Here’s a post I’ve written for the SfEP blog on being a first-timer at the conference …
By Karen White (You can read Part 1 here.) I survived! Actually, I did more than survive – I thrived! On the day I got back to my desk after my first SfEP conference I spent a lot of time tweeting and Facebook messaging people I had met in person over the weekend, sending follow-up…
In a quiet period a couple of months ago, I started to wonder if I should be looking for other sources of income as the ELT editing and project management work I usually fill my days with seemed in rather short supply. And from quite a number of emails and messages I had through my White Ink Facebook page, it seemed I wasn’t the only one wondering where the work had gone.
There could be a few reasons why work seemed scarce. A lot of the big ELT publishers have recently been through restructuring cycles, which have resulted in redundancies, which leads to a bigger pool of freelancers. Those restructures have possibly also resulted in some publishing being put on hold or abandoned, so there could be less work out there anyway. And with purse strings being tightened, freelancers at the higher end of the rates scale could be being overlooked in favour of those willing to settle for a lower hourly income or fixed fee. (More discussion of that in my recent post about ELT freelance rates.)
Just to check I wasn’t imagining it, I had a quick look back at how things looked for me a couple of years ago.
No. Things were certainly quieter and the number of clients I was invoicing each month could definitely be counted on one hand. (Creating a chart like this is an interesting exercise for anyone to do. I read about it on the Dr Freelance blog, in his post Is It Time To Diversify Your Freelance Business.)
So, what to do? Options included sending emails to all my contacts letting them know I had some availability, or enjoying a bit of down time and making the most of it by doing some jobs around the house, or cooking some batch meals and filling the freezer. (Anyone who knows me well will know how appealing that will have seemed.) Then I got a phone call from a neighbour asking me if I’d be interested in helping him with his MBA dissertation, so I decided to take that on. It certainly didn’t pay the kind of rate I’m used to charging for project management, training or development editing, but I did enjoy it. I brushed up my touch-typing skills, discovered some new tricks with Word, and learnt something about a field I wouldn’t otherwise have ever looked into.
Fortunately, work started to pick up for me during that period, and I’m now as busy as ever. But I’m aware I could find myself in that situation again at any time so I have been thinking about diversifying and wondering which route I might take my transferable skills down if I needed to. To get some inspiration, I asked the White Ink community to tell me about their experiences of branching out as I clearly wasn’t the only ELT freelancer in this position. With thanks to everyone who contributed, here are some things they told me they were doing …
“Last year almost 99% of my income came from ELT publishers. (I worked both as an editor and author.) This year the ratio has changed: ELT projects – 80%; other projects – 20%. I’ve started working as a freelance English-Polish translator. Every week I have to translate the same minimum number of words (normally it can be done in 1 day), but if I have more availability I can complete more assignments and earn more. I could do this almost full-time if all my other projects got cancelled suddenly. In fact, earlier this year, an ELT project was postponed by two weeks – I did more work for this client and I didn’t lose any money despite the change.
I’m also working as an external reviewer for a large Polish publisher (fiction and non-fiction). The reviews pay very little, but these assignments help me organise my time better. When I have a book to review, I need to find time to read a few chapters every day (= away from my laptop). That gives me some ME time with my e-book reader every day!
I still like ELT editing and I think that in the future most of my income will still come from ELT projects, but I’ll try to earn at least 25% in different areas. I don’t want to put all my eggs in the same basket, and I find the other projects interesting.”
“A lot of my students have gone on to university and have dissertations to write, some of which need to be in English. Many came back to me to do the final edit and proofread, they would get good marks and so would refer me to other students. I’ve also started doing some fiction editing, I’ve ghost-written some articles, and have edited online blogs. The most interesting thing I’ve done is editing adult fiction – I’ve learnt a lot of new vocabulary! I also write fiction and a few pieces have been published – I’m just waiting for a publisher to realise that I’m worth becoming a very rich author. I’m still waiting.”
