When you’re starting out as a freelancer, it can be tempting to say yes to every project that comes your way. This is a trap that full-time writers, as well as those who supplement their income with freelance editing or coaching, can fall into.
But, as in writing, the key to success is often to go narrow. You can develop a more successful freelance business—and in particular an editing business—by being more focused and strategic with the three Ps: positioning, packaging, and pricing.
First things first: If you’re selling your services as an editor, you need to know the difference between the various types of editing out there. Be sure you understand terms like developmental editing, content editing, copyediting, and more. While it may be tempting to offer every type of editing that a writer might need, the truth is that most editors excel at or simply prefer one type of editing. And from a business perspective, it’s much easier to focus on marketing yourself for one type of editing.
Next: Consider what kind of writing you’re best positioned to edit—or the type of client you’re most qualified to help. Where do you have special experience or expertise? Where do you have credibility or credentials that your clients would find meaningful or trust? Here are some examples:
- You’ve been a staffer at a romance review publication, have read and reviewed countless romances, and help judge contests. You’d be in a position to help beginning romance writers with their manuscripts, probably as a development or content editor.
- You have a degree in science and work in the communications department of a hospital. You know how to make complex ideas accessible to a general audience. You might be in a position to help doctors or other scientists develop their ideas into general-interest books.
- You worked in production at a small publishing house and performed copyediting and proofreading on books before publication. You could offer copyediting and proofreading services to book authors, likely in all categories.
If you don’t have much in the way of experience or credentials, you might need to get some first. You could consider taking an online class to help you develop your skills; for example, there are a range of certification courses for copyediting and proofreading.
It greatly helps if you can specialize in not just the type of editing you perform, but in a particular type of client. For example, some editors focus on just emerging and early career authors or just authors in a particular genre; some focus on authors in a particular profession or from academia; still others will market themselves primarily to businesses or established professionals (like book publishers and packagers).
Once you know who you’re trying to help, you can land more work by creating specific service packages to meet your clients’ needs, especially if you’re marketing to individuals. When potential authors see tangibly what you offer, it helps develop expectations and build trust—and it should give them a clear idea of whether there’s a match between the two of you. Packages can help clients better understand next steps when they’re feeling confused and unsure of how to proceed. By anticipating and establishing how clients’ key problems or challenges can be solved through your services, you’re showing you understand them and will be a valuable guide.
(What’s the opposite of offering packages? Telling people to reach out via email if they’re interested in working with you. For most freelancers, that’s not a good starting point, and it can waste a lot of time for both you and the client.)
Here’s an example of well-defined packages from Rachelle Gardner:
Doing this well requires truly understanding your target client. If you don’t have a good idea of who you’re serving, your packaging and your copywriting may be way off and unappealing to your potential clients. You must understand why your target client is driven to hire an editor, plus show you understand their fears and concerns in hiring an editor (often, that the editing will make things worse or be a waste of money).
You can cheat at your copywriting and package building by looking at established editors who are already catering to your target market, and seeing how they frame and package their services. But don’t lift other people’s copy wholesale; it has to be positioned to fit your voice, your capabilities, and what distinct value you bring to the table.
Because freelance editing is not scalable (you can’t take on an increasing number of clients without increasing hours worked), pricing can quickly become critical to a sustainable business.
Because you’re selling your time for money, and your time is limited, I find flat fees preferable to hourly fees. I’d rather sell the value of my service, and not my time. If I sell a $500 edit package that typically takes me two or three hours to complete, what matters most is (1) that my work or service is worth $500 to the client, (2) that I can attract clients at that rate, and (3) that I am satisfied to work at that rate.
Pricing can also play an important role in attracting the right client. If a service is priced at the low end of the market, this can actually attract less desirable clients, who are shopping only based on price and not the value or expertise you bring to the table. Furthermore, if you were indeed hired based on price and not expertise, the client may lack confidence in your work and be more likely to pick it apart.
This isn’t to say that high pricing is a panacea—people who pay premium prices expect premium services—but that competing based on price is risky, especially for a personalized service like editing.
All of the above raises a challenging question, though: Is charging per word for editing considered charging based on time or value?
Charging per word for novel editing is like charging based on time, given that you likely have calculated how long it takes for you to edit something like an 80,000-word novel and you charge accordingly. However, let’s consider three different scenarios.
1. Copyediting or proofreading jobs. Often editors will charge per-word or per-page. This gives the client an assured, fixed cost, and probably there’s some assurance for you as well because copyediting and proofreading tend to be straight-forward jobs. To charge based on value, consider variable per-word or per-page rates for copyediting and proofreading based on whether the job is heavy, medium, or light. You need to figure this out based on a look at the manuscript before you quote the job. This way you can charge for the value you’re providing and not just based on length. I would avoid a rate that applies universally to every single manuscript. On your website or in your marketing, you can list a cost range instead of a single price or fixed word rate.
2. Developmental or content editing. These are, IMHO, hardest to quote, because the work can be very intensive and span weeks or months, and involve a lot of back and forth with the client. If it makes sense for the project, quote a flat fee based on the value of the work you’ll be putting into the manuscript development (and the level of commitment required from you over time) rather than the number of hours you expect to put into the project. Of course you’ll want to mentally calculate how many hours the project will likely take you, but I’d come up with a figure that would make you feel satisfied or reasonably happy even if the job takes longer than expected. Try to have fixed deliverables to avoid mission creep. Build in a hard stop date or a specific milestone that, once reached, can trigger a new contract or additional payment so you’re not on the hook indefinitely when quoting a flat fee. (Still others will quote a retainer. There is no right way; only what best suits your personality and how you like to work.)
3. Manuscript evaluations. These are the easiest to quote and to charge for value, because you’re determining what clients send you and what you deliver back to them, and there’s usually a fixed value that doesn’t change from project to project. E.g., you agree to write a 2-page editorial letter for any manuscript up to 80,000 words that evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the work, followed by a phone call to discuss. Or you look at the first 50 pages and do the same. Etc.
For better or worse, the current marketplace is overrun by mediocre and poor editors. That’s partly because the growth of self-publishing has increased the number of people who are putting out their shingle. There isn’t any formal accreditation process for freelance editors, so anyone can call themselves one, and many set up shop with little experience or qualifications. This means that freelance editors can quite easily point to published works they’ve edited, which may not in fact be very high quality. So, it can take time to distinguish yourself from the many types of help available. Specializing in a type of editing or a particular client will help speed your start.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.