It happened this week, as it has now for several years.
It’s when one specific check, (or cheque, as Canadians and Britons spell it), arrives. It’s a payment from a cultural agency of the Canadian government, an annual payment from the Public Lending Rights program.
There are 30 of these programs worldwide, but only one in the Americas, so I’m fortunate to be Canadian and to be a participant — it’s a royalty system that pays people who have created books now held in public libraries.
I had never heard of it when I lived in Canada and only learned of it thanks to meeting a man whose wife was enrolled in it.
If you have published a book, or several, that meets its requirements, and have registered it, and it is held by public libraries, you’re eligible.
It is open not only to writers, but to photographers, illustrators, editors and — crucial to a nation that is officially bilingual (English, French) — translators.
I’ve published two books — both about life in the United States, albeit through the eyes of a Canadian — and both are still receiving this payment.
Last year I got $452, and this year $507.50 — love that 50 cents!
To determine who gets how much, the program samples seven library systems in French and English — that might be a major city like Toronto (my hometown, whose libraries bought multiple copies of Malled), or a collection of smaller ones across a province or territory.
If your book has been registered for 0 to five years, the payment rate is $50.75 for each hit (i.e. it is still in those library systems), dropping each year to $25.38 for those held 16 to 25 years.
It may seem a pittance, but it means the world to me because it means my work still has readers.
The lowest amount one can receive is $50 and the most — even if you have 20 books in circulation — is $3,552.50
The PLR has 17,000 registered and a budget of about $10 million; every year there are 800 new registrants and more than 5,000 titles added.
The check arrived with a charming letter from its chairman, his closing sentence: “I leave you with my best wishes for another productive year of creation.”
I so appreciate that my government supports the arts in this way!
Many of you have — or want — a full-time job. One with paid vacation, benefits, a boss, colleagues. Maybe an office of your own.
But one-third of Americans are now working as I do, freelance, temp or on some sort of contract. At tax time, we look forward to a thick stack of 1099s, the forms sent to us (and the IRS!) by every client who we billed for more than $600 per job. We can also claim a raft of business expenses as deductions, from car repair to a new computer to travel to a distant conference.
I recently spent four weeks in Paris and London; while in England, I reported three stories. I plan to write off my airfare and some of my costs as well as I clearly produced paid work while there.
My last staff job was working as a reporter for the New York Daily News, the sixth-largest newspaper in the U.S. I had a big laminated press credential I wore around my neck on a metal chain. It showed everyone I was one of the cool kids, working press conferences and stake-outs and racing every day, sometimes physically down the street, to beat reporters from the New York Post and New York Times; (they always showed up wearing silk and linen — starting Times salary being a cool $90,000.)
I enjoyed having a paycheck, the job less so. I was let go in June 2006 and have been full-time freelance ever since, a sort of work I had done many times before then as well. I apply occasionally for a full-time job but my heart isn’t really in it; I’ve already worked for three big daily papers and had the most fun there one can have and get well-paid for it. (As many of you know, the newspaper industry these days is about as steady and viable as a whaling ship fleet.)
But freelancing is a way of life that some people just aren’t cut out for.
How about you?
You must hustle every single day. If you slack off, you have to hustle twice as hard (vacation, illness) to make up for lost time
Clients come and go: editors get fired, move to Thailand or Berlin, take maternity leave and don’t come back. Entire magazines shut down overnight. Relying on a steady set of clients means you better have a lot of them. I see them like a pack of sled-dogs — you need a bunch of them, all pulling hard, in case one goes down or gets injured.
You have to be self-reliant. Tech support? Supply closet? Training sessions? Hah
You’re the CEO, CIO, CTO, CFO, R & D, sales, marketing, distribution, payroll and the janitor. No one is standing by to help you so it’s up to you to find, create and nurture those relationships. You also need to set aside some of your income for this stuff.
Working alone at home requires self-discipline
No one cares if or when you clock in or out. No one cares if you sell a thing. It’s all up to you! But, on the other hand, no one is standing in your way if you decide to double or triple your income this year — a feat all but impossible in any staff job. Your earnings are up to you. But you have to put your bum in the chair and get on with it. I’ve only turned on the television in working hours during major news events, and now just check Twitter instead.
