Where do freelance editors get work? Who is the market for freelance editors?
If you’re interested in freelance editing, these are probably the top questions on your mind.
The answer is that freelance editors work (1) directly with authors (usually called indie authors if they’re self-publishing) and (2) with publishing companies and book packagers.
For direct author clients, sometimes they need an editor because they are self-publishing and sometimes because they are seeking traditional publishing contracts and want to be sure their work is in good shape before they begin the querying process.
For editors with traditional publishing experience, critiquing query letters and other submission documents (synopsis, book proposal, etc.) can be a market as these sales tools are difficult for authors to get right.
Sometimes authors will come to us after they’ve tested the waters of traditional publishing and have received rejections that they’re trying to make sense of before they begin the process of revision.
Regarding author clients seeking traditional publishing, writers often report pressure by freelance editors who tell them they need their work edited before submitting it.
It’s a bad idea for freelancers to pressure anyone to get editing. For one thing, there are no guarantees in this business and the promise that pre-submission editing will improve one’s chances demonstrates a lack of understanding of how traditional publishing works.
Obviously it’s possible for pre-submission editing to help, but many factors go into whether a manuscript is accepted by an agent/traditional publisher and “Is it a good book?” is not the most important item on that list.
That said, quite a few freelance editors do work with clients seeking traditional publishing. Which leads to a related question:
How should editors position their developmental editing services?
If we can’t promise outcomes, should we merely leave authors on their own to figure it out? Should we only focus on an outcome of “your manuscript will be better after an edit?”
A discussion of author goals is absolutely important to a dev edit. If the author is seeking traditional publishing, I am likely to make some recommendations differently than if I know they are indie publishing or just writing for themselves. This just came up in a memoir class I’m teaching. Getting a memoir traditionally published these days is extremely hard, and just a basic memoir about, say, addiction and recovery or disease and repercussions is unlikely to get any attention.
An author writing such a memoir would need to know that and we could discuss angles that might make the book more appealing to publishers or dig out some other aspect of the author’s life to showcase in the memoir.
For an indie publishing author, we might still talk about ways to make the memoir stand out but I would be much less concerned about the competition and more concerned that the book fulfilled the author’s vision.
What I think is a mistake is to suggest that a freelance editor can guarantee any kind of outcome. I am always crystal clear about this with my authors who are seeking traditional publication. I’ve been a literary agent and an acquistions editor, and so I have some insight into the business that can be useful for my authors, but I don’t want anyone to ever get the impression that I implied if they hired me they’d get published.
Most authors, whether indie authors or traditionally published, are never going to have huge amounts of success, if we define success as lots of sales and money coming in. For that reason I think it is important for them to enjoy the process of writing and revising and to focus on how to be a better writer versus setting goals that depend greatly on outside influences (luck, timing, etc.) But that doesn’t mean I think we should completely discount authors’ external goals.
Is there really a lot of freelance editing work available from publishers?
Oh, yes! Most publishers farm out much (if not all) of their copyediting and proofreading to freelancers, and many of them also contract out developmental editing. Editorial work is also available from book packagers, who basically do all the editorial and design on some books for publishers, often but not always licensed content. I’ve worked with both book publishers and book packagers.
Sometimes publishers subcontract all of their development to packagers and you can get the development work from the packager but sometimes publishers oversee the development themselves, sending it out to individual freelancers, so you can also reach out directly to publishers.
It is easier to get nonfiction development work from publishers because nonfiction is sold based on proposal, and while the publisher may love the book idea, the manuscript itself, when it’s turned in, may fall short of their needs (this is extremely common).
Expert authors are not always good writers or know how to structure a book (some write books as if they are merely very long articles). Experts can also have real difficulty conceptualizing what an ordinary reader may or may not know about any particular topic.
For trade publishing (general publishing meant for general readers, like what you find in a bookstore), there’s definitely a need for editors who can say to an author, “It’s seems to me that Step 1 would be to plan the treehouse before you buy the lumber, so I recommend adding a section here about finding or creating the treehouse specifications.”
But even for fiction there is developmental work available. Fiction is often sold on two- and three-book deals, where the first book is complete and acceptable at contract signing but the other books are just ideas. When they are submitted they are sometimes not ready for publication.
And publishers outside the Big 5 often don’t get the submission quality that the Big 5 publishers get and so they will invest more in development to bring authors along.
This kind of work can also shade into book doctoring and ghostwriting, but you should be paid a lot more for this efforts than for strictly dev editing.
I do teach a class on getting work from publishers and packagers.
Working publishers has some differences from working directly for author clients
With publishers, typically you don’t get a lot of lead time and the deadlines are tight. So, generally you’re not going to know six months in advance that a manuscript is coming in from Acme Publishing. They will usually your check availability a month or two ahead of time.
Then when the ms is ready, you might have a few weeks to do the edit, the author will have a few weeks to do their revision, you’ll have a week or two to make sure the revision is acceptable, and then you’ll pass it along to the copy editor.
So you have to have some flex in your schedule. If you keep not being able to take a project on because you’re already booked, the publishing company will just find someone else to work with–so it’s not the right fit for every editor. But if you develop a good relationship with a publisher/packager, you can get ongoing work for a long time (I’ve worked with some clients for years and years).
Given the tight deadlines, you have to adjust your expectations. So, with an indie author I might suggest that they explore rewriting the novel into third person or first (to solve whatever problems I’ve identified) or that they strengthen the central conflict in such a way that they will have to rewrite the second half of the ms.
An author can’t take on a revision of that magnitude in just a couple of weeks, especially since they’re probably also juggling a day job and/or other time commitments. Even if I think the ms needs a complete overhaul, I will limit my recommendations to the kind of things that can be reasonably accomplished in a limited period: start with Chapter 4 instead of revising the first three chapters, eliminate a subplot instead of trying to make it connect better to the main plot, add a prologue to explain backstory instead of trying to figure out how to integrate it more effectively into the forward plot, etc.
Also, since the publisher is your client, not the author, you have to pay more attention to the publisher’s expectations for your edit and the resulting revision and less to the author’s vision for their work.
Do book publishing companies and book packagers work with new development editors? What would be the process to be considered for that type of work?
Publishers and packagers do like to see publishing experience, but unlike getting a job, in freelancing the experience stays relevant. So, if you’ve done editorial work in the past for a publisher, it a meaningful credential even if it was done some years ago.
The main instrument we use to get work, the letter of introduction, can be written to elide over the fact that the work was done a long time ago. Those who hire freelancers just want to make sure you know what you’re doing and the easiest way for them to tell is if other publishers/packagers have hired you.
If you don’t have any publishing experience at all, I would say that any kind of editorial work you can do for corporations of any kind helps. It just shows that you know what you’re doing.
The challenge for editors who work primarily with indie authors is that most people doing the hiring at publishers/packagers aren’t going to think of indie authors as good judges of editorial talent so the fact that a freelance editor might have fifty glowing testimonials from indie authors won’t make much of an impression on them.
But if you’ve edited for an online magazine or anything like that, there is more of a sense that someone who knows what good editing is has hired you and therefore you must be a good editor.
It’s easier to get CE and proofreading work since these can be more easily tested, and there’s more freelance work of any kind available in nonfiction than in fiction (since so much more nonfiction than fiction is published).
I also strongly advocate the “trading up” approach. If you can land a smaller publisher client, even if the pay isn’t fantastic you can use that credential to get work from a larger, better-paying client.