The good, the bad, and the “that could have gone better” about subcontracting

Patricia Anderson, PhD, runs an editing and literary and literary consulting business, Helping You Get Published, and has hired several editorial subcontractors over her company’s fourteen-year history. Amelia Gilliland holds an editing certificate from SFU and has worked in-house at Arsenal Pulp Press and Douglas & McIntyre; today she’s a freelance editor who occasionally subcontracts for the West Coast Editorial Associates. Eve Rickert is a Certified Professional Editor and founder of Talk Science to Me Communications Inc., which provides services including writing, editing, indexing, and design through a team of subcontractors. Anderson, Gilliland, and Rickert made up the panel on subcontracting at last week’s EAC-BC monthly meeting, moderated by Frances Peck. Peck asked the panellists questions to get the discussion going and also encouraged questions from audience members.

How did you get into subcontracting?

Rickert said that she started collaborating with others early on, mainly on big writing projects. When she took her first in-house position, she wanted to hang on to clients and began subcontracting to trusted associates. At a second in-house job, her responsibilities included a lot of project management, which she enjoyed. She integrated that element into her business when she struck out on her own to offer science communication services, and today she subcontracts to writers, editors, and designers.

Gilliland brought the perspective of someone who takes on subcontracting opportunities rather than offering them. She began subcontracting while she was still in school, working toward an editing certificate at Simon Fraser University. She asked Ruth Wilson, who was one of her instructors, to mentor her, and she began subcontracting for WCEA. “It was a great way to start,” she said. “When you’re that new to it, you don’t really know how to get into it.” She added that subcontracting gives you an opportunity to work on great projects if you’re working for people who’ve been in the business a long time and are trusted in the industry.

Anderson, who admits that she very much enjoys working on her own and always goes back to it, began subcontracting a year into taking her business online. “These were the early days of the Internet,” she said, “and after three weeks of being online I was so swamped my life was turned upside down.” She cobbled together a group of five subcontractors; the first subcontracting model she tried was to have a group of experts, each taking on one part of the business: marketing, proposals, literary consulting, etc. She said that the model worked, but because it was early in her business, she didn’t realize where the bulk of the business would be. As a result, she and her editor were overwhelmed with work.

The next model she tried was to have a combination of expert editors and some more junior subcontractors. The problem she encountered with that arrangement was that her subcontractors would regard her as an employer and would constantly expect her to give them more work. Anderson wasn’t fond of the pressure that expectation put on her and told us that if she tries other subcontracting models, she’ll emphasize that she’s offering freelance opportunities, not employment, and she’ll actively seek out entrepreneurial, proactive contractors.

Rickert hasn’t found the same kinds of expectations from her subcontractors; if anything, her problem has been the opposite, in that she’s lost a few freelancers who’ve sought out other opportunities.

Trust is a big issue in subcontracting. Those of us who are freelancers are used to doing our own work and answering for ourselves. With subcontracting you’re trusting someone else to work with your client. Did you have any initial fears about getting into subcontracting?

Gilliland responded, “I was terrified. I was new to the industry. I was terrified I was going to do something unbelievably stupid and scared that I wouldn’t represent [WCEA] well. That fear—that I wouldn’t do a good enough job—came with being new; I didn’t have the confidence. It’s different now. There’s always a bit of apprehension, but there’s less about my not representing well.”

Anderson joked that she was fearless because the business was so new she didn’t know what she was getting into. Rickert said that she started off the same way but, “I certainly have a lot of fears now. With a new subcontractor, there’s always wondering if their work is up to standard. And the relationship with clients—do I manage the relationship, or do I have subcontractors work with them directly?” She said that she eases into that arrangement with a new subcontractor; after she’s confident the subcontractor’s work is up to standard, she has them work directly with the client and keep her posted on milestones. She says she’s clear about accountability and who is responsible for what: “Subcontractors are working for me, not for my client. If my client has issues with performance, those can come to me.” Getting the right distance between the person requiring the work and the person doing the work is the balance she strives to achieve.

Both Rickert and Anderson mentioned that their business models involve a markup. Rickert described her work as trying to maintain a sweet spot—a balance between what subcontractors are paid and what clients are charged. At first she was reluctant to charge a markup, but she came to realize that she puts a lot of time into finding good people, managing projects, training, and building a brand. The subcontractor also gets value from being part of a managed project.

How much do you check up on their work? Do you rely on their background?

Rickert replied that it depends how well she knows their work. For newer subcontractors, she’ll usually work behind them and check their work, giving them feedback on areas for improvement. For more established editors, she may not have to do this.

