WILL WORK FOR FREE (NOT)

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“I am requesting a sample edit of a few pages as well as line editing.”
“Please submit what you believe to be a fair quote for the job and a full-length sample chapter on spec.”
“Do you do test edits?”
The standard for the industry seems to be ‘sample editing,’ so I’m enclosing the table of contents, introduction, prologue, and first chapter. I certainly don’t expect sample editing on all of it. I think that editing the introduction should be sufficient.”

On what planet do professionals give their work away for free?

Although some writers seem to believe that the “industry standard” is that editors perform free sample edits of their work, I can assure you that this is about as popular as requesting free sample physicals from doctors, free sample blueprints from architects, free sample faucet installations from plumbers, or free sample four-course meals from chefs.

Asking for a sample edit is akin to asking a professional to do free work for you.

How would you like it if your boss told you that you had to come in to work today and tomorrow but that you wouldn’t get paid for anything you produced? You wouldn’t get paid for any research or due diligence you conducted. You wouldn’t get paid for any reports or white papers you might draft. You wouldn’t get paid for any marketing plans you might develop. You wouldn’t get paid for any conference calls or meetings you participated in. But you’d still have to do whatever it is you do every day as a trained professional. You’d just be doing it for free.

I’m guessing you probably wouldn’t like that one bit.

Yet creative types such as we editors are asked all the time for sample edits—aka “free work” or “work on spec”—when queried by potential clients. This is absurd. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

A professional, full-time editor who has years of experience working with authors who have published their work in various media outlets shouldn’t be expected to review your manuscript for free, conduct line edits for free, and provide an analysis of the editorial requirements of your manuscript for free. Depending on the length of the manuscript provided and the sample size requested, this can take hours or days. It is unlikely that a professional editor has that much time to spare working on a would-be project that might not actually materialize.

Most editors will provide a free estimate for each project, touching on such aspects of the scope of work involved, the level of editing required, the time it will take to finish the project, and corresponding fees. But that doesn’t mean an editor should be asked to provide work for free, on spec.

If you want to get a sense of what kind of work the editor does, there are better ways to go about doing so:

  • Ask for references. If you’re connecting with a potential editor out of the blue (i.e., a friend or colleague didn’t recommend a particular editor to you), ask the editor for references. You’re hiring someone, so it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for the names and contact information of a few clients the editor has worked with over the years. If an editor hedges in providing this information, that’s a red flag.
  • Request a list of titles the editor has worked on. Most professional editors have at the ready a list of titles and projects they’ve worked on—a list they’re ready to share with potential clients. You should feel comfortable asking for just such a list, just as you would ask for references. This information will give you a sense of the editor’s areas of expertise, of the types of clients she has worked with, and of the various publishers she has done work for.
  • Check out the editor’s website. Most reputable editors are more than happy to put on their websites information about clients they’ve worked with and projects they’ve worked on. Whether it’s a “What People Are Saying” page or a “Praise and Reviews” page or a “Testimonials” page, a good editor with a good website will have at least a page where potential clients can see what other clients have said.
  • Check out the editor’s online profiles. LinkedIn, Editorial Freelancers Association, Publishers Marketplace—these are just a few of the online sources that can provide additional information about an editor’s experience and expertise. Do your due diligence to see whether the editor’s professional background and work history is a fit for your project.

In addition, have a conversation with the editor you’re thinking about hiring. See if you are compatible. Because you’ll likely be working together for weeks if not months or even years, it’s important that you get along with your editor. Ask what your editor’s style is like. Ask how she defines “copy editing” and “line editing” and “substantive editing” and “developmental editing.” Ask what style guidelines she typically uses—e.g., Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press, APA, MLA, etc., etc. But don’t ask her to do work for free.

The issue of providing free sample edits is one of contention in the publishing industry. A good number of editors will do free sample edits, but many don’t. I don’t. Why?

Here’s why. At the beginning of my freelance career, nearly a decade ago, a would-be author asked me if I would provide a free sample edit of one chapter of his book. Naïve and eager novice freelancer that I was, I agreed to do so, certain that this writer would be so impressed with my skills that he would hire me for the rest of the project. Alas, he hemmed and hawed and hedged and asked me if I knew of any other editors. Sure enough, I did. Fancy that! And, willing networker and friendly industry colleague that I am, I shared some connections with this writer … only to find out a few weeks later that some of these editors also performed free sample edits on various chapters. Ten editors later and ten free sample edits later, this writer got his entire manuscript edited for free.

Not cool.

Of course, this was a fluke, I’m sure. Most writers wouldn’t dream of taking advantage of editors in this way. It’s unprofessional. And rude. And insulting. And shifty.

And yet it happens.

Look, I know it can feel risky and even scary to hire an editor to read your manuscript. I’ve done it myself. The whole process can seem daunting. Editors aren’t licensed or accredited. Editors are not required to go through annual training or get 60 hours of CPE credits every year. There’s no regulatory agency that oversees the work of editors. But a good editor will explain the process to you. A trustworthy editor will provide a needs-based assessment based on a thorough analysis of your project and your publishing goals. A professional editor will have references and a list of titles at the ready to share with you upon request.

But a good, trustworthy, professional editor shouldn’t be expected to do work for free. Just like you expect to be paid for whatever work you do, so should you expect to pay for the work you have done. If you want free samples, head over to Whole Foods. They always have a ton of free samples out on Saturdays.

—Kelli
September 26, 2016

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “WILL WORK FOR FREE (NOT)

  1. This post is great. It’s an especially helpful reminder to for new editors breaking into the publishing world. Even if you are new to editing, you are not new to being a professional and should still be treated as one!

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