Don’t fall for “free”

Editors marketing their services often hear a lot of guidance about getting clients, some of it . . . well, let’s call it naïve. Just the other day I came across a LinkedIn post on how your first year in business you should give everything away for free and only after that should you start charging.

Where do I even.

PLEASE don’t listen to this kind of nonsense.

If you give everything away before asking for payment, you are habituating people to getting work from you for free. You cannot then expect to transition these clients to paying for your services without a lot of bumps in the road that could have been avoided if you had set a fair value on your services in the first place. Just ask a newspaper how easy it was to institute paywalls after the fact.

And let’s not even get into the breathtaking amount of privilege present in the idea that any worker in the world can afford to give away their labor – let alone should be expected to give away their labor!

No.

Certainly it is fair to showcase your expertise by, say, writing a blog post about editorial concerns. The difference is that you are not doing that work for a particular client. You are doing that work to help establish your credentials and to spread the word about your services. You’re doing that work for you.

And while you’re still in training you may find it worthwhile to do a few projects for free or low pay because you’re learning. But I wouldn’t consider a person doing that to be a full-fledged editor; I would consider them to be an intern or an apprentice.

So if you’re not an intern or an apprentice, you need to charge a fair fee for your work. I can’t count the number of editors who come to me with the significant problem of vastly undercharging for their work. They are trying to figure out how to make more money from their current clientele. But a clientele used to paying $200 for an edit is never going to pay $4000 for an edit no matter how much value they perceive in your services. They are the wrong clients. You can’t magically turn them into the right clients. You have to start over and find new clients.

Which means that in the end it is easier to begin as you mean to continue. This is hard, I know! There are many more $200 clients than there are $4000 clients. But one of the most important things you can do early in your business is to figure out how to find those $4000 clients.

Beyond that, free simply doesn’t work. Just the other day, someone offered to tweak my website for free. First off, I assumed it was a scammer because who can afford to give away their labor? Second, if it was a legitimate offer, then someone is being exploited somewhere and I’m not interested in being part of that. And, finally, why would I trust someone with my passwords and control over my website unless I felt I had recourse if something went wrong? I mean, bottom line, I want to work with someone who has something to lose if I’m not happy or if they somehow wrong me.

The same holds true for editing. Why would something trust you with their hard work if you don’t even value your own?

“Free” is not the motivating factor that some people think it is.

>>>Getting Editorial Work from Book Publishers and Packagers starts November 6, 2021!

>>>Starting and Building Your Developmental Editing Business starts January 3, 2022!

Join Club Ed Conversations

We’ve been having some great (written) conversations during our monthly Q&A on the Club Ed Conversations forum (second Tuesday of each month from 10 a.m. to noon Pacific time) and I wanted to build on this energy by creating slightly more focused sessions.

This happened naturally during the October session, which focused on coaching. You can find that discussion on the Club Ed Conversations forum. (If you’re not a registered member of the forum, add the forum to the shopping cart as if you were buying a class. There is no charge, but this procedure allows you to register quickly and easily.)

In order to provide an opportunity for Club Ed participants to hear from a variety of editors, I’ve invited guest hosts to join me in answering questions during several upcoming chats. General questions about Club Ed self-paced classes or editing in general are still welcome at these more focused chats.

Here’s the schedule:

November 9, 2021 – Siobhán O’Brien Holmes will be taking questions on how to edit horror, young adult, and middle grade fiction

December 14, 2021 – I (Jennifer Lawler) will be hosting, and we’ll be talking about business and learning goals for the new year

January 11, 2022 – Khelsea Purvis, editing comic books and graphic novels

February 8, 2022 – LiVatia “Gwyn” Jordan, on literary agents and traditional publishing

March 8, 2022 – Judy Gruen, editing memoir

April 12, 2022 – Katherine Kirk, editing tabletop RPG (role-playing games)

May 10, 2022 – Amarilys Acosta, on diversity/sensitivity reading

I’ll update this list as more guest hosts are scheduled.

