How I (Barely) Survived My First Year as a Full-Time Freelancer

By Russel D McLean June 10th, 2015

In May of 2014, I finally handed in my notice. I’d been a full-time bookseller for over 10 years, enjoying most of them. But I had fallen into book-selling almost by accident, and my goal had always been to find a way to write full-time. Five novels and a growing reputation as a freelance book reviewer brought in some extra cash, but I was essentially working two full-time jobs without any downtime. Something had to give, and with the support of my partner—herself a freelancer and author—I decided it would be the day job.

When an editor asked me to write a regular column for a Scottish newspaper, I felt like I had a consistent check that I could use as the foundation for a freelance career.

The plan was to see how things went for a year. If I was unhappy (or broke) at the end, I would consider going back to “regular” work. Now, closing in on 12 months later, I’m thinking about the lessons I’ve learned along the way as I weigh the success of my experiment.

The First Step

When I told friends of my plans, their initial response was: “Are you going to just walk out?” The idea of just walking out of my old work was something that had not even occurred to me. For a start, it seemed rude. But, more pragmatically, if I failed as a freelancer, I wanted to have the option of crawling back to my old employers on bended knee, begging for a second chance—a chance I wouldn’t have if I just walked off burning bridges.

I also knew that much of the work I’d be doing as a freelancer would be in publishing and books—meaning that my old employers could be potential clients and contacts.

My instincts were correct. Thanks to my old work, I found a small, steady income working as a chair at literary events interviewing authors including Val McDermid and Martina Cole, one of the UK’s best-selling mystery writers.

Going in New Directions

The occasional crime fiction book reviews and author interviews I had done that got me thinking about full-time freelance work had really just been an extension of my love for genre writing. Back when I first started writing reviews, I had never considered the idea that I could make decent money from them.

But without the safety net of a day job, I needed to find more bedrock clients and soon discovered that in order to do that, I needed to think carefully about potential jobs I had been ignoring.

I started by accepting interviews and chairing work with authors in genres that were unfamiliar to me. As an atheist and skeptic, I would never have expected to sit down to interview Lorna Byrne, an author who believes she can see Guardian Angels, but I did just that last May. Then I came back down to Earth, interviewing Richard Benson about a Yorkshire mining community at the Wigtown Book Festival, before hosting an event at the Aye Write Festival in Glasgow with philosopher Julian Baginni. Not bad for someone who specializes in crime fiction.

The moves came out of necessity. The market for a literary critic, I quickly found, wasn’t flush with cash. While some longer pieces in national papers could earn up to $500, most reviews paid far less. I needed to try and find ways to expand my repertoire and use my knowledge of writing and publishing even more effectively. My hourly rate in those first few months was appalling. Even a year laster, it could still improve a lot, but struggling in my specialty forced me to explore new income channels almost from the get-go.

Taking On All Offers

When I was still selling books, I had shyly turned down an opportunity to edit a book for a small publisher, because, at the time, I was convinced I didn’t have the experience for the job.

But as I started to look for more ways to earn money freelancing, I realized that turning down such opportunities also meant turning down the chance to develop that experience. So when I met a local publisher at a book launch, and an employee asked whether I had any interest in editing a book for the company, I had to stifle my gut reaction of “I don’t know” and say, “Absolutely!”

The publisher, luckily, gave me a great deal of support through the process. That particular book will be out in 2016, and the experience has given me the confidence to find similar jobs—in addition to the repeat work I landed from the same client.

At this stage of my new career, I wasn’t in a position to turn down offers from clients, so I took to accepting as many opportunities as possible. For example, I was approached late last year by the Scottish Association of Writers to run a conference workshop on short story writing and the submissions process. Having never run a workshop before, I was uncertain, but I forced myself to agree and sought advice from other writers with more experience. The end result seemed to please most of the attendees, and I have recently been approached by someone who was there with an offer to speak to an Edinburgh-based writer’s group next year. I’ll call that progress.

Taking After a Scottish King

The legend of Scottish King Robert the Bruce sticks firmly in my mind every time I pitch. The story goes that when he was at his lowest, stuck in a cave, facing defeat, Bruce saw a spider trying to build a web. The web kept collapsing, but the spider just started over and eventually succeeded, giving Bruce the courage to try again himself. This tale is historically inaccurate—appearing centuries after the fact in a book by Sir Walter Scott—but it’s still a fitting analogy for the way in which I have learned to approach rejections and non-replies.

In one case, it took me 10 pitches to get a response from one publisher. But when an editor finally did respond, it led to one of my favorite reviews—and a discussion about future work. There are still some places, however, that have never responded. I’m determined to keep trying.

It took time for me to figure out, but the art of the pitch isn’t simply about enthusiasm. I had to think back to my first major UK newspaper feature, which taught me that if you can find an angle beyond “author has new book”—in this case I was interviewing the publisher, since the author in question was deceased—then the chances are even greater that you can get an editor to sit up and pay attention.

Dealing With the Paycheck Problem

As many readers already know, life as a freelancer can be a financial struggle. Those months when I made only a few hundred pounds were almost enough to make me think about finding more permanent employment. The number of places that promise compensation in “exposure” has been disheartening, too, and I quickly took to ignoring them.

This is my job now. I love it, but I need to make a living.

I have been lucky to have a partner who can empathize, of course, and who has talked me down from the ledge on more than one occasion. And I’m glad she did. Those months of meager checks have been balanced out by other months when the jobs have been more lucrative (and paid on time). I’ve made the equivalent of part-time wages this last year, but with new clients and opportunities—including fiction sales—I expect the rest of 2015 to be more comfortable.

For 12 months, part of me wondered whether going full-time as a freelancer was a wise idea. But I’m excited about the future and the next opportunity. If I can survive my first year with my optimism intact and my bank balance still in the black, then I’m ready to survive the second year. And the third. And the fourth…

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