How the freelance economy is changing traditional publishers

How the freelance economy is changing traditional publishers

At Reedsy, we just published 'The Lean Publisher: Evolving In The Freelance Economy', a white paper that examines how the growing freelance economy is impacting the internal structures and processes of publishing houses. 

We feel this is a timely publication, as when people think of 2016, one of the events that will likely come to mind quickly is the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Brexit. During the election process, the need to increase the number of traditional, full-time jobs was a focal point of both the Democratic and Republican platforms. The freelance economy, however, received little attention despite the fact that in 2016, 35% of the American workforce was made up freelancers and that together they earned an estimated $1 trillion.

Here at Reedsy, the growing freelance economy in both the U.S. and the U.K. has our attention, and along with looking at the current changes it’s causing within the publishing industry, we’re looking forward to how the publisher-freelancer relationship may continue to evolve.

In the past year, Reedsy has met with over 300 executives, operations managers, and editorial and art directors from a variety of publishing companies, including small indie presses and Big 5 publisher imprints. These conversations provided us with a much more thorough understanding of not only how publishers work with freelancers, but also how the relationship between publishers and freelancers is changing. 

Here are four things we discovered.

Working with freelancers can foster creativity.

Helen Wicks, creative director at Bonnier Publishing explains, “Our artistic heritage and artistic integrity are very important parts of Bonnier. Often, books develop as they are put together, and we like that process to occur in-house, in a much more labor-intensive way.” Inconsistent branding  is one of the concerns of publishers when it comes to working with numerous freelancers.

However, an outside perspective doesn’t necessarily decrease the consistency of a brand — it can in fact breath new life into it. Companies that foster creativity are three times more likely to see 10% growth in annual revenue than companies that do not. Freelance editor Maleah Bell, who has advice for publishers who are looking to boost creativity but maintain brand consistency, says: “Never assume anything should go without saying, or that an in-house process is an industry standard. Publishers can ensure clarity by providing freelancers with a list of expected tasks or checklists for each project, as well as a style sheet. That way, there are no miscommunications in regards to expectations.”

Print vs. digital is out, bricks and mortar vs. online is in.

In 2016, many publications pointed to the 25% decrease in major publisher ebook sales as confirmation that “print is back.” However, sales of independently published ebooks have been growing, which instead suggests that publishers are losing ebook market shares to indie authors and Amazon imprints, rather than that the success of digital books and their consumption is dropping overall.

In order for publishers to reclaim some of the digital market, it is important to cultivate a brand that is not only focused on B2B, but also on consumers—after all, 41% of traditionally published print books sold in the United States were purchased online in 2016. Within this approach, outsourcing specialists will be more important than ever — and not just for technical services. In general, freelancers with a knowledge of digital marketing will be crucial in every department for publishers who are looking to maintain a brand that preserves their creative heritage and integrity while still keeping in mind their new buyers: the public.

Publishers need to be aware of the legalities involved with outsourcing.

The IR35 tax law aims to identify individuals who provide services to a company while classifying themselves as a freelancer in order to pay reduced taxes — when in actuality, according to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, they are operating as a full-time employee. As of April 2017, companies in the public sector have had to ensure that contractors they commission are genuinely self-employed. However, this new measure might be transferred to the private sector at some point, too, which could prove to be very complicated for publishers that work with individual freelancers on a continued basis. For example, companies may feel pressured to apply IR35 to all their freelancers, even if they feel sure it isn’t required.

As their reliance on freelancers grows, publishers may start instituting procurement departments or dedicated HR resources focused on liaising with freelancers, for onboarding them, and, crucially, address compliance and legal issues to ensure all workers are appropriately classified.

Lean publishers are forward thinking publishers.

With a boom occurring in the freelance economy, and a storm of lawsuits being filed against companies like FedEx, Uber, Lyft, and Handy, it is not hard to imagine the U.S. establishing a middle ground between a non-employee and an employee, much like the “worker” status in the U.K. — which is likely to evolve again soon itself. Companies that employ freelancers should absolutely be a part of the discussion about the evolving relationship between freelancers and employers. This is especially true for industries where working with freelancers is the norm, as with the publishing industry.

For example, if more and more publishers do start to rely on freelancers instead of full-time employees, will these ongoing freelancers, or quasi-employees, begin to expect certain benefits from employers? Envisioning what these benefits might include, freelance editor Katie Salisbury remarks, “One of the hardest parts of being a freelancer is paying for health insurance… In an ideal world, quoting a fee for my work and then adding a percentage on top of that for the health benefits I pay for myself would be amazing.”