If you’re not able to join the conversation at the appointed time, you can send your question to the chat early using this form.

>>>Getting Editorial Work from Book Publishers and Packagers starts November 6, 2021!

>>>Starting and Building Your Developmental Editing Business starts January 3, 2022!

Setting expectations with publisher/packager clients

Many freelance editors are interested in getting editorial work from book publishers and packagers, and often they’re so focused on landing the client that they don’t think about setting expectations for their work.

Then the first project is assigned, and they have less time than they normally have with indie authors, they’re asked to sit in on meetings, do tasks they may not have done before (such as coding or styling a manuscript), fill out paperwork, use an unfamiliar content management system, and more.

If you don’t know what questions to ask as you’re onboarding with a company, your hourly rate can end up in the toilet.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of publishers, some small, some huge, and most of them have been good clients.

Some of them have not. In a very few cases, the clients were more interested in exploiting me than in establishing a reciprocal relationship that could do us both a lot of good. But in most cases, the problem has stemmed from a mismatch in expectations.

This happened more often earlier in my career before I figured out what I needed to do to help ensure our expectations matched.

Since no two companies do business the same way, it’s important to work out the details before you agree to a project fee.

Some questions to ask:

1. How many rounds of editing does the offered fee include?

Most editorial projects are paid by project fee, and whether this fee works out for you depends on how many rounds of edits are needed. For some publishers, the expectation is that you will get the ms into publishable shape no matter how many rounds of development it needs. And some projects need a lot of development. In other cases, you are expected to do the best you can in one round of editing.

Pro tip: Ask to see the manuscript before committing to the project fee. If this is not possible (and it may not be), make sure that the client knows that you expect the ms to be in reasonable shape and that if it’s not you will have to ask for a higher fee. Most publishers have elbow room in the editorial budget to do this.

Sometimes it is possible to negotiate an hourly fee on a project, perhaps with a cap. Occasionally this is a reasonable way to go, if you’re not sure what shape the ms is going to be in, and if the publisher is willing to take this approach.

2. What are typical deadlines for the editorial work you’ll be doing? How much lead time will you have to schedule the work?

Publishers typically have fairly tight turnarounds, such as three or four weeks for development and one or two weeks for copyediting. There is typically some flexibility in the deadlines but you have to ascertain this before you agree to do the project.

Publishers typically ask for your availability a few weeks before the project is ready for editing, and you’ll know what your schedule looks like, but sometimes authors miss their deadlines, which creates a cascade effect of everyone’s deadlines being jammed if the publication date is to be met.

Pro tip: Publishers know that sometimes your schedule just won’t work with theirs for a particular project. And that’s okay. But if you turn down a lot of projects, they’ll find someone else and won’t continue asking you. Publishers are looking for reliable freelancers who can backstop the staffers. If you will always need more lead time or more time to do the actual work, working for publishers/packagers may not be practical for you.

3. How many meetings will you be expected to attend?

If you will be expected to be on a call with the author, attend status meetings, speak to the editorial board about your anticipated edits, etc., you’ll need to account for that time in the project fee. Publishers who are accustomed to working with staffers will often expect freelancers to attend unnecessary meetings. They’re not (usually) trying to exploit you, they’re just forgetting you’re not on staff. Learn upfront what will be required.

Pro tip: Set boundaries. While it is probably a good idea to be on an introductory call with the author so that you’re not just a faceless stranger when they receive your edit, updates and recommendations can be done by email. Ask if the AE can stand in for you in these meetings, or make it clear that you will have to charge additional fees for meetings that total more than X number of hours during the project.

4. What is the scope of work?  

In addition to the number of rounds you’ll be expected to edit for any given manuscript, the scope of work for the project as a whole is crucial to nail down. I’ve worked with publishers who don’t expect me to interact with the author at all and merely require me to turn in my developmental edit to the AE (acquisitions editor) by the deadline. That’s it.

