Recently, I ditched an occasional client in relation to copyright infringement of my work. The details aren’t important here, but it did make me realize how fortunate I’ve been to have had so few deadbeat clients over the years.

I’ve had some editors who have been inexperienced. Some have obviously not been the best of writers. Some haven’t had great communication skills or haven’t really had a firm idea of what they wanted. When I used to do more work with Japan-based English-language publications, for example, many had probably come straight from a teaching job with little or no experience in media, and their only media experience after that had been in Japan’s small and quite underdeveloped English-language media market.  I think almost all I’ve met, however, have been decent people trying to do a job well and fairly.

Then, of course, I’ve encountered publications with terrible budgets. Again, nothing malicious about that, just the reality of their situation – they were publications with small circulations and most likely very limited ad income. No need to complain, the writer has the option to say no to any assignment he/she is offered and it’s our responsibility to uphold our own standards regarding the fees we will accept and the quality of publication we will work with. Those standards vary by writer. I think we should also allow ourselves the flexibility to take on low-paying work at times if we have other reasons to do so. My oldest client (one of my favourite editors, too) is also by far the one that pays me the least, but I have no intention of dropping them because the rate is under $1 per word or some other arbitrary figure.

Thinking about it, I’ve only had a handful of genuinely unpleasant, woefully unprofessional or downright bizarre clients. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. I must have worked with more than 100 editors over the years and discussed things with hundreds more, so three or four horror-shows isn’t bad. That got me thinking about how I vet potential clients when they get in touch with me (which is how most new clients come my way). Here’s what came to mind:

1. If an editor is evasive when asked about the fee for a potential assignment it typically means they don’t have the budget for me. There’s no point wasting more emails discussing an assignment to find later that they can only pay $250 for a 1,000-word story. 

2. Like I said above, some publications have low budgets. That’s fine. However, when an editor gets defensive if I suggest a higher fee, the conversation ends there. I remember one editor offering $0.30 per word for an in-flight piece and coming back with “That’s industry standard nowadays” when I asked her for a higher fee. It wasn’t anywhere near any kind of “industry standard”. To badly misuse a line from The Outlaw Josey Wales, if an editor p****s down your back and then tries to tell you it’s raining, hit delete and move on.

3. Poorly written email. This one will sound very anal on my part, but an editor is someone I am trusting with my work, which will have my name on it. If they keep getting my name wrong (Hi Ross! Thanks Roger!) or if their correspondence is rife with dodgy English usage and PR-like business speak, that for me is a rather large red flag about the quality of the publication. If the quality isn’t up to scratch, do you really want your work in it?

4. I write books and the occasional feature. I tinker with fiction and poetry. I like projects that take their time. I like naps. I like neglecting work for a day or two when I can’t be bothered. I don’t check email every day. I am not a good fit for an editor that likes constant communication or super quick responses. That kind of editor isn’t a bad thing at all, he/she just isn’t for me. If an editor gets in touch to discuss an assignment and wants to know if I can be on Skype in the next hour or if I can talk on Sunday morning, then they have the wrong guy. We have different paces to our work lives. For my own sanity (and theirs) that usually means I politely decline the assignment.

5. This relates to number 3 in a way, but impersonal requests generally don’t get a reply from me. Casual is absolutely fine for me (in fact, I prefer “Hey Rob!” to the creepily formal “Dear Rob Goss”), but not impersonal. You know that you are one of ten people that have been contacted and the first to reply will get the assignment. Call it foolish pride, but that’s not happening. If you choose to respond, chances are someone else has the gig by the time you do so. That’s time wasted, too. 

6. Isn’t it nice when a request comes in and the editor is reeling off compliments about your work? One or two nice words, okay. Anything else is horse s**t because after the compliments inevitably (and often at the last-minute unless you apply point 1 above) comes a truly dreadful contract offer. So, when an email starts with “I’ve been a fan of your work for years” (seriously, I probably just appeared in a Google search) or “I love your blog” (especially entertaining when one doesn’t have a blog), you know you are being greased up for a daikon from behind. 

7. The vague editor. If you want to avoid the misery of a rewrite, you need a brief. Sometimes an editor gets in touch with a very concrete idea. Great. You can follow that to the letter. You could suggest tweaks. Either way, you’ll both know what the goal is. Some editors say they aren’t sure how to focus a piece (quite common when they don’t know Japan very well), but are keen to work with you to define something before the writing starts. That’s great, too. Some editors, however, just have wishy-washy ideas about, “A story on Tokyo in 1,000 words. Anything is ok.” Thing is, once they see the piece they have given you free rein to work on, it’s not uncommon to hear, “I was hoping for a different focus”. That can be avoided. However, if a publication isn’t willing to take the time to develop a firm outline (and it only takes an email or two), I say no.