Thinking about freelance editing as a career? Curious about how editors got their work up and going? I was, so I thought maybe someone else out there is curious, too. If so, read on!
Here’s my interview with my friend, Jim Thomsen, former Bainbridge Islander and current freelance editor.
1. You had many years of experience working for traditional newspapers. What made you want to become a freelance editor?
One, I don’t know how to do anything else. Two, I don’t WANT to do anything else. Three, even if I were opening to learning something else, I’m afraid it wouldn’t take because I’m stubborn, petulant and have the attention span of a baby ferret. Four, there’s no place for an experienced editor who commands an experienced editor’s salary in the current job market. Five, I know some authors, and found that some were open to some professional help. And six, it’s fun. My laptop is my office. I can work whenever and wherever I want. I can dress for work in madras shorts and a Wang Chung concert T-shirt (yes, I have one).
2. What’s a typical day for you?
I usually start with a little client correspondence and bookkeeping. And Facebooking, which is as much frivolous performance art for me as it is an essential and demonstrably successful part of building my brand. Then I dive into the work itself. I line-edit for sentence structure, spelling, Chicago Manual of Style conformity and consistency, grammar, and usage. I do some fact-checking. I provide a second line of defense on story and structural issues, red-flagging implausibilities and inconsistencies as I see them, and offering solutions. I keep a separate document for each job in which I summarize problem patterns, while also playing up the good stuff.
Volume and speed are the keys to my success, so, during this ramp-up phase of my business, I rarely take a day off or work less than ten hours.
3. Where do you get your clients? What sort of business promotions have you done and what would you recommend for someone starting out?
I know nothing at all about marketing. I acquired my first clients in a few ways. One, I got to know them in person. My first client was my good friend Gregg Olsen, an author of true-crime books and fictional thrillers who lives in South Kitsap. He hired me years ago to copy-edit his manuscripts before he turned them in to his agent and publishers, and I wish I’d thought then to see it as more than a fun way to make a few bucks on the side. If so, I could have gotten established much sooner in this business.
Two, I landed several clients through Facebook. As much as I goof off there, I talk a lot about editing and publishing, and I managed to land enough friends of author friends there that I would occasionally get approached, cold, by people I’d never met, asking me to work on their books.
Three, I made business cards and 8.5 x 11 fliers, and took them to writers’ conferences up and down the Sound. I schmoozed a lot. For instance, at last year’s Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference, I walked up a lot of people I’d never met before, asked to hear their book pitches, and at some point in the conversation would mention what I did and hand them my cards. I wound up getting five jobs that billed over $3,000 out of that — paying for my conference expenses about four times over. No hard sell, just “this is me and this is what I do.”
Now, I am lucky in that most of my business comes via referral — “I am a friend of XX, and she said you did a great job editing her book, and would you be willing to work with me?” I keep thinking that’s going to dry up any minute, and it hasn’t yet. In fact, it’s grown to the point that I have anywhere from eight to twelve clients booked for a few months ahead at any given time, and have this without having to market myself very much. It’s just freaking amazing.
4. How’d you determine what your rate would be?
Ah, this was, and is, a toughie. Not only are rates all over the map, but so are the WAYS in which rates are set: by the page, by the word, by the hour, by the job. I fiddled around with various methods until I finally decided on a system in which I provided a flat-rate estimate based on how many hours I thought a job would take. I’d edit a 5,000-word sample, send it back to the prospective client so they could see the quality of my work, and say, “Based on this and your overall word count, I estimate it will take XX hours to complete this job.”
I then multiply that by $40 an hour. I’m not 100% sure I’m comfortable with that rate, but after talking to other authors and editors, I’m confident that it comes close to a) what plays in the market; and b) my worth in that market.
Some clients get sticker shock over my estimate, and I try to soften that by a) offering a 10% getting-to-know-each-other discount to first-time clients; and b) offering flexible payment terms. I usually wind up making the deal.
Some editors who do what I do think I charge too little. But all I want to do is make a living, and help people achieve their dreams. Many of my clients are single moms, and I’m not interested in Electroluxing their bank accounts. I am adaptable to individual circumstance, too. In one case, I accepted half my fee in cash, and took the rest in the form of an antique dresser that I needed and the client was looking to sell. In another, I let the client pay $50 a month for more than a year on a $750 bill. As long as we’re all satisfied that we received value, the rest is just details.
5. How do you deal with a manuscript that sucks lemons?
I don’t bill myself a story/structural/developmental editor, and as such, it’s my expectation that a manuscript has gone through a beta reader, or a critique partner, or a professional story editor — and has been revised based on that work — before it comes to me. While I can and usually do point out story issues, I’m more comfortable being a copy editor than the person who offers a big-picture analysis. That’s my background and my area of expertise.
So when I do get inquiries from authors who haven’t gone put their manuscripts through that first torture test, or haven’t gotten good enough help, I politely reject the job and tell them, as kindly as possible, that they’re not ready for me yet. I explain why, and offer as much encouragement as possible to repeat Step #1. They’ve been pretty gracious about it, and who knows? Maybe I’ll see their work again.
