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Writer's guide to working with freelancers

This is a departure from my usual material, but one which I hope will be helpful not only to independent writers, but also to freelancers like myself. Having been a book doctor for a few years now, I’ve assembled an informal list of dos-and-don’ts for working with the people who will help you bring your book to market.

If you have an agent who can land you a traditional publishing deal, none of this is likely to apply; chances are, the publisher will handle all of these things for you. But if you don’t, the burden of producing a professional-quality book that holds its own next to traditionally-published titles falls on you. And unless you’re a masochist, happen to be insanely talented in the many non-writing arts of book production, or are merely insane, you’ll hire a variety of freelancers to help you out.

Who might you hire?

Here is short list of freelancer types, in roughly the order you’ll need them:

  • A book doctor or developmental editor (same thing, different names. Go figure). This person will help you turn your rough story idea, first draft, or even 27th draft, into something considerably more polished. This person doesn’t edit the words on the page, but carefully analyzes the higher level concepts of premise, story structure, and character arcs. That’s much of what I do, and if you want a better description, go check out the services tab on my site.

  • A line editor and/or copy editor. Having digested your developmental editor’s feedback and produced a (hopefully) much stronger draft of your manuscript, line editors and copy editors will help you polish your prose until it shines. A good line editor concerns him or herself with the overall flow of the language, and will be sensitive enough to your authorial voice that their edits will be in keeping with your style, rather than imposing their own style on your work. A copy editor deals with the fiddly bits of punctuation, fact checking, typo-spotting, and other final, detail work. Depending on the strength of your writing, you may or may not need the line editor (though most people benefit from one), but please don’t skip the copy editor. You’ll be amazed at the embarrassing goof-ups a good copy editor will spot for you.

  • A book designer. I used to think that if I fiddled around in Microsoft Word with fonts, margins, and line spacing until things looked nice, that I was good to go. PDF that sucker, and ship it off to Lulu.com, CreateSpace, or wherever. You can do that if you want. Nobody will stop you. And that’s fine, if you want your book to look like crap. If you want people to open up your book and wonder, “Why does this book look so weird?” then by all means engage in uneducated, DIY book design. I used to do that very thing. But once I actually met a book designer and heard him talk about how and why he does what he does, I learned there is an incredible amount of arcane lore involved in putting text on a page and making it look just so. It’s not easy, and since I don’t have a spare decade to learn all that stuff for myself, now I hire it out. A good book designer will have an eye for proportion, text weight, font choice, and a zillion other things that will blow you away.

  • A cover art designer. I don’t think I have to say much about this, since countless other sites have covered cover design, as it were. Just, don’t be that guy who buys a box of colored pencils and draws a sixth-grade level picture of an elf to go on the cover of his DIY-designed, un-copy-edited, fantasy novel. Don’t be the person who thinks, “How hard could a little Photoshop be?” Unless you’re uncommonly artistic visually as well as verbally, pretty hard. Be smart. Hire it out. It’s worth it. Pro-tip, though: DO NOT (I repeat, do not) have the cover designer place the title, author’s name, and other text on the art. Have them leave room in the design for that, but let your book designer handle the layout and other font choices for your cover, too. That way, the outside look of your book can be unified, design-wise, with the inside.

That’s who most independent authors will—and IMHO, should—end up using. Depending on the nature of the book, (e.g. a guide to selling your house without a real estate agent, a diet or other health/lifestyle guide, etc), you may also hire a lawyer to write you a disclaimer. Depending on how much time you want to put into promotion, you might also hire a publicist. But the above four people are the core freelancers you’ll be interacting with.

What should you expect from a freelancer?

Professional service, with a smile, right? Basically, yes. You want the freelancer to treat you professionally. You want them to respect your work, and your vision for your work. You want them to do quality work that is worth your hard-earned dollars. You want them to be clear about what they can do for you, and when they can do it by. You are well within your rights to expect all of that.

What should a freelancer expect from you?

But it goes both ways. The freelancer expects you to treat them like a professional, too. This is how we make a living, so we treat what we do pretty seriously. The golden rule really does apply, here.

Just like you expect the freelancer to respect your work, you should respect the freelancer’s skills and abilities—after all, you’re hiring them because they can do things you can’t, right? Just like you want quality service, we want to get the best material from you that you’re capable of producing. The better your manuscript is when we see it, the further we can help you take it.

We need you to be able to clearly communicate your vision for the project, particularly where artistic choices are concerned, as often comes up in line editing and cover art. A line editor needs to know about any peculiarities of your authorial voice that are important to you. If you absolutely don’t want green as a strong color on your book cover, because green makes your protagonist vomit or something, tell your cover artist up front. Don’t let them spend ten hours doing a mock-up, only to have you say “Oh, no green. Sorry!”

Where do freelance interactions go wrong?

From my experience, here are the most common problems that mess up my freelancer/client interactions.

  • Book them early. Think of the freelancer like a medical specialist. When your doctor refers you to a really good dermatologist for that funny itch that just won’t go away, you’re not surprised if you can’t get an appointment right away, are you? The better the person is, the longer you’ll generally have to wait. It’s the same for freelancers. Yet, I have long-since lost count of the number of e-mails I get from prospective clients asking me to do a developmental edit for them in two weeks because they want to submit their book to a contest with an imminent deadline, or because an agent said “get it to me by the end of March” and it’s already February 20th, or something like that. It sucks for the client and it sucks for the freelancer. I hate turning business away, but I don’t have any choice but to tell these people “sorry, I’m booked out six months in advance.”

