My First Year of Full-Time Freelancing

Writer's Digest Nov/Dec 2015

In June 2014, after 15 years of conventional full-time employment, I struck out on my own as a full-time consultant and freelancer. I’ve had a very successful first year, increasing my previous annual income by roughly 50 percent.

In the issue of Writer’s Digest currently on newsstand (November/December 2015), I’ve written a feature article on how writers can become their own boss, by reflecting on how and why I was able to make the leap; I also interviewed other freelancers who’ve made the transition within the last few years. As a sidebar, I offer a transparent look at my income, and list the exact dollar figures I earn by source.

Here are a few other things I’d like to share—not in the article—about my experience so far.

1. The Short-Term Pressure to Say Yes and Long-Term Need to Say No

I had about three months to prepare for full-time freelance, when I was still earning a full-time salary but had a definitive “last day” on the calendar with my employer. During that time, not knowing how things would go, I more or less said yes to every potential opportunity, while also proactively looking for a few of my own. For my first half-year of freelance, I said yes, yes, yes to everything or everyone external.

It wasn’t necessarily the wrong thing to do, but it was driven by income anxiety rather than by strategy or what would be an efficient use of my time and energy. It was also driven by lack of confidence that I could succeed and be profitable at things wanted to pursue. No doubt this is a problem all freelancers have throughout their career: the pressure to take on the paying work you could have right now, rather than invest in something that pays much further down the road.

I have to keep reminding myself that every “yes” to something I’m not that excited about means saying “no” to something else important to me. Of course, over time, as reputation and status grow, you get to call more and more of the shots.

2. Attracting the Right Kind of Work (or Client)

While I was working at F+W Media years ago, the annual budget review meeting was notorious for executives asking, “Can we raise the price on that?” It became tiresome after a while, and I understood the wisdom of it then—but I understand it even better now.

Charging a low price to attract a large number of clients/customers can be less efficient than charging a high price to a fewer number of clients/customers. Price also communicates something about the value of what you’re providing. Obviously, there is a limit to how far you can price-hike before people think you’re deluded or trying to rip them off, and the pricing also has to be informed by the market you’re targeting. (I’m fairly conscious of services provided to unpublished writers who may never see a return on investment and are not exactly pursuing a high-income profession.)

The hard part: I often value my time more highly than many of those who might pay me. Or, put another way, I see the earnings potential in an hour of my time as far greater than what many should pay me or want to pay me. That’s a business challenge I continue to address, but one solution is to be far more specific about the type of work I try to attract.

Also, I like the advice that Michael Ellsberg has offered on this: Look for your happy price, or the price at which you feel happy (not resentful) doing the work.

3. The Accounting, The Accounting, The Accounting

I wish I had done more legwork upfront on setting up proper business accounts, separate business credit cards, and more. I’m only recently catching up on this. Here are the tools I discovered that you could use to help track business expenses and income:

  • Wave: free web-based accounting and invoicing (will allow you to import transactions from bank accounts and credit cards)
  • Ally: free online checking (but be careful: they don’t permit business accounts; however, it’s a good way to begin separating out your writing/freelance income and expenses if you’re a sole proprietor)
  • Chase Ink Business credit cards: these are the credit cards recommended by the Points Guy to maximize rewards

If you’ve experienced the transition to full-time freelance, I’d love to know about your experience and advice in the comments.

In June 2014, after 15 years of conventional full-time employment, I struck out on my own as a full-time consultant and freelancer. I’ve had a very successful first year, increasing my previous annual income by roughly 50 percent. Here are a few other things I’d like to share about my experience so far.

Posted in Business for Writers and tagged , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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36 Comments on "My First Year of Full-Time Freelancing"

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awriterofhistory

Congrats on your success, Jane. Yours is a ‘go-to’ blog I rarely miss. All best for the next year.

Emily Wenstrom
Thanks for this great post–I can relate! I shifted to full-time freelancing (or, as I sometimes mentally call it, full-time side hustling, as part of my work is building out some long-term solopreneur projects) seven months ago. After saying yes to just about everything I could snag for the first few months, I found myself satisfyingly busy after five months, pushing my threshold at six months, and now in month seven, I’m at that point where my busy-ness is getting in the way of my business planning, and I’m going to have to start making some strategic changes to where… Read more »
Carol Pearson
Jane, congrats on Year One! I’ve been freelancing since Al Gore invented the Internet and you’ve hit on some really important points. It’s taken me years to figure out that saying NO to the wrong work is the best way to propel your business (and your happiness level) forward. Whether that no is because of the price, the project or the energy of the client, you know it when it’s in front of you. Clearly defining the kind of people you want to be around, and knowing your own “happy price” as you put it (love that) makes all the… Read more »
Roberta Codemo
I started my business in 2009 but did not begin actively pursuing it until 2013, when I kept a part-time job to supplement my writing income. I launched full-time in 2014, at the same time I developed a life-threatening illness. My clients stuck by me, even when I couldn’t work, and this year has been a crucial year in building new client relationships, solidifying old ones and giving up the part-time job. This has been a learning year but I’m glad I made the leap. I also now have a clearer focus on the type of writing I want to… Read more »
Christina Katz

Congratulations! As a long-time friend who knew you back when, I’m very proud of you. Tips on freelancing? The big one is like your yes vs. no tip. String together a variety of gigs together that you love to work on, so that you don’t get bored just doing one thing and you are always excited to switch tasks and move on to the next thing that needs to be done. Look forward to reading the article!