Anderson added, “I analyze the project, decide what the major issues are and  what the best strategies are, and I convey this to the editor. I make myself available non-stop. I go through the project line by line.” It’s an intensive commitment, Anderson said, but she was quick to add, “There are junior editors who do certain things better than people with more experience,” suggesting we should play to people’s strengths and worry less about whether they are junior or senior.

Gilliland explained that when she first started out, she did have her work checked and asked for feedback, especially if she was in a situation where the editor hiring her was trying to maintain a client and just couldn’t take on a specific task. Today, most of the subcontracting work she does is when an editor isn’t interested in a project or doesn’t have time to take on the work and asks her if she wants it—in which case it’s more a referral and less a subcontract.

What is the difference between a subcontract and a referral?

Peck said, “We pride ourselves on being a collegial bunch of people; it’s not a cutthroat business and we’re often quite happy to hand off work. In a much earlier life, I was a real estate agent. In that world, you always received a referral fee that was 25 per cent of the commission. Should there be a fee for a referrals?”

“That’s a tough one,” said Gilliland. “It depends where it comes from.” She explained that the West Coast Editorial Associations, for instance, were sought out by clients and contacted because of the reputation they had built; she could understand paying a fee for projects they referred.

Rickert tries not to give referrals; she has a big enough team of subcontractors that she can usually keep projects in house. However, she does offer clients a referral bonus: if they refer new clients to her, she’ll offer a discount on the next project.

Anderson said, “I have strong feelings on this. I work hard on my websites. I put in hours and hours. If a potential new client comes to me, it’s still time invested. I’ve laid the groundwork, counselled the editor about a reasonable fee, and set the client up. I want 15 per cent. People say, ‘Why should I give you 15 per cent when I do all the work?’ Well, editing is work, but it’s not all the work in a business.”

Anderson told us that she was looking online to see who else had a referral model and discovered a site that purported to be a database of editors. In order to be listed in this database, you first have to pass an editing test—which you have to pay for. Once you’re in, the owner of the site charges you a monthly fee to remain listed. If you get work (which, according to some posted reviews of the site, may never happen), you pay 30 to 40 per cent of what you earn. We wondered whether any editing was actually going on, but the owner of the site claims to have some high-powered clients.

The last story raises a point about ethics. Have you ever encountered any concerns from the client’s point of view or concerns about ethics?

Gilliland said that she had a client who initially wasn’t comfortable with the idea that his project was being handed off to her from the editor he’d approached.  “I think his attitude was, ‘Well, why doesn’t she want to work with me?'” In the end, Gilliland met with him and gained his trust. The fact that the other editor expressed confidence in her work catalyzed that process.

Rickert said that she’s never had ethical issues because she is always responsible for the final quality of the work; she never takes herself out of the project.

Anderson takes a similar approach: “I come in at the beginning, so the client knows the work comes from me, with input and assistance from another editor.” She said she’d never pass off someone else’s work as her own.

A growing concern for Anderson is that she has so many return clients that she can barely handle them. “How do you hand off a loyal client?” she asked.

How do you decide on your markup?

Rickert explained that with established associates, her markup is 100 per cent, which is standard for the industry. For senior editors she brings in on occasional projects, the markups are lower, but they’re never less than 30 per cent.

Do you have formal contracts with subcontractors that specify editorial credit, and payment—or that stops subcontractors from absconding with your clients?

Rickert is adamant about having contracts with her subcontractors and contracts with her clients. She does have a non-soliciation clause that prevents her subcontractors from working independently with her clients for a certain period.

Anderson admitted to being a bit lax about contracts. She does have house rules and a general expectation of the level of work and editing, but she doesn’t have formal contracts.

Gilliland said that she usually has a contract directly with the client or author and has a separate contract with the editor who subcontracted the work.

What are the top one or two lessons you’ve learned through your subcontracting experiences?

Anderson said (only somewhat jokingly), “Consider not subcontracting. There’s a lot to be said for the one-person business. If you’ve got solid clients, you’re enjoying your work, and you’re able to handle it efficiently, why torture yourself?” A second lesson is that if you have to subcontract, make a plan. Decide on the kind of model that will work best for your business and the kinds of editors that will be the best fit. A last piece of advice for editors looking to subcontract is to think of themselves as independent professionals. “This is not being an employee. This is being a proactive professional fulfilling a freelance opportunity.”

Gilliland advised, “Only work for top-drawer people. Work with the best people you can, especially if you’re just starting out. They’ll be good examples, teach you, and offer you better work.”

Rickert’s advice: have a contract—with both client and subcontractor. Get a line of credit. She added, “Be clear that you’re still responsible for the work. You’re responsible to everyone: client and subcontractors. Don’t think you’re getting out of anything by subcontracting.”

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