Client Red Flags, Part 1

Since we want to weed out potentially troublesome clients before they make our lives miserable, it’s a good idea to have some weed-killing processes in place. For example, requiring a nonrefundable deposit means that a client is more committed to the edit (and paying the final invoice) than if you don’t require any upfront investment. (For the record, I require full payment in advance from all indie authors, but not everyone does this.)

When you have what seems to be shaping up into a problem, be sure to check with editor groups and your colleagues to find out what you can do to either save the situation or keep from repeating it.

I’ve discovered a number of red flags in my years of freelancing. Tread carefully if any of these crop up. (This is the first of two posts on the topic.)

Being Asked to Work on Spec

Working on spec—“speculation”—means you aren’t guaranteed anything for your work. You only get paid if the client decides to pay you after you’re done. This is a big fat nope. If you’re trying to build experience and credentials, at least arrange a barter in exchange for your efforts.

A related gambit is to suggest that you do the work for “exposure”—that is, the client will tell everyone about your work and you’ll get lots of clients! Yeah, no. As the freelance saying goes, people die of exposure.

A variation of this is to promise lots of future work if you do this project inexpensively. It’s true that some client relationships last for a long time and provide you with many projects over the years. But unless the client is booking all those projects right now, with deposits to match (in which case you might be willing to offer a small discount), it’s best to take this one with a grain of salt.

The best long-term relationships begin as you would like them to continue: with the client valuing your work enough to pay you fairly for it.

Being Asked to Edit a Sample

It’s not uncommon for someone to want you to edit a sample before hiring you. Now, I’m not against doing samples to help make sure you’re the right person for the job. It can help seal the deal for copy editors, who are fixing sentence-level problems.

But this is tricky when we’re talking about developmental editing because we don’t necessarily know what the real issues are before we read the entire ms. It’s easy to miss something if you’re just glancing at the first few chapters.

Instead, show potential clients samples of work you’ve already done (with the original client’s permission, of course). If you don’t have anything you can share, then make something up as a sample. Or, go to the Gutenberg Project ( and download a novel that is out of copyright protection and edit a chapter or two of that as a sample.

If you do edit a sample of the client’s work before booking them, as some editors make a practice of doing, make sure to keep the time spent on the project brief—no more than half an hour or so, which translates to a few pages at most. You can choose the pages if you want to prevent a potential client from trying to scam you. (Some authors think that if they ask ten different editors to edit ten different chapters as a sample, they’ll get all the work done on their book for free. Obviously these are not people who understand editing, but it’s possible you’ll encounter one.)

Client Underestimates the Work Involved

Potential clients sometimes underestimate the work/skill involved in a project. This is often expressed when they say that a project should be easy or fast. This is a red flag for a number of reasons. Often, it means the client is devaluing your work (“How hard can it be to look for plot holes?”) or doesn’t understand what, exactly, you do (“You just use spell check, right?”)

The work we do isn’t just about the time we invest in it but our expertise as well—the knowledge and skill we bring to the table. A client who doesn’t respect that is going to be a problem client.

Sometimes the client is just referring to logistical considerations—it’s a short ten-thousand word novella, so of course the edit will go faster as compared to a complicated two-hundred-thousand-word tome that describes the history of the universe in mathematical terms. Or sometimes they want a simple process—someone to check for egregious errors, even if that means leaving in some less-than-perfect sentences.

Your job is to figure out which category the client falls into—the one who devalues your work or the one who is just using a shorthand method of referring to logistical considerations.

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