Indy Quillen
Congrats Jane – and thanks for sharing! I love your blogs – always full of great info. I started my own business five years ago and like you I took on everything that came my way – and like you I quickly learned that it’s better to spend your time on projects you are excited about. As demand grew for my time, I raised my prices – always staying within what the market was supporting. It’s important to me to work with clients who appreciate my experience and time. I have found that “happy price” where I feel well compensated… Read more »
Roz Morris @Roz_Morris
Congratulations, Jane! I really like your points about pricing and opportunities. It’s a tricky balance to strike, knowing whether to commit to a project that isn’t quite right or whether to hold out for one that is better long term. A piece of advice I’d add to your wisdom is this. You’ll get paid gross, instead of having tax and national insurance deducted (I don’t know what the US names for these are, but assume you have them). The moment you’re paid anything, hive off an amount for these taxes and keep your hands off it until your tax bill… Read more »
Catherine Onyemelukwe

Great piece, Jane. I just set up my Wave account!

Lourdes Venard

I highly recommend Jane’s article in Writer’s Digest. Great tips. I became a full-time freelancer two months ago after 30 years of in-house work. I’d been freelancing on the side for several years, until I could make the switch with plenty of work. With planning, the transition really can be seamless. Loved the tips in WD on how to make that happen.

britta326

I always enjoy reading what you write about. Whether it is your career, your insights or your services, I always gain new nuggets of information. Thanks, I hope, for the future wisdom that I’ll need when I reenter the workforce after my children are in school. Freelance may be my best option if I can get my unpublished work off the ground.

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[…] Friedman’s Writer’s Digest feature article on her first year as a full-time freelancer. Here, however, Jane shares a few tidbits about her experience to date that aren’t in the magazine […]

Marie Poirier

It is not an issue here in Canada (thanks to publicly-funded health insurance and in some provinces a public drug insurance plan that pays part of the cost of medication) but in the US the biggest deterrent to freelancing full-time is getting or keeping health insurance since it is often tied to one’s employer. Getting health insurance as a self-employed individual is very expensive. Some freelancers are lucky enough to be part of a spouse’s health insurance plan but not all can. Maybe the recent changes in the US health insurance (so-called Obamacare) help freelancers.

Derek Walter

Congratulations on the move, Jane! It replicates my recent experience of making the leap to full-time freelancing. As you alluded to, the most critical issue for anyone contemplating this move is to look at themselves as a business. You have to pay attention to cash flow, invoicing, and timely communication with clients.

Shameless plug: My portfolio (very much a work in progress) is over at derekwalter.com for you or anyone else who wants to check it out.

Thanks for listening, and all the best!

Ally

Congrats on making the leap! It was very affirming (and a little funny) to read a seasoned industry pro and publishing personality struggling with things like saying “yes” to everything. I’m used to nodding in commiseration when newbie freelancers talk about the common challenges we all have faced on this career path, but it was a new perspective to hear those same things from someone like you 🙂 Thank you for your honesty, insight, and transparency.

S. J. Pajonas (spajonas)
S. J. Pajonas (spajonas)

Congratulations on making a big move! I used to freelance build websites about 5 years ago, and a lot of your reasons are the reasons I stopped doing it. It is definitely hard but very rewarding. You make lots of good points here, so hopefully you balance it all well!

Lisa Rivero (@Lisa_Rivero)
Really good advice and thoughts in both this piece and your WD article, Jane, and congratulations! I’ve enjoy following (and learning from) your career. It’s helpful to see the $$ breakdown. For several years I worked as a part-time freelance book indexer and part-time adjunct professor (and part-time writer). and this summer I let go of the teaching (bittersweet but right decisions), as I realized I was working full-time hours at home, anyway, and for more money than I could make teaching a full-time load. Mainly I needed to have less of a patchwork life. The bulk of my income… Read more »
Dave Malone (@dzmalone)
Very inspiring, Jane. And a hearty congratulations. 🙂 The “happy price” article was a nice addition and very timely for me! To piggyback on Roz’s comment, my very first accounting lesson was a costly one–paying self-employment tax. In case this helps others, for a thriving freelance business, one has basically three choices: self-proprietor/DBA, LLC, or S-Corporation. As a self-proprietor, you get taxed in full. So I would definitely suggest to the savvy folks, to either establish as an LLC or S-CORP. I chose to do an S-CORP, where I pay myself a “salary” (taxed), and I also distribute to myself… Read more »
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[…] Many writers freelance. Jane Friedman shares some tips for those who want to freelance full time. […]

Cat Johnson
Great piece, Jane. Thanks! I made the transition to full-time freelancer over the course of a few years, so I didn’t have that “last day” staring me in the face. I picked up more and more freelance writing gigs until it became too much to keep five days. At that point, I dropped one day at my day job. When that got to be too much, I dropped another day. Rinse and repeat until I’m at the point now where I just go in and help out for a few hours a week. I’m aware that I was really fortunate… Read more »
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Radhika - Fulltime Nomad

Congratulations, Jane! So much good advice, especially No. 3. I only recently started using Wave too and I WISH I’d started earlier!

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[…] 4. For the freelancers (or future freelancers) here is Jane Friedman with a look at her First Year of Full-Time Freelancing. […]

Rachel

Thanks Jane! As always, a very helpful and insightful post. I have been trying to break into freelance work recently, and have found it hard to grow a client base or to earn enough money to be considered sustainable! Your post gives me hope that with a lot of hard work (and I am sure sweat and tears!!) I will eventually get there.

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