How to make your publishing client love you

Here’s the situation: you’ve got yourself onto a publisher’s list and, after a few months, you receive an email offering interesting work at a great rate of pay. You accept the job and complete it on deadline and to the best of your abilities, and the project manager (PM) seems happy (or, at least, you don’t receive any negative feedback, which is often the best feedback a busy PM has time for).

And then… nothing.

You don’t hear from that client again and are left feeling disappointed and perhaps even unsettled, wondering how you scuppered your chances of follow-up work .

Often, this is just the way the game works. The more established freelancers realise this and accept that some opportunities will lead to a regular gig and in others they’ll just be a stand-in. There are all sorts of reasons – none of them anything to do with a freelancer’s skills – that might mean they aren’t rehired. For example:

  1. They might have been hired to fill a gap when other freelancers were unavailable (most commonly during holiday seasons).
  2. They might have been hired because the PM needed a specialist in a particular subject. Until that specialist subject crops up again, the PM might be comfortable returning to their regular pool of freelancers.
  3. Conversely, the book might have been a one-off that didn’t require a specialist, and the freelancer may not be suitable for the more technical subjects the PM usually handles.
  4. The PM might be relatively new and be trying out various freelancers rather than settling with the first ones they stumble across.

But, of course, it’s also entirely possible that the freelancer might not have been rehired because they did fall short in some way. And not necessarily in as concrete a way as making a mistake – there are all sorts of more nebulous ways of failing to make a good impression.

In my previous posts I explained why getting onto a publisher’s list might not be a golden ticket to getting work and offered some advice on using LinkedIn to bump yourself up to the top of the pile.  This post contains tips to help you make the most of the above kinds of opportunities and make sure you dazzle the PM so much that they’re falling over themselves to rehire you (or, if they can’t rehire you for whatever reason, that they remember you for the future or perhaps recommend you to other PMs).

So, here we go.

How to make your publishing client love you

1. Do a really solid, consistent and thoughtful job…

Going the extra mile is great and certainly earns brownie points if you’re trying to impress a new contact. But, when I commission a freelancer, I’m mainly looking for a thorough, consistent job that follows the brief and style guide.

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to make clever, complex changes to the manuscript and missing the more basic stuff. The complex changes may not be wanted by the publisher or author in any case (and, even if they are theoretically desirable, it may already have been judged that there’s insufficient time or budget to implement them). By all means query whether the complex changes are wanted, but the most important thing is to do the job that was agreed, on time, and to a standard that leaves the PM no clean-up work to do afterwards.

2. … and prove that you’ve done so

Don’t expect that the PM will thumb (or click) lovingly through every page of the manuscript, exclaiming in delight at all the wonderful decisions you’ve made and how you’ve consistently ensured that all ‘pseudo-‘ compounds are closed. The more likely scenario is that they will give the manuscript a quick check for obvious errors and to ensure that you’ve followed the brief, and then send it straight on to the next stage in the process.

A style sheet is therefore a fantastic advocate of your skills. Even if you haven’t been asked for one, supply one. It will emphasise that you’re a professional who works systematically and knows what to look out for. Even if the PM only gives it a cursory glance, its thoroughness and organisation could leave an excellent impression.

If you’re proofreading, for which a ready-made style sheet might have been supplied, consider sending a set of brief notes or an addendum to the style sheet along with the completed job. Your ability to pick out and helpfully summarise the points that the PM really needs to know will speak volumes.

3. Observe basic standards of polite human communication

This one should be a given, but (thankfully occasional) experiences have shown me that this is not always the case. When I’m working with a freelancer, I don’t need or want them to bow to my every whim – I believe the best working relationships are based on partnerships, not hierarchy. But don’t make your PM dislike you.

Here are some basic don’ts to keep in mind:

  1. If you have an opinion, give it. But accept that, even if you’re ‘right’, you may be overruled as a consequence of other factors. Don’t continue to argue your case – all you’ll do is irritate the PM. As An American Editor recently reminded us, what the client says always goes.
  2. If the PM discovers that you’ve made a mistake and emails or calls you to discuss it, don’t try to obfuscate your way out of it. Instead, think of the situation as an opportunity to demonstrate your professionalism. Apologise, request the opportunity to put the mistake right and briefly explain what went wrong and why it’ll never happen again. That way, you’re far more likely to salvage the relationship.
  3. Everyone likes a good comradely moan every now and then, but there are limits. Don’t gripe unduly about factors the PM can do nothing about (for example, a publisher’s fixed rate of pay). Overly negative people are draining to work with.

