How I make money as a freelancer

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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.

Breaking down my diversified income

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.

Living with fluctuating income

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!

John and I at Alcatraz this August.

John and I at Alcatraz this August.

On being married and a freelancer

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!

Advice to future freelancers

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:

  • I’ve been on my own for three months, but my freelancing career really began six years ago, when I received my first 1099-MISC for work I’d done on the side. What I mean is, don’t quit your day job just yet. Start picking up freelance work on the side first. When your day job is just 80 or 75 percent of your total monthly earning, you’re on the right track. When you are getting more freelance work offers than you have time to take on, that’s also a good sign you’re getting ready to make the jump.
  • Get comfortable talking about money. You’re going to have a much closer relationship with it without a boss to insulate you. If you want to get paid, you can’t be afraid to figure out what your time is worth by the hour, and back it up with good work. You need to know how to send invoices and press clients who haven’t paid you.
  • On that note, be honest with yourself and figure out not just what you CAN live on, but what you’re willing to live on. You only have a certain number of hours in a month, and if you calculate a rate that will let you work all of those and subsist on ramen noodles, you probably won’t be very happy. Think about the little luxuries that make your life worth living, and figure out how much you’d have to work to fit them in your budget.

This has been my longest blog post in recent memory. Still have questions? The comment section is below, my ask.fm is right here, and you’re always welcome to email me.

Otaku Links: I’m going to Japan!

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  • If you follow me on Twitter, you know my site was copied by an identify thief this month, an issue that I only resolved with Crimm‘s help, since web hosts are very unhelpful. To stop this problem before it starts, WordPress has some excellent precautions for preventing theft—whether you have a WordPress site or not.
  • Melbourne assigned email addresses to trees to make it easier for people to report problems with them. Instead, they wrote the trees thousands of love letters.
  • I called Wakakozake the “ultimate anime for introverts,” by which I included myself. To which pretty much all of my friends pointed out my outgoing personality as proof that I’m an extrovert. Anyway, I just found out ambiverts are a thing, so maybe that’s me.
  • Next year, I’m going to Japan for the first time ever! I’ve always wanted to go, but DC is one of the furthest cities away from Tokyo and I didn’t want to spend $2k on tickets. In case you want to go, too, this is the deal I used. Anyway, I’m looking for suggestions about what to see and do and eat and sleep in Japan. I would LOVE your suggestions. Check out my Google doc and add your advice if you have any!

Photo credit: Moyan Brenn

10 steps to becoming a niche writer

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  1. Make a list of your favorite topics to read, write, and learn about. Include everything you habitually find yourself interested in, even if at first thought it sounds unprofessional or silly. Give this task the time it deserves, by settling down with pen and paper for an hour.
  2. Pick one that’s broad enough to make a career out of. You’ll know it’s the one when you can come up with ten different article ideas about that topic in ten minutes or less. Decide to become a writer that specializes in this topic.
  3. Start telling people that this is your job. Build a blog that introduces you as Your Name, Writer and indicates your specialty. Use your social media accounts to share helpful links on this topic. To keep yourself accountable, begin telling everyone you know that this is your job.
  4. Begin pitching editors and other people in positions to hire you. Introduce yourself with your new job title, and pitch some of the article ideas you generated in step two.
  5. Paying work may not come right away. Write all the time anyway. Assign yourself articles to write, and publish them regularly on your blog. Your identity as a niche writer is valid as soon as you begin putting effort into it, not as soon as you begin getting paid.
  6. Begin to get acquainted with the people in your niche. Get to know community leaders. Find out where other people who are interested in this topic spend their time—both online and off. Introduce yourself to the other writers covering this topic. When you publish an article on your topic, make sure to let these people know.
  7. You may not have been very good at journalism at first. You may not have been a trained writer or experienced with web publishing. Keep learning and pushing yourself. Read books, tutorials, and the articles of writers you admire. As you continue to practice by posting on your blog, you will get better.
  8. As you continue to share your work and that work keeps improving, people will start to notice. Some of these people will be able to hire you. Take the opportunities that feel right to you, and celebrate your victories.
  9. As the opportunities continue to accumulate, consider quitting your day job. If you can make enough on your writing alone, and it feels right to you, quit. If you prefer to keep your niche writing as a side gig, don’t. In both cases, stay choosy about your job opportunities, picking places to write that treat you and your topic well.
  10. You are becoming a known writer in your field. This is only the beginning. Continue to improve by taking on larger and more ambitious projects. Write books or teach courses alongside writing articles. Begin thinking about what you want to be remembered for as a writer. Do work you can be proud of that reflects that.

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

Otaku Links: Gunpla, Lolita fashion, and how Anitwitter can all just get along

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  • I spent my weekend shopping for, building, and photographing Gundam models. My latest post on my other blog, Gunpla 101, is just the first of many to come out of it. If you’re scratching your head, here’s a link for the uninitiated.
  • Meet the Hijabi Lolita. I’ve always been fascinated with Lolita culture and it’s just as impressive to see how Alyssa Salazar blends it seamlessly with her lifestyle.
  • @iblessall wrote an open letter to Anitwitter reminding us that we “create the worst community that [we] allow.” I don’t think this is hard. Just treat everyone on Anitwitter like somebody you will (probably) run into in person at a con one of these days.
  • Another review of my Niche Journalism Workbook, this time by Apricotsushi! I’m so grateful to everyone who has bought it so far. I really want it to be an invitation to ask me further questions so I can eventually improve the workbook based on your feedback.

The Biggest Mistake Geek Writers Make

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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.