On Contracts and Expectations: An interview with Karin Horwatt Cather

On March 11, Editors BC will host Karin Horwatt Cather as we discuss contracts and aligning expectations between clients and editors. In this insightful interview, Karin answers a few questions on these. 

Thanks for speaking with the West Coast Editor! Can you start by telling us some of the potential risks involved for an editor when signing a contract with a client?

Disclaimer: I do not have an attorney-client relationship with anyone. Reading this and/or attending my webinar does not create an attorney-client relationship with me.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to help! As you know, this webinar focuses on indie authors, including students who are retaining editors outside of the university system. So I am addressing editors directly here.

I strongly encourage anyone to consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction about any subject I am speaking about here. That will not be me. I am only licensed to practice law in two states, and I am on inactive status. What’s more, I never practiced contracts law. If you consult with an attorney and they disagree with me, don’t ignore your attorney. 

So back to it.

Fundamentally, you are providing a service for money. This service comes with a lot of subjective judgment, and it’s in a field that most people outside the publishing industry don’t understand. This means that a potential client may be coming to you with an amorphous idea of what editing even involves.

On paper, it’s easy. You’re editing a manuscript, and the client is giving you money for it. You and the client fix a price and a deadline. It seems like a three-line email and you’re good to go!

No. You’re not. The mistake is in thinking it is that easy, especially in a poorly understood field like editing, where three editors can have four opinions on what is involved in a given type of editing.

So without a service agreement, there are many fertile opportunities for misunderstanding. For example, what’s the scope of work?

The biggest risk, then, is your client feels ripped off or you feel put upon. If your client feels ripped off, they might not pay you (or they might ask for a refund). I’ve heard stories about people getting lawyers involved. It can get really ugly.

In other words, an editor with a poorly drafted contract or no contract could take a serious financial and/or reputational hit.

I’ll stop here for a moment and say that I cannot recommend strongly enough that an editor take payment in advance. You should not be doing dozens or hundreds of hours of work and then chasing payment. Once your client has your edited manuscript, they have all the leverage, and many conflicts come about when a potential client has sticker shock or wants to rationalize not paying you.

What are some common mistakes editors make when signing contracts with clients?

The biggest one is the scope of work. An editor thinks that a copy edit is grammar, spelling, usage, and punctuation, and they’re doing one round. The author thinks they’re getting two rounds. Or as many rounds as they want. They may think they’re getting a structural edit. Or they only wanted the editor to check for typos. They might think they’re entitled to a million hours on the phone.

The other issue is that an author thinks their book just needs to be edited for a couple of typos—teh changed to the kind of thing. Then the editor opens up the file, sees one or more of the many things that can go wrong, and edits everything they see. Then the author feels upset and criticized because they have not been prepared.

In academic writing, they think you’re not merely formatting references, but you’re completing them. Or they’re a student, and they’re asking you to make substantive changes or assess the strength of their argument.

Another one is the fee. How are you being paid? If you are charging by the hour, have you given an estimate? What if the first few pages are clean, but the rest look like someone put the letters of the alphabet in a cup, shook them, and dumped them out on the paper?

One of the biggest errors, then, is giving an estimate without having the entire manuscript. You’ll want to take core samples for yourself to see if the quality of the work is uniform.

As an aside, you might want to do a keyword search to find out if there is any content you find repugnant, so you can decline the project if necessary. My list of keywords is long enough to isolate the very narrow subject areas that will cause me to decline a project. I have only had to reject three manuscripts in eight years, but those three shocked my conscience. I did accidentally take two that were horrible, and that caused me to add keywords.

Another devastating mistake an editor might make is to sign an overbroad nondisclosure agreement (NDA) or noncompetition clause. Some NDAs are so overbroad that the editor is presumed responsible for wrongful disclosures that they couldn’t possibly have caused, or they can’t even get their computers fixed if they break. Or, if there is litigation, they might not even be contractually allowed to use the manuscript in their own defence.

Some noncompetes are so overbroad that they might make it impossible for an editor to even work in the same field again.

How important is it for an editor to have a clear understanding of their client’s business goals and expectations before signing a contract?

Well, I have a bifurcated practice. I edit fiction and forensic reports, but there are considerations across genres.

The biggest issues are turnaround time and availability. Forensic reports have hard deadlines organized around court dates. Consequently, I actually schedule my vacations around the vacations of one of my forensics clients. Their turnaround times are rapid, some of them involving a matter of hours. Fortunately, we celebrate the same religious holidays, but that client did need me to edit some reports six days after my father died. Because I agreed to this availability in advance, I was not surprised, and I did do the work.

In terms of any client, what about time zones? Are you going to need to spend any time on the phone? How much access will they have to you?

As for indie novelists, one of the first conversations I have involves a reality check: It doesn’t matter how good a book is; if a client does not market their book, it will not sell. No, they’re not going to upload it onto Amazon and immediately start raking in the big bucks. And marketing involves hard work and a lot of time—maybe even more work and more time than the author spent writing the book itself. I also tell them truthfully that there are only a few thousand agents in the United States, that publishers’ profit margins are thin, and that, consequently, publishers only take on a few new authors. And I tell the authors that in the unlikely event that their book is accepted by a traditional publisher, they are likely to have to do at least some of their own marketing anyway. Because of all of this, I recommend that new authors self-publish and develop a marketing strategy.

Another fertile ground for conflict is when the client self-publishes that book and only sells a few dozen copies, then turns around and blames you for their book not taking off. Or they expect that once you are done editing, you are going to send them to an agent and get their book published.

I don’t edit for businesses, but my understanding is that these businesses often want you to sign their own contracts. Again, watch those NDAs and noncompetes. They will tell you the contract is standard and that no one has ever had a problem before. Who cares? It’s your business. Before automatically signing one, consult with your refrigerator, your landlord or mortgage lender, and your power company.

How necessary is it for a lawyer to review and advise on contracts before an editor signs the dotted line?

If you have a form contract, you should call your local bar, get a list of contracts lawyers, pick one, and have that lawyer look at the contract. It sounds expensive, but ask yourself how much money your business will bring in over the course of your life (and it might not be as expensive as you think.)

As a rule, if you even think you might have a problem with a client, contact an attorney ASAP. It’s never too early to call a lawyer, but it can be too late.

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