First questions of a freelance business coach


Last week two people asked if they could pick my brain about freelance editing for book publishers. I listened to them describe their situations and tell me how they thought I could help them. Then I asked each of them a personal question: "Are you the primary earner in your household? Or is yours the supplemental income?" In other words:

Can your household budget survive your editing for publishers?

It's a shame that I would need to pose this question to my talented colleagues, but I need to be honest. Many publishers' business models include farming out book editing at $25 an hour or less—which won't support most households as a solo income. (I believe that this is an unconsciously sexist practice: expecting mostly women to do highly skilled professional work for pin money. I wish rectifying this were on publishers' minds when ebooks allow them to revitalize their back lists and realize savings in printing and distribution. But those are issues for another post.)

When I started out as a freelance editor, $20-some an hour looked like decent money. It was comparable to what I had been earning as a part-time adult education instructor, I would be able to flex my hours so I wouldn't need to pay for child care, and mine was the supplemental income.

But when I became the primary earner, an hourly rate in the low 20s looked completely different. Self-employment taxes chewed up a larger part of my gross when I dropped on-site teaching to go full-time as an editor. We now were paying for health insurance completely out of pocket. I learned that I was wrong to believe that I could crank out 40 billable hours a week without cerebral burnout. And the necessity of keeping 40 hours of work in the house at all times led to frequent scheduling train wrecks.

Still, my time editing for book publishers did positive things for my career. I gained experience and made valuable professional contacts while I managed the steady flow of projects that was necessary to keep the household afloat. So I posed another question to my two colleagues:

How does freelancing for publishers fit in with your larger professional and personal goals?

By the end of our conversation, one of last week's brain pickers planned to talk with her husband about a long-term plan: She did want to edit for publishers to get some experience under her belt before offering editing services to better-paying clients. For her to do this, however, she needed her husband's agreement to swap roles. His would need to be the primary income for a time, and hers the supplemental.

The other brain picker was pretty sure that she would continue to edit for publishers. Her husband is the primary earner in the household, and she still has one child at home. Work for publishers provides a steady income, and our conversation helped her to realize that she could give herself permission to bill fewer hours weekly than the overwhelming 40 she had been aiming for. She now agrees that if she bills a steady 25 hours while maintaining her business as a whole and caring for her family, she isn't being a slouch.

Every major business decision you need to make is wrapped in the context of your larger professional and personal life. So choose carefully, always keeping your long-term goals and your loved ones in mind.