Live Chat: Client Retention Strategies for Freelance Editors
This is the transcript of our April webinar, in which our Reedsy Live host talked to two editors about their client retention strategies. About our guests:
Allister Thompson has been a professional editor since 1998, working in both fiction and nonfiction with specialties in crime fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, and children’s books. He has been a full-time freelancer since 2013.
Ashley Wyrick is a mompreneur bringing home the bacon and cooking it too. She has experience editing fantasy, sci-fi, and adult fiction both inside and outside the traditional publishing industry. Ashley has taught a masterclass on query letters at the Colorado Gold Conference 2021.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Skip to 2:46 for the start of the dicsussion.
Martin: Welcome everyone to a special freelancer's edition of Reedsy Live where we bring on freelancers from Reedsy’s marketplace to talk about career development in the publishing industry. Today we're going to be talking about securing repeat clients as editors, something that I’m sure is the lifeblood of many freelancers whether they're editors, designers, or work in a non-creative industry.
Before we properly crack off, Ashley, can you give us a bit of background on your life as a freelancer? When did you start freelancing?
Ashley: As soon as my last child was born, I decided to start freelancing. At first, I used some other platforms that were not as lucrative, but I learned a lot through that. Then I found Reedsy on LinkedIn and finally really ramped up this freelancing career. I started making some good money and got lots of clients coming to me, which was really helpful.
I also worked an internship and then moved into a publishing company as an acquisitions editor for a while. It was interesting to be outside freelancing as well as inside the publishing house, learning the ins and outs of all that. And then about halfway through the pandemic, the company I was working for went under a little bit. So I started to freelance full-time and have never really looked back. So I am super happy, especially with Reedsy because I get most of my clients through there.
Martin: Allister, you say it’s almost been 10 years since you've been a full-time freelancer. What spurred the switch for you?
Allister: I was in-house for the first 13 years of my career at very small presses. It was a lot of fun working with a small staff but in my country, we don't have a large market. It wasn't all about money, per se, but the salaries weren't amazing. Also our entire industry really is concentrated in the largest city, like Toronto, where I didn't really want to live. Plus publishing companies still wanted you to go into the office, until the Covid-19 pandemic.
So it was more of a lifestyle change — I wanted to move somewhere a little more attractive to me, somewhere more rural or semi-rural. Being a freelance editor, which I was well set up for by that time, was the answer for that.
Reedsy came into my life around 2016-2017 and it's been very helpful for me in building my client base.
Martin: Looks like most of the folks watching live are already on Reedsy, but if you’re not, sign up for a free account and see what it's about!
Know the types of project authors usually return for
Martin: Now, you've both been freelancers for a few years. What would you say is your split between new clients and return ones in any given period?
Allister: I would say it ranges between 50% and 70%. I think a lot of my clients have been writing during the pandemic, so they've been coming at me like flies over the last six months. There will also be times when I'm taking on a lot of new ones, but it's at least half by this point. I've been at it for a long time, and that is what will happen eventually.
Martin: Are you seeing something similar, Ashley?
Ashley: Mine's a little bit less but I’ve been doing it for less time, so I've had less time to build that client base. Mine's probably 30-40%.
It's also really hard to tell when you haven't done it very long because it can take clients a year before they come back after edits or after they've written another book. You never know if they're going to come back — or when they will.
Martin: Continuing on with that — when we talk about repeat clients, is it working on the same book a bit further down the development stream, or the next book, or different projects entirely?
Ashley: It depends on the author. I have a lot of them who come back for another edit. Sometimes they'll start with a query edit and come back saying something like, “Now I need this kind of edit because I realized something about the manuscript.” And then a lot of times the new projects will start with the editorial assessment and move their way through the process.
I just had a client who I had edited a book for. I absolutely adored the book but there was a lot of backstory in it, so he actually took my notes and wrote a prequel for this current book. Now I'm working on this prequel. So it's kind of all over the place, but if you just keep them moving and say there's another book, there's another edit — there's another step — that will keep the ones that are really invested coming back.
Martin: Allister, do you find similar things to that? You also have quite a lot of things you can do for clients. Do you find yourself starting on the developmental side and offering more line-based edits later on?
