Self-employment is not for everyone, but many publishing professionals thrive, or at least survive, in a freelance capacity. Before you decide whether to join them, however, keep these factors in mind:
You probably won’t get rich from freelance writing or editing, but the qualitative rewards are manifest. Self-employed editorial professionals are hereby excused from useless, time-wasting, poorly run meetings. (Freelancers sometimes need to attend in-person or online meetings as part of a project they’ve been hired for, but such gatherings tend to be more efficient than the average company or department to-do.)
Freelancers also are fortunate enough to be able to avoid demoralizing company policies, depressing workplace ambience, petty office politics, inept managers, and annoying colleagues. Then there’s that whole commuting thing — and no traffic reports (unless you want to tune in just for the sake of nostalgia). When you work at home, you also get to choose what kind of clothes you wear — or whether you wear anything at all.
But self-employment is a challenge, especially for those who do not have a strong aptitude for business management — after all, you, as a freelancer, are running a business. Therefore, you have no one but yourself (unless you hire someone) to manage your finances or your marketing. Each year, if you’re a US citizen, you must submit a profit-or-loss statement and figure (and pay) a self-employment tax, and you should always be working on getting your next project while you’re completing your current one.
Furthermore, your income will be variable. And if you’re paid a flat fee, false starts and dead-end ideas don’t earn you any money. Fiction writers, especially, have to put in seemingly endless hours in a gamble to earn a decent living in royalties — and you’re nowhere near done even when the not-so-final draft of your manuscript is accepted.
Still determined to go independent? Then follow my advice:
1. Find an anchor client. Your first priority is to enter into a relationship with a company that provides you with a steady source of work that provides you with enough income to get by. Everything else is just frosting on the cake, but bake the cake first.
2. Don’t be particular — at first. Certainly, you should search your soul for what kind of content you’d like to work on. But when you’re starting out, accept any assignment that involves writing or editing words — and, even though you should have a pay range in mind, be prepared to accept less compensation than is ideal. You can always ask for a “raise” later, and you can always increase your rate when you are engaged by new clients.
3. Be flexible about your rates. I’ve varied my hourly editing rate by up to $50, depending on the client. Online research will yield extensive information about the market rate for writing and editing in various media, in different industries, and so on. You may very well end up straddling two or more markets, and your pay rate may vary substantially. (Also, if you’re asked what rate you’ll accept, rather than offered one, propose a range with a $5-$10 differential starting at your minimum.)
4. Don’t give up your day job. Not right away, at any rate. Nights, weekends, summer vacations for educators — these are the opportunities to wade into the freelance pool. Even if your steady job is making you mentally unsteady, stick it out until you have an anchor client. The transition period may exhaust you as you try to juggle full-time work, your personal life, and your efforts to start your own business, but you may be able to jettison your job sooner than you think. (Or you can work for a part-time salary and be self-employed, too.)
5. Keep it simple. You don’t need much in the way of infrastructure. You can probably get away without business cards. You don’t need a fancy-looking invoice template. Some self-employed people rent a small office or use an outbuilding as a way of separating their professional life from their personal one, but few of us can afford that luxury. Turning a spare room into an office, or using an existing study, or even setting aside part of a bedroom or a family room, is sufficient for most people. (But make sure others in your household know that when you’re on the clock, you’re off limits.)
Remember, too, that self-employment will always be hard work — but virtually any employment is a hard work, and being your own boss is its own reward.
Note: The DWT Freelance Writing Course will re-open September, so stay tuned.