The Nine Deadly Sins That Freelancers Make…

Jan 16, 2012

Over the years I have worked with a number of freelancers, from those starting their freelance careers to established freelancers whose work has dried up. These are the nine deadly sins that I’ve found most freelancers make:

1. Not managing your time.
There are a million reasons why you chose to go freelance, and one of them was probably to be in charge of your own day and able to fit your work around your life, not the other way round. But there comes a time when all time management goes out of the window, and you are either spending too much or too little time at your desk. As a freelance, you are running a business. You need to plan your day and stick to what you planned (with obvious exceptions); you should be controlling your email and workflow, not the other way around. If you find, regularly, that you wrongly estimate the time it takes to do a project, then learn from this! Don’t keep making the same mistakes.

2. Not managing your clients.
It is very easy to let clients rule the roost: you depend on them for work so that you can pay the bills. However, freelances often fail to put their foot down when they should. If a client is messing you around with deadlines, demands and interruptions, then manage them. Make it clear at the start what format you’d like work in and when you can talk on the phone or answer emails. If they suddenly ask you to do something different, which was not agreed before you took the job and will take a lot of extra time, tell them there may be an extra charge. If it is a regular client, you might not charge, to keep them happy, but remember you are a business not a charity – you must be paid for the work that you do.

3. Not setting fees correctly.
You’ve failed to set your fees at the appropriate rate, or, more importantly, you’ve charged a fee for a job and not per hour. The CIEP issues fee guidelines, and you should stick to them. If you are told ‘your fees are too high’, don’t feel you have to drop down to compete. If you follow the points above, you should have lots of clients who will pay the going rate for your work. There’s no guarantee that the cheaper person will be better for a company. Many times I hear of publishers going for the cheaper option and then returning to their established freelance.

4. Not looking for work when you’re busy.
You took on a project and focused on it 110 per cent without allowing any time to market your business. You didn’t update your leaflets/marketing materials, and may have turned work down. Now the project has ended, and you’re twiddling your thumbs wondering what to do. The answer is to keep on looking for work, and to subcontract: find other freelances whom you know and trust and whose work is of the same high standard as yours. Let the quiet times be their quiet times, not yours. At least 10 per cent of your time should be spent looking for work.

5. Not networking.
You get too busy or, even worse, your work dries up and you’re too embarrassed to go to any networking events to keep in touch with your peers. You have to put yourself out there. People will think you’ve stopped working if they no longer hear from you or see you around. Networking counts as part of that 10 per cent in point 4 above. You are likely to get good speculative approaches if you keep up your networking – try ‘I don’t know if this is the kind of project you work on but …’

6. Not keeping up with new technology.
Like it or not, traditional book publishing has changed. This won’t kill your work but you need to fill the gaps in your knowledge and learn new skills to open up new opportunities. Both the CIEP and the Publishing Training Centre ( have introduced new courses to help. You may be able to apply for a training grant from The Book Trade Charity ( When a company doesn’t have in- house skills they will ‘freelance’ them out, and there are many gaps in in-house knowledge at the moment. If you want to know which publishers are investing in digital and what they are doing, then sign up for @thefuturebook (, the digital publishing email from The Bookseller, and for updates from @publishingtalk (www.

7. Not doing social networking.
When I mention Twitter, I expect you to say that you hate it! But if I told you there was a huge and vibrant publishing community on Twitter, would you hate it so much? Likewise, LinkedIn. Publishers often search for people by job title, eg ‘freelance copyeditor’, and if you are linked to someone they are linked to, you should appear higher in the search rankings. There are also many publishing groups that post job vacancies or opportunities for freelances. But there are some clear dos and don’ts. Get Up to Speed With Online Marketing by Jon Reed is the book you need to walk you through every stage. Jon Reed also organises training courses in using social media for publishing (

8. Acting like the world has ended when you’ve lost a major client.
A number of freelances spend 60 per cent of their time working for one company. Then something happens (usually the company is acquired by another), and they are left floundering. What to do? Take a step back and look at what you are doing in point 1. Don’t put your head in the sand: chasing after lost causes won’t bring you in money.

9. Getting precious about publishing.
You say that you want to work only on books and you do only one kind of editing. Yet your skills are universal. Every company outside book publishing now has a website and produces marketing materials, brochures and leaflets. How many times has a flyer come through your door with errors
on it? Companies need your skills and your experience, and often the work can pay better than the traditional work you are doing. In quiet periods, or when it feels as if publishers are providing less work, this is an area where you might find your back- up plan. Most freelances who work for companies outside their usual remit comment on how much they ‘enjoyed doing something different’.

If you are a freelancer who is struggling and none of the above are helping or you need some professional advice to get back on track, don’t forget that all our career services are applicable to you too.