The Nuts and Bolts of Becoming an Independent Editor

A laptop computer, coffee cup, paper and writing implements are arranged on a wooden table.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Today’s post comes from Book Architecture’s Stuart Horwitz and Madison Utley, the team behind the Independent Editor Podcast. There, they provide concise, experience-based answers to the most pressing questions around making a living as a freelance editor.

There are only three things you need to be a great independent editor: talent, effort, and experience. It’s the last of these–experience–that aspiring editors tend to agonize over. While there is coursework you can undertake in a few places in the US and there are a couple of professional organizations that offer piecemeal training, there is no formalized career path or comprehensive resource that clearly lays out how to get into this business or how to thrive once you’re here.

This means, at present, independent editing is really an apprenticeship industry. The only way to gain informed experience is to work alongside an established figure in the field. That’s a great way forward in theory, but what of those who are abounding in talent and willing to put in the necessary effort, but without any inroads into the industry?

We’re here to offer something concrete and foundational to ground you as you get started.

But first, what does being an independent editor entail?

Whatever you’re good at and actually like doing involving the written word, you can turn into an income stream. This is good news. While diversification is beneficial for business and you should explore the full breadth of options and consider breaking into new areas, there’s no pressure to be good at everything. It’s okay to say “that’s not for me” about certain types of work and instead focus your energy and efforts elsewhere.

Some of the more common roles for an editor within this space are developmental editing, ghostwriting, coaching, cowriting, copy editing, proofreading, and marketplace assistance through the traditional or self-publishing avenue–but this is hardly an exhaustive list; when it comes to your suite of services, the possibilities are nearly endless. Learn more.

How do you find clients?

Obtaining your first few clients might seem like a daunting hurdle to get over, but it really doesn’t have to be. The beginnings of effective networking can be as simple as communicating what you do well, with no hesitation or shame, to “your people.” This is the ground level of putting yourself out there–letting friends and family know you’ve decided to pursue a career in independent editing. Presenting in a library, to a local writer’s group, or as part of an adult education class are also accessible and surprisingly effective ways to get your foot in the door. From there, natural momentum will build as previous clients return or refer, and your efforts can expand to include working with agents, brokers, and publishers.

You need to get comfortable with “no.” Not everyone you approach will want to help you, and you can’t interpret every yes or no as either “I belong here” or “I don’t belong here.” That’s giving the odds too much influence. You just need to say, “I’m doing this.” And that’s it. You’re an independent editor.

Rolling with the yeses and nos allows you to develop a non-outcome dependent rhythm. There is a natural order to the sales funnel, in which more referrals are poured into the top than come out the bottom as clients. This winnowing down, through the prospect inquiry and sales call, among other stages, is to be expected, and it absolves you of controlling outcomes. All you can do is be intelligent about the process, and draw as many people into the top as possible. Remembering this helps ward off discouragement. Learn more.

When prospects look you up, what do they find?

When people search you out, they are looking to assess if you’re their person. Your online presence–your editorial platform–is what determines this answer. While your social media may weigh into the decision to some degree, the crown jewel of your platform will be your website.

The right time to launch your website was last week. (Next week works too). Your website is the most powerful tool you have to establish your credibility, which creates comfort; to express your personality, which creates connection; and to show your engagement, which creates a call to action. The first step in making this happen is selecting a domain name that makes sense, that takes advantage of any previous name or brand recognition you might already have, and is one you can live with as you and your business grows.

A bad website is worse than no website at all. Your website should feel modern and professional, like you invested time and money into its construction. It doesn’t have to be done all at once, however; a good website can be built over time as you navigate the subtle challenges of figuring out how to cast your past experience, what kinds of testimonials are available to you now and what will be in the future, and how to describe your current scope of services versus what you might want to add down the line. Initially, your website might only be a single landing page; that’s okay, as long as it’s a page done well.

Make sure the right information is on there. When a prospect visits your website, they should feel like they’re getting to know you, and they should feel like they’re in good hands. This means relevant aspects of your CV, your education (both degrees and certifications), and information, accolades, or testimonials related to previous work all need to be highlighted, but in an engaging manner that showcases your personality and interests.

List your suite of services. While it’s helpful to broadly lay out the kind of work you’re best at and most enjoy doing, it’s also important to pepper every page with invitations to reach out for an in-person chat. The ways in which you can provide editorial assistance will grow to be nuanced and extensive. And, in any case, getting a prospect on the phone to discuss their project is the best way to figure out how exactly you can be of service and make a sale that meets both your needs. Learn more.

How do I set prices?

There is no uniform answer to this question, and you should be skeptical of anyone who tells you otherwise. There are editors out there charging $50/hour and others charging $300/hour. Realistically, you’re probably aiming for somewhere in between. There are two considerations that help determine exactly where to land in that window: an outward look at the market, and an inward look at your billable hour.

How much do you want to make in a year? Answering this question is a good place to start. Stay away from selecting a figure based on what you think you can “pull off,” or the number you think you “probably deserve” given your limited experience. Instead, you want to come up with an amount that will mean you won’t be stressed about money all the time. The goal here is not to earn as much as is humanly possible, but instead to make sure that you’re getting paid the amount that respects your talents and your time.

Establish a base hourly rate for yourself as a guide. Not every project can be charged by the hour, of course, but this is an important figure to come up with and something you can use to inform what you charge when a project fee is called for. Set your base rate high enough to cover the hours you’re not getting paid for: your marketing and promotion, sales efforts, and all the unglamorous back office effort that goes into running a business, for example.