“I only started in ELT freelance editing at the start of this year, and as I had no idea at first whether I’d secure enough ELT editing work, I had immediately signed up for a summer teaching contract in order to guarantee at least some income for myself. I also saw teaching as a way to refresh my ELT classroom knowledge, as I hadn’t been in the classroom for going on ten years. As well as the teaching, I branched out into STM (scientific, technical and medical) editing. I’m not fundamentally an STM expert, but scientific publishing in particular is booming.
I enjoy editing, but having ‘other’ things to go to that also contribute to professional development and encourage my body to get up and moving around (and which bring in money!) seem worthwhile to me. It’s very hard to predict what will happen, but as many know, ELT publishing is going through a transition. I feel the long-time, big-name editors will still have a good supply of work, but newcomers like myself might be squeezed out when work gets thin on the ground.”
“A lull in ELT editorial work and having moved to a new part of the country (Isle of Skye) coincided with being made redundant from a full-time job, so I had gone back to freelancing, which was going quite slowly. I had some experience in picture research and picture editing and I’m a keen photographer, so I’ve learned how to work with Photoshop and Lightroom and have been doing some freelance image reviewing. Also, a bit niche and specific to where we live, but I/we run a self-catering cottage. To increase our income, we started using AirBnB and we’ve been busy all year with guests. While cleaning and getting the cottage ready isn’t hugely fun, meeting people from all over the world is (a bit like EFL teaching). Then, as I’ve always enjoyed cooking and baking, to combine something I like doing with getting to know people around where I live, I do some work in a local bakery. The link with transferable skills here is a bit more tenuous, but you certainly find out how organised you are and I’ve found I can successfully organise an editorial project and a bakery!”
“I’ve diversified in a way, to earn some extra money without having to make any extra effort! I rent out my driveway (via justpark.com) and I rent a room to a student at a local college. Additional benefits include easy access to a babysitter, and a car parked outside when I’m away!”
“I decided to look for another source of income for several reasons:
a) personal fulfilment – I had always planned to have a portfolio freelance career with fingers in different pies.
b) a nagging worry that there are too many freelancers for the amount of work available (at least, the work that interests me and that I’m qualified for)
c) concerns that I’m not making enough money!
I’m hoping to be doing a mixture of freelance journalism in the local press and editing for the UK schools market and trade publishers in the fields of Fiction and English Literature. My ideal scenario for the next year is for me to spend 70% of my time working in ELT, and 30% on other projects. But there’s no science behind this – it’s just a rough goal and it may not turn out this way.”
“Whilst ELT freelancing is a great source of independent work, flexible and well paid, it can be inconsistent and unreliable. A couple of jobs that were agreed fell through at the last minute for me and I’d already turned down other work that had been offered. I ended up losing out on potentially £5k altogether and couldn’t find freelance work again for a good six weeks. This uncertainty was the trigger to find additional/other work, so I took an in-house contract for a year working on Primary UK education courses – a side step from ELT.
I think being a freelancer can isolate you so much that you feel there’s nothing else for you except ELT editing, but this isn’t the case at all. ELT editors do have a specific skill set but these skills can be utilised in other areas and not just publishing. I do feel there’s a freelance saturation happening right now for one reason or another, so diversifying is a good idea during these times, in my opinion.”
“I fill in quiet patches with duties in a local cake shop. I enjoy doing something completely different and getting out of the house. It is quite a physical job so that has made a change from sitting at my computer all day! Being able to work there in conjunction with the editing (which I still really enjoy) brings me the variety I craved when I used to work in-house. Unfortunately it doesn’t pay as well so it’s not a long-term option but it stops me from spending money in the quiet patches!”
“I am doing some voluntary work for a charity – principally proofreading exhibition catalogues and website work. This, although not providing revenue, enables me to pursue a lifelong interest in ceramics and directly contribute to the charity’s work … it has also rekindled my interest in ceramic decoration, so I’ve started designing and hand-painting tiles again – something I used to do, but haven’t actively pursued for a number of years.”
I hope those anecdotes provide everyone with some reassurance that there is life outside ELT publishing, and other options are available. And as I’ve been writing this post, I’ve also just seen Why Having Multiple Sources Of Income Is Essential For Success on the Freelancer News blog. There’s a lot of it about.
