From time to time, someone who wants to change careers and become a full-time freelance editor will contact me and offer to take me to lunch in order to “pick my brain” or ask me a “quick question” about the business. I turn down such requests as kindly as I can.
I’ve been a full-time independent for over 13 years now. It would take me many hours to tell someone all I’ve learned about managing my business over that time, and anyway, I don’t know that I want to give all of it away for the price of a veggie burger. If there’s one thing you have to learn quickly to survive as a freelancer, it’s the value of your time and knowledge.
At the same time, it worries me to see some of the starry-eyed attitudes that abound about freelancing. I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned, and maybe I can spare the dreamers among you some pain.
First and foremost, get real about the money.
I’ve had conversations with people who think they’ll work 40 hours a week, bill at a rate of $25/hour, and make a good income. After all, 40 hours x $25/hour x 52 weeks in the year = $52,000/year. Yippee!
Wait a minute.
The reality is, you’re not actually going to work 52 weeks of the year, and you’re not going to work 40 hours of every week, either. You’re going to take vacations; you’re going to take holidays and personal time; you’re going to be sick and unable to work. And sometimes, let’s face it, you’ll just goof off. All unpaid leave.
Also, not all your working hours will be directly billable to clients. Some working time must be devoted to marketing your business and taking care of administrative tasks like billing, recordkeeping, email, etc.
The fact is, only about one-third of your work time will be spent producing. Looking for new projects and dealing with administrivia will eat up two-thirds of your time. Yes, two-thirds of your work time will not be directly billable.
And remember, as an independent, you’ll be responsible for expenses that were previously covered by your employer on your “regular” job: medical and disability insurance, retirement savings, office supplies, computer maintenance, continuing education, etc.
You’ll incur new business-related expenses for developing a website and promotional materials and doing accounting and income taxes among other things. Some tasks you’ll want to do yourself to save money, but that means more admin time for you, not billable, so maybe you’ll hire someone to do them. Spend time or spend money? Your decision. While some of your new expenses will be tax-deductible, you still have to have enough cash flow to support them.
Business will not come to you, you have to go out and get it.
Relationship-building is the most effective kind of marketing, and that takes time. If you want a relatively stable income, promotional activities must be ongoing.
How will you stand out in this crowded field? You’ll need to define your niche and create a marketing plan to reach your potential clients.
What kind of editing do you want to do? Fiction, nonfiction, academic/scientific, business? Developmental, content, substantive, copyediting? Define this before you go freelance–and certainly before you quit your day job to go full-time independent. Get specific about what you want to do and how you can reach potential clients.
I have to tell you: I absolutely love what I do. I love working with my clients and their manuscripts. But I also love managing the other aspects of my business, especially the challenges of marketing my services. If you can’t enjoy the promotional part of the business, if you think there’s a way around it, you’ll have a hard time making it as an independent.
Take all of this into account when you dream about your income as a freelancer and before you set your rates.
Take an honest look at your personal budget and have a deep understanding of how much income you need to survive—and thrive. Research the pricing conventions in the industry and the fees the market will bear. Think about how you can distinguish your business from others and plan what you will do to reach and promote to the niche you intend to serve. Write all this down to make it real.
Remember: If you go independent you’ll be a business owner, not an employee. You must be self-directed in all ways. (I haven’t even addressed time management!) You’ll need to be a good editor, of course, but you’ll also need to be a good marketer and administrator. See if you can make the numbers work for you. Dip your toe in, and try freelancing part-time before you quit your day job. Do some serious reflection and decide whether you have what it takes to be a full-time solo entrepreneur.