I bring up Gruber's Three Commandments because I've been asked over on Twitter to write something about How to Be a Freelancer, and a lot of people, especially baby freelancers, tend to conflate blogging with freelancing. They appear to be similar, and they're certainly related, but they're not the same thing. Not by a fucking longshot.
[caption id="attachment_3689" align="alignright" width="266" caption="Mr Birmingham, I represent the slouchbike division of GlobalOmniHyper Corp and we'd like to discuss developing a relationship with you."][/caption]
So let's get the blogging thing out of the way. You want millions of hits and banner ads out the wazoo? You want mendacious spin doctors from massive PR firms trying to corrupt you with kickbacks and payoffs and freebies? You want top political insiders knocking on your back door with exclusive insider stuff? Titans of industry parking brand-new Lamborghinis on your front lawn and walking away, leaving the keys in the ignition, with a wink and a nudge?
It's yours, baby. And all you need is a fancy way to make coffee, super carbonated water, and a clicky keyboard.
Freelancing, however, that's a tougher gig. I'd add ‘increasingly so’, but things always feel like they are increasingly difficult, don't they?
So that's the first question you have to ask yourself, I guess. Do I even want this gig? Is it too tough for me?
Some perspective, unavoidably personal. I freelanced, almost entirely for magazines, for 10 years before Felafel was published. I was pretty good at it. One of the best, actually. I'm not pounding my own pudding here. I'm telling you this for a reason. At the height of my freelancing powers, when I was a contributing editor at Penthouse, Playboy, Rolling Stone and Inside Sport, and a contributor at about half a dozen other titles, I was trousering about twelve grand a year.
Not a princely sum, was it?
After Felafel, when my byline became a commodity, that jumped up some and never went back down again. But not everybody gets to write a book like that, and even if they do there is no guarantee it's going to sell. Luck plays a huge part.
So what else has changed in the intervening years? Well, Google has eaten our business model and the print media appears to be in a death spiral. That can't be good for freelancers, right?
No and yes.
Magazines and newspapers are going out of business at an accelerated rate. (They've always gone out of business, often very quickly, like most businesses do. The difference now is that the old established media houses are crumbling away as well).
It's not all bad news, however. New magazines are constantly opening, new distribution channels are emerging online, and yes, self-publishing is becoming an option in a way that it simply wasn't before.
Downsizing within the print media industry is also something of a left-handed gift for freelancers. For starters, we're cheap. Or at least cheaper than full-time staff. Freelancers do piecework. Publications pay only for the words and images they buy. They don't pay any on-costs such as sick leave, holiday pay, superannuation, income tax, training, and, increasingly, expenses associated with research. The freelancer covers all that stuff herself. We are the Indian call center operators of the media world. Or maybe the million monkey's in Rupert Murdoch's basement. (Update. Massive layoffs rumored for NewsCorp monkey division).
What this means is that while full-time jobs are disappearing at a scarifying rate, the low status, uncertain, poorly world of freelancing is going from strength to… err… strength.
There are hundreds of magazines and trade publications, niche titles, which have not been bent over a barrel by Google. They still need regular copy. They still pay. And mostly they don't have large full-time staff to generate content. They buy it in as piecework just like they always have.
(One of the interesting things about Fairfax is that huge swathes of the business are still very, very profitable.The trade press publications and regional media titles all make good coin. The broadsheets, not so much.)
So, assuming there is money out there to be earned as a freelancer, how do you get in for your chop?
Well here's a tired old story, you start at the bottom and work your way up, son. As it ever was, as it ever will be.
If there is one caveat to that, I'd say that in the modern, post-Google world of publishing, you should start to specialize much earlier than I did. (Yeah, I specialize. Stop sniggering. Sports writing and food. Two specialty subjects of mine, which I often write about as a mere drone, selling the copy rather than my byline.)
