I took my first step into the world of publishing when I became an editorial assistant for a small music publisher back in 2008. It was a wonderfully steep learning curve and within the space of a few months I was doing everything: project managing, developing, editing and proofreading music textbooks. I spent another 8 years working in-house for educational publishers including Pearson and OUP before going freelance in 2017.
Having been on both sides of the fence, I thought I’d do a blog post on some of the main benefits of each (at least as far as I see them). This is just my own experience, but I hope it’ll perhaps help anyone who’s trying to work out which route to pursue. Or maybe it’ll just be of mild interest if you haven’t experienced both.
Benefits of being an in-house editor
Being part of a team. This is the thing that I probably miss the most, and I’m not even a particularly sociable person. But there’s something very fulfilling about working together with other people to bring books out into the world. I miss being able to turn to someone at the next desk and have a small gripe about a colleague’s latest email, or ask them for help on how to phrase a query for an author. I miss having a chat about what we got up to at the weekend during a tea break. I’ve been lucky to work with some great people in-house and I still miss them.
Stable, secure pay. Plus a pension. I took these for granted before I went freelance. Pension contributions used to be a boring, unappreciated benefit that I’m now old enough to miss. And money certainly feels less stressful and more manageable when you know exactly how much is coming in each month.
Being paid to take holidays. Also tea breaks. I took these for granted too. The fact that you can turn up to an in-house job feeling a bit grotty, coast through the morning with a headache, take as many tea breaks as you can, spend 20 minutes in the afternoon eating cake to celebrate someone’s birthday, waste an hour in a department-wide meeting that isn’t directly relevant to you, then leave 15 minutes early to go home and collapse on the sofa, and still get paid for a full day’s work, is something that I completely failed to appreciate when I worked in-house. Because now if I don’t do the work, I simply don’t get paid for it. I can’t have ‘off’ days without it directly affecting my income. (Disclaimer: it’s not that I was particularly lazy when I worked in-house, just that – like pretty much everyone, I suspect – I had days where I struggled to work at full capacity due to illness or tiredness or whatever.)
Also, holidays now effectively cost twice as much, because a) I have to pay for the holiday itself, and b) I don’t earn anything while I’m taking it.
Seeing projects through from beginning to end. There’s something quite satisfying about taking ownership of a whole project, from when the manuscript lands on your desk to sending the final files off to press. I liked being able to make decisions that felt like they mattered; I liked being able to make sure a book adhered to my high standards. I think the perfectionist/control freak in me still hasn’t learned to fully let go and accept that my role as quality control manager now stops once the manuscript goes to be typeset, and that not every client I work for will want me to care as much as I did (and was allowed to) when I worked in-house.
More varied work. As a freelancer, the bulk of my time is spent sitting at my desk editing books. At times it can feel pretty monotonous. Progress is largely measured by how many words I’ve edited, and my brain has to be switched on constantly. Working in-house felt more varied, and it wasn’t always so mentally taxing. Rather than just spend the morning editing another 5,000 words, I might have switched from sending a few emails to casting my eye over a sample design to writing some marketing copy to sitting through a meeting to doing a bit of development editing. I miss that variety.
More input into projects. I never officially worked as a commissioning editor in-house, but I always enjoyed sticking my nose into the commissioning process, helping to determine the structure, content and design of new books. All those countless decisions that get made throughout the course of a project largely bypass the freelance editor, and I miss that sense of involvement.
You’ll (probably) have a job tomorrow. By this I mean that when you work in-house, you don’t have to spend your evenings marketing yourself to make sure you’ve still got your job a few weeks or months down the line. I’ve only recently started to take marketing seriously and it’s amazing how much of a time sink it is. Not having to worry about it is a definite perk of being in-house.
It's easier to leave work behind at the office. Or maybe this one doesn’t apply so much now that everyone’s working at home. But when I was in-house, I found it much easier to switch off from work; these days it’s not so much the work itself that follows me around as the things that surround it, like CPD and marketing and networking and the stuff that basically expands to fill whatever time you’ll allow it to.