I’ve worked with publishers who expect me to handle the project from the moment after acquisition until it is published, including meeting with the author at the launch of the editorial process, reviewing the author’s revision after development, reviewing the copyedit before sending it to the author, reviewing the author’s revision after copyedits, reviewing and correcting the galleys, and so on.  

You will need to understand what is expected in order to determine a fair fee for your work.

Pro tip: Project management can eat up a lot of time. If the fee doesn’t justify it, don’t just turn down the job, see if you can offload some of the tasks to a staffer, freeing you to spend your time on doing the actual edit.

5. What (editorial) paperwork is needed?

If you’re used to an edit consisting of an edited manuscript and a revision letter, working for a publisher or packager can come as a surprise. You may be responsible for a lot of paperwork. For a developmental editor, it’s common for a publisher to review and approve an edit plan that you submit before you begin your edit.

You may also be expected to provide a CE memo, which covers editorial decisions you’ve made and issues the copyeditor will need to address.

You may also need to fill out a document noting elements of the content, such as trigger warnings.

Pro tip: Ask for samples of how other editors have done these in the past so that you can be sure to provide the information needed (and to better gauge how much time the paperwork will take to do!)

6. What content management system is used and will you be expected to use it?

Most publishers use some kind of online content management/tracking system to move a manuscript through the pipeline from acquisition to production. You may be expected to use this system to download the ms you’ll be working on, upload various documents (including the edited ms), check for approvals, and communicate with other members of the editorial team. You may need to log hours in a certain way or submit your invoice in a certain way through the system. All of this is more time consuming than just emailing an edited ms to an author is.

Pro tip: Ask for training in using the system. Many of these systems are proprietary or customized, and no one expects you to automatically know how to use them. But if you don’t ask, they will assume you know what to do.

>>>Getting Editorial Work from Book Publishers and Packagers starts November 6, 2021!

Writing effective letters of introduction

I’m a big fan of reaching out to potential clients directly to let them know you exist. The letter of introduction (LOI) is a time-tested way to market, and as a freelance editor, I’ve used it successfully to sell my services to book publishers and packagers. I don’t use LOIs to target indie authors as this seems like it would be a lot more work than it’s worth.

But to solicit freelance work from a company that might be worth tens of thousands of dollars to me over the course of a client relationship? Yes, that’s a worthwhile investment of my time and energy.

An LOI should create a point of connection between you and the potential client, something that says you understand the client’s situation and needs. Ideally these points of connection are customized to the particular person you’re reaching out to:

  • “I just finished reading TITLE, which I know you edited. I loved that book! And I would love to be part of making books like that.”
  • “I saw your call on LinkedIn for a freelance proofreader and wanted to introduce myself.”
  • “I saw your tweet about Stephen King’s new novel and I have to say I’m a huge fan of his, too. As a freelance developmental editor specializing in horror . . . .”

None of this is rocket science and it doesn’t have to take that long. It’s not hard to say something specific and positive such as:

  • “I’ve always enjoyed reading the books PUBLISHER publishes. Some of my favorites are TITLE AND TITLE.”

But if you don’t have time to track down a point of connection or can’t quickly find one, then it’s okay to just state your business:

  • “I’m writing because I’m a freelance developmental editor who . . . .”

But DO NOT do what a recent marketer did to me:

  • “Hi Jennifer! I’m reaching out because I noticed we both follow the same personal finance advisors on Twitter.”

No, you didn’t. I don’t follow financial advisors on Twitter. I follow book people. So what you’re doing is lying to me.

That is not a good look.

If you can’t take a few minutes to customize your LOI, then don’t try to customize it. And for all that’s good in the world, don’t try to start a business relationship with a lie.

>>>Getting Editorial Work from Book Publishers and Packagers starts November 6, 2021!

Editing for Character Consistency

Because writing a novel manuscript takes place over a long period of time, character inconsistencies can crop up. Maybe in Chapter 1 the author says that Joe has never been in trouble with the law but in Chapter 12 he has a history as a felon. As the editor it can sometimes seem puzzling to encounter these inconsistencies—doesn’t the author remember if Joe is a felon or not?—but they happen all too easily in the course of the writing process.

