Notes From a Hired Pen

10 Years of Freelancing: One house, one recession, and the best job in the world

A few weeks ago, a magazine asked me to write an essay about what it’s been like to run freelancing as a business for the last 10 years.

I went charging in with a heart full of love for my job and ideas I wanted to share with people who may think that freelancing means poverty. I would finally go on the offensive against people who kept writing think pieces about a job they didn’t understand.

But as sometimes happens, that didn’t work out. After some back and forth, the editor and I couldn’t come to a consensus as to where the essay would go, and it became obvious that the essay wouldn’t run. One of three things could have happened:

1. The essay is killed and I get no fee.

2. The essay is killed and I get a kill fee (a fraction of the original fee)

3. The essay is killed but I still get paid and keep the copyright.

This magazine went with option three, for which I am grateful. So here it is:

 

10 Years of Freelancing: One house, one recession, and the best job in the world 

In May of 2007, I bought a house: a three bedroom row home in Collingswood, N.J., one block from a train into Philadelphia, three blocks from a farmer’s market and two from downtown.

I was just shy of my 27th birthday. I had been freelancing full time for two and a half years, and business boomed, so why continue to blow $1,000 to rent a two-bedroom apartment when I could own a house for not much more per month in a mortgage payment. Real estate couldn’t possibly go down. It, like my business, was only going up.

Sixteen months later, Lehman Brothers collapsed.

**

In most pieces about freelance writing, this is the part where I’d start writing about the death of the business, or how those who chose to stay in it are used, abused, and destined to a life of penury. The anti-freelance essay is a cliché by now that I only need to look back to last month to see that, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, “everything you think about freelancing is true” – whatever that means. Earlier in the month, Salon.com proclaimed “Freelancers are totally screwed.” And way back in the hinterlands of December, Nieman Lab told us that “Freelancing Sucks” in a column written by someone who once freelanced but now has a full time job  (who then asked freelancers to pitch her).

But that’s not the story I’m going to write here, because for a lot of us, it’s just not true. Freelancing doesn’t suck. It’s the original entrepreneurial journalism, and if you can treat it like the business that it is, and have the right personality for what can be a screwball of a way to make a living, it’s far more rewarding – intellectually and financially – than a spot in a newsroom cubicle could ever provide.

I became a freelance writer because I didn’t see rosy job prospects before me in my early 20s. I had been the editor of my college newspaper, and graduated right into the dot com bust. I started writing commentaries for the Philadelphia Inquirer while working on a master’s degree in English Literature. I’d gone into the program thinking I’d get my PhD, but left with an MA because I liked having more than a handful of people reading what I wrote.

After entry-level marketing and public relationships jobs, I edited a local magazine before I quit that too, for a lot of reasons. The head sales rep kept trying to steamroll me into writing glossy features about the magazine’s advertisers, and then give me the finger outside my office window when he thought my blinds were drawn. The then publisher (the magazine’s since been sold) moved us out of our offices while I was on vacation and told me to work from home. When my paycheck bounced, I quit. I was making so little money for a job that required regular night and weekend work. If I was going to work that hard, why not work for myself?

Freelancing was – to excuse the pun – freeing. Despite the high overhead (I’ve never been married, so I’ve provided my own health insurance while also funding my own retirement and paying heady self-employment taxes), I could write about what I wanted – and stretch my mind to write about things I knew little about, like atomic force microscopes, breast cancer gene mutations and economic and social forces behind Catholic school closings. A magazine paid me to train for my first 5k, and I haven’t stopped running since. I wrote two travel guides about my favorite place on earth. In those first years of being my own boss, work rained down.

Until it didn’t. My house lost tens of thousands of dollars in value. Clients disappeared. Rates plummeted. I sold almost all of my books on half.com to make ends meet. The washer broke, and every Sunday I did laundry at my mom’s. I couldn’t even afford the laundry mart.

But where was I going to go? Newspapers and magazines were shedding jobs like dandruff. After rounds of layoffs at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, the region was full of unemployed journalists scratching at the walls of every communications and marketing department in the region to get a job.

That’s when I started to treat freelance writing as exactly what it is: a business. Those journalists had lost all of their income, and I hadn’t lost mine. I could be nimble, adapt, and keep going. I took the mysticism out of writing and saw myself as providing a service, just like a doctor or a plumber or a general contractor. They were my role models. If they wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t either.

I stopped cutting rates, and refused to cave to the downward pressure on fees that sites like Huffington Post (which paid nothing) and Demand Media (which paid $5 per story) created. Instead, I focused on finding quality clients who paid a living wage and treated me like a partner instead of a content spewing serf. Some of those were new online magazines offering high rates to attract quality writers; others were university communications offices that needed someone apt at technical writing.

