The Future is Freelance

By   Tim Inman 4 min read

First published on Digital Book World’s site on August 3rd, 2015, our co-founder John Bond, in response to an article entitled ‘Don’t Outsource Your Publishing Business Away’, written by Emma Barnes days before, reflects on the shifting climate of the publishing industry, arguing ‘The Future is Freelance’.

Here’s a good game to play in an idle moment. Imagine you are starting a new publishing company, with your own money, from scratch today. Whom would you choose to employ on fixed-term contracts, and which external services would you hire in? Focuses the mind, doesn’t it?

In response to Emma Barnes’s well-intentioned post on the benefits of keeping work in house and not outsourcing, let’s be clear about one thing: this particular ship has already sailed. The generalists within publishing have been relying on the diaspora of specialist freelancers for a long time now, and I can’t see that changing. And why should it? To that end, here are five reasons why the future is freelance:

1. Time. Ask most people in publishing what they could do with more of, and they will give you the same answer (Ok, apart from money): time. Time is the precious, elusive commodity no one really accounts for, especially in a business based on exploiting rights across such a dizzying array of content being taken to market each and every month.

Time buys you creativity, innovation and focus. In a business where the formats and channels are the same and the choice of authors so many, anything that gives you a small competitive edge is invaluable. And you buy time by engaging the right external collaborators to help you at the right moment during the life cycle of a project.

2. Costs. The future for publishers has to be about variable costs rather than adding to their fixed costs. I don’t know of a successful publishing business of whatever size that believes purely in a strategy of organic growth based on hiring lots of people and increasing its overhead. Why do that when you can bring in expertise as and when you need it, turning the new knowledge tap on and off as required? That way, you stay in control, by having both quality assurance and standardization without adding to the payroll.

3. Trust. I don’t recognize the world of external vendors Emma paints in her post, where malicious, dishonest, money-sucking suppliers seem hellbent on ripping off hapless publishing types. Most publishers I know are well aware of the problems that need solving, and just because they can’t code, it doesn’t mean they don’t recognize the value in technical expertise.

The ones that use whitefox seem perfectly capable of scoping a project, engaging and briefing individuals or agencies and benchmarking costs. Moreover, publishing isn’t such an enormous industry that freelancers can’t rely on it for repeat business. We live in a world where word-of-mouth recommendation is everything and your reputation is your biggest asset. When we find talented suppliers, clients want to use them again and again.

4. Flexibility. No one would argue that publishers don’t need new skills and specialist knowledge right now. The days of the generalist manager are gone, and there needs to be better efficiency and greater access to more diverse, relevant skillsets. But hiring for different functions guarantees nothing.

Look, for example, at how “digital” has evolved within the larger publishing houses over the last decade. Initially, it was a quarter of one person’s job. Then it became a large central department and every smart graduate’s portal of choice into the publishing eco-system. Gradually, it has become just publishing, woven into the fabric of editorial, production, marketing and sales. And what happened to the smart grads? Did hiring them create the publishing CEOs of the future? Well, not yet anyway. Check out Linkedin and you’ll see that the recent alumni from one major UK publisher’s graduate trainee program now work for, among others, Apple, Audible, Condé Nast and Shazam.

Flexibility favors both freelancers and clients. I realize that for many a monthly salary is intensely alluring, but in the new economy, there are many individuals stimulated by variety who actively choose a life engaging with different projects and a range of different clients.

5. Get Real. When I wake up in the morning, I want to look in the mirror and see Ryan Gosling, but it just isn’t going to happen. Life really is the art of the possible. Publishers have talked for a long time about diversifying their talent pool, and some of them have made small inroads. But in the end, publishers should primarily be, as Michael Bhaskar suggests, “amplifiers of content.” They have to balance relevant short-term ROI and long-game strategic imperatives.

There is plenty of room for hiring and training smart people to do the best job they can, but now is also the time to embrace new models. Companies like whitefox offer access to a curated database of hundreds of freelancers, a veritable army of doers. And if we don’t have exactly the right person on our books, we see it as our job to find them.

The word “outsourcing” has a bad reputation. For many, it seems inexorably associated with cost cutting, or lack of ownership and accountability. Smart outsourcing, though, helps bring about effective change as and when you need it, and it empowers your internal team. The talent battle of the future is not just going to be about hiring. It’ll be about utilizing external services tactically, scaling up and down, engaging with the right skills as part of a project management process, being nimble, and acknowledging the need for different requirements at different times of the year.