Allister: If you have all those skills, you can shepherd someone's project from a manuscript evaluation all the way through to publishing the book — if you want to take on other tasks. I don't necessarily recommend that.
I have clients who will turn up years later wanting another edit on the same book or I have people who turn out a novel every three or four months. It is true that some of them come to you frequently with new projects and other ones will come back for more work on the same novel because they have trouble letting go of that project. So it really depends on what each author’s needs are and how you can advise them on that.
Martin: And for anyone who may be fairly new to freelancing — why are repeat customers good? Why are they better than going through a whole series of new clients every week?
Allister: Well, there's the obvious advantage that they’re a dependable source of income for you. Given the sometimes precarious nature of a freelancer's life, that's a real bonus. You're also building up relationships with people who trust you, and you're helping them to shape their work. That's what's rewarding about this job and makes it different from many other kinds of jobs: there's the material benefit and there's also the fact that you're building up relationships, which occasionally can even become very friendly relationships, with the authors.
Martin: Ashley, do you find that your repeat clients are the ones you are more creatively satisfied with to work with?
Ashley: Absolutely. I think the ones that come back, for the most part, are the ones that you build good relationships with. And you do become more invested in their work, I suppose — not that you do better work for them than anyone else, but that you do become more invested and more creatively excited to work on their books.
And I do agree with Allister about those relationships — those are a big deal. When you freelance, you're working from home or at a coffee shop, so having relationships with your clients and others is really a big deal. Having that monetary income is really important, but be able to build those relationships over something that you both are invested in is really one of the reasons why I do this job.
Connect with authors using your specialty and personality
Martin: Okay, now that we understand that repeat business is great (you can build up relationships and the money is hopefully good). let's maybe dive a bit more into finding those clients that you do wish to have as repeat clients and what you can do to actively foster those relationships.
I guess it makes sense to start from the beginning. Both of you are on Reedsy, but wherever you go as a freelancer, you have to pitch yourself and create a profile (even with your own website). How do you do it in a way that helps you attract the clients you're looking for?
Ashley: For me, having my personality come out is really helpful. I edit science fiction and fantasy, and so people who are writing those kinds of books are looking for someone who might be a little quirky. And my blue hair — I've had clients tell me that they hired me because I have blue hair, so I let that shine through. I sometimes make little dumb jokes, which seems to come across as friendly and as someone that they would have fun working with.
I do that but I also make sure I put in the things that make me worth working with. It's not just about having someone fun look at your book but it's also about someone who has experience. You have to find that good mix between the two, as far as your profile goes.
Martin: Allister, who do you actively look for when you’re trying to find a new client, and how does that manifest itself in your profile?
Allister: When you're first starting off, you're more inclined to just accept work from anybody who'll come along but it is better to target what your specialties are, what you're good at, and what you enjoy (which is likely what you're going to be good at). As time goes on I've refined my website and my Reedsy profile — sometimes with prompts from Reedsy — to say what my specialties are and what the things I have experience with are.
It's good to be upfront about who you are if you think you have things about you that are attractive to people. For instance, I’m not a successful one but I’m a musician, and when clients who like music discover that, we always end up talking about music. Being upfront about who you are makes you more interesting to clients, and some of those initial conversations can be a little less awkward, I find.
Martin: I think it can be hard sometimes when you're trying to get absolutely anybody to work with you — to try to be everything to everybody. But as you said, these little personal touches really do help. We ran a little test a couple years ago where we looked at all the editors with similar style profiles, comparing those who were smiling in their profile pictures with those who were not. It was pretty obvious that the ones who put a smile on were getting 30-40% more requests, perhaps because those feel like they're not someone authors are going to be scared of talking to at the beginning.
So it's all part of the branding, I guess. Especially when you work in specific genres — people have an expectation in mind of what they think a science fiction editor should look like or what a crime editor should be like.
Moving past that, once folks send in their requests, depending on what genre you're working in, you may be getting loads of different requests every week or every month — some of which you’ll reply to continue the discussion and some you may need to dismiss quite early on. What do you think are the important things to nail with your first response to any given author who sends you a request?
Ashley: I usually send an initial client contact to begin with, instead of just going straight for that offer. I send that contact to — like you said — get an idea of who this person is and what their book is about, because there are certain ideologies that don't mesh well with me. If I feel like I can't fully invest in something then I typically will decline it. Very few things that turn me away from a project from the get-go, but I do have those specific questions.
