An American Editor

May 27, 2013

Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (I)

Today’s article is a guest post written by Ruth Thaler-Carter, a long-time friend and colleague. Ruth is a freelance editor and writer, as well as host of editing and writing conferences.

Ruth and I have discussed numerous times whether it is better to be a solopreneur or a “company.” Here she makes her case for solopreneurship.

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A Solopreneur’s Perspective on Business Models

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Rich Adin’s blog, An American Editor, has seen a number of convincing posts about the value of doing editing as a company with more than one editor on board, rather than working solo, and why that business model might be the wave of the future.

Becoming an editing company makes a lot of sense for anyone who wants to handle large publishing projects, which is the niche for Rich’s company, but I’d like to offer my reasons for planning to remain a solopreneur as a freelance editor.

Like many of my editor colleagues, I am comfortable working on smaller projects where the overall funds may not be as attractive as what a huge medical text, for example, might generate. The work can be as profitable when you take into account the different level of effort or scale of project and the fact that, as a solopreneur, I end up with the whole fee in pocket, rather than some of it going to colleagues, employees, or subcontractors.

My editing work involves articles for magazines, newsletters, professional firms, and blogs; book-length manuscripts for trade associations; website content; and other relatively short or small-scale assignments. Most of these projects probably would not be worth doing for a bigger business entity. I enjoy working on them, and I make enough on them to pay my bills and feel good about the income they generate. As an editing company, I might miss out on smaller projects that I really enjoy doing.

Based on what I see in discussion lists, many of my colleagues take a similar view of their editing work. Those who work with MA and PhD students, for instance, or academic authors trying to submit manuscripts to journals, often do quite well as solopreneurs on projects that might not be big enough for a company or whose authors might not be able to afford the fees of a company.

When he says that it’s difficult to find individual clients who will pay enough to be worthwhile for solopreneur editors, Rich also has a good point. It is true that finding individual clients can be a challenge, and that the expanding world of self-publishing may mean there will be more and more authors who don’t think they need editors, rather than more and more who understand the importance of editing to make their work its best. But some of us do well in working with such clients, once they find us or we find them; the challenge is more making that connection than whether those clients are comfortable working with us as individual editors rather than as companies or what appear to be businesses.

It is possible that some individual clients/authors might view a company name and identity as more trustworthy and “legit” than an individual freelance editor. That might explain why new authors go to web-based services for editing. However, I think those self-publishing clients who do want editing services also might be scared off by the prospect of working with a company, assuming – perhaps wrongly – that they wouldn’t be able to afford the fees that a company would charge. (I’m not necessarily comparing my fees and costs of doing business to those of a company, but companies usually have overhead and other expenses to cover that a solopreneur doesn’t have.)

There are when times when it would be easier if I had, or were part of, an editing company with employees or subcontractors already in place. When I’ve been offered a project much larger than what I normally work on, I turn to colleagues who might be comfortable working together.

If I had a business partner or employees/subcontractors, I could and would take on much bigger projects, but I also would have a whole new layer of administrative responsibility – even if some of it can be delegated – that I really don’t want. Having an editing company means finding, vetting/testing, hiring, training, overseeing, and paying the people who do some or all of the editing work. Only some of those tasks can be handled by someone other than the head of the company. I would rather spend my time doing the actual editing work; the billing and related aspects of my business are nominal compared with what I assume such administrative activity is for a larger-scale editing company (of course, we all know about the dangers of assuming!).

Some of this decision-making process, of course, is rooted in each individual’s personality and comfort zone. Not everyone wants to own and manage a company. Not everyone wants to handle huge editing projects. Not everyone even wants to make a six-figure income – someone might want to have such an income, but not want to do what it takes to earn it.

I’m open to reconsidering how I structure my business over time as the markets evolve. I’ve adapted to technology over the years in ways I never could have anticipated, so I probably could adapt to a new business model as well. At least for now, though, I don’t anticipate morphing into a company. My solopreneur model is working nicely for me, both personally and financially.

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What do you think? Do you agree with Ruth? Is the solopreneurship really the best model for the changing world of editing?

21 Comments »

  1. I very much agree with Ruth, being the same type of person. She makes the key point [emphasis mine]: “Someone might *want* to have such an income, but *not want to do what it takes* to earn it.”

    One needs to go through the mental and emotional exercise to make that choice — it must be an informed decision — but once the decision is taken, then the task becomes how to make one’s chosen path work.

