So you’re fed up with your daily commute and sick of office politics – but are you really ready to go solo? Chris Wheal offers some invaluable practical advice for earning a living as a freelance journalist.
Successful freelancing is a state of mind. It means forgetting the independent, maverick spirit that led you to becoming a freelance and accepting that you are not your own boss. Successful freelancing is just like a normal job, except that you work for lots of bosses. You do what they want, the way they want it, when they want it.
Think of every boss as the best boss in the world, even though most are far from it, and go that extra mile for them. Stay a bit late after your shift finishes every now and then or come in early if needed, send in photos as well as articles – that sort of thing.
Think of all the good customer service you have experienced from different shops or services and work out how to apply that to your relationship with your boss. Remember, the boss is the customer and, as department store boss Gordon Selfridge said, the customer is always right.
You won’t want to work for the same people all the time. You can move on, concentrate on better paid work elsewhere and leave behind the recalcitrant late payers. But there are times when it is worth sticking with a nightmare boss and making him or her feel great about themselves. Working for the nationals means low rates and hasty subbing jobs on your work, but it’s a shop window that allows you to sell more at a higher price elsewhere. Specialist mags can lead to corporate work. Even the worst work can be viewed as a loss leader for something much more interesting and better paid.
And a good boss is worth sticking with, even if the grass on the other side looks greener. When you are on your uppers – and freelances will be every now and then – those are the people who will help you out with a commission they may not strictly need.
Relationships are key. And that means putting yourself about a bit. Too many freelances turn down invitations to days out on the basis that nobody is paying them. What a missed opportunity. Work is rarely advertised and networking leads to contacts, which leads to commissions. And why not take your commissioning editor out every now and then? They are well aware there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and you may find yourself with a couple of commissions over coffee.
Always ask for more, and always ask for a rise every year, whether it’s offered or not (but don’t get huffy if none is agreed). Get the work in early if possible, to length, in house style and with a few extras thrown in. Go to functions, attend after-work drinks and buy at least your share of the rounds.
As for copyright, avoid handing it over if you can – at least retain the right to resell it yourself. Companies rarely actually want the copyright. They just feel they need it to cover their backs. Asked to syndicate, they usually undervalue your work and charge too little, or give it away for free, giving you 50 per cent.
Show me the money
Work out how much you need to earn – based on just 200 days’ work a year – and make sure you average enough to stick to that target. Don’t panic when you first doubt where the next piece of work is coming from, and remember to turn down stuff that will make you too busy (both of these are easier said than done, even after a dozen years freelancing). Also make sure you maintain a mix of clients in different sectors, so that you can survive a downturn in any one of them.
And enjoy your work. If you can’t do that, it’s time to do something else.