Thursday, 13 November 2008

Unhealthy competition among copy-editors

I really should be getting on with something else, but this has worked me up into such a froth that I need to get it off my chest…[Edited 15/11/08]

I’m a member (Advanced member, in fact) of a worthy organisation which, among other things, aims to raise professional standards for Es and Ps.

A few weeks ago, I received a round-robin email from this organisation containing a paid-for advertisement from a potential client seeking writers/editors to put on a “preferred supplier” list. The client in question is one I’ve been intending to contact for several years, and so I was eager to fill in the tender documents and get on their list. I’m already on similar lists, and have worked for a number of similar clients and I do reckon I’m pretty well qualified for that particular work.

I didn’t hear back from them, despite asking them to email me to confirm receipt of my submission, but I put that to the back of my mind until yesterday afternoon, when they sent out a message to all tenderers saying something like “we’ve been inundated with applicants, so many that we’re going to need extra time to sift and therefore have had to put back the planned interview dates”.

On the face of it, that’s fine. But this has got me worried.

This client is not a publisher; their work is in a neatly defined industrial sector (can’t go into detail for obvious reasons); they are used to dealing with high-level government officials, business leaders and expensive PR companies.

I’m worried about who has taken part in this tender, the quality of their submissions, and most important, the prices they’ve quoted.

Why? Well, in the past I’ve gone through a similar exercise myself in order to sub-contract work during busy periods. I’ve sent out a round-robin email to fellow editors/proofreaders and received a flood of replies. Out of 20 or 30 applicants, only two or three were (on paper) suitably qualified; and in one case I gave the work to someone who really didn’t turn out to be as good as I’d hoped.

I strongly suspect that the same gang will have been part of the flood of tenders to this client*. This worries me for two reasons:

• They will probably seriously undercut my (reasonable) rates, making it look like editors work for tuppence ha’penny, (and that I’m taking the p*** with my ‘professional’ rate).
• It undervalues the society's stance of ‘raising standards’ etc., because Uncle Tom Cobley and All may have applied, regardless of whether they are really suitable for the job.

What to do? I’m tempted to raise the issue on the organisation's email newsgroup, but things have become rather fractious there lately and I don’t want to stir up a hornets nest when I’m busy. Instead, I think I’ll send a quiet note to the appropriate committee member and see what they have to say.

I can see that the editors' organisation was happy to accept the money to cover the cost of the advert, but they could have been a bit more sophisticated about sending it out. They do have a directory of members where we all list our specialisms/keywords. So they could, for instance, have done a quick trawl and only contacted people with relevant experience/skills.

All of the above sounds like I’m a bitter old bat clinging on to a stronghold of lucrative clients against young upstarts who might do a better, cheaper job than me. Erm… partly true! (Not the ‘old’ bit… well, I’m probably just about still in the ‘youth’ wing of the organisation.)

But I do wonder whether I’ve shot myself in the foot by talking to fellow editors very publicly (e.g. at conference, in the members’ journal) about what I do. Have I made it sound like a gravy train that’s worth catching?

I’ve always been slightly concerned about that, and have tried to prevent it. For instance, the NUJ lists details of hourly or daily rates paid particular clients. I’ve spoken out in favour of sharing ‘rates’, but against naming the clients, because I reckon there are some unscrupulous so and sos who’d deliberately undercut me.

And now I’m faced with the prospect that this may, rather publicly, happen. Hmm.

Interestingly, earlier this year I took part in a similar process for a different client. I successfully made it onto the list, and the client let all the list members know who’d ‘won’. I was the only member of this particularly organisation on the list.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting I have a god-given right to this particular work; just that I'm worried about (unfair) competition, which may only increase as the recession bites and more hopefuls respond to those dreadful ads for 'profreeders'.

Not a good start to the day! But now I’d better get on with the work I do have, before it gets whisked from under my feet…

* I do know of one other person who’s involved who does have relevant experience.


The Slow Smoulder said...
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The Slow Smoulder said...

I too should be doing something else but here I am, writing again!

I am also a member of this society. I probably saw the email announcement; I'm not responding to such calls right now as I don't want new work. But inundation of applications is certainly part of the industry's character: freelances (some at least) scrabble for work, and in fact I think many job posts in general receive many applications.

Does the membership response really reflect badly on the society itself? It could: should the members be more considered? But then it is possible that every applicant has indeed considered well. But it may not be reflecting badly: this is an advertisement, treated as such by the society and presumably by the recruiter itself, who could well be pragmatic about the level of response. Should the society treat it differently? I don't know. The only idea apart from your own, which would mean the society becoming a recruitment agency (currently it is very definitely not acting in this way) is for the society to engender a culture of consideration either by putting more in the their statement at the top of the email or by engendering this culture more across the board, which is what the society already does -- training, the conference – though there may be some space for improvement.

My approach to finding freelances to subcontract was hand-picking myself, emailing with a description and acting on responses. I was not disappointed in those I chose, I was disappointed in the low degree of readiness to use the technology that the job needed. "Can't get the staff nowadays"; even "we have had to readvertise": these recruitment problems face many businesses.

I do hope you get an interview! Then you can sell the idea that good editors engage in their own CPD, hence you must charge more, and that this is the way to get quality (and you would get work). The question remains whether the client has put "quality" above "(low) budget" in their priorities list ...

You said:
"But I do wonder whether I’ve shot myself in the foot by talking to fellow members very publicly (e.g. at conference, in the members’ journal) about what I do. Have I made it sound like a gravy train that’s worth catching?"

Is your foot feeling sore? ;-) Notwithstanding that you may have increased your competition, it is up to others to make sure that they don't shoot themselves in the foot, either by taking on work they can't do or by taking on less experienced people. Sharing knowledge is good. Follow it up by talking about your investment in your CPD ... ;-)

I too am a little confused about the benefit of making a public record of rates of pay from particular clients.

Also, you said: "I was the only member of this particular organisation" who was accepted onto a list. I can believe that. Mmmmm ... more people should join this society!

Recession worries: My hope (ever the optimist) relies on the business dogma that those who can spend, will spend, are those who are richer, can afford to spend more, do actually spend more, therefore produce better quality products that people want to buy and hold market share. It remains to be seen if it holds true. This brings me back to quality vs budget, now becoming a favourite old bone with me!