As readers here know, this is an ongoing series, usually every six weeks or so, updating you on the joys and sorrows of life as a full-time freelancer.
It has not been dull, kids!
The good news:
I’ve gratefully had lots of work, challenging and interesting and well-paid — the trifecta!
I was asked to ghost-write for someone I knew in freshman classes at University of Toronto, someone whose own creative life kept intersecting with mine over the ensuing years — as she also moved to Montreal then to New York City. I had never ghost-written for anyone before but it was deemed excellent and didn’t even require a second draft.
Still blogging occasionally about pancreatic cancer research for the Lustgarten Foundation. I still have never met my editor, even though we don’t live that far apart — thanks to the pandemic.
Worked more on a story for The New York Times, which I’ll blog about here when it appears, probably next week. I started work on it back in December so it’s been a while.
We leased a Mazda CX0-30 last fall, our first time in that brand, and love it. While at the dealership, I picked up the glossy Mazda magazine and emailed its editor, based in England, to say, truthfully, how much we’re enjoying the car — and can I write for them? She and I did a get-to-know-you Zoom a while back. Several pitches now under consideration, and we might work together again as a team, Jose and I, since he is a professional photographer. That would be cool!
My income from some of these has been good enough I can actually just rest for a bit. We get our Johnson and Johnson one-shot COVID vaccination this Sunday and plan to take Monday and Tuesday off if we need it afterward.
I’ve been busy with coaching clients. I spoke to a PR firm in Ohio this week and next week working with a writer pal on three of his pitches.
My bloody book proposal is still not finding any success — YET!
It’s been read by five agents and one editor.
I sent it this week to a Very Big Name in our industry, someone I’ve met twice a while back, who’s published 17 (!) books on writing. He was very generous and wrote back quickly and very encouragingly.
So I’m on a steep and tiring learning curve — still trying for an agent and a trade house; starting to research potential university presses and self-publishing. It’s a lot at once to manage and it’s really hard not to just give up.
But when people who know the subject say: “This is important and timely and I can’t wait to read it” I am going to take this as sincere.
My last book was published in 2011. The publishing industry has since massively shrunk and consolidated, meaning there are fewer and fewer smaller publishers. To sell a book to one of the Big Boys now means you have to have a subject they think will sell a lot of copies.
None will look at anything without an agent….and I’ve been through five already.
But — goddamnit! — I also see what books are being commissioned and I want to throw a chair. Some are so banal I simply cannot imagine that thousands and thousands of readers are going to rush to buy them.
I try to be a good soldier and cheer on all those others but it’s hard sometimes not to succumb to bitterness and envy. My first two books quickly found good agents and they worked hard to sell them to major publishers. Many agents now are not even accepting new clients and even those I am personally referred to or know personally can’t even reply to emails. It can feel very very depressing to keep banging on every door of every gatekeeper.
I was convinced no one would ever find it or read it or comment. Happily, I was wrong — WordPress tells me 22,000+ people have followed it and my daily stats show people arriving from across the globe, a real compliment.
I also write for a living, so the 2,315 posts I’ve so far published here have been in addition to producing dozens of paid/published articles and a book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.
It’s very weird to…not write. For probably every writer, it’s how we process the world and how we feel about our time in it.
Our tools are simple enough — a device, our hands, our eyes/ears/brain, access to the Internet (not easy for many!)
But I’ve spent the past week not working for income but focused on a book proposal I’ve been trying to revive for a few years, about women and journalism. I’m being vague until/unless it sells. Writing a book proposal is a lot of unpaid work, done in the hope you will actually find an agent and a publisher and get paid enough to make it worth doing. Each step offers its own challenges — having an agent sounds so glamorous but I have been bitterly disappointed by quite a few, even Big Name New York ones.
Like dating, it’s a combination of intellectual and emotional fit — and knowing your agent will do their very best for you. Both of my books faced 25 rejections each before finally selling and today publishing is so much more consolidated it’s even more daunting for the mid-list crowd like me.
Two friends — within a week — including one who works for a major publisher recently urged me to write a memoir. So I bought a book on how to do that and might start writing bits and pieces. It’s tricky for every memoirist with family dramas and unresolved issues. (Likely everyone!)
My husband, Jose, is a photographer and photo editor, working freelance for the USGA and The New York Times; he’s also my transcriptionist! I never learned to touch type, as he did, so I bang everything out with only two weary fingers. At the usual $1/recorded minute one pays a transcriptionist, I at least owe him lunch!
So I’ll enjoy the next week or so, as many of you — I hope! — will as well: eating, napping, watching movies and fun TV, taking walks. Reconnecting with yourself and those you love, ideally at home!
