Freelance Writing Versus a Freelance Business
The writing and business camps, if I can put it that way at least for the moment, have different outlooks. The writing camp wants to make some money, maybe a significant sum, and wants to spend time only writing or editing instead of drumming up business, going through queries, and the like. And if someone understand the ramifications of that choice, and the potential upside of the other, it's fine. I'm convinced, however, that a good many don't.
To understand how experienced, monetarily-successful freelancers approach what they do, you have to understand that they are running businesses. It's not that money is the only measure of success, although it's an important one for practical reasons. You must make enough money to cover:
- higher taxes of independent work
- expenses that can run far more than you might think
- sick time
- vacation time
- health insurance
- life insurance
- disability insurance
- all personal expenses
- profit for the business above your "salary"
That realization begins to color how you look at writing. Sure, you can write something really interesting at a low rate (or for nothing, as I do in this blog and often, though not always, in writing plays). However, you need enough income to cover your expenses. The higher payment must subsidize the lower and the work you might do for the love of it.
As my colleague Michelle Rafter notes in her blog, it translates in part into freelancing being about selling. That's because sales is intrinsic parts of running any business, whether writing or masonry. There are other tasks as well, including marketing (a little different from selling), business development, financial analysis, planning ... also taking in new ideas, reading the work of others, contemplating, professional development, and, not to be ignored, constantly improving and honing your work. Also occasional rest, or else you burn out.
These are things that become impossible when you work in a low pay, high volume paradigm. (If the pay is low enough, you can call that a pair-of-dimes. Sorry, couldn't resist.) When I see people considering work with the writer mills calculating what they can do, they make assumptions of the volume of work they can both get and undertake. "Sure, I can knock off three pieces in an hour, so I should be able to do 21 in a day." But that includes two massive assumptions.
One is that the stream of work is available. A person who does work for Demand Media has told me that the work isn't unlimited and that there are times when the assignment stream temporarily dries up. If that happens and you've committed to depending on this source of work, you are screwed because you are unlikely to find other outlets quickly enough. It goes to Michelle's point about sales cycles. Writers who are well-established in their careers are constantly marketing because a) only some of those queries will turn into assignments, and b) you need a variety of sales cycles so the business doesn't become feast or famine. When you've gone down the path of waiting for someone to give you business, then you depend too heavily on one source. If it slows, even if you start marketing like crazy today, you may not have work for another few weeks. Planning on favorable circumstances is setting yourself up for an eventual crash.
The second assumption is that you can keep up the pace. "No problem," I'm sure some say. Well, let's put it this way. As someone who wrote me correctly calculated, it would take 7 pieces a day five days a week to gross $2100 a month -- an inadequate figure for almost anyone, I'd argue, if you sit down and calculate all the expenditures I mention above. Beyond that, that would be 2400 words a day at least. Over 52 weeks it becomes 624,000 words, or enough to fill six large novels. Now I can write large volumes of publishable material if I know the topic well, and I've been known to write in the 300K to 500K words range in a year. But 624K? I'd find it impossible to maintain that type of volume and my health and sanity at the same time. It's not just the writing, because wire and daily newspaper reporters are used to cranking it out, but finding the topics and doing the research. If you're covering hard news, there are always releases and events and incidents that offer fodder. But evergreen articles? Anything but easy.
Penny a word work was tough in the 1940s and 1950s when pulp fiction writers had to bang it out to make a living, and most quickly got tired and aged. But with today's cost of living, getting a few cents a word is a recipe for disaster. Even if it works today, it will soon blow up in your face. And the writers who have been freelancing for years and sustaining themselves and families know that because they've seen the bad times as well as the good.