Your networks will save you, time and time and time again
Paradoxically, you’ll need other professionals in your life far more as an independent worker than you probably ever did in a staff position. Whether you need advice on contracts or rates or how to handle a PITA client, you’ll need to find, join and nurture a wide range of professional networks so you’ve got access to people you can trust when you need their help. You also have to give it! I belong to more than four separate writers’ groups — one with 2,300 women writers in it — and check in with them daily. I find new markets, ideas, insights and offer my advice when possible; what goes around comes around.
Social media matter more than ever
You need to find sources, fast. You need advice, fast. You need to boost your brand’s visibility. Your new book needs thousands of eyeballs. Your networks will come through for you — if you’ve been a good egg for them as well.
Mentor whenever and wherever possible
The freelance world is filled with clueless, helpless newbies. They can suck you dry! Give them your help when you can; charge for your expertise the rest of the time. (I coach, $200/hour.)
Making time for regular exercise, social events, lots of sleep and healthy food choices will keep you ready to work hard. I work a standard six to eight hours a day, five days a week. I very rarely allow work to leak into my nights and weekends. Yes, that lowers my income. It also reduces my stress!
Have little to no debt, low overhead and a cushion for slow payments
The hardest part of freelance? Not finding work or clients. If you have skills, charm and hustle, you’ll find them. But even the biggest — sometimes always the biggest! — can take months to pay you. In the meantime, you still need food, rent, gas, health insurance, haircuts. A life! I have a $16,000 line of credit through my bank and two low-interest credit cards. But I never work without a contract and insist on payment 30 days after receipt of invoice.
Forget the word freelance. You run a small business
Too many people fantasize wildly about the incredible freedom they’ll have once they work for themselves. Yes, you will. But the romance fades mighty fast when your payments are months late or your work dries up (see: cotton years) or you end up, as I did in March 2007 for three days, in the hospital with pneumonia — from overwork and exhaustion. You must decide on your income goals and do everything in your power to make them real. It’s not a cute hobby working from home. It’s a business.
What’s it really like to work as a full-time freelance writer in New York?
Strap in and hang on!
My husband flies home today to New York from Texas, where he attended the memorial service for his half-brother. I meet him at Laguardia airport, a journey by car that costs more than $16 in tolls and $12 for parking. Some people wonder why I set my rates so high — costs like this are one reason.
I’ve been asked to come up with a projected budget for my expenses for an assignment in England in early January. It’s easily done, thanks to Google, but imagine life without it. We take quick, ready, free access to information totally for granted now, but I began my career long before there was an Internet or email or Google.
I call a client I last spoke to in August, and for whom I’ve set aside most of November to work on her organization’s project. That also means I am relying on the income from it. I call her — and she blithely tells me, with no prior warning, they won’t be doing it until February.
Another client referred to me who said she had almost $600 in her 2014 training budget to hire me tells me I had to have invoiced her last week. Now it’s too late.
Not a good start to the week, or month.
I read and grade the papers of my 12 freshman writing students; I teach two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I’ve decided to mix things up and gave them a visual writing prompt, a photo of a WWI soldier and a photo of a WWI uniform. I gave them total freedom to produce 500 words, and the results are stunning: original, moving, evocative.
I confirm with my two guest speakers, one for the writing class and one for blogging, that they’ll be coming this week.
We have a mini-invasion of small brown mice. We lay traps, which I hate, but we live in a small apartment and I work at home. Co-existence is not a realistic option.
I start the day with my usual walk, with a friend who lives across the street. The fall leaves are at their glowing peak, so it’s a gorgeous way to kick off the day. I live 25 miles north of New York City, so have the best of both worlds, ready access to it, but leafy, quiet and more affordable life just beyond its borders.
More questions on one story from an editor. Sigh.
I teach my last writing class at the New York School of Interior Design, where I was a student in the 1990s when I considered leaving journalism for design. I’ve only had two students here, but have really enjoyed both of them, one of whom is working on a renovation of the Plaza Hotel and shows me some photos.
It’s pouring rain so I’m in the car by 7:00 a.m. to drive to Pratt, which usually takes 60 to 75 minutes. This time it consumes 2.5 hours.
My guest speaker for the writing class fails to appear and I scramble to fill that hour by discussing the week’s reading — an excerpt from “Hella Nation” by Evan Wright.
My friend, in a neck brace (!) has traveled 90 minutes by subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn, but arrives just as class is ending! We pivot, and seven of my 10 students sit around a cafeteria table downstairs so they can still have a chance to hear him and ask questions. He and I catch up personally for the next hour before he heads back to Manhattan.
