Q&A interview: Margaret Trudgeon

by Bridget Blair AE

Margaret Trudgeon has been a freelance editor for twenty years and works from home. She generally edits educational textbooks, usually for larger publishers, but these days she also does nonfiction and fiction editing for private clients, who come to her directly through her website or IPEd.

How has your month been?

I thought I was going to run out of work last month and have some quiet time to reorganise my office, update my website and clear up my desk, but I ended up working every day. I've been finishing off two jobs that came to me privately, one through my website – a fiction book – and one a nonfiction book about a murder, which came to me as a recommendation from another author I did some work for last year. Both have been really enjoyable books to work on, from two very appreciative authors, and I'm really hoping they will be published. Neither of the authors have publishers yet. I've also been working on a book about wound care for a large publisher (it's off being paged at the moment). Yep, it has all the gory pictures in it and if anyone had walked past my house as I was first looking at them they would have heard me gasping out loud in horror! I now try not to look at the pictures, and tell myself it's worse for the people who actually have to deal with such things on a daily basis. On the plus side, the authors are two of the most lovely people I've worked with! The fiction book has been a lot of fun – the characters are all wombats and it's set in a real Australian alpine setting. The author has been very receptive to my suggestions, while also having some strong opinions of his own, but I figure that's okay and we've worked well together. He's invested a lot of personal time into this book and he wants it to be the best it can be. It's been a really satisfying process. I've just picked up two smaller jobs – one editing some internet assets for a big textbook I edited earlier this year (very boring, but pays the bills), and the other helping out another editor (a new venture!).

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

At the moment, I have two major issues – one is a dwindling supply of work from large publishers and the other relates to budgets that are inadequate. Regarding the supply of work, once upon a time I would finish working on one textbook and the next one would be lined up waiting for me. But these days I have to go out looking and, while I have enough work to keep me going for the moment, I'm uncertain about what's coming in for the new few months. Publishers seem to be changing the way they operate and there seems to be a lot of turnover of staff, which means you lose contacts. I feel like there is a lot more competition out there and editors need to present a much more businesslike front now than in the past. I know I need to get out there and market myself more (which I'm trying hard to do) and my website needs updating – if I can just find the time! Budgets are my other issue and I'm finding it difficult to convince some publishers that their initial budgets are inadequate. It can be very frustrating and I often find myself either asking for more money near the end of a job or accepting the loss of a few hours’ pay. Private clients are generally much happier to pay me properly. I set up a contract with them setting out the amount and advise them that I will charge them an hourly rate once the contracted amount has been reached. It's so much better when it's all clearly spelled out and I'm in charge of the budget. They even pay half the amount upfront, which is amazing when some large publishers make me wait up to five weeks for payment after I've done all the work!

What do you love most about your work?

I try to do my best for every job, but for personal clients I feel like I'm helping them bring a dream alive. There's no better feeling than when they tell you how much they appreciate all your work. I also love the range of material I get to work on. My favourite books to work on are art books, which harks back to my studies at university. I don't get to do too many these days, but I lap it up when I do get one! I also really enjoy the nitty-gritty of editing and miss it when I have no work. It's strangely satisfying.

How did you get here?

I always had a love of books – both my parents were librarians. As a child I remember sitting in front of a bookshelf, poring over the many books they had, checking out weird images and figures in some nonfiction books. I seemed to have a real interest in the structure of a book. I knew I didn't want to be a librarian, but at school I didn't even know the job of editor existed, so I studied for an arts degree at university, followed by an art degree at Phillip Institute of Technology (now part of RMIT). I was going to be an artist! I finally got a job as a graphic artist at Swinburne academic press but desktop publishing was just being introduced and my work dried up. I ended up working on their little Mac Classic, formatting course brochures and other small jobs, which I would often silently correct (naughty!). After a six-month trip to Europe I decided I really did want to work in a publishing house, probably as an editor, so I applied for the Grad Dip course at RMIT. The first year I applied I didn't get in, so I tried again. This time it turned out I had an old brochure and the entry date was wrong (out by two weeks). I'd gone in to hand in in my application in person and when they told me the entry date had passed I burst into tears. By this time I really, really wanted to work in publishing! The late John Curtin happened to be there and came out to talk to me. He could see how much it meant to me, and he let me in. Thank you, John! By this time I had managed to transfer to another job at Swinburne, editing the annual student handbook. It was very messy and at times really boring. Then a job came up at Longman (now Pearson) and I went for it. Once again I missed out first time around, but they asked me to edit a book for them on a freelance basis (a trial) and a month later they rang and offered me a job. It was like winning Tattslotto! Sadly, three years later I was retrenched along with the department I worked in, but I'd already decided it was time to move on. I decided to try my hand at freelancing for six months and see how I found it. Twenty years later, here I still am!

What is your average weekly workload? Does it vary throughout the year?

Generally I work about 20 hours a week, but usually in the early, busy part of the year I can end up working up to 30 hours, which can also involve weekends. That's 20 to 30 billable hours, so there's also a bit of time spent doing other things (like this interview, or BAS statements and other admin stuff). Often around August/September there's a bit of a lull, so I usually accept anything on offer then – theses, CVs, books on wound care ...

If you are comfortable discussing salary, can you give an idea of an indicative rate of pay for the kind of work you do?

Generally, I try for $70 per hour. I would love to increase my rate, but in the current economic climate I don't feel I can. Most companies work by budget, so they say you can charge what you want as long as you can do your work within the amount they have set. It's often impossible to do that, but I've got better at standing up for myself and asking for more money over the years. I figure I offer them a lot of experience so I refuse to cut my rate to fit a budget that's clearly too small.

If you didn’t have the job you are in now, what would you like to be doing?

Well, I did intend to be an artist, but I realised very soon that I would probably have to love being poor to do that, plus I always suspected I didn't quite have the passion required. I'd love to do something that involves a bit of travel; maybe a year or two living in France writing an art book with a guaranteed publishing contract at the end! Dream on ...

Margaret can be contacted by email directly (mtrudge@netspace.net.au) or through the IPEd website, or through her own website: margarettrudgeon.com. She’s also on LinkedIn.

Thanks so much for taking the time to share with us, Margaret. 

Bridget Blair is a freelance editor and Communication Officer

edvic.communication@iped-editors.org