When I started out as a freelance academic editor, I decided to bring my personal and political values into my business practices. I knew I had to get clients, but I didn’t want to schmooze, hustle, pressure, or be pressured; I wanted generosity, openness, and collaboration as the cornerstones of my work. I am, at best, a reluctant capitalist, so I sought to foster a business that could be supportive, not extractive. Fortunately, I’ve found that this approach works well for developing and running a service-oriented business. It turns out you can live your values and pay the rent.
In my experience, approaching marketing with a spirit of generosity has been more lucrative than any half-hearted sales call or cold email I could ever muster making or sending. Here’s why I don’t think you have to hustle when you’re marketing your freelance editing business:
1. Editing is a Credence Good
Credence goods are products that people purchase without fully understanding. When I pick up my prescription inhaler from the pharmacy, I couldn’t tell you what I’m actually purchasing or how it works; I couldn’t explain to you why the white inhaler is a better choice for me than the blue one or the orange one, the name brand or the generic. I just know that the nice person in the white coat tells me that it’ll help me to breathe (and it does). Prescriptions are credence goods: they’re a purchase that a client makes without being able to fully assess its quality, integrity, and reliability. To buy a credence good, the client needs to trust the person, institution, or sector from which they’re making their purchase.
In their 2018 book How Clients Buy, Tom McMakin and Doug Fletcher argue that many consultants, freelancers, and independent professionals are likewise selling credence goods—or, in the editor’s case, credence services. Our clients don’t understand our work well enough to be able to assess the quality of one editor or another, nor do they always know why a particular edit makes their text more readable, clear, or effective. And while pharmacists have white coats, counter tops, and hard-to-open bottles as markers of their trustworthiness, independent freelance editors must establish their own signifiers of trust so that a potential client can feel confident buying into the unknown.
A marketing approach that depends on hustling—on imposing urgency, implying scarcity, pushing a sell—doesn’t help clients to understand or trust their individual editor or the editing industry writ large. Hustling might help you to make a sale here or there, but since it doesn’t help your client to understand what they’re buying, they may not be too keen to return to you for future purchases, or to recommend your services to their colleagues.
To build a viable business that earns me a solid income and is regularly booked out months in advance, I approach marketing with generosity. Through my monthly academic writing advice column, I tell my clients how I do my job: how I approach specific aspects of research grant applications, promotion and tenure dossiers, and journal articles in a range of disciplines. I’ve even told them how to hire my colleagues. By helping my clients to understand the whats and hows of editing work, I give them the information they wouldn’t otherwise have to evaluate the credence service that I’m selling. I empower them to make informed decisions. They can then decide for themselves whether I’m the best editor for their work.
2. Your Reputation is Stronger than Your Brand
New freelancers often get stuck choosing a good business name, perfecting the copy on their website, or selecting the just-right URL. I’m not persuaded that these things matter.
As I’ve been learning about marketing strategies, I’ve come across a lot of information about email and social media marketing that push establishing brand recognition among your potential clients. As someone with three separate brand identities—Ask Dr. Editor, Writing Short is Hard, and now antihustle—I’ve never been strategic about the containers that package my services. In my experience, my reputation as an editor matters much more than my logo, colour scheme, website layout, or social media messaging. It’s my reputation that gets me referrals, and referrals that get me my income—not the volume or impact of my tweets.
So how can you establish your reputation? How can you convert leads into new clients? For me, the answer lies in generous, open, and high-value content marketing. I give away my secrets in my advice column, in webinars, and in free virtual coffees that I hold with fellow editors and potential clients alike. I give without expectation of return on investment, with a focus on empowering my clients to make an informed decision rather than persuading them that they need to work with me specifically.
On January 28, 2022, I’ll be leading an ACES webcast on the anti-hustle approach to content marketing. Together, we’ll discuss where and how to give away your secrets, what to focus on in your content, and why giving away your knowledge and time can help you to cultivate a viable freelance editing business—without the hustle. If you’re keen to develop a marketing strategy that brings in clients without feeling skeezy or scammy, please join me.