Freelancing

Recently, I have been approached by a lot of people that want to know how to get into writing within the mountain bike media. I’m always really happy to hear more people want to be creative and I try to be as honest and open about how they should approach it. However, I realized there are some things that I have omitted from my offerings but which perhaps people should hear about freelance life. Perhaps this won’t interest everyone, and in which case this is your 30 second warning, so move along and check your FB status. However, if you are at all interested in going freelance then there are some things you need to learn.

Poopy pay rates: The bike media pays very poorly. Words are valued but the dollar value is low. Do not even begin to think that by becoming a freelance writer in the mountain bike industry will mean a tidy existence where you have a nice car, mortgage, and family holidays. Nope. No chance. You will be a young, passionate, dirtbag. You will not have much and you will own even less. The concept of financial stability is a rocky one. As a freelancer you will get paid the very worst rates and what you do get paid will come in lots of little dribs and drabs.

Generally, as a writer, you will be paid per word. Your rate per word is pretty slim. Imagine for example you get paid 15cents per word (don’t be shocked, this is not the best case scenario and is certainly not the least you can expect to be paid) and you write a 1000 word piece on some b-grade racer or a set of new ti-carbon bar end plugs, you will be paid $150. Not bad, perhaps. Regardless of whether this piece is total fluff or not – and therefore about as nourishing to a reader as a fart in a jar – you have to consider a few things and factor in the real cost vs. revenue for this story.

Before you even consider how long did this piece take to write you need to think about: How long did it take to research? You did research it, right? How long did you spend riding the product to be able to give a fair view? How long did you spend interviewing said racer? How much did you spend at lunch/coffee when you interviewed them? How many emails did it take to organize meeting up with the racer/locating product? How many emails/phone-calls did it take to pitch this story to an editor and get a firm confirmation? How long did the editorial backwards-forwards discussion about copy editing, timing, location, photos, photo captions, etc. take?

Then after all this, consider how long it took to write. Now, it is fair to say that even a fluff piece like this might take a morning to write the first draft. Longer if there are interview notes to decipher or tapes to dictate. Then you need to juggle the first draft, play with it and form something clear out of it. Then you have to tidy it all up for spelling, typos, and grammatical errors. This might take the rest of the day. Then you need to leave the piece alone and come back to go over it again a few days/weeks from then. (Time is the best thing to see a piece clearer.)

So far, we can say it took writer X one day to interview/attend such and such press camp, then maybe an hour or two accumulated to communicate/pitch/locate/organize the story. Then another day and half to write it. So far that is a two and three-quarter days (average day of eight hours) to produce this fluffy 1000 word piece. $150 for 22 hours work. That’s $6.81 per hour.

And that is before taxes and before you remove business costs. Of course, some people are faster and more efficient than others and this is pretty broad and rough estimates, based on pretty conservative measures. But it does highlight how perhaps you should consider a job in Golden Time Chicken Shack cleaning toilets before you run into freelance writing. If you still want to write in the mountain bike media, then you need to consider a job in one of the handful of magazines that are out there. The problem is that the few magazines are staffed by people that know they are onto a good thing and they don’t plan on giving up their job anytime soon.

Of course, people take shortcuts and vomit fluff all the time. I hate seeing Q&A interviews with pro riders, especially if the questions where just emailed to the rider. This is some of the lowest form of journalism imaginable. Questions like “How was it growing up in such-and-such town?” mean nothing because they don’t ask the right question in the right context. They don’t draw anything out of the respondent. (These kinds of pieces can be referred to as broticles – thanks to James Atwood for the use of that term)

Some people bash out garbage like this because they don’t know any better, some people are lazy, some people are just getting away with murder, and to be honest, most readers seem to gorge themselves on this sort of crap so it reduces the demand for real stories that are well researched, thoughtful, and nourishing. Shame really. We need to either tier payment to discourage crap writers from remaining within the “industry” and to encourage good writers to stretch themselves more.

The very best you can hope for is about 50cents-$1 per word but for you it will be far far less than this. Some individuals have managed to work their way into a position where they can legitimately earn more per word. However, these are the very few. These are the people who have readers begging for their word, they deliver excellence every time, and are just straight up damn good writers.

Web rates: Websites, generally, do not pay, or if they do it is very modest. Sort of like a child’s weekly allowance. It’s a token gesture, not a real job. That is why most work you see on websites is done by a huge army of part-timers and amateurs. They do it because they like being a part of “the industry”, they might get some bike parts or go on a trip here and there. Some might do it because it satisfies their narcissistic tendencies as lots of people like to see their name in “print” and the pseudo-celebrity (forum famous) status that comes with it.

