whitefox at the IPG Autumn Conference 2017
There is a lot of nonsense written about freelancers and publishers. Some of it even written by me! I blame our obsession with the gig economy and the constant desire to find ways of Uber-ising any outsourced services. Sigh. Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to patronise publishers quite so much, or teaching anyone to suck eggs. Publishers have been working with freelancers forever, and the reality is that this is going to grow and grow, and it is important to look at ways to ensure these external collaborations are as efficient and successful as possible.
We set up whitefox because we used to be publishers and wanted to create something we would have used if we still were. And we started from the same viewpoint as a publisher: creativity needs process; the future is freelance, not just through necessity but through lifestyle choice; no one wants a ‘quite-good’ copyedit, or a reasonable cover; quality assurance is everything.
In five years of running whitefox, here are some of the key things we’ve concluded that seem to matter most to both publishers and freelancers:
You’d never hire a member of staff without checking their qualifications. Why wouldn’t you do the same for a freelancer? We believe it is important to test copyeditors and proofreaders. A designer can show you their portfolio. Just because someone has worked in editorial for an established publisher in the past doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be assessed again now. Peer review sometimes isn’t quite enough. Publishers fundamentally need freelancers who understand how they work, who share their language. A professional edit isn’t just a single service. It is part of a nuanced process involving style guides, clean-ups, spot checks and so on.
When you can, always try to have a letter of agreement in place for the scope of work as it is defined with each project. It’s tempting because of time pressures just to dive in and get on with it. But there can always be issues of confidentiality, indemnity, time, rates, clarity of ownership and more. Get it in writing before you proceed.
It’s all about the quality of the initial brief and managing ongoing expectations. Get that clarity of scope at the beginning of the project. Don’t forget the publisher owns rights, whereas the freelancers are, by and large, guns for hire. Therefore, there needs to be ruthless efficiency for it to be cost-effective for everyone.
Agree costs at the beginning of the process
No one wants a shock down the line. It is also important to find ways of avoiding project creep. And you may also want the cheapest quote, but sometimes the race to the bottom on costs comes back and bites you. I’ve got admiration for freelancers who know how to benchmark their rates against others in the market and recognise where they add material value.
Respect is needed on both sides. The curse of the freelance life is that fear of saying no because you think you might not get asked again. Which sometimes can cause bottlenecks, particularly at certain times of the year. What are the key milestones within the project, all of which have a knock-on effect to everything else? Sometimes, a phone call can help you make faster progress than wading through the tyranny of emails.
It helps everyone grow. Freelancers should demand it. And publishers should resist the temptation to just move on to the next thing without acknowledging what has worked and what hasn’t. This is how you go from simply solving a problem to a more strategic partnership and help create a pipeline of work.
(Adapted from John Bond’s talk to the IPG at their autumn conference, 19th September 2017).