How to leave academia and start an editorial business

Photo by Philip Myrtorp on Unsplash

This post covers:

  • Skills you already have
  • Skills and knowledge needed to successfully transition from academia to running an editorial business
  • Copyediting and the pitfall of prestige

When I hit thirty, I started thinking about exit strategies from academia. While I loved the research, writing, sharing of ideas, and opportunities to travel, other aspects bothered me. Overwork and mental-health issues seemed common. The pay often wasn’t great, and I wasn’t invested in the status hierarchies. Teaching students was really rewarding. However, I wasn’t interested in project management or the onerous bureaucratic tasks common in the university sector.

I disliked the fact that as I moved up in the hierarchy, the workplace grew increasingly male – especially from the postdoc phase onwards. Many friends had moved countries several times for jobs that were often on fixed-term contracts in a highly competitive labour market. While the self-directed research aspect was awesome, there was no clear link between the effort you put in and the rewards you reap. Finally, in the UK especially (but also somewhat in Croatia), many qualitative social science researchers seemed to live in constant fear of departmental downsizing and were made to feel lucky they had an academic job.

Why carry on working in academia?

Despite realising early on that academia wasn’t for me, I carried on for several reasons: some good, some bad. One reason was ignorance: I thought the system might be better in Croatia and Germany than in the UK. Another was a fear of what to do next with my life. There were two great reasons, though. First, writing and publishing a book (while receiving a salary) was on my life bucket list. Second, at the PhD and postdoc stage, the research freedom gave me a lot of scope to get involved in activist initiatives in Croatia, ranging from LGBTQ+ activism to labour rights and leftist football-fan activism.

Three years later and the decision to leave academia now feels more molehill- than mountain-sized. For those of you who are considering leaving, setting up an editorial business is one option. Maybe you enjoy research, editing, clarifying your ideas…or simply tidying up someone else’s copy? If so, then here are some tips on what you can expect if you set up an editorial business.

I cover what skills you already have, what skills you will need, some pitfalls, and what steps you can take right now.

What you have and know already (maybe without realising it)

As a researcher in the humanities or qualitative social sciences, you will already possess highly developed writing and editorial skills. Add to this your deep understanding of disciplinary conventions, particular historical or geographical contexts, languages, and your areas of expertise.

You may also have published books and journal articles. And you may have experience as a journal editor, project manager, or both. Such experience enhances your academic writing skills and your knowledge of academic publishing. A decent postdoc project building these skills and your academic network will stand you in good stead for a transition to editorial work. This means that if the pay and conditions are OK, doing a postdoc isn’t a bad idea so long as you have something to show for it at the end.

Academic articles and books are some of the most editorially demanding kinds of documents. Your familiarity with them puts you in a good position for editing other kinds of documents confidently (after editorial training). Finally, by editing and peer reviewing articles, you will have some developmental editorial skills. This kind of editing looks at the big-picture issues in a text, such as teasing out the arguments, and commenting on the structure and pacing.

What you perhaps don’t have and know (maybe without realising it)

Most academic researchers have a fairly good grasp of MS Word (as discussed in this great book) and of academic referencing systems. But if you want to be a copyeditor, you will have to get to grips with MS Word on another level. Learning to find your way around Word Styles, Find and Replace, Wildcards and Macros can be challenging. You will also have to learn how to deal with clients, write and follow briefs and deal with issues that arise. Copyediting is really quite technical, however, and you will definitely need to complete some tutor-assessed training.

Let me repeat that – editorial training is crucial.

Time logics in and outwith academia

You will also have to learn to approach time differently to at university. As a scholar, you expect to receive a salary and in turn spend your time completing a variety of compulsory (lecturing, writing articles) and voluntary (e.g. peer review, committees, impact/visibility) work. The ‘voluntary’ activities (albeit necessary to progress) rely on a certain amount of goodwill and academic citizenship. You may find that deadlines drag out. The same goes for writing articles, with researchers regularly missing publisher deadlines. In contrast, as a freelancer, you have no salary. You simply have billable hours (e.g. an hour of editing) and unbillable hours (an hour of marketing, doing your books, writing a blog) each week. If you don’t have enough hours billed at a rate you can afford to live on, your business will collapse.

