Macmillan staff give thumbs up to new freelance training course

A new NUJ training course that aims to help people working in book publishing to start out on a freelance career was pioneered in Oxford last month, and proved a big hit. The course was devised for staff at Macmillan in Oxford, which is relocating to London at the end of the year, leaving the workforce pondering their options of following the company down to London, seeking another job in a difficult market, or going freelance.

In all, 60 people attended the day-long course, which was held on site and ran on two days to keep the numbers manageable. Course leaders were Phil Sutcliffe, who has been running NUJ courses like this for journalists for many years, and Jenny Vaughan, who has long advocated the cause of book freelances within the NUJ, but had not, until now, got involved in training.

Branch member Maura O’Brien, who attended the course on the first day, said it had been very valuable in opening people’s minds to the many skills and different options they all had. “Jenny was very clear from the beginning. She said, within education you deal with everything: you are looking at design, content editing, copy editing, the way the images interact with the text, so many different things. You’ve got such broad knowledge at your fingertips that you can actually do much more than you think you can.

“A lot of people came out of it and they just said all of our minds had been stretched a bit. We were thinking: we don’t have to just contact OUP or Pearson or the other EFL companies,  we can also consider other things, such as writing – that was one thing that I don’t think anyone had really thought about. It was also very interesting to think about how we could get involved in other types of editing, and also networking and how to really put yourself out there and chase that kind of work.”

Jon Beck, a Unite member who had experience of working freelance 13 years ago, agrees that the course help people look wider afield. “I’ve always tended to be a specialist throughout my working life. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of not being pigeonholed into one particular specialism and not closing yourself off to opportunities that might come up.”

Advice about negotiating rates was particularly welcome said Jon. “There were some very good practical pointers on how not to paint yourself into a corner, and leave room to negotiate. Very sensible and straightforward advice.”

“It’s almost semantics – all about how you phrase things,” said Maura, “and I thought that’s true, because whenever I am offering a rate I always know there is a little bit more there. When you’re on the other side,  you can forget that.”

Ideas about networking, tailoring your pitch to the interests of potential clients – and being persistent – were also seen as very valuable, said Jon. “There were lots of anecdotes, which were very enjoyable, and made very good points. It was a chance to hear from two people who had worked in the business and had a huge range of skills and experiences about how they had survived as freelances.”

“A lot of jobs are being lost in book publishing at the moment,” said trainer, Jenny Vaughan, “and more and more of us are likely to be working freelance in the future.” However people from a publishing background are often less assertive than journalists, she added, and more hesitant about getting out there and chasing potential clients, so the course could be worth repeating in other settings in the future.

Looking ahead here in Oxford, might people who attended the Macmillan course be interested in an initiative the branch is considering to bring members together with people from the local community of programmers and digital workers? “I think people would really jump at it,” said Maura. “To be fair, all of the changes that are going on in publishing with Macmillan, with OUP, with Pearson, the reason they are making all these redundancies is that they are looking at the publishing plans and everyone is scared of what’s happening with digital and uncertain about the way forward. We are all aware that we need to embrace that side of the industry a lot more and get a handle on it.”

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