Another guest speaker, a friend of a friend, also arrives from Manhattan to address my blogging class. I’m so grateful for their expertise!
I’ve been negotiating a profile of a local lawyer for a major women’s magazine and scheduling time with her through her assistant; my editor and I chat by phone and email about what she needs and when I will file a first draft, December 1. It’s not much time in which to research and write 3,500 words! But I’m really excited. This is the biggest assignment I’ve had in a while.
I drive home, and arrive exhausted; as I’m walking across our driveway in the dark, I slip and fall — hard. My laptop (not in its padded case) skids across the wet cement and I bruise and scrape my bare right knee. Ouch!
I watch an extraordinary film on TCM from 1941, Meet John Doe, in black and white. The film begins with a newspaper publisher firing half his staff and bringing in cheap, new, desperate blood. Too ironic — my husband’s employer of 30 years, The New York Times, needs to have 100 employees accept their offers of a buyout by December 1.
Plus ca change…
It’s a cold, blustery day with thick gray clouds scudding over the Hudson River, which I can see from my bed, where I spend the day reading, napping, listening to the radio, drinking bright pink herbal tea and eating popcorn.
Those of you new to Broadside may not know that I make my living as a freelance writer and editor, with my work appearing in places like The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. I occasionally open the kimono to let you know what it’s really like — triumphs and tragedies alike — as many readers here are fellow writers, freelance creatives or students of journalism.
I start my week, as I often do, with an hour’s jazz dance class. It’s a new teacher and new routine. Feeling confident, I try some new moves. Bad idea! I hurt my left knee badly and limp home and I’ll spend the rest of the week icing and elevating it, and taking Advil. Ouch!
I have only one assignment this month, which is terrifying, disorienting and liberating. That hasn’t happened in years.
I spend so much time cranking out copy for income that to have time to sit still and really think, make calls, do some deeper story idea research is rare — and necessary,
I work up a list of pitches and have ten, all at various stages of readiness. Most of my pitches do sell, eventually, but to keep cashflow flowing means selling them as quickly as possible.
I follow up by phone and email on a pitch I sent three weeks ago. It’s a great story and one I know is a really good fit for that publication. No answer — yet!
A 40-minute phone conversation with a non-profit, a potential client with a lot of work to assign. As many of my clients now do, this one came through personal contacts. At my stage of the game, 30 years in, I have a wide network of people who trust my skills as I do theirs — she mentions a need for skill I know another friend has and, even though he’s in Argentina this week, I immediately email him to give him a heads-up.
I check in with a regular client to find out our next story is due in October. Cool. I like to be working at least two to three months ahead.
I’ve also re-set my income goal a lot higher — (like, double) — than before, so I’m hustling a lot harder for new clients and clients whose pay rate is better. They’re out there. I just have to find them!
Spending way too much time on-line! I’m a member of several new and secret women’s writing groups on Facebook and they’re both a source of tremendous intel and fun distraction.
One of them spun off a new blog, I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault, a place where women share stories of sexual assault and/or emotional manipulation, the goal to empower younger/other women and girls. It very quickly attracted a lot of media attention, like this BBC story.
I’ve finally been binge-watching the award-winning Netflix series House of Cards, which is both chilling and compelling. Its two lead characters, Francis and Claire Underwood, are absolutely ruthless in their search for, and exercise of, power. It’s well worth your time. I also love the production design. I’ve now seen more than 20 episodes and the show’s color palette is restricted to black, blue, gray, brown, cream, white. No sunny yellows, reds, purples or cheery prints here!
My husband, a fellow journalist, was a photographer in the White House Press Corps for eight years, so much of it feels familiar to him; here’s his blog, with many of those historic images. It’s also fun to see people we know, personally and professionally, playing cameo roles as journalists. I have a photo of Betty Ford on our living-room wall — taken by the official photographer at the time — standing on the Cabinet table. Love that image!
I check in with my accountant as I fill out reams of paperwork from the two New York colleges where I’ll be teaching writing this fall, The New York School of Interior Design and Pratt Institute. Looks like I will owe even more more money. Not a chance! Time to create some more deductions and figure out the maximum I can stash into my retirement savings instead.
Reading through my bookshelves choosing which books I want my students to read and discuss.
