We interviewed Helen Coyle, a British ghostwriter and editor living in Buenos Aires, to find out how possible it is to live in a dream destination with a successful freelancing career largely dependent on clients overseas. She has seven years’ experience of freelancing for publishers including Hodder & Stoughton, Penguin, Sceptre, Canongate and Hutchinson. She is the co-author of two New York Times number two bestsellers and has edited numerous UK bestsellers in practically every genre from literary fiction to self-help. She specialises in structural editing, and loves mentoring authors.
- You began your editorial career in London, where you gained a wealth of experience at various publishing houses like Little, Brown, Virago and Hodder. What made you decide to leave England for a life in Buenos Aires?
I came to Buenos Aires for six months initially, to learn to dance tango. I had realised I needed a break from London and full-time office life. I was fortunate enough to be offered a sabbatical by Hodder & Stoughton, where I was working as a non-fiction editor at the time. I came to Argentina, fell in love with tango culture and then with a man I met dancing (now my husband) and realised that though I loved lots of things about my job and the London-based publishing industry, I had never been happier. Once I made the decision to stay in Argentina, I set about establishing myself as a freelance editor. Hodder were my first clients and were incredibly supportive.
- Buenos Aires is a city steeped in a culture very different to that of the UK. What are the best and worst things about maintaining a freelance career while living in Buenos Aires?
Buenos Aires is a wonderful place to be a freelancer. It’s an extremely creative and dynamic city. People here are very entrepreneurial – they have to be as the economy is historically unstable and you need resilience and ingenuity to thrive. I think of it as the South American Berlin: there is a definite can-do attitude towards setting up your own creative projects and the barriers to entry are much lower than they are in London or New York. The prevailing mindset is, if you want to be a translator, editor, writer (or a painter, documentary maker or a circus artist) get started, experiment and have fun with it, then figure out how to turn it into a job. Rents on studio, office and co-working space are relatively cheap and DIY cultural spaces are common – everything is more accessible than in London. It means you can take risks with your choices. Plus there’s a daily shot of inspiration available via the local creative and expat scenes. The city’s reputation attracts a lot of people from all over the region, and the world.
The downside for me is not specific to Buenos Aires so much as anywhere that’s not a reasonable commute from London. It only became apparent when I moved from structural and copy editing into ghostwriting, which is a discipline that is much more reliant on quickly building a relationship of intimate trust between writer and author. Face to face meetings can be essential, especially at the beginning of the process and I’m too far away to pop in to London to meet with potential clients in the flesh (though I am back in the UK once a year and always use that time to meet as many people as possible). Mind you, the distance hasn’t been a deal breaker, partly because I had a lucky break at the start of my career as a ghostwriter. I worked on a commercial project with a big enough budget for me to fly back and spend three months in the UK writing the book, which subsequently became a bestseller. That allowed me to establish myself and has led on to several jobs where I’ve been able to use Skype to collaborate with authors. But there was a wonderful commission that didn’t work out because the author wanted someone she could literally sit next to and thrash things out with. We tried, but for her, Skype just wasn’t the same. I completely understand, though I was really sad about it.
- You provide editorial services at fixed rates for what we assume are mainly clients in Europe. How do you put your feelers out for new clients on various continents? Do you operate mainly on referrals?
I work very much on referral and recommendation. Like most freelancers who started out working in house, I have really benefitted from being a known and trusted quantity. My former editorial colleagues have been generous in their support and I’ve worked across various imprints at Hodder & Stoughton and for other major houses including Penguin, Canongate and several Random House imprints as well as literary agents in London and Paris. The other strand of my work comes from private clients and a lot of them contact me via referral from authors with whom I’ve previously collaborated. And now, of course, work also comes via Whitefox, which has been the source of a lot of great projects. I’ve been very lucky – my work tends to come to me. Good thing too, because I do not make as much use as I should of networks such as Linked-In. (Mind you, it was my hopelessly poorly maintained Linked-In profile that at least allowed John from Whitefox to find me!)
One thing I make sure I do is stay in touch with former colleagues, via email and in person where possible. I’m in the UK once a year for at least a couple of months and I try to have as many meetings as I can with agents, editors and potential clients. It’s vital to maintain my sense of being connected to the UK publishing hub, not least because a significant proportion of my work involves mentoring authors looking to get published there. I need to stay as up to date as possible on industry trends, what’s selling, new imprints, personnel shifts etc.
4.You began your career in Little, Brown’s publicity department. Do you think other specialisms and skills within publishing would thrive as well as editorial services do in a remote setting?
This is an interesting one. It’s been a long time since I worked in publicity but I think it’s probably easier to offer editorial services remotely than PR – at least as far as working with traditional media goes. Digital marketing is perhaps more amenable to living and working remotely. I know a very talented book designer who lives on the other side of the world from many of her major clients and has built up her business in both locations. I have a friend who’s a production specialist and he lives outside London. But speaking from my limited experience, I would say that editorial in its various guises is perhaps uniquely location-blind.
I suspect that whatever your specialism, you need to have been in the hub first in order to make contacts before you can be an effective freelancer from far outside it. So much of what happens at every stage of the publishing process is driven by relationships. You need contacts and real local knowledge. But then, I’m too old to be a digital native so I am probably missing lots of tricks!
- What is the most rewarding project you’ve worked on in either the UK or abroad?
There’s a particular satisfaction that comes from having ghostwritten a book that lots of people have read and enjoyed, so in some ways, the books that have become bestsellers remain my most rewarding projects. But the thing that I love about this job is the mind-boggling variety of worlds it allows me to parachute into. I found myself flying to Kenya to collaborate with a private client on a book proposal, feeling insanely lucky to be able to indulge my curiosity about the subject and the country, on the job.
- Do you have any advice for publishing specialists considering a similar move away from publishing hubs, towards desirable locations like your home?
Moving to a different country is a big deal and there are lots of resources available to help you assess the broader questions about whether you’re prepared to take on a different language, culture, etc. Obviously your choice of destination will be driven by personal factors but, wherever you’re thinking of going, use online expat forums to find out if there are already people there making a go of freelancing. Ask them for advice. I met several English-speaking writers and journalists that way and their support and friendship has been very useful.
They can help with all sorts of things. Investigating the local cost of living is essential when you’re weighing up whether you can afford to go freelance in a particular place, and a little bit of local knowledge can go a long way. Annual inflation in Argentina is running at more than 35%, for example, and though rents are still way cheaper than in London, other living costs are not. Also, check to see how generally reliable the local digital infrastructure is. You need good internet connections as standard.
Be prepared to spend time (and some money) keeping your face and/or digital profile in front of the people who will channel work your way. This is true for all freelancers, of course, but particularly so if you are hoping to live somewhere that’s more than a couple of hours away from your publishing hub. Try to anticipate how you will maintain contact.
If my experience is anything to go by, the revitalising effects of moving away can be huge. I think it’s increasingly accepted within our industry that in many cases, the individuals who carry out the various parts of the process don’t need to be just down the road. It’s less unusual to work remotely with every passing year. So it may feel like a risk, but with a bit of planning and some luck, moving can lead to a new career, a creative adventure or just a more relaxed way of life. I’ve never regretted it.