Louise Harnby is a UK-based proofreader who works for some of the best known publishers in the industry. A visit to her business website or her popular blog, The Proofreader’s Parlour, quickly demonstrates the high standing she enjoys with her clients and fellow editors, and she is exactly the right person to offer guidance on getting started in editorial freelancing. To write Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers: A Guide for New Starters, Louise has joined up with The Publishing Training Centre, which provides specialised editorial courses widely recognised across the British publishing industry. Louise has taken time out from her busy proofreading schedule to talk to me about how to meet the challenges of running an editorial business.
Katy: A business guide for editors is a great idea – I’ve been wanting something like this for a while. Can you tell me about how the book came about?
Louise: Thanks, Katy. The decision to publish came about after it had become apparent that my blog was not achieving quite the ‘reach’ that I’d hoped for. The Parlour gets thousands of page hits each month, but reading blogs is not everyone’s preferred method of acquiring information – one has to be prepared to bounce around a blog, reading bits and pieces on X, following a link to Y, and moving through to Z. Navigating a blog with lots of entries can be time-consuming and, for the uninitiated, frustrating! Patience isn’t always top of the newbie’s list – there’s so much to learn, so much to do. The message I was receiving was that the Parlour was a really useful resource but a little overwhelming for some. Those people wanted a resource that led them step by step through the different aspects of business building. When it comes to one-stop-shops, you can’t beat a book!
Often, sometimes several times a week, I would get an email or a phone call from a newbie asking for advice on getting started. Typically, the would-be freelancer would say something like: ‘Could I just have five minutes of your time while you give me some tips for getting going?’ The thing is, Katy, you can’t advise someone how to set up a business, editorial or otherwise, in five minutes! So, typically, I was spending an hour with each person who contacted me – that’s an hour spent not proofreading; that’s an hour of unpaid work. I realised that something had to give – either I had to stop helping or I had to rework the information that’s in my head and on my blog into a format that could provide the guidance required. I chose the latter, and so BPEF was born.
Katy: Can you give us a brief description of what the book does or what issues it helps with?
Louise: The book offers a step-by-step guide to preparing for editorial freelancing. It’s not a book about how to proofread or how to copy-edit. Editorial business owners need to know so much more – they need to have a business plan that provides them with a roadmap of what their business goals are and how they are going to achieve them. This includes being able to articulate the services they are offering (product), the clients they’ll focus on (people), training requirements (professional competence), a marketing strategy (promotion), and an honest financial assessment (pecuniary considerations). Each chapter focuses on one of these core learning goals, asking readers to consider the issues in relation to their own situation. By the time they’ve finished they should have the backbone of a business plan – their own personal roadmap that will help them to make the right decisions at the start of their journey. Having a plan in hand doesn’t enable freelancers to sidestep the challenges of running a business; instead, it readies them for those challenges and reduces the shock factor.
Katy: Who is the book for and why should they consider buying it?
Louise: Primarily, it’s for new entrants to the field, or those who are considering becoming a proofreader or editor. The information is structured and presented in a way that accords with this. If the new entrant to the field has already developed their own business plan, they shouldn’t need my book. But if they’ve not yet worked out who their target client base is, how they are going to reach that client base, what tools they’ll need to do their job, what running their business is going to cost, the importance of networking, or how to develop a marketing strategy, BPEF is for them.
More experienced editorial professionals might find it too nuts-and-bolts, and I won’t apologise for that. Nuts-and-bolts is exactly what the newbie needs. However, some of my more experienced colleagues have bought it and found it useful for helping them think about particular aspects of their business strategy, say, marketing or networking, that they feel a little weak in. There’s always more to learn – I learned a huge amount from the practitioners who contributed to the book! We all work with a variety of client types and genres, and these factors influence the tools we need, the costs involved, the way we promote ourselves and the approach we’ve taken to acquiring experience. I’ve been careful to price the book in a way that means anyone, from the newbie to the experienced pro, can try it out without breaking the bank.
Katy: In the book, you say that editors and proofreaders should think of themselves as business owners. Why is it so important to have this focus?
Louise: Indeed, that concept underpins the thinking behind the whole book. It’s vital that editorial freelancers contextualise the practice of editing and proofreading within the space of business ownership. For example, there’s little point in having an accreditation certificate if you don’t know how to reach the client to whom you want to ‘sell’ that feather in your cap! It’s as important for the editorial freelancer to be a competent marketer as a competent practitioner. And I do worry that the word ‘freelance’ sometimes distracts people from what needs to be done. Actually, we are self-employed, and that means we have to behave just like other self-employed people – submitting our own taxes, managing our IT needs, advertising our businesses, and so on. There is no one else to do these things for us because we don’t work for others. We need to do the things that all business owners do – if we don’t we are not behaving like professionals. And as I say in the book, if we don’t act like professionals, why should others treat us as such?
Katy: The editors who contributed vignettes about their experiences are quite up-front about the challenges they faced in getting set up, as well as recognising their achievements. What common themes link their stories?