Wishing you all a great Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa!
It’s Labor Day weekend — three days off for many workers in the U.S., where I live, in Canada and some other nations.
It’s always, for me anyway, a time to reflect on why we work and what we’re working for:
To fund higher education, for self and/or others
Short-term emergency savings
Medical insurance/expenses (Americans must buy health insurance like any other consumer product)
Major purchases — a vehicle, a home, a boat
Camaraderie with peers and colleagues
The thrill of scientific or medical or intellectual discovery
Learning and mastering new skills
To support the financial needs of family and others
A place to feel welcomed, to belong
Helping others — nursing, teaching, the ministry, the law
I’m endlessly fascinated by work. Maybe because I grew up in a family where no one had “a job” — with a paid vacation or sick days or a pension or raises. My father was a film-maker, my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote for television.
All the money earned in our home came from our individual, independent creative efforts.
Any story focused on business, labor practices, unions, wages, the Fight for $15 — to raise fast food wages to $15/hour here in the U.S. — gets my attention.
One of the books I admire is by MIT professor Zeynep Ton who studied five retailers who actually pay well and earn good profits, called The Good Jobs Strategy. Another, an early precursor of the current interest in more ethical garment production, is Where Am I Wearing by Kelsey Timmerman.
I’ve been working at home since losing my last staff job, at the New York Daily News, (then the nation’s 6th largest daily newspaper), in the summer of 2006. It was not a happy place to work, its unofficial motto, “Sink or Swim.” I don’t regret the loss of that job, although I miss making that income, much more difficult to attain through the intellectual piecework that is freelancing — you are only paid for what you produce, and often later than you need.
Since my high school days I’ve worked as:
a newspaper reporter (three daily papers)
a magazine editor (four national magazines)
a writing teacher (four colleges)
a writing coach (multiple private clients)
a photographer (published in The New York Times and Washington Post)
an author (of two works of non-fiction)
a volunteer Spanish-language interpreter (working with Chilean refugees)
a cross-cultural consultant for Berlitz
a retail employee at $11/hour
Of all of these jobs, I’ve by far most enjoyed my days as a daily newspaper reporter and really miss it.
At its best, there’s no better way to have fun and adventures and get paid for it. I met Queen Elizabeth aboard her yacht Britannia, flew to an Arctic village in December, climbed 100 feet up a Tall Ship mast, sailed aboard $6 million racing yachts, visited a Quebec hospice, broke major medical stories.
I’ve traveled, on stories, to Ohio and New Orleans and Texas, to Sicily and Copenhagen and London.
In March 2014, I went to work for a week in rural Nicaragua with WaterAid.
I love the intellectual stimulation of journalism — having to make sense of complex, unfamiliar material — like a recent piece on predictive analytics which I then need to write clearly and compellingly for others.
I love the variety of the people I meet and speak with, everyone from Olympic athletes to military veterans to a female Admiral to convicted felons. I can never afford not to be curious and open-minded.
I love writing books, diving deeply into complicated subjects that deserve, and rarely get, closer attention.
I love connecting with readers, one of whom recently called my book “Malled”, (a memoir of low-wage work), a page-turner.
I’m fortunate. At my age, we’ve little debt, no children to support and have acquired good savings for our retirement. So my goals for work now are different from fresh grads desperate to find any job and pay down enormous student debts.
But it’s a very very tough time for many American workers; union membership is the lowest since the Depression, 11 percent of public workers, seven percent of private. Even with corporate profits at record highs, wages remain stagnant for many, and worse for the lowest-paid — while costs keep rising, on essentials like college tuition and health insurance, (also here deemed a consumer product.)
Americans still have no paid maternity leave and even companies that offer it know many workers are too scared to take unpaid leave — lest their care for their families make them look like slackers.
I caught up with Gerald Friedman, who teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written about the gig economy, to find out how this trend happened and what it means to workers and our increasingly unequal society.
Lynn Parramore: How did the shift away from full-time employment to the gig economy come about? What forces drove the change?
Gerald Friedman: Growing use of contingent workers (in “gigs”) came when capitalists sought to respond to gains by labor through the early 1970s, and in response to the victories capital won in the rise of the neoliberal era. Because contingent workers were usually not covered by union contracts or other legal safeguards, employers hired them to regain leverage over workers lost when unionized workers gained protection against unjust dismissal, and courts extended these protections to non-union workers under the “implicit contract” doctrine.
