Friday, February 13, 2009

Review: The Principles of Successful Freelancing

Author: Miles Burke Format: Paperback, 200 pages Publisher: SitePoint; illustrated edition (December 28, 2008) ISBN-10: 0980455243 ISBN-13: 978-0980455243 When I think of SitePoint, I think about books on topics such as HTML, CSS, and various programming languages. I also reviewed a SitePoint book on project management, so I know they can step outside of that "sphere" on occasion. On the other hand, what does a book on freelancing have to do with the technical subjects normally put out by this publisher? I was a tad surprised to find out that Toby Somerville, one of this book's technical editors, has been "a web applications architect and a freelance web developer". Maybe this book isn't as "generic" as it sounds. Author Miles Burke has been a web designer for over a decade and created his own web company a few years back. Perhaps, with the background of some of the "players" being what it is, the book will focus on freelancing relative to web design and development, rather than for other fields. I suppose I should take a step back from this review and explain that, for a number of years, I worked as a freelance technical writer, author, and editor. It wasn't entirely by choice, since people in my field don't often find "in-house" jobs that pay a salary with benefits, but you take the work that you're offered. That said, now that I have a "day job" that I'm well satisfied with, I continue to pursue other projects, both to develop multiple income streams and to maintain my professional flexibility. I should be well suited to review Burke's text. According to the blurb in the front matter, this book was written for people who want to freelance and like it. The target audience includes someone currently in a "day job" who wants to "be their own boss" (and all the headaches that entails) or someone who has recently graduated and is concerned that getting a job won't be all that easy to do. I know first hand that freelancing isn't an easy lifestyle. Burke's book is intended to address the struggling freelancer and organize their efforts into a career. Another part of the blurb confirmed that Burke wrote his book specifically with web designers and developers in mind, but that the principles should apply to just about any job-type that can be done freelance. Interestingly, the book starts out with a definition of the term "freelance", complete with references to Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. I would have thought if a history lesson was in order, it would be about the modern development of the freelance career model. The Ivanhoe "medieval mercenary" reference was OK, though. Kind of makes the freelancer feel like a "Ronin" in feudal Japan (notice my tongue is now firmly in my cheek). The book reminded me somewhat of the SitePoint Project Management book I mentioned before. Essentially, although the book's content can be applied to all freelance careers, the thrust of the book examines applying the freelance "principle" in a technical context. Another way to look at it is, the book is most aimed at the technical person who wants to apply their skill sets to the role of freelancer. The project management book was very similar, with the technical person having an eye on the role of project manager. With all that in mind, it's appropriate for this text to be reviewed and presented in various technical venues such as this blog, but for those of you who don't know HTML from CSS, you can still get plenty out of what's being presented. Burke does dig into his own experiences and references the company he founded by example, so he isn't speaking just "in theory". There are also "case studies" at the end of each chapter, citing real world examples of freelancers. The real value I see in this book is that it organizes the topics a freelancer has to consider and act upon to build such a career path. It's not that it would be impossible to come up with the same information on your own after doing your research, it's just that Burke puts a large amount of the research results between this book's covers. You'll still need to do more work developing a plan that relates to your specific skills, goals, and career field. This book can't be all things to all freelancers. It can just give you a leg up, so to speak, as to what you are facing and how to deal with those issues. Another advantage this book presents is as a way to help the reader decide if freelancing is for him or her. Some people, especially after a bad day at the office, might overly romanticize the idea of "being your own boss" (think of the "Ronin" analogy I used before). It sounds really appealing after you've been "chewed a new one" by your manager over one thing or another. Burke's book brings it down to Earth and lays out the nuts and bolts of what freelancing takes. Freelancing's not for everyone. For the cost of this book though, you can get enough practical advice to help you decide if you want to pursue a freelance career or part-time freelance gig. You don't have to step into it blind. While Burke's book is good, I don't think it can take the place of doing a lot of the footwork yourself. You're still going to have to see what the demand is for your skill sets in the freelance market in your area, determine the specifics of where you need to pump up your training, and do the rest of the analysis that will tell you if what you have to offer is significantly valued in your environment. You'll need to perform that work to see if what you've got will pay off for you as a freelancer. Of course, this book will give you some very good places to start, and a foundation on which to build your data and your conclusions. Be glad Miles Burke wrote this book. It'll save you some steps.