Have you had to diversify? Leave a comment with your experience, or any tips for others.
Sitting here watching the cyclists whizzing round the velodrome, and the track and field athletes hurdling, throwing and jumping, it strikes me that being a freelance editor has some similarities with being an Olympic athlete. With no apologies for being somewhat Team GB biased, here’s why …
- You train hard to be the best in your field. You take your CPD seriously, keep your online profile updated, and network like a champion.
- You eat and drink right. If editors were tested for caffeine as often as Olympians are tested for banned substances, we’d all fail. You know that fruit is a healthy snack and cake is bad, and you try and avoid the biscuit tin every time you go into the kitchen.
- You’re a team player. Like the rowing eights with their cox in charge, you work alongside others, pulling together to get your project over the finish line. The project manager will keep you on course.
- You’re an individual participant. You might only hear from your client at the opening and closing ceremonies of the project, but in the meantime you’re your own boss, managing your own time to meet deadlines.
- You fall over occasionally, but you get straight back up again. Mo Farah tripped and picked up some bruises during his 10,000-metre race on Saturday, but he got up and crossed the line to win gold. If you get knocks on a project, you learn from the experience and move on.
- You pay someone to do the support roles so you can focus. Athletes have trainers, physios, chefs and caddies. You might have an accountant, a cleaner and a personal trainer.
- You’re reliant on your equipment. Your PC (or Mac) is to you what clubs are to Justin Rose.
- You see other freelancers as support rather than competition. Jason Kenny and Callum Skinner are friends, GB-teammates, and are sharing a room in the Olympic village. Only at the last minute did they have to go head-to-head.
- You occasionally have to have a late night. Anyone else stay up to watch the end of the Murray–del Potro match on Sunday night?
- You can change your discipline if you fancy a change. Rebecca Romero won a silver medal in Athens in 2004 in the rowing quadruple skulls, then in 2008 won gold in Beijing in the individual pursuit track cycling. I know of more than one editor who has their name on a front cover as an author.
- You can be a success without everyone knowing about it. Ed Clancy won gold as part of the GB men’s pursuit team, but the name everyone knows from the team is Bradley Wiggins. Behind every bestseller is a hardworking editor.
- Your fans will always be there for you. Alistair Panton flew to Rio from Aberdeen when he heard Andy Murray had reached the finals of the men’s singles tennis. My husband will spend hours fixing my PC if I need help. Similar.
- You always warm up before the main event. Writing your daily to-do list is like Usain Bolt limbering up in his tracksuit.
- You occasionally work somewhere else. Endurance athletes go to training camps. You go to your local library or coffee shop.
- You change your routine from time to time. Athletes vary their training schedules throughout the year. That’s like putting your sit/stand desk in the opposite position.
- You do things that no one other than you and a handful of others understand. What’s the keirin all about? To the casual observer, it’s a man in a hat riding a funny bicycle. If you work on a specialist journal or list, I’m sure you know what I mean.
And of course, some jobs are more of a sprint than a marathon. Others are a marathon when you expected a sprint.
A couple of months ago, my partner in ELT Freelancers, Helen Holwill, and I sat down to think about redoing the ELT Freelance Editorial Rates survey that we had first done in 2013. We’d been spurred into action by a number of comments about rates not going up in line with experience, etc., that we had heard at the Awayday we organised in January.
By no means a piece of scientific research, our questions were designed to gather a snapshot of where freelancers are right now so we could make some comparisons with the 2013 results. In total, we had 113 responses and briefly summarised the findings here. Anyone who had given us their email address when they completed the survey was also sent a full summary. (Of course, you can’t stop people forwarding a PDF to their friends, and this post on the Copyediting blog that I came across as I was collating the results makes some very good points about thinking about the bigger picture of survey results before blindly accepting them.) (More brackets, but if you ever fancy doing something like this, Google Forms are your best friend.)
