Veteran editor Laura Poole led a lively panel discussion about working with freelance editors. The other panellists were Carol Fisher Saller, who gave us an insider’s perspective from the University of Chicago Press, and Janet MacMillan, a long-time member of both the Editors’ Association of Canada and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders in the UK.
Poole now regularly subcontracts work to an associate that she mentored, but she’s also found another source of subcontracting revenue simply by having an incorporated business. One of her clients enacted a new policy of not working with sole proprietors, which cut out a large chunk of their regular freelancers. These freelancers now invoice through Poole’s company, adding a markup to their totals to pay Poole for her services.
The books division at the University of Chicago Press publishes up to 300 books a year and has an in-house staff of fifteen editors, and 40 percent of the copy editing is done by freelancers. Saller told us that the press almost never approaches freelancers who haven’t contacted them first. They get plenty of resumes in the mail all the time and have many on file.
MacMillan said that she doesn’t like to use the term “subcontract” and prefers to think of other editors as associates or collaborators. She’ll reach out to other editors when she’s working on large projects or if she knows they have special expertise that she lacks.
MacMillan never charges a referral fee, saying “I’m exceedingly uncomfortable with it. A nice thank you would be enough.” She expects that people to whom she’s referred work will also pass along work to her at some point. In contrast, Poole will request (or pay, if she’s on the receiving end of a referral) a 10 percent fee for referring work to her colleagues. What she tells clients is that she’ll train the subcontractors on their style. “You show that you’re putting skin in the game and working to maintain your reputation,” she said. This fee applies only to the first project involving that particular editor–client pair, and on subsequent projects, they can work out their own payment terms.
To find out about other freelancers, MacMillan relies on her network and looks at how people present themselves on their websites or their profiles in the Online Directory of Editors. She’ll also recommend editors she’s mentored formally or informally. “I would never refer work to someone whose work I didn’t know or that I didn’t know personally,” she said.
Poole draws on her network of editorial trainees and sometimes runs focused searches on LinkedIn to find the right person for the job. She keeps track of people’s specializations so that she’ll have someone to recommend if a client is looking for that expertise.
What about training? “We do train in-house entry-level editors,” said Saller. “We don’t train freelancers. We can tell almost instantly if someone is a likely candidate. We require experience with other university presses, and we can tell from their cover letter and resume if they have good communication skills.” The University of Chicago Press will train freelancers on its process and may ask editors to edit a trial chapter, which the press will pay for.
MacMillan will work with a colleague through the first or second project and will always provide feedback, particularly if the project didn’t go as well as she’d hoped. “ If I didn’t tell them where they went wrong, I wouldn’t be fair to them,” she said. “Quite frankly, we’re all off sometimes. It’s best to remain humble and remember that.”
Likewise, Poole is invested in helping her associate editor further her career and regularly gives her pointers. “If you hire freelancers, give them feedback,” she said. Rather than simply never hiring someone again, critical but constructive feedback means that you care and want the editor to get better. “You have to separate business and friendship,” said Poole. “Let’s talk business and not take it personally.”
“We also learn from more junior editors by how they react to feedback,” added MacMillan. “They’ll say, ‘I did it this way because…’ and sometimes that ‘because’ will make you think. The learning experience goes both ways.”
Sometimes the problems may have been that you, as the hiring editor, didn’t clearly communicate expectations or standards. Lee d’Anjou, in the audience, suggested always using written contracts to define the project scope and expectations. EAC’s Professional Editorial Standards may also help you define the tasks you’re hoping your subcontractor will do.
The University of Chicago Press highly values editors who work independently. “We do appreciate when people ask questions,” said Saller, “like asking if something needs to be done.” But occasionally some freelancers ask too much, too often. Knowing when to ask and when to do is part of editorial judgment that comes with experience.
Editors looking for subcontract work should be careful about how they approach other editors. Being presumptuous or demanding—for example, saying “Can I see your client list?” or “Will you send me work?”—will make editors bristle. Poole especially dislikes people who write, “I’d be happy to take your overflow work.” “I don’t have overflow work,” she said. “If I can’t take the work, I don’t do it. A better approach would be to say, ‘Can I support you to expand your business?’”
Both Poole and MacMillan said that they’re always transparent with their clients about whether they’ve used subcontractors.
I was disappointed to discover that the University of Chicago Press doesn’t credit its editors, neither in-house nor freelance. Last year, what turned out to be a dream client approached me because she’d seen my name on a publication for a similar organization. I’ve written about credit lines before: they cost the publisher nothing but can be extremely meaningful to the editors, designers, and indexers who work on a project and can use it as part of their portfolio.
For more on subcontracting, see my summary of a related panel discussion we held at an EAC-BC branch meeting.
In 2017, Canada will celebrate 150 years since confederation. In anticipation of this milestone, prolific author and personal historian Harry van Bommel founded the Canada 150 project, “the largest history-gathering project ever” to help Canadians record their memoirs and community histories for future generations. Also called Our Canada, Our Stories / Notre Canada, Nos Histoires, the project consists of a website that serves as a central portal through which Canadians can leave their legacy and also read the histories of others, made freely available through a Creative Commons licence.
