Tuesday, 12 April 2011

"Do you ever stop looking for new clients?"

The short answer: No.

The long answer: I've just passed my six-year anniversary of being properly self-employed, and yes, there have been times over those six years when I've sat back contentedly, looked at my client list and murmured "That'll do, pig. That'll do." But generally speaking, this is a foolish approach to life and you can never have too many clients waiting to offer you work when the rest of them go quiet.*

That said, if you have too many I guess there's always a chance you'll overwork yourself or have to turn work down. Both of which are preferable to turning in shoddy work or missing deadlines, which will happen if you can't manage your workload. But, up to a point, an expanding client list is better than a static one or a diminishing one.

2010 wasn't a particularly good year for my list - some of my clients took on more in-house editors, some shut down, some re-jigged their budgets and found that freelancers were an expense they could no longer afford. It's not a great time to be getting into publishing, but then it's not a great time for most jobs - at least it's private sector, but people just don't have the money to spend on luxuries like books in a recession. The Kindle could be the industry's saviour, but we're currently at a halfway point where its influence hasn't managed to bump up the turnover of many of the businesses I work for. The only solution for freelancers is to spread our bets - as each client finds they can farm out less and less work, just make sure you've got lots of clients.

Having a long client list also ensures your work is varied and interesting - one day you could be editing a fiction book about World War 2, the next you could be proofing a management report, the next fact-checking an illustrated guide to pet lizards.

However... if you're asking lots of new publishers for work at the same time, there's a chance you'll end up having a million proofing tests to do and no time for paid work. There's also a chance that, say, four of the publishers you've spoken to will offer you work at the same time. You can't say no because they're new clients and you want to make a good impression. Then an old client offers some work as well and it's very well paid so you can't say no to that either.

And then you won't even have time to watch Neighbours. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

* Spot the extremely highbrow literary reference in this paragraph and you get a gold star

Friday, 18 March 2011

A punctuation joke for Red Nose Day

I saw a man with a board saying 'Repent for you're sin's, the end of the world is nigh'. I thought, 'That's a bad sign'.

Courtesy of www.twitter.com/GaryDelaney, who's among the comedians doing loads for Comic Relief on Twitter today.

Red Nose Day on the BBC
Red Nose Day on Twitter

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

This is a test

Today I'm doing a proofreading test for one of the publishers I want to work for. There is something quite horrible about proofing tests and I hate them, and I will now explain why (because I'm putting it off).

By the time a publication gets to the proofreading stage, it's normally in pretty good shape. I might have to weed out a few grammatical errors, but most of the corrections tend to be for consistency - so if there are two different acceptable spellings for a word, I have to make sure the same one is used throughout. Or perhaps there's a particular structure to the way a publication does bulletpointed lists or quotations, and I have to make sure they always follow the same rules (full stops at the end of bulletpointed sentences, or no full stops? Single or double quotation marks? And other things that you might not think you'd notice if you were reading a book, but you probably would).

Proofing tests are not like this at all. They tend to consist of a few pages of text that cover every possible type of correction you might ever be expected to make - typos, 'there' instead of 'their', mixed up tenses, mad capitalisations, mis-spelt names you have to look up, missing apostrophes, a reference to Westlife when they actually mean Boyzone... everything.

This is fine in theory, because my job is to notice these things and I know what's right and what needs changing. But when there are so many corrections to be made, something happens to the brain that makes you miss things - you have to go over the same text a few times at least, with a dictionary to hand, and take it all extremely seriously. And then leave it for a while and come back to it. It takes a lot longer than the proofing you'd normally do, and you don't get paid.

It's at times like this that I have to remind myself I'm not working down a mine.

Monday, 14 March 2011


I've been thinking about writing contributions for magazines and that sort of thing, to broaden the experience on my CV (and for fun), but I'm worried I'll spend lots of time writing stuff that I never get paid for. If only all editors' rejection letters were like this, I might be more keen...

Link: Editor's rejection letter from TracyMueller.com

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

My life in books

I've finally managed to whittle my list down to five. Please throw me a party and nobody mention any books they think of ever again. Every title is an Amazon link in case you want to spend some money.

Those lines are what happens when something is loved for a long time.
Anne Robinson's face, take note.

I read this a billion times (give or take) as a kid, and I still have my much-loved childhood copy, battered though it is. The book starts with Jeffy, a highly moralistic and prissy cat, discovering that his elderly owner, Miss Amity, is a criminal. She’s clearly bored with her life as a sweet little old lady, and spices it up with the odd bit of burglary, poaching, jailbreak, train robbery and so on. It’s a charming book, it’s illustrated but not too much, and there’s something about its structure that’s a bit off-kilter, which I like. There are religious undertones, which I didn’t see when I first read it, but there’s no ham-fisted moral message like there is in so many kids’ books (unless you count Jeffy’s mantra, “Think before you act and wash before you think!” which I still quote sometimes). If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that people change when they are ready to, they have their own reasons for doing things, and you’re allowed to love them anyway, even if they do things you don’t like.

