Stories

Famous Freelancers: Jack London, The Man Who ‘Went Up Against The Magazines’

By Dillon Baker October 28th, 2014

Jack London was all about the hustle. He only lived to age 40, but during that time London was, among many other things, an oyster pirate, a factory worker, a college dropout, an ex-con, a traveling hobo, a sailor, a failed rancher, a socialist activist, and, most notably, the most successful American writer of his time.

According to a 2013 article in The New Yorker, London was also earning $120,000 per year near the end of his life, which is the equivalent of about $4 million today.

London never had a problem being prolific. He wrote a thousand words per day, penning over 50 books alongside an abundance of short stories, poetry, essays, and serious reporting. He seemed to identify with the freelancer’s life as well: “Funny way to make a living!” London once remarked to his wife while sailing across the Pacific. “I carry my office in my head, and see the world while I earn the money to see it with.”

I wonder if he ever had to wait 60 days for a check to clear. Regardless, contemporary freelancers should take inspiration from London’s almost manic desire to experience and discover, which put him in places and situations in which he could provide a unique perspective as a writer. He was one of the first men to report from the Klondike gold rush; he covered the Russo-Japanese War for the San Francisco Examiner; and he is even credited with bringing surfing to the attention of the world in his nonfiction chronicle “The Cruise of the Snark.” (Which now would be a Gawker headline.)

London combined his tireless spirit with an almost obsessive writing schedule, which stemmed from a childhood mired in poverty. Despite writing at such a productive pace, it took him years to get his first break. He recalls receiving “stereotyped” rejection letter after rejection letter for his early work, “like the work of a soulless machine.” (Automated emails, anyone?)

London had his first break at 23, earning $40 for his short story “A Thousand Deaths.” From there, his career took off as he continued to spend most of his life freelancing and writing books for a variety of publications and publishers.

London set to paper many of the lessons he learned as a freelance writer in his essay “Getting Into Print,” published in The Editor in 1903, and now available online via Google Books. It’s worth a read just to see the ways working gig to gig has both changed and stayed the same.

London drops many gems throughout the article, including what may be the all-time best description of what it’s like to start as a freelancer: “I had many liabilities and no assets, no income, several mouths to feed, and for a landlady a poor widow woman whose imperative necessities demanded that I should pay my rent with some degree of regularity. This was my economic situation when I buck’ed on the harness and went up against the magazines.”

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