• tarahthornburg

My Best Tips for Collaborating With Other Creatives

This post originally aired as an episode of my podcast, The Fearless Creative.

Make sure you subscribe to get your weekly dose of inspiration, motivation, and my very best tips for succeeding as a creative entrepreneur! If you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below.

Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show everybody. I am so happy to have you all with me today. It’s been a busy week for me over here…I’ve been working really hard to get my non-fiction book, Creative Morning Magic, ready for publication.


available for pre-order, but if you are interested in reading for free you can still get in touch with me about getting an advanced review copy. Just email me at writewithTarah@gmail.com

Creative Morning Magic will be released Sept 24th. It will be available in print and digital, and I am working on getting the audiobook produced. That audiobook will not be narrated by me, but I promise I will find someone wonderful for that.

As I’ve been getting this book ready for publication, I’ve had to relearn some very important lessons about collaboration. Anytime I put out a new book, I have to collaborate with my editor, with a cover designer, and in some cases, an audiobook narrator.  My editor, as I’ll discuss, has been with me for years, so working with her is a completely seamless experience by now. She’s a miracle worker. Truly.

But because I was working with a new cover designer, I came up against some challenges I haven’t had in a long time. The end result was phenomenal, but it did take some work for us to get there.

That brings me into today’s topic: collaborating successfully with other creatives. These can be creatives who do what you do or creatives who have a completely different skill set. I’m going to be talking about how to collaborate with someone on a project-by-project basis, like a freelancer, and I’m also going to be discussing some best practices for working with someone on an ongoing basis, like a partnership. 

But first, it’s time for this week’s Discovery segment. This is the part of the show where I share something useful or interesting that I discovered this week… And today I want to mention another podcast called “Boring Books for Bedtime.” 

So, I must confess: I have only ever struggled with insomnia once before in my life when I was in college, but lately, I’ve had so much on my mind that I’ve been having some trouble sleeping at night.

As you know from previous podcast episodes, I’m a sleep zealot, so lying awake at night is just unacceptable. Sometimes like to listen to audiobooks as I’m falling asleep. But if the goal of listening to an audiobook is to fall asleep, it limits you to listening to audiobooks that you’ve already heard. That’s where “Boring Books for Bedtime” comes in. 

The podcast is narrated by Sharon Handy, who has the most soothing voice on the planet. She kind of reminds me of Audie Cornish from NPR’s All Things Considered…Anyway, every week she reads excerpts from boring and obscure texts like the “Manual of Egyptian Archaeology and Guide to Antiquities,” “Principles of Geology,” and “Woodworking for Beginners.” I most enjoyed the 1897 Sears Roebuck & Co., and I did not enjoy The Federalist Papers because I fell asleep in less than two minutes. I suppose since the purpose is to fall asleep, that may be the best episode.

So if you ever have trouble dozing off because your brain just won’t stop jabbering at you, I highly recommend “Boring Books for Bedtime.” It’s an amazing resource. It’s free, it’s super relaxing, and it’s just the right amount of boring.

Let’s go ahead and get into today’s topic. This week I would like to talk about collaborating with other creatives. This is something I do on a regular basis… For example, I don’t design my own book covers, and so with every new release, I work with a cover designer to create the perfect book cover.

If you’re a creative entrepreneur, there are a couple different types of collaboration that you might be involved in. One is collaborating with another creative as a partner… Both of you contribute an amount of work on a shared project, and you take a percentage of profits based on what you contribute. This is what I will call an ongoing collaboration. Two of my other friends collaborate on books, and so they each write different chapters in a book and they each take a percentage of profits from their book royalties.

Another type of collaboration is when you work with an independent contractor. In these cases, you’re going to be paying for work on a project-by-project basis. I personally prefer this type of collaboration because it allows for more creative control on my part, and once I pay for the service that I hired, I don’t have to share any of the profits from a project.

You might work with an independent contractor or freelancer if you’re an author who hires an editor and a cover designer. If you’re an artist, you might work with someone to design your website. You might work with a graphic designer to make a logo or design your business cards. So if you’re in a creative industry, chances are you will have to collaborate on a project at some point in your career.