    Solopreneurship is a viable business model for many editors. On the large scale, however — meaning, as an ideal means of employment for all editors — times have changed enough to erode opportunities, making it a tough and dangerous way to go. Few individuals have what it takes to manage themselves as a profitable enterprise. But I’ll take that model over any other, and am compensating for my inadequacies by reaching out to other solo acts to share the burden. A new type of solopreneur is popping up to make a business out of brokering, i.e., building a stable of independent professionals to promote and manage. The broker’s job is marketing and administration; the contractors provide the service.

    That kind of business offers its own challenges, but it’s a good model because it allows everyone in the network to work with their strengths while offering a beacon to attract business more effectively. it’s a hybrid of the author/agent and temp agency models. I think we’ll see a lot more of that over time.

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    Comment by Carolyn — May 27, 2013 @ 6:20 am | Reply

  2. I both edit and write; gauging from this column, Ruth could make a go of that model as well! Living in a rural college town, I find a jack-of-all-communications practice more practical (and enjoyable). Like Ruth, I prefer working on my own. I have the luxury of choice, as my husband works for the university. (He’s an IT specialist, so he’d be the primary breadwinner even if I had a full-time office job!)

    I procure a wide variety of projects locally through word of mouth and on a wider scale by leveraging social media. One of my best clients is a high school classmate who now works for a federal contractor; we connected on Facebook. I edit reports and proposals for him, journal submissions and books/chapters for faculty, and the occasional dissertation. I write for various university publications and for a local museum development firm. I enjoy the variety.

    I think–I hope–there is room for both multiperson companies and solo practitioners.

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    Comment by Bandana Bob Publications — May 27, 2013 @ 7:06 am | Reply

  3. Ruth must have read my mind! I quit my full-time editing job in January to go freelance. (I have that luxury only because my husband and I are both retired military members, and he still works a “traditional” job.) Since January, I have been struggling with my decision to focus on small projects, working with clients on a more individualized basis. I say struggling because people seem to assume that I’d want to go after large projects that would be more lucrative. I’ve had a difficult time articulating why the larger business model is not who I am at this point in my life. Thanks, Ruth, for putting a voice to my feelings! It’s nice to know some editors feel the way I do.

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    Comment by Susan G. — May 27, 2013 @ 11:27 am | Reply

    • The key to your position, and that of Bandana, is that you are not the primary income earners. If you earn nothing in all of June, will you lose your house, not be able to buy groceries, have your electric cut off? I think if there is a future for the solopreneur it lies with those whose incomes are secondary; that is, they are supplemental and not primarily responsible for the bill paying. We are witnessing this change from solopreneurship in other professions; I do not think editors are immune to the economic shifts, especially now that editing has shifted to a global affair rather than a local affair.

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      Comment by americaneditor — May 28, 2013 @ 5:10 am | Reply

  4. I’m on the other end of the career distribution: I’ve worked in-house for publishers and a think tank and also as a solo practitioner for more than 40 years. Now retired from office work, I still keep my hand in as a freelance editor. Almost all my clients are repeaters or people they have referred to me, so marketing is not a problem.

    Academic books and articles are my specialty; editing them pays well. I provide an expert professional service for an expert professional price. I edit interesting material for (generally) interesting people. On rare occasions I’m offered a manuscript I can’t fit in; then I recommend fellow editors whose work I know. At this point in my life, I’m not interested in being an employer and even less in being an employee.

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    Comment by theoriginalbookdoctor — May 27, 2013 @ 11:47 am | Reply

  5. Different strokes for different folks. Rich likes his model and does well with it. Ruth likes her model and does well with it. I’m with Ruth on this one. I’m not interested in being an employer, managing a company, hustling for work to keep staff busy, limiting the work I do to a narrow niche, etc. People come in all flavors, in terms of personality type. We don’t all do well with the same business model. I say vive la différence.

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    Comment by Dick Margulis — May 27, 2013 @ 12:03 pm | Reply

    • With this sentiment, Dick, I agree. However, I do think people need to think about what they want and how to achieve it. Yet here is the question: You, me, Ruth, Cassie, Carolyn, and Kathleen have all been editing professionally for many years. In my case, it is 30 years. Consequently, we have settled into styles that suit our temperaments and that have served us well for decades. In the bell curve, we are on the downslope of our working years. Do you think that what has served you well for however many years would serve equally as well for a 26-year-old just starting their professional editing career?