  • Be on time. When you hire a freelancer, there will be some date by which you need to hand over your manuscript. If the person can schedule you right away, there’s no problem. But if the person can’t schedule you for a while, then you have due-date on your calendar. It’s your responsibility to turn in your materials on time. If it gets to be two or three days before the due date, and we haven’t heard from you, we begin to get nervous. Most freelancers will send you a reminder e-mail, to which we’re hoping to hear, “Yes, I’ll have that to you by the due-date!” But all too often, what we hear is “Oh, sorry, I forgot all about that. I’m re-working the middle of the book, and I’m just not ready. Can I reschedule?” That answer makes us want to snap small trees in half with our bare hands. In all likelihood you can reschedule, but you’ve also left us scrambling to move other clients around to fill the hole you just blew into our schedule.

  • Communicate clearly. You’re a writer. This should be a gimme, but unfortunately, it isn’t. Take the time to make your own ideas known to the freelancer up-front, again, especially as concerns line editing or cover art issues. One really good line editing client I had was from Canada. He told me up-front that he had made a decision to use the British spellings of words like ‘colour’ and ‘flavour’ and so forth. Perfect. That makes it easy for me to give him a great line edit while still respecting his authorial style.

  • Communicate often. If your plans change, LET THE FREELANCER KNOW. I really cannot emphasize this enough. When you ask a freelancer to do work for you, you’re trusting them with a chunk of your money in exchange for quality service. But the freelancer is also trusting you with a chunk of their time. Time is the freelancer’s fundamental commodity. It’s the thing we can trade for money that we use to pay our mortgages and feed our families. We’re trusting you to make good on your promise to use the time we’ve set aside for you. So when your slot comes around, and we e-mail you to ask for your manuscript, and you tell us “oh, sorry, I changed my mind” or “my car died a few months ago, and I really can’t afford it right now,” that also makes us want to destroy innocent foliage. Had you told us immediately when your plans changed, we could have found someone else to use that time. But by keeping mum about it, again, you’ve blown a hole in our schedule. You’ve taken a paycheck out of our wallets, and have made it harder for us to provide for our families.

  • Be flexible. Your freelancer will likely be very flexible with you. You’re the one with the money, and our reputations are golden to us. We never know how someone will react, and we can’t risk irritating you and having you badmouth us on your blog or on Twitter. The rumor mill doesn’t care who’s “right” in such a situation. So look, we get it. Life happens. Sometimes you will have to reschedule, or may be late on a deadline, despite your honest and best intentions to the contrary. Your freelancer may grit their teeth about it in private, but in all probability he or she will be very flexible towards you. All we ask in return is that you afford us that same flexibility. We have lives too, and we can’t control everything.

It’s a question of trust

A successful freelance experience boils down to trust, in both directions. You’re trusting a developmental editor to intuit what you’re trying to do with your story—to see past what the story on the page, down to what you intended the story to be—in order to best advise you how to make the story on the page match your intentions. You’re trusting a line editor to be a gifted and chameleon-like writer, able to absorb your authorial voice into themselves, and reflect your voice back to you in the edits. You’re trusting a copy editor to know the difference between that one tricky homonym-pair that always trips you up, to know that UK English spells “aluminum” with an extra “i". (And that UK punctuation puts the period on the other side of the close-quote.) You’re trusting a book designer to know the thousand little tricks of typography and typesetting that, collectively, make your text beautiful to look at and physically comfortable to read. You’re trusting a cover designer to understand how the nuances of color, composition, lighting, and form combine to nail the specific mood you’re looking for to represent your book.

But the freelancer is trusting you, too. When you contract a freelancer to help you with your project, that person dedicates time on their calendar for you. Time is a freelancer’s stock in trade. It costs us time to talk to you up front about your project, so we can work up a proposal and cost estimate for you. It takes time to set you up in our customer tracking system, to collect material and other resources that may be necessary for your project, and so forth. That time is largely invisible to you, but it’s very real to us. Before we ever see a dime from you, we’ve already invested a chunk of our time in you, and we’re trusting you to be as good as your word. When I say it’s about paying our mortgages and feeding our families, that’s not hyperbole. That’s the real deal.

A freelancer will generally bend over backwards to be flexible to you, to say “yes” to you as much as possible. After all, you’re the one with the money. But that’s no license not to act professionally. Remember the golden rule, and that both client and freelancer have skin in the game. For you, your authorial dreams are on the line. For us, our livelihoods are. Let’s both play nice, so we can both keep doing what we love.

Note, I intend for this blog post to be a living document. Please share your freelance dos-and-don’ts, too, and I’ll add them to this list. But I do not intend for this post to become a directory of freelance editors, book designers and cover artists. Elizabeth S. Craig (@elizabethscraig on Twitter) already maintains such a list, and I’m sure she will be quite happy to have any such recommendations.

February 28, 2012 00:45 UTC

Tags: writing, freelancing, clients, business

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