Collaboration is wonderful because it enables you to benefit from skills that you don’t necessarily have. You get a better finished product, and you don’t waste time trying to do things that you’re not good at. Because I’ve been doing this for a while — and because I’ve worked on the other side of things as a freelance writer — I feel like I’ve learned some important lessons about collaboration that I want to share with you today…

My first tip?

1. You (usually) get what you pay for.

If you run your own business online, there’s a good chance that you have dipped your toe into the cesspool of Fiverr. If you’re not familiar with Fiverr, this is a freelance marketplace where you can hire someone to do just about anything…usually for bottom-basement prices. Fiverr gets its name from its original business concept, which was that you could hire someone to do just about anything for $5.

I have hired interior formatters on Fiverr. I hired someone to design a map for one of y fiction books. The problem with marketplaces like Fiverr is that people are working for a fairly low wage, and so they have to do a high volume of work in order to make a living. High volume of work generally translates to a lower quality of work. This isn’t always the case, but this has definitely been my experience. Fiverr also attracts a lot of people who work overseas, so sometimes you will run into language barriers with these freelancers. The fact that they may be based in countries with a lower cost of living is another reason why prices are so low.

Personally, I’ve had much better luck on premium platforms like 99Designs. This is where I have found my best cover designers. With 99Designs, you can run contests where designers compete to give you the best design, or you can work with a single designer on a one-on-one project.

Back when I first started, I was hesitant to spend a lot on a book cover, but the longer I’m in the business, the more I understand that’s a book cover is what sells the book. So this is one thing that you definitely should splurge on.

My most recent experience with 99Designs showed me that the people on this platform are increasingly high-level professionals, and if you are going to hire someone with lots of experience, you generally will have to pay up for that designer.

Recently, I worked with a less-experienced designer whom I’d never worked with before, and it was more difficult than working with my more experienced designer whom I’ve had for a long time. We ended up coming to a really wonderful solution on the cover, but it took a lot of time and energy to get there.

This brings me to my next tip…

2. If you work with a freelancer more than once, you will get better at working together.

For my fiction, I’ve used the same cover designer for four or five years now. Bob is my guy. He is fantastic at sci-fi/dystopian covers. I actually found him through a 99Designs contest, but now we just work together directly.

Because we’ve been collaborating for so long, Bob tends to know what I like and what I don’t like. He knows my brand standards, meaning he knows the general look of my brand and what I prefer. And so when I start working with this new designer on a new genre, it was a lot more challenging because she didn’t understand me as a client yet.

This is one of those things that you can only get better at with time. There are no short-cuts. It can be helpful going in to expect that if you’re working with a new freelancer, you’re going to have to invest some extra time and energy. 

If that person is good at what they do, it’s an investment worth making. If you stick with this person for years, that time is going to pay off because one day you’ll wake up and you’ll have someone who understands what you want so well that you won’t have to give them very much direction.

This brings me to tip No. 3 about hiring a new freelancer…

3. A freelancer’s work should speak for itself, and referrals are the next best thing.

One of the most common questions I get from new authors is how and where to find a good editor. And what they don’t realize is that this is something that I had to figure out on my own, and I had to do it the hard way.

There is no magic formula for finding an independent contractor who does great work. I’ve managed a team of freelance writers as an editor. I’ve worked with various cover designers and interior formatters. I’ve worked with the same copyeditor for years. And what I’ve learned is that, when you’re looking to hire a freelancer, the most important factor is the work that person has already produced.

I will almost never hire someone without seeing examples of their previous work. The way I found my editor was by reading the acknowledgments section of another book. That’s how I found her name. I figured that since this book was well-edited, she would do a good job on my book. That turned out to be a good assumption. I’ve had her for years. She’s been with me for every single book, and I haven’t had to hire anybody else.

Editors are difficult for writers to hire — especially if that author isn’t a good editor herself. But cover designers tend to be more straightforward. Any experienced designer is going to have a portfolio that you can view. If you hire anyone on a freelancer platform like Fiverr, 99Designs, or Upwork, you will be able to see examples of that freelancer’s previous work. This is the best way to determine whether that person is a good fit for you.

If you don’t have the ability to discern for yourself whether someone is good at what they do, the best way to find a good collaborator is to ask for referrals.

