When you live in the Cotswolds à la Jane Austen and your surname is Bradshaw à la Carrie, one can assume that you were destined to have a way with words from day one and Sophie Bradshaw, the thirty-seven-year-old Founder of Publishing Workshop proves that (very unscientific admittedly but oh so fitting nonetheless) theory to be true.
Working with first time authors and business owners worldwide, helping them to get their books to a publishable state, Sophie’s business idea resonated with me on a personal level and felt like a business concept that would intrigue many of you, too.
Having launched her company in 2017, all the while juggling the realities of being a single Mum financially responsible for three children, with the emotional demands of an ongoing divorce in which she represented herself throughout the legal proceedings, Sophie and I sat down in the Autumn of 2018 to discuss the applaudable journey she has been on behind the scenes with her business so far…
SB. Basically, I help first time authors get their book to a publishable state! That might be clients who have already written a book but got stuck in a rut with it half way in, in which case I’ll then help them with editing – deep structural editing where I dig deep into the order and structure of a book is what I do best. Or people come to me at the very beginning of their writing journey and say, “I want to write a book but I don’t know where to start!” In which case, I help them with the entire writing process from the get-go so they end up with a finished book. It’s basically getting people to a place where they’re able to publish it… Whether they sell their book or not though is another matter!
Before launching Publishing Workshop in July 2017, Sophie worked in the publishing industry for fifteen years. Starting her career as an editorial assistant “at the bottom of the ranks,” she worked her way up to become Publishing Director for non-fiction at an independent publishing company before going part-time when she had her three children.
SB. I’d had my children, I’d got to a particular level at the company, I was on good money, it was based down the road and it was flexible in terms of being able to work from home… I used to think, ‘I’ve got it cushy here! I shouldn’t walk away from this because it works for my set up’ but there were various reasons why I wasn’t happy with where the company was going… They had a restructure within the company and my role was at risk of redundancy so at that point I thought, ‘is this the time to do something on my own?’ I really ummed and ahhed about it, I felt like I had a decision to make but in the end I took the redundancy.
I live in the Cotswolds, my children are in school here and so I felt like I had two options at that point. Either I could go after a big Publishing Director role in London which would have meant…
SC.SD. Unsocial hours and a long old commute!?
SB. Absolutely! It was doable but it was a huge commitment, or I could start something on my own…
SC.SD. Was that the first time you’d thought about doing the latter?
SB. No, I always had my idea of starting this business. As a publisher, you sit there at your desk and people are sending you manuscripts all the time. A lot of the time manuscripts that get sent through either directly or via a literacy agent aren’t commercially viable enough but sometimes, I’d sit there thinking, ‘they have a good idea here but they haven’t had the support to get it publishable.’ That always made me think, ‘what if you could get in there right at the start to help these writers so they didn’t have to rewrite the whole thing later down the line’ so I was basically at a crossroads. Eventually, the work/life balance thing won me over because of my kids.
The thought of taking the big job in London and hardly seeing my children and working my fingers to the bone like that just didn’t appeal. As scary as it was – I was also a single parent by this point so I was financially responsible for myself too – I decided to do it anyway, which when I think about it was probably a slightly unhinged decision..!
SC.SD. But a brave one at that! Especially as you’d worked your way up the career ladder… It becomes increasingly harder to walk away, the higher up in a company you get in my opinion because the benefits and security packages that those jobs offer are more robust…
SB. See I didn’t even have a big redundancy package because I’d taken a break to have my kids so I didn’t have a big cushion of a redundancy package to fall back on. I worked out that I had about three months before I literally couldn’t pay my mortgage, so it was a case of, ‘ok I kind of have to make this work!’
So many businesses fail in the first year, but that just wasn’t an option for me. I couldn’t fail. I had to hone it and change it and make it work somehow because it wasn’t an option not to feed my kids. If the redundancy hadn’t have happened though, I probably wouldn’t have done it. It just gave me the push to do something for myself that I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.
SC.SD. That pressure can feel horrendous at the time but in hindsight, I always think there’s some magic in it somewhere because it does force you to up your game doesn’t it? So you take the redundancy, you have three months before you have no money left to pay your bills… What did you prioritise in those first few weeks to get your business up and running?