So, our job as developmental editors is not to judge the author for presenting the character inconsistently; our job is to notice and query these discrepancies.

In fact, it can actually be difficult to notice these discrepancies, especially in the case of a novel with a lot of characters, complex plot action, and multiple settings. Who can remember everything that was said about Joe over the course of a hundred thousand words?

Sometimes an author has created character sketches for their characters, and if so, I will often ask to see these before I begin my edit, so that I can have a clearer understanding of what the author’s intentions for their characters are. Other times an author will keep a story “bible” that includes the basic facts about the characters, plot, and story world, and I’ll use that to help ensure I catch any inconsistencies in character presentation.

If not, I will just keep notes as I go along, so that every time I encounter specific facts, like Brigitte’s hair color and home address, I can double-check the fact sheet to ensure that these facts are consistently presented throughout the manuscript. (If you’re a copyeditor, you’ll notice that what I’m talking about bears some resemblance to a style sheet.)

Over time, I’ve trained my memory to hold facts like these in mind throughout the course of the edit, so that my notes do not have to be as detailed as they were when I first started out, but this takes a lot of time and practice and in the short-term, notes are more reliable.

One important note: I sometimes work with newer editors who don’t recognize when an author has deliberately created an unreliable narrator or is making a deliberate effort to show the character is lying about themselves. It’s important not to be so zealous about character consistency that you don’t notice that the inconsistency is part of the point.

For example, if a character is presented as hard-nosed, brusque, and direct but says they are nurturing and caring, this is not necessarily an inconsistency. It may be that this is what the character truly believes (or wants to believe) about themselves.

Similarly, the author may want the reader to pick up on the fact that sometimes the narrator has four siblings and sometimes he has none as evidence that the narrator is unreliable. In this case, pointing out the discrepancy would be . . . well, a “bless your heart” moment.

How can you tell the difference between intentional and unintentional discrepancy in character development? One key is in how the story resolves. If the narrator’s unreliability affects the resolution—for example, our understanding of the story is upended at the end when we realize the character/narrator has been lying about everything (anyone remember Keyser Soza? Or read Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd?) that’s a clue that the narrator is intentionally unreliable.

If a character’s faulty understanding of themselves is intentional, then that will (or at least should) become obvious over the course of the story: another character challenges them (“Yeah, I felt all your warm nurturing when you sued me!”) and/or the inconsistency is consistently present (that is, the character always believes that they are warm and nurturing despite all of the evidence that they are not). In other words, one-off inconsistencies (Geraldo is bald in all chapters except Chapter 3) are almost certainly unintentional and should be called out in the queries.

The problem with unasked-for editing

Getting work as a freelance editor is always a challenge, and my colleagues sometimes see an opportunity when a local business or other organization publishes a newsletter or blog post with errors. They ask me, “I’m thinking about pointing out the errors and offering my editorial services for pay. What do you think?”

I think this is a bad idea. A terrible idea. Don’t do it.

The reason why may not be what you think. It’s not that people who care about their words would have already hired an editor, or that if they had a budget they would have already hired an editor, or even that it starts the relationship off on a sour note. (Though all of these things may be true, they also may not.)

The reason is that unasked-for editing is always bad editing.

That’s it. If they didn’t ask for your opinion, it’s not your place to give it. Not even to solicit work or to “prove” your skills.

Now, it’s one thing if you want to save a friend or colleague potential embarrassment, and so you direct message them to let them know their Facebook post about their editorial services has a typo in it. That’s cool, as long as you don’t call them out publicly, in which case you’re just being a jerk.

