Working as a freelance editor

and how I started listening to a podcast

People often ask where I receive my freelance copyediting jobs. In case you, too, are wondering, I initially received them from the two publishing companies I’d worked for in-house, West Virginia University Press and Perseus Books Group, as well as from Melville House. In college, I’d published a short essay in The Birch, Columbia University’s Russian and East European studies journal. By the time I quit my job at Perseus Books Group, the former editor of The Birch had become a senior editor at Melville House, and had the managing editor send me copyediting jobs.

Initially, I thought I’d copyedit mainly trade nonfiction. As you know, I write fiction, and I wanted to keep that separate from my freelance editing. However, after six months of freelancing, managing editors recognized that I was good at copyediting fiction, and began primarily assigning me that.

My favorite aspect of being a copy editor is the variety of books I read. Often, when I’m at the library browsing, I’ll read a novel’s synopsis and the first few pages, and if it doesn’t pique my interest by then, I’ll set it aside. But as a copy editor, I have to read very closely each book I’m assigned, and I become more generous and appreciative the more I’m exposed to a writer’s unique aesthetic. I may not like the first few pages, but by the time I’ve read the book twice, line by line, I appreciate many aspects, and even often become a champion of the book, heartily recommending it to others.

I’ve now copyedited over fifty books. My two favorite nonfiction were Joris Luyendijk’s Among the Bankers, which investigates the 2008 financial crash by interviewing workers in the City of London and Rick Wartzman’s The End of Loyalty: The Rise of Fall of Good Jobs in America, which follows four companies’ labor and management factions from the 1940s to the present day. It’s difficult to pick my favorite fiction but for today I’ll mention Rudolph Herzog’s Ghosts of Berlin and Ali Araghi’s The Immortals of Tehran, both magical realism.

As a freelance copy editor for West Virginia University Press, I charged $27 an hour, then $28 later on. Perseus, Melville House, Counterpoint/Catapult/Soft Skull (a company I began to copyedit for when the managing editor at Melville House moved there), and Ruminate Magazine (a literary journal I freelanced for from 2018 to 2020) all set their own rates: Perseus and Counterpoint/Catapult/Soft Skull pay $25/hr, Melville House pay $22/hr, and Ruminate Magazine paid $16.50/hr. I set aside about one third of my take-home pay for self-employment taxes.

In 2019, I made $22,000 freelancing. Not much for my experience, but I also had income from the Oregon City Public Library, where I worked as an on-call library assistant from 2016 to 2019. And I do sometimes turn down jobs, if my schedule is already too busy to do them well, and I also charge only for hours that I’m truly copyediting: I don’t count time I stare out the window or stop for lunch. I’ve joked that the worst thing about freelance editing is that I have to actually work every second on the job: no chatting with coworkers or customers, no meetings or checking email.

Last year, I was on a panel for the Portland State University publishing program with four other publishing freelancers, two of whom had made freelancing work full-time for them. Although we didn’t discuss wages explicitly, I got the impression they received about double per hour what I am paid, which would be nice. For whatever reason—probably I just don’t have a business mindset—I haven’t been able to make freelance editing lucrative for me, and it also feels isolating not working as part of team. (I’ve applied to full-time, in-house jobs in Portland, but so far, I’ve only reached the interview stage.)

For too long I made the mistake of not sharing my issues with anyone in the industry: I had earned $8/hr for a couple years in my mid-twenties and was doing better than that as a freelance editor even with the high self-employment taxes, I thought, plus I chose to move back to Portland and put myself in this situation, so why should I complain? But I was frustrated with the whole cycle a year ago, when I came across Maximillian Alvarez’s podcast episode where he interviews freelancers. I found all four hours riveting, and even teared up: it was comforting to hear that other freelancers had to deal with some of the same issues—whether finding enough work, receiving prompt payment, lack of benefits, feeling disconnected from their industry, or feeling as though they were working harder or longer than in-house but somehow earning less. It was like a bunch of my coworkers were complaining at a bar after work, and I realized how much I’d missed and needed that.

Max Alvarez’s podcast, as well as Anne Trubek’s newsletter, inspired me to share these experiences. As primarily a fiction writer, sometimes a poet, this kind of writing doesn’t come naturally, but I’m learning that sometimes sharing your experiences can help you as well as someone else. Besides the freelancing episode, my favorite episodes of Alvarez’s Working People podcast are essential workers sharing their experiences at the beginning of the pandemic: if you’re interested, you can find those here and here. I also really liked the episode with a bus driver, maybe because my grandma worked as one.

Thanks for reading! I hope everyone is taking care of your physical and mental health in these difficult times.