SB. To be honest, it’s all a bit of a blur! I just kept coming back to this idea that I wanted to help people at the beginning of their writing journey. I started thinking about running workshops with people and I toyed between fiction and non-fiction too, but I realised quickly that fiction is not where my passion lies after running a few local fiction writing workshops. I love non-fiction, that’s what most of my professional background is in, that’s where my skills lie so I very quickly settled on that. Honestly though, there was no business plan! It was nothing but trial and error, feeling for what worked and getting to the core of what people needed and wanted.
I started to force myself to network and meet people though and came across a lot of business owners who want to write a book for their business. They see the value in that, the authority that it lends to their project, but they didn’t know where to start or how to do it. I kept meeting people in that area and so just started putting together a coaching package. I was doing some editing on the side too even though I was hideously undercharging, like, ridiculously undercharging (!) but once I’d put together the coaching package, it allowed me to help people at the very beginning.
SC.SD. How does it work?
SB. It’s all one-to-one so the very first thing we do is a Book Planning Day. That’s where we spend a day together and plan out the structure of their book so that we have a ‘recipe’ to work with and then I check in every fortnight via Zoom to see how they’re getting on. In the meantime they send me unlimited material for me to give feedback on so it’s really involved…
SB. It’s the only way it works. If you’re writing a book, you need accountability and you need feedback. The whole ethos of my business from the very beginning is that I just want to help them get it done. I’m not interested in coaching them for a year and there’s still no book at the end of it.
SC.SD. That’s amazing! You said unlimited feedback so does that then limit you to the number of clients you’re willing to take on then?
SB. Yes. I can’t really work with more than four or five coaching clients at one time so that does limit me but then I have the other side of my business which is the structural editing and ghost writing as well, so at any one time I’m usually working with clients as well as the projects.
SC.SD. You mentioned that you made a conscious effort to start networking at the beginning. For anyone reading this that might be just starting out on their business journey, how did you know where to go and who to reach out to?
SB. I basically searched local networking groups. I’m in quite a good position geographically between Bath, Bristol and Cheltenham…
SC.SD. So many creatives and female business owners that way!
SB. Absolutely! There’re so many networking events going on. I’ve found social media to be great though and have met a lot of people through Instagram and Facebook. I did a lot of talks at the beginning too and reached out and offered to speak…
SC.SD. So very proactive then? Because some people go networking but to one event…
SB. I did really put myself out there from the get-go but to be honest, it was exhausting! I come across as a real extrovert but actually I’m quite introverted and I do find that networking does sap my energy. Those first few months were exhausting…
SC.SD. I’ve heard this a lot and I can feel like that too sometimes. If you put me in a room full of people, I love chatting, I love meeting people, I can hold a conversation, I’ll work the room but I do have to build myself up for it!
SB. Exactly. For me, it’s afterwards. I just find that whenever I do anything like that, I come home and I have to have at least an hour to just relax and take a breath. When I’m there I enjoy it and always get a lot out of it, but I do find that when I step away from it, I need a moment to wind down. It really was exhausting and by the October time – I started the business in July – I’d got classic burn out.
SC.SD. If you threw yourself in at the deep end with networking straight away, I’m interested to find out how you presented yourself at those events given that you didn’t have anything to show for yourself at that stage with the business…
SB. If I’m being honest, I was quite confident doing that because in my professional career I’d worked with so many authors on so many different subjects over the years, that I knew what makes them tick and how they operate. I went along to those networking events with no expectations really. I’d just go, they’d ask, “what do you do?” and I’d say, with a bit of blagging as you do…
SB. “Oh this is what I do!” and the number of people who would then say, “no way, I’ve been trying to write a book for ages” or “my friend is writing a book and desperately needs help!” They just responded so well to what I was offering which then gave me more confidence. It just further confirmed that there’s a market for what I’m offering here.
SC.SD. Absolutely. You mentioned that you were hideously undercharging initially… talk to me about how you went about putting a price on your time, setting your rates and how has that evolved since day one? I’m particularly interested in how you put a price on the coaching service given that it includes calls, unlimited editing etc…
SB. See the price for the coaching I was always fairly confident with because although I say, “you can send me anything you like and I’ll give you feedback,” in reality I know roughly how much material I’ll probably be sent in a month. That meant I could just work out roughly how long I’d spend looking at that material, so I actually found the coaching easiest to put a price on.
