In the first part of my Finding Your Niche series, Laura Poole, founder of Archer Editorial Services (www.archereditorial.com) and co-founder of Editorial Bootcamp (www.editorialbootcamp.com), answered my questions. Laura 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. On Twitter, she is @lepoole. In the second part of this series, Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, ELS, answered my questions. Katharine is a medical editor with a specialty in editing manuscripts written by non-native speakers of English. Her editing has helped researchers in 20-plus nations get published in more than 30 medical journals. She is also creator and curator of the Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base, which is housed within her Web site, at www.kokedit.com. On Twitter, she is @KOKEdit. Both presented interesting perspectives and great answers to my questions. In the third part of the series, Allison Parker answers my questions. Allison is a published writer and freelance editor for literary, academic, and culinary audiences. Her editorial projects of the moment include development of an economics impact book, copyediting a short-fiction anthology, and coaching writers one-on-one in their craft. She also serves as managing editor of the James Beard award-winning website Leite’s Culinaria (http://leitesculinaria.com/), where she is a contributing writer as well. Allison’s most frequent writing themes include ethnicity, parenthood, and culinary topics. You can discover more about her publishing-industry experience at www.acparker.com. On Twitter, she is @acparker.
Hi, Allison. Thank you for agreeing to answer these questions and continuing our conversation about finding your niche. I really appreciate it. Even after the first two parts of this series, this subject continues to fascinate me. Everyone wants specific answers on what he or she needs to do to find his or her specialty, their niche, even if those specific answers don’t exist. You’ll be providing another way of looking at the subject.
1. Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your background?
Professionally speaking, my career began in marketing and public relations, which is where I started looking for work not long after graduating from Bard College with a B.A. in Language and Literature (and after a detour through a year of law school that’s best forgotten). I began at a start-up “boutique” agency, as a PR intern, and eventually joined Edelman PR in Chicago, which was a great experience. From there, I moved to the marketing department of the Chicago Sun-Times. In each place, I was very fortunate to have generous mentors—that’s an important theme throughout my career—people who encouraged me to pursue my interest in writing and editing. While still working at the Sun-Times, I got involved on a volunteer basis with a literary magazine. I worked incessantly, became a fiction editor for the magazine and eventually their production manager—all still in my “spare” time. That was back in 1995, and it became the springboard for all that followed, including the genesis of my freelance career.
2. How long have you been freelancing? What made you decide to freelance?
If I measure the time I’ve been working exclusively on a freelance basis (no W2 wages), that’s ten years now. Since early 2001. I did attempt freelancing once before, before I found my job at the Sun-Times, but that was a mistake. I was too young, too inexperienced to compete with freelancers who’d been doing it a lot longer. I didn’t have enough connections, for one thing, and it was really tough to get jobs without a track record. In 2001, I had a lot more going for me. I had more on-the-job experience, plus by then I’d gone back to school for an M.F.A. in fiction. I knew a lot more people. My family situation also changed. I was engaged, and being part of a dual-income household made the financial instability of freelancing a lot easier to cope with. I wanted more flexibility in my schedule to pursue my own writing, and freelancing also created the foundation for that eventual balancing act between career and full-time parenthood.
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?
Well, it really wasn’t that clearly marked for me. There wasn’t one moment when I decided to specialize in either a task or a segment of industry. It just happened over time, mostly without my directing it—with one very recent exception (an additional niche; more on that below). Basically, I just knew my strong points, knew what skills I could sell—but out of necessity, I also took whatever jobs came my way. Almost all the jobs were book-length copyediting gigs, either for short-fiction collections or for academic monographs, and then developmental editing followed. One thing led to another. So, in one sense, the finding my niche in the editorial world has been an ongoing, ten-year process. But you could also say the opposite: that my niches found me from the start.
4. What is your niche?
I consider myself to have several. I think a particular skill set can be a niche—for me, that means both copyediting and developmental editing, the latter being my more recent focus—as can the application of skills to a specific type of content. Content-wise, I focus on three areas: literary (mostly fiction), culinary, and academic (humanities and economics).
5. How long have you been freelancing in this particular area?
I have edited literary and academic titles on a freelance basis for ten years—as a copy editor since the beginning and as a developmental editor for the past three years or so. My work as a writer and editor in the culinary field is new, just within the past year, but it’s taken off quite rapidly. This is the niche I went after deliberately, the one I’ve been much more proactive about.
6. What made you settle on this area?
Well, I’ve always been drawn to literature—to novels and also to academically rigorous subjects such as philosophy—and I think that my natural interests, skills, and my education all prepared me well to work in these areas. When the work came in, I found that I loved it, and the thought never occurred to me that this would not be something I’d develop as an expertise. As for the culinary focus, that’s been a longtime passion, and when the recession hit, I felt the time was right to go after it. I had a dip in workload right around the time that I met some people in the food-writing world, so I began calculating how and where I could make my experience valuable in this industry that was new to me, professionally speaking.
