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  • Writer's pictureSiân Smith

How to find work as a freelance book editor

How I found my first 4 clients as a self-employed copyeditor and proofreader

I’ve had a few editors and proofreaders in the early stages of their editorial business (or perhaps thinking about going freelance in the future) ask if they can chat to me about how I managed to find work as a self-employed book editor and proofreader. Of course, I’m delighted to share my own experience from (nearly) 2 years running my own editorial business, but thought it would also be helpful to dedicate a blog post to it.

If you want to know more about my timeline from university graduate to launching my book editing and proofreading business, then you’ll want to read my blog post about how it took me 14 years to become a freelance copyeditor.

It’s important I make you aware that my business works with non-fiction writers who are self-publishing, so this blog post doesn’t help with how to get work from publishers.

My business launched in July 2022, but I launched my social media pages in March 2022 (on Instagram and LinkedIn). You might wonder how on earth you can market a solo business 4 months before the official business launch. First, I had already decided on my business name (Sian Smith Editorial, rather than ‘Proofreading’, so I could expand or pivot if I wanted). Second, I also knew what I wanted to specialise in (women writers and business owners, non-fiction, health and wellbeing).

My pre-launch social media content centred on me learning all about how to set up a solo business, what my personal and business interests were, and updates on my official proofreading qualifications (by the time I launched my business I’d been proofreading and editing in various roles at work for 14 years, but I wanted to identify and fill any knowledge gaps while also reassuring potential clients I was an experienced professional in the field).

I mention this because there’s no doubt that my being active on social media for several months before launching is what led to my first job, which was also a paid one.

Job number 1: copyediting a book on anxiety recovery

About a month after launching my business, I booked my first client!

I initially focused my social media attention on Instagram, as this was the platform I was most familiar with. I’d set up a personal Instagram account back in 2018 (ish) and although I was rusty when it came to things like hashtags and Reels, I knew enough to get started.

I wanted to fill my feed with like-minded folk: those interested in health and wellness (especially mental health), who seemed authentic, and with a dash of fun or comedy!

@simply anxious was one of those pages I followed. I enjoyed her content and engaged as a genuine follower with her Stories and grid posts. We’d been exchanging DMs for a couple of weeks when she sent me a message telling me she’d taken a look at my profile and wondered if I’d be interested in proofreading her book… Yup! She approached me!

Lisa had already self-published her book on anxiety recovery, but felt it could do with another round of proofreading to spruce it up. By this point, I’d learnt some of the language small business owners use, such as setting up a ‘discovery call’. Being a member of the CIEP also meant I had some sense of how much to charge and how to divide the payment between a booking fee and completion fee, and I launched my business with a 20% discount for any service booked to start by the end of September (I figured a discounted rate was better than doing work for free).

I already knew I wanted to offer handover calls before handing back the manuscript and that I needed to look at a sample edit before taking on the work, so before long I had confirmed my final fee with Lisa and set the start date for September 2022. That elusive first client had been found, but, of course, I wondered if I’d just been lucky with this one and whether I’d be able to find any more paying clients.

A Caucasian woman with with round glasses is facing the camera, smiling and holding a copy of a book called 'Simply Anxious: notes on anxiety recovery'
My first job was proof-editing a book on anxiety recovery

Job number 2: proofreading for a local business

At the end of September 2022, I received an email via my website (how exciting!) from a local finance business, who had been sent my details from a local brand photographer. I’d met the brand photographer just a couple of weeks earlier at a local networking event for women in business. She told me she’d started work with the finance company who were going through a huge re-brand, so she said she’d pass on my details in case they had any copy that needed proofreading as part of the re-brand plans.

I met the owner of the finance company at an equidistant coffee shop so she could find out more about me and my business. I remember when she asked me what I’d like to drink I said I didn’t know what the etiquette was and who was meant to pay for the drinks! (She did, though I’m fairly sure as she was a potential client, I should have been buying them…)

I offered to apply the free sample of 1,000 words to any work they wanted me to do, which meant their first couple of blog posts were free. I then applied the 20% discount for the rest of the work I completed in October. I worked with SN Financial for a few weeks during their re-brand, mainly on articles and blog posts, though I also helped them with their terms and conditions, ensuring they were reader-friendly and clear.

A Caucasian woman with blonde, wavy hair is smiling at the camera, with a Christmas tree in the background
My first ever business meeting was in September 2022, despite what the Christmas decs might suggest!

Job number 3: copyediting a book on happiness mindset

Now, the universe played a huge role in my second job. In the first week of October – about a week after handing back Lisa’s copyedited manuscript – I attended an online networking group for women in sport. We were invited to share our job titles or roles in the chat box, and I quickly typed in ‘book editor for women writers in health and wellness’. A few seconds later I received a DM from Tulshi Varsani, who told me she’d been looking for a book editor for her book!