Hiring a good editor or a good graphic designer or a good web designer is no different from shopping around for a doctor or hairstylist or a babysitter. It’s good to ask other people who do what you do and who have hired out work in the past. But you have to trust that person’s opinion enough to take the recommendation. Referrals can give you the advantage, and sometimes your friend or peer can provide some tips for working with that specific individual.

Once you choose someone, you have to learn how to work with that person. My next tip will apply to any type of collaborator, whether you’re working with an independent contractor whom you pay for a project or if you’re working with a long-term collaborator who’s going to be a joint partner.

4. Be honest.

It’s no good working with someone if you can’t deliver feedback. You should prepare yourself for the possibility that your collaborator isn’t going to hit it out of the park on his or her first try. Your collaborator may not even hit it out of the park on the fifth or sixth try.

If you’re going to be working with someone, you need to be sure that it’s someone you’re comfortable giving both positive feedback and negative feedback to. If you’re launching a venture or working on a project with a friend or a family member, you first need to consider if you are capable of giving that person honest feedback…and if he or she can receive that feedback from YOU.

Sometimes we are really good at accepting feedback in a professional context, but if that feedback comes from a loved one, suddenly we get defensive because our feelings are involved. You often hear, “it’s not personal; it’s just business,” but if you’re working with someone whom you have a personal relationship with, business is automatically personal.

When I was working on my most recent cover, I reached a point where I thought the designer might not be a good fit for the project. I angsted over it for a few days, but then I realized I just needed to be honest about where I was at with the project.

I told her that I loved her work but that I wasn’t sure if she was a good fit for my project. We talked, and eventually she understood what I was looking for, and she delivered something that was amazing. But if you can’t have these hard conversations, you’re really going to struggle to work with another creative.

When you’re being honest, it’s important to deliver your feedback in a way that is sensitive to the other person. One key to doing that brings me to my next tip,

5. Respect the other person’s artistic efforts.

Whenever I’m working with a cover designer, I try to remind myself that that person is probably just as sensitive about his or her art as I am about my writing. It’s not cool to tell someone “this just isn’t good.” If someone read one of my books and said “this just isn’t good,” that would be crushing. So no matter what type of work the other creative does, recognize that her work is her art.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t critique the work. But you should always do it in a way that is constructive. I like to be really specific about what I like and don’t like, and I always try to present it as my preference.

It’s not an objective fact that a typeface looks terrible. (There is someone out there who loves Comic Sans.) And even if the typeface is objectively a poor choice, it’s not productive to say so.  It’s more productive to say “I prefer a font that is more like this.”

If you can deliver feedback in a way that’s really specific and prescriptive, the person you’re working with is less likely to get her feelings hurt and more likely to meet your expectations.

This brings me to tip No. 5…

5. Recognize the time commitment involved, and commit to fair pay.

This is something that I’m not sure if people can understand if they haven’t ever been on the other end of a freelancer/client relationship. I have done a lot of freelance writing in my day, and I’ve worked with other freelancers in a professional capacity as their manager. I know that a lot of freelancers are undercharging for their work. Some of them are undercharging so much that they cannot possibly make a fair hourly wage.

This is made worse by the fact that a lot of freelancer platforms are dominated by people outside the US, where the cost of living is lower. This is one reason why I don’t like to support Fiverr. This is a company that generates a profit on the backs of people who are earning very little money for their work.

And the freelancer economy or gig economy in general is a race to the bottom.  This is why a lot of businesses these days rely on independent contractors. They don’t have to pay health insurance. They don’t have to pay a portion of the employee’s unemployment tax. They don’t have to pay for Medicare or workman’s comp.

Now, if you’re a free-market person, you might say, “Well, that’s capitalism.” And you’d be right. But that mindset is short-sighted because if you want talented people to stay in the creative business and continue to do cost-effective work as a freelancer, they need to be able to earn a decent wage. Otherwise, they may go off and get a full-time job working for someone else, or they may have to work another odd job with an hourly wage to support themselves, which means they have less time to do the freelance work you rely on.

So it’s in everybody’s best interest to keep freelancer wages reasonable. And when I say reasonable, I mean competitive pricing for the consumer and a good living wage for the freelancer.

