The trade-book trap

First impressions matter a lot, according to the psychological concept of anchoring, a cognitive bias that describes our tendency to rely too much on the first piece of information we’re given.

I spent the formative years of my editing career in book publishing, where I learned from the best, developed exacting standards, and worked on enriching and rewarding projects. But the industry is notoriously low paying, and, as an in-house editor, I earned a lower effective hourly rate than I saw freelancers demand. The hours were long, and there was no overtime pay. The thing is, I also saw how razor-thin the margins were in book publishing. I knew there was a cap to what Canadian trade book publishers could pay, but I still believed in their products (perhaps to a romanticized extent).

When I left the in-house position to freelance, I tried to diversify, but of course most of my contacts were within the book-publishing industry, and I did (and do) still enjoy the projects. Knowing how cash strapped publishers were, I was reluctant to demand a high rate, and, although I’ve now worked with corporate, academic, and government clients as well, I’ve found the trade-publishing base rate to be an anchor, in more ways than one. Psychologically, regardless of the industry, I still have difficulty asking for what I suspect other fellow certified professional editors who’ve primarily worked in non-trade-publishing sectors are charging. Although I adjust my rate for different sectors, I imagine I’m lowballing myself not only with book clients but with other clients as well.

Fortunately, I have enough credentials and experience that I no longer feel I have to take on every project and every client, as I did when I started my business. But I find myself weighed down and trapped underwater by the anchor of trade-publishing rates.

Any other book-publishing alumni have the same experience? What strategies have you used to escape the trade-book trap?

5 thoughts on “The trade-book trap”

  1. Most of us seem to have different rates for different clients – corporate, government, publishers, for example. That said, clients often need very different skills and experience from editors. Book publishers usually have other professionals on staff who look after acquisitions, project management, and production, but with other clients you may be the only “publishing” person on the project, so you end up doing not only all levels of editing but managing the entire process until the publication appears – in print and digital forms.

  2. Definitely. My pay-to-fun graph looks something like a black diamond ski slope. Now I take only the most fun projects from book publishers and treat it like a paid vacation or a marketing expense (because those “prestigious” clients make me more attractive to the corporate clients who pay more). Making the shift has been painful, but so far my income is flat and I work fewer hours. Looking forward to picking up momentum and increasingly engaging corporate work!

  3. Trade publishers don’t pay very well, but there are a few nice things about working with them: clear expectations and no hand-holding because you’re dealing with publishing experts; longer lead times; and more relaxed turnaround times. And the shiny, prestigious product, of course. Sometimes those qualities can make it worth taking on a few trade projects a year.

    But the long lead times are a bit of a trap in themselves. Trade publishers can book up all your time simply because they ask first. So part of the strategy for transitioning away might be to say no to some trade projects to stay available for other clients—and that’s difficult to do without saying straight out, “That sounds like a great project, but I need to stay available for higher-paying work.”

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