7. Is it okay to have more than one niche?
Absolutely! In fact, I’d say that it’s more than OK—it’s desirable. Even the most experienced freelancers are not without their dry spells, and when you have more than one area of expertise, you have additional options to draw on for income. I think you want to guard against spreading yourself too thin—and your combination of niches has to make sense in terms of who you are, in terms of a story you will tell about yourself and your career. You don’t want to end up sounding like “Jack of all trades, master of none.” At some point, people stop believing you could possibly do that many things in a specialized (and high-quality) way, and they’re probably right to some extent. I feel like I’m at my limit now, when I promote myself with three niches. But it’s working for me.
8. What do new freelancers need to know about finding their niche? What do they need to consider?
The wisdom I have to offer isn’t specific to finding a niche. It’s sound practice for any stage of your career—or for life in general. First: do good work (that’s obvious), and do it because you have a genuine interest. No matter how much you imagine yourself specializing in a certain area, it’s probably not going to happen for you if you aren’t fully engaged and curious, or if you are unable to sustain your interest over time. Second, you have to be confident and also humble when you’re on a quest—remember, if you’re just starting out or just entering a niche, you have a lot to learn no matter how many years of freelancing you’ve got under your belt. And you still have to convince someone that you have what it takes. I’m not sure it’s much different whether you’re talking about a new niche or just a new piece of business. It takes sweat and moxie. Finally, it’s critical to build and maintain quality relationships with all sorts of people if you want to make things happen. Find out how to connect with people who are already in a niche you are considering. Ask lots of questions.
9. How soon should freelancers begin looking for their niche?
I don’t think there’s any one rule for this. It depends on a lot of factors: the marketplace, the amount of experience you have. I think when you’re young or just starting out, it makes sense to generalize, just to get more projects and references, to open as many doors as possible, and to give yourself the chance to explore. But for every person who takes this approach, there’s probably someone who decides to work in a certain area right away and goes full steam ahead from the start, and they’re successful that way.
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?
I think I pretty much answered this already, the answer being: there is no one “better” way to go. What’s right for one person won’t necessarily work best for someone else. A person with a well-rounded liberal arts education might do better as a general practitioner first, while someone with highly specialized training (a technology focus, for instance, or an advanced degree in one of the sciences) can more easily sell their services in a niche market right away. Either way, I think it is important to just get out there and bring in business, to learn how to market yourself and see how you feel about a freelance life in general.
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?
Know what motivates you, what excites you. Ask yourself: where’s your passion? The proliferation of blogs and online businesses has proven beyond a doubt that you can plant a stake in the ground anywhere and make something grow. But maybe this is a good time to clarify that I think it’s perfectly fine to not have a niche, too. Some people’s “niche” is really just their skill set, and they apply it broadly. Consider this, too: there’s that saying about variety being the spice of life, and for a freelancer, I think that’s particularly true. Do you crave variety? Maybe a niche is not really the way to go. Maybe you need to ask whether you really are fired up enough about something to make it your exclusive focus. For that, you need passion. You need to find the thing that, when you do it, you lose yourself in it; time flies by because you’re fully immersed. If you don’t have that kind of interest in something specific, maybe looking for a niche is not really for you.
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?
Again, I think it’s OK to change, definitely. But you have to be insightful about it, purposeful. And you have to realize that there will probably be tradeoffs—there’s a certain amount of starting over involved, just to gain a foothold in something new. Are you ready for that psychologically, financially? It’s like people changing careers. It’s done all the time, and brilliantly. In fact, I love it when people make changes, if they’re smart about it. You have to know what’s motivating you. If you’re making changes only because you want to escape from the old, rather than having a strong drive that compels you toward something new, then I worry. Or if you change too often, that just seems flighty or flaky. I think the best way is to transition. Find a way to do both for a while—old and new—and then see what you can make happen. Maybe you’ll want to give up the old niche, or maybe you’ll gain more appreciation for it and decide the new one wasn’t as interesting to you as you’d imagined.
13. Is there anything you want to add? Have I forgotten an important aspect?
I don’t think so. Your questions are all great. It’s wonderful that you’re thinking deeply about this issue—and that you got me thinking, too!
14. Final words?
Only that I wish you the best of luck on your journey—you and everyone else who reads this. Whether you feel you’ve found your niche or not (and whether or not you even need a niche) I hope your work brings you deep satisfaction.
I hope you have enjoyed this series and these three conversations as much as I have. As you can see, there is no single answer to my questions. I also hope that these three talented and fascinating women have inspired you think about your niche and the journey you’ll need to take in order to find it. If nothing else, I’m sure that this series will spark a conversation.