I recently read this blog post by a man who hasn’t held any writing job more than two years.
And David Handelman is no deadbeat:
When Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing in 2003, I was the only writer of 11 who immediately cleared out my office. I didn’t want to have to go back to fetch things later if I was let go. As it turned out, eight of us weren’t asked back.
The experience — and, I’m sure, my then-recent divorce — taught me it’s better to assume a job isn’t going to last, and be pleasantly surprised when it does, than presuming the opposite and being caught without a parachute.
As I look around me, more people of my generation seem to be in the same boat. Whether it’s editors who pinball from one job to another, college professors who are forever “adjunct” instead of tenured, newspeople who jump from network to network, it feels like there’s little security. I just happen to be one of the more extreme versions.
I lost my last staff job in June 2006, at the age of 50.
After sending out 48 resumes — with no reply — my heart just wasn’t in it. Like many people, I hate job-hunting. I do not interview very well when on the other side of the questions.
I returned to working freelance, picking up the pace with some long-time clients and finding new ones.
Then the recession hit, slashing my income to 25 percent of my staff salary. Major (i.e. well-paying) magazines were disappearing or cutting their freelance budgets.
My income is, thank heaven, steadily rising, now 50 percent of my old salary. But many print pay rates are lower now, and the costs of living a lot higher so, like many freelancers, I’m running to stay in place.
Bear in mind that some people have several regular columns and/or an advanced degree (allowing them to teach), or write for film or television or do corporate work, (all much more lucrative), none of which I’ve yet tried.
So what’s the freelance life like?
You do need to write well, as American novelist Francine Prose’s book, “Reading Like A Writer”, points out.
Kelly James-Enger, an American friend, colleague and savvy and successful freelancer, has published several helpful books on how to write freelance for a living. Her blog is also filled with good tips.
The one thing you never ever do is make shit up — like the two interns recently fired for outright fabrication, one of them working for The Wall Street Journal. If editors can’t trust you, you’re toast.
It’s a non-stop hustle.
My current income comes from:
— Newspaper articles. I write for The New York Times as often as I can find an editor willing to assign, usually 3-6 times a year.
— Magazine articles. I don’t do a lot of magazine work these days. It’s often a hassle of multiple, unpaid revisions and the top rate — once $3/wd is usually, at best, $2/wd, meaning a check of $5,000+ is very difficult to attain when most pieces run at 700 to 1,200 words. Editors only pay you after they’re happy, so I try to work only with editors who like what I submit initially.
— Web writing. I recently picked up my first-ever steady gig, writing a personal finance blog for Canadians.
— Photo editing. I began my photography career at 17 selling three cover photos to a Toronto magazine and have since had my work published in Time, the Times and the Washington Post, among others. I also studied interior design, so am doing slideshows for HGTV.com, a wholly new way to finally integrate my skills.
— Editing others’ work. People come to me to read and critique their own writing. Last year I edited a thriller translated from Spanish, sections of a business book and a few chapters of a memoir. (I charge $150-200/hour.)
— Writing books. My last advance payment on “Malled” came in in April 2012. Time to sell the next book!
— Speaking engagements. I’ve addressed three retail conferences so far, with my next one at the University of Minnesota on October 30.
— Television option rights. My retail memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” was optioned by CBS as a sitcom and a pilot script written. Like most pilot scripts, it didn’t make the cut. But I got some cash for the option, a one-time payment.
I’d ideally like to add a few more reliable revenue streams, like teaching writing at a college and/or holding my own writing workshops.
If you want, or need, to earn your living freelance, it takes almost daily client relationship building. And each client — unlike your one or two bosses at a staff job — has a different personality, billing cycle, narrative style. You have to adapt constantly.
And, yes, you need to be on LinkedIn; here’s why.
If you want to sell books to commercial publishers, you’ll need to find (and manage) an agent. If your work has value to film or television, you’ll be working with another agent, (who will claim even more of your income) and you might, (as I did), also pay an entertainment lawyer to review your agent-negotiated but possibly dense and incomprehensible contracts.
Freelancing also means a major shift in how you conceptualize work and labor — you’re selling time, talent and skills. They’re not “giving” you a job.
And financial success relies less on office politics (none), than your ability to find, nurture and retain profitable clients, while spotting or quickly shedding the PITAs (pain in the asses.)
People fantasize wildly about how great it is to manage your own time. It’s pleasant indeed to work, as I’m writing this, in a T-shirt and shorts in the cool morning on my balcony in silence.
But the only paycheck you get is the one you did the work successfully, and invoiced for; people with weekly paychecks too easily forget to make sure you also get yours in a timely manner.
Which is why when people offer you “exposure” instead of cold, hard cash for your skills, you must chuckle audibly at their naievete — and remind them that “exposure” is not yet accepted as legal tender anywhere.
You also have to man up enough to ask for more money on a regular basis — because some people with “real” jobs still get raises, bonuses, promotions and commission.
Freelancers only get what they are willing and able to negotiate — and your “value” is a highly subjective and relative term.
And, sadly, you’ll have to deal effectively with cheats and deadbeats.
I live near New York but have hired lawyers in Vancouver, Canada and Kansas City, Missouri to successfully sue two such publishers who, like some of their ilk, assume freelancers are weak, powerless, naive or too nice (hah!) to come after them.
After one in-flight magazine’s editor tried to wriggle out of paying me, I wrote to the airline CEO — and was sent a free ticket to anywhere they flew.
I’ve also hired assistants, who help to keep me productive. Freelancing brings with it a fair amount of administrative work but I don’t need to be the one doing it. I recently filled that position — with five offers within minutes — by posting it on Facebook.
Do you freelance for a living?
How’s it going?