How to Become a Freelance Book Editor (and Make a Living Doing It)
If you want to become a freelance book editor, chances are you’ve already thought of the benefits: flexible hours, working from home, and handpicking your own projects. But before any editor can get to the freelance holy land, they need to set themselves up as a business — a process riddled with pitfalls. Knowing how to become an editor who can keep the lights on requires a whole different set of skills
With the help of Reedsy’s veteran editors, we’ve pulled together a seven-step process to help you navigate these treacherous waters.
- Step 1: Educate yourself as a small business owner
- Step 2: Develop your marketable skills as an editor
- Step 3: Build and invest in your online presence
- Step 4: Create a budget and estimate how much work you need
- Step 5: Network — start meeting people face-to-face
- Step 6: Set expectations and communicate with clients
- Step 7: Protect yourself
Whether you’re just starting out or making the move from an in-house position, here’s a freelancer’s guide on how to become an editor in 7 steps:
Step 1: Educate yourself as a small business owner
Freelance editing isn’t just about editing. If you ignore your business needs, you'll be broke by the end of the year! Here are suggestions for what to include in your business plan:
- Setting up a website and social media accounts
- Allocating money for expenses and living costs
- Paying taxes as a freelancer
Step 2: Develop your marketable skills as an editor
Make sure you have the skills and experience to win jobs and impress clients. This often requires self-improvement — regardless of your experience.
Moving from in-house to freelance
A veteran of a Big Five publisher might think they’ve already got all it takes to make it as a freelancer — which may be true. However, there’s always more you can do.
Edit a broad range of projects
For Laurie Chittenden, a former executive editor at HarperCollins and Macmillan, flexibility is an invaluable quality to have as a freelancer: “If you can edit both fiction and nonfiction across different genres it will open more doors when searching for projects.”
Know how to identify a book’s market
“Being able to identify the reader will help an editor shape a book for that market,” Chittenden adds. “You’ll also be able to teach an author how to talk about and position their book.”
You should also acquaint yourself with independent publishing. Working on self-published books varies from project to project, according to this tip from freelance editor Rebecca Heyman:
Don’t look at freelance jobs the same way
“In-house editors should start thinking about how their reading can encompass the work of multiple editors within the house,” says freelance editor Rebecca Heyman. “Freelancers are often tasked with wearing multiple hats at once, since authors have far more limited budgets compared with the budget for a traditionally published project.”
Starting off as a freelance editor
If you want to know how to become a book editor when you have no professional experience, prepare yourself for a challenge. You have to prove that you can do the job — and do it very well.
Become a copy-editing demon
“New editors will find a living wage waits primarily for those who don’t eschew line editing,” says Heyman. “My best advice to newbies: Get a Chicago Manual of Style and get exceedingly comfortable with its contents.”
Get certified (if necessary) and join an association
“Determine what type of editing you can perform well and have specific skills and education to support your efforts,” freelance editor Maria D’Marco suggests. “Research the types of editing, what they entail, and if they require certain certifications or education.
“Join professional editing associations and organizations, then take advantage of the elements within for learning about the business of editing.”
Maintain a diverse diet of books
When asked about their reading habits, a number of editors have emphasized the importance of reading with an editorial eye. Don’t just look out for grammar errors when you read. If it’s non-fiction, see if you can clarify scope and further simplify complicated concepts. With fiction, you should be laser-focused on plot, character development and pacing.
Know literary and critical terminology
“You can’t build a career slinging adages like ‘show don’t tell,’” Heyman warns. “Instead, you have to articulate what you’re seeing and experiencing in words that have actual meaning. How do you define voice? What makes a protagonist’s development successful? You need to know what makes a successful novel before you can help authors be successful.”
Step 3: Build and invest in your online presence
Clients in the 21st century are not going to look for you in the yellow pages. They’ll either find you online or through word-of-mouth (after which they’ll look for you online). With that in mind, web presence is key!
Set up a website
Perhaps the number one weapon in your freelancing arsenal. Without a website, you might as well advertise your services at the bottom of a trash can. You can pay a professional to create your website, or build it on service platforms like Squarespace, WordPress, Wix or Weebly — which is exactly what literary editor Constance Renfrow did.
“It was much easier to put together than I’d anticipated. Aesthetic is a very important element of an editor’s website: a clean, professional look is much more trustworthy than something that appears outdated, rushed, or sloppy.”
Top tip: Invest in a unique domain name that looks professional and makes it easy for clients to find you. Consider using your name and the word editorial, like JaneDoeEditorial.com.
Keep a blog
One approach taken by a few editors it to maintain their website with regular blog posts.The idea is to create valuable content for authors, showcasing your expertise to these potential clients. Your posts might include:
- Writing tips
- Publisher comparisons
- Editing techniques
- Stories from ‘the trenches’
- Pitch critiques of author-submitted synopses.
Just be warned: blog success requires a lot of extra work. Not only do you have to be consistent in posting, you need to also bone up on Search Engine Optimization and Social Media to get people to read your posts!
Set up a Reedsy profile
A Reedsy profile lets you display your experience and portfolio, and increases your possibility of showing up on Google searches. If you have a significant amount of experience, you can ask the Reedsy team to verify your profile — and if you’re successful, you’ll be able to field requests and start collaborating on the Reedsy marketplace.
Get active on social media
“I love Twitter!” says Rebecca Heyman. “It’s currently the only social media platform I engage on, but it’s a gem for finding writers, other editors, and industry professionals to interact with. I use it to express my views on writing and editing, and I also run a hashtag “event” each month called #firstlinefrenzy. Authors tweet me the first line of their novels, and I give live, interactive feedback.”
