In this post I wish to consider some of the early decisions I have made in relation to setting up an editorial business, and the thought behind them. At the outset it is important to emphasize that I am not offering advice, nor am I suggesting my approach is a model of best practice. My business is still at an embryonic stage, so I cannot point to proven successes. Indeed, I may be making many mistakes—and I welcome any enlightenment about the nature of those mistakes.
When I’m not making mistakes, spotting and correcting them (both my own mistakes and those of others) constitute a large part of my life. On which subject…
Learning from mistakes
I first went freelance in late 2014. (I will explain shortly why I no longer routinely describe myself as a freelancer, but for now I’ll stick with the label.) This followed a period of unemployment, which itself followed a fifteen-year career in academia. My decision to go freelance was chaotic at best; at worst, it stands as a model of precisely what NOT to do. In hindsight, the errors I made are obvious.
First, my motivation for going freelance was vague, confused and negative. I was as keen to end my fortnightly trips to the jobcentre as the jobcentre were to see the last of me. So I made the most of my advisor’s enthusiastic encouragement of my suggestion that I go freelance, less because I had a clear idea about what self-employment would involve and more because I wanted to escape the miserable rut of unemployment. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with “negative” reasons for doing something—“I hate doing y, so I’d rather do x instead” is a perfectly good reason to choose x. But if negative reasons are the principal rationale for going freelance (or, indeed, for doing anything apart from fleeing lions and other threats), then problems lie in wait.
Second, what I really wanted was an academic job. Although I was attracted to the idea of freelancing, my heart lay in academia, which had, after all, been my “family” for all my adult life, no matter how dysfunctional the relationship had been. Consequently, I never fully committed to self-employment. It took several months, various futile applications for academic positions, a couple of failed interviews, and a bout of intense soul-searching for me finally to abandon academia as a career. During those months I never thought seriously about the freelancing I was ostensibly supposed to be doing, because I still seriously entertained the idea of returning to academia. I was a half-hearted freelancer, and half a heart is not a basis for survival.
Third (and this follows from one and two above), I had no coherent business plan. I did have something that was labelled “business plan”, but it was the result of limited research and only a few hours of thought. I had no practical experience of business, and this, combined with my lukewarm motivation and vague ideas, meant that I started out in self-employment with little foundation or clue. To my cavalier way of thinking, I figured I could wing it by picking up work as a private tutor, with a little proofreading and editing on the side.
I did set up a website and a blog, and I established a social media presence (previously it had been non-existent) and registered with various tutorial agencies, but my lack of clarity about what I was marketing was matched only by the lack of a strategy suitable for marketing anything. I drifted in this way month after month, scraping bits of income here and there, but mainly living off savings and my redundancy settlement.
Eventually, realizing that private tutoring was a dead end and that I had no prospect of an academic career, I hit upon the idea of writing for a living. Once again, however, my decision lacked any substantial plan. I was not unproductive (I even published a short novel), but I made hardly any money due to the absence of any coherent business strategy.
I am not proud of this sorry record of failure. But it did teach me a valuable (if expensive) lesson: planning is essential. I had assumed that I could live by my wits and talents—I now know that this was utter folly. Although I said that I wasn’t going to give any advice, perhaps I will offer this much: a proper business plan is no guarantee of success; but the lack of such a plan guarantees failure.
Freelancing 2.0: creating a business
By the beginning of this year my financial situation was, unsurprisingly, dire. I could no longer afford to go out, I was barely eating, and I was in serious danger of being unable to pay my rent. I had reached the greatest crisis of my life (which manifested itself in repeated dreams of homelessness—no Freudian sophistication was required to figure out the message my subconscious was trying to bludgeon into my consciousness).
One of the good things about a crisis is that it focuses the mind. The economist Milton Friedman once wrote that “only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change”. Real change was something I urgently needed. Forcing myself out of denial, I realized that pressing action was required. I had few options, and most of them were bad. My writing was going nowhere and my job prospects were terrible. But I was extremely keen on the idea of being self-employed: believing that I had a lot of experience and skills (albeit of a nature not well suited to conventional careers), I wanted to find a way of making a living from them, and above all from doing something of meaning and value to me.
The questions were: could I make one last push at a freelancing career? And could I make a convincing enough case to attract the financing I needed to get it off the ground?
The first thing was to identify something that I had experience of doing, that I knew I was good at doing, and that I would enjoy doing. I’d been copy-editing and proofreading for years, occasionally as part of my academic career, and occasionally as a freelancer. I knew the essential principles and practices, I’d proved in my previous work that I did a great job, and I’d always enjoyed the work. It had crossed my mind before to make more of this work, but I’d never followed through with any systematic planning.
This time, however, I did sit down and give it careful thought. So the second thing was to come up with a proper plan. I realized that it was not good enough simply thinking of myself as a freelancer: I needed to think of myself as a business. Freelancing sounded too casual. I no longer wanted to identify primarily as a freelancer; I wanted to run a business.
So I embarked on a relaunch—of myself and of my career. While Theresa May was busy planning Empire 2.0, I was busy laying the groundwork for Freelancing 2.0. Unlike Empire 2.0, however, Freelancing 2.0 has some connection to the real world.
