In May, I parted ways with my biggest journalism client at the time, the one that was responsible for 75% of my income by itself. Since then, I’ve been a full time freelancer.
That was the last time I had a client that held me to specific hours, mainly 9 to 6 on weekdays. All summer, however, nobody has been accountable for my time but myself. I can write in the morning, code after midnight, and read a book in the park in the afternoon. I get how, when I’m tweeting at all hours, it might seem like I don’t actually have a job.
In my latest newsletter, I put out an exclusive poll to my readers about what they’d like to read about here. A few people asked how I earn a living, and this is a topic I LOVE to discuss because I think there are a lot of misconceptions. Let me tell you how I make money.
After I left my client in May, I interviewed for some office jobs. Each time, I mentioned the many streams of income I have and each time, the interviewer asked if I’d be willing to give those up and focus exclusively on the job I was applying for. I always said no, which is probably why I never got the job. I can see why a company wants a loyal employee, but I have to look out for myself. If I got laid off, I’d be back at zero dollars a month.
I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces, like this one, that paint a freelance career as the opposite of financial security, as something people do only reluctantly. But for me, having a diversified income means that even if I lose one of my jobs, I’m not completely down and out. I’ll still be earning some money, which will make it easier to get back on my feet.
Currently, my monthly income comes from four places:
Gunpla 101. I build model robots and teach others to do the same. I’m an Amazon affiliate so when people click on links to Amazon and buy something, I make a small commission each time. This is slowly but surely growing to the point that I just hired a recurring guest columnist. I think it’s incredibly important to pay writers, so I waited until I could offer a competitive sum.
Amazon Kindle and Gumroad. I sell my books and workbooks at these two places. Amazon sells considerably better than Gumroad, since I’ve been there much longer and I don’t think a lot of people realize I’m on Gumroad yet. I sell my books ridiculously cheap for the amount of effort I put into them, so even when they sell well it’s really just in the low three figures a month. (By the way, sometimes I have traditional book deals, which usually pay up front and do not continue to earn money, the way my self-published books do.)
Anime News Network. Every season, I watch three shows and write three 500-word reviews. Reviewers are asked not to discuss how much money we earn there and I’m honoring that.
Forbes lets me work with one of my favorite editors, Helen Popkin, and write about my favorite topics. I am paid in clicks, which leads to some ConAir stories which do extremely well but don’t necessary “feed my soul,” if we want to get weird about it. I have written exactly five articles in August because i had a major web design project, but I’ll be back next month.
Web Design Clients. I make websites for the government, universities, businesses, and individuals. I don’t talk about this much, because it feels disingenuous that I write about being a full-time writer when I do other stuff as well. I know it’s possible to make my living freelance writing full time, because I’ve done it before and know many who still do. But the thing is, I really, really love designing websites. It makes me feel like a magician. I am in the process of becoming more open about this. You can also contact me if you’re interested in my services and you want a web designer that knows the difference between Love Live and your love life.
My diversified income is not always steady. A lot of these income streams are dependent on traffic. Gunpla 101 does better if i’m updating more. Kindle sales do better when I’ve just put out a book. Forbes does better when there’s no major news—on lighter news days, people like reading about and sharing about geeky stories more than when something intense is happening. Web design clients come and go, which makes sense: the idea is after I make a website for them, they don’t need me anymore!
This means my income can fluctuate from a whopping five figures in a month… to three figures the next month. I deal with this in a couple different ways:
Documentation. I keep intense spreadsheets to record my yearly earnings, monthly earnings, monthly expenses, taxes paid and owed, and other stuff like that. This also helps me remember to check in with clients who haven’t paid me yet. When you freelance, you become really good at talking about money (as this post clearly shows).
Emergency fund. Freelance work usually pays 30 days after I do it, and that’s when there aren’t issues with paperwork or the bank. That can mean I have money on its way soon, but the rent is due now. I keep an “emergency” savings account stocked with about $5k for the purpose of emptying out in the lean times, and replenishing in the good times. That way I don’t have to keep an uncomfortable amount of money in my checking account, but I also don’t have to withdraw from my actual savings when things get periodically tight.
Save where I can. When I first started freelancing, I looked at my bank statements to determine the bare minimum I could live on. I know the number I need to pay my bills and buy groceries, but that’s not really how I want to live. So I cut corners and live in a way that makes me feel rich. Traveling makes me feel wealthy. You may have noticed I go on vacation a lot. What you might not know is that I haven’t bought any clothing in years (except this sweet Omocat shirt). I also drive a ten-year-old car and have an occasionally inconvenient $20-a-month cell phone plan. I don’t have a washer-dryer or a thermostat in my ‘60s era apartment. (I could go on, but this isn’t the Frugal Olympics.) But hey, my Instagram makes it look like I’m living the life!