If you’re truly brilliant, you’ll likely be able to get away with having a few more prickles than average. But realistically, all other things being equal, a PM is going to prefer people who are pleasant to work with.

4. Make your PM feel like they’re barely managing the project

A PM who feels that their freelancer can be trusted to work independently is a happy PM. This means:

  1. only asking those queries you can’t answer on your own (ask something that’s answered in the brief at your peril!) and
  2. phrasing your queries in such a way as to make it easy for the PM to answer (where possible, offer a set of alternative solutions for the PM to pick from).

Whatever you do, don’t avoid asking necessary questions (indeed, always err on the side of caution – much better to circumvent a potential misunderstanding early on). But do ensure that your queries give an impression that you’ve thought the issue through and that you aren’t just uttering a general cry for help.

5. The deadline is the most important few words on the brief

This doesn’t mean that the deadline should be adhered to at the expense of all else (sometimes moving it is the only option). But it does mean that the deadline should always be your first thought when a complication arises.

If you realise you might not be able to meet it, let your client know straight away. It’s better to warn the PM that the deadline might slip and then turn the job in on time anyway than it is to steam on in the hope of catching up and then find yourself having to send an apologetic last-minute email. The former scenario allows the PM to make a backup plan and inform everyone else who needs to know that there might be a delay. The latter leaves her scrabbling to find solutions and makes it less likely that other parties will be able to accommodate the change. What seems like an insignificant few days could lead to a book missing its allotted window at the printer and consequently not being ready in time for an important promotional spot at a conference.

6. Don’t irritate the author

If your role involves direct contact with authors, consider this: if you annoy the author, you’re pretty much automatically going to annoy the PM, because the PM will have to deal with the fallout. I strongly believe that an irritated author is an author who has been on the receiving end of bad communication (or not on the receiving end at all – that might be the problem). Keep the author informed about what you need from them and when, let them know what you suggest changing and how the changes will be beneficial for the book and the reader, and take the time to address their concerns. That way, you’re extremely unlikely to have a supposedly ‘difficult’ author on your hands.

In summary, the first project with a new client is always the most important. If you mess up, that’s your chance gone: with no good track record, the client will have no reason to give you a second chance. And, equally, just doing a good job might not be good enough – average will not make your name stick in the PM’s mind. So, remember that your communication is as important as the quality of your work, and your client will love you for it.

What have you found works in terms of getting new clients to notice you and getting established clients to keep sending you work? If you’re a PM, are there other things that freelancers do that you find particularly helpful?

About Hazel Bird

Hazel is an editorial project manager, copyeditor and proofreader who works with businesses, charities, publishers, academics and students to make their projects happen. She was once described as ’superhuman’ and is still wondering whether this is a good thing.


  1. Sara Peacock on April 2, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    Another excellent post, Hazel – thank you. These should all be standard work practices for publishing professionals, but I have often been surprised that some freelancers don’t seem to know or practise some of these things (e.g. not supplying a stylesheet with a completed job).

    • Hazel@WordstitchEdit on April 2, 2013 at 12:43 pm

      Thank you, Sara. I agree – a style sheet should be a basic requirement, but unfortunately it’s often treated as an optional extra.

  2. Adrienne (scieditor) on April 2, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    These are good tips. This is a post I can direct people to when they ask. It’s good for newbies to learn, as well as a way for mid-career editors to boost their business.

    I was listening to one of my favourite marketing shows this weekend. The episode focussed on “really great customer service.” This got me thinking of how I might apply some of those principles to my own business (freelance editorial services). It’s from CBC’s “Under the Influence,” in case you’re interested.

    • Hazel@WordstitchEdit on April 3, 2013 at 6:50 am

      Thanks for the link, Adrienne. It’s helpful to think of freelancers’ interactions with clients as plain old customer service.

  3. Harriet Power on February 2, 2021 at 3:30 pm

    I just came across this post – it’s great advice. I’d never considered before the idea that a stylesheet can act as proof you’ve done a good job, but it makes a lot of sense (when I was project managing in-house I rarely got given stylesheets and often struggled to asses whether a freelancer had done a good job in the limited time I had to look over their work). Another thing I appreciated when in-house was prompt replies (or at least not really slow ones!).

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