Similarly, the rising cost of benefits due to rising healthcare costs and government protection of retirement benefits (under the 1974 ERISA statute) raised the cost of full-time employment; employers sought to evade these costs by hiring more contingent workers…
GF: Talk of “microentrepreneurs” presents a favorable view of the rise of the gig economy, one consistent with liberal values of individualism and opportunity, even while ignoring the oppression and poverty-wages many find in the gig economy.
There are certainly some who enjoy the uncertainty of irregular employment. When unemployment rates fell to levels traditionally associated with full employment in the late-1990s, however, we saw how workers really feel about gig jobs: they rejected them and the contingent economy contracted.
Given a choice, workers choose careers and jobs, not freelance gigs.
…By removing any social protection, the gig economy returns us to the most oppressive type of cut-throat and hierarchical capitalism, a social order where the power to hire and fire has been restored to employers, giving them once again unfettered control over the workplace.
The American workforce is now one in which an estimated 40 percent of us work with zero safety net, beyond that which we create: (six months’ basic expenses saved, a separate emergency fund, a low-interest line of credit, disability and life insurance.)
Knowing how to survive thrive without a steady paycheck is a crucial new skill.
My husband recently left a secure, well-paid job at The New York Times.
But, after 31 years there as a photographer and photo editor, having done almost everything one can do in a career, (including helping them win a team Pulitzer Prize for their 9/11 coverage), and offered a healthy buyout package — which gave us the requisite six months’ of expenses cushion of savings –– he decided to leave a month or so ago.
While he seeks another full-time staff job — which he may not find — he’s discovering how pleasant life can be without a 2-hour train commute, (costing $300 a month), fighting his way crosstown through aggressive crowds and having to book vacation in the first week of January due to seniority issues.
It can be a huge adjustment, no matter how desired, to move from the relative security of a salary that arrives on schedule and is predictable in size and due date to the roller coaster life of the self-employed.
Jose has seen me work freelance since 2005 and knows I know those ropes.
Now he’s learning them as well.
I liked this piece about moving to freelance work from The Guardian — and her realization that giving away your time without financial compensation, even barter, however friendly and helpful — is something no full-time freelancer can afford.
Just because the client is prestigious and/or your bank balance is running low this month, don’t just leap at any offer you get. Is the client a good fit for your skills, experience, temperament? Have you done your due diligence on that client’s track record of payment and ethical behavior?
Don’t say no to what looks like a lousy offer; consider its every possible benefit
The hourly or day rate might be lower than ideal. It might be a low-prestige gig that pays well, or quickly, or both. The gig might introduce you to a new market and possibly expand your skill set, in effect paying you (even if not very well) to learn on the job.
Never agree to a gig without a clear, written agreement as to the scope of work
One major non-profit recently advertised for a photo editor freelance job, with a long list of responsibilities — with no clue how many hours a day or days a week or weeks per month they were offering. They just kept asking “What’s your day rate?” Nope. Avoid low-balling yourself before you know what they expect in return.
Never agree to a gig without a clear, written, signed agreement/contract
Things go south: your editor quits or gets fired; the budget is suddenly cut; your client hires a new assistant who hates everything you produce. You need protection. Spell out all your responsibilities, all their needs and the dates when you will be paid. It must be signed by both parties.
Everything is negotiable — including your decision to turn down a gig or leave one mid-stream
No one, ever, wants to walk away from a (well) paying client. Sometimes, though, it can be a wise choice to politely recuse yourself from a quicksand scenario where one client is sucking up all your time, energy and patience. Life is too short. (See: emergency fund.)
Negotiate! When someone offers you X fee, always ask for more. It’s been statistically proven that men almost always do, and often get it, while women just say “Thanks!” and get taken cheaply.
Your best sources of work are referrals from people who know, like and respect you and your work
It’s completely counter-intuitive that the fellow professionals with whom you’re now competing for freelance work can be, in fact, your best sources of good opportunities. In an office setting, you can face politics, nepotism, favoritism, seniority, sexism. For every ally and work-wife/husband, you might face a Game of Thrones-ish power struggle with someone.
Freelance life can offer plenty of stress, but if you have a strong, sturdy network of skilled, smart and ethical people who you help as often as possible! — you’ll never starve.
A ferocious work ethic — even if you wake up at noon and work in sweatpants — matters more than ever now
No missed deadlines! No slacking off!
You are selling your time, skills and experience. Never underestimate their value
Every freelance dollar you earn must now 100 percent fund your healthcare, retirement, sick days and paid vacations. You’re also on the hook for paying the full 15 percent of your income to fund Social Security, (employers usually pay 50 percent.) Boost your rates accordingly.
