The money issue
Sharing feelings, not figures, in 2021
It’s that magical time of year when I talk about money.
This time last year, I shared a detailed breakdown of how I made my money in 2020 as a freelance journalist. It’s one of my most read newsletters of all time. This year, I knew I wanted to write something similar, but I didn’t feel able to share actual figures. I was wracking my brains for something else money-related to write about, when it dawned on me – this. I will write about feeling weird about money and the many complicated feelings finances bring up when you work for yourself.
So in 2021, I’m sharing feelings rather than figures. Ok, there will be ~some~ figures.
The bottom line is that I’ve made less income this year and I just don’t want to share that publicly. (Sidebar: how many money puns can I get into this post?) As someone who’s been so open with figures in the past, I felt guilty for my sudden reticence to give actual numbers. Some people get less transparent as their earnings go up, my weirdness about sharing numbers seems to have gone the other way.
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The main reason for that is because I worry that I’m supposed to be this oracle of freelancing and in particular, money, and so if I don’t live up to that, I’ve somehow failed. I didn’t want to admit that my freelancing business, at least as far as income goes, isn’t so hot right now. I feel pressure to look like *iM kIlLiNg It* at freelancing because I wrote a whole damn book about how to be good at freelancing. Deep! But, of course, money is not the only metric of success in freelancing. More on that later.
One of the realities of freelancing is that some years, your income dips. If freelancing were a cookie, it’s how she would crumble. And yet despite knowing that, I fully do not want to accept it. This is partly because this is the first time my income has actually dipped; to talk like a numbers guy, I’ve had consistent year-on-year growth up until now.
Actually, let me keep talking like a numbers guy for a bit because it’s pertinent to the rest of this discussion and it makes me feel better to justify what happened.
My biggest source of income in 2021 was journalism, making up 43% of my total revenue. This was followed by commercial work, which includes content marketing as well as some campaigns I worked on with brands off the back of my book (this made up 36% of my income). I also made 17% of my income from my newsletter, which includes reader subscriptions and classified ads. And my smallest revenue source, at a very modest 4% was speaking and events.
I did some financial forensics on my income and drew some interesting conclusions about the numerous factors that caused my drop in revenue.
The first and probably biggest reason is that I paused the paid edition of this newsletter. Last year, 43% of my income came from the reader-funded option and this year it dropped to 17%. Earlier this year, I paused that. I’m going to go into a lotttt more detail about why I did that in a future newsletter, but the headline reason was… burnout!
I’m still currently making some money from my newsletter because I run classified ads in them now. However, do note that the 17% figure is not made up only of the ad revenue, most of it actually is still the subscriptions, because it was still running in the first half of the year.
I didn’t replace the newsletter revenue stream with anything else. Instead, I relied on my other existing income streams. That meant that journalism ended up becoming the main way I made money this year. This alone is a clear reason why my income took a hit. I knew from day one of freelancing that relying entirely on journalism was risky business indeed. Fees in the media biz are low and payment is slow!
Also, I personally struggle to do journalism just for the money. Whenever I’ve taken on an assignment that I wasn’t interested in because I just wanted the paycheck, I’ve always resented it. And then by extension, it’s tainted the thing I love doing: writing.
I also struggle with the other way you can make money from journalism: volume. One strategy that many successful freelancers use is writing lots of pieces that they can turn around fast (thereby making you a decently hourly rate because you can do the work in a relatively short amount of time). It’s a good approach that does works, but just not for me. I just can’t write that fast and just find it too stressful.
Also, I can’t silence the shouting numbers guy in my head that yells at me about how inefficient is to directly exchange time for money. Because something that’s glaringly obvious to me about the problem with my income streams as they stand is nearly all of them are straight trades of time for cash. This is not sustainable, my friends! I’m a big believer in diversifying income and not relying solely on revenue that you can only make once. This isn’t because I want to pretend I’m a VC-backed startup and aggressively grow, grow, grow! it’s because I think it’s healthier (emotionally and financially) to create a bit of distance between me and my ability to make money.
As far as feelings go, it pisses me off that I just can’t seem to make the economics of freelance journalism add up!
One great that that happened in my finances this year is that I did less commercial work but got paid more for it. I hit the writing jackpot by landing a couple of commercial writing projects for a rate of £1/word.
While I was able to directly push up my commercial fees this year, I only managed to do so indirectly with my journalism work. A lot of my writing for mags and rags this year was a result of my book. Editors came to me after my book came out, either to write directly about its subject matter or because they’d discovered me as a result of it. An optimistic take on this would be that I’ve made more per hour with journalism by virtue of opportunities coming directly to me, cutting down on the pitching legwork.
