Over the past 28 years of my editing business, I have been consistently busy. Rarely did I have any down time and I nearly always had multiple projects going simultaneously. As things worked out, there was a steady flow of work and it was rare that I needed to tell a client I couldn’t undertake a project.
More importantly, those few times when I had to decline a project, the client modified the schedule so that I could ultimately accept the project. This year, however, has been significantly different.
This year the projects are more numerous and larger. I always handled large projects (greater than 2000 manuscript pages) but the projects this year are larger than the large projects of the past (one runs close to 20,000 manuscript pages, and several others exceed 5,000 manuscript pages). For the first time, I am facing the problem of advising clients that I cannot take on their projects even with a schedule change, unless the schedule is altered by months rather than weeks.
Within the past two weeks, I have had to turn away seven projects; within the past month, I turned away 11 projects.
The problem occurs from a mix of things: (1) client projects are bunching rather than being spread across the year; (2) this is the time in the publishing cycle when new editions of many large books are coming to fruition simultaneously; (3) books that had previously been offshored are being brought back; (4) authors are more faithfully fulfilling their commitments to deliver manuscript on time; (5) the books are larger than the “usual” large; (6) in-house production editors are having to handle a larger number of books and so want to minimize the number of freelance editors they need to supervise; etc.
The question is: How do I resolve the problem?
One client suggested I hire more editors. I explained that the problem with that solution is that I cannot get a commitment from my clients for enough work to keep additional editors busy year round. The suggestion might cure the short-term problem, but it will create a long-term problem. Besides, it would add to my workload as I would need to monitor and supervise their work until I was comfortable that I could rely on the new editors to submit work that met my and the client’s expectations.
The embarrassment of riches (i.e., having too much work offered) is a real problem that freelance editors need to face at various points in their career. The editor doesn’t want to turn work away for a number of reasons, not least of which is a fear that the client will not call again. In addition, there is the worry that when the editor is ready to take on more work, there will be no more work to take on — that is, the editor will have hit a dry spell, which means a loss of income.
As you can see, the problem and the worries are not unique to the solopreneur; the problem is one faced by all forms of business. The solutions are not easy and all solutions amount to a form of gambling.
I see basically two alternative solutions (when change of schedule is not possible). The first is to accept the work and increase the number of hours the editor works. This solution has its own problems, such as trying to extend the workday may jeopardize the quality of the editing; most editors can only effectively edit for a maximum of five hours a day. And what happens when the next project comes along? How do you extend yourself even further? At some point, editing quality diminishes and you then jeopardize your relationship with the client.
The second is to say no to the new work and hope that the client will call again. The merits of this solution depends on the nature of the client. If the client is new, then you really are taking a big gamble that the client will return. If the client has been a regular client, the gamble is not very large because the client already knows the quality of your work and wants you to continue working for them. Here the gamble is more that when you are ready for additional work, the client has additional work for you, than whether the client will return.
In both instances — extending yourself to take on the additional workload and saying no — whether the client returns has much to do with the niche you have carved for yourself. For example, in my case, my “brand” is that of excellent editing service by a cadre of editors who require minimal supervision (basically, “here are the files, here are the peculiarities of this manuscript, please return edited files as quickly as possible”) and who use tools designed for large projects, including multieditor projects.
Clients return because they know they can rely on my company to handle projects with minimal problems and supervision, thereby freeing the in-house production editor to deal with other freelancers, other projects, and the myriad other things they need to deal with on a daily basis. Consequently, I feel more comfortable saying no to projects that cannot be squeezed into the schedule.
I admit that I did not feel so comfortable 25 years ago. The comfort with saying no has grown over the years as my reputation grew and the demand for my services grew and when I discovered that I had more work than time each year. (I would add that a good part of that rise in comfort came about as a result of my recordkeeping habits, which gave me a better picture of how I was really doing and, more importantly, what I should be doing. It is not enough to know how much I earned and how much it cost me to earn that; good data can give lots of insight into a business. See The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping I and The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping II.)
Scheduling remains a problem for the freelancer. We’ve previously discussed the problem; see, for example, Business of Editing: Workdays & Schedules and Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations. All I can do is hope that I am making the right business decisions. My data say I am, but the tricky thing about data is that data are ever-changing.
I keep searching for a better solution than saying no, but I have yet to find one. Do you have any suggestions?
Richard Adin, An American Editor