6. What’s the best part of what you do? What part do you hate?
The best part by far is the freedom to do what I want, when I want, how I want. In my last job, as a newspaper editor, I worked under an incredibly hostile and inflexible schedule — three p.m. to midnight, with Mondays and Tuesdays off. It killed my social life. Getting laid off from that job was just about the best thing to happen to me in a long, long time.
Now, no matter how busy I am — and usually I’m crazy-busy — I can always close the laptop and go have a drink with a friend. I’ve discovered the joy of pub trivia competition this last year, and still marvel at how I can go to a Seattle bar with friends on, say, a Wednesday night, and have great fun. For nearly a decade — almost all of the aughts — that was an impossibility.
What I dislike the most is the pressure — self-induced and otherwise — to work faster than I can or should. Once in a while a client will drop an 80,000-word manuscript on me on, say, a Tuesday night, and ask if I can kick it back by Friday morning. Sure, if I don’t sleep. Sometimes I catch myself promising to deliver a job sooner than I should have, and wind up boiling a pot of coffee at midnight and pushing through until dawn and hoping I’m not too ragged and I don’t miss too much. I’m also not enjoying the business-maintenance aspect of it — keeping an Excel spreadsheet, incorporating, finding an accountant, paying quarterly taxes, etc.
7. What’s surprised you about being a freelance editor?
That I’m still a freelance editor. I am stunned with each passing day that people still want to hire me, that they’re willing to pay me what’s right, and that I have a good reputation out there. That I made this work. I don’t have the best track record as a self-starter (I won’t tell you how many unfinished novel manuscripts of my own fill boxes in my storage unit), and I find it amazing that I stumbled and half-assed my way into self-sustaining success. I keep expecting it to dry up any minute now, and keep being surprised that it doesn’t.
But the more rational part of me, the one that follows the book industry, knows that it SHOULD only get bigger. More and more, with the advent of e-books and disciplined self-publishing, and the democratization of book distribution, would-be authors are realizing that it’s easier than ever to realize their dreams of being publisher authors capable of connecting with substantial audiences. It’s become a world in which the readers are becoming the true gatekeepers, and authors are seeing that traditional publishing houses aren’t necessarily the best way to reach readers any longer.
8. Is there enough room for more freelance editors out there?
There is. As I said above, authors are coming out of the woodwork, everywhere. They all need help, and to their credit, most realize that they need help to put a polished and professional product into the marketplace. Self-publishing gets a bad rap because of some authors, early in the Kindle era, who thought they could slap their unedited manuscripts online and call it good, but that part of the book industry has evolved way beyond that now. Most authors I work with know that their chances for success depend on building a village — hiring professional editors, designers, publicists, etc. — and treating the villagers well.
It’s my hope to get to the point at which I have more work than I can handle, so I pick the jobs that interest me the most and hand off the rest to my many qualified-editor friends. And a number of them have approached me about being subcontractors. I would love to build my own editors’ village.
9. What impact will the changing landscape of publishing have on this profession?
I see nothing but blue skies (which is an odd thing for a Puget Sound native to say, isn’t it?). Publishing houses are laying off in-house editors and outsourcing much of the nuts-and-bolts editing work to people like me. More books are being published than ever, more people seem to be buying them, and more writers are being encouraged to take the leap based on the democratization of the book-publishing landscape and the success stories they’ve heard from people they know. That includes my client list — I’ve had a handful that have done so well in self-publishing their books that they’ve received offers of representation from literary agents and offers of contracts from traditional publishers. And some have said no, I’m doing fine on my own, thanks.
I see no reason this trend won’t continue into the foreseeable future — no matter how you mourn the struggles of traditional publishing or how much you deplore Amazon’s heavy-handed tactics in taking over certain aspects of bookselling, publishing and distributing. I only wish more of my fellow laid-off newsies — people who possess at least the raw skill set to be fine book editors — would see past their own funereal sentimentality with newspapering and embrace something that’s actually forward-thinking.
10. What else should we know if we’re thinking of becoming a freelance editor?
Learn the Chicago Manual of Style. Get to know as many people in the book business as possible — authors, readers, publishers, editors, booksellers. Have coffees, lunches and drinks with any and all of the above. Study the industry, and follow the blogs and news coverage.
And most of all, believe. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, nor the most confident, and I stumbled around for a long while before I figured out how to get to where I am now. The one thing I had going for me was my willingness to step out of my comfort zone. If a doofus like me can do it, so can you.
One last thing: I will be at the Field End‘s conference at IslandWood on Saturday, April 28, 2012. Say hola, and feel free to me ask me anything. I’ll be the guy staring wistfully at Mac’s Dam, remembering all the times I played on the rope swing there as a little boy.
Jim Thomsen was raised on Bainbridge Island, and graduated from Auburn Adventist Academy (1983), Olympic College (1985) and Western Washington University (1989). He worked in newspaper journalism for more than twenty years, including a five-year stint at the Bainbridge Island Review, and finished his career as a news editor at the Kitsap Sun in 2011. He now lives in West Seattle and works as a freelance editor of book manuscripts.