The freelance world is largely unregulated, so it’s not too surprising that there are unethical editors out there. I try to focus on the positive, and just stay away from people who lie, cheat, or steal (or any number of other baddies). But it occurs to me that many people don’t know what is and is not wrong/unethical in this industry—even some editors have no idea that what they are doing makes them unethical editors. I apologize right now for the “downer” nature of this post. It ends on a positive note, though.
Some things unethical editors do
Charging by the hour
It is not fair to authors for editors to charge by the hour. The argument can be made that charging/paying by the hour is unethical in any industry, but we’re not dealing with the wider world here; we’re dealing with the writing and publishing world.
Authors are paying for results—for skills, expertise, and experience being applied to their books. It does not matter how long it takes for the editor to produce those results. Some days, it will take much longer to edit one page than it will on other days, whether it’s because the editor is feeling less than 100% or has interruptions, or something else is going on. The author should not have to pay for that difference in speed.
If an editor charges by the hour, there is an inherent reward for taking longer and an inherent punishment for completing the work in a timely manner. Some editors I know charge by the hour, despite having had conversations with me about it. They are convinced that they are the exception to the rule, that they never cheat their clients or themselves. By virtue of the realities of hourly charging, I don’t believe that’s possible. I care deeply for my colleagues, and at the same time, I care for integrity and you, so I tell you: do not hire an editor who charges by the hour. They are robbing someone, and chances are high that it’s you. Charging by the word/page or project is the only ethical way to go. It is a simple matter for an editor to determine how much they need to earn, without resorting to unethical behavior.
Avoiding PayPal fees
Paying fees is part of doing business. It is against PayPal’s terms of service for a business owner to pass the fees on to the customer/client. Period. Any editor who does this is an unethical editor. The question comes up constantly in editors’ groups. Invariably, a large number of editors say that they pass the fees on to their clients, and I tell them that it’s unethical to do that. We eat the fees, and that’s all there is to it. Few seem to care. I do not refer business to them.
Rather than cheating, why not just focus on increasing business so that the fees don’t feel like a large bite? If all you earn is $100, then of course the $97 left after fees doesn’t go far. Being left with 97% of $100 isn’t much money, but being left with 97% of $100,000? Not so bad. (Just in case anyone wonders: No, I am not saying that editors earn $100,000 a year.)
Richard Adin, freelancer at An American Editor, addresses well the issue of secret subcontracting. I’ll just say this: honesty is the only policy. I present HarshmanServices.com as a company, because it is one. If a client’s request is for me to be the only one who works on their writing, then I am; otherwise, I make it clear that their book (or other writing) may go to someone on my team. For quality-assurance purposes, at this point, my eyes are the last eyes on a piece. If that ever changes, clients will know.
Reviewing books they’ve edited
This is another issue I’ve addressed on this blog before. Editors cannot review books they’ve edited. In fact, anyone who has any connection to an author or a book cannot post reviews regarding that author or book. It’s against Amazon’s terms of service, and it could cause problems for not only the reviewer, but also for the author.
Allowing conflicts of interest
Sometimes, a project should be turned down. Anytime there is a conflict of interest, it’s one of those times. One example is editing a book about a company that the editor owns stock in. The editor would be tempted to take action based on information that is not yet available to the public. Another is editing a book (or books) similar to books the editor herself writes. Can anyone be sure they didn’t get ideas from the pieces they were editing and accidentally slip them into their own books? When an editor is asked to judge a writing contest and identifies one of the pieces as work done by one of their clients, that is also a conflict of interest, and the editor should step down.
Then there is outright theft. That is rare in traditional publishing, but it does sometimes happen at the hands of unethical editors who are freelancers.
Unethical editors abound. Find an honest one.
I have several people on my team, all of whom I have found to be honest, and I also know a number of other editors who are not on my team but are honest people. They are out there, and you can find them. Asking editors if they charge by the hour, if they write reviews of the books they edit, and how they handle PayPal fees and subcontracting will take you a long way toward finding an ethical editor. If you need help finding someone, I can help you, and that won’t cost you a thing.