To avoid (self-)exploitation, you will have to learn to treat billable hours like a taxi driver treats their meter. Working efficiently will help you earn more and keep clients happy. This is very different to academic time logics – for example, waiting for feedback on journal or book manuscripts can take months or even years. In my third year of running a business, I am still waiting for a multi-authored monograph I worked on to be published.

Who does editorial work suit?

The stereotype is that copyediting and proofreading suits perfectionists. I don’t believe this is true and I was never one of those people. Too much perfectionism can be a bad thing as you work to a budget and need to know when to stop and say ‘this is good enough!’ The kind of perfectionism an editorial eye requires is not innate and is much improved through practice. I believe a focus on clarity and conveying writers’ messages clearly, and a love of language and managing the author–editor relationship is just as important as attention to detail. The tech side to copyediting (e.g. macros, advanced find and replace routines) suits people who like solving problems or even computer programming (no programming skills are required though). Even copyediting requires understanding each text’s bigger picture so that your interventions are fit for purpose.

Other kinds of editing demand quite different skills. Developmental editing requires even more big-picture thinking. It also requires a keen awareness of context and audience in relation to market pressures and industry changes. Line-editing demands a skill for tapping into and understanding writing styles and genres. Here, the aim is to help the author’s voice to shine through.

I would also say editorial work suits academic researchers who:

  • Enjoy reading up on a wide variety of subjects and not just their (disciplinary) specialism
  • Love writing and working with text
  • Enjoy helping and serving other writers (you and your ideas are not in the spotlight)
  • Have a love of language – grammar, register, style, tone, texture, punctuation etc.
  • Are looking for a job they can scale up or down (many editors work part-time and it is particularly suited to those with variable time commitments, e.g. people with childcare obligations)
  • Don’t want to completely cut themselves off from their academic work and network
  • Are happy working by themselves at a desk almost all day, every day
  • Are not motivated to earn lots of money very quickly (it can take several years to build up a successful business and reputation, but once established, it can be quite lucrative)
  • Want a leisurely daily routine (no commute, breaks when you want them, home cooking etc.)
  • Are happy to put up with a shaky first year (learning the freelancing ropes takes time)

Avoiding the pitfall of prestige

If you focus on copyediting, taking on lots of titles by publishers considered prestigious in the academic world could be a bad strategy.

Why? Because academic copyediting for mainstream publishers pays some of the lowest editing and proofreading rates available. This is because the books are often produced on tight margins, with relatively small print runs. The stakes are much higher with a course textbook read by many, for example. Social sciences and humanities generally command lower rates than STEM subjects.

Of course, there *are* good gigs out there with publishers. Indeed, some editors choose to work mainly with publishers as then they don’t have to do as much marketing. Also, publishers usually supply quality-checked, pre-edited files. Other editors, like myself, prefer to do just a couple of jobs a year for mainstream publishers to keep abreast of current publishing practices. Instead, we focus our energies on collaborating directly with researchers and authors before they send their manuscript to the publisher (e.g. at the developmental editing or line-editing stage).

You may also want to move away from academic editing. I know of former researchers who now work on fiction editing projects or in other fields such as memoir or book coaching. Nevertheless, when working with clients (researchers, students etc.) directly, you are likely to get decent rates at first, so one good piece of advice is to specialise first and diversify later.

How can I transition?

Start telling people you are available for editorial work. Complete your editorial training, preferably with a recognised provider (e.g. the CIEP or PTC in the UK). You can do this alongside your main job, as there are online, part-time courses available and it is best to not rush through the materials. You should probably first do a proofreading course, even if you want to be a copyeditor or structural editor. When you are ready, set up a website (or repurpose your academic website). Remember that the most interesting jobs will probably come via your existing network at first. So, even if you want to specialise in something different, it is worth focusing on your current specialism first.

Good luck and feel free to contact me if you have any questions!

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