I check in with Jen, pictured below sharing a dugout canoe in rural Nicaragua on assignment, to make plans for a conference we’ll be attending together this fall. I speak to fellow writers, by phone, email or social media, pretty much every day. When you work independently, it’s the only way to survive, let alone thrive.
By 9:00 a..m. New York time, it’s 3:00 pm in Switzerland, where I need someone to help me with sourcing. I call them, ask in French for help, and send an email.
The weather this week has been delicious — sunny and clear, with no humidity and a breeze, so I’m writing this sitting at a table on our sixth-floor balcony. Enormous buzzards and red-tailed hawks wheel and dive within 30 feet of me. The only sounds are overheard aircraft, the wind in the trees and the radio station I listen to much of the time, WFUV.
I pitch a national business magazine, one new-to-me, after reading their editorial guidelines. I was introduced to the editor yesterday by a colleague, someone I met when we were both judging journalism awards. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since, but we play at the same level.
I went freelance, for the third time, in 2006 after losing a staff job at the New York Daily News — but I also freelanced, by choice, full-time for four years right out of college, so it wasn’t a terrible shock to lose an office, colleagues and a paycheck.
I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, people who wrote for print and television and my father was a film director. No one had a steady paycheck or pension to look forward to and rely on. So it all felt normal to me.
Five reasons to go, or stay, freelance:
You’re very intrinsically motivated (i.e. you don’t need a whip over your head to get it done)
Autonomy ‘r us! Some people are just a whole lot happier not having a boss. And any organization, no matter how small, is going to impose policies and procedures, some of which are usually inane and some of which you might deeply disagree with.
All of which come with someone else’s paycheck.
You want more control of your work/life scheduling
Maybe you have children and/or pets and/or an ailing loved one who needs your attention as well. Maybe you prefer to work from 4pm to midnight or 2am to 8am…or whenever it suits you. Freelancing allows you tremendous freedom, within limits, to set your own hours and schedule.
I take a jazz dance class on Monday and/or Friday mornings, from 9:30 to 10:30 or 11:00 a.m — and no staff job I know of would allow for that. It’s fun and social and gives me tremendous pleasure and keeps me healthy. And I like knowing this is a bonus no job would offer.
I also take as much vacation, whenever possible; my husband, even after 30 years at the Times, must request his vacation time in early January and defer to those (!) with more seniority than he.
You can choose a wide variety of clients and projects
Staff jobs, de facto, have set roles and responsibilities they have hired you to perform. Freelancers can freely pick and choose our clients and types of work, from quick 300-word stories to 3,500 word features to 100,000 word books. We can fly to another country to do some reporting or spend a week at a conference meeting cool people who can help our careers.
If you’re getting bored or have a difficult client, switch it up!
Intellectual challenge is up to you
If your personal life is crazy and all you have energy for is lighter projects, that’s your call. That’s a huge benefit when our personal lives go haywire and we need to lighten our loads for a while. When you work for someone else, it’s all up to them. Plus, your professional opportunities for advancement and growth (and pay) are largely within their budget, schedule and control.
Your income is your choice
Key! If you want to double or triple your income — or even just boost it by 22.3% — that’s also within your control, not something at the pleasure of your boss or company CEO.
Freelancers see a very direct and satisfying correlation between our energy, stamina, skill and experience, and the zeros on our tax returns — with no office politics and no bullshit excuses why you still, somehow, don’t deserve — or just won’t get — a raise, commission or bonus.
Five reasons to stay on someone’s payroll
You’ve got huge overhead you can’t quickly and easily reduce
If you’ve got multiple children expecting you to pay for their educations, freelancing is going to be tough. If you’re crushed by student debt yourself already and/or credit card debt (especially with a high APR), freelancing — i.e. not having a reliable income each month — can be really stressful, certainly as you are just getting started and cannot command the highest fees.
And many clients pay late (45 to 60 days after invoice) while some try to screw us out of our fees.
I know some people earning $100,000 to 130,000 a year freelancing, but they are not, certainly as writers in journalism today, in the majority.
You need someone telling you what to do, and when to do it, and how to do it right
If you’re the sort of person who craves routine and a structure and people making sure you have done the work correctly, freelancing may feel too loosey-goosey. Every single day’s productivity is completely your own responsibility, so if you’re someone who likes to watch daytime TV or Candy Crush, good luck with that.
Your ability to make enough income to gas the car, feed your family and take your dog to the vet are often the primary or exclusive measure of your success. Your primary goal is to find, nurture and keep ongoing and profitable relationships — not please your superiors and colleagues.