I also offer military discounts and teacher discounts. It helps build some rapport because I have a lot of people who haven't sent me a request but can really appreciate the offer.
And then, depending on the response you get to this initial contact, you can start to find those red flags. Some people want an editor to tell them what they want to hear, and I think in some of those initial messages you can figure out those people. And when you're starting off you might take the job anyways because they're gonna pay you anyways, but as far as repeat clients go, those are generally not going to be the ones that come back because they may not be happy if you don't agree with what they're going with.
Martin: Rebecca (a member of the audience) asked — just as you were starting to mention that — about potential client red flags. Allister, do you have any red flags of your own that can be seen through first contacts with the client?
Allister: Well, a client who only sends one line that says, “I have a thing I want edited, will you do it?” — I will investigate that further, but that's somebody who has not thought the process through.
Secondly, I advise (and will continue to do so throughout this webinar) that you be really friendly, upfront, and casual with people to make them comfortable. That said, the subsequent messages you receive from the client are going to be very telling. To give a very recent example (this is not something that came to me through Reedsy), I received a request from a guy who wanted me to help him take a memoir of his and transfer it into crime fiction. I thought that sounded interesting and I gave him a quote. Then, I started receiving emails from him in the middle of the night asking me about my belief systems.
Sometimes you get those sorts of people coming along, and I’m not going to answer those emails on a Saturday night, you know what I mean? But then by Monday morning, he had fired me for not answering his messages. So I didn't have to in this case, but that is a guy I would have said, "I don’t think this relationship is going to work out" to.
The initial communication is helpful to get the client, but you're also vetting that client as well, because you're entering into something that could be very stressful for you if that person is really damaging to you.
Martin: That leads us nicely into the next point, which is talking about client care and client communication.
Build trust with a clear offer and friendly communication style
Martin: What are the things you do to set up the relationship to ensure that there aren't these moments of miscommunication and that everybody's happy and satisfied?
Allister: After you've set that tone, it's important to set up the parameters of what you're going to do and how long it's going to take. Obviously, using a service that allows you to plug in all those data (along with the costs and payments) is useful. What I mean is, being a nice person is only going to go so far, so the next step is laying out exactly in detail what you're going to do, what the deadlines are, establishing whether those deadlines are set in stone or movable — sort of looking for potential problems down the road.
Sometimes people will want you to use a contract, sometimes they won't. Sometimes they want to offer a deposit on the work, sometimes they don't. It's about being really clear and upfront about what you're going to be offering in addition to that friendly communication.
Martin: Ashley, do you lay out exactly how long clients can expect to wait before they get replies to their emails?
Ashley: No, not as far as that goes. I agree with Allister as far as laying out everything. My offers are very very detailed, because I don't want to leave anything out. They're often pre-written, and they have everything, including the dates and the fact that the due dates may need to be extended so that you leave room for moments like: “Oh my gosh, the middle is sagging really bad and it's taking me forever.”
Looking for a free ready-made template for your offers? Download Reedsy's freelance proposal template!
As far as email goes, I email within the week. If clients email me on a Saturday, they don't get a response until Monday. I try to check my email twice a day — once in the morning and once at night — and I haven't had any trouble with that.
Martin: I think the ones that tend to be trouble are the authors to whom it has not been made clear that you may be working on more than one book at a time and that you may exist beyond office hours. So it's good to make that known at the beginning at the very least.
In terms of fostering that relationship — the editor-writer relationship can come in so many different flavors depending on what stage an author might be at in their career, or what they want. As you mentioned Ashley, some people want some encouragement and validation and others appreciate it when you completely dive in and more-or-less tear their work apart. Do you adjust your style so you fit what you think they need? More specifically, how do you determine the kind of communication style a client needs?
Allister: Well, I always start off doing what I hope is my strength, which is being casual and friendly. Most people will respond to that very well. Not to be stereotypical but Americans really respond well to that, because that's the way they are — they're very casual and more friendly.
Now that's not going to be for every client, but that doesn't mean you can't have a productive relationship with those clients. Be friendly and upfront with them and casual first, then you can feel them out and see what's appropriate for that client.
