Finding editorial services via the internet: 5 pointers

If you found this blog via organic search, my guess is that you waded through dozens of other editorial-service providers’ attempts at grabbing your attention, so you’ll know that there are scads of professional editors, writers, proofreaders, indexers, etc., all of whom want your business.

That wasn’t always so. My earliest freelance experience dates to the late 1970s/early 1980s and was centered in New York City, the hub of publishing’s universe. Finding new clients was hard work at first, but once I’d established myself with one or two regulars, word of mouth filled in the rest, because trade publishing editors were constantly on the lookout for reliable editorial services providers.

Is the editorial services arena really a “buyer’s market”?

Some 15 years later, however, when I was in a position to outsource this kind of work myself, I suffered no such shortage. Once Vern Associates launched its first website, I received multiple inquiries each day from writers, editors, proofreaders, and indexers.

For us, hanging out a glossy new e-shingle and trawling for clients is the easy part, but distinguishing our work and capabilities from thousands of other options is trickier. Which raises the questions: Is the editorial services arena really the “buyer’s market” it’s purported to be? and How do you sort out quality work from cleverly hyped and technologically savvy presentations?

How do you sort out the quality work from the cleverly hyped?

Even if writing and editing is part of your job description, that’s not all that instructive for knowing how to hire somebody else to do one or both. And, if wheat-chaff sifting isn’t well-trod ground for you, it seems almost cruel to expect you to sort through the mess. With that difficulty in mind, then, here are some pointers that helped me when I was looking for help.

1. Consider the source
Much as I’ve benefitted from Craigslist—when giving away a vintage Mac or buying a lateral file—those broad-based websites aren’t the best places to look for a writer or editor. Would you use one to find a dentist or tax attorney? Then what makes you think you’ll find highly experienced word workers there? It takes little skill, attention to detail, or perseverance to post a work search on these sites, so there goes an inherent demonstration of an editorial professional’s abilities or standards.

2. It will cost how much?
This is a particular thorn in my, um, writing hand. In the mid-1990s, when I sought reliable editorial help for my then-new business, I was gobsmacked by the huge jump hourly rates had taken from the time when I was a freelance editor. Once the shock wore off, however, I could see that it was about time that quality writers and editors were paid decently.

That realization quickly faded, however, when it became obvious that many of the new breed of freelancers were simply making it up as they went along. Their thinking sometimes seems to be along the lines of: “My cost of living = x, and I can expect to complete y jobs a year, therefore I must charge (x/y) x 200% to make it worthwhile.” If you can afford to pay on this basis—and the result is terrific—fine. If you cannot—or it isn’t—keep looking.

3. Experience? or expertise?
A few years ago I did an informal survey of 23 colleagues, each of whom had been a freelance editor for at least 10 years, to see how much they charged for their work. Predictably, responses varied widely, from a low of $35/hour to a high of $90, and the differences seemed to peg to things like cost of living in differing regions, specialized knowledge they offered, how many authors were involved in a single book, and so forth.

No correlation between length of freelance experience and price was evident, but what surprised me was a seeming direct correlation between length of time as a freelance and the degree of detail in how they described pricing policies. The longer people had been working for themselves, the more apt they were to provide a straightforward answer: “My hourly rate is $XX.” Those who’d been doing it the least long used elaborate scales and calculations they were convinced would wring every last cent out of a job. From that time on, when a candidate told me he had been editing for 20 years and would propose a fee once he had run the job through his spreadsheet, misgivings were piqued.

4. Try the samplestext editing with word-processor
Time was when it was impossible to get a freelance foot in the door at a publishing house without first taking an editing test. The best of these tests were riddled with traps that only a truly canny and experienced editor could set. I may have learned more about potential editorial pitfalls from those tests than from editing actual manuscripts.

Well, those were the days. At Vern Associates, when I broached the subject to aspiring freelances, the usual response was, “not unless I’m paid.” A few candidates were outraged that I’d even suggest such a thing, and they typically were brand new to their trade. To be fair, the old hands were surprised, too, but only because so few potential clients asked them to take tests any longer.

At the very least, then, I advise you to contact at least two references, but even more important is scrutinizing examples of past work. Ideally the candidate will provide edited manuscript that shows changes and queries. In its absence, make certain the sample is error free, reads smoothly and comfortably, and conveys a sense of confidence. It still shocks me to read something by an author known for good writing that is less than polished. Where was the editor on that job?

5. Insist on candidates trying the samples, too
If a potential writer or editor gives you a price based solely on your description of the job, or on just a press kit or book proposal, a loud warning gong should sound. If she does not ask to see sample manuscript before bidding, you may face serious trouble down the line, especially if you pay by the hour. If you haven’t got a sample to show, send something representative for the freelance to consider.

Twice, when I assigned a job to an editor based on an uninformed estimate, I ended up paying roughly twice what I’d budgeted (and both times for substandard work). I then instituted a policy of never formalizing a work agreement with a new editor until their bid was based on the actual assignment.

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