You really need the company (and input) of other people
Working alone at home is lonely and isolating. If you treasure your office pals and going out for margaritas with them, freelancing all day by yourself may drive you nuts. Yes, you can rent a co-working space, but you’re still there to work and paying for additional space, and not necessarily surrounded by like-minded folk.
Hustling scares you (to death)
Freelancers eat only what we kill. No, not literally! But we start many weeks, or years, with no clear, definite idea what our income is actually going to be. Sure, we set income goals — but clients die, turn into insatiable monsters we have to fire, publications suddenly close or trim their budgets and mayhem just happens sometimes.
Yet those monthly bills keep coming! If the idea of constantly seeking out, and nurturing, new client relationships fills you with dread, keep the day job.
You crave the validation of “I work at…”
A phrase that drives me crazy is “Who’re you with?” I’m with myself, actually.
The constant status-check of ascribing your value and prestige to your Big Name Employer seems, to me, sadly antiquated now that 30 percent of Americans work for themselves, or as temps or contract workers only.
But if you really like saying “I work for BNE”, then get and keep a job there.
The downside? If or when you’re laid off from a staff job, your identity — and your income, of course — may take a serious and unexpected whack.
Here’s a truly depressing look at the American workplace:
Curious to understand what most influences people’s engagement and productivity at work, we partnered with the Harvard Business Review last fall to conduct a survey of more than 12,000 mostly white-collar employees across a broad range of companies and industries. We also gave the survey to employees at two of The Energy Project’s clients — one a manufacturing company with 6,000 employees, the other a financial services company with 2,500 employees. The results were remarkably similar across all three populations.
Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.
My recent trip with WaterAid America to the poorest part of Nicaragua– all these photos– was an amazing re-set for me. Our multi-national, five-person team, only two of whom had met previously, worked 12-hour days in 95-degree heat, and even had to push the van every time to get it started.
We also faced extraordinary poverty, interviewing people living on $1/day in the second-poorest nation in the Americas after Haiti. It could, I suppose, have felt depressing and enervating, but we were meeting amazing people doing valuable work.
It was by far my happiest paid week in a very, very long time.
What I saw and felt there also radically altered the way I now think about my career and how I hope, at least some of the time, to earn my living.
Because our work during that week — driving four hours a day into the bush to interview local women in Miskitu — hit all four of the core needs at once.
We were treated with kindness and respect, laughed loudly and often, and knew the work we were focused on was life-changing. How much better could it get?
People fantasize wildly about the life of a writer, how creative it must be, how satisfying.
I discussed this recently with a female friend, recently retired after a 30-year career as a writer at the Toronto Star.
“Do you think our work is creative?” I asked her.
“Not so much,” she said.
We’re expected to be highly productive. We get to meet and interview a wide variety of people, but creative? That’s not what journalists (sad to say) are paid for.
I stay freelance for many reasons, and the key one is autonomy and the chance to re-make my work into something that, whenever possible, hits all four core needs.
My field, journalism and publishing, has changed a great deal in recent years — pay rates have been reduced to 1970s-era levels, which requires that I and many others now work much, much faster on many more projects at once to make a decent living.
I dislike having to race through most of my assignments to earn a profit — but quality costs time and money to produce and very few people are willing, now, to pay for that.
I never used to hate my work, and I find it very stressful when I do. But journalism is a field in which workers are rarely thanked or praised, in which sources can be elusive or demanding and in which we rarely seem to find time or money to focus on serious issues.
As they are for too many frustrated workers, the four core needs are often damn difficult to attain.
(Or is it “just work”? It’s not meant to be enjoyable)?
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!
The way we habitually think and talk about these matters betrays a deep and venerable ambivalence. On one hand, art is imagined to exist in a realm of value that lies beyond and beneath mere economic considerations. The old phrase “starving artist” gestures toward an image that is both romantic and pathetic, of a person too pure, and also just too impractical, to make it in the world. When that person ceases to starve, he or she can always be labeled a sellout. You’re not supposed to be in it for the money.
On the other hand, money is now an important measure — maybe the supreme measure — of artistic accomplishment. Box office grosses have long since become part of the everyday language of cinephilia, as moviegoers absorb the conventional wisdom, once confined mainly to accountants and trade papers, about which movies are breaking out, breaking even or falling short. Multimillion-dollar sales of paintings by hot new or revered old artists are front-page news. To be a mainstream rapper is to have sold a lot of recordings on which you boast about how much money you have made selling your recordings…
It never occurred to me that “artist” and “starving” belonged in the same sentence. Nor should they!
