Experimenting with new markets is not just about bringing in the money; it’s also about opening yourself up to new opportunities and experiences.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a creature of habit. I’m also a firm believer in not putting my eggs in one basket. Most of the prospective clients who contact me are similar to my existing clients: academic publishers. I know this market well – I understand its language; I’m familiar with its processes; and the expectations of what the work will involve are understood by me and the presses for whom I work.
Taking on work in areas that are unfamiliar can be somewhat daunting. How much should you charge? What’s the going rate? How long will the work take? Does your new client’s understanding of terms such as “proofreading” or “editing” match your own? Will you be comfortable doing the work?
There’s nothing wrong with sticking to your comfort zone, especially if you enjoy the work. But every now and then it doesn’t hurt to take a punt. After all, the best-case scenario is that you find a new niche – another string to your editorial bow – while the worst-case scenario is simply that it doesn’t work out. And, really, what's wrong with that?
A. What if the work doesn’t suit you?
The great thing about being a freelance business owner is that you can always close the relationship if things don’t work out as planned. And even if your hoped-for long-term business relationship ends up being rather shorter than expected, you can still notch up the completed work to experience and use the knowledge you’ve gained to inform your future choices.
B. You like the work but the financial return is much lower than expected
I find it quite easy to estimate how much time work from academic publishers will take because it’s a market with which I’m familiar. Quoting for work outside the field is far harder for many editorial freelancers – and it may be that you make a mistake and seriously under-quote.
One way to avoid this is to offer a trial rate that you’ll honour for the first few projects, but suggest the possibility of reviewing the fee structure a little further down the road once you’ve completed one or two pieces of work.
If you haven’t gone for the trial option, and find that the work is taking much longer than expected (causing your hourly rate to plummet), don’t beat yourself up about it. Contact the client and explain the situation, stating that, of course, you’ll honour the original quote for the initial pieces of work supplied but that if the relationship is to continue you’ll need to review the price with them.
In this situation it may be that the client decides they can’t afford your proposed new rate. That’s fair enough – at least the discussion is open and honest. And if you’ve taken the time to give a careful breakdown of the work you’ve done, how long it’s taken, the reasons why you believe you initially underestimated, and why, in order to do the best job for them, you want to review matters, then your client will appreciate your professionalism and see that you’re not trying to rip them off. In this case you'll be able to close the door to each other on good terms.
Of course, there's always the negotiated compromise. You can ask them to make you their best offer and decide whether you can live with it. The experience you’re acquiring and your enjoyment of the projects might mean that you’re prepared to take a bit of a hit (though not one that makes you feel as if you are being exploited). Compromise isn’t for everyone, but it is an option.
C. What if the work’s not what you expected?
So you thought you were proofreading but actually you’re editing. Or you thought you were editing but actually you’re writing. Or perhaps you were expecting monthly projects of a couple of thousand words and you’ve ended up with a tome on your desk (or in your inbox). Ask yourself the following:
If the answer to (1) is “no”, then inform your client as soon as possible that the job’s not for you. That way they can find a replacement. If you’re okay with the work but the answer to (2) is negative, then you need to take the same action – tell the client that you’re sincerely sorry but you don’t feel the job is within your skill set; or, if it is but the deadlines are unmanageable, give them the heads-up immediately. In the latter case you may be able to set up new arrangements whereby the time frames are workable. If you still want the work and you’re fit for purpose, but you’re unhappy with the rate (3), it’s time to have the open and honest conversation outlined in section B, above. Many an editorial freelancer has been surprised at how receptive clients can be to procedural or rate reviews as long as the conversation is timely, polite and expressed in a way that acknowledges their needs. If your work is of high quality, your client may just bend over backwards to make the relationship work.
Taking a punt brings up all sorts of unexpected pleasures, but sometimes a little pain, too. Good communication framed by honesty and immediacy will make the journey less bumpy. But whatever happens, as editor friend Janet MacMillan recently advised, “There’s no point in getting one’s knickers in a knot over it. You win some and you lose some in this gig!”
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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.
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Winner of the Judith Butcher Award 2017 in respect of 'highly visible contributions to the SfEP and its membership'.