Care and feeding of freelancers: a guide for book publishers

Those of us who have gone freelance understand that we’re not going to be coddled by our publisher clients. That said, if you’re a publisher, showing freelancers that you respect and value their work can go a long way to promoting a mutually beneficial long-term relationship. After all, although there seem to be freelancers everywhere who are trying to compete in this industry, anyone who’s ever had to build a stable of high-quality, reliable freelancers knows that it’s not so easy to find editors, indexers, and designers who will reliably uphold high standards for publishing’s relatively low rates. If you’ve gone through the trouble of testing and training a freelancer and are happy with his or her work, it’s in your best interest to retain that freelancer, and there are some very simple ways to show your appreciation for your freelancers’ contributions. None of these measures is hard to implement, and they all help foster freelancers’  sense of ownership of their projects and encourage them to continue delivering excellent work.

1. Send them a complimentary copy of the book

Nothing can replace the satisfaction of flipping through a finished book and seeing the fruits of one’s hard work. Sending a freelancer a complimentary copy should, in my opinion, be a given for trade publishers. Academic and technical publishers may not be used to sending their freelancers finished books, and the freelancer may not necessarily want them, but the offer should be made. The freelancer might want a copy for his or her portfolio, and, if you use that person again for a similar project (e.g., the next textbook in the same series), he or she will find having a reference copy on hand extremely helpful.

2. Invite them to launch events

Book launches and other book events give freelancers the rare opportunity to meet the author and in-house staff with whom they’ve probably exchanged dozens of emails. And let’s face it—along with the freedom and flexibility of freelancing comes isolation, and many freelancers would welcome an excuse to get out of the house and meet new people.

3. Send them award announcements, reviews, and other good news

Did an author send the company an effusive note after her book was published? Has the book an editor toiled over been shortlisted for an award? Did the Globe and Mail name it a best book of the year? Freelancers aren’t always plugged in to this kind of information, but they do always appreciate knowing about it.

4. Offer them feedback

Both positive and constructive negative feedback on their work can help both parties take steps towards perfecting a system that works well for everyone.

5. Apprise them of relevant company news

Reading news about staff changes and company restructuring in a publication like Quill and Quire may leave freelancers wondering how those changes will affect them. Be proactive in sharing the news, either by sending freelancers relevant press releases or including them on your mailing list for your external newsletter, if you have one.

6. Set up a freelancer account with your distributor so that they can qualify for discounts on books

I hope all freelancers in book publishing have had the opportunity to work on a book they loved so much they wished everyone they knew could have a copy of it. Setting up a freelancer account—akin to an author account—would let them order their own copies for a discounted rate. This idea may be a bit more blue sky than the others, as I haven’t seen it implemented anywhere, but in principle it’s not difficult. Through the freelancer account the publisher gets non-returnable sales without having to go through conventional bookseller channels, and with the discount your freelancers are more likely to buy copies for their friends and family—it’s a win-win.

Tell me how you really feel

When you work in house, you’re a member of a big extended family: the managers are the elders—parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—and it’s easy to develop sibling-like or cousin-like relationships with your other coworkers. No family is without its dysfunction, of course, but even more fraught is the freelancer–client relationship, a dynamic that can feel an awful lot like dating: as a freelancer you try to make enough of an impression on the other party to be engaged on a project/date, and if it goes well, you hope they like you enough to contact you again. But if they never call, well, that can evoke the same kinds of thoughts and insecurities, whether you’re looking for love or looking for work.

One perk you enjoy by being in a family—something that may feel like no perk at all—is the scathing, critical honesty that only your kin could get away with dishing out. But “when a client stops calling,” said a friend of mine a few years ago when she first left an in-house position to go freelance, “you never know why. Maybe they just don’t have any work. Maybe your contact got fired. Or maybe you did something wrong and royally screwed up a project. The problem is that even if that’s what happened, you never get any feedback. How are you supposed to grow as an editor or to make sure you don’t make that mistake again?” Ann-Marie Metten echoed the frustration at last month’s EAC-BC meeting. When asked why she chose to organize her style sheets the way she did, she admitted she now understands why her method may not have been ideal, “but when you’re a freelancer,” she said, “you hand it in, and nobody ever tells you anything.”

Unfortunately, clients—and my focus is on publishers here, especially book publishers—aren’t in the business of helping their freelancers grow as editors, and they often don’t have the resources to do much training. They have certain expectations of their freelancers, and when those expectations aren’t met, they may decide it’s easier to move on to other contractors rather than invest the time to give feedback. So what should we do?


  • Be proactive about asking for feedback. When I submit a finished project or when I invoice, I’ll add a brief line thanking the client for the work and saying something like, “If there’s anything you’d like me to do differently for future projects, please don’t hesitate to let me know.” One of my current clients, after my first project with the organization, responded with a pages-long email listing everything I should have done. It stung, but at the same time, it was reassuring. My contact probably wouldn’t have taken the time to offer those suggestions if she weren’t planning on giving me more work.
  • Keep a running checklist based on your past mistakes. (And these don’t necessarily have to come through direct feedback. Sometimes we all know why a project/date went badly.) Eventually you’ll know what kinds of problems to look out for and what kinds of questions to ask new clients.
  • Try to keep learning and improving your skills. Editors’ Association of Canada seminars and workshops are always a good place to start, as are editing and publishing courses offered at schools across Canada and around the world.
  • Maintain a high standard of professionalism and ethical conduct. Most of the time publishers drop freelancers not because they missed a serial comma but because they missed an important deadline.
  • Finally, take it easy on yourself. (Remember that first dates are almost always awkward.) Sometimes the problem is related not to skill but to an incompatibility of personalities. Know that although the publishing community is small, industry-wide blacklists of editors aren’t as prevalent as you might fear. And clear, honest communication with the client will encourage reciprocity.

Publishers (and other clients)

  • Develop clear guidelines—not only about matters such as style but also, and perhaps more importantly, about your editorial process. Different houses have different expectations of where the freelancer’s role begins and ends, and a freelancer’s failure to adapt to your process can be one of your greatest sources of frustration. Are you expecting your editors to format the manuscripts in a certain way? Do you have a specific file-naming convention? Do you want your proofreaders to flag changed pages and use red ink? Say so in your guidelines, and make these easy to access and search (preferably on an online resource like a wiki). That said, expect new freelancers to ask questions that your documentation may already answer. When faced with a huge volume of new information, a project with a new client, and a looming deadline, freelancers may not always know what to prioritize.
  • If a freelancer messes up, tell him. Doing so will save you time and trouble if you use him again, and at the very least, it will make him aware that there’s a problem. If you start to notice a recurring problem with several of your freelancers, take a look at your guidelines to see if they need to be revised or rearranged to highlight specific issues.
  • If you can afford to, build in a postmortem as part of your publishing cycle, and make editorial feedback (for both freelancers and in-house editors) a component. This feedback doesn’t have to be long, and keep in mind that positive comments are just as important as the negative.
  • Finally, if you never intend to use a particular freelancer again, let her know (gently!). She wants to be barking up the wrong tree no more than you want to get an inquiry from her every few months for which you have to take time to compose a cryptic, evasive response.