Everyone dreams of working in a profession where going to work every day is a joy, not a drudgery. Editors are no exception. Like teachers, doctors, and writers, editors often specialize in one area. That specialization comes after an editor has proven herself as dependable and competent and has made a name for herself. Establishing yourself as an editor takes time. Finding your specialization might take even longer. After four years, I’m not at the specialization stage. I’m still in the proving myself and building my client list phase.

Being a relative newbie hasn’t stopped me from thinking about my specialization or niche. Merriam-Webster defines niche as a place, employment, status or activity for which a person or thing is is best fitted (finally found her niche). I have to admit that at this point, I don’t know what my niche is, but I have given it a great deal of thought. I’ve also had several conversations with editors about finding their niche and read a lot on the subject. Because of the conversations I’ve had with editors, I decided to write a blog entry on finding your niche. That entry grew to three blog entries. There was just too much information for one post.

My next three blog posts are the results of my conversations with three outstanding and well-respected editors, Laura Poole, Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, and Allison Parker. All three women specialize in different areas of editing and have different niches. I asked all three the same thirteen questions. Each has an interesting perspective, and each has a lot to say about the topic. I know you’ll learn a lot from the question and answer conversations that follow.

We’ll begin our discussion with Laura Poole. Laura is the founder of Archer Editorial Services ( www.archereditorial.com) and co-founder of Editorial Bootcamp ( www.editorialbootcamp.com). She has more than 15 years’ experience in the publishing industry, specializing in scholarly nonfiction for such clients as Oxford University Press and Duke University Press.

Hi Laura. Thank you for agreeing to answer these questions. I really appreciate it. This subject fascinates me, and I know others are as fascinated as I am. Everybody wants to know what he or she needs to do to find his or her specialty, their niche. You’ll be shedding some light on the subject.

1. Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your background?
I’m a lifelong avid reader. I have a bachelor’s degree in English. My last year in college, I did a work-study at Duke University Press, where I was introduced to the world of publishing. I fell in love with it! I learned how to do some desktop publishing in Quark, as well as basic proofreading, and I picked up some freelance work here and there when the internship ended and I had no job lined up. I eventually got a job in desktop publishing for a pharmaceutical training firm. I badgered my way into a promotion to Assistant Medical Editor. I kept doing freelance on the side, and eventually quit my job to pursue that full-time.

2. How long have you been freelancing? What made you decide to freelance?
I quit my job in May 1997, and I was freelancing on the side before that, starting in 1995, so… 15 years and counting!

3. A niche is defined by MW as, “a place, employment, status, or activity for which a person or thing is best fitted , a specialized market.” How many years did you freelance before you decided on a specialty, before you found or decided on your niche?
I began my business in 1997 by deciding I wanted to specialize in copyediting only. I already knew I would only do nonfiction. I still did proofreading, and occasionally desktop publishing when necessary, but I started going after only copyediting jobs. I developed a few niches depending on the clients I had: computer books, travel books, and some medical/pharma stuff. After 4 years or so, I decided to STOP doing the computer books, because (1) I didn’t like them, (2) some of them were beyond me, and (3) it was not my best work. This resulted in me “firing” two clients.

In the past 10 years or so, my business evolved naturally into doing more and more difficult work, to where I almost exclusively edit for university presses and scholarly publishers, so I call my niche “scholarly nonfiction.” This is the most prestigious level of editing and publishing, and the work can be very difficult. I definitely would NOT have been ready for this right off the bat! But now I am, and I’m good at it. I have “topic specialties” here in medical/pharma (again), anything with math in it (variety of textbooks, economics, statistics, more), and “tricky projects” (as one project editor says).

4. What is your niche?
Scholarly nonfiction

5. How long have you been freelancing in this particular area?
Hmm, including ramp-up time to get to this level, about 10 years or a little more.

6. What made you settle on this area?
(1) The pay is very good for a good editor. (2) I like the challenge. (3) I’m good at it, and that’s incredibly satisfying. (4) My clients (publishers) pay well and trust me.

7. Is it okay to have more than one niche?
Yes, I think so—as broad a niche as “nonfiction” has really served me. I have several “topic specialties” within nonfiction that makes me appealing to certain publishers. I’ve not heard any complaints on this, and I like having at least a little variety in topics.