At the same time, you're also figuring out the parameters of the job and what it is that they want, their level of experience in writing books. A lot of people who have a lot of experience writing books don't necessarily want that kind of engagement with you, they just want the job done, i.e. “Do this copy edit for me, we're not going to chat.” And that's fine, that's not necessarily unfriendly. So it's really a ‘feeling things out’ process at the beginning.
Martin: I guess trust is a big issue when it comes to this. Whether you’re dealing with a person who has written five books or a person who has poured a year of their life into writing something, as an editor, how important is their trust in you, and what kind of things can you actively do to foster that?
Ashley: Kind of like we talked about before, be casual and friendly. I tend to get a lot of new authors who tend to be scared of editors. I mean, we're about to take their book into our hands, and they've heard horror stories of editors just shredding manuscripts up. So breaking that stereotype a little bit and letting authors know that I'm a real person who’s really interested in their book and want to make it better is a huge thing.
But on the flip side of that, let them know exactly what your job is. I’m very clear in my offer: I'm going to do these things to your book, I personally don’t make changes in the document but I do color-coded highlighting, font changes, and comments (unless it's a proofread or a copy edit). A lot of the time, that really helps authors feel like, “Okay, she's not going to change my book.”
A lot of people think editors are going to rewrite their book and they're not going to have any say over it; I think publishing houses sometimes do that. So letting them know that I’m not changing their book — this is your book, not my book, I’m the editor and you’re the author — and setting that boundary can really build that trust. They can kind of breathe and think, “Okay, I'm just going to see the suggestions.” And that's all they are — I often call my opinions ‘educated suggestions’. I always try to take that step to say, “Don't worry, I'm not above you, I'm lower or on the same level.”
Then lastly is to really have those boundaries set and to stand firm in them. So with my prices when I set an editing rate, that's the rate. I have people come back and say, “Can I get a discount?” or “I'm a college student and I can't afford this.” but you have to keep those rates as you set them. I think to stand firm in that makes you more respectable to a lot of people.
Martin: Allister, anything to add? How do you cement yourself as an author’s go-to editor?
Allister: I agree with everything that was just said, and I’m seeing a lot of comments from the audience about clients not understanding the parameters of what you can do for them. You should expect to be explaining to people exactly what each of these stages of publishing are and what goes along with them, because authors do not know. It's true that many of them are quite intimidated, too.
One thing that I'm constantly explaining to people that's really irritating to me is that there are so many different names for the same things. Developmental editing, substantive editing, structural editing — these are all covering the same territory. Authors have the perfect right to be confused when our industry jargon is all over the map by territory, or even just from company to company. You really do need to lay everything out super clearly, like bullet points: in this stage, I will cover this, this, this, and this; I will not change this, this, this, but I will do this and this.
And then you can even outline the other stages of publishing, like proofreading. It’s true that at this point in my career, I only offer proofreading as a separate thing — I will not do a proofread on a novel I’ve copy edited and developmentally edited, because I've seen that thing so many times that more mistakes are likely to creep in, and you need fresh eyes at that point. It took me about half of my freelance career to really realize that, through actual hard experience.
But explaining that stuff to the client in advance, that if you move on and self-publish your book, you will need a proofread, and you will need somebody other than me to do that. Get them to think about that from the start — all that is really helpful to clients.
Martin: Someone here mentioned that they had a conversation with an author the other day who wanted a single bid for a developmental edit, a copy edit, and a proofread. On Reedsy, there is the option to ask for multiple services at once but I think by the looks of it, most of our editors will immediately go, “Whoa whoa whoa, what exactly do you need from this? Because if you think I’m just going to sit down, take your rough manuscript and then deliver the final files, ready to publish, then you may have the wrong end of the stick here.”
It's probably something that we need to refine on our platform.
Ashley: Actually, I disagree. I like that they make more than one request at a time. I actually will answer those bids and I will send offers for all of them. Now I set them up as separate edits, and the process takes months.
If you want repeat clients, you want ones that want more than one edit. Just like Allister said, you don't want to do the proofreading at the end or even the copyedit if you've seen the manuscript three or four times already, but all of those content edits — it’s better if you can do all of them. If you do an editorial assessment, and then the author wants that deeper developmental edit, you can say, “Hey, I did the EA for you so I’ve already seen your book. When we get to the developmental edit, I can check all the changes that you made and make sure they still make sense within this book.”
