Why be nice to freelancers?

Suppliers are just people, but we sometimes act as though they're a combination of mind-reader and conveyor belt. Here are a few ideas for building relationships that work consistently and well.

Publishing isn’t just about our own teams – editors, production, marketers and so on. Outside our buildings are the authors without whom there really wouldn’t be much to publish, the freelance copyeditors, proofreaders and indexers, and many of our designers and typesetters. We even increasingly find our commissioning editors, project managers and more outside our traditional teams.

Sadly, though, despite long experience, we aren’t always especially good at working with these crucial people. Freelance workers, in particular, are often treated as disposable assets, either because their skills aren’t valued or because management think that there’s an indefinite supply to replace those who move on.

Most publishers aren’t that bad. But, whether inside or outside of the building, it always takes plenty of time for a new team member to really get to grips with a new team’s ways of doing things – especially all those little unspoken things. And if you can’t just drop by your team-mate’s desk for a quick chat, it takes even longer.

Although I have spent most of my career working within one publishing houseĀ or another, I also spent 6 years as a freelancer, so I’ve seen this issue from both sides. And here are a couple of tips that will help you get the best out of your freelance and contract team members, and to build relationships that will let you keep the best people working with you.

Put yourself in their shoes

Try and step outside your own role when you’re preparing briefs or dealing with queries. As the in-house person responsible for a project, you know a lot about it – not just the obvious details but also subtleties like the reasons for particular decisions and the reputation of the author. And you know about the context of the project, too – the reasons why the deadline cannot slip or the flaws in competitors’ titles that yours needs to avoid.

The only thing the supplier knows about your project is what you’ve actually told them. So, briefs don’t just need the obvious things (project title, author, deadline, specific tasks). It can also be useful to include the fact that you decided in a meeting last week to switch chapters 3 and 4 around, so the files aren’t named properly any more. It would probably also save time to let them know that the author is away on holiday for the whole of April.

Conversely, of course, no-one wants to spend half a day reading a mammoth brief for a job that’s only a few hours long. But, in my experience, publishers are far more likely to under-brief than over-brief. Time spent here is generally repaid generously during the project’s life by avoiding unnecessary problems.

Remember that you’re writing for someone who doesn’t know your project (and possibly even your business). Focus on being clear and not using company jargon.

Make them part of the team

Sometimes, you do just need a quick fix or a one-off job. But more often, we need suppliers over the long term – each job might be a quick job but there might be a lot of them.

Nothing puts suppliers off more than being treated as an optional extra, a disposable tool to be exploited and discarded. Instead, find ways to make your freelancers and contractors part of your team. One way to do this is to treat the out-of-house people as you do your internal team.

  • Have team meetings (by phone or in person) where you share successes and problems. Including people when you acknowledge what’s gone well makes them feel good – and honest, constructive feedback when things haven’t gone so well helps us all get better. (Be willing to pay their usual rates for the time this takes, too. It will pay off in the long run.)
  • Invest time and effort in training . You won’t have a budget to train people who aren’t staff (there’s often too little for those who are!) but just giving feedback can go a long way. It’s often the little idiosyncrasies that cause problems!
  • Find ways to support each other and encourage discussion, not just formal communication. Find out what they need and do what you can to accommodate it. A couple of days extra on this project might earn you goodwill that will save a week on the next one.

I’m also a firm believer in treats – cakes in meetings are a favourite! But I also grew to hate those Christmas cards I got from corporate clients every year. They don’t make me feel like part of a team. They’re just a waste of time and money!

Relationships matter

Above all, I believe that we mustn’t sacrifice success tomorrow for a little saving today. There can be pressure to reduce what we pay our freelancers to improve project budgets, or to make suppliers sort out delays caused by problems in-house. Worst of all, the Finance department can decide not to pay invoices promptly. And if your supplier decides they’d rather work for someone else because you’re becoming too much trouble, you’re the one who has to find and train a new supplier.

And none of us has time to do that every month.

Posted on 17 Mar 2014
Written by John Pettigrew

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has 20 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.