Can you really make a living freelancing for publishers?

Many freelance editors work for indie authors, but some of us also work with (or only work with) publishers. Occasionally I get an email from a freelance editor who wants to know if you actually can make a living freelancing for publishers. Here’s an excerpt from a recent one:

“I’m finding it really, really hard to make a living from publisher clients. I used to work as a production editor for a book packager, then as a ‘managing’ editor for a tiny indie publisher (scare quotes because the company was small and I did all the editorial jobs!), then I began freelancing after my daughter started school. I’ve gotten seriously discouraged lately because publishers haven’t raised their rates in so long. I can’t pay my bills on what they pay. And I don’t think I can speed up my pace anymore without sacrificing quality.”

First, I want to acknowledge that this happens. Lots of publishers don’t pay their freelancers enough. It’s not that you’re expecting to make $250,000 a year, it’s that they’re paying what works out to about $15 an hour, which in many places is exactly what McDonald’s pays for cashiers who have no experience.

And second, I want to acknowledge that most editors with some experience are already working as fast as they can and that working faster is going to mean making mistakes, so you won’t hear me say, “Work faster!”

But I will say that I’ve always been fairly compensated by my publisher clients. I’m going to talk about how you can make sure you’re fairly compensated, too.

You Have to Raise the Rates

The #1 thing that struck me in this email was the line, “. . . publishers haven’t raised their rates in so long.”

As a freelancer, you can’t expect the publisher client to look out for you. Most publishers are going to try to get the best quality work at the lowest price, just like you do when you’re buying groceries. This doesn’t make them evil, it just makes them businesses.

So, you can’t expect a publisher client to think, “Oh, hey, Jane the Freelancer hasn’t had a raise in three years. We should give her a raise.” That almost never happens. It’s never happened to me. You’re a freelancer, not an employee. They’re going to assume that if you keep accepting projects from them that you find the payment fair.

Publishers may not have raised their rates, but you can (and should). No one will be surprised when you say, “Hey, I’m raising my rates to $NEWRATE starting in September. As you know, I’ve been freelancing for you for three years and haven’t raised my rates in that time. Just wanted to let you know that my next invoice will reflect the new pricing.”

Typically I suggest that you raise your rates no more than ten percent at a time, as that’s a number that most clients can budget. If you’ve been underpaid for a long time, you can’t expect to go from $X to $2X in one jump.

You may get pushback, but you may not. Earlier this year I raised my rates by ten percent and no one batted an eye after I made the announcement. If you do get pushback, you can decide to negotiate: “Okay, you’ve been a good client and I value working with you; does a rate increase of 5% work for you?” Or, you can redefine the scope of work. (More on that in a bit.)

Trading Up

But at some point you have to be willing to walk away from underpaying clients. A client paying $15 an hour is never going to pay $50 an hour. You need a different client who will pay $50 an hour (and they are out there).

If you spend all your time working for underpaying clients you will never be able to do the marketing that will get you better-paying clients. So while I completely understand the urgency of “I need money coming in” there is a very real risk of staying on a low-paying treadmill forever.

Even spending just three or four hours a week marketing for newer clients can make a huge difference in your bottom line. If you’re frustrated with underpaying clients, ask yourself how much time you’ve spent prospecting for better clients in the last month. None? A couple of hours? Challenge yourself to spend an hour a day finding new clients (which may include connecting with colleagues for referrals, not just sending out LOIs to potential clients).

If you have spent many hours trying to land better-paying clients without success, then you need to think hard about why you’re not getting anywhere. Do you need a more professional website? Are you making obvious errors in your pitches? Colleagues can help you see where you might be going wrong.

Work to the Brief

Editors are by and large conscientious people who want to make their clients happy. This is great, but it also means that quite often editors do more than is expected, needed, or wanted. When I was an acquisitions editor who hired freelance editors, I worked with a new-to-me CE who delivered a revision letter covering developmental problems they (thought they’d) spotted. I hadn’t hired them to be a DE. I hired them to be a CE. We worked it out, but that CE wasted a lot time (mine and hers) trying to do something no one wanted.

If the project brief calls for one round of development, you do one round of development even if the ms could really use two rounds. You don’t volunteer to do a second round for free. You can (and should) alert the client to the fact that you think the ms needs two rounds of development, but if they insist on paying only for one round, then you provide one round. That’s it.

Watch out for Scope Creep

If the project brief calls for project management—that is, seeing the ms through from development to galley stage—then you should be paid for the time that takes. If the brief calls for one round of development, that means one round of development.

Scope creep happens all the time and you have to push back against it: “I can understand why you want me to review the copy editor’s edit before handing it to the author, but that was not part of our agreement. I can do it for $X.”

Negotiate the Brief

For underpaying clients, one way to keep them on as clients without making your kids go without shoes is to trim down the brief (which I alluded to above). If they want project management but are paying only for editorial, then just say that: “Managing this project would be very time-consuming and would cost more than you’ve budgeted. I am able to do one round of development for the stated fee. Will that work for you?”

Or, “For the stated fee, I could provide a manuscript evaluation with a five-to-seven page revision letter but not a full developmental edit with manuscript queries.”

Or, “I understand that you can’t meet my new rate of $Y. I do enjoy working on your projects and value you as a client. Is it possible for a staffer to take on the project management that I’ve been doing? I could accept the current rate if all I am responsible for is one round of development.”

Remember that you’re a business owner, too, and you have to act like one. This means been assertive about being paid fairly. It means finding the kinds of clients who can pay you fairly. I’m not saying that this is easy – it’s not! – but it’s vital to your success to be able to advocate for yourself as a freelancer.

Beginning Developmental Editing for Fiction starts January 9, 2023

how to become a developmental editor

Intermediate Developmental Editing for Fiction starts February 6, 2023

how to become a developmental editor

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