So if you have an author who wants all of them, that's better. I actually really like that the author can choose multiple services on Reedsy.
Martin: For something like that, would you set up one offer for the editorial assessment or the developmental edit, and then a different offer for say the copy editing, but that latter one would be post dated five months down the line?
Ashley: I put it all in one offer. Now I do like what Allister said where you bullet point out this is what this edit covers, and this is what this edit does not cover. I'll do that, and then I’ll also say for these dates once we’ve done the first edit, we'll move onto the next stage of editing, which covers this and does not cover that, etc.
It's all in one full doc, and that way the author can feel like their book is going to get everything that it needs. Sometimes they come back with lots of questions — I mean, the offer ends up being really long so they're going to have questions, which you can clarify.
So I bid them all out in one offer. I break down the cost of each edit and then put it all together at the end. I am very clear about when each edit is happening, how much time they have in between the edits, and then let them know that if they need more time, we can always move the dates.
Martin: If that isn't a top tip, then I don't know what it is.
Set boundaries to avoid overworking
Martin: The last point is about incentivizing clients to return. Whether you have started off with that editorial assessment or the early developmental edit, or you're looking for folks to come back with their next project, what are the things that you can do to make them remember you and to give a reason to return to you?
Allister: I have to admit that I don't have built-in incentives. I generally hope that clients will come back and they often do.
I don't really offer much in the way of price breaks because that's a slippery slope that you don't want to start down, but there are smaller aspects to a job that I might use to entice them back — I might throw in editing a synopsis when they might have requested that as a separate service, for example. Sometimes I really like that client, I might incentivize them by offering smaller parts of the job that aren't going to cost me much time to do. But I don't advise against discounting as a way of getting people to come back, but I generally just hope that I'm just so amazing at the job and so friendly that they can't wait to come back to me.
Martin: Well, the good thing with Reedsy is if authors do a repeat collaboration with an editor our fee certainly gets reduced, so there's a small baked-in discount from our side at the very least. Ashley, do you have any follow-ups with your authors?
Ashley: I think I agree with Allister. I did offer a 10% discount for returning clients, but that is a slippery slope because if they come back for one more edit, you're taking 10% off. What if they come back for another one — is that 20% off, or 10% of the 10%? Out of experience, I've learned to not do that, and that's very, very good advice from Allister.
I also throw in a synopsis or a bio edit. A lot of authors don't realize they have to write a bio for their book, so I’m like, “Well if you're going to publish, you need a bio for your book. How about you write one and I’ll edit that for you?” And I think that's better than discounts.
Sometimes though, you don't have to offer anything. I think one thing that sets you apart really well is if you're willing to offer a Zoom meeting with them. I often do that and I offer it to all my clients free of charge, like it's just part of the collaboration. I think talking with them face to face really makes you memorable and more of an actual person (as opposed to a string of text on a screen). And then in the meeting you can go over what you edited, what your suggestions were, what questions they have. They have a full hour with me so if we’re done in 15 minutes, they can talk about book number two, or they can talk about publishing, or any other questions they have because that's the time I’ve set apart for them. I think clients appreciate that — they almost always take me up on that hour.
Martin: Especially when you're doing something like the developmental edit, a lot of it is like guidance for the next set of rewrites. Do any folks contact you, asking for you to read their manuscript again at the end when they’ve actioned the edits and give notes? Is that fairly common?
Ashley: I actually do a double-check with 25% off the fee. It is the same edit, but I ask the author to leave on Track Changes. That way I can go through and look at the changes they made, I can see my comments and see how they fixed the book per those suggestions I made for them. What I also do then is make sure that the changes they made didn't affect the other parts of their book — that they didn't make contradictions or anything like that.
I offer a discount for that one because it is essentially the same book. I’ve already read it and done an edit on it, so all I’m doing is checking through.
Martin: We mentioned at the beginning that repeat business is always good — but is repeat business always good? Allister, have you found yourself in a situation where you've worked with an author and now they have new projects coming up, but you have to say no for some reason?