Unasked-for editing is bad editing because:

  1. It hasn’t been requested or invited. Period. Boundaries exist for a reason.
  2. You don’t necessarily know the reason for the “error.” I’ve seen people drag writers for spelling the word “colour” and the only one who looks like a fool is the person who doesn’t know that British English spells the word differently from US English. And some “errors” are deliberate, for marketing purposes or to gain attention.
  3. You may not know the style. I’ve seen editors criticize writers for writing, “The game can be played by two to 10 people.” Shouldn’t the numbers be written consistently? Not if AP style is being used.
  4. You haven’t had a chance to discuss goals and expectations with the client. That’s why people make mistakes 2 and 3.
  5. Professional editors know that even experienced editors can miss errors. Only amateurs believe that perfection is achievable. Pointing out other people’s errors when you haven’t been asked to do so is a rookie mistake. If you want to be treated like a professional, you have to act like one.

Now, I know someone will respond to this post and say, “But that’s how I got my biggest client!” Okay! Happy for you. But I wouldn’t recommend this approach as a valid marketing method.

Using Book Reviews to Practice Developmental Editing

To get better at developmental editing you have to do developmental editing! But it’s not always easy to figure out how to go about that. Previously I’ve talked about being a beta reader as a way to gain practice as a DE. And, the self-paced Naked Editing class allows you to follow along as an editor completes a full developmental edit on a ms. 

But I’d like to talk about another option, and that’s using book reviews to help you practice your DE skills. I recommend reading reviews by professional book critics versus random Amazon readers. Professional reviewers/book critics are more likely to notice germane issues (versus minor pet peeves) and to recognize that spelling “colour” with a u is not evidence of lazy editing but rather evidence that the author is British.

Most major newspapers (such as the New York Times) have book review sections. These typically cover literary fiction and bestselling commercial fiction. You can also check out book review blogs for specific genres. The quality of the reviewing on such sites will vary but a little research can help you decide which are worthwhile. A place to start finding book review blogs is this search engine on the Reedsy site. One of my favorite book review blogs is Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which covers the romance genre.

I recommend finding a book review the points out several important flaws in a novel. While it is certainly enjoyable to read a well-written book, and we as editors can learn something from well-written books, to truly build our skills we need to take on novels that have developmental problems.

Once you’ve identified a novel that has made a critic tear out their hair, read the novel yourself, bearing in mind the critic’s concerns. Do you agree? What other problems do you see? Can you see any connections between the problems? For example, if the novel doesn’t really seem to go anywhere and at the same time it’s not clear what the protagonist wants or what’s driving them, you can probably see that lack of goal and motivation is connected to the lack of an interesting plot. Here’s a list of the types of problems we look for when assessing a ms.

Try writing a revision letter based on your conclusions. In a revision letter, you outline your main concerns about a manuscript, using examples from the text to support your points. You describe the problems and suggest potential solutions. It is in suggesting solutions that we push this practice beyond mere “reader reaction.” (Reader reaction is basically what occurs in critique and beta reading.)

Here’s an example: Recently I read the NYT’s review of LA Weather and came across the criticism that there were too many implausible events in the novel. Aha! A big dev problem. This is common when authors are letting the plot drive the story. Given this criticism, I thought about ways I might be able to encourage the author to make these implausibilities more plausible (for example, by making sure the plot events are character-driven—the result of a character’s goals and motivations). I also thought about ways I might encourage the author to reduce the number of plot events by making each plot event more memorable and meaningful—selecting fewer plot events and giving each more page time. Try doing something similar for a novel of your choice, using a book critic’s review as a jumping-off point. 

Growing as an Editor

People with a growth-oriented mindset are happier and more successful than people with a fixed mindset (see Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset, among others).

Growth versus Fixed Mindset

People with a growth mindset are those who think they can learn and grow through hard work, persistence, and thoughtful feedback. A fixed mindset assumes that people are born with certain talents and aptitudes—they either have them or they don’t and there isn’t much one can do about it either way.

A fixed mindset stifles learning and keeps people from persisting: “I guess I’ll never be any good at this so I may as well give up.” When a setback comes, a person with a fixed mindset often considers that a message from the universe: “I’m not meant for this.”

But success in editing, especially freelance editing, requires a lot of hard work and persistence. That can’t happen if you give up too soon.