This notion that being creative means penury or 1%-land is absurd. We don’t expect or require this of others — the middling executive, the stalled lawyer, the so-so administrator. The world is filled with people doing their best and never hitting the heights, nor surviving on ramen in a group squat.
More, from the Times’ piece:
Inexpensive goods carry hidden costs, and those costs are frequently borne by exploited, underpaid workers. This is true of our clothes and our food, and it is no less true of those products we turn to for meaning, pleasure and diversion. We will no doubt continue to indulge all kinds of romantic conceits about artists: myths about the singularity of genius or the equal distribution of talent; clichés about flaky, privileged weirdos; inspiring tales of dreamers who persevered. But we also need to remember, with all the political consequences that this understanding entails, that they are just doing their jobs.
I’ve been writing for a living — sometimes for a nice wage, sometimes for a much-less-amusing one — since I left university. But I’ve never cracked that sexy glass ceiling of the six-figure income.
Talent and hard work, prizes and fellowships — got ’em. There are few direct correlations between the standard metrics and creative success, let alone buckets ‘o cash. Your ability to schmooze, to accept and perform work you find creatively grotesque, to suck up abusive client behaviors — these, too, factor considerably into who will (quickest) ascend the greasy pole of fame and fortune.
The creative life is one that many mythologize or fantasize about: waking up at noon to daub a canvas or noodle about with your screenplay. How lovely, how freeing to flee the grim confines of cube-world and the predations of The Man.
Every time I put on a pair of shoes, or eat a meal, I touch the direct reflection of talent and hard work — it produced the income that keeps me housed, fed, clothed and will fund my retirement.
Making art — of any kind — in no way excuses the artist from the costly necessities of life, no matter how cool or offbeat our lives and work may appear to others choosing a different vocational path.
One of my favorite books is The Creative Habit, by American choreographer Twyla Tharp, who has made her career by — as she eloquently puts it — walking into an empty studio and making a dance.
In the end, there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming. All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter into them, they compel you to get started.”
― Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
Creative work absolutely is work, even if/when it doesn’t earn enough to buy you a house or a shiny new car — or any car, ever — or the plaudits of The Right People.
And holding fast to principle — creating something you imagine to be of lasting cultural worth, not merely sating contemporary appetites or shoveling cash at your expenses — remains a difficult challenge for many artists faced with the same costs of heat, fuel, clothing, food and housing as the rest of the workforce.
I ask whether we should focus on being productive (look what I made!) or creative (which might be publicly inaudible and invisible for months or years, producing no income):
I’m not persuaded one can be both all the time.
We all need time to think, reflect, ponder, meander, take some detours, some of which — being immediately unproductive — lead into dead ends, some of which lead us off into totally new and hugely profitable (financially or creatively) directions.
Shutting down the production line for a while — silence! solitude! no immediate income! I’m wasting time! — can feel terrifying.
It’s absolutely necessary.
Do you work full-time in a creative field?
How’s it going?
How do you measure your success?
LAST CHANCE FOR WEBINARS!
SATURDAY MAY 17:
Conducting a Kick-Ass Interview (what’s the one question you must ask?)
“There were so many writers I know and admire who I also knew would appreciate any income at all,” she said in an email. “Most of us, whether or not we are ‘successful,’ really struggle financially in this city. Also, we’ve reached this point at which we’ve come to assume art should be free, and copyright is under assault, etc., and the bald fact is that the artist has to live, too. So I really liked the idea of creating (or at least extending) a new income source for writers.”
Here are some reasons I now say “No, thanks” to most of the people who want my unpaid time, some of which might apply to you as well:
Your audience isn’t going to welcome my ideas
I learned this early, the hard way — speaking unpaid, to boot. Someone I’d interviewed for my retail book, “Malled”, asked me to address his annual conference. He, the CEO of a wildly successful software firm, had about 75 people flying in to Las Vegas, expecting to hear updates on the labor management software they buy from him. They weren’t — even though the CEO cared as passionately as I — the least bit interested in how to better hire, manage and motivate retail associates, my central message. The room was distinctly frosty.