Some websites do pay and they pay fairly and on time. I respect these outlets and will crawl over hot coals for them.

On the other hand, if you want to get into writing, the web is a great way to practice, get your name out there, and start on the road. You can start a blog in ten minutes and then spew out whatever garbage you think of.

Non-stop work ethic: Only cure to the poor word rates is to work non-stop, all day, everyday. Sure, being a freelancer means you have no boss and you can wander off to knock out a quick ride in the morning/afternoon/whenever time, but you know that you will have to make up that time somewhere else. You must be working all the time, thinking of ideas, working on ideas, writing. It is non-stop and there can be no days off. You have to be hustling yourself and hustling your outlets all the time.

If you are freelance in the bike industry you have to be full-on, all the all time. You can’t afford to sit around “working” on one grand piece for weeks and months on end. You have to be writing all the time. That means you can’t be producing a piece or two every couple of weeks, it means that you need to be pumping out piece after piece all the time. Somedays you have to be hitting two or three stories out, on top of your day-to-day running of the business (emails, communications, bills, expenses, organizing the next stories and locating them in outlets).

You can’t write all the time: You have invoicing to do, debts to chase, expenses to track, banking to do, accounting to handle, paying your business taxes, health benefits, etc. There are a million emails for a million pitches that you may never hear back from; a million great ideas that come to nothing. You ring around looking for jobs, hunting down editors and pitching ideas. You slink around with your ears to the ground for good story ideas, then research more into the potential leads. You call people and endlessly wait for returned emails about information, leads, pitches, stories, interviews, answers, knowledge. You have to be out on the beat speaking to people, learning about your surroundings. Sometimes a coffee date feels like a waste of time when you have a million things to do but often these meetings yield great findings. You have to be social, talking with people, kissing hands and shaking babies. You need to work out your network and learn the web of interconnectivity that you need to weave yourself a part of.

All in all, you are a one man team. It is your business and you need to do everything. From marketing to production, from human resources to accounting, and everything in between. It is all your own responsibility.

Debtors: So you have worked your nut off to get into a position where you get get paid a pretty good word rate for a piece that has been signed off and commissioned by a reputable magazine. You worked hard to make the piece your best and you made sure the piece was handed in on deadline. In fact, you made sure you got it in before the deadline because deadlines are not a target to hit or miss but something to beat. Anyway, it has been six months since you went on that trip and wrote that story. The magazine has come out and the next issue is on its way. So where’s your money?

Do not expect prompt payment. As a freelance contributor you are more of a nuisance when it comes to paying up. The regular staff need paying, the accounts managers need their ski holidays to Tignes paid for, executives need their five or six figure annual bonuses paid in full. It means the regular full-time journos get their salary on time each /week/fortnight/month or else they will invoke the wrath of labour laws. Heck, even the part-time toilet cleaner will get paid before you and his sole contribution to the magazine you see in readers hands is that he kept the shitter from overflowing and distracting the poor associate editor from color coordinating his shorts to his grips. But as a freelancer you live life in a limbo universe where you aren’t really real.

Sometimes it feels like magazines send emails to a mysterious contributor asking for words and then the words miraculously appear, on time, all the time. However, you (the freelancer) are a ghost, and ghosts don’t need paying. Not on time anyway.

And what is on time? Well, no matter how many times you clearly state on every invoice that it is to be paid within 30 days and no matter how many reminder emails you send, your money will only comes when they feel ready to give it to you. And it isn’t like you can start threatening legal action or take them to court for unpaid debts because this is the very small world of the mountain bike media, not construction. If you rock the boat you might not get another commission. It isn’t some sinister plot, but really, editors and magazines just get bad tastes in their mouth if their already busy lives are taken up with threats of legal action. And there are so few media outlets that pay that the professional mountain bike freelancer just has to play by their rules. And they don’t have any. Your few hundred bucks is pocket change to them so you come last despite that ‘pocket change’ meaning the difference between you getting paid for the work you have done or you scraping for nickels and handjobs in order to pay for rent. [note: I’ve never had to resort to prostitution yet but saying that I couldn’t afford milk on my cereals doesn’t sound as impressive]

