Wednesday, December 7, 2016

5 Unseen Hazards of Being a Freelance Author

Being a mercenary isn't easy. There's the long hours, the thankless jobs, and the sheer amount of effort and will it takes to stay in the game when there are so many other ways to make a living. You get paid pennies, asked to do impossible projects on absurd deadlines, and a lot of the time you have to give up sleep, socializing, or something else in order to keep your paymasters happy.

But you know all that before going in. Or, at least, you would if you've talked to any old hands about how they wound up on their career paths.

You don't choose the writer's life. It chooses you.
A lot of folks think they have the sand, and the skill, to handle those drawbacks. After all, a solid work ethic, a good reputation, and a little luck can do wonders for your career. That's true, but there are other pitfalls no one told you about. Traps that, if you fall into them, can leave you in the bottom of a hole with broken legs, and shattered dreams.

So let's talk about a few of those, shall we?

Hazard #1: You Get Paid When (or If) The Piece Gets Published

Being a freelancer sounds like a pretty straightforward gig. You agree to write a piece for your employer, and when the piece is finished, you get paid. Steak dinner, boom, done, move onto the next assignment.

The problem is that isn't usually how things work for authors.

I know you need this injection to keep going. What's that... when can you expect it? Well...
If you're working for a mid-to-large size company, you might be paid when you hand over the complete project. Once the client has taken a look at it, and found everything to be satisfactory, that is. However, what's more likely to happen is that you get paid when your work is published, rather than when it's completed.

This is true pretty much across the industry. If you get a short story accepted for an anthology, you get paid when it comes out. If you write an article for a newspaper, your check drops after publication. This could mean weeks, months, and in some cases more than a year between when you finish a project, and when you get paid for that project. Assuming something doesn't happen in the interim. Something like...

Hazard #2: Your Employer Can't Pay You

At this point in my career, I've lost track of how many times I've had to send emails to clients to ask about projects I've finished and handed in, only to find out that something went wrong and I'm not going to get paid as agreed. In some circumstances, they just need more time. In others, the project folded, and so I'm not going to get paid at all. This is a particular problem when you're counting on a check from a project you've turned in, only to find that you won't be buying food this month after all

At which point you may as well use that contract for kindling. It saves on the heating bill.
This situation is bad, but it isn't all bad. As a preventative, smart freelancers will try to include a kill fee in their contracts. This guarantees that you'll be paid something, even if the client opts not to publish your piece. Of course, if your employer has collapsed, then even that part of your contract might not be honored.

The upside is that you still have the article or story you wrote, and you're free to try to sell it elsewhere. The downside, of course, is that you've already wasted a lot of time waiting for your client to make good on their part of the contract, and now you need to spend even more time (as well as effort) trying to find this piece a new home. And if you were writing for a very niche market, it may not be worth the time and effort to try re-homing your work.

Hazard #3: You Can't Answer, "What Do You Make a Year?"

I'm not talking about those dinner parties we've all been to where someone inevitably tries to compare bank accounts to see who's the best endowed. No, I'm talking about the dozens of situations where, as an adult, someone in a suit looks across their desk at you and asks you to tell them what your yearly income is.

"It depends," is not an answer they like to hear.
The older you get, the more often you hear this question. It comes up when you want to rent an apartment, or get a home loan. You hear it when you want to buy a new car, or when you try to get government aid. Health insurance, auto insurance, and everyone in between wants to know what the numbers you're working with are.

And if you can't tell them, for certain, then that is going to make them nervous.

Some authors have a fairly steady income. They have a big fan base, a half-dozen books on the market, and their royalties are fairly consistent from one year to the next. Freelancers are, more often than not, the very image of feast-or-famine. Because all it takes is word of mouth to spread around, and bam, you have more work than you can handle, and checks rolling in on the regular. And all it takes is one economic downturn for those clients to dry up and blow away, leaving you struggling just to make your ends meet. Which can be particularly problematic if you are trying to show someone how steady and safe you are as a financial risk.

Hazard #4: You Have To Take On More Than You Can Handle

One of the harsh facts about being a freelancer is that you are always gazing toward tomorrow. Because you might have a steady gig right now, but how long is that project going to last? It might be a few weeks, or it might be a few months, but sooner or later it will be over. Will the client have something else to feed you? Maybe, but if not, you need to know where your next meal ticket is coming from. Which means, unfortunately, you don't really have the ability to say "no" to anything that comes your way.

What? Of course I can handle that! As soon as I finish one or two... other things.
I mentioned this in Neil Gaiman Hit It On The Head When He Talks About "The Freelance Mentality", but it bears repeating. The very idea of saying "no" to a project is something that's typically thought of as a luxury. Because sure, you're up to your ears in work, but it will be done by the end of next month, and you'll need something after that. Or, worse, all the work you're doing now isn't going to pay you until the book comes out in eight months, so you really need a way to keep your lights on between now and that big pay day next year.

Hazard #5: No Sick Days, No Safety Net

One of the primary benefits people look for from an employer is health insurance. Health, vision, and dental are the cornerstones of making sure you aren't power-bombed into a crater when something goes wrong with your body. Unfortunately, unless you either pull in some serious dough, meet the qualifications to get state health assistance (I live in Indiana. Ask me how popular the Affordable Care Act is here), or have a "regular" job on the side, insurance is just one of those things other people do.

Sick days are also not a thing. You make deadline, no matter what your fever is.
Some of us are lucky, because they can claim membership in an association that lets them buy lower cost insurance as if they were part of a union. However, freelancers aren't usually let into those clubs. So unless you've got some extra street cred, you're stuck with the choice of paying through the nose, or drinking some extra orange juice, hitting the gym, and hoping for the best.

How Do You Cope With These Problems?

Ideally, the best way to deal with all these hazards is to make good art, work with people you trust, and to build a reputation that ensures you'll get a steady stream of well-paid projects. Of course, if you can set up some additional safety nets on the side (things like an InfoBarrel account, publishing novels, or running a blog like this one), then you've got additional resources to tap in the event you run into a problem.

That's why I'm grateful for everyone who drops by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and leaves a little bit of bread in my jar.

Will that work? Maybe. Sadly, it's entirely possible to do good work, be a competent professional, and still get hosed by something you couldn't have predicted, or prepared for. It's why so many creative professionals I know tend to hedge their bets by either keeping a job that gives them insurance, or depending on a spouse's coverage to let them keep doing their thing. It's also why it seems like every other week there's a Go Fund Me page starting up for a freelance author, RPG designer, or artist. Because we're fighting a dragon without a shield. We might land that killing blow, but if it breathes fire, we've got nothing to hide behind.

Until, of course, luck, hard work, and the support of your fans outfits you in a suit of armor, and you can walk into that cavern with a little more confidence.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully it was helpful for those assessing the freelance life, and for those who don't understand the kinds of pitfalls freelancers have to deal with. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, well, what's the hold up?

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