Walking the tightrope: life as a freelancer

life as a freelancer

In the run up to, United, We Publish, BookMachine will be featuring a number of opinions on UNITE-focused topics such as training, pay, employment law and flexible working. This is a guest post by John Pettigrew. John is CEO and Founder of We Are Futureproofs, where he is trying to make editors’ lives better with software designed for the jobs we actually do. A recovering editor himself, John has been working in publishing since 1997, including stints on academic journals, educational textbooks, and print and digital materials of all kinds. Read more on the Futureproofs blog and website.

Life as a freelancer can be tricky balancing act. On the one hand, you have the need to do enough work to live on and (therefore) to make sure your clients are happy. On the other hand, you have the need to actually get paid for that work – which can be decidedly difficult!

I was a freelance editor for 6 years, so here are some tips for avoiding serious unexpected financial issues.

Read the small print

Never do work without clear terms and conditions, so that both sides know what to expect. You might find publishers hiding terms and conditions on the back of PO forms, but it’s your right to negotiate these. Even when they’re not outright objectionable (and I’m sure we can all remember a few of the big kerfuffles of recent years), they’re not always friendly to freelancers.

The way to avoid this is to be clear. Send your own agreement to clients when you accept work (or before), and make sure include interest and late-payment charges. You don’t have to enforce them but it’s very useful to have them there.

Check that your agreement is water-tight. One thing to watch is that a client appears to accept your terms, but then sends you their own terms later that claim to supersede the initial agreement! You can avoid this by including language in your own agreement that says that all work for the client is performed under your agreed terms, and that no changes of any sort are valid that do not specifically address your agreement and that are not signed by you.

Don’t forget, in-house editors aren’t just looking for the cheapest supplier. They want someone who’s going to make their life easier.


Similarly, make sure that you’ve told your client how much you will charge, and that you’ve asked when you’ll be paid. Sadly, you can’t control their accounting systems, but you can find out when payments are processed each month. It’s quite common, for example, that invoices received before (say) the 18th of the month will be paid this month, whereas later invoices will wait until the month after.

Also, make sure you know how much time your invoices need to be processed. So, if you send your invoice to Finance, who sends it to the in-house editor for approval, who then sends it back to Finance – how long does that take? Because the cut-off date will almost certainly be the date that approval gets back to Finance.


Finally, don’t be afraid to negotiate, which means give and take on both sides. For more on difficult jobs, it’s perfectly in order to ask for more – and also to offer a discount to a good client who needs it. Never, though, offer a discount to get a client in the first place (unless you’re desperate)! By and large, those won’t be clients you want in the long term – because if they’re choosing their freelancer by price, you’ll be locked into a spiral of cost reduction rather than being valued for your skills.

Be clear and bold about your value to your clients. Don’t be ashamed to ask for what you’re worth. And always give your best to your clients in return!

– Join us for ‘United, We Publish‘ (discounted for members of BookMachine, NUJ, and Unite) to learn more about pay and conditions in the publishing industry.

Get tickets

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