The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
Timo Boeseman's blog post, What Nobody Sees and What Ensures that Publishers Remain: Added Value, featured on FutureBook, is a good reminder that publishing isn't a one-size-fits-all business.
What many of the latest anti-publisher rants often fail to take notice of is that not every writer wants, nor has the time (or skills), to learn how to be an expert marketeer, sales executive, production editor, jacket designer, proofreader, digital deliverer, distribution manager, subscription agent, and wholesaler. And for those authors who still want print copies of their books (and many do), some won't want to have to turn their garage into a warehouse. Self-publishing (in whatever guise) isn't for everyone.
In praise of the empowered author...
I'm aware of the fact that many current publishing models lead to a position whereby great storytelling or rich, interesting academic content can't always find a home with a publisher because of increasingly tight margins (think of the PhD thesis that has something new and exciting to offer but is unlikely to appeal to textbook market, or the beautifully crafted piece of genre storytelling by an unknown author). And it's wonderful that writers are finding ways to bypass the hurdle of getting a book deal with a traditional publisher and that such a vibrant and supportive community is developing in the self-publishing world.
But any writer looking to go their own way needs to heed the fact that publishing is not for the faint-hearted. It takes time to learn how to put on your marketing, editing, distribution and digital delivery hats, and even longer to become skilled in wearing them well. For some, acquiring all these skills may mean time away from the even harder craft of writing and storytelling. A few have managed to do it very well, but they are likely to remain in the minority.
Readers and the brand...
It's also an interesting time for us book buyers. When I'm downloading books for my Kindle I still look to see whether a reputable publishing house is behind the book. Such brand recognition doesn't guarantee quality but it can be an indicator. That's not to say that I won't buy a book from an author who's gone it alone. I have and with mixed results; some of the books were great, but some were woeful. I usually check the author's website. If care and attention has been given to that, then I figure we're in with a good chance that the book might be a good buy. And if I like it, I take the time to comment as such on said website or on Amazon.
Developing, not dying...
The times are indeed changing and it's interesting to watch new business models developing in the market. But we shouldn't forget that many publishing houses have spent the past decade carefully tweaking their programmes in order to stay up to date with new developments. In the academic sector, some have even been the drivers behind digital delivery – first, with journals, then books – and these adaptations didn't cause them to become redundant. Digital didn't kill academic publishers; it just shifted their landscape.
I think publishers still have an enormous role to play in this diverse and some might say increasingly democratic market. Will their models remain the same? Doubtful. But this is not the first time in publishing history that the business has evolved. And it won't be the last.
Several queries from ‘newbies’ on the Society for Editors and Proofreaders’ online discussion group, SfEPLine, prompted me to consider how I went about things when was starting out. Here are my top tips for getting freelance editorial work.
Step 1 – get experience and references with gratis work
Getting experience is the hardest part of the game, and more important when you’re starting out than worrying about the price you’re being paid. Publishers, who are a great source of revenue because they are in a position to offer repeat work, want to give jobs to people who don’t need hand-holding. Offering free work to those small independent publishers who can’t afford copy-editors/proofreaders is a very useful avenue for beefing up your CV and generating testimonials. And don’t worry about this affecting your credibility: your future paying clients won’t know you worked your backside off for nothing – they’ll just see what you’ve done. Furthermore, those clients who offer free work do so because they can’t afford editing services and usually have to do it themselves; those who can afford to pay, do so because they want trained experienced professionals.
The lesson here is to get the experience from the former to make yourself attractive to the latter. When I started out six years ago, I did four pieces of very time-consuming gratis work for a couple of publishers and a charity, in addition to editing a parish magazine on a monthly basis. My bank account didn’t see a penny, but my CV looked a great deal better, and I doubt I would have got the breaks that I did with my now-paying clients if I’d not been able to demonstrate practical experience.
Step 2 – think about timing
I’d also recommend contacting publishing clients in the period leading up to the holiday season, as that’s when their regular freelances are more likely to be unavailable. When I was starting out I got myself work in the school holidays with two academic publishing houses from whom, six years later, I get monthly offers of work. To prove the point further, I was recently contacted by a London-based university press whose usual proofreaders were all on their summer vacations. The production editor found my entry in the SfEP's Directory of Editorial Services and asked me if I'd proofread a book for her. She was pleased with the results and took the further step of recommending me to her fellow production editors. Other people's holidays can be your entry point!
This tactic means making sacrifices with regard to your leisure time: in my first year I worked a lot of evenings, but it paid off because I hung onto the clients. Now I turn down jobs if the timing doesn’t suit me, and I feel safe in the knowledge that my clients value my work enough that I won’t slip off their radar if I don’t want to proofread on Christmas Eve!
Step 3 – get to the right person
Once you’ve got a CV with projects listed on it, you can roll this out to publishing clients. Their websites usually list who the production manager is. Once you know to whom to send your CV, buy lots of stamps! I sent my CV to 70 publishers in the beginning, and got a tiny response rate, but each of these few responses generated repeat paid work, so I wasn’t disheartened by the numbers. Then, once I had more projects under my belt and a more impressive CV, I bought even more stamps and sent out my CV again to another 100 publishers.
