One Year of Freelancing, part 2: Reasons to be Cheerful

In my previous post I outlined various mistakes I have made as a freelancer over the past twelve months. The road I travelled over that year began in a place called Hopes and Dreams and ended in a place called Desperate Poverty. Except, of course, it hasn’t ended, because I can’t be hanging around in Desperate Poverty for too long. Much as I’m attracted to the romantic image of myself as the penniless, starving writer, my cigarette the only source of sustenance and warmth as I give to an uncaring and uninterested world the fruits of my mind and craft, I realize it’s important not to be an idiot.*

I could, of course, go to a place marked Regular Job. It’s a safe, ordered sort of town for most of its residents—and, sadly, one of the least interesting places in the universe. Moreover, there is nothing much there for me. I am frankly unqualified and unsuited for most of what it has to offer. The only profession I am qualified for is academia. (And yes, I’ve heard and reflected on all the motivational talk from careers’ advisors etc. about the supposedly transferable skills I have—and it is rubbish. Short of spending years and thousands of pounds retraining, or competing with hungry young graduates for internships and entry-level jobs, there simply is no career for which I have any realistic chances.) As for academia itself, although I do actually still have a miniscule, meagrely remunerated university post, it was clear to me long ago that academia is not interested in me. I’m just too damn unconventional and brilliant (oh, yes! I say with my tongue firmly in my cheek) for the increasingly mind-numbing corporate world of academia. I loved my academic career and didn’t want to leave it. But looking back I have no regrets that I did: if I’d wanted to be a corporate drone, working 60 hours per week, oppressed by admin, metrics, endless performance and productivity reviews, and exploitative employment practices, then I’d have joined the City years ago and earned considerably more than the dismal salary of the modern lecturer.

A few weeks ago I made the decision to abandon for good any ideas of a return to academia. I suspect that half my problem over the past year was my wavering between the freelance path I was on and a desire to get an academic job. By not fully committing to either, I ended up being unsuccessful in both. I had to reassess, and, for the reasons I mention above, I came to realize that academia no longer appeals to me whereas freelancing does. I retain my interest in ‘academic’ things (like history, philosophy and so on, and indeed the nature and purpose of education itself), but I’d rather pursue them independently and in my own way—and since the modern humanities academic is usually preoccupied with filling in forms and worrying about productivity, most have little opportunity to pursue their subject in interesting ways. (Not that I want to give the impression that I’ve got a chip on my shoulder…)

Saying goodbye to academia for good is my first reason to be cheerful. It means I can direct all my energies and focus to the freelancing. And with this energy and focus comes more clarity. I recognize the mistakes I made, the wrong turnings I took, how I never had much control over what I was doing, with the result that it tended to drift. For example, tutoring initially struck me as a sensible option, one that aligned with my experience, skills and knowledge, and which fitted with my vague hope that I would get back to lecturing one day. But I learnt that private tutoring is a terrible sector—and not one for which I am well suited. (I don’t believe, for example, that education equates to ‘teaching to the exam’ which is essentially the only thing most tutees want from their tutors.) While I am open to taking on the occasional tutoring job, I’m going to be highly selective about what I do. If I am especially interested in a job, and believe that I am suited to it, then I’ll do it; but otherwise private tutoring no longer features much in my plans.

Since I’m in danger of sounding like Ian Paisley in saying ‘no’ to everything, it’s time for a ‘yes’ (and one or two more reasons to be cheerful). And it’s a ‘yes’ to writing. I’m a writer. It’s what I’m good at (feel free to disagree, but if you do, you’re obviously wrong because I’ve held your attention to this point in the article which means the writing is working), it’s what I enjoy doing, and it’s what I’m convinced I can make a living from.

Now, this is a blog article not a business plan. But it’s worth (since it’s cheering) to consider the nature of writing as a business—as I have been doing over the past few months. Every day billions of words are written and published, in the form of books, newspapers, magazines, web content, blog articles, and much more. Some of this is published for free; much of it earns the writer money either through direct sales or by carrying advertisements. It is a huge market.

So if you’re someone who can write well, as I can (feel free to disagree, etc.), then there is massive potential to be successful in this market. Above all, the digital revolution has transformed the possibilities for the writer. Blogging and self-publishing form an ever-growing chunk of the market; they are a large part of the future of publishing. In the past writers were often at the mercy of the whims of traditional publishers. Now anyone with something to write about (and boy, do I have a lot to write about), the ability to write it well, the time to write it, and the nous to figure out how to market and sell this writing has a decent chance of success. The extreme example is E.L. James, whose Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy began as self-published fan fiction and ended up netting her £97m (and counting). While James is clearly an outlier, many other writers are making a decent living in this world—and a growing number are actively choosing self-publishing over traditional publishing. And, while not abandoning other routes to getting published, it is the world of self-publishing that I’m entering.

I have, in fact, been self-publishing for quite some time. Over the past year I’ve written a lot across various blogs, and, partly out of generosity, partly out of business incompetence, I’ve given it all away for free. Actually, there are good business reasons for giving things away for free, and I certainly don’t intend to stop blogging and providing free content. But the point is this: writing is a business. It’s a business like any other: writers create and market products with a view to selling them. One of the reasons why I’m cheerful is that I’ve finally got my head around this; previously I treated writing too much as if it were a hobby, one involving the devotion of hours of my time to giving people something to read while I slowly starved—it took me a while, but eventually I detected a small flaw in that approach.

Another reason to be cheerful is that, having been studying this market for some time now, I’ve figured out various approaches and strategies that I believe have good chances of success. Maybe I’ll blog about them one day… But finally, and most importantly, I have various products (some under pseudonyms, which doesn’t mean that I’m going down the E.L. James route—or maybe I am?) that will be going to market soon. But you’ll just have to rein in your excitement at this development for a little longer…

This time last year I had a lot of optimism, but a terrible plan. Because of the latter I’ve ended up on the brink of destitution. It’s been an interesting lesson: optimism is important, but ultimately useless without a good plan. I believe now that I have a good, credible plan. I may be able to afford to buy food again. Hope endures.

*Knut Hamsun’s fine novel, Hunger, the story of a starving (and increasingly mad) writer is well worth reading as a corrective to this romantic notion of the artist/writer.