Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: The Great Experiment
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“This post marks the beginning of an experiment.”
That’s how I started the Freelancer’s Survival Guide, back in April of 2009. The experiment was mine; I had no idea how well writing a book chapter by chapter on my website would work—or if it would work at all.
As I mentioned a few times, my friend Michael J. Totten has made a good living from his blog. But Michael travels to the Middle East and reports from there, doing the kind of journalism most media outlets can’t afford to do any longer. His readers appreciate what he’s doing and fund his travels, so that they can get the news they crave from a part of the world still undercovered in the United States.
When I spoke to Michael about writing my Guide, I knew I wouldn’t attract the readership he has; I wasn’t providing the timely and necessary service that he is. He convinced me to add the donate button. I thought it wouldn’t be used. I was wrong.
I was wrong about many things. I figured the blog itself and the weekly deadline would keep me honest. I would finally finish the book that I had planned to write for years. Then I would market it, and some publisher would buy it, put it in the stores at a relatively small level, and that would be that.
What a difference fifteen months makes.
Here’s what I was right about:
I finished the book I had planned to write for years. The deadline did keep me honest, although at times it felt like a high-wire act performed in public without a net.
That’s it. I was right about nothing else.
I haven’t yet crunched all the numbers. In addition to finishing the Freelancer’s Guide just last week, I am finishing a major novel. I have a revision due on another novel. I also had to write an essay that required a great deal of research for a textbook, and finish my bimonthly column. Not to mention a bunch of work I must do for the publisher who is putting my entire backlist online. And I almost forgot the three e-mail interviews (time-consuming), and some research for the novel after the two I’m finishing.
Which is all a long way of saying that I had no time for number crunching of the serious variety. I’m organizing the Guide—I got one section in order in the middle of the weekend. Two other sections are online now, so you can order them separately if you have need of those topics (see below). I’m still on track to get the Guide out to everyone who donated before I leave for Germany in the middle of September. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I should barely make that self-imposed deadline.
When I do that, I will have finished the number-crunching, so that I know who donated more than once, and via different e-mail accounts, and so on.
Right now, my numbers are a bit vague.
Here’s what I do know: People from more than 25 countries read the Guide every week. Most of the readers came from the United States, followed by Canada and England. Quite a few came from France and Japan, with Australia coming in sixth. After that, it depended on the month as to which countries brought me the most readers.
The Guide was, by far, the most read item on my website. People didn’t stop at one post, either. They caught up on past posts. (Guess I’d better update the last of the table of contents.) Once they discovered the Guide, many people began at the beginning and read post after post.
I got a tremendous number of private letters, more than I can count, commenting on everything from personal responses to my posts to locating a few mathematical errors (thanks!). I learned that posts about money made everyone shut up except me. (I love to talk money.) I learned that posts about emotions inspired the most personal letters, often recounting personal stories which I, in turn, found inspiring.
My big fear as I started up the blog was opening it to comments. I’ve written columns electronically for more than a decade now, and my experience with comments has—up until the Guide—been primarily negative. Several people on the net seemed out to prove just how stupid I was or how I couldn’t know what I was talking about. Even more attacked me personally.
I didn’t want that to happen on my blog. I asked several people how they managed comments on their blogs. Most people had never had the problems I had with negative comments on their own blogs. A few writers had, and they suggested that I moderate the comments, simply preventing the negative comments from getting through.
I sighed and agreed, not wanting to admit that I wasn’t worried about other people reading hateful things about me. I didn’t want to go to my internet computer every morning and get told what a horrible person I was. In short, I was more worried about my reaction to the negative post than I was about other peoples’ reactions. But I manned up, and took the risk.
And never once got a nasty comment. Not one. No hate mail, none of those vile comments I had gotten as recently as two years ago on my columns for online publications. Thank you for that. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the civility that you’ve all shown on my site.
The discussions were lively as well, livelier than I expected, although they never reached the depth and breadth of comment that my husband, Dean Wesley Smith, gets on his Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing blog. I think that has more to do with content than anything. Dean is destroying myths. I’ve been providing information. Information is a lot less controversial than using facts to skewer assumptions.
Finally, the donate button. I had hoped that I would get a few hundred dollars so that I didn’t feel like I was wasting valuable writing time, time that I would have normally been paid for. If I had gotten no donations, I figured I could use the first three chapters of the Guide, add a proposal and attempt to sell the thing to New York, getting money nine months in or so.
Well, a couple things thwarted that plan. First, I write out of order. Aways have, always will. I would have had to wait until six or eight weeks in before I had the right kind of material to show to a publisher. By that point, I had enough donations to pay a small advance.
Most advances from modern publishing come this way: half on signing of the contract and half on acceptance. The small advance you folks paid me came in long before I would have gotten any money from New York. The money trickled in during the entire time I wrote the Guide instead of in lump sums, which was nice as well. By the time I finished, I had a full advance for a non-bestselling nonfiction book. That’s about six months earlier than I would have received any money had a major publisher purchased the book four months into my writing process.
