Getting repeat freelance work from publishers


This isn’t a blog post about how to find work from publishers. It’s about how to make sure that first job you land leads to another one. It builds on two excellent blog posts by the editor and project manager Hazel Bird, on how freelance editors can develop good relationships with publishing clients. They can be found here and here, and I highly recommend taking a look at them.


Of course getting repeat work starts with doing a good job. That goes without saying. But it’s important to realise that in-house staff are usually too busy to check your work carefully. (Plus if they have to do this then it almost defeats the point of freelancing out the work in the first place.) So it’s the extra things around the work that are more likely to make an impression.


Here are some ways to make sure a publishing client wants to give you repeat work. (This builds on Hazel’s excellent advice with things I appreciated when I was working in-house. It’s advice I try to follow in my own work, which for the past four years has almost entirely consisted of repeat work from publishers.)


Write polite, respectful emails that are easy to digest and take action on.

Keep them as succinct as you can, while also providing all the information your project manager needs to answer your queries or resolve an issue (i.e. don’t make them hunt for extra information elsewhere if you can help it).


Read and follow the brief carefully.

Don’t ask questions that have been answered in the brief! And make sure you get permission to step outside the brief before doing so.


Having said that…


Don’t ignore problems.

If you find major issues in the manuscript (even if they fall outside your remit), raise them with the publisher. Do this politely (you don’t know if they’re already aware of the issue and have chosen to ignore it, or they plan to get it fixed by someone else).


Another way of putting the last point is:


Take ownership of the project.

This basically means caring about the project as much as the publisher does, and engaging with it fully. I think it’s often the questions you ask (either of the author or the project manager) that show whether you care and you’re engaged.


Be proactive about suggesting solutions to problems.

Offer to own those solutions if you can.


(Bad: ‘I was doing some fact-checking and OMG I can’t believe this but the author’s copied this paragraph from Wikipedia. What should I do?!’ Better: ‘I was doing some fact-checking and found the author’s copied this paragraph from Wikipedia. I spot-checked the rest of the chapter and found a couple of other instances of Wikipedia copying. I can raise this with the author and ask them to rewrite these sections (assuming that’s ok with you), but was wondering if you want to run the whole book through a plagiarism checker? Or I could spend another hour spot-checking the rest of the book to get a better sense of how widespread the problem is?’)


Own up to your mistakes.

(If you can’t silently fix them first.)


I think it can be really tempting to quietly let things slide sometimes, but as a project manager I’d much rather know if a freelancer has handed in some or all of the manuscript and then realised they’ve forgotten to format half the references, or spelled someone’s name wrong throughout, or whatever. That at least gives the publisher a chance to fix the problem.


Here’s an example: I recently took on a job involving inputting text into an authoring tool to create some digital content for GCSE students. I handed in the first batch. Then during the course of conversations with the project manager over the second batch, I realised I hadn’t always tweaked the template in the first batch so the sentences read properly. It wasn’t part of the brief, but it’s something I really should have been fixing anyway (see above re taking ownership of the project), so I fessed up and offered to go back and sort out the first batch. Luckily there was room in the budget to be paid for that extra work. The project manager thanked me for doing such a thorough job.


Ask questions.

(THAT HAVEN’T ALREADY BEEN CLEARLY ANSWERED BY THE BRIEF!)


It’s nearly always better to ask questions than not. It’s far better to ask a question than to blindly push ahead and do something wrong, which you or the publisher then has to go back and fix.


Having said that, try not to ask questions that are a) not worth asking because the publisher doesn’t care one way or the other, or b) something you should be making a decision on yourself (see ‘ownership of the project’). Obviously there’s an ambiguous, shifting line between asking too many questions and asking the right amount. It’ll change from project to project, and I think you just get better at telling where the line is through experience.


Don’t annoy the authors.

Very occasionally authors will get annoyed anyway for reasons that aren’t your fault. An author might simply be having a bad day and blow up to a polite request to rewrite something. In these cases, your client should have your back. But where possible, make an effort to keep your authors happy. If they then casually mention to your client how nice you were to work with, or they happen to cc your client in on an email where they say how valuable your feedback was – that can make all the difference. (I think this is one of the main reasons why I keep getting repeat work from a publisher I started working with last year.)


(How not to annoy authors is a whole other topic and I hope to write a blog post about this some other time.)


Reply to emails promptly.

You don’t have to be a slave to your inbox. But it’ll be appreciated if you keep an eye on anything coming in and reply within a day or so (or if it’s super-urgent then within an hour or two).


Try to stick to the deadline and budget.

Publishing people are generally not evil. If you simply can’t make a deadline because you’ve been laid up in bed with Covid for a week, they’ll sympathise and give you an extension (or bring someone else on board if absolutely necessary). Likewise, if there’s genuine scope creep then they’ll try their best to pay you more for the extra work.


But it’s worth remembering that missing a deadline doesn’t just impact your project manager: it potentially impacts every other process and person involved in getting the book out to print. And sometimes the deadline for sending the book to press is pretty much immovable (e.g. when a revision guide has to come out before the exam season starts). So that could lead to a frantic scrabble to save time elsewhere in the schedule, which is often not an easy thing to do.


All this is to say: take the budget and deadline seriously. Say as soon as you possibly can if you think you’re going to go over either (and give a good reason why).


Provide a stylesheet.

Even if you’re not asked for one – it’s a way to prove that you’ve done your job!


Provide a checklist of what you’ve done.

I don’t always do this, but sometimes with your handover it can be helpful to provide a brief summary of what you’ve done to the manuscript. It basically reassures the client that you’ve covered everything in the brief.


Provide a brief update that you’re on track to meet the deadline.

Another thing I’m guilty of often forgetting to do, but it’ll definitely reassure your client.

I hope this is helpful advice for anyone starting to work with publishers. For anyone else who's been doing this for a while, I'd love to hear what other factors you think help you to get repeat work as a freelancer. (Or what else do you appreciate as a project manager or publisher?) Let me know by connecting on Twitter here or LinkedIn here!