The life of a freelance

A small insight into how this works. So, read the papers, see if there’s anything being talked about over which one can be a contrarian and thus offer a piece to this or that publisher. Something that, given that it’s me we’re talking about, can be turned into a few hundred words of sneer and bile that someone will pay me for.

Excellent, it’s 08.30 am, three ideas fired off to a publisher. Who says, well, like that idea, yes, that one, but can we confirm at 10.00 am?

Publishers, you see, having been to many a drinks party. You do not pursue, exclusively, the first fit looking bod you see and chat to. Try to place a marker upon, sure, maintain in a holding pattern, but always keeping an eye open for whatever better might turn up. So it is with freelance pieces – who knows who might offer something gorgeous in the next 90 minutes?

This is the way the newspapers work generally on their comment pages. Pitch by 10.30, they have their editorial meeting, come back by 12 or so (before that long lunch with booze that doesn’t really happen any more) to say yes (if it’s no you never hear back) and then please file by 3 or 4.

Which is why I do so little newspaper work. There’s a vast effort that goes into trying to make that pitch with a low expectation of being accepted. The actual return, if published, is good, several hundred quid, but the expected return is very much lower. Because the writing part, to be honest, is easy, it’s getting accepted that’s the tough part.

Yes, I knew you’d be fascinated. And it’s also why I display such bile to those who complain about the gig economy. Or that bint who works freelance and keeps moaning about zero hours contracts. What the fuck it it you’re working to as a contract, honey?

20 thoughts on “The life of a freelance”

  1. Ah but you’re more handicapped than most. Going to the Fleet streeters soirees or the coach and horses surely ups the acceptance rate.

  2. Back when I wrote freelance computer stuff I’d write the entire article first and send it in rather than pitch a proposed article. As Tim says (and Asimov also mentioned), the writing was the easy part, getting somebody to pay you to do it was the hard part. I never got any responses from “I’m thinking of writing…”, I got about a 90% hit rate by just sending them the finished thing on spec.

  3. Luxury, squire.

    Consider the existence (and I use that word deliberately) of a conventionally published novelist, a man (or woman, though wymyn, lacking cock, aren’t so hot on forward movement and write, inevitably, girly stuff) seized from an early age with vanity and a desire for praise, seized also with the notion, probably misguided, that he has literary talent: this creature is subject to the whims of the Joannas and Tristrams of mainstream publishing, to wit, first, readers of the slushpile, next (as his status improves a little) commissioning editors, next, those who decide whether to publish and on what terms. There are further allegedly human obstacles between him and prosperity, which I shall mention in due course.

    Let us assume that our man has forced a way past the initial barrier of these politically correct, venal and incompetent cretins and actually secured a contract (known as an agreement, a more gentlemanly term, you will agree, conferring on those involved a sheen of elegance and helping to disguise the pitiful size of the, well, pittance offered as an advance). All he has to do now is write the book.

    To quote George Orwell: ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.’

    For a period of perhaps a year our Novelist must maintain his interest in an idea that he has probably outgrown, unless it is born of some deep obsession or psychological disfigurement. On those few occasions on which he manages to reach the nirvana-like mental state known to the layman as Inspiration, his concentration will be shattered by a neighbour’s barking dog, Jehovah’s Witnesses on the doorstep, etc., or, should by some remarkable fluke he not live alone, his wife (or ‘partner’, since he is very often a poove) popping her or his head round the door asking him if he wants a cup of coffee.

    However, at long last he finishes the thing, tells himself its various warts and illogicalities will past muster, and submits (notice the verb) his MS., as they used to call it, via his agent, to Venetia, his ‘editor’ at the publishing ‘house’. Venetia, who has a 2.2 in English literature, probably with a side-helping of Wymyns’ Studies, from the University of Aberystwyth, but whose uncle goes shooting with Lord Ermine (co-opted to the board for the sake of his name on the corporate notepaper) – Venetia sets about our man’s scrupulously constructed prose with a blue pencil.

    She misses entirely the aforesaid warts and illogicalities, since she knows fuck all about books, and makes perhaps 450 stupid changes, each of which the Author has either to let pass, in the interests of diplomacy and an easy life, or resist, and in resisting school the brainless bint in the basics of English usage and narrative construction – unpaid tuition which she is quite unable to absorb. (All this, by the way, presupposes that the book hasn’t been deemed not up to scratch and summarily rejected, with a demand for repayment of monies, in accordance with Clause 17a of the Agreement.)

    The next third of the advance, payable on delivery of the ‘manuscript’, is sent to the literary agent, who deducts 15% for herself (most of them are wymyn too), plus VAT, of course. The sorry remnants appear in the authorial bank account. Studies by ALCS (a trade body) suggest that the British writer earns an average of about £7,000 a year; if his total advance is £15K a scribbler is doing very well as far as his marketplace is concerned. So let us assume that our writer is quite good at his job, has been doing it for a long time, and has something of a following among the execrable cunts who only get his books from the local library. (Mind you, with Public Lending Right he gets a munificent 3p for every loan!)

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. Whereas in the past the publisher paid to have the book typeset, now he demands a digital file. Have the savings been passed back to the author? Er, in a word, no. Whereas in the past the font was legible and there were adequate margins and leading, now the page is so crammed with text that the reader needs an electron microscope to make it out. Whereas in the past one might have hoped, at least in expensive hardbacks, for halfway decent paper and sewn binding, now everything is made in Shanghai sweatshops: the paper foxes and within a couple of years the glue of the binding dries and the pages fall out. I could expatiate, but you get the idea. No wonder people ‘wait for the paperback’ – though of course, if sales of the hardback are disappointing, there will be no paperback.

