How far will training get you in the editorial freelancing market?
Update from Louise: I wrote this post several years ago. However, I'm confident the advice still stands. While these days I work primarily for indie fiction authors who find me via organic search, I think publisher work is still incredibly valuable.
Publishers and editorial freelancers understand each other. We have the same expectations regarding the level of editing being undertaken (e.g. developmental, line/copy, proofreading), which saves both parties time.
Publishers are in a position to offer repeat work, thus taking some of the stress out of marketing. Plus the portfolio- and testimonial-building opportunities are excellent.
And so while the rates are sometimes an issue (though not always by any means), publishers are a brilliant client group to target. It's therefore important to bear in mind where they see the value when hiring editorial freelancers.
Here's what I found out ...
Is training useless?
I’ve just landed on a blog where the author calls proofreading courses a "scam" and "unnecessary", and the qualifications "useless". The rant continues, the author arguing that they’ve never been asked to produce evidence of any qualification or completion of a course by an "official" body.
And luckily for anyone looking to enter this extraordinarily crowded and competitive field, said author offers a far cheaper alternative to all those "rip-off" courses: their very own proofreading course in the form of an ebook.
Back in 2005, I spent seven months doing just the type of course this author was decrying. I opted for the Basic Proofreading by Distance Learning course run by the Publishing Training Centre (PTC), an externally assessed course run by an industry-recognized body.
I also joined the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) and did the necessaries to qualify for full membership.
So did I waste my money? Was I ripped off? Did the training I took on help me get to where I am now or was I kidding myself?
Should I have instead invested in an ebook course that would have given me change from a twenty-pound note?
I discussed this issue with some of my clients, all of whom are established and respected publishing houses or project management services in the UK.
What came out of the conversation led me to conclude that the training I undertook was definitely worthwhile, and membership of the SfEP has provided me with wonderful information-sharing opportunities as well as the right to advertise in their Directory.
Nevertheless, there was much food for thought in the responses I received.
Thumbs up for training courses …
Out of House Publishing consider only the SfEP and PTC courses to be "useful and relevant" and Managing Director Jo Bottrill stated that he "certainly consider[s] freelancers who have completed such training much more seriously".
Constable & Robinson’s website states, "Please note our minimum requirements include training from recognized establishments such as SfEP or the Publishing Training Centre."
Aimée Feenan from Ashgate concurs, saying that most Ashgate staff have undertaken some sort of training at the PTC, and knowing that freelance staff are able to work to the same editorial standards means they are more likely to be hired. They also recognize the SfEP as a trusted source.
And at SAGE Publishing, training is considered important, with the SfEP and PTC again being the two most trusted external suppliers.
Elizabeth Clack at Edward Elgar felt "that the Publishing Training Centre and SfEP courses are good quality and are well-regarded, so it would be a plus point if someone had taken courses with them, although that's not to say that we would only consider freelances who had taken courses with these bodies".
She added, "it indicates to us that the freelance has reached a certain level of proficiency and has some understanding of editing/proofreading procedures and 'best practice'. Training is especially relevant if the freelance does not yet have much work experience."
Also of note here the fact that she felt that proofreading courses took away some of the risk of the unknown when taking on a new or inexperienced freelancer.
But training in itself is not enough …
Training in itself is not always enough, and some publishers feel they have had their fingers burned by relying too much on freelancers’ training credits. Increasingly publishers are using their own tests in order to evaluate competence.
Jo Bottrill was cautious of advanced membership and accreditation status within the SfEP, feeling that these did not always ensure that a freelancer met his exacting standards.
Instead, he's "put[ting] more emphasis on the assessment of our own tests and analysis of live jobs. Our quality control and reporting procedures have developed over the last couple of years to ensure we have an appropriate safety net."
For Edward Elgar, "another factor when considering whether to work with a freelance is whether they have experience in a particular subject area, because many of our books are quite specialized. For instance, freelances working on our law books may have law qualifications or a background in legal work."
Ian Antcliff, one of SAGE Publications’ senior production editors, stated that training, though important, is seen as an add-on. For him, in-house experience makes for an attractive prospect, not because the editors/proofreaders are better, but rather because "it usually ensures that they are sympathetic to and understand the pressure that in-house staff are under (especially with regard to budgets and deadlines)".
Ashgate acknowledge that not every freelancer on their books has received formal editorial training – they do have people who were just exceptionally good at learning on the job and being an expert in a particular subject area is also a real plus.
Polity Press’s production manager, Neil de Cort, takes a stronger line. For him, a speculative letter with a list of training courses is of no relevance. Like most publishers, Polity receive a large number of speculative letters every year from freelancers looking for work. Experience counts every time – Neil wants to see that a freelancer has experience of working in the social sciences, and references from other publishers are key. Completion of a training course alone simply won’t get you on their books.
Confidence to take on the task
The training I’ve completed to date did indeed get me looked at by several clients when I was starting out. Polity, though, gave me work because of my knowledge of their field of publishing and a good reference from Salt Publishing. Constable & Robinson noticed me, despite the fact that I already met their minimum requirements, because of a recommendation from the Edward Elgar production team.
However, proofreading books published by the likes of Cambridge University Press, Polity and SAGE, who, like all of my clients, have precise and exacting publishing standards, can be daunting to the newbie.
And expanding into new publishing genres, in my case from the social sciences to trade, is a different type of challenge. Externally assessed training under the wing of a skilled industry-recognized body gave me the confidence to take on these challenges and feel assured that I was ready for the task in hand.
On-the-job CPD and upgrading skills
As for the future, I’ve been wrestling with the issue of whether to upgrade to advanced membership of the SfEP. For me this will mean undertaking more training courses, since I qualify on all other fronts.
I’ve no doubt that further courses will provide me with new knowledge and provide excellent networking opportunities. But will I get more work? It depends on what that training is – if it involves ensuring I can mark-up onscreen, use the preferred software packages, and deliver my projects in new formats, then yes.
(Note from Louise in 2017: I did this, and have been an Advanced Professional Member for several years.)
Ian Antcliff at SAGE emphasizes how essential it is for freelancers to have up-to-date skill sets "with regard to both onscreen editing and Word, and also with ancillary software generally – Adobe, etc. – increasingly so as we move towards onscreen mark-up of proof PDFs".
Talking to clients (or reading their blogs and tweets) about what their needs are, how the market is changing, and new ways of delivering our service may be just as informative as any course, and is probably the first thing we should do before deciding where to spend our hard-earned training cash.
In a nutshell …
So all in all, the message from my clients was that initial basic editorial training is more likely to get us noticed by publishers, but that it’s not the sole factor in determining whether they place us on their books.
Experience counts for a lot, but so does flexibility over the formats in which we work. Continuing to update our skills in whatever way best suits the needs of our clients will give us the best chance of remaining their freelancers of choice.
As for that £19.99 ebook course? It simply wouldn’t have cut the mustard.
(With thanks to Edward Elgar, SAGE Publications, Ashgate, Polity Press, and Out of House Publishing for their generous contributions.)
Your problems solved
New editors and proofreaders: Need help growing your business? Email me your question and I’ll devote an entire post to answering it. If you’d rather keep your identity private, that’s fine with me.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and copyeditor. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
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