Harnessing The Ill Wind: Freelancing In A Recession
Alicia McAuley is a freelance editor and book designer. She has run her own business since 2006. You can find out more at www.aliciamcauley.com.
Those of us who provide services to book publishers – copy-editors, proofreaders, indexers, designers, illustrators and so on – depend on those companies for our livelihood. So can we expect that in an unhealthy market, where many publishers are finding themselves in trouble, we will share their fortunes? On the face of it, not necessarily.
On the face of it, in fact, freelancers could be the ones to benefit from the economic ill wind. Redundancies (of which there have been lots, some companies losing up to half their workforce) mean that many publishers’ needs can no longer be met in house. Editing and production are therefore outsourced, leading to a hike in demand for freelancers. Right?
Right. But we must take into account the fact that those who have been made redundant have had to find a new way of making a living. And, in many cases, the very companies that have laid them off comprise the obvious market for their skills. In the absence of new in-house prospects, these people have either left the profession entirely, or – yes – gone freelance. So, as competition in the freelance market increases, it cancels out a good part of the extra demand.
Moreover, publishers have tended, naturally enough, to stretch the resources they have left rather than paying for outsourcing. In-house staff have been expected to mop up a lot of their former colleagues’ work.
And, as we all know, the total volume of work available has gone down. In the academic end of book publishing, cuts in government/university subsidies are now taking their toll, while in more commercial companies there is less sales revenue to play around with. Thus fewer books are being commissioned and there is just less to be done.
All this seems to paint a grim picture, but, for freelancers, there’s always a bright side to look on. We can take comfort in the idea that, if we do our job well, our existing clients will value us and will keep employing us as and when their resources allow them. A good editor, designer or indexer should and will always be in demand, even if that demand is less than it has been.
Besides, even during the boom, few of us were in it for the money. It is more likely that other things drew us to this way of life. As copy-editors, for example, we probably share a certain delight in the good exercise of judgement, in the acquisition and sound application of knowledge. We probably share the diamond cutter’s satisfaction in the process of grinding, faceting and polishing each idea to its brightest expression. And occasionally, too, we have the pleasure of working on a gem of great value.
We are likely to be independent souls. We like our freedom; we enjoy the control we have over our time and our prosperity. When we find ourselves hunched over a set of proofs at 11 p.m., we don’t resent it because we know that, deadline met, we can enjoy a late start and a long lunch the next day.
Most of the time, too, we have choice. Not being tied down to a particular publisher’s stock-in-trade is a considerable freedom. We may work on an academic monograph one week and a chick-lit novella the next – and, consequently, we will not get fed up with either genre or find our skill set narrowing to the requirements of a certain type of work. Moreover, during these times, there is freedom in not being tied down to the economic fortunes of a single employer.
Perhaps, until the book market picks up, freelance service providers will be galvanised into exploring new markets, developing new client models and finding new directions in which to take our expertise. The recession may well mean that the ways of working that have paid our way in the last few years are no longer viable – at least for now – but, after all, why should that be a bad thing?
© Alicia McAuley