More obvious career progression. In most publishing houses there’s a fairly obvious and well-defined path that takes you from, say, editorial assistant to assistant editor to editor to senior editor to commissioning editor to publisher. With freelancing, ‘career progression’ is a much more fluid and ambiguous thing that you have to define for yourself, and it isn’t necessarily attached to a pay rise.
Benefits of being a freelance editor
Actually getting to edit. For me this is probably the biggest upside of freelancing. I now do far less project management and far more editing. In-house editorial positions that actually involve any decent amount of editing seem to have become a rare and precious thing. Most of them require tolerating what can, at times, be quite a lot of tedious admin and project management work.
Choosing what to work on. I think this is another big upside. I love the fact that if I want to (and can afford to), I can say no to any project that comes my way. And in the long term, I can decide what type of clients I want to work for and what material I want to work on. I don’t have a boss who can assign me a 6-month project I have minimal interest in. I don’t have to spend project after project working with a difficult author who is too important for the publisher to ditch.
The potential for well-paid, secure work. I think it’s easy to view freelancing as less ‘secure’ than working in-house, but if you’re made redundant from an in-house position (or your short-term contract comes to an end) then you’ve suddenly got no income, and finding another position (that you actually want) may take some time. But if you’ve got a steady and varied stream of freelance clients then it’s unlikely that all of them will bail on you all at once (unless, ha ha, there’s a global pandemic). And a steady and varied stream of well-paid freelance clients is something that I’ve heard enough rumours about to convince me that it’s possible to achieve with a fair bit of work and dedication. I’m hoping to inch towards this goal in the next few years.
Flexibility and control. The idea that I can’t be in charge of when and how and where I work is something that now seems horribly limiting. I now take it for granted that I can go out for a walk with the puppy at 4pm, or take a Tesco’s delivery during the day, or finish early if my head’s simply not working. Even working in the evening or at the weekend isn’t something I mind half as much as I used to (though I try not to do it), because I chose to take on that work and I know I’m getting paid for it.
Wearing pyjamas. I do actually get dressed before I start work, but I appreciate not having to dress up smartly (or even half smartly). I was never particularly good at fitting into an office culture and I don’t miss it.
No commuting. When I worked in London, my commute gradually got longer and longer as I moved further out of the city, until I spent around 6 months doing the 2-hour commute from Oxford. The thought of having to sit on a cramped train while the person next to me munches through a bag of crisps still fills me with dread. (I’d like to say that I spend the extra time saved from not commuting by doing productive, useful things, but I mostly I just spend it asleep.)
Not having to take responsibility for problems. When I started freelancing, I quite enjoyed the new sense of serenity that came from knowing I could shift any major problems back onto the publisher. The author’s manuscript is a plagiarised mess but he doesn’t have time to rewrite it and wants to bail? No longer my problem: the publisher can deal with that headache and stress. Of course the downside to not having that responsibility is that you don’t have that responsibility… it’s both a positive (less stressful) and negative (less fulfilling).
I enjoyed working in-house. But when I was booted out in 2017 (on a short-term contract, as seems to be the case more often these days), I was willing to give freelancing a go. I kept an eye out for in-house jobs but was very picky about what I wanted (both in terms of the job and the length of the commute), which meant I found little I actually wanted to apply for.
I’m now pretty happy freelancing. I’m not really an office sort of person. I get to live in the countryside and walk the puppy. I don’t have to commute. I get to spend most of my time actually editing. I like the flexibility of deciding what I choose to work on and when I work and all of that. My income has definitely suffered, but I’m hoping that a few years of putting effort into marketing and CPD will pay off (literally) over time.
I go through occasional periods where I miss being part of a team and the monotony of freelancing gets to me, and I toy with the idea of going back in-house, but I think the longer I freelance, the harder it’ll be to have to go back into an office. I guess we’ll see if that changes in the future.