Perhaps no post on this blog has generated more off-line interest than the one several months ago in which I said I had a friend who was looking for a freelance permissions editor. I never knew such a job existed, and yet I heard from a dozen people who have made full-time careers of it. As it turns out, my friend never got permission to hire anyone (har, har). So I've left all of those people hanging.
One of them, however, has been kind enough to write up her career story and advice for this blog. I present to you the story of Julie Cancio Harper of Permissions Trackers in Sherman Oaks, CA, who has given me permission to post her story here. It's kind of long, but hang in there--it's fascinating and very helpful.
How Did I Get Here? My Freelance Publishing Life
The summer after I earned my BA in English from Kenyon College, I attended the Denver Publishing Institute at the University of Denver. DPI offers students a four-week graduate-level overview of book publishing. Industry professionals from all over the country teach workshops on editing, production, and marketing.
I was trying to find out whether publishing was for me, and this was a great way to do that. I especially enjoyed learning how to copy edit and proofread using Chicago style. So, it showed me that my preferences leaned toward the editorial department. DPI also helped me target appropriate entry-level publishing jobs, which was a great help.
After DPI, I moved to Boston and was hired as an Editorial Assistant at Allyn & Bacon. Being an EA gave me the opportunity to work with every department (editorial, production, marketing/sales) each step of the way through the book's life cycle. I especially enjoyed preparing the book manuscripts for turnover to production and working with the authors to make sure all materials were in place. Part of that process included reviewing permissions packets, including contracts and logs, for completeness.
As you review many permissions packets over time, you notice that permissions acquisition is a time-consuming process (sometimes taking months). You quickly learn that clear query letters and a consistent pattern of labeling and organizing all the paperwork saves a lot of time in the long run.
As an EA, I also worked with several editorial freelancers. Some did developmental editing, others were proofreaders, some were adjunct professors hired to write supplementary materials (web content, test banks, etc.).
After I had been an EA for about a year, I was offered the opportunity to produce a short film shooting on location in a remote area of Utah. That was too flattering to pass up. It required several months of pre-production work, which I knew I could not manage while I worked full-time hours in publishing. And it occurred to me that freelancing would offer me an opportunity to both work on the film and also use my publishing skills and experience in new ways.
The same week that I gave notice that I was leaving my position as an EA, editors started approaching me in the halls, saying "I heard you're going freelance. Do you have time to proofread for me? I have a project coming up soon. Will you take on a permissions project?"
So I said yes to everyone and everything and let word of mouth work its magic. When people ask me how they can get a strong start as freelancers, my answer is to work in-house. Quality work is recognized in publishing and your reputation will speak for you even when your desk is no longer in their office (because it's in your spare bedroom).
When a colleague got a new job at another publisher, she suggested I would be a good candidate for the position of freelance project manager there. That referral led to a year-long string of projects where I oversaw the authoring, editing, and proofreading of websites that helped college students review the chapter content in their textbooks.
Also, join a professional organization where you can get a listing in their online directory. I became a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association and my directory listing there produced several cold calls that led to ongoing relationships with two book packagers. Those leads were worth a lot more than the cost of membership.
Aside from networking, I also got good results submitting proofreading tests. I chose proofreading over copy editing because I just enjoy it more. I worked as a freelance proofreader on Blackwell journals for two years.
Over time my workload began to shift increasingly toward permissions projects. It's more stress than proofreading, but it also pays more. I enjoyed building relationships with repeat clients and I tried to maintain the same calm, thorough approach to each new project; and that went double when deadlines were short. My clients appreciated the effort and I became known as a permissions specialist.
What a Permissions Editor Does
When an author submits a manuscript to the publisher, that manuscript may contain material from outside sources. Photographs, text quotes, cartoons, full article reprints, charts, line drawings, graphs, maps, screen shots of websites or software--all sorts of things--may have been found during the course of research and may be added to the manuscript by the author. Someone must (1) evaluate whether permission is required for each of those "found items" to be printed in the book and, where permissions are required, someone must (2) obtain written permission before each item can be reprinted.
Depending on the practices and requirements of each publisher, I've seen evaluations performed by the author, the editor or editorial assistant, the legal department of the publisher, a freelancer, or by a combination of those (as double-checks). It helps to have a thorough understanding of copyright and fair use. Most publishers provide basic guidelines to their authors. The book contract will specify whether the author or publisher is responsible for doing the work of obtaining all required permissions (or for hiring a freelancer to do so).