What I was really undervaluing was my editing. Structural editing is not cosmetic editing. It’s where a book needs serious work and involves pulling apart, remodelling and really thinking about the content. It’s very involved but the problem with the publishing industry in general is that editorial services are really undervalued and there are a lot of talented editors and proof readers who are charging very, very little for the service they offer. It’s a female-led industry and I think that’s an issue. It’s a classic example of women undervaluing what they do and what’s happened because of that is that it’s driven down the market value. Because of that, I then started off doing exactly that, undervaluing what I was doing but then I worked out just how many hours I was spending on it and working out that I just wasn’t going to make money from it…
Then I shifted my thinking and started to think about the result people were getting from me putting in that work and my skills and experience. When you think about it like that, before I step in, they have a book or idea they can’t do anything with but once I’m finished, they have a book that’s ready to publish…
SC.SD. And there’s a whole lotta value in that! Did any recurring customers have an issue with you raising your fees?
SB. Well luckily at that point I hadn’t long started, so I just put my prices up and no one noticed! Sometimes people come to me, I quote for the job and they say, “that’s too high” but I’m happy to say, “ok no problem, best of luck anyway” now because I’m confident in what I have to offer. I have a lot of experience…
SC.SD. And there’s something really empowering in saying, “thank you but no thank you…”
SB. Exactly. I’m confident in the experience that I’ve got so I think, ‘maybe I won’t be the cheapest’…
SC.SD. But you’ll be worth it?
SC.SD. If you compare how you thought running a business would be like compared to what it’s been like in reality, has anything caught you off guard?
SB. Definitely. I mean I didn’t have many expectations at the beginning because there was no business plan and I was totally winging it. There was no, “I’m going to do this and then I’m going to do that and then that means I’ll be able to do that” because if I’m being honest, I feel like that’s the wrong way to go about it…
SC.SD. I’m so glad you said that because so do I…
SB. One of my favourite quotes is, “no business plan survives the first contact with the customer!” You can’t assume what your customer wants, you only find out by doing it so yes, no real expectations but I definitely came to a realisation after I had my burn out experience, I just wouldn’t do the bits of the business that I didn’t like! I read something somewhere that said, “your business is your utopia, it’s what you make it” and I just thought to myself, ‘that’s so true, I’ll just do the stuff I enjoy.’
SC.SD. What’s been scrapped then?!
SB. Well the networking for instance. I did SO much at the beginning that I just thought, ‘I’m not going to bust a gut anymore, I’m going to relax’ and what was really interesting was when I stopped trying so hard, it all came together. I thought you had to constantly be in a state of hustle, hustle, hustle but actually when I thought, ‘I’m just going to let it happen’, it just did.
SC.SD. Taking that pressure off allows you to instantly enjoy it more so naturally you put better work out there don’t you?
SB. Definitely. People kept saying to me, “you need to have an email list. You need to have a newsletter” and I kept thinking, ‘but I don’t want a newsletter!’ This was before GDPR anyway but I was like, ‘I don’t want to just grab people’s email addresses and then send them stuff that they don’t want to read that’s all about me!’ Instead I thought, ‘what I really want to launch is a magazine so instead of a newsletter, I’m going to publish a magazine’ … so I did!
SC.SD. As you do..!
SB. I know..! It’s a side project that I don’t make any money on yet but in May 2018 I started a magazine called Go Write which is specifically for business owners and entrepreneurs who write content for their blogs and businesses. I kept meeting people saying, “gaah I should write more blogs for my business but I hate it/I don’t know how to write etc…” so I thought, ‘ok I’m not going to write a newsletter but I’ll write something that’s actually valuable with no agenda whatsoever.’
Now I have about 150 subscribers who have chosen to subscribe to it and then it gets over 800 reads on top of that. Whether I monetise it at some point, I’m not sure, but for now it’s a side project that I just enjoy doing.
SC.SD. How long do you spend putting it together?