So, what are the key points we’ve drawn from this year’s survey? There seem to be a few things that jump out …
- Between us we have a huge amount of experience. Over 50% of responses were from people with over 15 years’ experience. That’s quite something, and should definitely give us bargaining power when we consider some of the issues that emerged from the questions about rates and set-fees questions.
- Rates have, on the whole, stayed the same since 2013. This year 65% of responses to the question ‘What is your impression of the rates paid by publishers over the last few years?’ said that the rates have generally stayed the same. Given that a lot of the people who answered the questions in 2013 also answered them this year, the indication is that despite being three years’ more experienced, our income has not kept up. And looking back at the 2013 results, people were saying then that rates hadn’t increased in the previous couple of years, which is really worrying. Whether this is because people haven’t put their rates up and asked for more, or clients have refused to pay higher rates, isn’t clear. However, what we did find out is that the most frequent response to the question ‘What is your hourly rate for proofreading?’ was £25 per hour in 2013, and it’s remained the same in 2016. The same can be said for project management rates – £30 per hour was the most frequent response in both surveys for that area of our work.
- There has been a considerable rise in the percentage of people responding to say that clients have been moving towards offering fixed fees rather than paying by the hour. 46% of respondents agreed with that this year, as opposed to 36% in 2013. Whether fees work out as well as hourly rates is still unclear, but the good news is that people are willing to challenge unfair fees, and renegotiation is possible in the majority of cases. This is good news because when one publisher announced that it was going to pay fees only, and that there was no room for manouevre if work was more involved or took longer than anticipated, there was a fair amount of concern. It’s good to see some evidence to the contrary.
For me, and a number of others that I’ve spoken to, the main concern is that rates are not going up in line with experience. It’s all very well to research market rates, talk to others to see what they’re charging, carefully calculate inflation rates and the cost of living and running a business from home (and of course we should all be doing that as a matter of course), if the client rejects your new rate and offers you last year’s rates. Of course, if you’re not happy to accept less, they will go away and find someone to do the work for the rate they have to offer. If you need work, you’re likely to accept the rate and get on with it, doing a professional job and planning to stand firm next time. (If you’re not sure what you should be charging, or need a recap, there is a great series of posts on the An American Editor blog on just this topic. In addition, the UK’s Society for Editors And Proofreaders’ suggested minimum rates for this year are here.)
I found myself in this position last summer. I was in a quieter period with work when a fellow freelancer contacted me and asked if I could take on a couple of stages of a project while she was on holiday. The job sounded interesting and I was happy to help out, so she put me in touch with the commissioning editor. When the commissioner contacted me and we were discussing the details, it emerged that the hourly rate was going to be considerably less than ‘my rate’ for that level of work. I couldn’t believe that the other editor, who had already stepped onto the plane, was being paid that either as we have similar levels of experience (and the evidence from both rates surveys shows the offered rate to be considerably below the average for the work), so I stated my rate. The commissioning editor said that wasn’t an option and offered me the rate halfway between the two, despite needing the work done there and then. What to do – stick to my guns, turn the work down, miss out on any money at all, and blot my copybook with that contact – or agree to the rate and get stuck in? I accepted the rate, immediately wished I hadn’t, and spent the next couple of weeks begrudgingly enjoying the project. Lo and behold, I handed the work in, the commissioning editor gave me some great feedback, and immediately offered me some more work at my usual rate. You win some, you lose some, but do you chance it and find out?
If I had turned the work down, the commissioning editor would have had plenty of other freelancers to choose from. With a rash of redundancies from most of the major UK-based ELT publishers in the last 12 months, I’m regularly contacted via the White Ink Facebook page for tips on getting started. I’m pretty sure that most new freelancers’ rates are lower than mine (I’ve been editing ELT materials since 1997 and freelancing since 2008), and making contacts and getting work is the name of the game when you’re starting out, so accepting a lower rate than I’m used to isn’t going to be an issue for lots of people. Which perpetuates the situation with the rates not going up. I’m fairly sure that this topic is going to come up at the 2017 ELT Freelancers’ Awayday, so there’s plenty more discussion to be had, and hopefully we can find some ways to address it.
