2011: My Working Year in Review

January 2, 2012

Looking north from the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, appx 6:15pm, October 3, 2011

I thought that a quick trawl through personal work-related statistics for the calendar year just finished might help me make some plans for what I'm sure is going to be a much more challenging 12 months to come. The broad brush strokes look promising - I had over 110,000 words submitted to and/or published by 21 different outlets in 2011, and none of my work was returned as unfit for purpose, so my ability to generate output of an acceptable standard seems pretty good. But a closer examination reveals a few trends which are rather less auspicious.

First, an explanation of how I arrived at the figures. I didn't spend time trawling through old emails and files, or copying-and-pasting text from websites (with one exception: see below), to get exact word counts for the work submitted or used: I just totalled up the words that each commissioning editor asked me to submit. The actual numbers would have changed a bit, both due to my verbosity and the demands of the editing process (particularly for print). I've included some work that was submitted before the end of 2011 but which hasn't been published yet, so it's a figure for work done during the year rather than work published during the year. But the biggest anomaly is the number of titles. Of the 21 outlets, five are different parts of the same newspaper; and one was a recording artist/management company for whom I wrote a promotional biography. So the true total of distinct, different, publicly accessible titles is actually only 16. And of those 16, three are publications from within the same group, where my working relationship is with the same editorial team; so if I was counting the number of editorial relationships I worked under for the year, the true figure comes down to 14. 

Still: I'll look at that list of 21, and see how it augurs for future prospects. Of the five newspaper sections, two were one-off supplements, so there's no repeat work there, and, as noted, one outlet was a management company whose artist won't release a new album in a while so they won't need another biog doing in the foreseeable future. One of the other outlets closed down in 2011, one has told me that they will be using less freelance work in 2012 due to budgetary constraints, and one other supplement is being merged with another from mid-January, with the impact on freelance budgets yet to be announced. Two other titles I only did one piece for and am not sure those can be considered ongoing relationships; another told me in the middle of the year that its freelance budget had been severely cut and that the likelihood of future work there was slim. So, even allowing for the caveats noted above, of those 21 outlets I can only reasonably expect to continue to pitch work to 12, at least two of whom I realistically expect to use less work from me this year (if any).

Examining those remaining 10 outlets, two pay at around 10p per word - which was the rate I got when I first started working for NME in 1992 - and two pay less than that. (Freelance journalists, generally, don't set the price for the work they do - the title you work for has its set rate and you can take it or leave it. It's an odd situation - you can't imagine a shopkeeper having different prices for the same item depending on who it is that wants to buy it - but unless you're a superstar of journalism or a columnist of household-name repute, that's just the way it is.) A low word rate is OK if the work doesn't take long to do and/or doesn't require a lot of research and interviewing and transcription and preparation - sometimes it still works out at an OK hourly rate even if the piece rate is low - but I'd have to generate a lot of work for those titles to bring in enough money to live on. And while I'm happy to do the work I presently do for people on these kinds of rates - ironically, it's usually the most enjoyable work - I can't afford to do too much more of it than I am already. I also wouldn't accept those kind of rates from corporate entities: the people who I do this stuff for are small businesses who genuinely can't afford to pay more. 

Another one of those 10 outlets - one which accounts for 15% of my total output of words in 2011 - is this website, which pays nothing at all. (That's the exception noted above; nothing here was "commissioned" in the usual sense, so I just counted up how many words I'd added to the site over the course of the year.) I had put Google adverts on here - but the traffic to this site is so small, my topics so varied that the algorithm often places irrelevant ads on the pages, and the click-throughs correspondingly tiny, that the notional income made hosting them here meaningless. You have to accrue a minimum of £50 from the ads before Google will even send you a cheque, and when I realised that, based on current traffic levels, I wouldn't hit that figure until some time in 2032 - no, really - I just thought there was no point. I view this site as a shop window, an advertisement of my abilities (such as they are) and availability (currently considerable!), as well as providing people with a means of contacting me, so the work I do here is an investment in my future. Unsurprisingly, working for nothing is the biggest growth area in journalism - there are literally thousands of websites and quite a few print publishers who are keen to encourage you to do so for them - but I'll only work for free for myself. 

That means, in reality, that at present my prospects for making a living in 2012 are dependent on only four different working relationships (three of those remaining seven titles are put together by the same editorial team; two others are parts of the same newspaper). Even if I add back in the client that I know will continue to take work albeit at a lower rate, the worrying truth is that I appear to be reliant on the continuing goodwill of five people - and their continued interest in the ideas I generate (because, as a freelance, I don't get any work given to me just because I'm here; I have to come up with something the title wants to publish before they'll commission work from me). This would be a concern at the best of times, but these are by no means the best of times for journalism as a profession. There are probably more people than ever before reading more words by more writers, but the economics underpinning the production of those words have never been more precarious.

This is obviously supposed to be the point where I describe the many and varied ideas I have had to put myself back on an even fiscal keel; but I've not had much in the way of inspiration. I'm going to continue to work hard for the people I already work for, and am going to double my usual annual goal of finding three new paying clients in the coming year. I've had an idea for a book rattling around for ages but have put off working up the proposal because paying gigs always get in the way: I have to get my act together on that, and find the time soon to finish the sample chapters and so on, even if nothing ends up coming from it (writing these words down here is an important step: it I make this promise to myself in public, maybe I'll be under a bit more pressure to keep it). I'm going to write more here, even though it doesn't pay, because maybe it'll somehow alert some new people to my existence who might commission work from me that I wouldn't have had the chance to get otherwise. But I'm also going to try to stick to my principles - not working for clients who require me to hand over my copyright, or for clients who insist on having me indemnify them and take sole legal responsibility for anything published under my byline - and I won't work for free for anyone but myself.

I'm not naive enough - or self-centred enough - to believe I have some sort of divine right to earn a living from writing: but it is the thing I know how to do better than anything else, so it's the thing I feel makes the most sense to concentrate on doing. The fact that enough words by me to fill a reasonably sized paperback were published last year, and that 85% of them were done for titles whose editorial staff deemed them suitable to put before their readers, means that I feel pretty confident that other people think I'm tolerably good at writing as well. Hopefully that gives me a reasonable chance. But it is going to be an interesting year.


A brilliant, necessary expose of the reality of freelancing in the UK in 2011. We need more writers writing about writing. Hard work freelancing, rewarding but hard work.

posted by: @kingsleydc: 6 Jan, 2012 11:00:31

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