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      Comment by americaneditor — May 28, 2013 @ 5:02 am | Reply

      • What I think Cassie is getting at (correct me if I’m wrong) is that being a “company” equals having employees, which in turn requires a whole new suite of tasks and responsibilities that all take time, or require hiring yet someone else to attend to them. That’s what they/we don’t want. Freelancers often struggle with the concept that they are, indeed, a company, as has been pointed out and discussed often in this blog. Operating as a sole proprietor vs. an incorporated entity has a subliminal effect, both in our own minds and in perception by others.

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        Comment by Carolyn — May 28, 2013 @ 5:41 am | Reply

      • I think the solopreneur model would work fine for someone just starting their career if they were educated in the pluses and minuses — and appropriately funded — before starting out. That’s hard to do when you’re just beginning! I can’t think of anywhere other than lists and forums where I could have learned what I needed to know at that age, and thus been prepared to make the choice and take action. I, like many others today, was forced by circumstances into solopreneurship, and it’s been a bumpy road. In my younger days, I thought self-employment would be impossible; that’s why I stuck to all those lousy jobs. Their upside, though, was education. I would not have become qualified to survive on my own if I hadn’t done my apprenticeship on somebody else’s dime.

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        Comment by Carolyn — May 28, 2013 @ 5:47 am | Reply

      • Rich, I live in New Haven, a hotbed of young solopreneurs in all manner of enterprises, so I’m exposed to their thinking. I do not see 26-year-olds looking for lifelong careers as employees. Many go straight from college or grad school into their own entrepreneurial businesses. Some are interested in putting together groups of people to operate a company (either a virtual company or a real office or store with fixed hours). Some want to just do their thing and market their services as individuals. What has changed since you and I were their age, is that the Internet has made it much easier for them to get started in solo careers, without trying to shoehorn themselves into a corporate model for ten or twenty or thirty years first.

        In almost all cases, as beginners they don’t know enough and they will make mistakes (we all make mistakes regardless, but beginners seem to be better at that). So some will find a path more easily than others. What else is new? The ones who want to be editors will be editors. Will they be good editors? Not at first, I’d guess. But that has always been true, hasn’t it? As for learning the craft, Carolyn is right: online forums provide a much broader and faster education than apprenticeship ever did.

        So the short answer to your question is yes, and in spades.

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        Comment by Dick Margulis — May 28, 2013 @ 6:50 am | Reply

        • Dick remarked: “As for learning the craft, Carolyn is right: online forums provide a much broader and faster education than apprenticeship ever did.”

          I need to clarify this: I got the editing and production skills education I need from the workplace, and the solopreneurship skills I need from online communities. Perhaps I could have learned the necessary business skills through high school and college courses, but it never crossed my mind to take them, since I hate business. Had I intended when young to become a solorpreneur, however, I would have added them to my curriculum and been better prepared for my fate.

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          Comment by Carolyn — May 28, 2013 @ 6:57 am | Reply

  6. I’m with Ruth on this one — and also with “theoriginalbookdoctor,” who said: “I’m not interested in being an employer and even less in being an employee.”

    I worked for 26 years in the corporate world (though in a field other than publishing). One of the best things about being a solopreneur is being my own boss: making my own hours and break times, taking on or rejecting assignments, being able to work (almost) wherever I want (on a country retreat, on a cruise, in the mountains, at my sister’s house, at the beach house, in front of the TV, in bed with a cat or two at my side).

    Sure, there are drawbacks (irregular and unpredictable income, when it rains it pours, intense deadlines, isolation), but for me, the benefits of solo freelancing outweigh those drawbacks. Now that I’ve been on my own for six years, I can’t imagine it any other way.

    Like

    Comment by Cassie Tuttle — May 27, 2013 @ 7:49 pm | Reply

    • I’m curious, Cassie. What makes you think that being a “company” doesn’t allow you to be “my own boss: making my own hours and break times, taking on or rejecting assignments, being able to work (almost) wherever I want (on a country retreat, on a cruise, in the mountains, at my sister’s house, at the beach house, in front of the TV, in bed with a cat or two at my side)”?

      I reject work all the time, I set my own hours, I work where I want to work, my cat sleeps next to my mouse while I work or gets up and demands to scratched or stretches in front of my monitors so I can’t see (all of which sometimes can be quite annoying), and I often listen to opera while I work (I admit that I cannot work while watching TV — I’d find it too distracting — but, then, I never watch TV so it isn’t a pleasure I would want whether working or not working). And I’m my own boss.

      Why do you think being a company is incompatible with the reasons you give for wanting to be a solopreneur?

      Like

      Comment by americaneditor — May 28, 2013 @ 4:56 am | Reply

      • @americaneditor: As Carolyn pointed out above, yes, I do associate having or being a “company” as being in association with another or others — a collection of people focusing on and working toward a common goal. That “company” of individuals, because they work under the same umbrella, are necessarily tied to each other in some or many aspects.