You must take breaks, both in your workday and your year
Without exercise, friends, face to face meetings and pleasure, you’ll quickly burn out. It’s isolating and lonely to work alone every day all day. It’s also tempting to work far too many hours instead of shutting off all electronics and access to email at a set hour so you can enjoy a full life, not just a new form of wage slavery.
Follow my friend Wendy’s three rules whenever possible as you choose (or refuse) a job:
Is it fun? Will I learn something new? Is it well-paid?
It should hit two of three.
Have you moved from a staff job to freelance life?
How’s it going?
What else would you advise a newbie to this way of working?
Have you seen this interesting list of the seven habits of the mentally tough? From Inc. magazine, it includes no whining, acting as if you’re in control (even when you’re not) and refraining from the bad habit of freaking out endlessly over…everything.
It seemed quite a contrast from this post, from a blog about what it felt like for this writer when her agent wasn’t wild about her finished manuscript, from Women Writers, Women’s Books:
The sounds you just heard were my dreams and confidence being blown to bits.
Super Agent’s opinion – and she was right – was that I needed to do a major rewrite. The story concept was strong, but the story structure didn’t work at all. She said that she knew the audiences the editors who are interested in me are selling to, and the manuscript as I wrote it wouldn’t be a good fit. In publishing, not being “a good fit” is a death sentence.
You, shakily: But what about the betas, they liked it a lot. [My note: a “beta” is a “first reader”, someone you’ve asked to read your book before your agent and/or editor do.]
Super Agent, calmly: Betas know writing. Agents know the market.
I’m going to be honest with you. This was a very dark day. My lips and hands trembled. For weeks, my breathing would be shallow and intermittent…
It was a Thursday. By Monday, I had pulled myself together. This is not because I’m some kind of hero. I’m not. But what choice did I have? There are only two: leaving it wrong or making it right.* I love my story and my characters. I have big dreams for my career. Super Agent was right on every count. There was only one thing I could do. Write it again. I wrote her an email thanking her.
Then I dedicated myself to taking my magnum opus apart, scene by scene, word by word. It was excruciating, but that wasn’t the only problem. Firstly, I had no idea how to put it back together any better than before. Cue the panic. Secondly, my heart was still in pieces…
I found myself talking to a writer-friend who happens to be an award-winning, bestselling author..when I abruptly spilled to her what had happened and how I felt…
That is when I heard the words that put me back together. She said to me, “This is how it goes.”
I had a similar moment when I received the notes on my second book. “I really liked Chapters 11 and 12,” said my editor. Um…what about the first 10?
I felt the same panic, that I wouldn’t be able to make it good enough. Like the author above, I called a calm friend who said six fateful words: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”
So I did.
My husband began his career as a news photographer working for a small town newspaper. He had a mentor, a highly accomplished older professional with national experience to whom Jose would proudly mail copies of his published photos.
A manila envelope would return — filled with confetti. Jose’s work. (He went on to a 31-year career at The New York Times as a photographer and photo editor, and helped them win a team Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of 9/11. Here’s his blog.)
But what if he had given up?
Maybe journalism self-selects people who can withstand pretty harsh criticism, even if it’s painful.
It certainly comes with the territory — our editors, highly-competitive colleagues, determined competitors from other outlets and readers are all quite delighted to tell us when we’ve screwed up. Our ass-whipping is also relentlessly public, whether in comments on a blog or website, nasty Amazon reviews or letters to the editor.
And newsrooms are rarely warm, nurturing places where someone will hand you a tissue if, ego battered, you start crying. No crying!
One super-talented award-winning friend of mine in his mid-40s recently won a prestigious and well-paid year studying, thanks to a fellowship. It was his third attempt.
He did not give up.
I’ll probably re-apply for a similarly difficult-to-win fellowship this year, for the third or fourth time. It’s annoying to keep putting my hand up and never winning, but them’s the breaks.
As someone who’s competed at a national level as an athlete, I know what mental stamina it takes to just keep going in the face of frustration, exhaustion or disappointment.
So I really find it sad and surprising to see how fragile some young women are in the face of fairly standard forms of bullshit — sexism, chauvinism, rejection.
They freak out when people don’t admire their work or quickly promote them or don’t answer their emails quickly or don’t “like” their posts on social media.
Toughen up, buttercup!
I was sent off to boarding school at the age of eight, surrounded night and day by strangers, a place where comfort was elusive, at best. So maybe this is just a habit learned early.
I’ve been fired from jobs. I’ve been mercilessly bullied, in high school and in several workplaces. I’ve survived divorce, four orthopedic surgeries within a decade, criminal attack.