I also discovered new ways of making money that I didn’t even know existed!! For example, someone paid me to provide a quote for their marketing campaign as an expert talking head (again, because of the book). Here’s a juicy figure I will share: I worked out that the fee on that project was the equivalent of an hourly rate of £1000 (!) Alas, I haven’t cracked finding any more of that work… yet!
Then, there was something called The Pandemic. Interestingly enough, at least for my work, it hit harder in 2021 than in 2020. You can see that reflected in my income streams. I made a lot less from speaking events in 2021 than I did in 2020. This is significant because this was a year in which I published a book, when speaking should have been a big income generator for me. But my book came out in the middle of lockdown when events either weren’t happening at all, or had been relegated to Zoom for a lower fee.
[What’s become easier about freelancing – and what hasn’t]
I also didn’t make any money on the podcast this year. The podcast has never made the big bucks, but we did have a good streak of working with great brands. Sadly, though, our relationship with our biggest advertiser fell apart because our main contact there left for pandemic-related reasons. And generally, in the conversations we had earlier in the year, marketing budgets were tight and advertisers were nervous.
Another reason my income took a dip is that one of the major projects I worked on this year, while a huge personal and professional success, was a disaster for my finances. The Freelance Writing Awards.
We made enough in sponsorship to cover our sizeable costs and even leave us with a tiny profit, but then I factor in our time…. I will go so far as to say I don’t consider the profit we made to actually be a profit. When I weigh the amount I made against the hours of work that went into the FWAs, plus the paid work I forfeited in order to do said work, it was a big ol’ loss.
So wait why, oh why do I feel joy about this?? Because I don’t for a second regret that project. The FWAs celebrated freelancers at a time when they really needed it; it resulted in editors commissioning new writers; we pulled off a Very Hard Thing; Sian and I grew a lot closer after working so intensely together.
It might sound counter-intuitive but it was a great reminder of the fact that not all my projects need to be financial successes in order for them to be, well, a success. Being faced with the cold-hard numbers and yet my overwhelming response being pride, showed me how much those awards meant to me. Getting to work on things you love is, after all, one of the most joyful parts of working for yourself.
To be clear, what I’m sharing here is a scar, not a wound. I worked all of this stuff out earlier in the year and I’ve already taken a number of steps to course-correct where needed. And I’m excited to see the seeds I’ve planted in 2021 grow into thriving, juicy money plants in 2022.
As for my guilt around not being a good enough freelancer because I can’t show that in my income, that’s just dumb of me! I’m a guide, not a guru. I don’t profess to know everything there is to know about freelancing. Instead, my aim has always been to write candidly about my own journey. I’m just out here trying to make a sustainable solo career that brings me creative joy and some cash along the way.
For me, all of this comes down to how you measure success when you fly solo. Money is only one of many key metrics. It’s ok to strive for growth, but sometimes that growth is developmental rather than financial. I’ve come to accept that my metrics are messy – they don’t tell a complete story. And it’s so important to share the feelings as well as the figures.
This is wonderfully, commendably honest. Thank you for it, Anna.
And also, it's about the thing that is so rarely talked about: how money issues make us feel. Because THAT stuff is where it gets raw.
I'd personally add to the list: shame. For at least the first 5 years after my switch to f/t writing & p/t freelancing, I was so embarrassed about how little money I was making that I found it impossible to (a) talk about and (b) pin any fragment of self-worth onto. That cycle (or spiral) was so hard to shake off - partly because of pride not allowing me to be sympathetic or patient with myself & my efforts to build up income.
But at one point I had the very good fortune to sit down with a bunch of professional but non-famous actors, and they straightened out something inside of me. Actors experience the same boom & bust cycles as writers, but it seems like there's less guilt & shame there when things do south? At least with the ones I was chatting to. They were unabashed by hitting hard times, because they had a bazillion case studies of famous actors waiting tables for years to call upon.
So maybe (maybe?) that's a side of freelancing that could do with a bit more publicity. The folk who are working a day-job to finance it, or where it's the primary job but it's not yet paying the bills and that's totally OK because it's actually what a hell of a lot of us - maybe *most* of us - do?
Maybe it'll help us stop completely blaming ourselves, when we're not hitting everything out of the park and when the odds are temporarily stacked against us. Maybe we could feel better about the harder times. Reckon that might be a healthy, useful thing?
I have been a freelance journalist on and off throughout my 30-year career as well as doing other things. Currently freelance journalism pays less than it ever did before. For example, I was paid $50 last year by the National Review for a huge feature on coronavirus in Russia. I am just about to start a job in international trade, having to give up most of my journalism. Who is going to cover important stories?