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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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.

The 2016 survey of freelance ELT editorial rates – some conclusions

ELT FREelance rates

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.

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.