Both my books, both well-reviewed, were rejected by 25 publishers apiece before they finally found a home.
To some people, I appear mean and impermeable. I’m neither.
But I do know how to armor up.
It’s an essential skill for anyone who hopes to thrive professionally, and, often, personally. It’s essential to anyone doing creative work, whose income relies on the subjective opinion of others.
The way that work looks, feels, and functions is in the midst of a dramatic shift. Every time we have gone through a major shift in work in the past, we have had to learn new skills to support it. We had to learn the work of agriculture. We had to learn how to work on an assembly line. We had to learn to use typewriters and fax machines.
So the question now becomes, what do we need to learn that will help us thrive in this new world of work today and ten, 20, 30 years from now? From my experience, I see three of the main categories of skills as: problem solving, technology, and self-management.
To which I say — with all due respect — Duh!
At the turn of the 19th century it was the captain of a whaling ship or a carriage driver who had to re-invent immediately as technology changed around them, no matter what their past achievements.
Today, anyone working in what’s quaintly called “legacy media” — i.e. print — is learning to pivot as fast as they possibly can, regardless of their awards, education, age or level of experience. Anyone with enough years and income to completely re-train or upskill is doing so. Those of us with an antipathy to the costs and time demanded to re-credential more formally are tap-dancing quickly.
In this respect, I feel fortunate to have grown up in a family of full-time creative freelancers. My father made documentaries, feature films and television news shows for the BBC, CBC, Disney and others. My late stepmother wrote and edited television dramas and my mother was a print writer, editor and broadcast journalist.
No one ever had a pension to look forward to; negotiating for our full value was standard operating procedure, with agents and accountants a normal part of worklife. We never relied on anyone to “take care” of us financially, so I learned to be really cheap frugal with my income and save as much as possible.
I started my writing career with — yes, really! — a manual typewriter and an answering service. No internet, no Google, no email, no Twitter or Facebook.
I had to develop my “individual economic resilience” while still in college, as my freelance photo and writing work put me through it and paid my bills.
I’ve had, and sometimes really enjoyed having, a steady and healthy paycheck. But I’ve been laid off and I’ve been fired — losing that income overnight, sometimes with no warning.
Full-time freelancers learn how to manage money, or quickly flee self-employment, but learning those three skills is second nature by now. Any freelancer unable to create and sell their skills, over and over, raising their rates whenever possible, is not someone with IER. It comes with the territory.
Having said that…
A few thoughts on IER:
— How deliciously laissez-faire capitalist! We’re all just “units of labor”, individual mini-cogs in the enormous and rapacious machine of capitalism — hire/fire/repeat.
— How utterly American this is! Cooperation? Co-working? Finding shared solutions through a sense of solidarity with other workers? Snort! Every man for himself, boys — and devil take the hindmost.
— Can you say “union”? Of course you can’t! Now that American unions are the smallest and weakest in decades — 7 percent private sector and 11 percent of the public sector — it’s a foregone conclusion that The Man owns us, leaving each of us to fight individually for what we feel (or do!) deserve in return for our skills.
— Can you say “confidence?” If not, kiss your ass goodbye. It take some serious chutzpah; (see that soothing phrase above “self management”) to know when, how and how hard to push back against your freelance clients or full-time employer for better wages and working conditions. In a crappy economy, millions of us have lost our jobs, our former earning power and our nerve.
My biggest problem — the same one faced by millions of American workers in age of record corporate profits? (See: “problem solving”?)
“We are adding jobs, but it is still a wageless recovery,” Elise Gould, an economist with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said, adding that average hourly earnings rose only 0.1 percent in October after no gain in September. “The economy may be growing, but not enough for workers to feel the effects in their paychecks.”
The story received 410 comments, such as:
Joining this story with last week’s about fast-food workers in Denmark earning $20 per hour is an illuminating cultural history lesson. Many of the recently hired workers in the U.S. story are part-timers with no health insurance who are earning below the poverty level. In Denmark, the common interest in maintaining a society that offers a living wage to workers has created a higher scale. While the employers in Denmark are willing to make a little less profit than their U.S. counterparts, they still do make a profit, which combined with the vitality of a work force of decent wage earners pays dividends across the whole society. It’s a matter of choice. In the U.S., maximum profit at all cost rules the land and the workers suffer.
The CBC fired Jian Ghomeshi after seeing “graphic evidence” for the first time last Thursday that Ghomeshi had “caused physical injury to a woman,” the CBC said an internal memo sent out Friday.
“At no time prior to last week was the CBC aware that Jian had engaged in any activities which resulted in the physical injuries of another person,” the memo states.
