An American Editor

January 25, 2016

The Proofreader’s Corner: Knowing and Showing Your Strengths (or Being Interesting)

by Louise Harnby

I’ve read plenty of convoluted and inaccessible definitions of marketing over the years, none of which would give confidence to a new entrant to the editorial field. I developed what I believe is an easier-to-understand definition of marketing, comprising only four words: being interesting and discoverable.

  • Being discoverable is how you enable your clients to find you.
  • Being interesting is how you make your customers want to hire you, and retain you, after they’ve found you.

There are, therefore, three different issues to contend with, and all do need attending to for the following reasons:

  • Someone who is interesting but undiscoverable will have no work because their potential clients don’t know they exist.
  • Someone who is discoverable but uninteresting will have no work because their potential clients don’t care that they exist.
  • Someone who has been discovered and hired in the past but failed to maintain that long-term discoverability and interestingness will have no work because they haven’t kept up to date with the requirements of the market – what their customers want and the latest platforms they are using to source their editorial freelancers.

This essay focuses on the challenge that the editorial freelancer faces of being interesting in such a competitive market. (For more information about being both interesting and discoverable, see my book Marketing Your Editing and Proofreading Business). An identification of self-strengths (and weaknesses) is key to differentiating oneself and thus being interesting.

An editorial freelancer may not have much experience of editorial work but this “weakness” can be ameliorated when she focuses a potential client’s attention on what she does know a lot about, and then targeting those clients who appreciate that knowledge and see it as part of a solution to the problems they have.

Be practical…

When I first started thinking about going freelance, I had dreams of being paid to proofread books in the genres that I most often read for pleasure: crime, mystery, and sci-fi novels. I scouted the major UK publishers of these genres (paying particular attention to web pages that give advice to prospective freelance editors and proofreaders) and my worst suspicions were confirmed: the chance of me picking up work with no prior experience in the field was poor.

It’s hardly surprising — many of us looking for trade publishing clients are attracted by the idea of being paid to read the works of our favorite authors (even if the fees on offer are not always competitive, and the definition of “proofreading” confounds those of us who have been professionally trained). The field is, thus, very competitive, and the publisher clients are very picky.

Certainly this wouldn’t have precluded me from working for self-publishing authors writing in these genres, but I was a new starter back in 2006. The self-publishing market wasn’t as developed as it is now. But even if it had been, my website’s search engine optimization was so poor that it’s unlikely that I would have been discoverable to those clients. In the startup phase, I was building my business by going to clients, not expecting them to come to me. I needed to put my practical head on.

Focus on what’s gone before

Instead, I decided to focus on the experience I did have. Having got myself trained by the highly regarded Publishing Training Centre, and paid my membership dues to an equally well-respected national editorial society (the Society for Editors and Proofreaders), I took stock of my background. The questions I asked were:

  • What educational qualifications do I have?
  • What work experience do I have?
  • Do I have hobbies that make me an informal specialist in a particular field?
  • Do I have domestic skills that give me particular strengths?
  • Do I lack certain skills and thus have particular weaknesses?

Education

I have a degree in the politics. I’d spent three years in higher education, reading social science texts; I understood the way they were structured as well as the language and style of the books. This wouldn’t make me attractive to a fiction publishing client, but perhaps it would give me a chance with social science presses.

If you have a scientific background, science, technical, engineering, and medical (STEM) publishers will be much more interested in you than me – indeed, many editors/proofreaders I know who are working in STEM have scientific qualifications of some type. If you have a legal qualification, consider focusing on legal societies, law and criminology publishers, and law students. In my article “Does Training Matter?”, several publishers commented on how much they valued their freelancers having knowledge of the subject matter in which they publish. So, selling your educational background is a critical marketing tool. It differentiates you, and differentiation is interesting to your clients.

Past career

If you’re targeting publishing clients, and you’ve worked in publishing, make sure you use this as a key selling point. It shows that you understand the business of publishing: the importance of deadlines, the diplomacy involved in author liaison, the challenges that your in-house contacts will be facing, the standards required, and the financial margins they are working within.

If you don’t have publishing experience, consider what work you have done and target clients who are publishing material in your field of expertise. If you’ve been a nurse, focus on clients with a strong nursing and allied health list; if you’ve been a social worker, initially target clients who are publishing in the areas of social work, social policy, and administration.