8. What do new freelancers need to know about finding their niche? What do they need to consider?
Be open to the evolution of your work. For instance, my “math” specialty really surprised me. I have a humanities and a science background, but never really cared for math. However, I am not intimidated by it, and I somehow can just “read” it like text. My clients have been quite happy with it, and I have been surprised and pleased. This niche, although not developed or nurtured by me, presented itself within the evolution of my business.

Also, be ready to cut out the kind of work that isn’t your best. When I decided not to do computer books, that was a difficult decision—it was sort of easy money for me, but I didn’t enjoy it, and I didn’t always feel like I did a good job. Cutting out this work paid off, in the long run, though one client was very sorry to see me go. I was then able to focus more on the kind of work I wanted to do, and I had more time for it because of that. I’ve done a similar thing by no longer working for a vanity press (just couldn’t stand the bad writing!).
It may seem that you would get more business doing “everything,” but you actually get more work (and more respect) if you specialize a bit.

9. How soon should freelancers begin looking for their niche?
As soon as possible. It makes targeting your best clients much easier. Even just deciding if you want to do fiction or nonfiction is a great first step.

10. Is it important to establish yourself as a freelancer first, to get some clients, or should you jump right into a certain area? What is the better way to go? Why?
There are merits to both approaches. Establishing yourself as a freelancer first can be appealing when going after new clients. See what you’re good at, what you enjoy the most—that will help narrow down the kind of work and client to go after. Then, you are already established as a freelancer and can go after some specialty, niche clients. However, there is something to be said for clearly stating your niche and going after ONLY that. It establishes you as serious, credible, focused, and professional, plus you get to do the work you want to do right away.

11. What should freelancers know about themselves? For instance, I have been freelancing four years now and I still don’t know what my niche is. What do I need to think about?
What projects you enjoy working on the most (and least). On what projects you do your best work (and work you’re not proud of). The kinds of projects repeat clients bring to you. Who your ideal client is. The kind of work you want to do and aspire to do. Where you want to be in 5 years. How much you want to charge (more important than you might think for defining a niche!!). Your experience and interests (include hobbies and things you enjoyed studying in school).

12. After you’ve established a niche, is it okay to change niches? Would it be better to add to your niche, or should you settle on one area? Why?
I think it is ok to change niches, but an evolution might work better than an abrupt change (or at least, that’s how I’d approach it). For instance, I do a lot of scholarly books and some textbooks. Say I wanted to get into desk references (encyclopedias, other very large reference volumes on single topics). I would probably have more success moving into this niche by checking my history to see if I’ve already done something like this, perhaps getting a recommendation from the client, and actively seeking more such work—without cutting off my existing work flow. I also might be open to taking a class and just asking for similar projects before I “weed out” anything that doesn’t fit that niche. This gives me time to grow and learn and get my base settled.

I have added to my niche, rather than limiting myself to one area—it keeps it interesting. I have cut out some areas (computer books, vanity press, and I no longer really do travel books, though I miss them). I tend to identify “topic specialties” rather than different niches.

13. Is there anything you want to add? Have I forgotten an important aspect?
Hardly anyone is a “generalist” these days, and it makes you MORE attractive to clients to have some sort of niche, as you can then be seen as an expert or at least experienced in some area. You can really get your foot in the door by having a niche.

You can also have a client niche: not just topic, but the kinds of clients you serve. Generally, I work with large scholarly publishing houses (for a number of reasons), rather than individual authors. This pays off in multiple ways for me: (1) publishers have more money and more work than an individual author will. (2) Publishers talk to each other, and my name gets passed around via word of mouth quite a bit. (3) Publishers really respect my work and won’t argue with it (the way an author sometimes will). (4) Publishers have similar systems for working with freelancers. There are many more reasons, but suffice it to say I’m quite happy with this client niche.

14. Final words?
A niche can be broader than you might think and still be useful. For years, I got by on “nonfiction copy editor” as my niche. Narrowing your niche after a while is also good, as it helps you target the right projects and customers. Look for professional groups that might support a niche, such as the American Medical Writers Association, Women in Scholarly Publishing, Int’l Society for Technical and Managing Editors, Society for Technical Communication, Council for Science Editors, and so on (there’s LOTS of these groups). You can learn from these groups about specific topics and techniques that can help you. Get familiar with any specialty style guides in your niche. For instance, when I did travel guides, it helped immensely to have a Geographical Dictionary and a Food Lovers’ Companion. For scholarly editing, I MUST have a copy of Chicago Manual, APA Style, and Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary.

Next: Katharine O’Moore-Klopf answers the niche questions.