Hamlet – William Shakespeare

An obvious choice, I know, but bear with me. I did A-Level English Literature at school and I was always interested in books and plays, but I didn’t get on with most of the so-called “classics”. I found Jane Austen pointless and boring, and when we started properly studying Shakespeare I switched off. We covered Macbeth and Much Ado, and I just didn’t get it, but then we came to Hamlet and everything clicked. All the other Shakespeare might as well have been random words thrown onto a page for all I understood, but Hamlet made perfect sense to me. I would never have taken any interest in any other Shakespeare – and since then I’ve discovered how amazing Othello is too – if it weren’t for studying Hamlet at school. My blood boils when people trot out the “to be or not to be” speech without thinking about what it means. It was on a Red Bull advert last year.

My uni years now, and most of my third year (academically-speaking) was spent writing a dissertation about misogyny in pop music. The bibliography is all Germaine Greer, Naomi Wolf, Helena Kennedy etc, but Joan Smith’s Misogynies was the one that had the biggest effect on me. It’s a 15-part commentary on misogyny, each chapter offering a different example of male hatred of women. I argued against parts of it even then, and now I’m sure I’d have plenty more to contradict, but generally I found it exceptionally well-argued and fascinating. It is horribly difficult to read sometimes, because it draws your attention to the many ways in which society and even the law accept and perpetuate sexism. Like many of the classic feminist texts, you could say it goes too far, or that it’s too angry, and perhaps it is in parts. But there’s no point noodling on about wanting equality and then letting it pass – if you want things to change, you have to get angry.

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

George and Lennie are travelling across California looking for work; they find a ranch looking for labourers and settle in. Later, they run into trouble. I won’t say any more about the plot – partly in case of spoilers, and partly because I don’t think I can without upsetting myself. It’s a tiny book, fewer than 200 pages, but what it does in such a short time is breathtaking. The description and the characterisation are flawless.

[George]"Okay someday—we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and—"

"An’ live off the fatta the lan’," Lennie shouted. "An’ have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that George."

"Why’n’t you do it yourself? You know all of it."

The Amber Spyglass – Philip Pullman

I’m not going to call this a guilty pleasure – I’m going to call it a “holiday read”. The Amber Spyglass is the third (and best) in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and, although it was marketed as a teen series and the central characters are kids, it couldn’t be much more adult unless there was an explicit sex scene. The series contains plenty of death and tragedy (my friend Sarah read it soon after me, and there was a time when all I had to do to make her cry was say “Tony and the fish”), and it’s all basically about quantum physics and God. There are so many interesting ideas packed into it – daemons, Dust and pre-emptive absolution to name a few – there’s almost no need for a plot, but it does have a plot, which rattles along like mad for 548 pages. And that’s the third book.

So, to summarise...

What do my choices say about me? Aside from Philip Pullman they're all short, so I guess they say that I like brevity (it's the editor in me). They also say that I like drama and tragedy, and I abhor a happy ending. They have all upset me at one point or another.

And which one would I recommend above them all? Of Mice and Men. It's the only choice I didn't agonise over - it was always going to be in the list. It is perfect.

Kindle vs kindling

Ben Goldacre tweeted this today - This must scare the crap out of publishers - about an author called Amanda Hocking, who is a successful self-publisher. She's 26, she sells 100,000 copies of her ebooks every month, and she's apparently done this without ever having the backing of a traditional publisher.

Goldacre also links to this Guardian story - Kindle gives thriller writer a plot for success - about Stephen Leather, another author enjoying similar success selling around 2000 ebooks a day. He's normally published by Hodder & Stoughton, but he uses the Kindle Store to independently sell novellas that Hodder has rejected.

Self-publishing physical books has always seemed like a bit of a con to me. Often referred to as 'vanity publishing', it's simply a way for authors to send their manuscript out into the world, perhaps in a pretty rough form, mainly because they think the world needs to read it. They might have been rejected by traditional publishers and, rather than think "perhaps writing's not for me", or "some of my favourite books were rejected by dozens of publishers - I'll keep trying", they think "I know - I'll spend lots of money on publishing it myself. Publishing is a doddle."

There are many enormous drawbacks to self-publishing. Yes, it's expensive and you're unlikely to break even if you're publishing on paper. Aside from that, you might be an incredible author, but you're unlikely to be equally as good a publisher: you're too close to your own work. The job of a good editor is to pick out the stuff that doesn't need to be in your book and the stuff that needs changing. Your novel might be infinitely improved if you killed off your favourite character - are you likely to see that yourself, and be able to do it? Or to remove a chunk of text that took you a day to write but just doesn't flow properly? Possibly, possibly not.

