The Road to Regular Work

This case study is courtesy of Kat Thomas, a book editor I’ve known for many years. She agreed to share her experience of building her freelance business. She is the author of this post.

– JL

The Road to a Freelance Book Editing Career

I’m a freelance book editor with experience in developmental editing, line editing, and copyediting for fiction and nonfiction. I work with trade publishers, university presses, and authors.

A little background: My first experience working with books was as a production editor for a book packager whose clients included college textbook publishers.

There, I received a broad education in copyediting, proofreading, book design and formatting, and communications with authors and publishing professionals.

I then took a job as managing editor for a small independent publisher, where I did everything I’d learned from the book packager job but for a niche market: sports, fitness, and wellness.

I took a few years off following the birth of my daughter, and when I decided to reenter the workforce as a freelancer, I definitely felt unprepared, despite my past work experience. By this time it had been a minute since I’d worked for the book packager, I was pretty burned out on editing the types of books I’d done for the indie publisher, I wasn’t feeling confident in my editing skills because the work with the indie publisher catered to a niche market and was very repetitive, and I had no idea how to find clients or how to navigate the business side of freelance work.

One of my first steps was to join a professional organization or two, like Club Ed. This has been invaluable for learning about rates, contracts, and issues with clients and editing projects, hearing about other editors’ backgrounds, connecting with authors and publishing professionals, and sharing contacts and referrals.

I also took classes, such as Advanced Copyediting and DE Fiction, to update my skills and develop new ones.

In addition, I attended a few book and writers groups events in my town, set up a brochure website, and told people (friends, acquaintances) what I do. All of these led to the occasional job.

The classes helped with my confidence, as did talking to other editors. I got some jobs through referrals and word-of-mouth and was finding my way through the business side of freelancing (rates, contracts, etc.), but I wasn’t getting regular work and I still felt lost about how to get clients and how to make freelancing sustainable. It all seemed random, overwhelming, and directionless.

I needed a plan! I did some coaching sessions with Jennifer (Lawler, the Resort Director at Club Ed), and with her help I was able to identify:

  • The type of editorial work I want to do
  • The type of clients I like most to work with
  • What I’m comfortable doing and what I’m not comfortable doing to find work
  • What I needed to happen immediately

In my case, it looked like this:

The type of editorial work I want to do: I do happen to enjoy all levels of editing: CE, LE, and DE of nonfiction and fiction. So, I have a pretty broad focus, and I might eventually want to focus more on DE of fiction, but I think having experience at different levels of editing is a good starting point in reference to item #4: bringing in money right away.

The type of clients I like most to work with: I enjoy working with authors with some experience and with other publishing professionals.

What I’m comfortable doing and what I’m not comfortable doing to find work: I’m comfortable talking directly to individuals and in small groups and I’m not at all comfortable engaging with people via social media or having an online presence. I’m also more comfortable having dependable, regular work than I am looking for new author clients.

What I needed to happen immediately: An income!

Now I had so much more clarity! Working backward:

Steady income as quickly as possible: Given my previous staff positions and updated skills, I felt I had a reasonable expectation of getting work fairly quickly from publishers.

What I’m comfortable doing to find work: There are avenues for connecting directly with publishers.

The type of clients I like most to work with: Experienced authors and editorial professionals can, obviously, be found with publishers.

The type of editorial work I want to do: Since I have experience at all levels of editing, I can start with the most likely entry point for working with publishers—copyediting—and from there, try to move into DE work.

Now it became something of a no-brainer: take Jennifer’s Getting Work from Publishers and Book Packagers class. With the skills and knowledge I gained from that class, I fine-tuned my business plan and started sending out LOIs. I targeted mid-size publishers who produce books on topics and in categories I have experience working with: politics, history, anthropology, archaeology, general nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, and genre fiction.

I currently have a handful of nonfiction and fiction publishers from whom I get regular work. I also take on author clients, whom I do enjoy working but had previously found finding, navigating business with, and relying on very stressful. I haven’t moved into doing DE for publishers yet, because just having regular income has been my priority, and I’ve been able to achieve that with the CE jobs I’ve been getting. But making a move to DE fiction work with publishers, I believe, is on the horizon! And the results I’ve gotten from having a clear business plan make it seem entirely possible.

What I expect that to look like is doing a bit more developmental work with author clients and then sending LOIs to smaller publishers. Once I do a couple of DE projects with a smaller publisher or two, I plan to send LOIs to mid-size publishers and to initiate conversations with the production editors I work with regularly about referring me for DE work.

What I’ve learned along the way is the importance of having a mentor and teachers, a community for support, education, and networking, and a clear goal and business plan. Then it’s a matter of taking the steps!

I can be found at:

Kat Thomas


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