person and as an author, and am more able to make an informed decision.

A month passed. I moved on to other projects.

Then the author responded, only halfway answering vital questions, which I re-asked. Turns out, what I thought was a novel was actually autobiographical material recounting the author’s experiences as an immigrant to Canada from India. Caught my interest, but from what I’d read of the manuscript, the story needed shaping.

So I made further suggestions for the author to consider, including the notion that he might consider beta readers (colleagues, friends) who could provide feedback on the book at no cost to him. After all, he seemed concerned about the cost of a professional edit, and readers can be the best editors, in that they know what they like and what they don’t. Honest, detailed feedback from beta readers can be an author’s goldmine.

The author:

I am sending you synopsis of my ms which answers most of your questions. The ms i complete and ready to be sent. I have been a copy editor with newspapers so I am hoping my ms will not need much editing. However, I would welcome critique of the story/ structure etc.

Would you be inclined to do a sample edit? Plse advise.

Journalistic writing is different from fiction in goal and structure: one conveys information first then story, while one focuses on story while interspersing information as necessary. These are generalities, of course–sometimes journalism can read like fiction, and sometimes a novel can use the form of journalism to tell its story.

Still, simply because one is experienced at one type of writing does not mean one is prepared for the other. In this case, the author needed an editor to help shape the material into a coherent, smooth story rather than just a list of facts and events.

My response:

I did a sample edit back in October (document attached), but if you want a critique (…evaluation of story, structure, etc.), go ahead and send along the whole manuscript.

…FYI: I will be working on two existing projects, as well, so if you have a deadline, please let me know so I can adjust my schedule accordingly.

If this response sounds clipped, it is. I was annoyed at the circular conversation, at the covering of old ground and the lack of forward motion.

Again, he asked:

Can you please give me a ball park figure so I know if your charges are within my budget?

Me, setting aside the niceties and being blunt, and doing a bit of repetition of my own, though still with the author’s good in mind as I typed the reply:

Today, you sent a request concerning my cost to work on your manuscript; below is a message I sent about a week ago, quoting $__/page for a critique. An in-depth content or storytelling edit would be $__/page.

…We keep circling the same topics/questions, which seems to indicate neither of us is ready to tackle this project beyond where it is now. My price is very likely outside your preferred range, which perhaps makes you reluctant to proceed, and I am currently contracted to edit two manuscripts for a publisher as well as produce my own writing, so am not able to take on an in-depth editing until well after the New Year.

For free (or almost free) editing, nothing beats beta readers you can trust to give you honest feedback on your work. You’ll have to do the editing/revisions yourself, and maybe pay for coffee or lunch for the readers as you discuss the book, but it’s worth it.

The author:

Thank you for your insensitive and rude response. For your info, I have been a copy editor on daily newspapers in Canada so i resent your rude and patronizing remarks.

Since you are so busy, I’ll look for someone else who knows how to treat clients with respect and work with them, not against them.

My response:

We must have communicated at cross purposes, because I did not intend any rudeness in my response.

I do have copies of all of our correspondence. We have circled the same topics on more than one occasion, and I have answered the same questions more than once, which tells me that we are not communicating. That is simply a statement of fact; it is not intended as rudeness.

Just as you have worked many years as a copy editor, I have worked many years as a writer and editor. This isn’t my first rodeo.

I’m sorry that you are not satisfied with this process, but this just lets us both know we likely would not have been a good fit as a writer/editor team.

I wish you well in your future endeavors.

Only one other time has an author attacked like that, and it was about ten years ago, when an elderly writer whom I did not know scolded me over the phone for not responding to his e-mails. (I never received them.)

As someone pointed out regarding the current author, though, I may have experienced a cultural gender clash. This is only speculation, but he may have expected me to slash my fees because bartering is an acceptable part of purchasing goods or services, and I should have done whatever it took to get the job. (Bartering’s okay with me, but I also have a bottom line.) Also, as a woman, I should have shown more deference to a man.

The communication process was a preview of what I would likely encounter during the editing: he might not actually read what I wrote, would ignore my suggestions, or not even consider looking at his work from a different angle. He might keep pushing me to negotiate this or that. We would go ’round and ’round the same topics, making little or no progress.

Not my idea of fun, nor of a good way to make a paycheck.

In this case, who knows if I would actually have been paid once I performed the work?

Simply because one hangs out a shingle advertising one’s expertise, and a potential client approaches, does not mean one is obligated to accept the commission. There is more than money to consider when making a decision.

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4 thoughts on “How to Alienate an Editor”

  1. It sounds like you were patient, clear, and professional. You were being charitable with the ‘cross purposes’ line – this client had full expectations while giving you half his attention, not a good mix. There are other, better fish.

    1. Better fish, indeed. 🙂

      It’s been a little uncomfortable, because it feels like airing dirty laundry, but I’ve decided to post my negative editing-related and writing experiences, if for no other reason than to learn from them, see them in new light. If others gain, too, so much the better!

  2. Oh, my, yes. This. I do indeed have a personal list of non-hire qualifications that a client has to get through before I’ll take their work. I have yet to write about that, but I’m sure I will at some point.

  3. As many years as I’ve been doing this, I’ve never contemplated a do-not-hire list. Until now!

    It’d probably be good to solidify and expand my mental list of client preferences by transferring it to black-and-white on a page. That way, potential clients could read them and decide from the get-go whether or not I’m the editor for them. Might save a lot of time and trouble.

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