It does take time to build up a client base, and while I can see the value of having a web presence or using social networking opportunities, I wanted to be proactive and contact the named person within an organisation who was responsible for commissioning freelances, rather than hoping they’d come to me.
Step 4 – focus on a type of client
I have a degree in politics and worked in the marketing department of a social science publisher for many years. I therefore chose to focus my attention on social science academic publishers when I started sending out my CV. There are thousands of publishing houses out there, so homing in on those that are likely to be interested in you is critical. I really fancied doing some fiction, but I didn’t pick up my first trade client until I’d got four years’ experience. So, if you’re an ex-teacher, focus on educational houses; if you used to be a paralegal, try law/criminology publishers; if you’ve got a degree in mathematics or chemistry, consider publishers with a strong science list.
Step 5 – use the Web
One of my authors is a graphic designer/IT specialist during the week and a mixed martial artist (that’s cage fighter to you and me) at weekends. His book was about his weekend job. He commented that he’d not come across my name before his publisher contacted him, despite his googling, and wondered why I didn’t have an online presence. I made a ton of excuses – I don’t want the expense of paying for a domain hosting service; I have no design skills; I don’t have the time, etc. However, things have changed since I started out as a freelancer and it’s easier than ever to build your own website. It needn’t cost you a penny either. There are a number of providers that will give you a basic but very pleasing platform and domain name at no cost. I use Weebly and am delighted with it, but there are many others from which to choose.
Those who'd like more thorough, step-by-step information on starting out may be interested in my guide, Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers: A Guide for New Starters, published in association with The Publishing Training Centre. Publication date: April 2013.
I admit it – until recently I’d resisted Twitter and rejected the idea having my own website; last year I deactivated my Facebook account; and the notion of blogging found me yawning into my teacup. But a conversation with a publishing friend got me thinking that perhaps I was letting things slip a little. I’d limited my networking almost completely to members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), which is all well and good, but was I getting left behind? Was I missing out on those little snapshots of the publishing world more generally? ‘Trial it for a month,’ said my publishing friend. So I did. And I like it – I really do.
There are a lot of reasons why people sign up with Twitter, but these are my top three:
1. All my clients use Twitter…
Yes, every single one of them. My clients are, in the main, academic and trade publishing houses, and they all have Twitter accounts. Some of them use it to tweet about recent book releases; others use it as a forum for posting interesting links about the fields in which they publish; most of them, at one time or another, have used the platform as a way to transmit industry news. And a lot of them follow each other. So if they’re there, I think I ought to be there. Actually a few of them now follow me, and that can only be a good thing in terms of my proofreading profile and how other publishing houses might regard me.
2. It’s a one-stop-shop for industry news…
Like a lot of people, I’m ‘time poor’. Proofreading deadlines, school pick-ups and an enthusiastic young Labrador mean I just don’t have the time to read the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Bookseller, the Guardian’s online publishing blog, and the Times Higher Education Supplement, and keep tabs on what my clients are up to. And that’s before I’ve tried to remember to search out some of my preferred general-interest blogs (David Mitchell’s regular Observer blogs are a favourite of mine!). And that’s the real beauty of Twitter – I get these handy little links popping up that take me straight to where I want to go. I swear the amount of time I spend trawling the web for stuff I just might be interested in has decreased by 60%!
3. You can keep it professional…
One of my biggest concerns was that I might descend into tweeting hell, and find myself drowning in a sea of friend-based discussions about the weather, my general state of health, and football scores. So I’ve been very select about the accounts I follow and I’m very careful with the content of my tweets. Nearly all the accounts I follow are publishing related and I take care only to tweet about things that my fellow industry colleagues might find interesting. So you won’t find me lamenting the fact that I’m having a bad-hair day, or that my dog has chewed my new pair of Birkenstocks. Instead, I’m more likely to be retweeting about Penguin’s move into the self-publishing market, the SfEP’s latest training schedule, an editor's weblink, or developments in e-publishing.
'Onscreen Proofreading – A Freelance Perspective' was published as a guest blog post on 7 October 2011. It explores the increasing demand from publisher clients to mark-up proofs onscreen, particularly pdfs, and how this proofreader has responded to these developments. To read the full article, click: Out of House Publishing.
For a more thorough look at the subject, see my other article PDF Editing and Proofreading – Making the Most of the Stamps Tool.
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All text on this blog, The Proofreader's Parlour, and on the other pages of this website (unless indicated otherwise) is in copyright © 2011–17 Louise Harnby. Please do not copy or reproduce any of the content, in whole or part, in any form, unless you ask first.
Author Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). I abide by its Code of Standards in regard to my status as an independent writer.
Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). I'm a signatory to its code of practice as a professional editor.
Featured in The Book Designer's Carnival of the Indies: Joel Friedlander's collection of 'outstanding articles recently posted to blogs'.
Winner of the Judith Butcher Award 2017 in respect of 'highly visible contributions to the SfEP and its membership'.