After seeing this evidence, the public broadcaster took “immediate steps to remove Jian from the workplace and terminated his employment on October 26.”
“After viewing this graphic evidence we determined that Jian’s conduct was a fundamental breach of CBC’s standard of acceptable conduct for any employee,” the memo states. His conduct “was likely to bring the reputation of his fellow employees and CBC into disrepute and could not be defended by the CBC.”
Led by Toronto freelancer Jesse Brown, whose work is crowdfunded, the revelations that Ghomeshi, whose warm and gentle style brought many celebrities to his arts and culture show, “Q” is in fact — allegedly — a brute and a creep have stunned many. So far, nine women have now come forward to tell their tales of abuse at his hands.
Here, from Toronto Life magazine:
What were the roots of the Jian Ghomeshi story, and how did you become the first journalist to tackle it?
It started when I was approached by a young woman. I investigated independently for some time—a few months—and I found a number of other people making accusations. I put together the stories as best as I could, and I had extensive conversations—hours and hours—with these women, and I verified aspects of their stories.
What was it like for you when you started to realize that the story was getting so huge that you might not be able to do it by yourself?
I got advice from a number of libel and defamation attorneys. Originally, I was very eager to report the story myself. I have my own journalistic standards as to what would make this story newsworthy, and it met those standards completely. But I’m not a legal expert, so I wanted to know what could be done to make this bulletproof against a libel claim. What I was told, in no uncertain terms, is that there was absolutely nothing I could do. There were many things I could do to make the story stand up in court, but there’s nothing I could do in my journalism to stop me from getting sued. That’s why news organizations have this thing called libel insurance, which I didn’t even know about at that point. One of my attorneys suggested that I partner up with a newspaper. I’ve been very vocal about my opinion that the news media is not doing its job aggressively enough, but one news organization, if I had to pick one, that was very interested in investigation and breaking stories, and had shown some balls in recent years, was the Toronto Star.
Was it frustrating for you that you couldn’t break this story by yourself?
Once it crossed the threshold for me that this was absolutely a valid news story, it was frustrating for me not to be able to publish, yeah. But even though I had no concerns about the legitimacy of this as a news story, I had never reported a story like this. These allegations are very serious, and there’s a responsibility to do this exactly right. And there’s a responsibility for my sources, because if I had published this on Canadaland, it would have been very easy to tar me and smear me as some scurrilous independent blogger. When I took my ego out of it, I realized that the best thing I could do for this story and my sources was to work with an established brand and a trusted reporter like [Toronto Star investigative reporter] Kevin Donovan.
I worked for Mike Cooke, editor of the Toronto Star, at two other newspapers, and know his penchant for investigative work, so it’s not surprising that he took this on, with Brown — as Brown was terrified of the legal (i.e. a costly lawsuit against him) ramifications of going after so public and lauded a person on his own.
I grew up and started my journalism career in Toronto, so I am also especially interested in what happens there in journalism.
A recent survey by the Freelancers Union is interesting — the New York-based group asked 1,100 people what they think of their freelance life — 88 percent said they would not even take a full-time job if it were offered to them.
The report offers a remarkably clear portrait of America’s fastest-growing workforce.
The biggest takeaway: Nearly 9 in 10 independent workers (88%) would keep freelancing even if they were offered a full-time job.
With that level of freelancer pride, no wonder freelancing is booming. Half the workforce may be independent by 2020. Freelancers Union’s own membership is up 410% since 2007 — and the number of millennial members has surged 3000% in that time.
One of the things I find intriguing about freelancing full-time is how differently we each do it.
The basics — earning reliable income every month — never change. We pay the same prices for gas and groceries and clothing as people with paychecks — who may also get raises, bonuses and commission.
But editors sometimes kill a story and sometimes for capricious reasons, which costs us income; it grabbed $3,000 out of my pocket in the past nine months. Not fun!
We only get what we negotiate.
I read Laura’s list and I don’t do several things she does:
— My only time measurements are a calendar and the clock, not the cool and efficient apps she and others use to track their time and rates.
— I use a line of credit when people pay me late, or stiff me, instead of relying on short-term savings, (although I usually keep six months’ worth of expenses in the bank for emergencies.)
— I also have no regular monthly gigs, so I start most months with no idea what I’ll make. I have to pull in $2,000 just to meet each month’s expenses — anything after that buys haircuts, clothes, entertainment, vacations. Nor does it cover costly surprises like last month’s $500 car repair bill or last year’s $4,000 (yes) replacement of the head gasket.