Allister: Most of the people I’ve worked with have been very pleasant and their books have been good enough so that I'm happy to work on them. With repeat business, it's more of a case of “too much of a good thing” sometimes. You end up with scheduling issues because your clients may be used to you being very accommodating in the past, and then you find yourself busier. You might have to say to them, “I really want to do this book for you, and I know you're on a rigid schedule where you want to publish once a year, but it's going to be three months before I can even touch this manuscript.
And I actually had this situation this winter. I had many people coming back to me, and I’m like, “You're gonna have to put off your plans a little bit.” And you have to accept also that you may end up losing some of these people who may go to someone who can suit their needs a little better at that time because they're really devoted to getting their books out at a certain time. That's fine, it's part of the business.
Martin: Ashley, are there clients where, for your own personal sanity or your own sake, you just have to say, “Maybe this is not the best for both of us.”
Ashley: Yes. I am not one to turn down work very often — as a freelancer it's really not good to turn down work, so it has to be something that just really did not work out well. There were two cases where I had to say no.
One was not forthcoming with me about his book. One of the questions I ask in my initial client contact is if there are any explicit sexual scenes in the book. Those I do not edit — there's a place for them in literature, but for my work, I do not edit them. And there were two scenes in his book even though he said that there were zero. I did finish that book, I edited the whole book but I highlighted those scenes and didn't edit them and sent the book back that way.
The other one, we had the Zoom call and in lesser words, he pretty much said that he did not agree with my edits that he agreed with this and this, but he wasn't really going to change much of it. And when he came back for another edit, I was dumbfounded. I was like, “You didn't like my first edits, why are you coming back?” And at that point, I declined and sent a nice message saying I didn’t think it worked very well last time. My sister also works on Reedsy so I sent him her way — I thought maybe she has better suggestions than I do.
So yes, sometimes you will get those people.
Martin: I suppose there are some folks whose natural collaborative style is antagonistic, but it certainly isn't something that should be forced upon you.
Before we head into the Q&A bit, do you have any last thoughts for folks in terms of engaging clients with the idea of repeat business?
Allister: One thing we didn't touch on is I think it's important to set parameters with clients for communication. We touched a bit on communication outside of hours but when you get returned clients you have these great relationships with them — it's a bit like a relationship with a psychiatrist, there can be some attachment that develops. There's an intimacy to this relationship that you don't get from, for instance, your electrician because we're getting into each other's minds. So you can develop actual friendships with clients that go outside of the work context.
At the same time, people just think they can contact you whenever. They can contact you months after the project's done, which could be a way to cultivate the relationship as long as it's classily done. But you will have these people who want to pepper you with their thoughts whenever they feel like it. And so you need to set those parameters as best you can — sort of like nudging, you don't have to tell them to buzz off.
Be available when you want to be available. And when you are available, give them everything you've got. But just be careful about how those relationships develop because you can get burned by them and we don't need any more stress.
Ashley: I was just going to piggyback off of that because I agree 100% with that. I do answer clients three or four months afterwards because I know they're still working on it, but, like you said, in a classy way and not when you're getting bombarded.
I would say even during the project, when I'm in the middle of editing their work, a lot of times I wait to answer their questions because they can bombard you with a bunch of questions while you're editing. And sometimes you haven’t reached that part they’re talking about yet, and you don't want them to infiltrate your mind with things before you've read it so that you can come into it with clean eyes.
I have also had clients ask me to edit partial books and I don't do that too — that’s something I want to touch on. When you edit half of the book they will action it and send it back, and it becomes this slippery slope. That has happened to me, and now I only accept full manuscripts in a Word doc — not Google Docs because they can watch as you edit and that's not a good idea.
Allister: No! Not a good idea. I have done that before and I will never ever edit from a Google Doc again. Just give me Word — don't give me Pages, don't give me a Word Perfect, give me a Word file. But that's a different issue altogether.
Ashley: It is, but it made me think of how we were talking about communication before, during, and after a collaboration, and I think it’s good to limit that even during the project. Like you had said when we talked about communication earlier, we have lives and we have other projects we're working on, so we can't let one client kind of dominate that time.