Yes, I got to stay at the Bellagio. But this proved to be a serious mismatch. Next time, I’ll take the psychic hit, but only softened by a four-figure check.
I’m not fond of flying, especially turbulence
Are you eager to jump on a plane heading anywhere, unless it’s a business or first-class ticket with a car and driver waiting at the other end? It rarely is for midlist authors.
I make no money selling books
Non-authors have no clue how the publishing world functions, and assume that every book we sell means money in our pockets. It doesn’t! If you have commercially published a book, you have been paid an advance. Only after you have paid off the advance, (and you’ll make maybe 10% of the cover price of each book you sell), will you ever see another penny. Most authors never do.
A “great lunch” is really not an appealing offer
Seriously. I know you mean to be kind, but I can buy my own food and eat it on my own schedule.
Some of us loathe and fear public speaking
I don’t, but many authors do. Ours is a solitary business, one spent alone at home huddled over a notebook or computer. We spend most of our time thinking, writing, revising. We chose this business because it suits our nature. So standing up in front of a room filled with strangers — whose comments and questions can be quite weird or rude — can be stressful. Why bother?
Your audience is too small
Here’s the math. On a good day, I can sell my books to one-third of the room; i.e. if there are 30 people attending my presentation, 10 will usually buy my book, if 100, 30. Most audiences are small, fewer than 50 or 60 people.
The odds of someone in the room being willing and able to pay me to do the next gig? Slim to none. And I’ve still lost half my workday.
Your audience isn’t my audience
Even if you’ve gathered 100 or 200 or 300 people, are they the people most interested in my topic? If not, I’m an annoyance, and their lack of interest in my work — let alone a passion for the issues I care deeply about — creates a headwind I have no stomach for. It’s emotionally draining for me and it’s no fun for them. If you’ve scheduled me with several other authors, as is often the case, their audience may be completely different from mine.
It costs me time and money to do this for you
You’ve asked me to donate at least three or four hours of my workday — probably driving 30 minutes each way, (plus the cost of gas), to sit for several hours through lunch and socializing, speak, answer questions and sell and sign books. That’s a day’s paid work wasted. I’ve actually had a major commercial organization in another country insist they couldn’t pay me a penny, even travel costs, to speak at their annual conference.
If you perceive so little value in my time and skills, I’m staying home, thanks.
Your competitors pay!
I drive five minutes to my local library — where my friends and neighbors show up by the dozens — and still get paid $50. Local women’s clubs pay. I was paid $8,000 to speak at a conference in New Orleans in 2012. Yes, really.
If you have to, sell tickets at $10 each, but your payment shows respect for my time, skills and experience. Whatever you feel, we don’t necessarily consider it a privilege or honor to talk about our books to people who don’t value our time.
Why exactly do you, and your audience, expect free entertainment from us?
I don’t believe in your cause, the one you’re selling my brand to win attendance
I already donate my time and money to causes I personally believe in. Unless I’m passionate about yours, and eager to help you raise funds for it, I’ve already made my pro bono commitments.
I hope you’ll sign up for my webinar, Sunday Feb. 2 at 2pm EST.
It’s 90 minutes, conducted through Skype, costs $125 and will help anyone — photographer, graphic designer, artist, writer, small business owner — who wants to really understand how to earn a living without a steady paycheck.
I grew up in a family where everyone worked freelance, in film, television and journalism. No one had a steady paycheck or paid sick or vacation days. No pension. No access to unemployment benefits.
As the saying goes, we ate only what we killed. I learned early, firsthand, the importance of persistence, of protecting your intellectual property, of keeping very careful track of what you earn and what you owe in taxes. (For those of you who’ve never freelanced, you become wholly responsible for paying whatever taxes you owe, as none are deducted at source.)
I started freelancing as a journalist at the age of 19, while still a full-time undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Canada’s most competitive university and freelanced full-time after graduation for three years. I then won a prestigious and highly competitive journalism fellowship in Paris and was hired as a staff writer by the Globe and Mail.
I’ve gone on to write freelance for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Smithsonian and many more outlets, including on-line sites like Quartz.
I’ve been full-time freelance since 2006, this time around, my third long stint doing so.
In this webinar, you’ll learn some of the many skills you need to thrive while self-employed:
— how to find clients
— how to keep them!
— how to detect, avoid or fire PITAs (pains in the ass)
— how to juggle multiple projects at once
— how to find and manage researchers and assistants