You know you’re quoting right when you’ve surprised yourself a little. You need to consider what the market will bear, of course, but a good place to aim is the high side of moderate. It’s not your job to figure out what an individual can pay. It’s not your job to assess the merit of a project. It’s your job to logically come up with a fair price, and to calmly communicate it. Avoiding the urge to price dive to win a prospect over is crucial, even at the outset of your career; it can create a downward spiral effect that is hard to emerge from. The ideal client is someone who is impressed with your work and willing to pay your fee because it reflects the talent you bring to the table.

Release your attachment to getting the job, which is a natural continuation of accepting both the yeses and nos of prospecting. This helps you keep a steady head throughout the price communicating process. Being genuinely okay with whatever the prospect decides infuses a confidence into the dynamic the potential client can feel. Conversely, any level of desperation is going to be palpable and push prospects away.

Expect month-to-month fluctuations. Once you’ve set a specific goal for your income, it’s natural to start gauging your process by assessing each month’s performance. This can bring about a helpful sense of orientation and motivation, but your month to month earnings will likely fluctuate depending on where clients are in their payment schedules. Coming in below target one month is not cause for alarm; with intentionality, it’ll even out annually. Learn more.

What does closing the deal actually look like?

The goal here is to get quality prospects on the phone. Anecdotally, discussing a project on a call as opposed to doing so via email increases the chance of locking in a sale by a factor of three. While we allot half an hour for these calls at Book Architecture, the average conversation runs far less than that. In any regard, it is time well spent; even if someone does not invest in your services, if you have been courteous and helpful along their journey they will remember you and may even refer you to someone else.

The sales process is not a necessary evil. Our culture seems to find the concept of sales distasteful. There’s an idea that salespeople will do anything they can to clinch a sale because they don’t have to stand behind it. While this may be true in some siloed industries, it doesn’t apply to the independent editor who then has to do—and stand behind—the work she or he just sold. Instead, sales are what makes your business function. It’s what lets you do this for a living. Sales is simply a natural expression of talking about how much you love the work and communicating to people that this is what you do.

Don’t quote over the phone. We don’t list prices on our website, and we don’t give them over the consultation call either. The point of the phone call is to hear about the prospect’s project, to explain how you can help them achieve their goals, and to cultivate a sense of connection. This enables both parties to gauge compatibility, and also helps you develop a sense of the scope of their project. When a call goes well, it might include requesting a sample of their work or discerning other variables so that you can better determine scope and pricing.

There is such a thing as a bad prospect. We covered how not every lead is going to convert, but let’s also make clear that not every lead should be converted. Getting a prospect on the phone is not only a chance for you to convince them you’re the best person for their project, but it lets you see what your working relationship might be like. If they call into your appointment 27 minutes late, if they make it clear they think they have all the power and you’re there to serve them, if they suggest that they don’t “really have a budget” for the project, it’s okay to decide it’s not going to work out. Learn more.

Can you talk me through how a developmental editing project might unfold?

A written critique is the most effective jumping off point for nearly any project. This allows you, the editor, to intimately acquaint yourself with a client’s work–and get paid for it–while providing valuable feedback in turn. This feedback, collated into a macro and micro section, can then be discussed in a follow-up conference. The process serves as an excellent chemistry check between the two of you and a diagnostic on what further efforts a manuscript may need; if Phase One goes well, your work together will likely continue on.

Manuscript revision makes up the heft of the process. This could look like the author diving into the revision on their own following the Phase One conference, with the option to come back to you for assistance when ready for another round of coaching. Clients looking for a more hands-on approach may ask that you work through the revisions with them. In these cases, you might provide: coaching on which topics to tackle in which order; input on new material via page-by-page commenting, cover letters, and live conferences as needed; and/or notes on how to weave new material together with the old. No matter how exactly it unfolds, Phase Two is about getting a manuscript into its best possible form and off to copyediting.

Your role may shift or expand as the project progresses. There is a spectrum of assistance you can provide to authors during a Phase Two, from coaching to cowriting through to ghostwriting. Sometimes the roles agreed upon at the start of a new stage become something else in the midst of it. Accepting the shift, while also charging for the more intensive level of support, can be a boon to your bottom line. Whether an author comes to you looking for co- or ghostwriting support from the outset or you get there over time as the project unfolds, embrace the opportunity and trust that you can handle the job.

Clients may look to you to help them decide between traditional and self-publishing, and then guide them through the respective process. Traditional publishing requires authors to generate submission material, and you can help them do that. Clients with nonfiction manuscripts will need to put together a nonfiction book proposal. With fiction, authors need a well constructed synopsis. With traditional publishing, there is also a package of related services you can offer including the provision of a database of literary agents interested in the author’s genre. For authors looking to self-publish their work, you can in effect become a project manager, assembling a bank of referrals who build out a full publishing team including an interior designer, a cover designer, a proofreader, and an ebook formatter.

If you’re attuned, the possibilities are nearly limitless. Given your extensive familiarity with the author’s work, you’re now well-positioned to supply any necessary publication support. This could look like furnishing an author bio or book description, providing blog support, generating social media assets, or spearheading other promotional efforts. Why stop there? You might also compile bibliographies, create the index for a work, secure permissions, ghostwrite corporate communications—the list goes on.

Remain open-minded and creative about what you can turn into an income stream; invariably, those streams will join force and turn into a powerful river in time.

The Independent Editor Podcast addresses these topics and more in 20- to 30-minute episodes that give detailed, practical support. Season one is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and iHeart Radio. Updates on the latest releases and extra content can be found on the pod’s Instagram, @theIEpod.

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