Allister: The other thing I think we probably agree on is we've been going on about communication this whole time because clearly we both are really into that, but the people who don't come back to me or haven't come back to me — I can’t say how many there have been over the years — it's because I did a crap job, it's not because I wasn't a nice guy. So ultimately, the best way to get a repeat client is to do a really good job every time, and to meet every deadline. It's boring but that's what it comes down to.
Martin: It feels like it all starts from the beginning, by establishing the expectations of what they will get at the end of the collaboration. I guess in the early days of your career, you may try to promise the world to your clients, and in their imagination , they think that as soon as I'm done with Ashley, I’ll have a book that's ready to be published and that everyone’s going to love. Which is an impossible thing to actually promise. Whereas you can say I'll go through and provide you with these particular notes that will help you have a more cohesive structure to this, make this read better — those are things that are absolutely deliverable.
And that, from our side, is what we encourage our freelancers to do. It makes sense business-wise because we do want the authors to go away satisfied, and that usually means that they have to know what to expect and we can actually deliver or exceed those expectations.
Do you find that traditionally published authors who then turned to self-publishing have slightly skewed expectations in terms of costs?
Allister: I don't know if it's necessarily the traditionally published ones, I think there's a wide range. There are a lot of people who expect to pay $50 for a developmental edit on a 100,000-word book and there are others — maybe due to their economic status — who will slap down $5,000 for this sucker right now, and I’m like, “Oh, okay.”
I think traditionally published authors are often surprised at having to pay at all because they're so used to having their 10% royalty and their advance. But how many of those people do we really end up working with? Not that many.
What’s the difference between an editorial assessment and a development edit?
Martin: Just to clarify, ‘editorial assessment’ is a specific term we use on Reedsy.
Ashley: I think you have to think about what you want them to mean and lay it out clearly in your offer. For me, an editorial assessment is a really big picture look, so I'm looking at plot arcs, at full-on character arcs, at whether the character is likable, and at whether I can picture the world overall. Whereas the developmental edit all look more like: in this chapter, we need to do some more worldbuilding. Or here's a choice this character makes which I don't know if readers will follow. It's a little more fine-tuned.
With the editorial assessment, you get some markings in the book and a really long report. In a developmental edit, there's a lot of annotations and a smaller report. The cost difference is slight: the editorial assessments are a little bit cheaper because it's a little faster for me to write a report than it is to mark all kinds of stuff. But in the end, you still have to read and evaluate the whole book, so they're not that different in price.
How many projects do you typically book at a time?
Martin: Allister, are you a “multiple book at a time” kind of editor?
Allister: Very much so, and it's not so much by choice. This is just something you tend to have to manage as best as you can, it's very much a game of Tetris. You can have your spreadsheets and you can have your estimates for the jobs but this is one of the things you run into, like I said with your returning clients who pop up and want something done now.
You will find yourself in situations where you're doing a lot of books. If I get up in the morning, look at my list, and see I have 10 different books I could be working on, I know I'm in trouble. After all these years, it still happens to me. So then what I have to do is take a little break from quoting on new jobs. With a couple of people I know really well. I may have to say, “I'm going to take a break from your novel for a couple of weeks and get back to it.” It depends on the amount of wiggle room there.
I think time management issues are always going to be there for every successful freelancer and you just do your best.
Martin: Ashley, are you a fantastic one at compartmentalizing everything, or are you just like the rest?
Ashley: No. I book every project for two weeks. Doesn't matter how big the book is, but I will layer different edits. So if I'm doing a developmental edit that's a deeper dive, I can schedule on top of it a couple of query edits or a shorter, maybe Middle Grade, editorial assessment on top of it.
I'm kind of strategic in how I schedule projects, but typically I don't even schedule them on top of one another. If I can't take it on, I can't take it on. My thing is I'm doing it part-time — I mean full-time as in, this is my only job — but I'm doing it part-time. That way I don't have to take on as many projects.
When it gets busy in the summer, I take advantage of it and I layer different edits so that I'm not doing the same kind of edit all the time.
Martin: As mentioned, you're a mother as well so when you say you work part-time, do you silo off specific days for work, or is it a matter of slotting it in whenever you can?
Ashley: My kids are currently in school so I work while they're in school, and then at about 2:30 I go pick them up and do the whole mom thing — get them snacks and make dinner. And then when they go to bed, if I still have pages I need to get through, I go back to work.