Some authors host groups on Facebooks, others prefer Instagram. But if there’s one piece of advice we can offer, it’s to not overextend yourself on social. Pick two platforms at most, and make them work for you.
Step 4: Create a budget and estimate how much work you need
Don’t fool yourself: your first priority is to pay the bills and make a living. There is no point in giving yourself all this freedom if you’re going to drown in work for little-to-no money, so you need to create a sensible budget.
Set a baseline rate
“I frequently click through freelance editors’ websites when I meet a peer on social media,” says Heyman. “Too often, I find myself cringing at their ridiculously low rates. How do people make a living this way? Well, they don’t – and low rates signal to the world that you are a hobbyist, not a professional book editor."
Should you work for less to start with?
This is a matter of great contention‚ and to be honest, there is no cut-and-dried right answer. This is Heyman’s advice:
“Don’t offer discounts just because you’re new. Too many newbies offer cut-rate prices to gain traction and experience, but this essentially sets you up for a lifetime of taking less than you’re worth. If you want to become a book editor, seek out smaller jobs but charge a regular rate.”
Other freelancers will argue that your rate should reflect your experience: a 20-year veteran with multiple bestsellers should probably charge more than a rookie. With that in mind, newer editors might find it prudent to benchmark their rates against freelancers with similar experience.
Step 5: Network — start meeting people face-to-face
In our digital age, business cards might seem obsolete. But at some point, you will find yourself face-to-face with an interested client and all you have to hand to them is a scribble on a napkin.
As much as we all connect on LinkedIn and Facebook these days, an editor’s most important interactions still involve real-world networking.
It’s never too early to attend:
- Book fairs;
- Festivals; and
- Events targeted at publishing professionals and authors.
You will definitely find someone who will be interested in what you have to offer — or at least someone who knows someone. Constance Renfrow attends her fair share of real-life events, during which she rarely takes the hard-sell approach.
“About once or twice a month, I try to go to book launches, open mics, writing/book club events, the occasional convention. At these events, I tend to just go with the flow. I’ve found that if the conversation comes to writing and editing and literature naturally, my passion for those subjects will come through.”
While getting paid for your work is crucial, the most prolific freelancers often end up being the ones who help others, no strings attached. This might include referring authors to other freelancers, talking clients through the publishing process without pitching their own services, or replying to emails from contacts, offering advice.
“I suppose, more than anything I aim to be a good literary citizen,” says Renfrow. ”Through every step forward I take, I try to bring others with me, and I’ve found that opportunities (clients, publications, readings, etc.) open up to me as a result.”
Communicate what you offer
You have to be able to speak confidently about your work as a freelancer. Find language that reflects your professionalism and creativity: “I’m a freelance novel consultant” or “I work with authors to develop their books for publication” will communicate a lot while remaining succinct.
Avoid sounding predatory
Freelancers can develop bad reputations quickly if authors feel pressured to pay for services. Let prospective clients know what you’re about — but don’t be too pushy in early conversations.
Step 6: Communicate expectations with clients
Editorial work is all about communication. As a freelance editor, you need to articulate your suggestions in a way that the author will receive positively and ensure you’re on the same page throughout the project. Answer these questions for your client at the outset:
- Will there be line edits?
- Will the author require a copy editor or a proofreader at the end?
- What sort of follow-up they can expect? Phone calls?Another read-through?
“Freelancers need to be very clear about what they're going to provide as a service,” says fiction editor Parisa Zolfaghari. “One person's copy edit is another person's content edit.
“Remember not to offer too much for free in addition to the service you are already providing. If more work needs to be done, it is perfectly professional to let the client know that this will increase the final price.”
Keep the clients updated
Some authors may not immediately understand that you have other clients (or a social life). Even if your project is perfectly on-track, many clients will grow anxious if they don’t hear back from you in a timely manner. So if you’re off the grid for a few days or taking time to work on another project, let them know when they can expect a reply.
It can also be useful to provide clients with sample edited chapters near the start of the project — or even before you start working together, says Zolfaghari.
“Samples can also be a handy way to connect with an author and ensure that you're both on the same page.”
Step 7: Protect yourself
Liability is a notable downside of freelance work. Without the backing of an established company, you have to deal directly with non-paying and unresponsive clients. So, what can you do to protect yourself?
Get your contracts right
You can find and review contract templates online that establish a clear set of conditions to use with any client.
Don’t be afraid to refuse any amendment to the contract if the author is trying to veer the terms into their favor. You are the service provider and these are your rules. Of course, you should try your best to accommodate a client’s needs, but always protect yourself first and foremost.
At the very least, your contract with a client should include:
- A defining scope: the work being agreed to.
- A fee schedule: the amount the client will pay and when.
- A cancellation policy: how much is owed if the client cancels the project.
- An indemnity clause: to ensure that any damages accrued by the client cannot be passed on to you (for example, if a book turns out to violate copyright law).
In addition to these, Rebecca Heyman uses a contractual clause to ensure that her work is protected from nonpayment:
“My contract clearly states that I retain the copyright on all editorial marks and suggestions until I’m paid in full, at which time the rights revert to the author.”
Don’t get sucked into the void
It’s easy to feel isolated when you freelance your pet being the closest thing to a coworker you have. So it is very important to never stop growing as an editor. Heyman puts it this way:
“Professional development is your responsibility, both to yourself and your clients. Recently I met another freelance editor on Twitter, and we decided to critique one another’s critiques. The process was completely enlightening, and now we meet via Skype to talk about our work and the craft of editing. I’ve learned so much, and I know my author-clients will benefit.”
If you want to see what it’s really like to be a freelance editor, check out this video featuring NY-based literary editor Laura Mae Isaacman.
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