When it comes to your career, it’s easy to focus on the 9-5, but wthat about freelancing? Our November event brought a crash course in the world of freelancing across a number of areas in publishing. We discovered more about an increasingly important part of the publishing ecosystem, and how skills can be turned into a freelance role.
Meet the panel:
Chaired by Heather McDaid, SYP Scotland’s Social Media Officer and freelancer, we were joined by Fiona Brownlee, PR, Marketing and Rights at Brownlee Donald Associates, Jamie Norman, Publicity & Marketing for Vintage and Julie Fergusson, Editor and Proofreader at Julie Fergusson Literary Services.
Jamie has at this point worked in publishing for 10 months doing media coverage for Vintage Books remotely including tracking cuttings, reviews, publicity and marketing assistance. Before securing his current work he interned for Canongate, did some editorial work for students and he writes his own poetry which has been published in a number of magazines.
Fiona describes herself as literally the ‘vintage’ publisher. She got her first job in publishing a number of years back through a London SYP conference before getting married and moving to Edinburgh to work at Mainstream. When Mainstream folded she set up as her own company offering PR, marketing and rights services.
Julie has been a full-time freelance editor for just over a year now which came about from internships and a job in sales at Birlinn. When she knew she wanted to pursue editorial over sales, which she was doing part time freelance so she left and went freelance full time.
Freelancing: “A leap worth taking.”
When asked what the transition to freelance from their previous roles was like Fiona immediately said it was “terrifying” and she “didn’t want to do it at all”! But as Mainstream offered good notice of operations closing down Fiona was able to mentally and practically prepare herself for the next step. Profile Books’ Andrew Frankin encouraged and inspired Fiona to use her fruitful publishing contacts and take the leap. “It was a leap worth taking,” she says, with one of her first jobs being from Canongate and the work just continued from there.
Julie left her sales position at Birlinn as her long-term goal was always editorial. “I had to go for it,” she explains. “Once I put myself out there I was pleasantly surprised of how well it went.” Jamie, on the other hand, was a rights intern with Canongate through SYP Scotland. Fiona helped him get his first position at Vintage when a considerable portion of their publicity and marketing assistants were on leave and from the beginning Jamie found himself in above a number of interns – quite the jump!
When asked how important contacts within the industry are Fiona said, simply, “so, so important.” Anything that you’re doing with anyone can create a contact. Though we talk a lot about going from a 9-5 job to freelancing, doing time as a freelancer can lead to a big career role or for your own business and contacts are vital to this.
Julie had contacts from internships and she used her time productively to intern with Jenny Brown Associates. Going to London Book Fair and Frankfurt Book Fair was a huge boost in her contacts so it is naturally recommended as a potential avenue for boosting professional networks.
It’s all well and good working on the contacts but what about the skills to get you there? How do you find the skills that work for you and that you can monetise? Jamie says to try a few things. He volunteered a lot, did many events as an undergraduate at Aberdeen and also at the Edinburgh Fringe. These are the kind of things at which you can discover what you like and what you’re good at. “I found I’m quite good at Twitter. I want to be talking about these books.”
Fiona points out that once you’ve found the skills you want to sell it’s tough to know what to ask rates-wise. She was maybe a little too ambitious in the beginning and brought her rates down a tad but stresses that new freelancers should not undercharge. She worries that a lot of new freelancers undersell themselves and can’t make ends meet. Julie felt a similar awkwardness in asking for her payment but stresses that you have to ask – publishers will never offer more, you always need to ask (and they won’t necessarily say no!). Jamie negotiated with his employers to have the same rates as the assistants at the same level as him and they obliged. It’s all about stating and standing by your worth and expertise.
To build that expertise how much free work should freelancers do for ‘exposure’? Julie turned down some work at the beginning as it just wasn’t fitting into what she wanted to do. Fiona encourages us to do something we enjoy, if we’re going to do it for free. If it’s your own project you won’t mind doing it for free and it will build your skills and confidence. Jamie sees the ‘exposure’ argument mostly in the literary magazine industry where the perk of unpaid work is publication and consequential exposure. As Jamie writes poetry as a passion he doesn’t mind putting it out there for exposure but is increasingly aware that some publications do pay so they receive his best work! He has turned down a publishing job as it refused to cover his travel or wages for a trial month ahead of a decision – couldn’t bring himself to do that much unpaid labour.
“I’m in a bubble quite a lot of the time.”
Freelancing isn’t all lie ins and leisurely hours. Fiona struggles with not having the power that in-house staff have over some decisions and information, eg, publishing schedules. She currently works harder now than she ever did in-house and she does so to keep her contacts happy.
Julie doesn’t have quite so much interaction with her clients as an editor and feels like she’s “in a bubble quite a lot of the time, as it’s just me and my work.” She works flexible hours but tries to be conscious about not letting it eat into her evenings or weekends too much. After three-and-a-half years in publishing, and one year as a freelancer, she’s still working on that balance.
Jamie can’t switch off in his day-to-day routine. He’s always seeing books and thinking how the marketing is working, whether they’re books he’s working on or not. As Fiona points out, when it’s your own business and work, you care so much more. There’s truly no leaving it behind at the end of the day.
On the point of practicalities, Jamie strongly urges any budding freelancers to check everything you need to do to register as self-employed with HMRC and rightly register your UTR (unique tax reference) as it could save a lot of hassle in the future. Fiona actually set herself up as a limited company and got an accountant to deal with her affairs. Julie luckily has no horror stories – straight-forward taxes and expenses are managed!
On the topic of more pleasant things, Heather asks the panel their favourite projects. Fiona highlights this year’s Bloody Scotland crime writing festival due to the collaborative community of writers and promoters and it was nice to get out of the office for a weekend. Her work on Hidden Life of Trees also gained significant coverage right after the Bloody Scotland weekend. She had to work through holidays to get it all prepared but it was still a highlight for her.
Jamie enjoyed the challenge of promoting Emma Cline’s The Girls as Cline has zero social media presence. She left Vintage in charge of all marketing and it went really, really well. Julie has enjoyed working on upcoming title The Night Visitor (Quercus), coming soon!
“Twitter is a Godsend.”
Questions from the audience brought up the matter of tips for getting those crucial first contacts and clients.
Fiona again pushes the importance of networking. PR people are easy to network with but editorial might not be so easy. This is why Twitter is the perfect go to. She also suggests entering yourself for any trade awards you think you might be eligible for. Even if you know you haven’t got much of a chance, just getting an entry form in front of judges could bring you to a new audience.
Julie urges getting a good website. She felt self-conscious having a professional website at first but it’s only been a good thing and has brought in lots of work. Never hold yourself back even if you’re shy! Jamie says, simply, “Twitter is a Godsend.”
Though the freelance publishing route is by no means the easy one, it can be a fruitful one should you be driven enough to bring in the clients and take the time to build your skills to a professional level. Freelancing brings a kind of flexibility and variation that is completely unique and is definitely a route worth considering in both the early and later stages of your publishing career.
Also, top tip: check out reedsy.com – a place for publishers and authors to find freelancers to help throughout the book process.