Proofreading for Publishers Outside Your
Country of Origin — Is There a Market?
by Louise Harnby
Folk in the editorial community often talk about the increasing internationalism of work opportunities; now that we can edit and proofread onscreen (e.g., in Word or on PDF), and deliver our work electronically (e.g., via email or using ftp sites), where we live in relation to our client no longer matters. Our market is global. Or is it?
Certainly, when it comes to working for students, businesses, and self-publishing authors, geographical location is no longer as limiting a factor as it had been. And if one is a structural editor or copy-editor, the same could be said of working within the mainstream publishing industry. However, if we are talking about proofreading for publishers, we need to be extra cautious before we claim that our market is global.
Why Might Location be an Issue?
Location can be a restricting factor for the proofreader focusing on publisher clients because of the way in which the production process works (page proofs vs. word-processed files), the medium in which those page proofs are presented (paper vs. digital), and the delivery method (post vs. online).
Page Proofs vs. Word-processed Files
Proofreading for publishers and proofreading for other types of client involve, more often than not, different things (see “Not All Proofreading Is the Same: Part I — Working with Page Proofs” and “Not All Proofreading Is the Same: Part II — Working Directly in Word”). Most of the time, proofreaders who work for publishers are dealing with page proofs, not Word files. There is overlap in terms of problems to identify—locating the spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and grammatical blunders, for example. But with page proofs we are also looking more broadly at how the book works in terms of layout, and we have to be aware of the domino effect that our changes can have on the book’s content (for more information about this, take a look at “The Proofreader’s Corner: Page Proofs and the Domino Effect”).
Paper Page Proofs vs. Digital Page Proofs
Some publishers still require their proofreaders to mark up on paper, even when they provide a PDF for reference. Others have moved to a digital workflow, so the proofs, usually in the form of a PDF, are identical to their paper sister but are annotated onscreen using comment-and-markup tools and/or digital stamps based on proof-correction symbols (see, e.g., “Roundup: PDF Proofreading Stamps” for a link to my proofreading stamps, which are based on the British Standards 5261-2 (2005) proof correction symbols, and some other useful PDF markup resources).
Postal Delivery vs. Online Delivery
This is the crux of the matter. Given that most publishers require proofreaders to work on page proofs, and that some page proofs will still be paper based, delivery to the proofreader (and return of the proofs to the publisher) will sometimes entail snail-mail delivery costs. Because publishers’ margins are tight, and because they want to keep production costs as low as possible, it’s unlikely that, for example, a London-based publisher will be prepared to bear the cost of delivering paper page proofs to a freelancer in Reykjavik. That means that a proofreader who focuses on working for publishers does not have a global market.
The Proofreader’s Real Market
As a proofreader I think of my overall market as being global. I live in the UK. I’ve worked for clients here at home, and in America, Canada, China, The Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, and Sweden. However, my publisher clients are all in the UK. If I wanted to expand my publisher client base to include presses outside the UK, I could do so, but I’d first need to do some careful market research that would identify those who require/accept onscreen proofreading and digital delivery.
That’s where the caution comes in. I can’t just assume that I’m a good match for every publisher in the world whose lists match those of my UK publisher clients. Some publishers still want their proofreading markup done on paper, even though they supply PDFs for reference. And, as all of us know, a key part of developing a sustainable editorial business is the readiness to be able to work in the way our clients want us to work. So if a publisher wants paper markup, and I want to work for that publisher, I have to include paper markup in my service package.
When I was planning my proofreading business, especially my marketing strategy, I needed to consider not only where my clients lived, but also how they worked and what they wanted. I wanted to specialize in proofreading for publishers, but the whole world was not my oyster, not by a long way, because not all publishers want digital markup and electronic delivery, even if all of their copy-editing work is done onscreen.
A United Kingdom Case Study
So, just how prevalent is paper proof markup in the publishing industry? I don’t have a definitive answer to that. The best I can offer is a snapshot of my own experience. Before I present my overview I should tell you that I specialize in working for publishers whose lists are in the social sciences, fiction, and commercial nonfiction. I have no experience of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) proofreading, and limited experience of the training/education and children’s book market.
I also want to reiterate that I am talking about proofreading, not editing, for publishers, which entails working with typeset page proofs.
Looking at 17 UK-based publishers for whom I regularly work, the requirements are as follows:
- Paper proof mark up and postal delivery: 8
- PDF proof markup and digital delivery: 7
- Word markup and digital delivery: 1
- Paper or PDF: 1 (it depends on the book)
So, for my client list, paper is not dead. And if my Reykjavik-based doppelganger considered those 17 publishers to be her target clients, the proof-delivery restrictions would render her market 50% smaller than mine, given that I’m based in the UK and she’s based in Iceland.
Plan Ahead — Identify Your Market
Do the planning and market research first. Different clients in different markets will be differently accessible because they have different requirements. Don’t assume that if you live outside China, but are regularly proofreading for students, self-publishing authors, or businesses in China, you can persuade a Chinese publisher to hire your proofreading services. It’s not a given. Even if you are native Chinese, your Mandarin or Cantonese is flawless, and your proofreading skill set is second to none, success will still depend on the publisher’s delivery requirements.
If you want to proofread for publishers, find out what they want and how they work before you invest money in training, expensive style guides, and other resources. For example, if you live Reykjavik and decide that the key to the sustainability of your proofreading business requires tapping the UK publishing industry, but most of your potential clients insist on sending paper proofs, you need to know this before you invest hundreds of pounds in a training course that’s geared towards UK publishing conventions and markup language. If your research tells you that you’re more likely to be successful by tapping US publishers, you’d be better off finding appropriate training and resources that focus on the US publishing market’s requirements.
I’m not advising proofreaders-to-be to ignore international opportunities — far from it. What I am advising is that by planning ahead and doing the market analysis first, you will be able to target your investment and your time more efficiently, and that’s good for your proofreading business. There are opportunities to work for international publishers if you take the time to find them. SAGE Publications’ California office is a good example of a publisher who requires its proofreaders to work onscreen; in contrast, its sister company in London has yet to move fully to onscreen proofreading — it depends on the book title and the preferences of the in-house project manager. If you live in Australia but want to proofread for SAGE, it should be obvious which company to market yourself to first.
Publisher Requirements are Dynamic
Nothing in the publishing industry is static. And while the move to digital workflows for copyediting is well established, proofreaders still have to be prepared to work in several media. In years to come, paper page proofs may be a thing of the past and that will lower geographical boundaries. In 2014, however, the business-savvy proofreader would do well to be aware of both the opportunities and the restrictions that still exist in our so-called global marketplace.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.