Van Bommel encourages people to submit
- personal stories
- family stories and genealogies
- neighbourhood and group histories (of a faith community, arts organization, sports league, etc.)
- corporate histories
Short stories, with or without photos, can be in English or French. Beginning in 2016, you’ll also be able to upload self-published or one-of-a-kind ebooks and scanned collections of letters, diaries, journals, photos, films, and scrapbooks. Van Bommel urges people to provide full captions and descriptions if they can, though van Bommel acknowledges that “a lot of that stuff will be lost.” Boomers and younger Canadians don’t have as much written history, because much of their communication was done by phone. Already-published books, films, songs, plays, websites, and multimedia can be submitted to Library and Archives Canada to be included in the Canada 150 series.
One of the books already in the collection is Finding My Voice, written by Donald Smith, with the help of Jane Field. Smith had severe cerebral palsy, and when his mother died when he was 40, his sister moved him from Prince Edward Island to Toronto to live with her. Using a special device and just his thumb, Smith wrote his story, which revealed how he truly felt about his disability, his mother, and his move to Toronto, which he previously had never been able to express. Through Canada 150 we’ll learn a lot about ourselves and other Canadians, and van Bommel hopes that the project will “enhance Canadian unity through a sense of national pride.”
When van Bommel launched Canada 150 in 1997, he anticipated that the project would generate business for writers, editors, documentarians, and videographers. Although some people will want to tell their stories on their own, others will need professional help. The key is to spread the word about the project and get people excited about telling their stories. “The hardest thing is to convince people their story is worth telling,” said van Bommel. “Many people couldn’t care less about someone else’s story but are fascinated by their own as long as someone else is interested in hearing it.” If you’d enjoy this kind personal history work, find opportunities to encourage people to talk about themselves. “If you have a dog, you will be stopped in your neighbourhood at some point,” said van Bommel. “Those are the people who will tell you stories. Your immediate response should be, ‘You should record that.’”
“You will become quite a pest,” he added, to laughter.
Clients will take you more seriously if you have posted your own story. Your contribution will also serve as a sample to show them what you’d be able to do for them.
Rather than sending people to the Canada 150 site, try to sit down with them and show it to them in person to get them engaged. Van Bommel audio-records clients or types up their stories as they tell them, and some of the Boomers who have hired him to record the histories of their parents appreciate that his regular visits keep their aging parents active and engaged. Another strategy that saves you transcription work is to do email interviews. The respondent types up their own responses, and all you have to do is put it together and edit. To give the story structure, start with a table of contents. “A lot of people do stream of consciousness writing, which is lovely, but it’s a hard read,” said van Bommel. Assign a main theme, event, or time period to each chapter.
Van Bommel gives clients complete editorial control, and he acknowledges that thorough fact checking is almost impossible. Major world events can be fact checked, of course, but not so much details that arise out of memories and anecdotes. If someone objects to the content of a story, encourage them to correct what they perceive as errors by writing their own stories. That said, don’t recreate feuds or force people to relive painful memories, advised van Bommel. “Those may seem interesting, but they’re not. What’s most important is what people did to overcome adversity.”
To market yourself, van Bommel suggests adding keywords such as Canada 150, ghostwriter, family history, community history, and storytelling to your website or online profiles. If you expect to be doing a lot of personal history work, van Bommel suggests getting marketing materials like brochures printed, because some people still prefer to get their information through printed documents. Try to find out how you might work collaboratively with your local library and community groups. Van Bommel uses a three-tiered fee scale to accommodate clients of all incomes.
Van Bommel has made an ebook about how to record people’s stories available for free. He sees this work as important for our country’s legacy, and he quoted a Dutch expression (which you may find helpful to use with potential clients): “Those who record exist forever.” He regrets that although Canadians did a lot of this kind of personal storytelling for the country’s centennial, none of it was preserved. There is no contribution too small: “Anything they do is more than what they would have done,” he said.
Van Bommel’s project seems perfect for members of the Association of Personal Historians. I’m not a member, but anyone who is may want to make their colleagues aware of Canada 150. I was particularly interested in van Bommel’s talk because I’ve been recording my parents’ personal histories since the beginning of this year and have been doing some micro-volunteering for museums and archives that are crowd-sourcing transcription of items in their collections that can’t be easily sent through optical character recognition (OCR) software. Transcribing old letters and journals has been a fascinating way to engage with history, and I’ve brought the Royal BC Museum’s Transcribe project to van Bommel’s attention in case he wants to do the same with Our Canada, Our Stories / Notre Canada, Nos Histories.
JoAnne Burek drew on her thirty-six years in IT to show freelancers how we can prepare our businesses for sudden and unplanned incidents, which can cause irreparable damage to our brand or revenue loss. Business continuity and resiliency planning (BCRP) involves
- Business impact analysis
- Plans, measures, and arrangements
- Readiness procedures
- Quality assurance
Business impact analysis
Evaluate each of your business’s resources and categorize them into critical and not critical. Critical resources are those that could cause loss of revenue or damage to credibility. Consider also financial legal requirements. Some sample questions to ask yourself:
- Do I have enough savings in case of an extended outage?
