An American Editor

April 2, 2014

The Business of Editing: Subcontracting

On another list recently, there was a “discussion” regarding subcontracting. It really wasn’t much of a discussion — some participants said they have never done it and never will, some said they tried it once and decided it wasn’t for them, and a few said they do it regularly. No one really discussed the merits and demerits of subcontracting.

What surprised me most about the discussion was how little people understood about subcontracting yet how firm they were in their view of it, even if they understood little about the mechanics of it.

One of the solutions suggested last week in response to The Business of Editing: An Embarrassment of Riches was subcontracting. I have subcontracted with other editors for many years and I have had employees. Neither is particularly difficult, but as between the two, subcontracting is the easier.

An advantage to subcontracting is that it enables you to take on more work than you otherwise could handle. There are limits to how much work a solopreneur can handle, both effectively and efficiently. There are just so many hours one can edit.

The primary argument made against subcontracting is “my clients hire me to do the editing and would be very unhappy to learn that I subcontracted the work.” This is the guild/artisan argument and it does have some merit. The key to overcoming this client expectation is to promote your company rather than yourself. For example, from the very beginning of my business, I always told clients they were hiring my company, not me. My invoices were in my company name and all my communications emphasized the company connection.

Having been in other businesses before editing, I knew that marketing myself, rather than my company, would ultimately limit my opportunities for growth, especially financial growth. If there is only me, there is only so much work I can do and thus only so much money I can earn.

I also recognized that focusing on me would not play to one of my business strengths — rainmaking (i.e., the ability to bring in work). Honest editors recognize their business strengths and weaknesses, and for many editors one prime weakness is marketing; a second is scheduling.

The result was that I focused on growing my business brand, not my personal brand. Even if clients are unfamiliar with the business name, they do recognize me as a company and they expect me to have “employees” and they expect one or more of my “employees” may be assigned their project. Clients do not lower their expectation as regards schedule adherence and quality of work; that remains the same regardless of whether I or someone else is doing the editing. And clients hold me responsible.

That responsibility — of quality editing — is the biggest drawback to subcontracting. Government paperwork is easily handled. The subcontractor sends me an invoice, I pay the invoice, and at the end of the year I send the subcontractor a 1099 Form and file copies with the IRS. (Note the process I am speaking of is the one I am familiar with, that of the United States. What is necessary or required in other countries is beyond my knowledge.) Generating these forms takes less than 5 minutes. I buy the ready-to-use/-print forms at an office supply store, put them in my printer, and generate the information using QuickBooks Pro. (Using an accounting program like QuickBooks makes bookkeeping easy. I use the software to print the checks and to generate many of the reports I use to track my business, such as a comparison Profit & Loss Statement.)

In the beginning, I reviewed the editor’s work. That took time, but significantly less time than if I had done the editing myself. After a while, reviewing of the editor’s work is no longer necessary. The editors with whom I currently subcontract have worked with me for many years; one editor has been working with me for close to 20 years.

The subcontracting relationship is a symbiotic one. At least in my case, the deal is that in exchange for my keeping a portion of the fee, I get all of the administrative duties, I pay the subcontractor regardless of whether the client pays me, and, perhaps most importantly from the subcontractor’s perspective, I do the marketing and am responsible for finding enough work to keep them busy much of the year.

It is this last responsibility that is the hardest. But because I have marketed my services as that of a company of editors, I am able to generate demand. Because the editors are highly skilled and have demonstrated that skill over the years, clients are not reluctant to contact me and ask “Can one of your editors handle this project for me?”

I grant that subcontracting is not for everyone. There is a reluctance to be a subcontractor because “Why should I pay someone else when I’m doing the work?” And there is a reluctance to do subcontracting because it takes the editor away from editing and into business administration, where many editors do not wish to be.

Yet subcontracting allows a busy editor to take on more work and allows editors who are reluctant promoters of themselves to focus on what they want to focus on — the editing rather than the marketing. If done correctly, subcontracting is a win-win-win: a win for the client, a win for the subcontractor, and a win for the administering editor.

Some editors say they would prefer to refer work they can’t handle themselves. Although referral is certainly an option, why refer when you can enlarge your business by subcontracting? I refer work that is outside my focus areas, for example, romance fiction. But I use employees and subcontractors for work that is within my focus areas. I want to retain as much of that work as I can, and subcontracting is simply one method by which I can do so.

If you haven’t considered subcontracting, you should; if you have considered it but dismissed it as being too troublesome, you should rethink it. Subcontracting can be a path to fiscal growth. The hard part is finding competent editors who are willing to work as subcontractors.

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. I am not interested in subcontracting. But I *am* interested in being a subcontractor — for the win-win-win reasons defined above.

    I might make less money than I would by working directly, but I earn it back through savings of time, energy, and emotion.


    Comment by Carolyn — April 2, 2014 @ 7:36 am | Reply

  2. It’s difficult to find competent editors who are willing to work as subcontractors? Let me assure you that the reverse is equally true. Small but regular writing assignments with an agency keep my plate full reliably and without effort. Would that there were an equally reputable and reliable way to find subcontractor work for editing!


    Comment by lpoisso — April 2, 2014 @ 9:27 am | Reply

  3. In my experience, the hardest part of using subcontractors was two-fold: finding people whose skillsets were high enough and reviewing/managing their work. I realize that both aspects would get easier over time, though.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — April 2, 2014 @ 10:20 am | Reply

  4. Hi Rich, thanks for an interesting post.
    I use subcontractors, but on a smaller scale. I started out as an editor in a small business, where all the documents we worked on went through at least two rounds of editing, with a different person doing each round. Since going freelance in 2009, I’ve mostly used the same system. I always do the substantive editing myself (and include some copyediting in that), then I subcontract the copyediting (which is more of a copyedit/proofread, given that many of the copyediting issues have been fixed during the first round) to one of my small team of excellent copyeditors. On some projects, I also subcontract repetitive tasks such as checking URLs or references. I always check the changes made by the subcontractor, to ensure that I’m happy with the final product. This approach means I can take on more work than would be the case if I were doing the entire job myself; it also improves the quality, because every document is looked at by two pairs of eyes.


    Comment by ozeditor — April 7, 2014 @ 4:25 am | Reply

  5. […] and said it isn’t a difficult thing to do from an administrative perspective (see The Business of Editing: Subcontracting). I did mention the one stumbling block: finding competent […]


    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Finding Editors | An American Editor — April 9, 2014 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  6. I’m a subcontractor for a couple of super editors, and the relationship with both is working splendidly for the following reasons:

    – mutual respect and professionalism
    – exceptional communication skills in terms of defining scope, expectations, responsibilities, and deadlines
    – an understanding that editing is a reputation-driven profession
    – a willingness to exceed client’s expectations
    – a laser-sharp focus on quality

    There are many reasons, but the above are the drivers for a healthy contractor-subcontractor relationship. I would encourage others to explore the option.

    Thanks for the great post, Rich.


    Comment by Anna Biunno — April 9, 2014 @ 12:25 pm | Reply

  7. Super helpful post! I want to discuss this at a future Editorial Freelancers Association meeting (NorCal chapter). I do a lot of referrals and it takes way too much of my time. I’ve even had repeat clients come back to me for another round of editing and I’ve had to turn them away because I’m already booked. Ouch. Would much rather keep their business in house.


    Comment by Susan Herman — June 5, 2015 @ 1:12 pm | Reply

  8. Do you use a joint venture contract or any other legal documents with your subcontractors?


    Comment by Susan Herman — June 5, 2015 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

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