5 QUESTIONS TO ASK THE CONSULTANT
1. What was your professional experience before you became a consultant?
Most consultants have their “history” on their websites under a list of clients or testimonials, but you want to know more than just their past clients. What did they do before they began consulting? Did they work in the field? What production companies, studios, or publishing houses did they work for? For how long? What writers or projects of note did they work with “in the field?” You might ask for a resume or curriculum vitae, but these are not typically used by script consultants. If they don’t have any prior industry experience (either in entertainment or publishing), consider this a red flag that they may not have the depth and/or experience you need.
In addition to the generic resume-related questions, there is value in finding out about their specific interests and expertise. For example, what formats do they favor? For script consultants, that means hour-long dramas, sitcoms, feature films, animation, etc.; for book editors, that means short fiction, long fiction, series, comics, graphic novels, etc. Do they have past expertise in your particular genre? For book editors, find out how familiar they are with the Chicago Manual of Style – any experienced editor will know this style guide well. Ask editors if they present at writer conferences, festivals, and book fairs; if so, which ones? This will help you gauge if they are well-established and respected in the literary community. The same question should be put to script consultants. It’s not necessary they do these kinds of events, but it is a good sign if they do, as it usually means they are well established.
2. How are your clients better off after you’re finished working with them – and can I talk to some of them?
If someone gives you generic or spin-doctored answers to this question, then you know they don’t have a clue what their true value is. By “generic,” I mean answers like: “My clients get a solid script at the end of the day,” or “My clients end up with a good story they can sell and market,” or “My clients end up happy and positioned for success.” These are all useless.
You want to hear things like: “My clients leave with a multi-step process they can use that will help them succeed on their own,” or “My clients are given specific marketing strategies they can use going forward for any book or script they write,” or “My clients walk away with a professional level of understanding about story development and story structure.” Yes, these answers can involve a fair amount of spin doctoring and sales talk as well, but at least they show the editor or consultant has clear deliverables and a learned process. (We’ll talk more about this in the next question.)
The next step is to ask to talk to former clients. True, they may just have a few friends lined up to rave about them. But most reputable professionals will be happy to provide references to potential clients. However, if anyone balks at this request because of confidentiality issues, this isn’t necessarily a dead end: They very well may have a confidentiality agreement in place with their past clients. Yet how they react to this question can tell you a lot about their integrity and commitment to transparency. If they get overly defensive or start deflecting with questionable legalities and other nonsense, that’s a major red flag.
3. Do you have a methodology or process you use, or do you just “do your thing” as you go along?
So many writers hand over their project and walk away, expecting the final results to be handed to them. Big mistake. You have to find out how these professionals work before you hire one. What is their workflow like? How do they handle their financials; do they have a refund policy, for example? How will they deliver feedback? Can they provide sample edited manuscripts or notes so you can see their approach? For book editors, do they use Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” function to document all edits and comments within the manuscript (which is logical and easy to follow), or do they just wing it in a text file with a bunch of colored test inserts (which is insanity-inducing)? Regardless of industry, professionals should have established procedures and deliverables for every client. You have a right to know those procedures and the nature of the final process BEFORE they start work. This is critical, because the way editors or consultants answer this question tells you volumes about their professionalism, experience, and attitude toward you, the client. Ignoring this question can set you up for a host of other consulting nightmares.
4. Will you provide a sample edit?
It is not at all uncommon for book editors to give a free editing sample of your manuscript (usually no more than a few pages), so that you can see their process. Script consultants typically do not do this (which I personally think is a bad policy). Sometimes script consultants will give a free mini-consult over the phone and talk about your script and give some feedback, and perhaps this can suffice as a “sample,” but most script consultants won’t work on the actual script without being hired first. In this case, it’s reasonable to ask for a mini-evaluation or consult to get some sense of their ability to quickly assess your story or writing. If they refuse, this is not a sign (necessarily) that they are unprofessional jerks, but it is reasonable to ask them why they won’t do it. Maybe they have a good answer, maybe not. Just asking can tell you a lot about how they are approaching the relationship. Use your judgment, and always ask “Why not?” if for no other reason than to see how they’ll respond.
5. Will you sign a contract?
Contracts exist for one reason: In the event that the relationship disintegrates and both parties refuse to talk things through or compromise. Even so, this is problematic for a lot of people, because they don’t want the hassle of drawing up contracts, negotiating terms, etc. And for small, one-off projects, lengthy contracts can feel like overkill (and they are). But there is both a tangible and intangible reason for asking the question.
The intangible reason is that you want to see how they’ll react: If they are firm and explain why they never do contracts (script consultants almost never do), and their answer feels solid and honest (with no agendas), then you’ll probably be OK, but you should still insist on putting something short and specific in writing. If they just say “No, I don’t do those” and it feels avoidant and defensive, then you’re probably on shaky ground. But if they say “No, I don’t do those, but what would work for you?” then you should be fine.
The tangible reason for a contract is that working without some form of an agreement opens you to misery if there is a dispute, especially when you have a long or complicated project with due dates, deliverables, and many moving parts. Again, script consultants almost never do contracts and they will surely push back on this request, so this question is more about reading into their answers than actually walking away with a signed professional contract. But book editors are much more accustomed to contracts. Most professional editors operate under the best practices set up by the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and use contract templates and pricing schedules based on the EFA’s recommendations. Long or involved projects need contracts, especially those with thousands of dollars in consulting fees. Contracts are complicated, but they aren’t rocket science, and good samples abound online that you can use for guidance. Once you create the first one, you can just clone it for future jobs. But I cannot stress enough the importance of having your professional working relationship spelled out with third-party vendors BEFORE you engage them to work. Remember, it’s your time and money, so gamble accordingly.Originally Published