SB. See I do bits and bobs as time goes on in those two months and I outsource a lot more now as people write for me so it’s not a huge amount of time. I spend a weekend putting it all together and then I get my eleven-year-old to proof read it! She’s very good!
SC.SD. I want to come on to how you balance the business with being a single Mum later but let’s get the dodgy bits out the way first… you’ve mentioned burn out so let’s start with the daily challenges you’ve had to deal with since launching this business…
SB. I think for me, being on my own, has been the hardest part. Solopreneurs everywhere have the same issue, I know, but there’s no one to bounce ideas off or say, “should I do this?” It’s always me talking to myself and asking that. Obviously I have friends that I talk to about it but it’s not the same as having someone equally invested in it. That’s probably, on a day to day basis, my biggest struggle.
SC.SD. How have you managed that challenge then?
SB. Well I use coworking spaces which are a great way to distract me from the chores that need to be done at the house and the guys there have been great, for example when my website stopped working and I didn’t know what to do! In terms of bouncing ideas off people though, I have some friends who have their own businesses who can help sometimes but apart from that, I’m very much led by instinct really… rightly or wrongly!
SC.SD. I feel the same though. Friends can support and advise but ultimately the weight of some decisions falls to you and you alone…
SB. Exactly and only I know at the end of the day what I am capable of doing. You do get an awful lot of advice. People say, “you should do this, you should do that” and in the early days, I took on board a lot of it, but I’m definitely more led by instinct now and to be honest that’s worked better.
SC.SD. I can imagine. Can you recall any days that stand out as particularly challenging since launching this business?
SB. Not a day but those first few months were seriously hard. I’d left my job, I’d started my business, I was going through a divorce at the time just to you know, throw all the stressful things that life can throw at you together (!) so in Autumn last year, I was pushing myself too hard in the business and I was going through a divorce where I was representing myself. I was having to deal with all the legal stuff plus I had three kids to look after. If I’m being brutally honest, I had too much on my plate physically, emotionally, mentally to be able to deal with it all. I just lost my confidence.
SC.SD. How long did that feeling last?
SB. Probably a couple of months. I just felt like, ‘I’m not sure I can do this.’ I started to think I’ll look for jobs but then I took Christmas off and when I came back, I regrouped a little bit and just stopped trying so hard to do everything. I still feel myself getting like that sometimes but I’m able to recognise that now and think to myself, ‘slow down.’
SC.SD. Absolutely. I think that’s a process that comes with time because I was equally tough on myself at the beginning and putting so much pressure on myself to get this off the ground but I’m so much better now at giving myself a break, having Sundays off, walking away from my laptop if it’s not working…
SB. Exactly. I was working in the evenings every single night so I sat down with myself and made some rules. One of them was, ‘no working in the evenings.’ I mean I still occasionally do…
I start to laugh…
SB. Haha I know, I know but in general, I don’t! Before, I’d put the kids to bed and then work for another three hours and then I couldn’t sleep because my brain was wired.
SC.SD. What other rules were on there?
SB. Hmmm… let’s think! Oh, one of them was, ‘if I don’t like it, don’t do it!’
SC.SD. It’s so true though isn’t it? It goes back to the pressure to do a newsletter. I’ve been told so many times, I need to do X, Y, and Z and I need to post photos of my personal life more etc… but I don’t particularly want to. I’ll share on my own terms and only if I feel like I’ve got something worthy to say.
SB. Absolutely. For me, it’s the ‘hustle, hustle, hustle, sell, sell, sell’ that I can’t get on board with. I don’t want to be salesy like that, it’s just not me. I’ve got to the stage now where I’m getting clients through word of mouth which is great…
SC.SD. It’s the best way!
SB. Absolutely and yes, it’s grown more slowly but it’s grown more organically and I’m proud of that. If you’re not comfortable with something, don’t do it in my opinion. Life’s too short to be pushing yourself and squeezing yourself into a hole that you don’t fit in.
SC.SD. Let’s talk money… obviously you came from a well-paid job but you’re responsible for three children, you’re a single Mum, you were going through a divorce and you had three months’ worth of money before you couldn’t afford the bills… How did you manage that reality and how have you continued to manage your finances given the peaks and troughs of self-employed work?
