Dr. Freelance: I have a prospective freelance client — an author who needs his book edited — and he appears to have the money and desire to hire me. He keeps pressing me for a price estimate, but I haven’t seen the manuscript, just one sample chapter that I edited. I’m concerned about extrapolating, because it’s a long book and I’m not sure of the overall quality. What’s my next step?—Hurry Up and Wait
Avoiding red flag freelance clients is every bit as important to your business as having a stable of fantastic clients. The excitement of having a new project can quickly give way to the horror of realizing too late that it’s a stinker. For most of us, discussions about budgets and deposits are the first line of defense, which will generally weed out the low-ballers and freebie-seekers. It sounds like you did that successfully.
Unfortunately, it sounds like he’s failing on the next step of the are-you-serious test: Is he responsive to your needs as a vendor and consultant? Is he supplying the information you require to assess the project, and doing so in a timely fashion?
The easiest way to confirm a potential freelance client is worth your time—including the brainpower that goes into formulating a detailed estimate!—is whether they’re willing to do some work on their end. Some freelancers I know ask clients to complete a simple questionnaire or client intake form. It may be a request that they send you certain documents to examine, as in your case. But the simple fact is that a good relationship doesn’t start with you doing all the legwork, or giving a price before you’re fully informed of the scope. It can’t work if you’re the only one answering questions, or if it takes a long time to get responses.
So, what’s your next step?
Test, or Be Tested
I believe there are three possibilities of what’s going on:
- It may be that the rest of the book isn’t as solid or polished as the chapter you’ve seen, and he’s hesitant to reveal that (and expose himself to a higher price).
- Perhaps he’s really busy. Of course, that could be signaling that the project will drag on longer than you realize.
- He may be shopping the project to other editors, and comparing prices and capabilities.
I strongly suggest you hold firm on your request to see the whole manuscript. It’s clear that you have a gut feeling that something’s not quite right, and you’ve already invested valuable time and energy into the sample edit. You could simply say you’ll be happy to give him a price as soon as he sends it, but the ball’s in his court.
Alternatively, you might give him a very broad, conservative estimate and let him know that you’ll give him a more precise number when you see the whole book draft. The upper end of the range needs to be high to protect yourself.
But if he continues to resist, you need to be cautious and be prepared to decline the project. In freelancing, it’s the same as any interpersonal relationship: During a first date or initial courtship, most people are on their best behaviors. Any early trouble signs are likely to get worse, not better.
You’ve heard the expression looky-loos, people who cruise through a car lot “just looking,” but there’s a related category of customer known as a beback. You spend time doing research and giving details in the hopes of making a sale, and they assure you they’ll “be back.” But the reality is, the majority aren’t serious buyers. That’s why you need to establish early on that your freelance client relationships depend on an exchange of information, not just a dispensing of it on your part.
For additional thoughts on vetting clients, check out “Freelancers Give Advice on Screening Clients” from Fast Company, written by my longtime colleague Susan Johnston.