Fire bad clients

I often encourage freelance editors to work with corporate clients, such as book publishers and packagers, in order to provide a more stable workflow and better-paying work. Indie authors may be great fun to work with, but one author typically won’t come to you ten or fifteen times a year with more work, the way one company may.

But I’ve noticed that freelancers are often reluctant to let go of corporate clients when they become (or prove to be) toxic. This is a problem because nothing leads to burnout faster than having unreasonable, mean, or petty clients.

If your work isn’t valued – the pay isn’t commensurate with your experience, payments are routinely made late (more than thirty days after invoicing) – or you’re treated unkindly (including being treated as if your work is subpar, but they somehow keep hiring you anyway), you should part ways. The best situations are when you and the client both feel happy to have found each other.

Sometimes a longstanding client becomes bad news when a new contact person comes aboard. I’ve experienced new hires who treat freelancers as if they’re automatically a problem: setting punitive policies that have nothing to do with any action I did, not appreciating the work I do, delaying payments, expecting me to work for less than I did before, and so on. These are not acceptable actions, and I always dump clients who take this approach.

You need to dump such clients, too. Like a bad boyfriend, a bad client is damaging to your mental health.

Many freelancers think they have to put up with toxic clients (“What about my bills?”) but you should always push back against unfair or punitive actions. If you don’t get resolution, it’s time to leave. Having an adversarial client is not the norm and shouldn’t be treated as such.

Freelancers often feel trapped when they rely too heavily on one client to feed them work. This is like being an employee but with none of the benefits. Keeping a wide range of clients on your schedule helps you weather problems like having to fire a client.

When I have to fire clients, I usually state the reason why: “The new policy regarding payment is unacceptable. I’m sorry we couldn’t reach an agreement. Best of luck with your projects.” This gives the editor/contact person ammunition to use against new policies (“We’re losing our best freelancers over this policy”) if they want it (which they sometimes do). Speaking out about these situations is the best way to create change.

Sometimes if I’m just glad to get the bad client out of my hair, or if for some reason I don’t want to rock the boat (maybe one department is fine to work with but another isn’t) my schedule suddenly becomes fully booked months in advance. All I say is something like, “Sorry, I can’t take on any new projects right now. Best of luck with your project.”

It’s easier to deal with problem indie authors, as one author typically doesn’t make up a significant portion of your earnings and you can always refuse to work with an indie client again. But it’s equally important to expect basic courtesies from indie authors: timely payments, reasonable expectations, respect for your time.

Bad clients can sap your energy, push you toward burnout, and make you wish you’d never left your staff job. Fire them before that happens!

Editorial Toolkit: Coaching Writers starts July, 2022

Naked Editing Book Club starts September 1, 2022

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