Friday, July 19, 2013

What I Learned as a New Freelancer

I've been an independent publicist for about four months now, and I've learned a few things about freelancing. The hard way. I suppose that's how I learn best; but, in case you're not like me and would like to avoid these kinds of things, here are my initial lessons after my first quarter as a freelance publicist.

Plan for negotiation time

When I worked directly for a single publisher, I knew which books were coming out, in what order, and I knew precisely what duties I had to fulfull. I didn't have to negotiate how and when the work would be done, or even if I would do it at all. I didn't have to read samples, make judgments, have lengthy conversations and pre-planning sessions. One mistake I made in my early freelance efforts was not accounting for this, and some days it feels like a miracle that I manage to keep my clients reasonably happy with me. (Indeed, another big thanks to my initial customers while we're at it!)

Note: this is true not only in the sense of leaving yourself time each week to negotiate and plan, but also when figuring rates. You can't always directly bill for this time, so make sure it's accounted for when you set rates.

Keep to the scope

I am an enthusiastic person. This is a highly desireable trait for a publicist, but it does mean that if I get really into a project that I have to remember doing too much beyond the scope goes beyond stellar service and into me working for free—and workload management problems. Sleep is quite literally lost in the process of getting back on track. I hope that I give my clients fantastic service, but I think everyone will be more satisfied (including me!) now that I understand this important freelancing discipline.

Organize and secure data in the best way for you

Not everyone is going to organize, think, or work in the same way. I read a lot about getting organized and some things worked for me and some things didn't. Just make sure that if you're a paper files person that you keep good paper files. If you're an Evernote-and-lots-of-tags person, then do that. What works for me?
  • A week-at-a-glance agenda with a task list.
  • Well-labeled subfolders on my hard drive (which are then backed up in cloud storage).
  • Emails in Gmail tagged with different labels such as client name, project name, time period, taxes, accounting, invoices, etc. I back up my Gmail periodically, too.
  • I keep all of this secure with regular password changes and backups. Nothing's foolproof, so a little redundancy and password safety go a long way.
Whatever you do—and this is the most important bit—do it consistently. Some days things will come up that keep you from labelling, filing, and what-have-you, but get it done the next day. There is no one there to do your filing or organize your papers for the accountant. Well, not for most of us.

Think honestly about how you work best

Do you have an office at home? Do you work best in your pajamas? Do you need to get out of the house? Once again this is not a one-size-fits-all issue, so figure out what works best for you. I happen to work best when I go to the coffee shop. When I am at home I start fussing around in the kitchen or playing with my cats or deciding suddenly that cleaning the closet is the best idea I've had all month. I can (and do) work at home often, but when I have a large swath of things to get through, or something that requires special focus (such as writing a marketing plan), I head out to Second Cup for eight or nine hours.

As a matter of politeness, I ensure I purchase a minimum of one item per 2-3 hour stretch, too, but that should be decided based on your own budget. Don't be that guy who goes in and never buys anything. That's really lame. It isn't your mama's living room. Cough up two bucks for a coffee, and if you can't, then this is a good time to mention that your local library may be a good workspace if a coffee shop isn't going to be your thing.

Make sure your rates are realistic

For most of us this means "don't under-charge" but it certainly could mean that we should watch out for over-charging, too. I don't have a lot to say on it myself, but I want to encourage you to read this article by Tom Ewer on Lifehacker, which is probably one of the most directly useful things I've read in years:

Make contracts and agreements clear and detailed

I write my own contracts. I am not an attorney, so it's quite possible that I am missing something important in doing this; but, in my field this has been a strong point. Most of my clients have never hired a publicist before, and it helps us to have things laid out in easy-to-understand language. I have two sections, one for my role and responsibilities, including my fee and when my client can expect an invoice. The second section outlines my client's role and responsibility, including how he or she can pay my fee.

I send it to the client and ask him or her to make suggestions and changes, and then if there are any, I look them over and approve them or renegotiate them. So far it's gone very smoothly and when there has been a question it's been easy to go back to the contract and find the answer.

I want to stress that this part can be very different depending on the type of work you're doing. There may be NDAs and no-compete agreements and other things that will apply for you that don't apply for publicity and marketing. Just make sure that whatever contract(s) you need are understood by all involved so that you can avoid problems later.

There you have it. I've learned a lot more than this, but if I can pick out the most important lessons of all then they'd be these six items. If you have thoughts or freelancing lessons of your own to add, please leave them in the comments. If you prefer to remain anonymous, email them to me and I'll post them in an update next week.


  1. Great advice, especially the parts about keeping to the scope of the project and planning for negotiation time -- for me, that also includes a little research and prep, as each client can be completely different.

    The big thing I'm learning is to respect the work. There will be times as a freelancer when you're not actively bringing in a paycheck -- you'll be marketing, or networking, or otherwise building your business -- and it's tempting to discount the value of your job, and your own value. When that happens, it's easy to let others discount your work as well, and try to take precedence. It's so important to remember that your job is a real job, even if you do it from home, and even you don't have cash rolling in every second. Your job is as important as other breadwinners', maybe *especially* when you're not actively collecting invoices. If you don't take the time to market and network, your business won't grow, so the fallow periods between clients are an important investment in your future. Respect your work and yourself, and insist others do, too! Don't let others -- especially not yourself -- tell you it's not a real job.

    1. Thanks, Meghan. That's really important advice.