No major publisher has purchased the book because I haven’t mailed it to any of them. Midway through writing, I realized the book would be larger than most publishers could comfortably handle. I also decided that I would rather publish it myself, not just in e-book format, but in a print edition as well.
I wanted all of the information in the book, not just the topics some publisher felt should be in there. The topics would be chosen by them, not because the others were unimportant, but because we would have to cut something to bring down the cost of production.
I also wanted the freedom to update the volume whenever I felt like it. Working electronically and via a print-on-demand service, I could update the book each week if I wanted to. That flexibility is important, because there are big changes coming, not just in publishing, but in many areas. Already the piece I wrote on insurance is somewhat out of date. That bit will change annually until 2014, when (theoretically), all of the provisions of the new U.S. health care law will kick in.
Then there’s the fact that I’m constantly learning. I’ll probably be dissatisfied with the advice I gave in some section as I learn more about the topic or the information I have gets updated. I wanted the flexibility to alter that as well.
Finally, I realized during one of my posts marked “Part five” that some of the sections were long enough to be minibooks on a particular topic. I could try to convince some publisher to do the minibook or I could do it myself. I’ve already started that process, with the two below.
The minibooks are for people like me, people who don’t want 140,000 words of some how-to book when they only really need 30,000 words on one of the topics covered in the table of contents. The longer book will have every topic; the shorter ones will only have the topics that lend themselves to more than one post.
What has changed the most since April of 2009, however, is me. I am much more comfortable working online. I’m happy with doing my own electronic editions. I’m exciting about bringing back my rusty publishing skills to get the book out in print editions. I’ve also embraced my inner nonfiction writer. I didn’t quite abandon her when I gave up my nonfiction career to focus on fiction. I continued to dabble. But I missed the opportunity to stretch my nonfiction wings more than I wanted to admit.
I declare the experiment officially over. Not only that, I declare it a success. Although, to me, success seems like an awfully small word for the changes doing the Freelancer’s Guide has brought to me.
It’s developed a community. It’s put me in touch with old friends and helped me make some new ones. It forced me to formalize my own thoughts and opinions about various topics. It showed me the freedom of online publishing. It also brought in readers who would never have come to my site otherwise, people who don’t read fiction, people outside my insular genre fiction universe.
Thank you all for participating. It’s meant a lot to me.
As I came to the end of the weekly portion of the Guide, I had mixed feelings. I wanted to be done, like I always do on any book that I write. I wanted to have my Wednesdays back. I disliked the deadline, but I loved it as well. The Guide made me more productive. I found that on the days when my health problems make it hard for me to write fiction, I could generally work on the Guide. I hadn’t missed my deadline, so if I was going to be out of town or teaching, I figured out a way to rearrange my schedule so that I could get the Guide done. (I even got up four hours early one morning to finish, which is more serious than you realize, considering how allergic I am to mornings.)
The closer I got to finishing the Guide, the more I realized I didn’t want to give up my weekly nonfiction work. I like the interaction. I like exercising different writing muscles. I even like the deadline, although I complain about it.
A number of you wondered what you would read on Thursdays now that the Guide is done. I had been wondering that for a while. And in that jigsaw puzzle way my brain works, it doled out the answer when it was good and ready—last Thursday, after I had put up the last Guide column.
Starting next week, I’m going to write a weekly business blog. It won’t be as focused as the Guide, although there might be a stretch of weeks on the same topic. The reason I decided on business is this: it allows me to talk about a variety of things, from the latest publishing news to importance of this week’s manufacturing numbers, things that don’t fall into a narrow topic defined by a book.
Part of the blog will be an interactive feature called Ask the Freelancer. If you have a question about freelancing, ask me, give me permission to use your letter, and I’ll respond on the site. If you don’t want your name added, use a signoff like you might find in an advice column: Wondering in Wichita or something like that. I’ll make sure to use it.
The Ask The Freelancer part will occur as often as I have letters. If I don’t, I won’t use that feature.
I’ll also use the business blog to post the updated Freelancer’s Guide articles, the ones that have changed since the original post.
I have a variety of other ideas as well, but those are the ones I can put into words right now. The one thing I don’t have is a good name for the blog. I’d like it to be plain like “The Business Blog” but I’m certain—without even doing a Google search—that there are hundreds of those. So if you have any ideas, feel free to send them along.
Installment one of the Unnamed Business Blog is next Thursday. We’ll continue with our discussions.
Again, thanks for the help with my great experiment. I know a number of you have said that the Freelancer’s Guide made a difference in your lives. It certainly has made a difference in mine—and it couldn’t have happened without y’all.
As promised, here are the two sections of the Guide already in ebook format. I’ll let you know each time we publish more sections of the Guide. The books will be available in all e-formats, however it takes a while to get to some of the sites. If you can’t find what you’re looking for on your favorite site, go to Smashwords and download there.