The 2017 ELT Freelancers’ Awayday

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Panelists (l to r) Karen White, Dona Velluti, Katy Wright, Denise Cowle, Rachel Brushfield (and thanks to Nicola Gardner for the photo)

It’s something of an annual event now, and I’ve found myself saying ‘see you next year’ to more than one person in the last week! The third ELT Freelancers’ Awayday, aimed mainly at freelance editors in our field, was a day of discussion, networking, sharing and learning from each other, held in Oxford at the end of January. Almost 100 people came; one from Canada, several from Spain, at least one from Greece, and the rest from all points of the UK. Chuffed doesn’t begin to describe how Helen and I feel to have started this event and built it into something that’s growing each year.

I know I’m the person who comes the furthest to these events, but it’s worth every cent. I haven’t got this kind of community where I live (Canada is a bit of an ELT publishing backwater), so this is really valuable to me. Tania Pattison

Emily Hird has already blogged about her impressions of the day, there is a comprehensive Storify of #FreeELT and photos on our website, so I’m not going to recount the whole event, but I did want to summarise the panel discussion that opened the day. Before I do, I’d like to send huge thanks to Becky Jones for having minuted the whole thing in fantastic detail.

Having carried out a survey on ELT freelance rates earlier in the year and comparing the results with the survey we’d done in 2013, we had noted that there seemed to be some stagnation in rates which, when you consider that we all have an additional three years’ experience, and inflation and the cost of living have gone up in that time, seemed slightly surprising. What’s caused this? More freelancers on the market, so some undercutting of rates? Less publishing, so less work to go around, so work is being offered to those asking lower rates? Publishers cutting costs, so looking for the cheapest rate for the job?  We really weren’t sure, so decided to set rates, and how to negotiate better ones, as the topic for the panel discussion. With the exception of Rachel, who specialises in supporting sole-traders and those wishing to develop portfolio careers, our speakers all came from editorial backgrounds and I chaired it. (Read about Katy and Dona here. Denise kindly stepped in at short notice and brought her knowledge of the SfEP and its suggested minimum rates to the table.)

I loved the forum at the start with really interesting input and discussion. Jemma Hillyer

Opening with a question about how redundancies and restructures within the publishers have affected us and what we can do about it, Katy, who’s currently working on an in-house contract having been freelancing for a number of years, told us about the changes she’s noticed since she was last employed in house. Her observations included the fact that even though print products are still high on the agenda for many markets, with the rise of hugely expensive digital products which return comparatively little, budgets and schedules are being cut right back, as are in-house staffing levels, meaning that there is more reliance than ever on freelancers. (That’s good, right?) But they want the freelancers to be quick, cheap, reliable, experienced … And – here comes one of the big takeaways from the day – echoed by the presentation from Pearson in the afternoon, there is a rise in the popularity of packaging, where one ‘preferred vendor’ is used to resource editorial, media and design elements of a project, often from an offshore base. The advantage of this business model to the publisher is that the packager will take a multi-level, multi-component course and manage and resource it with the minimum of hands-on work being required from the skeleton staff back at the publisher’s HQ, and quite likely more quickly and at a lower cost than it could be done using the traditional hourly rate freelance model. (That’s not so good.)

Denise, responding with her SfEP experience then reminded everyone that the key thing for us to remember is that we must not undervalue what we do, and the experience and training we have, by losing the confidence to charge reasonable rates. (The 2016 rates survey results showed that over 50% of responses were from people with over 15 years’ experience of editorial work.) Dona agreed that if we don’t do this, and undercut each other, we will ultimately be undercutting ourselves in a race to the bottom. An additional thing to bear in mind is that if a lot of the editors with the most experience are out of house, that’s also where the most knowledge of what a job is going to (really) involve, how long it’s going to take, and what similar jobs have taken in the past, so it’s not uncommon to find that a project that’s briefed to take 50 hours suffers from scope-creep and can take considerably longer, which is where the negotiation skills are required to ensure we’re being paid for the work we’re actually doing.

With her non-ELT background, but plenty of experience in working with other business owners (note to all of us to remember that this is how we must view ourselves), Rachel gave us some tips on keeping ahead of trends in the world of work, particularly now that the whole world is your competitor. You need to be a specialist. You need to know what makes you different and better than others. You need to be good at marketing – yourself and your business. (Have you thought about using Twitter for this? I’m running a workshop in March which might be of interest.) You need to work out how you can add value and be the go-to person that the commissioning editor or project manager calls first. You need to know how you can make their life easier. You need to be able to tell them what problems you can solve for them. You also need to know how much you want to do the job you’re being offered. You need to decide a minimum rate below which you will not go. You need to know when to say no. Denise also suggests looking outside the world of ELT to see what’s happening with working practices in other areas of publishing.

Before we opened up to the floor for questions, Katy gave the room some more very practical advice about what in-house project managers are looking for in a freelancer. I don’t think there’s anything startlingly new here, but if we want to remain competitive, this is advice worth heeding:

  • Be a problem solver who offers solutions, not more problems.
  • Get digital-savvy if you’re not already because there is plenty of work to be done on digital products.
  • Invest in your own training and up-skilling because there is no budget for the publishers to help you with this.
  • Invest in the equipment you need to do an effective and efficient job.
  • Be a fast learner, open to working in different ways.
  • Raise queries early on in a project, and package them together rather than drip-feeding them.
  • Be honest in your invoicing. (Several people recommend using time-tracking software like Toggl to help with this.)

To conclude then, I think there are several key points arising from the panel discussion (and from other parts of the day):

  1. Budgets and schedules are being cut but there is work out there. We need to feel empowered to negotiate a fair rate for any job we take on. What a fair rate might be is something we may be able to discuss among ourselves – this is something that many SfEP members find to be one of the key benefits of membership being as their forums are a safe place for discussion like this. Helen and I will be giving some thought to how we might be able to do something like this for our community in the near future – look out for more news in due course.
  2. A number of the big publishers are looking at packagers to handle large-scale projects. We need to consider how we might be able to work together to be competitive in the face of this.

Were you at the Awayday? Did you draw any other conclusions from the panel discussion, or the rest of the day? Share your thoughts in the Comments.

See you next year!

Thank you so much, Karen and Helen, for a wonderful, informative and inspiring day yesterday. Already looking forward to next year. Penny Hands

 

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2 thoughts on “The 2017 ELT Freelancers’ Awayday

  1. This is a really useful summary, Karen. The biggest thing to come out of the day for me was the move towards using packagers, and the question over where that leaves freelancers. Huge issue! If it’s at all helpful, I’m more than happy to get involved in brainstorming ideas for increasing collaboration / creating specialist hubs.

    Liked by 1 person

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