I fired not just low paying clients, but some glossy newsstand magazines, too, magazines that asked for endless rounds or revisions and changes and then revisions back to the changes – and then forced me to chase my checks for one, two, three, even four months past when were due. The hourly rate attached to the privilege of writing for those magazines came to less than $5/hour before self-employment taxes, and I wasn’t going to dig myself back out of a hole at that rate. I bid on freelance writing work at a local college, and when they saw my rate, told me that if I didn’t cut it in half, they’d just hire some bored housewife with a college degree.

I didn’t care if a magazine had a big name. I didn’t care if a publication would bring me “exposure.” And I certainly wasn’t going to be threatened by a fictional person who would write for a lower rate. Clients like that aren’t how you build a business, so I walked.

I also stopped being timid in asking where my money was. Just like a doctor or plumber would do, I followed up on late checks right when they became past due. I read contracts and negotiated better terms, which landed me thousands of extra dollars when magazines re-used my work. This winter, I battled with a major publisher who tried to tell me I wasn’t owed $1,100 in reprint fees even though the contract said I did – and I won. I didn’t feel bad about asking for my money either. Why? Because it’s my money. It’s not personal, it’s business, and no business is going to walk away from cash a contract says they’re owed.

I worked to become the Bentley of freelancing, and learned that if someone else wanted to be the Yugo, I couldn’t let that affect the way I operated.

This may not sound romantic, but freelance writing isn’t. At the end of the day, I’m hawking widgets like any other salesperson, and sales aren’t a business for everybody. Over the last 10 years, I’ve counseled a dozen laid off journalists about how to make this work. Only two have survived. One supplements his freelance income through teaching; the other through photography. But that’s okay. They found a mix that works for them. Others found full time jobs and freelance on the side – and that’s okay too. Not everyone is comfortable being an entrepreneur, just like not everyone is born to work at home all day without human contact except for maybe saying hello to the postman.

***

This February, a month after I hit my 10 year freelancerversary, I refinanced the mortgage on that house, signing stacks of paper on my dining room table while my dog sat in my lap. I’m approaching my 35th birthday. Last fall, I taught a class at Temple University on the business of writing at the same time I sold my third book, to be published in 2016. I booked more than $100,000 of work last year. My savings and retirement accounts are full. I even took a week off in August to go buy my dream car, a 2002 Jeep Wrangler TJ, in Fort Worth, Tx. and drive it home to New Jersey. I couldn’t look for a job if I wanted. No one here, especially in a depressed journalism market, could afford me.

I’m not writing that to brag. I’m writing that to bat back against the tide of people who don’t have my job, don’t know what I do, and don’t know what I make, who say that this isn’t a viable way to make a living. And I’m far from the only one. I’ve had guides from groups like Freelance Success and the American Society of Journalist and Authors to lead me along the way. They, not shrill think pieces written by people who don’t have this job, or did but now think they can write with authority on the current landscape from under the umbrella of full time employment, should be guiding the way on the business of freelance writing. I’m not angry at the person who told the Columbia Journalism Review that they spent months working on a story that only paid $200. I feel sad for that person - that for whatever reason they feel they their work is worth so little. I hope that they get out of the Yugo mentality soon.

So next time someone writes that freelancing sucks or that freelancers are screwed, consider the source. Is it someone who tried and failed? A publication that already pays writer scat rates and benefits from perpetuating the myth that that’s all there is? Someone who is forced to freelance until a full time job comes along? Or someone who has embraced the challenge of making a living through her writing, survived the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression while doing so, and has come out on the other side to see a great big beautiful tomorrow, one story at a time?

5 Responses to “10 Years of Freelancing: One house, one recession, and the best job in the world”

  1. Jennie Phipps says:

    Jen,

    Thanks for saying this so well, although, truthfully, the fact that lots of people can’t hack this business and they feel compelled to share that with the rest of the world is OK with me. After 19 years as a lone ranger, I applaud people’s decisions to stay on payrolls.

  2. Nancy McGuire says:

    Thank you! This blog post is so encouraging. I’m pushing 60, and in my second year of full-time freelancing. I’m still building up my business, but I’m taking the same attitude as you — pay me what I’m worth, and pay me on time. The budget is pretty tight right now, but getting better as I gather more clients, and I’m paying my bills and taxes on time. Why would I ever go back to being a cubicle rat, cranking out government project reports that wind up in a warehouse like in that Indiana Jones movie?

  3. Daniel Boa Nova says:

    Thanks for these words, Jen. They made a lot of sense to me. I’m about to complete 2 years as a freelance writer in brazilian market, in the middle of an economic crisis and stuff. And, even though I still don’t have my savings and retirement accounts full, I’m pretty sure there is no way back. I wish you a great big beautiful tomorrow, full of awesome stories, Jen. Cheers!

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