- What’s the replacement cost of my equipment?
- What will I need to fulfill my tax obligations—and when?
Plans, measures, and arrangements
Further classify your digital records into permanent files (e.g., business number, contracts) versus dynamic files (e.g., correspondence, meeting minutes, schedules), which may affect how you organize and protect them. Create an emergency list of people you need to contact if you or your business are in trouble.
Implement mitigations to outage risks by backing up the files on your computer to an external hard drive or the cloud (Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, Google Docs), but be aware that some clients may not allow you to store their data on U.S. servers because they are vulnerable to search and seizure via the PATRIOT Act. To save you time, use a scheduling service that backs up automatically.
Burek came across CrashPlan, a service that automatically backs up your files to an external hard drive or on another computer, such as one in the home of a trusted friend. This system lets you have an offsite backup without saving to the cloud.
CrashPlan also has built-in encryption. If you’re using Dropbox or Google Docs, you may want to consider other encryption systems like VeraCrypt or 7-Zip (technically data compression tool that also has optional encryption).
Burek suggests implementing these practices immediately to mitigate risk:
- Perform regular backups
- Save your work frequently
- Keep your cellphone charged
- Stay ahead of your work projects
- Have a backup credit card
- Have an emergency fund
- Keep a list of cafés or other Wifi hotspots
- Plan migrations carefully
- Wait before upgrading
- Create a recovery disk for your computer
- Consider installing an uninterruptible power supply.
Build a plan that you will follow if you have to recover from an unplanned incident. Burek told us about her approach: she considered the two resources that were key to her business—her house and her computer. For each major disaster scenario (“I don’t have my computer,” “I don’t have my house,” and “I don’t have my computer or my house”), Burek considered how she would respond. Your plan should go into more detail so that you can read it like a checklist during a time of crisis.
How will you know your plans will work? You have to test them regularly—Burek suggests annually, at a minimum. Confirm, for example, that you can retrieve a file from backup and that you can restore files on a hard drive. You could also rehearse what you would do in a possible scenario without actually contacting the support people you may need. Further, make sure your plans are up to date when there are major changes to your environment (e.g., new computer, new software) or to a threat.
The physical setting
For Ebbs, “to live in chaos was to live in a prison. Order freed the mind for other things.” Try to give yourself room to work comfortably, and consider ergonomics: make sure your monitor is big enough, your references are conveniently at hand, and your space is set up to minimize distractions. “It’s hard to get into a working groove if your physical setting isn’t right.”
Your work routine
Keep an activity log—one that goes beyond tracking work time. What are you really doing with your time? Figure out what time of day is your most productive, and build your routine around it. Identify “productivity pits” that eat away at your time, and adjust your routine or physical environment to eliminate them.
Ebbs subscribes to the “only handle it once” view: if you’re going to read email, read it once, answer it, and archive it, rather than reading it and leaving it for later, when you’ll have to read it again. When you submit your index, submit your invoice at the same time. Enter your receipts as soon as you get them, and file them.
Shere’s activity tracking is quite detailed: she keeps a spreadsheet that includes
- project title
- invoice date
- number of pages
- time spent (she uses a punch-in, punch-out clock)
You may also consider adding in a column for how long it takes a client to pay you and one for how much you enjoyed the project.
“Even if you’re a procrastinator, you’re probably not a procrastinator at all things,” Shere said. Figure out what topics you like working on; you’ll be more productive if you truly enjoy your work.
Do the math: annual earnings = earnings/hour × hours/year
How much do you want to work? Make your projects worth your while, or don’t do them. If you feel you’re being underpaid, you’ll feel resentful, your attention will wane, and you’ll end up spending more time on the project, not less. Learn to say no. If you take a project at a cheap rate, you’re really subsidizing that project.
Learning how to make yourself better and more productive, which will free up time for you later. Learn how to use software to its highest capability. “I’m not usually a fan of absolutes,” said Ebbs, “but I can guarantee that 100% of you aren’t using your software to its maximum capability.” Use macros and other timesavers.
Be attentive to how you feel about your work and your work day, said Shere, and recognize where problems, frustrations, and weaknesses might be coming from. Shere uses the Pomodoro technique, devoting twenty-five-minute blocks to focusing on a single task, then taking short (five-minute) or long (ten minute) breaks. “Breaks are not optional,” she said. “Build them in and track them.” Make your goals and changes small and specific, and you’ll be more able to make progress.
“Don’t turn what should be joys into chores because you’re not managing your time well,” said Ebbs. Can you ask for help or delegate your obligations? Would it be more efficient to hire someone to meet them? Learn when to say no to these obligations and interruptions, even if it means screening your calls or closing your door. Figure out which activities are non-negotiable, and schedule them in. “A short pencil is better than a long memory,” said Ebbs. Writing things down will free your mind to focus on other priorities.
“We choose how to spend our time,” said Ebbs. “It’s not true that other people have more time. Everyone has 24 hours. No one else is stealing your time. If your time is being stolen, it’s an inside job.”