How to get repeat editorial work from publishing clients
Last updated 9 March 2023
Here’s the situation: you’ve got yourself onto a publisher’s or other editorial client’s list of freelancers 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 client seems happy (or, at least, you don’t receive any negative feedback, which is often the best feedback a busy client has time for). There’s nothing to suggest that this might not lead to repeat editorial work.
And then… nothing.
You don’t hear from the 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 things work – sometimes you just have to accept that some opportunities will lead to regular collaboration and in others you’ll only be a stand-in. There are all sorts of reasons – none of them anything to do with your skills – that might mean you aren’t rehired. For example:
- You might have been hired to fill a gap when other freelancers were unavailable (most commonly during holiday seasons).
- You might have been hired because the client needed a specialist in a particular subject. Until that specialist subject crops up again, the client might be comfortable returning to their regular pool of freelancers.
- Conversely, the book might have been a one-off that didn’t require a specialist, and you may not be suitable for the more technical subjects the client usually handles.
- The client might be relatively new and be trying out various freelancers rather than settling with the first ones they stumble across.
But maybe – just maybe – it is the case that you weren’t rehired because of something you did. And you might not have done anything as concrete 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, based on my experience since 2007 of both hiring other freelancers (as a project manager) and trying to get hired myself, contains tips to help you make the most of the above kinds of opportunities. The goal is to dazzle the client 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 others who commission freelance editorial support).
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 client or the 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 client no clean-up work to do afterwards.
2. … and prove that you’ve done so
Don’t expect that the client will 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 I haven’t been asked to do so, I always supply one. It will emphasise that you’re a professional who works systematically and knows what to look out for. Even if the client only gives it a cursory glance, its thoroughness and organisation could leave an excellent impression.
If I’m proofreading, for which a ready-made style sheet might have been supplied, I will usually send a set of brief notes or an addendum to the style sheet along with the completed job. The ability to pick out and helpfully summarise the points that the client really needs to know can speak volumes.
3. Communicate professionally
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 client frustrated with you.
Here are some basic don’ts to keep in mind:
- 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 client. As An American Editor reminded us, what the client says always goes.
- If the client 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.
- Everyone likes a good comradely moan every now and then, but there are limits. There is a fine line between colleagially sharing the pain of a tricky manuscript and drainingly griping about things that can’t be changed.
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 client is going to prefer people who are pleasant to work with.
4. Make your client feel like they’re barely managing the project
A client who feels that their freelancer can be trusted to work independently is a happy client. This means:
- Only ask those queries you can’t answer on your own (ask something that’s answered in the brief at your peril!).
- Phrase your queries in such a way as to make it easy for the client to answer (where possible, offer a set of potential solutions).
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 bit of 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 I realise I might not be able to meet a deadline, I always let the client know straight away. I’d always prefer to warn the client that the deadline might slip and then turn the job in on time anyway, rather than steam ahead in the hope of catching up and then find myself having to send an apologetic last-minute email. The former scenario allows the client to make a backup plan and inform everyone else who needs to know that there might be a delay. The latter leaves them scrabbling to find solutions and makes it less likely that other parties will be able to accommodate the change.
6. Don’t irritate the client’s authors
If your role involves direct contact with a publisher’s authors, consider this: if you annoy the author, you’re pretty much automatically going to annoy the client, because the client will have to deal with the fallout. An irritated author is usually an author who has been on the receiving end of bad communication (or not on the receiving end of any communication at all). 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.
The first project with a new client is always the most important. If you mess up, that’s your chance of repeat editorial work 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 may not make your name stick in the client’s mind. Remember that your communication is as important as the quality of your work, and your client is likely to 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 client, are there other things that freelancers do that you find particularly helpful?
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).
Thank you, Sara. I agree – a style sheet should be a basic requirement, but unfortunately it’s often treated as an optional extra.
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. http://www.cbc.ca/undertheinfluence/season-2/2013/03/16/tales-of-customer-service-1/
Thanks for the link, Adrienne. It’s helpful to think of freelancers’ interactions with clients as plain old customer service.
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!).