The future of publishing lies in figuring out what people will pay for. That might seem a fatuous statement, but it's not. In the good old days we didn't actually have to worry about that sort of thing. Because we had a monopoly over print advertising it subsidized the indulgences of writers and editors.We'd just write about the stuff that interested us and assumed a readership would follow. That's no longer the case. People will pay for content, but only the content that they'll pay for, if you get my meaning.
General news, for instance, fuggedabouddit! If you can get the information free, online, you're not going to hand over the folding stuff. But niche content, especially quality assured niche content, yeah, you can still make some scratch off that.
My advice to baby freelancers, then, would be as it always has been, with a tweak. Write, write, write. Write about anything and everything at every opportunity you get. But find a couple of areas about which you can accumulate some expertise and start learning the shit out of them. You have to be able to do something that 99% of other people cannot do. You have to be able to deliver something they cannot hope to deliver to an editor who's buying the story, and beyond him or her, a readership who'll pay for it.
It's not about the art or the craft, it's not about the grand traditions of the written word, or the existential freedom of cutting your own path, it's about getting paid. Never forget that.
Where do you start? Where do you find your first payday?
In the newsagent, for now. I mean this, take yourself off down to the newsagent right now before their business model collapses too. (Most news agencies now make most of their profits from lottery tickets and cigarettes. You can see where this is going.) Check out the surviving magazines on the rack. Any in there that catch your eye? Okay, forget about writing for The New Yorker or Cigar Aficionado or even Frankie at this point. They are beyond you. But some of the smaller, more obscure fringe publications are not. They do pay, mostly, if poorly. And they are still looking for freelance copy.
Choose your target. Grab twelve months worth of back issues from the library. Study them. Get to know this publication. Build up a profile of the editors obsessions. They all have 'em. Familiarize yourself with the house style. Try hard to imagine what a future edition might look like. Those are the stories you're going to be pitching.
How do you make that pitch? Check the front of the magazine. Somewhere up there you'll find a panel listing the names of the editorial staff, the publishing company, and contact details for both.There may even be a line or two about freelance submissions.
If there is a deputy editor, I'd pitch to them. It's just a trick I picked up over the years. The editor is often buried under production deadlines. The deputy editor, or features editor if such a thing should still exist, is less likely to forget or ignore your pitch.
The pitch itself should be less than 100 words whether delivered by phone, e-mail, fax, whatever.If you can't summarize your idea that briefly, you haven't thought it through properly. In fact 100 words is probably way too much in the age of Twitter.
If they're interested they'll ask you to send something through. That doesn't mean they've commissioned you. It doesn't mean they're going to pay you anything. It doesn't mean if you run up any expenses researching and writing this thing you can expect to have them paid. It just means they'll have a look at your stuff. If you're starting out in the game, that should be enough for you. There are ways to cast your net even wider. There are many, many more magazines published each week than you will find at your local newsagent. Most of them are listed in media guides such as The Australian Writers Marketplace published by the Queensland writer's center. All the information you need, not just to be a freelancer, but to be a working writer of any kind, you'll find here. I can't stress enough how useful a publication like this is for someone just starting out in the game. Hell, it's useful to someone like me. So you probably can't afford to be without it. Besides listing hundreds of publications that pay for content it also has details of industry organizations, agents, publishing services, literary courses, writing competitions and awards and grants, publishing houses and markets for specialist material such as travel, illustration and design, and even poetry.
Get a copy, choose your markets, learn about them, and start working them like a motherfucker. You'll want to give yourself a couple of years to build up your business to the point where it actually pays your bills. I gave myself five years, it took about three.But remember even at the height my freelance output before falafel, I just wasn't earning that much money. It was only after I published that book that I was able to turn my name into something editors bought instead of the copy I was offering.
This brings us circling back to the subject of blogging and electronic publication in general. This of course is the major change to the industry since I started. For both good and ill effect.
There is another whole essay to be written on the role of blogging in the professional life of a freelance writer. But this writer has other deadlines to tend to, so you'll have to wait for my thoughts on that.