Stuck in the doldrums: notes from a freelance editor

Drawing of a person sitting in a huge rut in the ground.IT IS NOT just newspaper publishers that are cutting costs and seeing quality drop: this is becoming prevalent across many sectors within the NUJ. A branch member with long experience in educational publishing reports on the issues facing freelance editors.

The ELT world seems to have got stuck in the doldrums. Projects are on hold and very little seems to be happening. The mood at the IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) conference back in April was grim, and not just because of the announcement of yet another round of redundancies at Oxford University Press – hot on the heels of redundancies at Cambridge University Press.

The general view is that publishers feel they should be doing something more with digital but don’t know what, so everybody is watching everybody else and not making the first move. One successful author told me they were looking at their first patch without a contract in decades. Another told me they have been able to get only minor writing jobs. Another was about to finish a contract and for the first time in years has nothing else lined up. My freelance editor friends report the same: very little work, and now a lot of freelancers competing for it.

Fees for freelance ELT editors

Another worrying trend, clearly related to the above, is around the way freelance editors are now paid. This was confirmed by a recent (unscientific) survey of 113 ELT editors about their fees, which compared the results with a similar survey conducted in 2013.

The survey revealed that publishers are shifting from the traditional hourly paid rates set by the freelancer to flat fees set by themselves. These fees regularly underestimate (whether deliberately or through incompetence) the number of hours included in the contract. This leaves the freelancer feeling that their options are a) raising the issue with the in-house editor handling them, risking being considered slow and pricing themselves out of the next job, or b) working below their standards to complete the job within the timeframe and risking being seen as incompetent.

The good thing about the survey is that the 113 now know they are not the only ones – it’s happening to most of us. The hourly fees, where allowed, have flatlined since 2010, just like in-house salaries.

It would appear that publishers, having pared in-house staff down to a skeleton missing a few bones, have reached the limit of the squeeze they can apply on their employees and are now directing their attention to freelancers.

Having pared in-house staff down to a skeleton publishers are now directing their attention to freelancers

Meanwhile, in the trade publishing world, job adverts frequently list the ability to work in InDesign among the essential skills in editorial job descriptions. This suggests that most trade publishers are now making do without designers. Perhaps the NUJ could conduct a survey among its members working in trade to verify what editors are required to do with InDesign and what the job of designers is.

Last but not least, adverts for freelancers to work in-house within the publisher’s offices – without the security of a staff contract – are also creeping in. publishing industry seems to be driven by accountants who believe they can keep squeezing quality, overheads and salaries and still make attractive profits for their shareholders. Unsurprisingly, many editors feel that the industry has become very insecure.  Without an organised push back things can only keep getting worse.




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Filed under editing, freelance, publishing, quality, union

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