Launching a Freelance Editing Business

Launching a Freelance Editing Business

January 23, 2002
Panel: Hilary Powers, Kristi Hein, Heidi Garfield, and Lisa Gluskin (audience plant)
Organizer: Hilary Powers
Notes By Dawn Adams

The usual forum location was commandeered for a book signing by Kim Cattrall of "Sex in the City." Although BAEF members had to make their way past the eager crowd to reach the fourth floor, they were rewarded with a wealth of information on freelancing. The panelists were forthcoming about the trials and tribulations of self-employment.

"One thing about freelancing—it's not a job, it's a business," Powers said. "You don't have employees, you have clients. A boss tells you what to do, while a client asks what you can do."

Becoming a Freelancer

The three panel members took different routes into freelancing. Powers came from the nonprofit arena into editing, Hein and Garfield from the corporate world. Powers' first step as an editor was to write to all publishers in California publishing more than 50 books per year. "That was actually not a good idea," Powers said. "The information in sources such as Writer's Market is generally out-of-date as I found out when I called for follow-up."

Both Hein and Garfield tried freelancing twice. Hein's first self-owned business was a typing/word processing service, but she was tempted into a more secure corporate job. "It's not a good idea to begin freelancing without a financial cushion, like I did the first time," Hein said. "When I got my first editing assignment after going freelance the second time, I made contacts that led to many other jobs. I also took an Editcetera course on freelancing and met someone there who gave me more work."

Garfield's first foray into freelance was in 1992 when she was laid off, but she went back to the corporate world as soon as she could. About a year and a half ago, she gave up her job to give freelancing another try. "After I left my last job to start freelancing, I knew what I was up against," Garfield said. "Because of the different areas that I've worked in and with such as design and photography, I can understand the scope of what the client is asking for."

Networking, Networking, Networking

All of the panelists agreed that networking is the most effective way to find freelance work. Garfield recommends joining professional organizations and doing some work for nonprofits. Hein seconds that; besides client-to-client referrals, she also gets referrals from organizations like BAEF and the Marin editors' group. Mary Heldman, 2002 BAEF chair, mentioned that BAEF is always looking for volunteers and that the organization will shortly be revisiting and updating the definitions of editing services on the Web site. Powers advises that you check in with current clients and ask "What's on your desk right now?" as the first step to selling yourself as the solution. She also suggests joining e-mail discussion groups on topics that you're interested in and know about—just be sure to have "editor" somewhere in your signature.

"It's vacuum cleaner marketing," Powers said. "You can be kind, useful, prepared, and have your business card ready."

One of Garfield's freelancer friends who had extensive experience in benefits had an interesting approach to finding clients. Instead of just marketing herself to other editors, this woman went to human resources and benefits conferences to pitch her services.

"Eighty to 90 percent of all jobs are not advertised," Garfield said. "It's who you know and who they know."

Powers and Hein recommend keeping in touch with clients as your schedule becomes free, just to remind them that you exist. Hein sends an e-mail to all past clients informing them that she is currently booking projects. Keeping in touch with clients regarding scheduling is also the way to ensure that you get some vacation time.

Marketing to Strangers

In addition to networking, there are other ways for freelancers to reach out to potential clients. Hein suggests checking Craig's List for leads and recommends having good references lined up. If you don't have references for editing work, then have at least one solid professional reference. According to Garfield, want ads can also provide ideas on who's hiring.

"Ask for the publications manager or the director of marketing or communications," she says. "I made a cold call last week from a want ad and ended up talking to someone."

Powers also had tips for cold calling traditional publishing companies. She calls the main line in the afternoon between 2:30 and 3:00 and asks to speak to whoever is in charge of freelancers. And if they send a test, she will spend an hour a page and return it promptly.

"Editorial people hate to work with newcomers," she said. "You have to make yourself as easy to work with as possible. And people need to have that sense of absolute reliability—my claim to fame is that I haven't missed a single deadline in eight years."

A traditional résumé may not be what you need for freelance work; a statement of services or a functional résumé will provide more targeted information to potential clients. Gluskin uses a one-page document that provides the particulars on her business and has a Web site with downloadable samples. Hein cautions against just throwing up a website though, until you have some solid information and samples to show.

Hourly or Flat Rate?

Powers and Hein disagreed on hourly vs. flat rate. Powers prefers to work at a flat, per-page or per-project rate, while Hein charges an hourly rate. Gluskin noted that charging an hourly rate can bring in more money when you're starting out.

"You may want to take a few hourly jobs to get a feel for how you work, and then move on to project-based pricing," Powers said. "If you get offered hourly pay, find out how big the project is and what the budget is. The publisher is probably figuring on five to seven pages an hour at about $4 per page; if you get project pay and you're quick, you can turn that into $40 per hour easily. The cheapest job that I take these days is $4.50 per page."

Both Gluskin and Powers recommend having the client send five sample pages from the middle of the document at the bidding stage so that you can determine the level of editing needed and set a reasonable rate. They have also both fired clients who have lowered their rates. Gluskin finds that having a higher rate can ultimately get you more respect and practices quoting rates with a friend.

"I always ask myself, 'What number can I say without laughing?'" Gluskin said. "Of course, you may not want to do that, depending on how badly you need the job."

The Importance of Diversifying

Hein, Powers, and Garfield stress the importance of having more than one client, both for peace of mind and for tax reasons. You want to avoid the appearance of being an employee, because it can cause both you and your client problems at tax time, and you want to avoid becoming too dependent on one client for income.

"One client is not enough," Powers said. "You need at least two to three workstreams."

Other Considerations

Several questions came up from the audience on the nuts-and-bolts of freelancing as a business. According to Hein and Powers, getting a business license is not necessarily the first priority, unless you are going to register a fictitious business name; however, different counties have different regulations, so it pays to check. But sometimes clients will ask for a copy of your business license.

According to Hein, although many freelance editors don't have liability insurance, there is a trend in contracts to have language requiring proof of liability insurance. One audience member mentioned that she was required to get liability insurance when she became an onsite contract worker.

All panel members agreed that it is essential to have a qualified accountant who keeps up with regulations affecting freelancers. The resource sheet contains the names of three accountants who work with the IRS on taxes and who specialize in working with self-employed people. Gluskin offered two additional names for accounting and tax assistance: Doug Axelrod ( and Susan Scott at 415/824-1799.

For keeping up to date professionally, Powers recommended the Copyediting-L and Freelance e-mail discussion lists. Garfield mentioned Media Alliance courses, which tend to be less expensive than UC Extension classes. One audience member is taking the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) correspondence course in indexing, and she said the course is helpful. And then there is the Copy Editor newsletter, which publishes information on developments in copyediting.



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