Every now and then, I see a forum or social media post from a desperate editor. ‘Please tell me, is it really possible to earn a full-time living as a freelance editor?’
The editor has usually been working for themselves for a while, not earning very much and hoping that things will pick up over time, and yet months or years have gone by and they’re still eating beans on toast for dinner and wearing three jumpers to keep warm instead of putting the heating on in winter.
They wonder if every other editor is in the same boat but hiding it, trying to fake it till they make it. They wonder if everyone else has a spouse that pays the bills. They wonder if the industry is too competitive or the fees clients are willing to pay too low to make any kind of decent living.
And every time, the post attracts a myriad of replies that can usually be summarised as: ‘Yes, you can make a full-time living as an editor, but it’s hard and you have to know what you’re doing.’
This is true.
Building and running a business is hard. Fully understanding your industry is hard. Carving out and connecting to your corner of the market is hard. Making sure you work smartly and efficiently is hard.
And knowing how to do all this is crucial.
There’s a tendency among self-employed editors to get fixated on the idea of what a freelance editor is, as though ‘freelance editor’ is a set role with an immutable pre-existing job description. They believe all editors work the same way, within the same industry. You just have to set yourself up as an editor, and you’ve automatically tapped into that world.
Except that’s not how things work.
Being a freelance editor is not just one thing. Every single freelance editor has essentially set themselves up as a one-person business. And the most successful businesses are not those that conform, but those that find their unique positioning.
An editor who provides developmental editing to self-publishing authors of YA fiction will have a very different business to an editor who provides copy-editing and proofreading to educational publishers with a focus on maths and science texts.
How they train, how they market themselves and how they conduct their services will all be very different, and each of those things (and how well they do them) will determine whether these editors can earn a decent living.
That’s one piece of the puzzle.
But here’s something else, which I don’t think gets talked about much.
Editorial business owners are also entrepreneurs. Or at least, they can be.
Sure, there are lots of editors who make a very decent living by filling their days exclusively with editing work and are happy to do so. But this isn’t the only path, and it doesn’t work for everyone.
It doesn’t work for me.
I can’t focus for more than around three hours a day on a copy-edit, and, quite frankly, I don’t want to spend the best part of my week fixing errant commas. I need variation and creativity in my work.
Being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean you have to invent an innovative new product or move to Silicon Valley. No, all it means is that you need to think creatively about your business.
Maybe you believe that if you build similar products to everyone else in your industry, you can have a piece of the same pie. But, that pie has a finite number of slices, and it might not suit your tastes. Sometimes it’s better just to bake a new pie.
You can have a piece of the pie that is the editing industry. But you might find it easier and more fulfilling to bake your own pies, too.
What products or services can you offer that no one else is offering? What knowledge or skills do you have that others are willing to pay for? How can you diversify what your business offers to better serve your clients?
Perhaps you can create some online courses. Perhaps you can build a YouTube channel or start a podcast that patrons are willing to support. Perhaps you can write a book, or lots of books. Perhaps you can run workshops or get paid to talk at events. Perhaps you can create awesome services packages, even partnering with other branches of the publishing industry, like book design and distribution. Perhaps you can create beautiful literary-themed jewellery and sell it online. Perhaps you can offer mentoring or coaching. Perhaps you can learn how to design book covers and typeset pages for publication. Perhaps you can build a gated online community with a monthly membership fee.
I’ve seen every single one of these strategies work for people. Perhaps you’ll come up with something different.
It’s completely possible to make a full-time living as a freelance editor, but it can be hard to cut yourself the most profitable piece of that pie. Don’t forget that there are so many ways you can expand your business, make it different, make it profitable.
Life is so much better when you can have more than one kind of pie – or when you create one from your own amazing recipe.