Louise: The case studies are wonderful and I’m so grateful to the three contributors for sharing their stories. It was really important to me that the book was more than just a how-to volume. I knew that the reason a lot of newbies struggle is because they are not prepared for running an editorial business. The planning steps in the book aim to remedy this, but nothing reinforces an idea better than a real-life example. Anyone setting up a new business needs to be ready to face challenges, and the case studies were my way of reminding readers that it is difficult to become an established editorial freelancer. I think the common theme that links the contributors is that they were all incredibly determined, even when things didn’t move as fast as they’d hoped. They were prepared to shift gear and think in new ways when required, and, importantly, to continually review their strategy and progress.
Katy: You have some great tips for new freelancers on how to build the experience that will help publishing clients to see them as serious providers. Yet, as you say, ‘Getting experience is the hardest part of the game’. Is it getting harder for an aspiring editor to build a freelance career without prior editorial experience (and the publishing contacts that go with it), and if so, can you say why?
Louise: In some ways building a freelance career is harder; in others it’s easier. A newbie trying to get work with a publisher will face a lot of competition because there are so many experienced editorial professionals with established relationships. Most of my publisher clients are people with whom I’ve been working for years. The economic climate hasn’t helped; more and more people are choosing self-employment (or being forced to choose it), which means the pool of freelancers grows ever larger.
On the flip side, however, the boom in self-publishing has increased the number of potential clients drastically. Being aware of what is going on in the world of words more broadly is essential because then the editorial freelancer can ensure they are in a position to take advantage of emerging markets. And let’s not forget other opportunities – a couple of the practitioner-contributors to BPEF work extensively in the corporate client sphere. While not an emerging market, it is one where editorial skills are not as widely understood as they might be. So thinking creatively about how to access traditional (publishing), non-traditional (corporate) and emerging (indie authors) markets makes sense for both the new starter and the established editorial pro who wants to expand their service portfolio.
Katy: The book has a strong focus on active self-promotion for editorial business owners. What tips can you offer new editors (and anyone who is growing their business, actually!) to get ourselves noticed by prospective clients?
Louise: First, there is no getting away from it – you must learn to feel comfortable with your marketing hat on. There’s too much competition for anyone to ignore business promotion. Second, think broadly. Don’t confine yourself to one channel; utilise several. Thirdly, articulate your message consistently across all these channels so that your business name or brand becomes recognisable. Thirdly, I think it’s sensible to specialise first and diversify later. That way you can develop a strong and precise pitch across your marketing channels. And , finally, be brave – try different approaches. Good promotion is all about testing. As I say in the book, there are no rights or wrongs, only lessons learned.
Katy: My editorial business is based in Australia, and of course, new editors here have many of the same concerns about getting started as their opposite numbers in the UK. How international is the book intended to be?
Louise: That’s a great question. I believe the central learning goals and tasks in each chapter are universal. I do, by way of examples, make reference to more UK entities than those from other countries. But ultimately this is not a book that says, ‘This is the course you should to; this is the person at the tax office you need to speak to; this is where you should get your business cards printed; this is the website host you should go to’. Rather, it’s a book that helps readers work out their own answers. That’s what business planning is – doing the research so that you’ve worked out what you need to do for your business. No two plans will look identical so my being too prescriptive in terms of ‘whats’ would defeat the purpose. Instead I try to focus on ‘whys’ and ‘hows’.
Katy: Of course, you’re a highly experienced proofreader yourself, with testimonials most new editors would probably do borderline-criminal things to earn! Did writing the book get you thinking about your own business habits? Did you learn anything unexpected from the experience of preparing the materials?
Louise: Definitely! It’s easy to get stuck in one’s ways. I’ve already done a lot of the hard graft in terms of business building, so I feel like I’m in the maintenance phase. But that doesn’t mean I can sit still. The process of writing reminded me of some golden learning experiences from my in-house publishing days, in particular the concept of testing when implementing a marketing strategy. I blogged in more detail about this recently in an article entitled Lessons Learned: Marketing for the Small Business Owner but the central tenets of the argument are incorporated in the book.
However, one of the most unexpected learning experiences came from that of being edited. I hired a fellow freelancer to proofread the book. It gave me an insight into what it’s like for my clients. I thought I might find it difficult but I actually really enjoyed the process. It was immediately obvious to me how the hiring of a professional can vastly improve the quality of the end product. I’ve always preached this to be the case as a justification for my day job, but now I truly know it! And, of course, this gave me the opportunity to evaluate my proofreader’s approach to me, her client. She demonstrated perfectly how to manage a client relationship, with regard to both the quality of her work and the quality of her manner. That’s a fabulous lesson, and something even an established editorial freelancer can benefit from. Every time I work on a project, I aim to follow her example of best practice.
Katy: Has the book sparked plans for future Louise Harnby books on other editing and publishing themes?
Louise: Not for a while, Katy. In future, I might explore the marketing angle in more detail because effective business promotion is so central to acquiring freelance work. Although BPEF’s marketing chapter is one of the longest in the book, in the interests of balance there is a lot of detailed material that I could have included but chose to leave out. However, publishing is like editorial freelancing in that you have to wear a lot of hats to do it successfully. It’s also quite stressful as well as time-consuming! For now, I’m happy to get back to spending my spare time on what I enjoy most – my family and friends.
Katy: Thanks for taking the time out to speak with me about the book.
Louise: Thanks for the opportunity, Katy. It’s lovely to be invited onto PublishEd Adelaide!
PublishEd Adelaide readers can buy the Smashwords ebook at a special 25% discount, using the coupon code SA98S. The book is also available in paperback at Amazon.com.