I have a complicated relationship with money, but then I suspect most of us do.
I’ve never had a great deal of it. I don’t come from a wealthy family. I worry about my future and whether I’ll be able to continue to support myself. Even with savings in the bank, I struggle to feel secure.
Yet in every decision I’ve made for myself regarding my career, earning lots of money has never been that high up on my priority list. Without really thinking about it, freedom has always been my driving force.
As far back as school, teachers put a lot of pressure on me and my fellow students to choose our subjects carefully, consider the careers we wanted. At fourteen years old, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living, so I decided to just choose the subjects I enjoyed. When it came to choosing a course for university, I was torn between pursuing art, philosophy and literature.
I decided literature would probably provide more career opportunities in the long run, yet even as I approached the end of my degree, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work with books, and so I assumed I’d work in a publishing house. My creative writing tutor told me I’d make a good editor.
Working in a Publishing House
After graduating, I managed to get my foot in the publishing door and landed a job as an editorial assistant at a big educational publisher. I quickly learned that because so many people want to work with books, the publishing industry is fiercely competitive and salaries are considered pretty low as a result, especially for entry-level jobs.
At the time, I felt rich. I’d never had an annual salary before! I’d only ever worked part-time minimum wage jobs. Now I was taking home £18,000 a year. That actually put me in the richest 5% of the world’s population.
Eighteen grand doesn’t get you very far if you live in or near London, though – the most expensive area of the country and where all the major publishing houses are based.
I soon witnessed how all the entry-level editorial workers would get stuck for years in their positions since there were not enough senior positions to move into. Even as our expertise, competence and workload grew, our salaries and titles didn’t move – not by much, anyway. A few assistant editors nabbed jobs in other publishing houses, but a lot of people either switched careers or jumped into another sector of publishing, like finance or marketing.
Though I greatly valued my time spent in that publishing house, I realised something pretty quickly: none of the in-house editors got to actually grapple with texts. All the actual editing was outsourced to freelancers.
I wanted to work with words. And I wanted to work with fiction. I wasn’t sure I’d find the right role for me inside a publishing house. Especially because the thought of getting up at the crack of dawn and commuting into Central London for the rest of my life made me want to throw myself in front of a train.
Going freelance seemed like the way forward.
I did some research and discovered there was much more to freelance editing than I first realised. I’d had a little insight into it while working in-house. As part of my induction, one of the desk editors (editors who are in charge of production) talked me through the whole publishing process and showed me some marked-up manuscripts. Ah, this is what I wanted to do!
So after a year at the publishing house, I quit my job (and my salary) to become a freelance editor. I hadn’t yet moved out of my mum’s house, and luckily she and her partner agreed to let me stay a little longer as I established myself.
I didn’t really know what I was doing. I continued to work for the educational publishing house I’d just left, only now on a freelance basis and from my mum’s dining room. Also during that time, I took a course to learn more about copy-editing and set up a website.
My income took a hit during those months, even though a lot of people think freelance editors charge a lot. I learned I needed to get used to an irregular salary and inconsistent cashflow. Soon, I felt my income was stable enough to allow me to move out of my mum’s house and find a place with my boyfriend. We decided to move to a cheaper part of the country because of my low, unstable income and split the bills 40/60.
We lived together that way for three stressful, wonderful years. Sometimes we’d argue about money. Sometimes I’d despair and start looking for a ‘real’ job. But I just knew I could make this freelancing thing work. I just needed time to figure it out.
I lived somewhere I loved. I didn’t have to commute. I didn’t have to get up at a certain time or go to bed at a certain time. I was working with words. With fiction. These were the things that made it all worth it.
As long as I could keep my head above water financially, this is what I wanted to do.
The Freedom to Travel
I floundered during those years, and I learned a lot through trial and error. I continued to refine my business … and eventually I felt stable enough to convince my boyfriend to also go freelance (he’s a web developer) and travel through Europe with me, giving up our little house and taking our work with us.
At that point, I still wasn’t making nearly as much as I had as an in-house editorial assistant. But it didn’t matter. I had a business that fed and sheltered me and allowed me the freedom to work anywhere and whenever I wanted, in the way the suited me best.
Where I Am Now
Fast forward a few more years and here I am, with savings in the bank and a foot just about on the property ladder. (We’re living back near London and my boyfriend’s – now fiancé’s – brother owns most of the apartment we all bought together.)
I still don’t consider myself financially rich, but I now earn more than I did at my entry-level publishing job and I feel pretty secure.
It can be hard to make a full-time living from freelance editing. But if you get the foundations of your business right and are willing to put in the hours, it can be incredibly lucrative. I know editors who make £50,000 a year!
I know I could earn more than I do. But I decide to limit the number of projects I take on and the hours I work in a day to suit my personal energy levels and health issues.
I also make sure I put time into developing and marketing my business so I’m able to work with clients I connect with and on manuscripts that excite me. Not only does this make me happier, but it means I can provide a better service to my clients.
A good working relationship benefits both parties. And if I connect with my clients’ work, I can provide a deeper level of insight and a more nuanced edit.
It takes time to continually develop and market a business. Every editorial business owner needs to do this to find clients, but I perhaps spend more time than average on these tasks, and those hours could be spent on paid work that puts more cash in my bank account. But to me the exchange is worth it.
Sometimes new editors – or those considering starting their own editing business – ask me how much money they can expect to make. It’s impossible to provide an answer because there are so many factors at play.
A new editor might struggle to find their feet, as I did. I’m sure I would have earned more sooner if I’d been taught how to brand my business and set up a decent website.
Of course, editors need to make a living – but it’s also important to consider all the other ways working for yourself in an industry you love makes you rich.