And there are so many other services a publisher provides that you can't possibly expect yourself to be able to do: indexing, proofing, typesetting, designing a great cover... but the big one is publicity.

Of the two self-publishers above, one of them had worked with Hodder & Stoughton, which is part of Hachette UK, the leading British publisher by turnover. In its Writer's Handbook 2010 listing, Hachette UK says "the search is on for new talent which can benefit from imaginative and energetic marketing", and that is perhaps the most important aspect of traditional publishing. Although Stephen Leather's independent ebooks haven't benefited directly from this "imaginative and energetic marketing", would anyone know who he was if his other books hadn't?

I'm being too harsh on self-publishing though. Now that ebooks have really taken off (the Kindle is Amazon's biggest-selling product of all time), publishing your own book is easier and far less risky, because it's cheaper. And because it's pretty cheap to produce an ebook on your computer, you can afford to sell it at the Kindle Store for less money, and more people are more likely to buy a book from an author they don't yet know if it only costs them a couple of quid. Stephen Leather's novellas go for about 70p, the same price as most pop songs on iTunes.

If you make a bit of money through self-publishing, you can pay for freelancers to do much of the work a traditional publisher would do: proofing your manuscript, designing the cover, etc. You'll keep your creative freedom too, as you won't have to make any of the changes suggested - if you think you know better, it's down to you (although as I've said, this might not be a good thing).

And you could even say that the absence of big-money publicity is a positive thing: if your book sells, you could claim that this is purely down to you and the quality of your writing. Not because it's got a Richard and Judy sticker on the front, it's on a three-for-two deal at Waterstone's, or there's a poster of the cover on the Metropolitan Line. People have probably read your book because a friend has recommended it to them (or because it was cheaper than Marie Claire).

The likes of Amanda Hocking are still very much the exception rather than the rule, but among all the people who have written a novel, being a published author of any kind is the exception, and being a successful one is even rarer. If it's ever worth giving self-publishing a go, now is probably the right time, but whether it's going to turn out any classic novels is another matter.

Monday, 28 February 2011

"Do I need lots of books about freelancing?"

Since we're talking about books (which we were, here and here), and my mum asked me about this sort of thing yesterday, I thought I'd address the subject of the many and varied reference materials you might think you need if you're thinking about freelancing in the publishing industry.

Above is a photo of my modest collection. I hardly ever refer to any of them, apart from the following (each title is an Amazon link and they're listed in order of how often I use them):

  • The Oxford English Dictionary - all the words and what they mean, in a handy alphabetised list
  • Mind the Gaffe - the difference between 'compliment' and 'complement' and other commonly-made errors - this is very handy when you know you're absolutely 100% right to make a particular change to a manuscript but you just need to make sure
  • Roget's Thesaurus - amazing words to use instead of 'amazing' when you've said amazing too many times in one amazing sentence
  • The Oxford Manual of Style - what order to put words in and why
  • The Penguin Guide to Plain English - at the end of the day, when all's said and done, this is a guide to extraneous words and phrases you don't need to use.

It's also useful to have some more specialised guides, depending on what kind of publications you're working with. I have, for instance, the Oxford Dictionary of Finance and Banking, because I edit a lot of finance and management stuff and there's a lot of jargon to deal with. I also have books about writing copy for websites, and about marketing speak and that sort of thing.

If you're going to contact all the publishers you can find and ask them for work, you'll need the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook or the Writer's Handbook or something similar because these contain lovely directories with all the postal and email addresses you'll need. Don't forget, if your local library hasn't already been knocked down and turned into something useful like a Costa or a Young Conservatives club, it will have books like these and a photocopier. (The Secret Freelancer does not condone the illegal pirating of books).

I have two books about freelancing itself - The Freelance Writer's Handbook by Andrew Crofts, and How to Succeed as a Freelancer in Publishing by Emma Murray and Charlie Wilson. If you're just starting out, either of these would be a good purchase (How to Succeed... is more relevant to me because it deals with proofing, editing, indexing and the like, not just writing), but perhaps not if you've been freelancing for a while. A large chunk of them is taken up with the practicalities of setting up your home office, what you can claim back on expenses, tax return stuff, the sort of thing you'll already know about. And they can be dispiriting if you're not already doing things in the same way that the authors recommend, no matter how successful you've become as a result of following your own path.

Of course, the moral of the story is that everyone tries to offer advice but all they know is what worked for them, not what's going to work for you. I include myself in this, obviously.