Friday, July 15, 2022

20 years as a freelance writer

Dr and me, about 2002
Twenty years ago this evening I took the Dr - though she was not then a Dr - to the pub to pitch a modest proposal: I wanted to jack in my job as an account manager in a contract publishing company and go freelance. I thought she would be horrified; in fact, she was relieved.

The idea wasn't entirely out of the blue. I'd begun to get some paid writing work - my first feature in Doctor Who Magazine, a few things for Film Review, the odd bit of copy for the customer magazines in my day job, such as the listings magazine for ITV Digital. When ITV Digital went into administration in March 2002, it hit my workplace hard. I expected to be made redundant but the payout would have covered bills for at least a couple of months. If ever there was a moment to make the leap into freelancing, this was it...

Except that I didn't lose my job and instead got promoted. I threw myself into new responsibilities, extra training, last-minute work trips. My birthday plans were cancelled so I could go to a meeting in Leicester; delays getting back from Barcelona meant I missed the wedding of some close friends. These were among a whole bunch of frustrations at work - small stuff, petty stuff, stuff that wasn't really about the job in the slightest but all about me. It took months to admit my disappointment at not having been made redundant.

So I looked into money and I talked to people. There were those in my day job who said they would employ me as a copywriter if - rarest of rarities as freelancers went - I delivered what I was asked for and on time. People who'd been made redundant from my work had since found jobs elsewhere in publishing and some could offer me work: updating spreadsheets, fiddling with Flash animation, even things involving writing. I also knew - or now introduced myself to - people in Doctor Who fandom who worked in publishing of one sort or another. Some couldn't offer work but gave useful advice: who to pitch to, what to pitch, who might be good as an accountant...

By the time I took the Dr to the pub on 15 July 2002, I had a list of potential employers and a budget based on needing to pay £600 in bills each month. She didn't need to see any of that. Next morning, I handed in my notice and later emailed everyone I could think of seeking work. My notebook from the time is full of lists: people to contact, ideas to send them, responses received and how I would follow those up. Hungry, for pages and pages and pages. Enough people were generous, or at least took a chance on this green, eager dork, that I picked up enough jobs to get by. I've been getting by ever since.

Mostly, it's been fun - more like larking about than working, for all the hours put in. I've had a very broad-ranging career, doing all sorts of varied stuff in very different media. Some jobs have been joyous, some very challenging but rewarding. I've worked with many brilliant, talented people. There is loads I'm really proud to have been part of. But freelancing has always been precarious - and just now publishing is in a worrying state. 

This week, Eaglemoss went into administration, taking with it my regular job on the Doctor Who Figurine Collection. Seven books I've worked on are currently in limbo, my work on them either entirely or mostly done but no publication date in sight because of... well, everything at the moment. Some projects aren't cancelled but stall; they're put back a few months or a year, as is the date when I can invoice for the work I've done on them. 

It's not as if things were easy before the cost of living crisis, COVID, Brexit, paper shortages and whatever else made them harder. In many cases, freelance rates have barely risen in two decades. That's had, I think, a corresponding impact on the demographics of people in publishing.

What can be done? Well, that's been much on my mind. Last week, I was elected chair of the Books Committee of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. I've 20 years experience of knocking about through this industry, and of being knocked about. As Leela says in the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death, "If you're bleeding, look for a man with scars." Hello, that is me.

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