    Next our man must deal with the Publicity Director, whose job it is to get him airtime on the telly and radio, to bribe or coerce reviewers, and now book-bloggers, to take notice of The Work, and to wheedle, bribe, coerce, threaten, blackmail or otherwise influence the judges on prize panels. If you thought Venetia was lazy and daft, you haven’t met Nick.

    Next we have the reps, whose job it is to get the book into the shops. Next we have the buyers, who wield God-like power at centrally controlled retailers. Books are supplied on a sale-or-return basis. The shelf-life of a hardback novel is typically two weeks. If it hasn’t sold out in that time, most or all of the copies will be sent back to be remaindered or pulped.

    And finally, after all this, if he is very lucky, our Author will be asked by Joanna or Tristram if he has anything else up his sleeve. Chances are, however, that after twenty-five years of faithfully producing what one managing director of a very large and famous firm inadvertently described to me as ‘library fodder’, our man will be quietly dropped.

    And after that, he will discover electronic self-publishing, go on to make a bloody gigantic packet, and amuse himself by considering, from time to time, the past horrors of his London career.

  4. Jack

    Sorry but after that post I’d be in the dock for libel! This is a pseudonym BTW. And, yes, I am an author, not a job I’d recommend to anyone. Wish I’d trained as a plumber.

  5. Well, at some later stage please use a different, one-off pseudonym, write something politely witty, and post a link to the books a “friend” of yours writes. (If you still don’t dare, fair enough.)

  6. The Other Bloke in Italy

    Like Jack, I would be fascinated to try some of Thomas’ work. Given the skill he demonstrates in a knocked-off comment, I suspect that a page on which he has expended blood, toil, tears and sweat would be very fine.

    When I decided to try writing, I had second-hand knowledge of the publishing industry, so went straight to self-publishing. Accordingly, if anyone wants a decently readable guide to driving in Italy try finding my real name, Jeff Wood, on Amazon, Kobo or Nook.

    And, if any reader here wants to go into print, my advice is to look first at electronic publishing.

    Apologies, Tim.

  7. > Wish I’d trained as a plumber.

    An oft-heard lament. Perhaps an actual plumber could comment below and swiftly disabuse us of this popular notion?

  8. Funnily enough I’ve just written my first novel, and to my surprise have had it accepted by an agent and a publisher (HarperCollins). The experience so far has been interesting, and the advance a bit north of £15,000, and I have yet to experience Thomas’s nightmares (I expect I shall), but I will say this: no fucker in publishing apparently responds to emails inside a fortnight, no matter how important.

  9. A friend of mine, a university post doc, had a plumber in to his Georgian flat in Edinburgh. He observed the man’s work carefully, and several times had to veto something he was about to do. The penny dropped: the plumber was rather thick and yet made a good living. So my pal taught himself plumbing, partly by picking brains in the labs, and partly by looking at BSI publications in the libraries.

    He practised his new skills in the lab, and then set up a business, a plumbing company specialising in working on, without ruining, Georgian housing. It charged a premium price; it did rather well.

    Conclusion: there’s plumbers and plumbers.

    P.S. I have no axe to grind; our last plumber was excellent and a good bloke to boot.

  10. Bloke in North Dorset


    I thought you writers were supposed to disappear to a hovel in Dartmoor or Exmoor with only cold running water and no phone and locals in the nearest village who look at you as if you have 2 heads when you pop down for a pint?

    But interesting insight to the world and I too would be interested in seeing what you write.

    Other Bloke in Italy,

    Shame I didn’t know about your book when I used to drive down there in my Jag. Now that was fun when we visited places like Sienna and San Gimignano.

  11. Interested

    I was published by HarperCollins. I had no agent at the time and they handled a Hollywood deal for me. To quote their foreign rights guy (when he was half blotto at an awards ceremony) I ‘earned them a lot of money’, because most unusually and surprisingly the movie got made. I say this not to boast but to warn you: despite any of that they responded either sluggishly or not at all to my faxes and phone calls, and extracting meaningful royalty statements from them was impossible. Eventually I gave up writing altogether and only started again some years later.

    Good luck, though, hope it works for you. Maybe by now they’re a bit more wary of alienating their authors. For the first time ever they’re up against a real businessman: Bezos.

    To the other fellows who posted kind words – thanks!

  12. Thomas – thanks, interesting words of wisdom and advice. I hope I have more luck with statements etc given I’ll have an agent chasing, but who knows? While I obviously want any dosh that wasn’t why I did it. Or at least not mostly. I would love to know more about your film experience – I wrote mine in a deliberately filmic way (i.e. lots of ‘scenes’) and have ins to Tom Hardy who would play my protagonist well. So who knows?

    PF – thanks. I was as surprised as it’s possible to be when it was picked up. Clues are difficult as I don’t want to out myself – it’s an unashamedly blokish thriller full of derring do and based on various military adventures.

  13. One other thing Thomas – and a tick in the agent box I guess – is we retain all film rights. HC gets book, eBook, audio. Not that it will ever be made into a film, but I suppose you negotiate as though it will.

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