This post is inspired by a short summary I’ve been preparing for a mini-presentation on pricing editorial work at the upcoming SfEP Conference. When it comes to the thorny issue of fees, there are many things I wish I’d known when I was starting out, to avoid some hair-raising mistakes. And when it comes to freelancing in general, there are plenty of things I would also like to have known … only because if I had, I might have slept a little easier in the early years. So here’s what I would tell the newbie freelance me, if I met her now.
Don’t take things personally
It can feel like the hardest thing in the world, at first, to negotiate decent rates or to stand up to clients in the face of cheeky demands. It’s too easy to come over all self-deprecating, or to bend over backwards trying to please. Editors are often extremely nice, quite modest people, and it can feel, frankly, a bit hard-nosed to demand what you are worth, to set ground rules or to say no to unreasonable requests. But this is a mistake. Sticking up for yourself in a professional capacity has nothing to do with being nice as a person in other aspects of life. It’s just business.
But, offer a personal service
There are loads of other proofreaders and editors, so why would your clients keep coming back to you? And how can you persuade new ones to try you out? Part of the answer lies in specialisation. For example, you might focus on particular subjects or genres. Or you might specialise in working with a particular type of client. Another thing that might set you apart is your publishing experience or particular professional background, which some clients will value highly. Finally, though, remember that it’s the little personal touches that can also help you win repeat business. Always be nice to clients, and thank them when it’s appropriate. Try to treat clients and colleagues as you would like to be treated, just as you would in other areas of life. Oh, and don’t fall out with people if you can help it, because it really can be a very small world.
Saying no feels great …
I’m a firm believer in the power of saying no. If a project isn’t right for me, or I simply can’t fit it in, I no longer have qualms about turning it down. In the early days, it can feel as if every opportunity is the last one you will get – but the reality is not like that. Chances often come around again, even if in a slightly different guise. And it’s never worth risking not delivering (in terms of deadline or quality) by trying to cram in too much work. Saying no (politely, constructively, and with a referral to a suitable colleague if appropriate) is one way you can remind yourself that you are in control of your business. And that feels good!
But, saying yes is even better
Having described how wonderful saying no is, I should counter that by stating that saying yes to a brilliant new project – for a new client, for a favourite old client, in a new area, on a subject that especially excites me – is one of the best work-related feelings in the world. It’s always a rush, and it makes the harder aspects of freelancing totally worth it.
The snowball effect is actually a thing
I used to wake up in a cold sweat at two in the morning quite regularly, wondering when the work would run out. This persisted for the first few years of freelancing, but eventually it did stop happening. Perhaps because I got too tired … or perhaps because there really is an element of things becoming self-sustaining, to some extent, over time. I used to panic when a favourite contact left a publisher … until I realised that it often led to new work when they sought me out again from their next destination. And often their old colleagues would continue to use me, too. If you do a good job, word will spread, and word of mouth is a highly effective marketing tool.
But, that doesn’t mean you can completely relax
Having said that, it’s not enough to rely only on word of mouth, or passively wait for people to come to you, to keep the work coming in. You need to keep yourself ‘out there’ through a range of marketing efforts. These don’t all have to be what you might think of as ‘marketing’, though. It’s easy to casually network with colleagues on a daily basis online, especially via membership of the SfEP, for example, or another professional association. It’s not particularly time-consuming to keep yourself discoverable online once you start. These should be things you do almost without thinking most days – with the added bonus that they help to provide variety, camaraderie and even humour in the context of a working day spent mostly editing.
You will embrace the unpredictability
It can seem terrifying to think that you don’t know what you will be working on in six months’ time, or a year’s time … but the flip side of this is that as well as alarming, it’s also liberating. Some tasks you do as a freelance editor will be mundane – but taken as whole, the trajectory of a freelance editing career doesn’t have to be the slightest bit boring. There are all kinds of opportunities within editing itself, and that’s before you begin to consider branching out into writing, speaking, training, mentoring … the only limits are the ones you impose on yourself, once you’re up and running.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She’s still finding out how freelancing works.