In my next post I’ll be looking at ways ELT freelancers are finding to supplement (or even replace) their income from editing, but in the meantime, if you have any thoughts on the rates issue, please do comment.
A hot topic at this year’s ELT Freelancers’ Awayday, and on pretty much any other day on the White Ink Facebook page, rates are a fact of freelance life. And if I’ve understood the general mood of the community correctly, they’re not going anywhere. Quite literally. In fact, as I sat down to write this, a cartoon from The New Yorker came up on my Facebook timeline, shared by another ELT editor – an appraisal scenario with the caption “In five years, I see myself with the same job title, about the same salary, and significantly more responsibilities.” Sound familiar?
As I see things, there a number of issues around the rates discussion that have been hitting the ELT freelance community for the last few years, and seem to be gathering pace at the moment …
Publisher relocation has meant that editorial staff unwilling or unable to make the move with their employer have made the move to freelancing, increasing the number of freelancers looking for work. Similarly, redundancies at many of the large ELT publishers have forced more editors out into the freelance market. More freelancers = more competition for work = it’s a buyer’s market and publishers can force rates down.
Hand in hand with redundancies comes general in-house belt-tightening and close scrutiny of P&Ls. Even if a freelancer is offered ‘their rate’ for the work, it’s likely that the number of hours will be pared right back. We also know that in large publishers, rates for the same type of work can vary between departments, and can depend on who is commissioning the work.
Some of the ELT publishers who provide a large proportion of a freelance editor’s work have made the move recently to paying fees rather than hourly rates. Anecdotal evidence shows that this can work well, with the fee divided by the number of hours the work takes working out at a good hourly rate, and on occasion can work in the editor’s favour. But there are also tales being told of scope creep (where the brief for the work keeps expanding, but the fee is fixed) and non-negotiable fees when the work required turns out to be considerably more demanding than originally described. If you’re a freelancer who finds yourself in this position, do you try and renegotiate the fee, or say nothing for fear of being labelled a troublemaker and not being offered work in the future? Tricky, isn’t it?
At the Awayday in January I heard one freelancer make the point that she is charging the same rate as she was ten years ago but feels unable to ask for a rate that factors in inflation, cost of living rises, increased experience, overheads, etc. that have come her way in that time. Imagine working in-house without a pay-rise for ten years and you soon realise that it doesn’t seem acceptable.
So, what can we do about it? In an attempt to find out what ‘the going rate’ for certain editorial jobs is, and what people are really experiencing in terms of rates and fees at the moment, Helen Holwill and I have set up our second Survey Of Freelance ELT Editorial Rates (we did the first one in 2013 so it will be interesting to compare results). There are 18 questions and it should take about ten minutes. Please do take some time to complete it before May 13th if you haven’t done already. Results will be available within a few weeks. You might also like to read An American Editor’s blog (and the comments) on Eight Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid (Parts I and II), and have a look at the SfEP’s suggested minimum rates, although I think it’s worth bearing in mind that we offer a specialisation that posts like these don’t always account for.
I’ll be back again with a summary of the survey findings, but do please share any thoughts you have on the issue in the comments below.
Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is the term used to describe the learning activities professionals engage in to develop and enhance their abilities.
Although CPD is a term I’ve only picked up on relatively recently, when I worked in-house as an editor and project manager it was part of the deal so didn’t need a label. I had the opportunity to attend conferences, training sessions on any new software I was expected to use, refreshers for best editorial practice, and various improve-your-productivity days. And it didn’t cost me anything more than a few hours away from my desk. As time passed, I became increasingly aware of, and responsible for, training budgets, but the money wasn’t coming out of my pocket or my salary, so I made the most of whatever was available for myself and my team.
Now I’m a freelancer and have to find, and fund, my own development opportunities, so everything must be a bit more considered in terms of time and cost commitments. I thought I’d take a post to consider the options for your next dose of vitamin CPD.