Unlike me, my husband, John, works a traditional 9-to-5 office job. I’m pretty sure a lot of people just assume John provides for me, or at least pays some of my bills. Not the case. We split everything 50-50, because yes, I make about as much as he does with my weird job.
I’m pretty good at acknowledging my financial privileges (thanks to two scholarships and two very generous parents, I don’t have student loan debt), but being married isn’t one of them. While I currently get my healthcare through John, if I were single, I’d still have lots of options. I’ve also paid out of pocket in the past—do people realize how cheap the dentist is this way? Being uninsured is no reason to skip your annual cleaning.
If there’s a perk to being a married freelancer, it’s the idea that if I’m really, really in trouble, I can ask John to help me out. The idea of doing that really bothers me, because it’s been important to keep my independence after getting married. So far that hasn’t happened, and during some months (due to my fluctuating income) I make more than he does!
Becoming completely self-employed is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. Even when I’m busy I feel rich in time, because I plan my own schedule and prioritize what I think is important. I love working from wherever I want, whenever I want, and always making time to cook dinner in the evening, which is definitely my favorite chore.
It’s also one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I pay taxes four times a year (eight times if you count state taxes). I have to motivate myself and be entirely responsible for deadlines I can’t meet or promises I can’t deliver on. I have to constantly be selling myself.
If you think the perks are worth the challenges (as I certainly do), here’s my advice to you:
P.S. If you’re wondering how I know this works, I lived it. Still living it, in fact. And I look forward to letting you know what steps 11 through 20 are, someday.
Photo credit: David Joyce
If you’re a geek writing about geeky things, I’m already inclined to love your writing. I don’t think anyone makes a better guide into a community than somebody who is already a member of it.
For instance, I’d rather read a guide to fanfiction written by a fanfiction reader or writer than an article by somebody who has just Googled the definition of “fanfiction” for the first time. That sounds like an exaggeration, but oh, it exists, it’s on a sports site of all things, and it’s not pretty.
Being a geek writer will help you avoid the major pitfalls that come with writing about fandom. You won’t belittle your subject or your readers. You’ll be less likely to flub major parts of the community’s lexicon or mythos. And you’ll actually know what you’re talking about!
It’s that last advantage, however, that can be as much of a curse as a blessing.
Which brings me to my premise: the number one mistake that geek writers make is assuming that everyone knows as much about their fandom as they do.
We geeks have some pretty obscure knowledge, and that can lead to some unfortunately obtuse reporting if we don’t rein it in. It’s the written equivalent of when I’m sharing my love of Gundam modeling with somebody at a party and their eyes glaze over. “So I’m building a model of the RX-78-2 that’s 144th scale when my Tamiya cutters… oh you have to leave? Already?”
My Forbes editor, Helen Popkin, she of the ConAir method of reporting for clicks, has a theory for niche journalism, too. Not surprisingly, it has a name that’s just as pop-culture relevant as the first one. It’s the Dursley Method of Writing For Muggles.
Most Harry Potter books, Helen’s method goes, reintroduce Harry and his story for readers who may have forgotten the story so far—or even readers who are just now joining the tale. It does this by putting Harry back with the Dursleys and recanting his history to this point.
However, J.K. Rowling manages to do this without boring more knowledgeable readers to tears. Even if you just read the previous Harry Potter book yesterday, you’ll still want to read every word of the introduction. At the same time that it is filling in the backstory, it’s also sharing new information in the form of Harry’s current misadventures with the Dursleys. By putting Harry’s history as a backdrop to his story right this moment, everyone stays interested and informed.
In a niche article, this can take the form of an anecdotal introduction. You can begin instantly drawing in both geek and outsider readers alike by beginning immediately with somebody’s story. People love to read about people, so you’ll keep everyone interested by peppering in the relevant factual information in between the lines of an anecdote about somebody you’ve interviewed.
You’ll notice that this is the technique I use over and again in my Forbes stories about fandom. Forbes has the most mainstream audience of anywhere I’ve written since CNN, so it’s reasonable to believe complete newcomers are stumbling on my articles here. Even for niche sites, however, it’s better to assume that not every reader is as well versed as you are in the nuances of a particular fandom.
For example, your reader may love the Mass Effect video games but be totally ignorant of Dragon Age. Since the games share many similar elements, your article could be the difference between somebody drawing a connection and discovering her new favorite game, or remaining totally confused by your jargon. In an article about Dragon Age, I might begin with a narrative about a gamer I’ve interviewed who professes it to be her favorite game, and fill in the blanks as I go.
If your niche interests are as interesting as you think (and I think they are), then it’s worth going the extra step to keep your geeky stories inclusive. Start your article with the story of a person, instead of a concept or a thing, in order to get everybody on the same page.