It’s also very difficult now to pull $4,000+/month within journalism when most digital sites offer $300 to $500 for a reported story so I seek out print markets paying $1,500 per piece or more instead.
The ideal, for me, is a $4,000+ assignment I can lavish a few weeks’ attention on exclusively but which also allows me some time for marketing smarter, deeper stories just like it. I dislike jumping constantly from one thing to the next, even though maintaining cash-flow — i.e. a steady supply of payment — demands it.
Unlike Laura, I have a husband with a good job and steady income; he will also have a defined benefit pension, which reduces our need to save quite as aggressively for retirement. (We still do it anyway!)
Ellen, a new Broadside follower, writes here about why she quit her job to go freelance — doing data entry — and is loving her new freedom.
And this, from The Guardian, about the absolutely desperate financial reality of being an author — only 11.5 percent of whom earned their living solely from writing. Their median income? A scary 11,000 pounds — or $18, 826 — which actually sounds high to me!
That answer may be not be as much as some might hope, at least at the outset. Ms. Dieker, who also posts her monthly freelance income on her Tumblr, says that she’s hoping to make $40,000 gross this year, but that other freelancers routinely ask her how she manages to make that much when they’re bringing in much less. She also notes that she’s making a lot more than when she started out: “Like any other career, you grow it.”
I’ve had staff jobs and enjoyed them. I’ve had colleagues and enjoyed them. I do miss a steady, 100% reliable paycheck.
And I have yet to earn the equivalent of my last staff salary. I’m not sure I ever will, much as I try.
But you also get used to making your own schedule. You get used to seeking out clients you enjoy, not tolerating and sucking up to your coworkers or bosses, at worst, just to stay employed.
And watching so many journalism staffers lose their jobs? Not cool! When freelancers lose a client, and it happens, we just go find another one, or several.
Freelancers, as the survey proves, cherish our freedom to manage our time; while writing this blog post I also had time to make soup, marinate salmon for dinner and do a little light housework. My husband was working from home that day, so we also had some time to chat and enjoy lunch together.
I started my workday at 7:30 a.m., wrote and filed one story; started work on another and cold-called an editor I’d pitched last month. We had a great chat and — cha-ching! — she may actually have a $4,000 assignment for me sometime later this year.
I’ve already nailed down an assignment in England for January 2015 and am discussing one in Argentina. Few staff jobs offer that kind of range.
But you must hustle! As business guru Seth Godin writes here, on his blog, if you can’t sell what you do, you’ll never make a penny at it — no matter your education, hard work or talent.
Here are 12 things you should never say to a writer:
How much money do you make?
I get it — you want to be a published writer, too — and are naturally curious about the rewards. But most book advances are now paid out over as long as four years — minus 15 percent to our agent — and the average book advance is pitifully small to start with, far less than $50,000. Do the math, and weep.
There is also so little direct correlation between work we may value intellectually — and what the market rewards most handsomely. (See: the best-seller list.)
Wow, that’s not very much, is it?
See above. While a few fortunates are pulling in mega-bucks, the highest-paid print journalists usually earn less than a fresh graduate working for a major corporate law firm. Sad but true.
Are your books best-sellers?
Long bitter laugh. Only a minute percentage of books, on any subject, will ever hit the best-seller list.
Can you introduce me to your agent?
No. Maybe. Probably not. The agent-author relationship is intimate and fraught with multiple perils. It’s also a question of chemistry — the person who’s a great fit for me may be a lousy choice for you.
I’ve never heard of you
Here’s a sad little essay by Roger Rosenblatt on how un-famous he feels, even after publishing a few books. (You’re thinking: Who’s that guy?) The only way to survive the publishing world is to assume that your book(s), even after all your years of hard work and promotion, will largely be ignored by the public and bookstore buyers. Anything beyond that is gravy.
Will you read my manuscript?
What’s your budget? Assuming we want to read your work, unpaid, is naive.
Can I see the article you’re writing before it’s published?
Nope. Journalists get asked this all the time and the only correct answer is “No.” If you’re in doubt about the accuracy of a quote or some data, call your source(s) back. But allowing someone to review your copy opens the door to their desire to rewrite it to their tastes.
If I don’t like what you’ve written, I can ask you to remove my quotes, right?
See: on the record.
When I stop (doing whatever you do professionally), I’m going to take up writing
Awesome. Now go away! No, further.
Nothing is more irritating (OK, deadbeat publishers are more irritating) than having people treat our profession as an amusing hobby, something you can pick up and put down at leisure, like macrame or scrapbooking. It looks soooooooooo easy, right?
Writing well is bloody hard work. It’s not something you just “pick up.”
