Book review: The Employer’s Guide to Hiring Freelancers and Managing Outsourced Projects

Jim Coutu is an arbitrator who works with freelance job sites; essentially he’s a judge in what he calls “project divorce court.” When a project goes sour, it’s his job to pore over correspondence between the client and freelancer, interpreting often vague contracts to figure out who ultimately gets the money. In other words, he’s an expert in what can go wrong in a project, and he’s written an ebook, The Employer’s Guide to Hiring Freelancers and Managing Outsourced Projects, to shed light on common problems and offer suggestions on how to avoid them.

This book fills a critical void: whereas freelancers have banded together to form communities online, whether for stress relief through humour or for advocacy, there aren’t that many resources out there for people on the other side of that relationship. Clients are left to feel out their first projects on their own, and, without guidance, many of them are liable to make mistakes—some of which may start out as minor but can snowball to the point of jeopardizing a project.

Coutu’s background is in software, but his book covers all kinds of outsourcing, from web and graphic design to writing and virtual assistance (although neither editing nor indexing are mentioned). Helpfully, he gives specific tips and examples for each of these areas, as well as more general advice about

  • writing a solid project description so that bidding freelancers will know what you’re looking for
  • assessing the quality of a freelancer
  • paying by the hour versus paying by the project
  • looking out for potential copyright issues
  • keeping projects on schedule
  • working across different cultures and time zones

Coutu offers advice about how best to use the freelance sites’ features to protect yourself. For example, some of these sites will take screen shots of the freelancer’s desktop as they work as proof that they’re billing only for work on your project; the sites will also allow you to hold money in escrow and store a record of all of your correspondence with a freelancer so that an arbitrator can easily review the contract (and any changes to it). Although Coutu advocates care and rigour on the employer’s part, what I appreciate most about the book is that he never describes the client–freelancer relationship as an adversarial one. In fact, one of the first suggestions he gives is to “set the freelancer up for success. Make sure that they have everything that they need before you accept their bid, including specific requirements of what you want completed.” Your aim when using a freelance job site isn’t to get away with paying the least; rather, “the goal for both parties should be to get the work done at a fair price. The employer is happy that the work got done for a fair price, the freelancer is happy that they are paid a fair wage.” He also urges wary employers to consider the freelancers’ perspective: “Remember, the worker is also taking a risk working with an unknown employer who may take their work and not pay them.”

Coutu gives sample arbitration scenarios to show how the process would assess and resolve different kinds of disputes. Not surprisingly, problems in projects often result from poor communication, and Coutu emphasizes that both parties share a responsibility of ensuring that they have a common understanding of the contract. “Ambiguous wording issues are the fault of the employer,” he writes, and if you’re not getting what you need, it’s up to you to communicate clearly what the issues are. “Unfortunately,” Coutu writes, “I have seen many cases where poor feedback and poor feedback alone has caused a project to fail.” When a freelancer doesn’t meet expectations, advises Coutu, “Even if you absolutely hate what has been delivered, resist the temptation to reply with an emotional response. Always be professional.” He adds, “Emotional responses lead to arguments, not discussions.”

Also commendable is Coutu’s attention to copyright issues. He tells employers to be vigilant about running images used in a design through a reverse image search and text through Copyscape or Google to make sure there’s no infringement or plagiarism. He also notes that “freelancers who come from countries where copyrights are not enforced are simply not aware of the issues.”

Although Coutu makes his living as an arbitrator, he advises employers to use arbitration as a last resort, encouraging self-mediation as a first step. “As an arbitrator, I am keenly aware that the arbitration process is difficult for all parties. Even if you have a rock solid case that clearly documents abuses by the other party, arbitration is going to cost time that would be better spent on other endeavors.”

Because this book focuses mostly on one-off projects through online freelance job sites, it probably won’t be terribly useful to managing editors and production managers in publishing, whose day-to-day work involves hiring editors, designers, and indexers for a steady stream of projects. It doesn’t, for instance, suggest places other than freelance job sites—such as member directories of professional associations—to look for skilled freelancers, nor does it address the all-important relationship building and need to create a strong network of professionals you know you can trust to work on project after project. These ties are essential to keeping training costs down and ensuring coverage for all of your projects through the publishing cycle.

In contrast, self-publishers may find a lot of value in this book; some of them may choose to use a freelance job site to find a cover designer, for example, or someone to convert a print book to an EPUB. Unfortunately, The Employer’s Guide isn’t a comprehensive reference for self-publishers, as it doesn’t talk about the role of editors or indexers at all. In fact, in his advice about how to give feedback to a freelance writer, he writes, “If something is awkwardly worded, give examples of what might work better”—a task that a professional editor would certainly be in a strong(er) position to do.

Incidentally, as a self-published book, The Employer’s Guide is clear and easy to read, although, as an advocate for my profession, I have to say that I’d have preferred the book if it had gone through a copy edit and had a linked index. In terms of its content, a managing editor’s manual it is not, but for those who want to explore what the global work force has to offer, this book brims with sage advice that will help maximize your odds of getting what you want while minimizing your risks.

PubPro 2014 attendees can enter a draw to win a copy of The Employer’s Guide.

Editors’ Association of Canada members who have contract disputes with clients can turn to EAC’s mediator for help: http://www.editors.ca/members/services/mediation.html.

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