Let’s start with the most costly. Conferences are often two or three days long and some distance away. That’s several days’ lost income, plus travel, subsistence and accommodation expenses, and not forgetting any additional childcare costs or calling in of favours from family and friends to meet all your commitments while you’re away. But consider the benefits of learning new skills, making new contacts and catching up with others, and finding out what’s happening in your industry, and the costs might just be outweighed. This year I’ll be going to the IATEFL conference to catch up with the latest in the ELT industry, and the SfEP conference to see what’s happening in the editing world. I’ve planned for both well ahead of time, have told clients I’ll be away, and will keep the weeks either side of both conferences fairly free for getting ahead/catching up with work.
If getting to major conferences like these isn’t an option, check to see if they are live-streamed or recorded so you can catch up later. IATEFL Online is a great way of watching some of the sessions live from that conference. Also look out for Twitter hashtags and follow them to find out what’s happening either at the time or from the comfort of your sofa after a day at your desk.
There’s also the day conference option – either attending a single day of a longer conference – or going to events that only last a day, often at a weekend so there’s no need to miss a day’s work (although there may be other implications for family matters, etc.). You may still have travel costs, but again, consider the benefits like networking. I’ve already been to three day events this year: the ELT Freelancers’ Awayday (I organised that one), the MaWSIG conference, and The Enterprise Network’s Women In Business event. These events have given me a good mix of specialised and general input – and a wide range of sandwich fillings and biscuits. (Tip: take your own lunch to any event if you’re concerned about healthy eating.) Any events like this will be live-tweeting with a hashtag, so all is not lost if you’re not there in person.
What about going on a course to brush up or learn a new skill? Check out your local adult education college for a huge variety of subjects (I’ve recently done an eight-hour WordPress course for £75 at mine), the more costly but highly focused Publishing Training Centre, a local enterprise network, or an independent supplier. The most useful session I’ve done since going freelance was a morning learning about Twitter. Spending a small amount of time and money to learn the basics and a few tips has saved me hours in the long run. A quick online search ought to sort you out with whatever you’re looking for.
One online course supplier I’ve used on several occasions is Lynda.com. You can get a free 10-day trial of any of their courses – ranging from business, to tech, to something you haven’t even thought of yet – then follow them in your own time. If you know what you want to learn, YouTube might be a good first port of call before you go to a paid service like Lynda.com. I’ve learnt some nifty Excel tips, eyeliner application pointers, and how to empty the grey water tank on a motorhome from vloggers there. Not all strictly CPD, but you get the idea.
In a similar vein is the webinar. Look out for topics related to your area of expertise advertised on social media or through professional memberships. I’ve watched some great IATEFL webinars in the last few months, some social media-related things from Socially Sorted, ELTjam’s LX for ELT webinar (link to replay here), and Dr Freelance and Laura Poole talking about getting the work–life balance right. Webinars usually offer an opportunity to ask questions and interact with the speaker more than you can with something like the Lynda.com courses, and are an excellent way of getting some CPD from the comfort of your own home. Look out for replays if you can’t make the live dates, although some are limited-time only, so don’t delay too long.
While we’re talking about online delivery, have you listened to any podcasts as part of your CPD? I recently met coach Ruby McGuire at a networking meeting and heard her mention her Rock Your Fabulous Biz podcast so went off to iTunes to check that out. It’s important to factor time into your schedule for CPD, but I find listening to a couple of podcasts while I’m out for a walk gets two things done at the same time. Download some for the next time you’re in the car/on a train and reach your destination with some new ideas to follow up when you get home.
What haven’t I mentioned yet? Blogs. The best are those that give you some content that leaves you thinking when you’ve finished reading. My current regular work-related reads are the SfEP blog, Louise Harnby’s Proofreader’s Parlour and the Copyediting blog.
Forums. Got a question that you want expert help with, or some suggestions for further reading on a topic? Post on a group forum (or, similar, in a LinkedIn group or on a Facebook group or page), and you could have your answer in minutes.
Books. Whether a print copy for your reference shelf, or an eBook for your Kindle library, a new book is a sure way of learning something new.
Leave a comment and tell me what you’ve learnt lately, and which are your favourite ways of learning as a freelancer.
Why you should attend your clients’ conferences and what you should do when you get there.