Getting Clients as a New(er) Editor

One of the most common questions I’m asked is how to get clients, so what follows is my basic theory of how not to starve to death as a freelancer.

If you have little or no actual developmental editing experience, then doing a few projects in exchange for something like a testimonial or whatever might be of value to you (website design, social media training) can be a good way to grow your confidence and give you some projects to mention in your marketing. (I once traded writing a business plan for a free gym membership when I first started out).

The key is in not giving away your work. From the very beginning, you need to think of making transactions – this is a business that you’re trying to establish, after all, not a charitable endeavor.

But I would limit this to only a few projects before moving on to finding better-paying work. If you focus on easy-to-get, low-paying work, such as picking up project from Fiverr, you can end up on a treadmill to nowhere that is very difficult to get off. So I would advise being very strategic from the start. By that I don’t mean having every step of the next twenty years plotted out in advance. I mean having a long-term outlook – that you’ll plant seeds today that won’t come to fruition until three years from now, and that’s fine.

I think it’s important to have goals (“I want to edit X type of fiction for Y type of clients”) but I also think you can’t be so wedded to specifics that you overlook opportunities. I never actually meant to become a romance editor, but it worked out that my background and opportunities pushed me in that direction. And I’ve loved the whole experience.

When I first started out as a writer, I didn’t really have any intention of writing twenty books on the martial arts, but that was what people were willing to pay me for at the time. I had a specific body of knowledge and set of skills that led to these opportunities.

If you look at what established professionals do – the ones making an actual living it at – you’ll see that they rarely troll job-bidding sites or answer Craigslist ads or participate in any kind of marketing that is based on being cheap and fast or whatever newer freelancers may think is a way to attract clients.

Instead, they focus on ways to draw clients to them: building up their credentials and expertise, connecting with colleagues, joining and participating in professional organizations, making referrals to other editors for projects that aren’t right for them. Being generous with referrals yourself makes it more likely that people will be generous with referrals to you.

Almost every established freelancer I know gets a significant amount of their work via word-of-mouth and referrals. This is another reason I think it’s so important to avoid the low-paying treadmill. It is terribly difficult to do good work for months and even years when you are earning paltry sums of money for it. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but it is very difficult. The temptation is to do the work faster so you can do more work. And there is simply a limit to how fast you can do a developmental edit and still have it be a good one. Your reputation as an editor is going to be what brings clients to you.

Then you also have to consider who has the money. Professional nonfiction writers who are trying their hand at fiction are my biggest source of income from indie clients. This is because I did a lot of nonfiction writing when I first started out and got to know hundreds of nonfiction writers. The ones who have had long-term careers have the income to pay for professional advice and the understanding that it is worth paying for.

Now many of them are at the life stage where they want to do that one thing they haven’t done yet, and that is to write the novel they’ve always been meaning to write. I happen to be the one person they know and trust who can guide them in translating their nonfiction skills to fiction.

So I’m not saying you can or should follow in my footsteps. That’s a particularly specific set of circumstances that led to the development of this group of clients. But that’s what I mean by opportunities: what are your skills and knowledge, who do you already hang out with who might be willing to pay for your services, etc. ?

Early in my editing career, I figured the people with the money were publishing companies, so I targeted them by sending out a bunch of LOIs to every medium-sized publishing company I could identify (I figured big publishers wouldn’t hire outside editors and small publishers wouldn’t have the budget). I didn’t have a ton of editing experience at this time, just enough to make the letter look respectable. That letter produced results. Since that time I have never had to do another major marketing campaign – those clients led to other clients and so on.

Newer editors tell me that this approach still works, and that they have had success getting work from publishers by just reaching out to them.

Most of my dev work now is with book publishers and book packagers. As with indie clients, some have realistic budgets and some don’t, but it’s fairly easy to find this information out early in the process so you don’t waste a lot of time. But in general I have found that traditional publishers understand that they have to pay professional rates for professional editing, and don’t generally have a lot of trouble establishing reasonable fees for my work.

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