Journalism is a dying industry.
Indeed. Imagine how I feel after 30 years in it…
I hate journalists! They never get anything right
Same with doctors, lawyers, teachers…fill in the blank. It’s a big industry with some bad apples and some good ones. Don’t assume I’m unethical or inaccurate just because you’ve been burned by someone else.
You can’t make a living as a writer!
Define “living.” Your assumptions or prejudices may be inaccurate. Or your idea of “a living” means $300,000 a year before bonus. In which case, you’re right!
Into Manhattan to see a fantastic play, The Junket, written by Mike Albo, a fellow freelance journalist who used to write a popular shopping column in TheNew York Times Styles section — earning him $1,800 a month — until he went to Jamaica on an ill-advised press trip. The Times fired him for a breach of its ethics code, (which is a long, detailed and fairly intrusive document for people not on their staff), and Albo wrote a funny, tart one-man show about it.
I meet an editor from a local paper, who comes out for dinner with us after the show; she mentions, halfway through the meal, she has a story to assign and needs a writer. I mention I’m available and win an assignment in the middle of our meal.
Freelancing is lonely and isolating, working alone at home all day every day, and while writers talk often by Facebook, Twitter and private listservs, there’s nothing better than a huge hug and a chance to cheer each other face to face.
Jose’s 30-year-old duffel bag, which I took with me to Nicaragua and shredded by dragging it on the ground, comes back freshly repaired by manufacturer Mountainsmith, in Boulder, Colorado. Between us, as two travel-hungry journo’s, Jose and I have a lot of luggage!
I just returned a few weeks ago from Nicaragua and she had just returned from Belize, so — even though we’d only met once before, at last year’s conference — we had plenty in common to talk about.
It’s comforting and fun to talk to a woman as passionate and driven as I am, even after decades in this crazy business. I tell her I hope to retire in a decade and she laughs, kindly.
“You love this business,” she says. “I do?”
“You just have to get rid of the bullshit.”
And she’s right.
We go to a trendy West Village Italian restaurant for lunch and order the chicken — JW chicken. Who the hell is JW? The waiter points proudly to a man sitting two tables away; the chicken is named for him. It’s delicious and juicy, but it’s just chicken! We order a side order of potatoes for $9. Nine bucks! They’re delicious and crunchy but it’s a small portion of…potatoes.
New York sometimes feels like a wallet-thinning machine.
Day one of the conference and I’m on the 7:22 train from our suburban town. I normally don’t even get out of bed before 8:00! But it’s good to get dressed up and meet my peers.
The very first person I see — of the hundreds who have arrived — is an old friend who is another science writer, Dan Drollette, who’s had a terrific career, winning a Fulbright and then working for four years in Geneva at CERN. I tell him I’m eager for more international assignments and he offers a fantastic lead.
Like every conference, some panels are better than others. Linda’s, on long-form narrative journalism, assembled three extraordinary writers who talk about the many challenges of reporting their books, including fear of personal injury, even death. It’s exciting to sit a few feet away from some of the best in our business and hear them speak.
Huge news — the death of Ladies Home Journal, a 131-year-old women’s magazine, one of the “seven sisters” of American mass-market women’s magazines, costing 32 editorial jobs — people who will now enter a crummy job market for journalists and/or compete for freelance work.
At the conference, I run into a writer from Montreal I met there in February 2013 who introduces me to a blogger from North Carolina I’ve been following for months, who offers to help me with some questions. The Montreal writer also mentions a potentially useful conference in Toronto in June — it’s $1,300 though, a fairly huge sum for me.
The two days here cost me $358; unlike others, all I have to do is take the commuter train in ($20) and walk two blocks, saving me probably $1,000 in additional airfare, meals and hotel costs.
Having a horrible time lining up a final source for another story due two days after that one. I keep finding people and they keep refusing to participate. That’s unusual and stressful. I can’t write without sources!
At 11:15 a.m. — I’m fried from a busy week and ready to chill out — the phone rings.
It’s Al Jazeera America, doing a segment on American gun culture, seeking an expert to speak on television today at 4:00 p.m. We arrange for car service to come and get me, (normal when TV needs you, and it’s an hour’s drive door to door from my home), and discuss their questions in advance.
I rush to a local hair salon to get my hair looking TV-ready; they will do my make-up. Good thing I have a few clean dresses always ready to go.
I’m given 3:30 to speak — a long time in television — but the host of the show asks me none of the questions I’ve discussed with the producer. I give it my best anyway, buy a bag of sugared peanuts from a street vendor, then slip back into the waiting car.