Q&A with Louise: Should I proofread and copyedit, pre-submission, for an author who has a publishing contract?
This recent question was submitted by a colleague who wishes to remain anonymous. I’m calling him Johnny. He says:
I'm just starting my freelance copyediting and proofreading business, working with authors.
My client has a publishing contract with a small independent press. He’s published three novels with them to date.
My client said: ‘I always like to have an external person read my work before I submit it [to my publisher], so perhaps you could let me know what it would cost.’ The pre-submission editing work in the past was carried out by writer friends rather than an editorial professional.
We’ve agreed on a price and what should be included. The price is more of a token payment because this is my first client and he's writing a series.
Is this the right way to go? Why pay me to copyedit and proofread his work to make it as error-free as possible before he sends it off to his publisher? Surely they’ll want to go through a batch of revisions for which he’ll need to pay.
Much as I'd like the work, should I tell him that the publisher will handle it and that he should save his money? Or am I making assumptions about the small-press publishing process that I shouldn't be?
Louise, I want to do this right – he’s already agreed to introduce me to his publisher as a freelancer, whether I do the work for him or not. However, if I do a good job, his recommendation will be more qualified.
So, I'm wondering what your thoughts are and what you would advise in this situation.
Thanks for your question, Johnny! It’s not unusual for an editor or proofreader to be confronted with this conundrum. Here’s my take on your situation ...
There’s quite a bit going on so I’m going to consider the following, just so you get a sense of the big picture:
The client’s preferences, motivation and knowledge
One of the things that stood out when I read your email is that your client was explicit about his preference for commissioning third-party editorial work prior to manuscript submission.
True, he hasn't paid for this work in the past because he's used writers rather than a professional editor. You and I both know that being a good writer does not a professional proofreader or copyeditor make! What pleases me is that he recognizes this too. I think he’s willing to pay because he believes you’ll bring additional value to the table.
I think he also recognizes he’s getting a good deal here. And he is. I’ll talk about this in more detail under ‘Your token fee – precedent versus leverage’. For now, let’s accept that while this is costing him more than if he’d tapped a writer pal on the shoulder, it’s not costing him anywhere near what he’d have to pay if you’d offered him your standard fee. And that’s a motivation for him to work with you.
He knows you’re new to the business and he might well have figured that he’s going to get a pro service for an amateur price. And while you're worrying about whether you’re exploiting him, he might be thinking that this is nothing short of a win for him. I’d be inclined to agree!
He’s also not new to the publishing process. He has three novels under his belt with this press, so he understands how they work and what they’ll do for him. You, however, are in the dark.
Which leads us nicely on to ...
Editorial processes in small presses – who pays, and for what?
You’re right to question your assumptions about small presses, indeed any press.
Mainstream production flows tend to follow a model that looks something like this:
The larger press usually (but not always) pays for all of these levels of editorial work. Smaller presses don’t have the same economies of scale. Any of the following might happen:
No doubt there are other models, but these four give you a flavour what’s on offer.
In your case, you don’t know what the deal is.
Which leads us on to ...
The press’s expectations
Here’s a scenario (A) that would make sense in your author’s situation:
The two people who run the press have worked with your author before. They know that he tends to submit files that are in good shape.
The point is that they expect to have a decent manuscript submitted. Anything else would change the terms; his publishing contract is based on an understanding that most of the work has been done prior to submission.
Here’s another scenario (B) that I think is less likely but still possible, and it’s the one you’re worried about.
However, because you don’t know what the agreement is between the author and the publisher, you can’t know for sure whether it’s a good or a poor decision for him to hire you.
My proposed ethical solution
To give yourself peace of mind, I’d advise the following:
If he walks, you’ve still got the introduction with the publisher, you’ve upheld the terms of your professional code of conduct, and you’ve demonstrated to him that you’re trustworthy. If at some stage he decides to self-publish, or if one of his writer friends needs an editor, guess who’ll get the call?
Honestly, even if you are facing scenario B, I don’t think he’ll walk because you’re a winner in his eyes – recall my comment above about offering a professional service for an amateur price!
A quick word on that …
Your token fee – precedent versus leverage
I want to talk about this because some readers’ hackles will rise in response to your offer of a ‘token payment’.
My view is that your decision is fine as long as your eyes are open, and your author’s are too.
You want to be able to leverage this lower-paid work at every opportunity so that the value you extract from it lies well beyond a number on an accounting spreadsheet or lump sum in your bank account.
Publishers and indie authors value training, of course, but experience should never be underestimated. Getting that first break is one of the biggest challenges a new entrant to the editorial field faces. This could well be yours.
I have no problem with a bargain being offered as long as the following apply:
If you use this book (and the series, should you get it) as a foundation for acquiring more and better-paying clients, you can view the exercise as a strategic marketing activity that will serve you well into the future.
I wish you the very best of luck!
You ask. I'll answer
I'm more than happy to tackle questions, especially from beginners. If there's something you want advice about, drop me a line and I'll post a solution to your problem here. The more focused your question, the more in-depth my answer will be! And if you want me to mask your identity, no problem.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and copyeditor. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
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