You may think you have a growth-oriented mindset but sometimes people shift into fixed mindset thinking when they set goals. “I want to be the best developmental editor there is!” may seem like a suitable goal, but it assumes that there’s an endpoint—a fixed place beyond which you won’t grow.

For that reason, I encourage editors to adopt a “get better all the time” goal. Even though I’ve been editing for more than twenty years, I’m constantly learning new things—not just new tools that may not have existed before but new ideas about how to edit effectively, deeper understanding of how story works, and greater knowledge of the advantages and drawbacks of the framework I bring to the editorial process. One of the things I love about development is that it supports this kind of learning.

But that approach also keeps me humble: I don’t know everything, and I have more to learn. This helps me keep an open mind and makes me pull back when I start to sense that I’m being too dogmatic about some principle or concept.

If you’ve ever struggled with imposter syndrome or lack of confidence, a growth-oriented mindset can help. “I’m getting better all the time” is much more believable and provable than “I’m the world’s best!” Plus, “I’m going to keep trying” is more productive than “I guess this is as good as I’m going to get and I’m disappointed with these results.”

Remember, “I’m getting better all the time” beats “I’m going to be the best.”

Solving for X

A while back I took a class on the algebra of symmetries and it turned out to be taught by a philosopher masquerading as a mathematics professor. Algebra, he told us, comes from the word al-jabr, which means restoration by balancing. “Restoring the unknown,” the teacher said. He went on to talk about how having a zero around is very helpful when you’re solving for X. “Doing nothing is an important skill,” he said.

Who knew there was a Tao of mathematics? Doing nothing is an important part of the process. True of mathematics and true of story development.

  1. Sometimes, when you’re not sure what is going wrong with the ms you’re working on, a good solution is to not do anything right now. Come back to the project tomorrow with fresh eyes.
  2. We don’t need to remark on every possible problem that we see in a ms. If we are already advising the author to create a stronger central conflict, develop clearer character arcs, and attend to the setting, we risk confusing and overwhelming them if we also talk about their overuse of adverbs and the number of unnecessary dialogue tags they’re using. Sometimes the best thing to do about a story problem is nothing.
  3. Often we try to be too accommodating to clients. They don’t have a big enough budget, so we cut our fees; they have a looming deadline so we rush to complete the project. But sometimes the best thing to do is just let the client make their objections and then . . . do nothing. I don’t mean, “Don’t bother answering them back.” I do mean, “Don’t do anything to solve their problems for them.” For a client with a tight budget, a sympathetic, “I understand, this is a big investment” shows you hear them without making you responsible for their problem. Don’t be in a rush to give away your work.

Beta reading as training for DE

Many self-publishing authors look for beta readers to give them perspective on their novels before they go to a professional editor for further help. An author doesn’t need a developmental editor to say the whole storyline is implausible and they yawned from beginning to end. Any reader of fiction can probably relay that information.

Doing a few beta reads is a great way to get a sense of the kinds of problems you’ll encounter as a dev editor, and it will give you some insight into author-editor relationships. It’s a low-risk way to dip your toes in the water.

If you’re interested in doing fiction development for a career, try volunteering as a beta on a few projects. You’ll soon learn if it’s for you!

What’s the Difference?

A beta reader is generally just reporting their experience as a reader – “I thought too many events were implausible” – whereas in development, we try to give more guidance than that based on an informed opinion. That is, we understand how fiction works, how to solve problems that arise, and otherwise have professional expertise that sets us apart from readers who simply enjoy reading.

Often, beta readers are discouraged from trying to offer such guidance as without experience and training it’s easy to send an author down the wrong road or to simply not understand what an author is trying to accomplish. So, instead of trying to solve the problems in the manuscript, your goal is to find them and (for your purposes, not the author’s) try to figure out what’s causing them.

Doing beta reads can be a good way to sharpen your skills and even to start building a clientele. People who trust your beta reads will be more likely to be willing to pay you to do a dev edit.

To become a beta reader, hang out on Twitter and look for #amwriting hashtags. Many of these authors will be interested in finding beta readers. There are also beta reader groups like Writers Helping Writers on Facebook.