An American Editor

July 8, 2013

Business of Editing: The Disappearing Client

I’ve been a freelance editor for nearly 30 years. Over those years, I have seen clients come and go. I remember the first time I “lost” a major client. I nearly had a heart attack — I had thought an editor-client relationship, where the client was a big publisher, could and would last until the day I retired.

When that first client disappeared, I faced losing between $50,000 and $70,000 a year in income. True, it was not my only client, but it was my biggest client at the time.

Fortunately, I had my business experience to fall back on (as well as other clients). My business experience had taught me never to rely on existing clients but to keep trying to add new clients. The real issue was not what to do — find new clients — but how to do it.

From the beginning of my freelance career, I have made it a point to promote my services and my company constantly. During times of plenty, I would be less aggressive in my promotion; during times of stress (i.e., when a client disappeared), I would become aggressive in my promotional efforts.

The two keys underlying the search for and finding of clients are these:

  1. market/promote yourself constantly, both when your plate is full and when it is leaning toward empty
  2. find clients before they think they need you, not when they are looking for an editor

Those two points really sum up the effort that any business person needs to make.

Clients disappear for lots of reasons. Sometimes it is because they no longer think you are a good fit; sometimes it is because you start working with a new in-house person and your personalities clash; sometimes it is because the client goes out of business; sometimes it is because the client is bought by a nonclient who has its own stable of editors. There are myriad reasons.

I have lost clients over the years for just about every possible reason. One long-time client decided to cut the ties with me on the grounds that its authors were complaining about the copyediting I was doing. When asked for examples of the complaints so I could figure out how to improve my editing, the client was unable to give me any. Ultimately, I learned that the real reason was the client could get the work done for half my price. That became important to the client because, as a small publisher it wanted to reduce its costs to make it more attractive for purchase by a larger publisher.

I have also lost clients as the result of mergers and buyouts. That was the story with my first disappearing client. It merged with another publisher who shortly after the merger began laying off staff from my client and kept freelance editors who worked with my client only if they would accept a much reduced fee, something I was unwilling to do at the time.

As I said earlier, it is important to always be on the search for new clients — before they know they need your services. My objective is not to contact a potential new client and immediately get work (although that would be nice), but to make the new client aware of me so that when the next project comes up, it thinks of me.

I know we live in the Internet age and networking and socialization is done over the Internet, but I stand before you as a dinosaur and say that if you rely solely on such networking to find clients, you will never fully succeed — unless your clients are individual authors as opposed to businesses.

The networking that can be done over the Internet does put you in contact with individual authors who would otherwise be hard to locate, but even in this case, there are methods you can follow to reach them other than by networking. For example, if the people you want to work with are lawyers or doctors, you could both Internet network and place an ad in a journal or newsletter that targets them or on a website they are likely to visit.

The point is that you need to expand the avenues you take to promote yourself and not rely solely on Internet networking. You may get the occasional inquiry and job via LinkedIn, but remember that there are thousands of editors looking for work the same way. There is nothing that makes you stand out. But combining that effort with more “traditional” methods might be the difference between your being one of the crowd and being remembered.

In my efforts at promoting my business, I spend a good deal of time, money, and effort using “traditional” marketing methods. I know editors who seek work by sending an e-mail. The problem with an e-mail is that other editors are taking the same approach, the recipient probably gets hundreds of these solicitations, and likely sees an e-mail solicitation from someone he doesn’t know, and quickly hits the delete or spam button.

In my experience, people tend to first read, even if just by skimming, material that comes via standard mail. They are less annoyed by standard mail than by e-mail, and thus are more likely to respond. However, this is not to say that e-mail does not have a role; rather, I am saying that you need to think about the various approaches, what you hope to accomplish, and whether your intended audience is likely to respond in the manner you hope when you adopt a marketing approach.

Disappearing clients are the norm in the business of editing. Some editor-client relationships last many years — I had several that lasted more than 20 years — but things change in the business world and you need to be prepared to deal with that change.

One way to successfully deal with such changes is to constantly market yourself to your target audience. When you are swamped with more assignments than you can handle, go gently; when you have gaps in your schedule, become aggressive. In both cases, go after clients before they know they need your services and keep after them. Remember that the goal is implant your name in the client’s mind so that when a project does arise, it has your name at the top of the to-be-called list.

Marketing is not an as-needed project; marketing is an always-needed project.



  1. Marketing is also a constant process. Too many colleagues either get so immersed in a current project/deadline or are so uncomfortable with self-promotion that they find themselves without new work once they finish the current assignment. We have to incorporate ongoing marketing efforts into our routines until they’re as automatic as brushing our teeth every morning.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — July 8, 2013 @ 10:05 am | Reply

  2. “Find clients before they think they need you, not when they are looking for an editor.” I love this point; what a great way of re-framing the whole idea of marketing. Thanks!


    Comment by Tammy Ditmore — July 8, 2013 @ 1:22 pm | Reply

  3. Two excellent points, Rich, but I disagree that by doing solely digital marketing, you won’t fully succeed. At least in my case, I have a full plate and most of my clients are businesses. Most of my marketing is digital; even when I’ve reconnect with a contact, it’s been online. The old-fashioned tactics–cold calling, in-person networking, and so on–still work, too. But if you live in the middle of nowhere and have lots of time but no marketing budget, you can market yourself successfully online.


    Comment by Erin Brenner (@ebrenner) — July 8, 2013 @ 4:44 pm | Reply

  4. Rich, I have to echo Erin’s point: you can market yourself successfully [using solely] online [methods]. I’ve been doing it for years, and though lots of my clients are individual authors, not all of them are. I haven’t contacted potential clients by cold calls or snail mail in years.


    Comment by kokedit — July 9, 2013 @ 11:13 am | Reply

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