Leaving Publishing for a Solo Career: One Woman’s Story

I remember seeing the notice in Publisher’s Weekly. A senior editor I knew at Hyperion had gone to work as a freelance editor, and her email address followed to get in contact with her.

Poor woman, I thought, she’ll never get any work. No publisher I had ever worked for had a budget to assign out developmental edits.

Sure enough, the next year, I saw another notice: this editor was back working at another large publisher. She’d clearly tested the waters, declared them far too risky, and gone back into the safety of corporate trade publishing again. I knew it, I thought. I should tell fortunes on the side.

It was impossible to leave publishers, leave New York, and still get work. Some former colleagues had become literary agents and got lucky with some big name clients, while others had to leave the industry altogether.

And yet not two years later, the tables turned. I had finally found a great publishing house that seemed to have their act together and was able to conduct business like grown-ups, with a sound business plan, and a convivial, collegiate atmosphere. When I got pregnant, I worked like hell, editing and acquiring the contractual sixteen books required to collect my bonus when I got back, fully determined to come back after my maternity leave.

Long story short, after I had my baby girl, I couldn’t imagine being an hour away by train from my helpless six pound newborn without a support network being nearby (which wasn’t), and my publisher wouldn’t let me work from home for a couple of days/week.

I turned in my notice to the best publishing job I’d ever had. With my husband’s support, I took a huge gamble—and went freelance.

Much to my surprise, within the week of announcing that I was an experienced editor-for-hire, I got a call from a literary agent, whose client had just gotten a major deal from Broadway Books, one of the publishers I’d worked for. This author was freaking out about actually now having to write her book on her struggles with Type 2 Diabetes. (It’s one thing to write a proposal, far different to write 80,000 words.) She hired me to collaborate, and soon I was working, part-time, in Manhattan again, commuting into the city to write alongside Carol, and coax the manuscript out of her. Another ghost-writing job soon followed, as well as edits for books from authors who were self-publishing or looking to land an agent and publisher. Referrals kept coming from past clients and authors.

When I got divorced five years later and had not just one but two girls to take care of, I took a breath. And many, rapid, shaky breaths thereafter. Could I make this freelance editor thing work full-time? And could I do it while moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, to be near my parents, far away from the epicenter of New York publishing?

Eleven years later, here I am, full-time with a waiting list, working with new authors, ghost-writing, editing, and coaching people about the book publishing process. I’ve come across a thriving writing scene here in Charlotte and the Carolinas, have clients across the U.S., as well as writers who find me from as far away as Australia and India. Last week I finished editing a complicated novel that takes place during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco years, gave advice about using real world place names to a women’s fiction author whose book I edited set in Texas, coached a nonfiction author on pitching her Ted talk, and collaborated with a woman who founded a national non-profit on her book proposal about family homelessness—we’re going to send it out to agents next week. These projects challenge me, excite me, and give me something new to tackle every week.

I’d been right and wrong about going freelance all those years ago. I was right that book publishers still don’t have the budget to hire freelance editors, but I was wrong in not recognizing that there are many authors who value the guidance of a professional editor to help make their work the best it can be, and need an expert to hold their hands as they take on the arcane and sometimes frustrating world of the book publishing industry.

Betsy Thorpe has been in the publishing business since the 90’s, when she started at Atheneum Publishers. Since then, she grew her way into the role of editor at HarperCollins, Broadway Books, Macmillan, and the trade division of John Wiley & Sons. She started Betsy Thorpe Literary Services when she had her first child, and has been running it as a full-time business for more than 11 years. She is the co-author of numerous non-fiction books, including three that have been written about in the New York Times, and has a literary agent for her first novel, The Thin Place.