Scammy editors, cautious editors, and the clients in between

By Kia Thomas

An open bookRecently, I received an email from the client whose manuscript I was working on. It said: ‘Just touching base to see if we are still on track for delivery of my manuscript by xx?’

I had given the author no reason to believe we wouldn’t be, so I could have, were I the type to take things overly personally, bristled at the implied questioning of my professionalism. But I hadn’t been in contact for a while (she’d sent the manuscript well before Christmas, but I wasn’t due to start until January), and I knew the author was on a tight schedule, so I sent a quick message back to say yes, still on track, and if I got done a few days early I’d send it back immediately.

Scammy editors

I received another email straight away: ‘Wonderful. Thanks for the update. With the last editor, I sent a similar message and never heard back. It was a relief to even just see your name pop up.’ Then I remembered – the reason this client came to me was because they had been horribly let down by another editor, who had just disappeared on them after taking payment.

Editors like this exist, unfortunately. Outright scammy editors, or just unreliable people who have no idea how to act in a professional manner. They can be found in every profession, and ours is no exception.

Kind editors and cautious editors

Most of the online editorial circles I move in are filled with people who would never dream of taking advantage of a client. They would be ashamed of doing a half-arsed job. They could never imagine ignoring a client for weeks on end. This kind of behaviour is so far from their own experience of being an editor that I think many of them don’t quite understand just how often this happens to unsuspecting authors, and how devastating it can be. So when they start working with a client who questions all their procedures and ways of working, or who bombards them with emails and requests for progress reports, those editors can see these things as signs of an overbearing client. To be fair, that’s sometimes exactly what they are. But sometimes they’re the sign of someone who’s been badly burned. Every editor, and every business owner, for that matter, should remember that not all clients are approaching the relationship with the same expectations and baggage.

Red suitcase on a beachI think that as editors we could sometimes do better when it comes to understanding our clients’ concerns. There are people out there doing great damage to the reputation of our profession, in the indie world at least, and there’s a lot we can do to undo some of that damage and restore our collective good name.

Balancing risk: when cautious editors mistake a concern for a red flag

Freelancing is full of risk. Good business owners do what they can to protect themselves from those risks. But we need to be aware of the effect this might have on our potential clients. For example, you could ask the question ‘Should an author pay an editor in full before receiving the edited manuscript?’ in an editors’ group and a writers’ group, and you’d get two different sets of answers. Editors would lean towards ‘Always get payment first’, backed up with horror stories of being ripped off by clients. Authors would lean towards ‘Never pay first’, backed up with stories of being ripped off by editors. Both things happen. Both sets of concerns are legitimate.

The problem comes, then, when we start seeing the expression of these concerns as red flags, when they might be nothing of the sort. An editor might be the perfect person for an author’s work, but if both have been cheated with regard to payment in the past, and so the editor refuses to release the edits before payment, and the author refuses to pay before seeing the edits, they’re at an impasse. A potentially brilliant working relationship could be lost before it’s even begun.

Empathy, honesty and communication

I think the solution lies, as it so often does, in empathy, honesty and communication. Our clients are investing sometimes huge sums of money with us, and handing over a piece of work that could have taken them years. That’s a lot to trust a total stranger with, so we should respect that. Where we have developed practices to protect our businesses from risks, perhaps we could be better at explaining to clients why. We don’t have to, of course – we are entirely free to run our businesses as we see fit and only work with clients who accept that unquestioningly. But honesty and openness are generally good things, and we could be opening up great opportunities for ourselves by bringing more of those things into our interactions with potential clients.

And perhaps there is also room for compromise. Again, no one has to compromise on anything if they don’t want to. But are there ways we can protect ourselves while also allowing our clients to protect themselves? For example, I have recently decided to move to asking for payment before delivery of the full edited manuscript. But I recognise that this might make some new clients nervous, so I offer to send an edited chapter on request, any chapter of the client’s choosing, so they can be reassured I have actually done the work.

It can be a difficult thing, to give people the benefit of the doubt when the stakes are high. A non-paying client, or one who oversteps boundaries, can cause huge problems for an editor. But we aren’t the only party who has something to lose. I wrote once about editing with kindness. We can do business with kindness too.


Kia Thomas on a beachKia Thomas spent 11 years in the arts before becoming a freelance fiction editor at the beginning of 2016. She specialises in contemporary romance and is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP. Kia lives in South Tyneside, and she can often be found networking with her colleagues in online spaces (ie spending too much time on Twitter).


This article was originally published on Kia’s blog on 4 February 2020. Many thanks to Kia for granting permission to amend and republish it.

Photo credits: notebook Kiwihug, baggage – Waldemar Brandt, both on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

4 thoughts on “Scammy editors, cautious editors, and the clients in between

    1. Pauline McGonagle

      Thanks Kia for a very good article. It is so true how each new job means we are up against someone who may have had poor experiences already, on either side.
      I always give the client the benefit of the doubt and I try and gauge how much communication they want or need as I have often felt I am hassling someone, when all I want is a decision on something important and for which there is nothing else to guide me.
      Currently two weeks have passed as I wait for a reply from a major Sports institution for whom I completed a relatively small project. I was working directly to two people, one also a freelancer, who was the very good communicator and the other full time employee, who was copied into all messages. There was a temporary halt to the second draft of the materials with the start of the pandemic but I was given the go-ahead to complete the second with good feedback from the freelancer on the work I did at both stages. She has since emailed to say her contract is now finished and is no longer working there. I have sent my invoice to the other party having had no feedback from the email which went with the second draft and I asked whether they would like my collated report on it which was not asked for, but I thought would help them with the last phase (also as a way to converse) which they have not discussed. When I initially sent my usual ‘agreement’ to both at the beginning, the freelancer was a little embarrassed to tell me that they did not sign agreements for such small projects- so I had no choice if I wanted the work. It struck me then, that I wasn’t charging enough (seen as ‘small fry’) but I felt trapped. I had little work at the time and I couldn’t afford to turn it down.
      I have considered that the person may well have difficulties in the current climate but I have asked and I am not sure how long it seems fair to wait even for a reply.
      It is possible that for those of us working in an environment which usually involves tight deadlines and turnaround, that client silence somehow underlines where the power lies- with the person who pays.
      It has left me feeling resentful, but I have never been anything but polite, fair and accommodating. I agree with Alison- potential clients need to consider basic communication standards with freelancers and consider their precarious positions. Any advice on this particular one would be much appreciated. I was going to ask on the forums but hoped to give it until after Easter.

  1. Perry Williams

    Just to add that, from my experience of closely managed production, a friendly query such as ‘Just touching base to see if we are still on track for delivery of my manuscript by xx?’ would be *absolutely normal* from a project manager. It doesn’t imply any expectation of failure on your part; it’s just a request (or a reminder) that you should let them know if there looks like being any delay, normally because it would cause problems further down the track. From an *author*, such a query would be more unusual – but that’s because authors aren’t normally that organised! We should be glad when they are, because that gives us the opportunity to serve them better, and as Kia reminds us we usually don’t know their situation: what previous bad experiences they may have had, or even quite simply that a delay of even a day or two might cause real problems for them.


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