Diversification

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.

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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.”
Bartosz Michałowski 

“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.”
Catherine Zs

“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.”
Zoe Smith

“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!”
Sara Harden

“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!”
Helen Holwill

“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.”
Anon

“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.”
Anon

“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!”
Anon

“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.”
Anon

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.

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ELT freelance rates

ELT FREelance rates

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.