SB. I definitely had to get my head around the fact that there wouldn’t be a constant pay cheque coming in each month and at first, that totally panicked me. If it had just been me, I doubt I would have been as bothered but having the children and being financially responsible for them meant there were a few moments where I just panicked thinking, ‘we’re going to be homeless!’ In the beginning I took on some editing and indexing jobs through publishing contacts but to be honest, I don’t really know how it’s happened, it just has, and that’s without a big growth plan. One client turned into two and then personal recommendation and repeat custom works for me now. It’s just evolved and it’s got to a stage now where it’s working comfortably.
Obviously though, if I take time off, I don’t earn and you have to get used to that and put some money aside for those days but it’s almost been a miraculous process where it’s just worked. Now that word of mouth and referrals have kicked in, it’s even more a case of phew!
SC.SD. Your children are what, 11, 8 and 5? How have you managed the responsibilities of being a Mum with running your own business?
SB. Well it was difficult at the beginning because my youngest wasn’t at school yet so when he started school that definitely helped! Basically, Monday is my day off; Tuesday and Wednesday, I don’t pick up the children so I get to work a full day because my Mum helps out; Thursday and Friday, I just work school hours so it just means I schedule my time accordingly; then because they go to their Dad’s every other weekend, I know that I have that weekend to catch up too if needs be.
I don’t use childcare at all, I just work around them. I’m an efficient worker and I work quickly. I always used to joke that when I was part-time in my old job, I was doing the same job as full-time but in just two and half days a week, which is what so many women are doing now because you just become more efficient.
SC.SD. I’ve heard that a lot with the Mum’s that I’ve interviewed. You develop a superpower to just maximise on every spare moment you’ve got and learn to utilise your spare time accordingly!
SB. Absolutely. That’s not to say that I don’t suffer from procrastination and a lack of motivation at times. It’s a creative job and particularly if I’m editing or indexing or ghost writing, it’s a very involved process and after about four hours, my brain starts to wane. That’s why the magazine is handy, because it helps to clear my mind.
Some days though, particularly if I’m working on a really complex edit, I sit down in front of my computer and just think, ‘eurgh, I have not got the motivation to do this.’
SC.SD. I think every writer has that though!
SB. Absolutely. It helps me to understand the lack of motivation authors have, it’s classic. I always say to my clients that they’ll reach a point when they’re writing their book where they’d literally prefer to clean the toilets than write.
SC.SD. It brings back memories of my third year at uni writing my dissertation! Given that you do work so closely with your clients as so many service-based business owners do, have you ever had to say “no” to a potential client because of a potential personality clash? Or if not, have you thought about how you’d handle being approached by someone that you can foresee yourself not being able to work with…
SB. I’ve definitely had clients that I’ve thought, ‘gosh, this is going to be a struggle’ but I’ve never had anyone where I’ve thought, ‘this isn’t going to work.’ More just, ‘I’m not sure this person is going to stick to this’ and what’s happened is that they haven’t. It’s broken down on their side where they’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not ready to right their book yet. I’ve found my niche with people that are really struggling though. When their books are in a complete mess is now my speciality!
Obviously some people are more fun to work with than others too and I obviously enjoy some subjects more than others! I do a lot of research around each topic and some are more inspiring than others or personally more interesting. But no, no personality clashes so far thankfully but I think if I did have that, I would find a way to explain that it’s not the right fit. It’s just not worth putting yourself through it, is it?
In my publishing job, I had a handful of nightmare authors over a period of fifteen years and I really do mean a handful but they are special cases of, ‘I would never work with that person again!’ Mentioning no names though!
SC.SD. Absolutely not! Moving on then (!) how have your relationships with family and friends coped since launching this business and have you seen any relationships evolve for the better or worse?
SB. Actually everyone I know has been so supportive. I think a lot of my friends and family don’t really know what I do though! I’m quite self-sufficient and I don’t advertise what I’m doing because if I’m being honest, I just think people would get bored of hearing it! In general though, my friends and family have been most supportive with the practical stuff like helping with the kids. My friends who have businesses too have been my sounding board which has been invaluable.
SC.SD. What is the driving force behind you getting up each day to work on this business? What makes all the work worth it?