First steps and initial thoughts
I downloaded a business plan template, researched business planning, and then spent some time writing a first draft of a plan. And a second draft, and then a third. I tried to cover everything: executive summary, pitch, operations, professional development, the market, marketing strategy, and the financials. I won’t pretend that I got it all down perfectly, for the document is still evolving—as, too, are my ideas. But I have now got a 50-page document that covers every area of the business, even if some parts are less developed than others.
I needed to work fast. Sue Littleford’s excellent guide, Going Solo: Creating Your Freelance Editorial Business (2016) notes that “received wisdom is that you should have at least half a year’s salary in the bank before you go solo if you are to support yourself” (p. 5), and that many freelancers start out juggling their work with full-time employment until such time as they have become established. But I had no other job, and about half a month’s salary in the bank. Without the luxury of being able to build my business gradually (my own fault, of course, for faffing around for so long), my plan was geared towards doing in three to six months what many might aim to achieve in a year or two.
Three things were (and, since these are early days, still are) going for me: first, that I have a fair amount of experience of editorial work; second, that my parents have been generously willing to lend me money to help get me started; and third, that I am able to dedicate myself to this full-time.
The initial steps were in line with the planning. I overhauled and revamped my personal website; I created a Facebook page for my editorial work; I added a few essential volumes to my editorial reference library; I researched numerous different marketing options; I joined the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP); and I enrolled on the SfEP course Proofreading 1, then Copy-editing 1, and then Copy-editing 2 (which I have just begun). I also revived and redesigned Academic Outcomes, an old website that had lain dormant for nearly a year, but which I had originally intended as a focal point for the work I often did with students on academic writing.
My thought processes were focused on addressing the following problem: how could I, as someone with experience but no reputation or formal editing background, promote and establish my business successfully in the minimum amount of time? My answer involved adopting a three-pronged strategy.
The three-pronged strategy
The first prong is directed at gaining professional recognition—and that depends on training. I decided to invest a large chunk of my time and resources into joining the SfEP, taking their courses, and ascending through the grades of their membership structure (as I write, I have just made the first leap, from Entry-level membership to Intermediate status). In addition, I set myself a self-study programme to acquire a detailed and thorough knowledge of every element of the SfEP’s editorial syllabus.
The second prong involves specialization. Before I gave it any thought, I assumed that I would market myself in a general way, picking up whatever editorial work I could. But then I read Louise Harnby’s excellent Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers (available via her fine website; in fact, I highly recommend her Omnibus: Editorial Business Planning & Marketing Plus, an outstanding guide) and her advice to specialize. It made perfect sense. I would have more chance of success if I focused on the two areas in which I have experience—academic writing and publishing, and self-publishing and independent authorship—than if I tried to present myself as all things to all people. I wasn’t going to rule out taking on other things if opportunities came up, but in terms of where I would direct my marketing energies it would be in those areas where I have selling points that are, if not unique, at least distinct.
And the third prong concerned the marketing strategy itself. I may have a fairly memorable name, but I have no name recognition in the editorial world. I suspected I could be in for a long slog gaining that recognition. But by presenting my areas of specialism in the form of two businesses—Academic Outcomes, targeted at academic writing, and Crayon Rouge Editorial Solutions, targeted at self-publishing—I figured I could bypass the lack of name recognition and attract people to my business brands instead. (I foresaw other potential future advantages in developing two businesses: the possibility that they are scalable in a way that I am not as an individual freelancer; and the possibility of developing them into brands that offer products, such as resources, guides and books, as well as services. Such ideas remain, however, no more than wispy thoughts that I may or may not pick up much further down the road.)
Whether trying to run two businesses (in addition to this site, my blogging and writing activity, and my occasional academic work) makes sense is something I will discover. I’ll be happy with any discovery that does not necessitate Freelancing 3.0. On the one hand, my set-up will obviously involve extremely careful organization and a huge amount of work; on the other hand, I believe that if I can manage it then there are more possibilities as I move forward than there would be if I were resolutely trying to put everything beneath a single umbrella emblazoned with my name.
So there it is: an exemplary tale of the first steps in creating an editorial business / a cautionary tale of the various paths to disaster (delete as applicable).
To reiterate: the following is not advice. (If, one day, I’m sitting in the Tuscan countryside, pouring myself another glass of wine, as I relax on my third holiday of the year, I’ll come back to this post and delete the word “not” from the previous sentence. In fact, I’ll do it if I can afford even one holiday in a year.) Rather, it is a simple summary of the main areas of my thinking since commencing my freelancing relaunch.
- Mistakes—I’d rather not have made them, but since I did, then it’s best that I put them to good use by learning from them.
- Planning—it doesn’t guarantee success; but failure to plan pretty much guarantees failure.
- Training—essential not only to ensure thorough knowledge, honed skills and editorial competence, but also to gain professional recognition.
- Professional recognition—I figure that if I want to attract clients (and avoid the “race to the bottom” that characterizes large parts of the growing gig economy), then I want to offer a service that is recognized by peers as one of high quality.
- Specialization—in a crowded market, how does one differentiate oneself? By focusing on existing areas of expertise and knowledge.
- Marketing a business—as an unknown, with two distinct areas of specialization, what is the best way of marketing my freelance work? Not primarily as an individual freelancer, but as a couple of businesses dedicated to my respective specialisms.