An American Editor

August 24, 2011

Is the Editorial Freelancer’s Future a Solo Future?

In the preceding article, Working Alone — Or Not?, guest author Ruth Thaler-Carter discussed the positives of being a solo freelancer. Although a well-argued position and a position that most freelancers believe in, I think the future lacks promise for the solo freelancer and will demand that editorial freelancers think about, and form, group practices.

Current views of freelancing hearken back to the days of craft guilds. In the craft guilds, each guild member was an artisan whose work was protected. One couldn’t work, for example, as a scribe unless a member of the scribe’s guild. The guild offered a monopoly for the craftsperson and assured quality to the consumer.

But such thinking, which had at least some validity into the late 1980s, is no longer valid. The entry requirements to become a freelance editor are so minimal as to be nonexistent. Whereas the guilds imposed classes and apprenticeships and maintained a required minimum-level skillset, today anyone can proclaim him- or herself to be a freelance editor at the moment of his or her choosing — no specialty education required.

This change was brought about by the dynamic of consolidation in the publishing industry — the transformation from numerous “small” publishing houses to a handful of multinational megacorporations. The transformation brought with it a philosophical change in the approach to publishing, a change from quality first to profits first. It is this change that the guild-minded freelancer has yet to grapple with; rather than guild thinking, the editorial freelancer must move to business thinking.

Notably, Thaler-Carter’s article neglected to discuss income. It seems to me that not discussing income is to look at editorial freelancing through rose-colored glasses. After all, isn’t that the bottom-line motivator for most of us — the earning of an income sufficient to enable us to work for ourselves without worrying each day whether we have the wherewithal to financially survive?

In my discussions with colleagues, I am constantly hear about their struggles to find clients and earn a decent wage. It is not that a few editorial freelancers do reasonably to very well financially; rather, it is that the vast majority do not. Part of the problem is skill level and types of skills. For example, too many editorial freelancers whose livelihood is based on using Microsoft Word have little mastery of the software program. The lack of mastery makes every job that much harder and longer and lower paying.

But I think a larger part of the problem, if not the largest part, is that too many editorial freelancers work solo and cling to guild thinking rather than moving to business thinking. When they are too sick to work, there is no income; there is no one to share the marketing burden with; it is difficult to take on the multieditor jobs that have the potential to be more lucrative; it is difficult to accept new work on top of the work one already has because there aren’t enough hours in a day for the solo freelancer to work; the solo freelancer has insufficient financial resources to invest in the future of their business.

The trend in the publishing industry is to outsource to full-service production companies, and this trend has been accelerating. Publishers have reduced in-house production staff while increasing the number of publications expected to be published and that each retained production editor must handle. Unlike when I started my editorial career in 1984, a time when most editorial work was still done in-house and on paper, today most editorial work is done out-house and electronically.

In the days of guild hegemony, clients could not go far astray. I remember seeing ads for freelance editors that included the requirement that the freelance editor live locally so that the editor could easily pick up and drop off manuscript. The advent of overnight delivery services and the Internet, combined with the change from paper to electronic editing, did away with that restriction. Now it is as easy to use an editor who lives 3,000 miles away as it is to use one who lives next door. Consequently, those who cling to guild thinking fail to compete with their competition, which is the world.

Today, in-house production staff are responsible for more projects than they were just 5 years ago. As part of these responsibilities, they have to monitor numerous freelance editors, unless they assign the projects to a full-service company, in which case they deal with a single contact and it is the out-house company’s problem to monitor the cadre of editors.

Think of it like a pyramid. At the pyramid’s peak is the in-house production editor. Just below the production editor are the freelance editors. The more freelancers the production editor has to be involved with, the shorter the pyramid and the wider its base (picture short and squat). But if the production editor can delegate to one or two people who, in turn, can delegate to several freelance editors, then the taller the pyramid and the narrower the base that the production editor has to worry about.

The point is that, increasingly, in-house staff look to find editorial groups to whom they can delegate the work because finding a group means that numerous projects can be sent to the group but there need be only a single contact point that the production editor needs to monitor. Monitoring of editors moves down the chain of responsibility.

This is important because (a) it enables the publisher to schedule more projects as the in-house editor can handle more, and (b) the group can take on more work than can the solo freelancer because the group has the resources to handle the volume. Taking on more work means less downtime and increased income. Plus there is not the worry about losing work due to illness, emergency, difficult projects, etc. An editorial  group means help with all aspects of the freelance business.

There is yet another consideration: the rate of compensation. There has been a downward pressure on rates. In my early years, it was not uncommon for a publisher to raise the rate it would pay a freelance editor based on the number of years the freelancer had worked with the publisher and the quality and quantity of the freelancer’s work. In my experience, those days are long gone. Instead of increasing, the rate has remained steady or declined.

The solo editorial freelancer is rarely in a position to bargain over the rate. The competition for the work is simply too fierce; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of freelancers who are willing to work for the offered rate or even less, especially with the worldwide marketplace that the Internet has birthed. Part of why the solo editorial freelancer lacks bargaining power is that he or she offers nothing more than the barebones editorial work. In contrast, a group offers, in addition to the editorial work, management and other skillsets, relieving the client of those responsibilities.

I think the future for editorial freelancers is in grouping, not in remaining solo; shifting from guild thinking to business thinking. Although working solo has its attractions, I think those attractions are rooted in guild thinking and ultimately will lead to a dry work well in the not-too-distant future.

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