        I do occasionally subcontract out some of my work to a particular individual (who is also a solopreneur/freelance copyeditor), but I do not consider her to be an employee of my “company.”

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        Comment by Cassie Tuttle — May 28, 2013 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  7. Being a solopreneur doesn’t necessarily preclude collaboration. I was a self-employed editor and writer for 25 years. Many projects involved working with other editors, writers, graphic designers, publishers, and so on. I often built that into contracts, clarifying the roles and responsibilities of each member of the team of independent communication specialists who would have a hand in the work.

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    Comment by Will Harmon — May 28, 2013 @ 7:35 pm | Reply

  8. As a solopreneur for all of two years, I think publishing is changing too much to be able to predict with any certainty what will be the best way to survive in coming years. I do think it would be very difficult for a new freelance editor to assume that they will be able to establish a lucrative career based completely on work from traditional publishers. But I am seeing opportunities in all sorts of places that didn’t even exist a few years ago. Being nimble and adaptable may be the most important traits in the years to come. And at least right now, I feel it’s much easier to be nimble if I’m going solo.

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    Comment by Tammy — May 28, 2013 @ 8:32 pm | Reply

  9. […] “Business of Editing: Solopreneur or ‘Company’ (I)”, Ruth Thaler-Carter made her case for solopreneurship. There are a couple of fundamental points […]

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    Pingback by Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (II) | An American Editor — May 29, 2013 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  10. I’ve been a technical writer and more recently, an editor, for more than a decade. I have an ‘official’ company (Pty Ltd in Australia, which I think is equivalent to an LLC in the US, but I may be wrong). I am the owner and sole employee of that company. Since late 2008, I’ve worked with one main client (a global oil and gas company), and have several ad hoc clients for whom I do occasional work.

    Several times in the past decade or so, I have been approached by others and asked if I’d take on employees or subcontractors, especially when the feast stage of the feast/famine economy has been in full swing. Except for three occasions (back in the heyday of the dot.com era) when I took on independent subcontractors for short-term contracts, I have refused.

    Why? There are several reasons, some of which Ruth has touched on.

    1. I HATE managing people. I did middle management for some 15 years and it was like a huge burden lifted off me the day I went back to being an employee when I changed careers. Even managing subcontractors was fraught with risk — what if the person didn’t come up to my expectations for work ethic and productivity, and attention to details? what if the person wasn’t a good ambassador for my company (after all, it’s my name on the company door)? Interviews, work portfolios, and tests can only go so far — the person has to be a good fit both with your company and the company you’re putting them into. While the % I got from putting a subcontractor into a position was OK, it wasn’t worth the potential risk — in my opinion.

    2. I don’t want to be responsible for finding work for others. Having one or more a full-time employees would stop me sleeping at night, as I’d be worried about where their (and my) next job was coming from and how to keep them occupied in the famine times, or worse, how to let them go with dignity (that would tear me up inside). Did I tell you I don’t like managing people? (see #1)

    3. I enjoy the ‘doing’ part of my work as an editor and don’t want to spend time managing employees, subcontractors, hunting for work, massaging client expectations, etc. I’m happy managing myself and my projects, and juggling all the demands on my time, but I don’t ever want to do this for anybody else again (see #1).

    4. I don’t want to deal with the administrivia involved in taking someone else on board (see #3) — various insurances, taxes, retirement fund payments, equipment, possibly office space, internet access and other overheads. (Health insurance in Australia is NOT related to employment, but that would be a consideration if you are in the US.) Yes, I have a legal obligation to do all this stuff for myself, but adding employees or subcontractors just adds to that load.

    My 2c from the other side of the really big pond.

    –Rhonda

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    Comment by Rhonda — May 29, 2013 @ 5:54 am | Reply

  11. […] the prior two articles on this topic (see Part I and Part II), the discussion centered around the what (what it means to be a solopreneur or a […]

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    Pingback by Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (III) | An American Editor — June 3, 2013 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  12. […] oneself to the world at large as well as what one should be — solopreneur or company (see, e.g., Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (I), Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (II), and Business of Editing: Solopreneur or […]

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    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Opportunity Knocks | An American Editor — December 18, 2013 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  13. […] versus company in several essays, including The Business of Editing: Why a Company?, Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (I), Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (II), and Business of Editing: Solopreneur or […]

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    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Do You Tell? Ethical Considerations & Subcontracting | An American Editor — July 28, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply


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