Like it or not, if you want to earn a living as a freelance editor, you have to get to grips with the money side of things. Here are some informal economic principles that have guided me in the time I have been freelance.
1. The construct of the hourly rate can be a problem.
If I let a client set my hourly rate for a job, quite apart from the fact that I limit my earning potential according to arbitrary figures set by some distant manager or HR department, I commit myself to reporting how much time I take to complete a job. Though the time taken matters to me and my spreadsheets, it shouldn’t matter in the slightest to my client – what should matter is that the work is delivered on time, within budget and to the required standard.
2. People will try to monetise the process; I can decide whether or not to work with them.
At various stages, people try to make money out of the publishing process itself, rather than producing anything tangible – like editing – or taking a financial risk on the end product; their business depends on taking a share of the profits generated as a result of everyone else’s work. From the point of view of the freelance, some intermediaries add value of a kind – perhaps they offer a steady stream of work, and it may be worth accepting a slightly lower rate to secure this. Or perhaps they offer credible experience, or constructive feedback, or some element of mentoring. However, nearly always I consider that working through an intermediary will dilute my earning potential to an unacceptable degree.
3. That payment I’m depending on? It will come late.
If there’s one thing that has become startlingly clear to me in recent years, it’s that my clients are sometimes in a worse financial position than me. They may have a much higher turnover, but they also have many more financial obligations. The whole system is pretty precarious, and one or two deferred payments higher up the chain can have huge repercussions lower down. I’m not making excuses for late payments to freelance editors – I will chase a payment as soon as it is overdue and until the debt is settled, and if a client persists in paying me late, I will not work with them again. It’s not always easy to build in contingency – everyday life is expensive – but I have learned to plan ahead, and not blindly trust that a client will pay a particular invoice in time to cover my next rent or mortgage payment. The chances are that even if they have done so the past five times, this month they might not.
4. I should never feel bad about scaring off a prospect on the basis of price.
Like James Bond, I don’t stop to think about it. (My favourite line in the latest Bond film, Spectre, was where James gave Léa Seydoux a very intense look over a dinner table and muttered ‘I don’t stop to think about it’ – with ‘it’ actually being the question of whether he wanted to ‘live in the shadows, hunting, being hunted … always alone’ – hmm, a bit like being a freelance editor.) If a potential client is not willing at least to meet my minimum, it is not my loss. I will spend my time cultivating one that has no problem paying what I am worth.
5. I may have to accept fluctuating cash flow, but not necessarily ‘feast or famine’.
As I mentioned above, sometimes clients pay more slowly than I would like (or unexpectedly quickly, which is obviously brilliant!). Sometimes a job takes longer than the client or I expected, so I can’t invoice as soon as I was hoping to – though if it’s a long job, I will invoice in stages. Sometimes a job is delayed. Or there may be a month where proportionately more of the jobs I do happen to fall at the lower end of my preferred price range, which is quite broad. So cash flow does go up and down from month to month, though I do all I can to keep the income from dropping below a certain limit. However, despite this natural fluctuation in money coming in, I aim to keep my billable hours worked fairly constant, in each week and in each month, and ultimately across the entire year. This state is attainable, but achieving a very steady flow of work did take me some considerable time. I don’t ever stop looking for new work avenues, and I try to avoid being in the position of worrying over losing any single client.
6. No one cares about my bottom line but me.
This principle applies to aspects of freelancing other than money. No one is going to make my business a success, or find me interesting and rewarding work, or market me, or make sure I get my admin done, other than me. And no one is going to make sure I earn enough to live on, other than me. And that is part of what makes this career so challenging, but also so compelling. It’s all in my hands.
I realise some of my rules could sound a touch hard-nosed, but they’re purely pragmatic; like almost everyone else, I have bills to pay. I don’t care about money in itself (trust me, I would be happier living in a world without it, trading my skills for bags of flour, and everyone in the world would get the same number of bags). What I care about very much, though, is time. Time is money, so the more efficiently I can earn the money, the more time I can have to spend doing things other than paid work, for myself and hopefully for others.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. Marx sits on a shelf in her lounge and glowers at all who drink coffee beneath him.