What? My first ever meeting with this group and within a few seconds someone seems genuinely interested in my services. This couldn’t be real!

But it was. In our discovery call, Tulshi told me she’d got as far as receiving sample edits back from other book editors, but finding they were changing too much or she just didn’t feel comfortable working with them. Luckily for me, we hit it off straight away. It was a book I was delighted to work on: all about how Tulshi actively changed her attitude to what happiness meant and how she could actively practise it, rather than waiting for happy things to happen to her.

I decided to extend the 20% offer to Tulshi, as it was only a week after its expiry date, and this was the exact sort of book I wanted to work on. Work started for this job in November 2022, meaning I had nearly 4 weeks between projects, but I still counted this as a huge win and a sign that my business was going in the right direction.

A book cover with a pink and purple sky and waves on a shoreline, with the title 'Happiness Within: a journey of reflection and self-discovery'
My second copyediting project: a book on happiness mindset

Job number 4: my first ever manuscript appraisal

OK, so the universe helped me out with this one too… It’s December 2022. I’ve almost finished copyediting the first round of amends for Tulshi’s book when a beautifully wrapped Christmas present is posted through the door. It’s quite obviously a book of some kind, but my name and address has been handwritten, and the return address is somewhere in Huddersfield… I know absolutely no one in Huddersfield, so I have no idea who it could be from!

I put it under the tree and diligently (though not so patiently) wait until Christmas Day to unravel the mystery.

It’s a book (I knew it!). The front author page tells me I’ve won a copy of this book, after my friend Abi (I do know her) tagged me in this author’s competition. The book is called Running for our Lives, by Rachel Ann Cullen. Abi is a local friend who, like I was at the time, is involved in the local running community, so this book is right up my street! I tag Rachel and Abi to thank them both for the competition prize, and how I look forward to reading it.

Two days after this first interaction, I received this message via my Contact Me form on my website:

‘Hey Sian. I think the universe may have conspired to drop you onto my radar. You received a copy of my 3rd book as a random Christmas giveaway, and I am looking for some editorial help with my latest project. Looking at your work and your profile, you appear to be the perfect fit!’

Rachel’s previous 3 books had been traditionally published, so she understood what she needed at this stage of her book: someone to read through the whole thing and let her know what structural or content improvements or changes needed to be made before heading to the next stage of the process. When I worked on Tulshi’s book, I surprised myself by suggesting some structural changes to her book (turning one chapter into two and expanding one of those chapters, and also changing the order of a couple of other chapters), which gave me the confidence to look into launching a manuscript appraisal service for Rachel to use.

I’d been considering adding a manuscript appraisal service to my business at some point in 2023, so Rachel’s request for this very service just brought it forwards by a few months! As ever, I was honest with Rachel and said that I hadn’t yet launched my manuscript appraisals, but I’d love for hers to be my first one. Within a couple of weeks I sent her my launch prices, with a 20% off discount for her.

Although I was incredibly nervous about taking this project on (Rachel is an established author and there’s no particular training you can do for manuscript appraisals), I also knew I had enough experience to do it and that I had a knack for it. It’s since become my favourite part of my business.

Rachel then booked a second manuscript appraisal for the start of April 2023 so we could go over some of the changes she’d implemented after the first appraisal. After this, I suggested a proofreading round would suffice for Rachel as her writing was truly excellent and required very little intervention; this was booked for July and August 2023.

A Caucasian woman is peeping out from the top of a book which has the title 'Dear Tilly... A survival guide for womanhood'
Working on 'Dear Tilly' pushed me to launch a new service

After my first year in business

Between March 2023 and March 2024 work was steady enough for me to appreciate my business was continuing to grow, though there were still many weeks with nothing booked in! However, I focused on how nearly every single potential client who got in touch with me was my ideal client. Most of them continued to find me through Instagram, either after seeing me ‘pop up’ on their feed or me commenting on someone else’s post.

As with all small businesses, we all have different ways of establishing and growing our business. Social media is not lucrative for everyone, but it’s where a lot of clients in my niche hang out. I also genuinely enjoy creating and consuming content on there, so I found it fairly easy to stay consistent. Plenty of other small business owners I know feel the same way about in-person networking. Other sole traders establish their trade via advertising services. Of course, in the publishing sector, many freelancers prefer to work with both independent authors and publishers.

I’ll be following this post up with my top tips for running a proofreading or editing business, but when I was starting my business, I wanted to know the specific ins and outs of how you can find clients (or how they can find you!) and what those initial interactions can look like. My top values are honesty and integrity, so just contact me if you’re a fellow self-employed editor or proofreader and you want to find out more about how I price up projects, how long they take, and how I work with my clients.

And fellow business owners, I’d love you to share how you found those first, precious clients!

A Caucasian woman with round glasses and blonde, wavy hair is holding 3 books while smiling at the camera
Books 1, 2 and 3!

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