SB. I just genuinely love books and working with words. What satisfies me is getting approached by someone in a real muddle and just untangling that. I love that lightbulb moment when they realise that their book is going to become a reality. It might not become a bestseller but it will work for them. It’s so satisfying. I did French and Russian and Linguistics at Cambridge so words are my passion; working with that every day is great.
The flexibility my business offers too though is great. On the bad days where I just think, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ which are days that I’m sure every business owner has, I just think ‘no because I would have had to put my kids in breakfast clubs and catch a 6 o’clock train and then get back late and be exhausted and I wouldn’t see my children’. I more or less took August off because I wanted to be with the kids over the summer holidays and you just can’t do that in a traditional job. The benefits are huge. If it’s a nice sunny day and I want to meet a friend for a coffee, I can… so long as I catch up later!
Sc.SD. That’s the caveat isn’t it!?
SB. Yes! You can’t forget that bit. It’s like being a house wife… with a job. It’s a good mix.
SC.SD. You’ve mentioned your ‘no work in the evenings’ rule and how you struggled with sleeping because your brain was wired with work at the beginning… What does down time look like to you now and what are your methods for switching off?
SB. It’s tricky because reading is off the cards! I’m so lucky living in the Cotswolds though so getting out is important to me. I have to use my brain so much when I’m working so switching off has to be something that doesn’t use my brain. I do a lot of art because of that. It’s not completely mindless but you just get lost in flow when you’re doing that. Or I just watch crappy TV because sometimes I just need something to wash over me. A couple of episodes of Friends works wonders…
SC.SD. Exercise and Friends are my go-to switch offs! I know the words, I don’t have to think about it…
SB. It’s familiar, you just soak it up don’t you?! I have such an overactive brain generally, it’s the bane of my life and switching that off is definitely a challenge but not working in the evenings has helped that so much.
SC.SD. What about going forward? What hopes do you have for your business and where do you see this business going?
SB. Eventually, I’d love to take on someone to help with the magazine and grow that into something more, making it a paid subscription. I feel like it’s got a lot of potential. I would love at some point to hire a part-time editor too. There are so many part-time, talented editors that are Mums out there who perhaps want to work from home, so I’d love to hire someone so that I could take on more work. Again though, they’d have to be at such a high standard for me to consider handing work over to them.
As I said though, I don’t make big plans. I’m just winging it. I don’t set targets or goals. I just want to do what I do, earn a decent salary to give me some freedom and just enjoy my work. That’s the most important thing for me.
SC.SD. I love that! Very last question then, what’s your advice for anyone reading this that wants to start a business, that’s not, “just go for it!”
SB. No, no, that’s really trite! I think the key is to just relax. I was 100mph at the beginning and it left me burnt out. When you just take a step back and stop desperately striving so much, for me at least, it started to fall into place. I’d say calm down too. It’s better to grow something organically and slowly than forcing it into being. Yes, word of mouth takes time, books are a notoriously slow process, but you have to be patient. Also, from the very beginning, I thought most about my customer as opposed to what I think I’d want to do for them. What do they need? What would make a good experience for them? If you do that, the rest of it falls into place.
As a twenty-six-year-old business owner who plans to have children someday, I regularly (over)think about what life juggling a business with babies might look like and speaking to women like Sophie reminds me that no matter what life throws my way, not only is it possible but I’ll make it work.
Walking away from a well-paid job to launch your own business is no easy task at the best of times, let alone when you’re in the midst of an emotionally draining divorce, financially responsible for raising three children and have three months’ worth of savings before your bank account runs dry. So I sat in an awe like trance throughout the majority of this interview as Sophie recalled how she overcame the challenging circumstances she faced at the start of her business journey.
From throwing herself in at the deep end by attending as many networking events as possible in the early days, testing her business concept and connecting with potential clients in the process; refusing to take on board every piece of advice she was offered initially, opting instead to focus solely on what she enjoys; to setting boundaries for herself in order to maintain a work/life balance and embracing the value of her knowledge and experience when putting a price on her services; Sophie’s story is a great example of how powerful gut instinct and intuition can be in business as it has shaped what has become a company ever-growing in demand.