How do you deal with the awkward question, “Is my project worth pursuing?”, when you know that the manuscript still needs a lot more work even though it’s been through several rounds of edit?
Allister: That is a very tough one. I'm a little bit of an optimist in that I believe now that self-publishing is easy, there are very few projects that you can't make into something that somebody will want to read. And that’s not the answer that the author is looking for, so I tend to just transfer that question into “What are the things that we can do to make it the best that it can be?” rather than saying, “Yes, you are going to be published by Random House, this thing is incredible.” Because that's lying, and when they ask you that question, most people want you to be honest, but they want you to be kind.
At the same time, they want to hire an editor because they're willing to spend the money. This is their dream, presumably, to publish. So you can just talk in measurables: what is it you want this book to do, how can we get it as close to that point as possible, and will you end up with a readable book that you can sell to people.
I honestly think all of this is possible, because I read a lot, obviously, and I work on a lot of self-published books, and there's not a huge difference in quality between a lot of self-published books and traditionally published books. It's just that some people are lucky and get published, and some people don't. Most of the things I work on actually do have the seeds of a decent book in there somewhere, we just have to try to find it.
Martin: I guess it’s a question of is this a book that will appeal to everyone in the world, or this is a book that I can find a hundred people who love it? That might be enough
Any tips for getting clients to submit their 1099 tax forms?
My clients are shy about sending their full manuscripts and sometimes a sample can be better written than the manuscript. Is there a way to convince them to send the full manuscript so that you can set an appropriate rate?
Ashley: This might be awful but I honestly don't look at the sample, because I always allocate two weeks per project, regardless of what it is. If the brief is really poorly written (with bad grammar, bad capitalization, etc.) I might look at the book and think about adjusting my rates. But if everything looks normal, I won't look at the sample.
Allister: I tend to find there's a reason why this question is asked, and it's usually the author who thinks that by sending their manuscript to me, it's somehow going to get stolen and published by somebody else. They're the kinds of people who often want you to sign a non-disclosure agreement. I will sign the agreement, although I'm not happy about it, but things like that usually involve a little chat about the security of this process and the chances of that happening. There are millions and millions of manuscripts flying around the world — the chances of someone getting a hold of yours, running off, and making money from it are slim.
It's usually a reluctance for that reason, rather than them worrying about the quality. I usually just try to cajole them into it, and if they won't then you can usually convince them to send a longer sample.
But sometimes a novel will have been somewhat edited at the beginning, and when you get the whole manuscript you find out that the end is a complete dog's breakfast. My inclination in the past is to live with that because it's my fault for not doing due diligence. I don't tend to adjust fees unless it's an absolute debacle. I just try to convince them to send me the whole thing with the reasoning behind it.
Are there other author fears you have to work your way through, especially with clients who may not have the experience?
Ashley: Mostly authors fear editors — that's what I come across. They just fear that we're monsters and we're going to tear their book apart and make them kill their babies. That's mostly the fears from authors that I get.
But I also work only through Reedsy and I think most of them don't think we're going to steal their work. There are extensive non-disclosure terms already built into the marketplace, so I think authors are more comfortable here than if they'd gone through my website or something like that.
Martin: One of the things that Reedsy does offer is dispute resolution or management. If you don't feel like you've got everything you want out of a collaboration, we will have folks who will walk you through that and help you arrive at some resolution.
Do you have any diplomatic tips to encourage repeat clients to wait for you to become available?
Allister: I ask them to wait for a while when I don’t have time. And it's always good to find out why they want to publish sooner. A lot of people are very keyed up and think they need to pump the books in their series out on the same date every year. What is the reason for that? Why do they think they might not be able to wait?
You can usually talk to them about it and reassure them that waiting a couple of months for you to do this is not going to be the end of the world. You can also work out the schedule of how you can meet the goal that they’ve set out. Often that will help.
If it turns out they're just simply dead-set on publishing this thing in two months. then you may lose that client for this job. They may come back later for another one if they really liked you. But talking things out is always useful with authors because, as we pointed out earlier, not only are they scared of us but they're scared of the process. It's an unknown to them, so it's always good to engage them in conversation about anything that seems to be a sticking point with them.