Most authors who come to me for assistance have already started the permissions for their book, but have found the process nerve-wracking, confusing, and/or too stressful for them to deal with considering all their other on-going obligations to the book. Editors--working either for the publishers directly or as staff at a book packager assigned to the project--will usually know in advance whether they need a freelancer.
When I receive a new project, I determine where we are in the permissions process. If the manuscript has already been evaluated, I will receive a spreadsheet containing the items needing clearance, called a permissions log. Or I will receive a hard copy of the manuscript with flags on the pages containing items needing permission and I will then generate the permissions log myself.
If an evaluation needs to be done, I review the full manuscript page-by-page and create a permissions log based on my findings. Next I make a list of questions to get clarification on any material whose origin is unclear from the manuscript or other materials I have received. Accuracy is very important when dealing with copyright evaluations so I need complete source information.
When the permissions log is finalized, I can move to the querying stage. In order to send a complete and clear permissions query, I will need the permissions log to contain a full reference citation for each item as well as complete contact information for the copyright holder. I will conduct Internet and library research to obtain any relevant information not provided by the client. I track down ISBN numbers, page numbers, literary agents, estates of deceased authors/artists, you name it.
Clients will usually provide their preferred permission request letter as a template. If they do not have a template, I have one of my own that I've developed over the years. I create and send the query letters . . . and wait. Permissions departments that receive these queries are usually swamped and a 12-week response time is not unheard of. Four to five weeks is more common. I'll begin receiving responses and updating all the details in the permissions log, including reprint fees, rights restrictions, copyright notices and source credits, complimentary copy requests, and requests for changes to the reprinted material or book content.
For regular projects, I will begin following-up on the unanswered queries in a few weeks. For rush projects, my query will include a plea to help me meet a specific deadline (about a week from the date of my letter). If I do not receive a reply by the deadline, on the following business day I will email (once), leave a voicemail (once), and send a fax (once) to ask for an update: Did you receive my request? When I can expect to have a reply? This will usually do the trick. If there is still no response, I wait a day or two and try again--maybe with a voicemail only. Calm, apologetic urgency may earn me a friend in that office who can help me impress clients when future projects require fast turnarounds.
It can take days, weeks, or months to receive all the responses. Throughout this process, I am also keeping the client informed about all our progress. I submit updated permissions logs at intervals depending on the project size and urgency: weekly, biweekly, monthly. When we're getting close to our deadline (typesetting or press time), I document the full story on each of the items with permission still outstanding. In an email I list what I've done to track the item, what companies I contacted, who I talked to, what they said, when I will follow-up again, etc.
I will sometimes be asked to give a recommendation about whether I think the paperwork will be received in time. Ultimately, it is up to the publisher to decide if the book's schedule should be altered to allow more time for permissions to arrive. I do not recommend that material requiring permission be reprinted without the written permission grant in hand. If the schedule must be kept, I prefer to have the material in question deleted or replaced with material not requiring permission. I do not agree with due diligence or good faith arguments. There is no need to take legal risks when in many cases a simple replacement of a table or figure with original author-made content can allow the book to make its original press deadline.
Advice for Potential Freelancers
I've heard other freelancers say this, and I'll add my voice to the chorus here: I had no idea what I was in for. The learning curve is steep.
Please do not rely on freelancing to give you a full-time income right away just because you are working (probably more than) full-time hours. Running the business of freelancing takes up more time than working on actual paying projects, some days. This is especially true in the beginning. You are suddenly the marketing team, the contracts negotiating squad, the accounting department, a tax preparer, the technical support and computer guru, the shipping clerk AND the freelance editor, all at once.
There will be kinks in any well-made plan. Do not give up. Be patient and give yourself enough time to figure out all the things you didn't know you'd need to know about freelancing. Everything will be harder to learn if you are also pressed by urgent financial obligations. So if you do not have savings to give you a buffer, then I would urge you to work in-house and start your freelancing business part-time after hours.
There is still so much for me to learn, even after 8 years. And the trick is to not get discouraged by temporary setbacks. Find joy in everything that happens--including the tough stuff, from meeting impossible rush deadlines to mending communication snafus. Do not give up.
Permission to post the material below on your blog located at http://publishingcareers.blogspot.com/. Permission for any additional use must be requested separately. Copyright (c) 2008 Julie Cancio Harper. All rights reserved.