It might not seem like much but even chasing up unpaid invoices can take all morning, several times a week/fortnight/month. All that time you could be creating and making new word compilations that will yield you money, instead you have to ‘waste’ your time and the time of editors as you send them a second/third/fourth/fifth reminder email about the few hundred dollars they owe you. You begin to seriously sweat how you are going to pay rent this month. You always make it, but the hours/day/weeks of accumulated stress of wondering “where is my money?” is a serious psychic drag. You will start to wonder whether it is worth it and envy all the people how have regular, tidy pay checks that go into their account each week/fortnight/month. You will become enraged when people who are on full-time pay with benefits at magazines moan about their meagre earnings. These same people might think that you get paid a chunky cheque for a story but they failed to see the extra work that goes into a freelancer producing such work. Sure, the freelancer wrote the words that the employee thinks he could have done, but there was far more to it than that. First, it was the freelancers story that they found, researched, pitched and organized. The employee fails to see that the one cheque they saw is actually for one than that one piece. It was for months and months of work. Then that cheque will have to get carved up as the freelancer has to pay all his own expenses, taxes, health benefits, business expenses, etc.

Other means of using your craft?: Photographers (I love them so this is not a dis) often justify their ability to demand higher rates than writers because of the equipment cost. Sure, but most photographer maybe able to reuse the same images several times over, offer them to commercial interests for adverts, etc., or even just keep them in their stock for later use (tidy retirement package). Whereas words are words. So can’t write a story and then reuse them for another magazine (this is a tricky subject and is worth dealing with at length another time), you can’t offer that story to a company to use for their catalogue, and you can’t put them into a file for later reuse (actually, in some circumstances you can, i.e. producing a compilation book of works).

That’s it. You go to a race and you write your report. You are there all weekend researching, observing, note taking, and devising. Then you get back to the office and write your story. It takes you another day. Three or four days for that. A photographer, meanwhile, should be able to shot the images for the story (of which his rates are vastly higher than for the writer), plus shoot a lot more which he sends to commercial clients. Then reuses them several times over for different magazines or for a recap/round-up of the forthcoming races next year. The writers words are left where they were. Not disposable, but non-recyclable.

Let me reiterate, this is not an attack of photographers or the system they work within. Freelance photographers and freelance writers work together all the time to create the pages of the magazines. It is true team work and I value photographers over anyone. However, I just want to point out the gaping difference in each of the photographers and writers ‘value’ and to try even out the argument for why photographers get such better rates than writers.

Copywriting’s payday and pitfalls: One way of finding extra income is to offer your services as a copy writer for commercial needs. However, remember there are several pitfalls. You have to write what they want said, in their voice. To discover what they want saying and how they want it saying can take sometime, but that is part of the challenge and the skill of a writer. The major pitfalls are where the company wants you to write their words because they can’t do it, and they want it tomorrow. However, because you are a professional and you dropped another job so you can concentrate on that one last-minute task for company X and you completed the words overnight for them they suddenly think it must be pretty easy and not deserving of the word rate you agreed upon.

Commercial copywriting might help pays some bills and can be very creatively rewarding. If you want to be a freelancer you have to do it, but it isn’t a rainbow pissing money on you.

Ideas are your lifeblood: You need to be having ideas all the time. Seriously, without ideas you may as well give up. Sure, you might be the world’s best speller and can read from memory Strunk & White’s The Elements Of Style but so what. That’s like being the best exerciser. You need ideas because ideas are the reasons to use your words. Without good ideas what have you got? Anyone can learn to spell or learn better grammar but you need ideas and a passion for what you output. I admit to having a limited vocabulary and oftentimes a poor grasp of grammar. I am also a terrible at copy editing my own stuff sometimes. (I partly attribute this to having to produce so much work that before I even finish one story I have to be starting the next. Don’t blame the player, blame the game, baby.) However, I am learning all the time how to improve these things. I study grammar, experiment, read texts of the subject of journalistic styles and form, read authors whom I respect and try to learn from them, I try to take more care than I used to. What I could never learn though, is how to have good ideas. You either have it or you don’t.

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2 thoughts on “Freelancing

  1. Tip 1: find out the name of the magazine publisher’s accountant/payroll person
    Tip 2: find out the hours they work – they’re rarely full time
    Tip 3: direct payment enquiries directly to the person who has access to the corporate bank accounts within the hours the hours they are in the office, cc on your editorial contact

    As much as freelancers hate editors not paying them on time, editors hate freelancers not being paid too. It’s embarrassing, time consuming and causes worry that said freelancer won’t work for you again because your accountant is delaying payment (often because the magazine in turn is awaiting payment from distributors/advertisers).

  2. Great tips Seb… and I agree with above comment, editors get a lot of stick for non-payments, but usually it’s not their department to be paying writers. I do a lot of apologizing to writers who haven’t been paid and forwarding on their requests! And editors who write still have to do the same chasing for payment sometimes!

    But it’s better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick…

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