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But such thinking, which had at least some validity into the late 1980s, is no longer valid.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.

August 22, 2011

Working Alone — Or Not?

Today’s guest article is by Ruth Thaler-Carter. Ruth is the owner of Communication Central, the sponsor of the upcoming conference “Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century” conference sponsored by Communication Central and scheduled for September 30 – October 1, 2011, in Baltimore, MD (see Worth Noting: Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century), as well as a freelance editor and writer.

Ruth’s article is a response to my recent article, One Is the Loneliest Number. Needless to say, I will respond to Ruth’s article. Ruth argues for the solo freelancer remaining solo.

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Working Alone — Or Not?

by Ruth Thaler-Carter

As my favorite professional time of year approaches – time for the Communication Central conference (September 30–October 1, in Baltimore, MD, this year), I’ve been thinking about the meaning of being an editorial entrepreneur; a freelancer, in less-lofty parlance.

Colleagues have talked here about the nature of freelancing in terms of someone working alone versus as part of a larger entity or
partnership, perhaps even with subcontractors or employees. Many colleagues believe that the future of editorial freelancing is in grouping together and functioning as teams or even companies with employees, or at least subcontractors. Some colleagues believe that the day of the one-person freelance operation is approaching its nadir; others see a continuing future for the one-person business—as long as that person has a network of colleagues to make it  possible to find and accept more complex projects.

I’m firmly in the camp of being and remaining a sole practitioner—doing all the activity required of a freelance writing, editing, proofreading, desktop publishing, and speaking business myself. I like being hands-on for my business, knowing my own skills and working around any limits I might have, controlling when and how I work—all aspects that make freelancing deeply appealing, and being a sole practitioner an ideal way to exercise those preferences. I’ve never felt a need to partner formally with another colleague.

But this doesn’t mean that I work in a vacuum, or would want to. I’m certainly not antisocial; I’m one of the most extroverted, gregarious people you’ll ever meet. I may not want to share my projects and profits with colleagues as a permanent business model, but I often partner with colleagues: a graphic designer who can bring artistic skills to a project, a tech writer who can create content on a level that’s beyond me, a photographer on a professional basis. I still get to do what I love doing—the writing, editing, proofreading, layout, etc.—and can take on projects that otherwise I would have to turn down, or at best do less of and profit less from. Having colleagues to turn to for such partnerships means that I can take on projects that would otherwise be beyond me. Most of those partnerships have turned out well, but not well enough to tempt me into changing the structure or nature of my editorial business. I still prefer to position myself as not just an entrepreneur, but a sole practitioner.

I do interact regularly with colleagues through professional
organizations. I’m a huge fan of networking, in person and, nowadays, electronically. As some readers of this blog know, I’m very active in several memberships associations. This is the main way that I overcome the potential isolation of being a one-person shop and connect with other people. Not just clients, but colleagues, many of whom have become friends as well.

I look forward to the Communication Central conference because I think that a gathering of colleagues is a valuable—perhaps even invaluable—resource for any freelance writer, editor, proofreader, website developer, graphic artist, indexer, etc. We’re all trying to succeed in an increasingly competitive world for editorial professionals, as publishing contracts, e-publishing expands, and outsourcing continues to drive down prices in some areas. We need each other more than ever these days—even those of us who intend to retain a solo business structure.

It’s ever-more-important to meet and learn from each other, and occasionally work with each other. Maybe not as ongoing formal business partners, but as backup or added value for specific assignments and projects, as well as for advice and even a shoulder to lean or cry on. It’s important just to know that there are people available to turn to when an intriguing project is on the horizon that you can’t tackle alone.

We also need to expand our perception of how and where to market our skills. We can learn about marketing without fear from each other without necessarily poaching on each other’s territory or client base.

Meeting in person is also a great opportunity to learn from each other about the tools we need, how they work, and how to make the most of them.

There’s just something special about putting faces, voices, and personalities to those e-mail addresses, Twitter handles, and other electronic networking environments of our current era!

I might have developed a business model that combines the best of both worlds: the sole practitioner and the partnership or group. I’m committed to retaining my identity as a one-person shop, but I still see interacting with colleagues as a key element of the success of my editorial business. The advice and insights, and occasional project participation, of colleagues help me maintain my solo business and keep it growing.

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Although I understand the desire to work solo, I wonder if it will be possible to do so and earn a reasonable living in coming years. What do you think? Do you agree with Ruth Thaler-Carter? What do you envision the future freelancer’s working environment will be like?

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