An American Editor

June 3, 2013

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

In 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 company). As one commenter pointed out, the reality is that even a solopreneur is a “company” with the solopreneur being an employee of that company. But the difference for our discussion lies less in the taxing authority definitions than in commonly understood definitions.

What was missing from the earlier discussions and needs to be addressed is what the future looks like. I’ve written on this topic before (see, e.g., Does the Future of Editing Lie in Tiers?The Future of Editing: Group Sourcing?, and Is There a Future in Editing?), but our discussion of solopreneur versus company prompts me to write again.

To see our future as editors in the context of solopreneurs versus company, we need look no farther than the changes that have come about in the legal and medical professions. Professions like plumbing are not good comparisons because both the worker and the work have to be local; it would be pretty difficult to hire a plumber located in San Francisco to fix a leaking faucet in an apartment in Los Angeles, much less one in New York or Bangladesh. But the limitation faced by the plumber, and at one time thought also to apply to doctors and lawyers, doesn’t apply to doctors and lawyers in the global economy. It certainly doesn’t apply to editors.

True there is still a “thriving” solopreneur approach to law and medicine, but if you watch the trends, you will discover that, whereas 90% of doctors and lawyers were once solopreneurs, today that number is rapidly approaching less than 25% with no end in sight as to the decline.

That there will always be some solopreneurs is really just an excuse. What doctors and lawyers have discovered is that solopreneurship is generally not economically feasible. Back in the days when I practiced law, the movement was toward two-person offices. It wasn’t long before it was a movement toward three- to five-person offices, and the trend has continued. Globalization and insurance and lack of insurance have made the change happen.

The discussion of solopreneur versus company, when phrased in terms of personal preferences, ignores changing economics — it misses the foundational point of the discussion: survival in one’s chosen field; in our case, the field of editing. To choose between solopreneur and company, one needs to answer this question: Am I earning the net amount of money I want or need each year in my current form? If I am, then nothing more needs be discussed. But if I am not, then one of the several things that needs to be thought about is whether I am in the correct “form” to survive.

Another question that has to be asked and answered is this: Where do I fall on the bell curve of working life? For example, in my case, I am on the downslope side; although I continue to work, I am eligible to retire. Consequently, my approach to the solopreneur versus company question is different (or should be different) than that of someone on the upslope side. If I were on the upslope side and not making the income I wanted, I’d be looking at what changes I can make to get me the income I want.

I don’t disagree that it is important for an editor to be comfortable in his business model. What I do disagree with is the idea that one needs to sacrifice income for comfort. Each of us has our own strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are better editors than others; some are better businesspeople than others. Some are better editors than businesspeople and vice versa. The idea of collaboration — or a company — is to take advantage of the strengths of each of the people who collaborate (make up the company).

I understand the reasons for solopreneurship but I do not understand making it a god so that one clings to it even in the face of not making a sufficient income.

When it comes to professions that are reluctant to change, I think editing is one of the most reluctant. We tend to cling to what has worked because it has worked, even if it hasn’t worked for us or it once worked for us but no longer works for us. Many of us still edit as if we are editing using paper and pencil — even though we are editing using a computer. (I even know a few editors who still refuse to edit or proofread except on paper — and they have clients who agree!)

The Internet has brought a sea change to editing. Before the Internet, we knew our competition. With the Internet, our competition is anyone and everyone, and that competition has acted as a brake on pricing. The other sea change has been the number of people who want to become editors to supplement their income or because “it looks easy to do.” These “editors” also are a brake on the professional editor’s income.

When we think about solopreneur versus company, we need to think about these economic factors, how they affect us, and what model — taking into account our business skills and interests — will best serve to maximize our incomes and best be able to deal with the sea changes of the future. Just as lawyers and doctors have realized that, to correct the mismatch between their income expectations and income realities, they have had to move away from the solopreneur model, editors, too, may have to come to that realization.

It is not enough to say that there will always be a place for the solopreneur editor. Although true, it fails to account for the ease of entering the profession and the growing number of people who are competing for that same group of clients. It also fails to account for the growing globalization of editing.

The most important thing is not to be quickly dismissive of the company model. Your future may be at stake.

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