7 Common Client Red Flags for Freelance Editors

Why should we be informed of some of the common client red flags for freelance editors? Since we want to weed out potentially troublesome clients before they make our lives miserable, or at least I do, it’s a good idea to have some weed-killing processes in place. For example, requiring a nonrefundable deposit means that people are more committed to the edit (and paying the final invoice) than if you don’t require any upfront investment.

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.

Here are some red flags I’ve discovered in my years of freelancing. Tread carefully if any of these crop up.

Common Client Red Flags for Freelance Editors

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 (www.Gutenberg.org) 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 do, 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.

Client Underestimates the Work Involved

Another common client red flag for freelance editors is that potential clients sometimes underestimate the work or 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.

The Disappearing or Disorganized Client

Clients who wander off during the early stages of discussing their project are likely to wander off during the part of the project where they’re supposed to do some work or, you know, pay you. If, during the onboarding process, they miss phone calls or don’t respond to emails within a reasonable length of time, they’re probably going to be painful to work with. Proceed with caution.

By the same token, clients who are disorganized during initial talks can quickly become time-consuming pits of need. It’s fairly common for an author to say, “Oh, wait, don’t use that version of the ms, use this one,” but if they do this more than once in the early stages of discussion, tread cautiously (and make it clear that once you’ve started editing, they can’t change drafts).

If the potential client can’t seem to remember what you said in your previous email or seems to be mistaking you for one of the other editors they’re thinking about using, treat the situation as if the red flags are waving because they are.

Client Continually Reopens Negotiations

A client who wants to reopen negotiations once you’ve agreed to the basic parameters of the edit is another common client red flags for freelance editors. It’s one thing for a project to evolve, where, for example, you do the edit and then the author decides to purchase additional coaching.

And negotiation is part of the process in the early stages; maybe the author’s budget won’t support a full developmental edit and so they chose a ms evaluation instead.

But it’s another thing for agreed-upon details to be subject to re-negotiation: “I’m going to be a week late, okay?” after the edit has been scheduled or “My budget has changed, I won’t be able to pay what we agreed for the edit” after you’ve begun the work. The client who wants to continually reopen negotiations is often one who is not committed to the process.

An earlier, more subtle signal is when the client has a lot of questions about the process: “What happens if I don’t have my ms finished by the time the edit is scheduled? What happens if I decide to go with someone else after I pay the deposit? What if I don’t like your work? What if I don’t need any of the coaching you include in the package, can I get a refund on that?”

It isn’t that clients shouldn’t have questions. It’s that the volume of questions suggests the client isn’t ready to commit and doesn’t feel confident in their decision. Often, maybe even most times, this has nothing to do with you. Point the author to your policies and let them know that booking with you is a firm commitment to you. Proceed knowing that this is a red flag.

Hesitating at the Down Payment

Related to the client who wants to re-open negotiations (because they’re not committed) is the client who doesn’t want to pay the down payment (also a clue that they’re not committed).

You’ll hear this as “Can I book the slot but make the payment next week?” or variations on the theme. You may be tempted to accommodate because maybe they’re just waiting for their paycheck and who hasn’t had to do that. But the best policy is simply to say that you can only book the spot once you have the down payment. They can check back with you next week and see if the slot is still open then.

If you’re not careful, you’ll be holding this slot open for a month and then you’ll hear, “Whoops, time got away from me, can you hold open NEW TIME for me?” Until you finally retire, having never worked on their project.

The “Everyone Else Sucks” Client

It may feel warm and fuzzy to be the ONE editor who isn’t a blithering idiot, but a client who has steamed through a lot of editors, none of whom has done a good job, is waving a red, red flag, and you should consider yourself warned.

Now, it does happen that some editors are incompetent, and when a client finds this out, they get mad and go in search of a new editor. And it sometimes happens that the client has had a couple of unsatisfactory experiences, and this is, in fact, because the editors don’t know what they’re doing. In some cases, the only one at fault is the editor.

But we’re not talking about rocket science, so having a slew of unsatisfactory business dealings with editors is at some point more about the client than the editors. Even if all of the editors are incompetent, where is the client finding them in the first place and why is the client making the same hiring mistakes over and over?

Often, the problem isn’t in the editor(s) but in the client, who doesn’t know what they want, doesn’t understand the editorial process, doesn’t know what an editor does or doesn’t do, and is unwilling to learn.

Yes, you can see where that might be a problem.

In this case, I recommend scheduling a quick phone call before going too far with the client. This will be a quick and fairly straightforward way of figuring out whether the client merely had a run of bad luck or is a run of bad luck.

Being aware of these common client red flags for freelance editors can help you weed out potentially stressful clients and focusing on finding the best fit for your client needs.

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