I think platforms like 99Designs and Reedsy do a pretty good job of trying to keep those wages high. Personally, I think Reedsy’s rates are much too high, but again it’s a platform that is making money off of other people’s work.

The ideal situation is to work directly with a freelancer so that no platform is taking a cut of their fee. This keeps your rates lower and puts more money in the pocket of your collaborator.

I said before that you generally get what you pay for. But even if you can get something done cheaper, I think it’s every creative’s moral duty to pay a fair price for the work they’re having done.

If you’re not sure if the price you’re paying is fair, try to imagine (or ask) how many hours it takes to complete the work. Take the project fee, divide by the number of hours, and you’ll have the freelancer’s hourly rate. If you yourself would not work for that low of a wage, you should not be relying on someone to work for that little money.

Again, you free-market people might say, “Well, I wouldn’t work for minimum wage, but I like McDonald’s.” My response to that is we are all writers, artists, and creatives here, and it’s in our best interest to ensure that art and creativity continue to be valued by society. Value starts with putting a reasonable dollar amount on a piece of work.

That’s all I’ll say about fair wages. Now let me give you my next tip…

6. If you get stuck in a collaboration, bring in an unbiased third-party.

If you work with freelancers or creative partners for any length of time, one thing that’s inevitable is that you will reach an impassé. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll reach a point where neither of you is willing to budge, but you may get to a place where you can’t come to a decent compromise or you just don’t know how to move forward. Maybe neither you can agree on the direction your project should take, or maybe you don’t know what to tell your freelancer next.

When you get to this point, it’s always a good idea to take a step back for a few days. You can also bring in an unbiased third party to offer their opinion.

Now, I say this with caution because I’m not a fan of writing by committee or designing by committee. But sometimes bringing in another set of eyes that you trust can be a really good way to go. Sometimes I’ve been looking at a design too long, and I need another opinion. A third party may be able to offer suggestions that I never would have thought of.

Other times you may be so in the weeds with a design or a project that things start to seem worse than they are.

On my most recent cover, I brought in my husband to give an opinion. He said, “You know, nothing is going to be perfect. No matter what designer you work with, you are always going to find something you don’t like about the cover.”

This was a good reality check for me because I was so emotionally invested in my book that it was affecting my judgment.

In the past, I’ve solicited feedback from my mastermind group, which is made up of other indie authors in my genre. I trust them because they’re professionals in my industry. Readers might not know what type of cover sells books, but these authors do.

My final tip for collaborating is…

7. Set clear expectations from the very beginning.

This is a mistake I made on my most recent collaboration. We didn’t lay any ground rules for what might happen if the designer ended up not being a good fit for the project. When we start having problems, I decided that it would be fair to pay her 50% for the work she’d put in so far, but because she hadn’t protected herself, I could have theoretically paid her nothing for her work that she’d done.

No freelancer wants to be in this situation.

For this reason, I think it’s always good to have an informal contract in place. You should discuss payment schedules or royalty shares from the very beginning, and you should also lay out the scope of the project before you begin. (No freelancer likes to get into a project thinking you want an e-book cover and then find out that you also want a paperback cover, an audiobook cover, and a 3D rendering.)

If you’re working with a partner on an ongoing collaboration, you definitely need to have a contract. You should discuss things like payment schedules and who is responsible for what. You should also build in an escape hatch that either of you can use at any time for any reason.

Building an escape hatch isn’t just for the event that you can’t come to an agreement on a project. It might be the case that unforeseen life circumstances like illness, death, or a big life change could force one of you to exit the partnership. Figuring out fair solutions upfront makes it less likely that dissolving your partnership will sour your personal relationship.

If I haven’t made it clear, collaboration can be wonderful if you run a creative business. It allows you to access other people’s skills. It can save you time. And it allows you to spend more time doing the things you’re actually good at.

That’s all I have for you this week. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave a written review on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcast. I read every single review, and I really appreciate them.

As always, you can get in touch with me on Instagram and Twitter @writewithtarah. You can also get in touch with me with questions or ideas for future show topics via the contact form on my website.

I’ll see you next time, and happy creating.

Photo by John Schnobrich

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