A few years ago, I had a discussion with a new proofreader who wanted to get into fiction proofreading. He’d been a military police officer and a teacher prior to starting out on his freelance journey. My advice to him was to focus his marketing efforts on (a) publisher clients with lists in military security studies, political science, and international relations, as well as educational publishing houses, and (b) self-publishers writing military science fiction and alternative history.

Using your previous career as a tool in your marketing arsenal is vital to helping you to stand out from the crowd.

Armchair specialisms

Hobbies are not to be ignored. Using them as a focus for your initial marketing strategy may well turn out to be fruitful. There are many independent and niche publishers who will be happier turning their manuscripts over to you if you can demonstrate a high level of knowledge in a niche area.

Domestic skills

One of my regular clients once asked me if I felt comfortable proofreading a book about baking. I’m not interested in cooking and don’t know a huge amount about the subject, and that makes me uninteresting to cookery publishers. We mutually agreed the project should go elsewhere – they needed someone who understood the catastrophe that might ensue if “3 tsp baking powder” had been typeset as “3 tbsp baking power”.

The things that some people do in the home, and that may be considered simple to them, are highly prized by some clients. If you’re a fine cook, then search for those publishers with a strong list in food and cookery books. The same goes for gardening or do-it-yourself (DIY), just to give two examples. There are scores of books that are published in these fields, and taking some time to research those presses with relevant lists in any given area could help you to differentiate yourself from your colleagues.

Selling your current know-how

Editorial practice is not the same as it was 30 years ago. If we are to retain long-term interest, we need to demonstrate to our potential clients that we are equipped to use the tools of choice for twenty-first-century editorial work. That means not just being able to proofread or copy-edit, but being able to do those things in ways that our customers now prefer. Consider the following:

  • How likely are you to secure work from independent fiction authors who want to send you Word files if you still only copy-edit on paper?
  • How likely are you to secure proofreading work from a business in another country if you don’t have the skills and equipment to annotate a PDF?
  • How likely are you to continue securing work from publishers who want you to edit efficiently onscreen if you are unable to use their house macro suite or use a style palette to code the different elements of the text?
  • How likely are you to retain work from clients who want you to use the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) when you insist on amending texts based on outdated usage preferences?

Telling our potential clients upfront that we are fit for purpose to carry out editorial work according to present, rather than past, preferences is key to retaining interest. Your marketing materials should reflect your ability to use, with confidence, the likes of Word or InDesign, Acrobat Reader or PDF Xchange, macro suites, and consistency checkers.

It’s not just about digital tools. Even tools that were in use 30 years ago have been updated. We need to ensure that our clients know that we have the access to the latest edition of relevant style manuals, dictionaries, and guidance on industry-recognized markup language, for example. The advice from the British Standards Institution on how to mark a proof with the instruction “delete and close up” is not the same as it was prior to 2005. And regarding publication of the 16th edition of CMOS, “In a return to the 14th edition of the manual, the generic term in a proper noun is uppercased if used in the plural (e.g., Fifty-Fifth and Fifty-Seventh Streets, the Thames and Mersey Rivers, the American and French Revolutions)” (CMOS, “Significant Rule Changes in The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition”).

Editorial preferences are not static. New tools and platform are developed. Keep up to date with these changes and use them as key selling points to retain interest. For example, consider listing on your website the resources and reference materials you consult. In that way, current clients are less likely to become past clients, and potential clients are more likely to become existing clients.

Be strategic and be patient

Starting out as an editorial freelancer is all about focusing on what you already have that prospective clients will view as the wow factor. There’s no quick fix to building a strong client list – it takes time and hard work. Making the effort in the beginning to identify what makes you look different – interesting – will provide you with the foundation on which to build your business. As your experience increases, you will be in a stronger position to diversify your client portfolio.

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.

3 Comments »

  1. Very practical and thought-provoking blog piece.

    Like

    Comment by Vivek — January 25, 2016 @ 5:12 am | Reply

  2. Incredibly helpful !! Thank you. –Martha Stettinius, MS Edits

    Like

    Comment by Martha Stettinius — January 25, 2016 @ 10:10 am | Reply

  3. Excellent article, and American Editor is an excellent resource.

    Like

    Comment by Dali Mwagore — January 28, 2016 @ 8:53 am | Reply


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