It’s the first day of the new year and as I write this I’m still in my pyjamas. As much as I’m ready for better things to come — vaccines, hugs, concerts, all of that — on the work front I haven’t quite wrapped up the last year yet. To do that, I have to show you a pie chart.
This pie chart:
This chart shows the percentage breakdown of my different income sources in 2020. Here’s the full table, in case you’re interested in what those too-small slivers without labels are:
One footnote: my first book came out in 2019 but any proceeds resulting directly from it this year had to be excluded from this exercise because I don’t have royalties information for the whole of 2020 yet. I did include fees for the talks I gave about it this year as Book Talks, and some of Broadcasting and Journalism was also as a result of the book.
I was moved to pull this information together when I saw other freelancers sharing their pie charts in early December (I recommend browsing #FreelancePie on Twitter to see a selection). Rather than showcasing their favourite work in one of those “best things I made/wrote this year” threads, some people have chosen to be completely transparent about where their income has come from during an extraordinary year that saw some of their revenue streams completely vanish overnight. I thought this was a brilliant idea and wanted to take part, and although it’s taken me a few weeks to sit down and make the spreadsheet, I’m here now.
I’ve written before in this newsletter about my constant anxiety that I’m not really “a writer” in the self consciously literary way that my brain has absorbed as the ideal from today’s internet. It frustrates me how there is a pressure on those who do the kind of work that I do to show the world only the fancy exciting jobs while keeping the stuff that actually pays the bills in the background. This feeling coexists with my constant awareness of how lucky I am to be doing this at all; the privilege I have in still working when plenty can’t. It’s not a comfortable brain cocktail, shall we say.
Whenever I do come across a writer whose work I admire and who is also upfront online about how they make money (eg Jean Hannah Edelstein or Caroline O’Donaghue) I feel a bit less like I’m the only one who hasn’t worked out how to make a decent living out of just writing articles for magazines. I’ve had to train my brain to think of most other writers’ internet presences as icebergs. I’m only seeing the small fraction of books and New Yorker commissions that float above the surface, while the copywriting, newsroom shifts and social media consultancy that holds the whole thing up goes unseen in the dark depths.
I’d like to think that I’m not too guilty of this myself. There isn’t anything I do that I wouldn’t happily share on Twitter or Instagram in theory. In practice it just feels boring to post about how I filed another contribution to the newsletter I write for every week, say, compared with the glitzy one off thrill of getting to say “my book is published today!”. Natural as doing this is, it does contribute to the harmful myth of freelancing as a non stop glamorous pursuit where only the failures spend the majority of their time on that pays-the-bills work. Which is why I really like the pie charts, because they show that pretty much everyone is mostly doing that stuff, and that’s perfectly OK.
So that’s why in general I think this is A Good Thing for any freelance writer to be sharing. Now I want to talk a bit about my own pie chart specifically. Once I had pulled it all together, there were three main points that stood out to me.
One: I find it really hard to make traditional freelance journalism pay
By “traditional freelance journalism”, I mean pitching and writing one off articles either for legacy publications like newspapers and magazines or online media outlets eg Vice. I am in awe of anyone who makes the majority (or even a substantial minority) of their income from this. Personally, I find that the fees I can command almost always don’t reasonably cover the amount of time it takes me to hone my pitches, find somewhere to accept them, write the piece, do edits on the piece, promote the piece and chase payment for the piece.
After three full years of being a freelance writer, I’ve largely shifted to writing in regular slots for a few editors I know well (my TV columns for the New Humanist being a good example of this) and then accepting the rare good commissions that land in my inbox unprompted. I’m not going to get into a big analysis of all the ways that journalism is broken here, but I think we all know now that the display ad supported model is dying and the fees offered by lot of publications that pursued it for too long are, as a result, miniscule.
I think all of that explains why this kind of work only accounted for 3.7 per cent of my income in 2020, which was an even smaller figure than I expected. I don’t doubt that if I worked at a loss for a while and devoted all of my time to pitching and networking with editors I could bump it up a bit, but that just doesn’t feel worth it to me when there are other ways I can be earning money without that faff.
Two: Between its different revenue streams, my podcast is doing better than I thought
I work on audio for organisations and brands sometimes (that’s collected as “Audio Editing” in the pie chart) but I also run my own completely independent podcast Shedunnit. I started it in November 2018 because I love murder mysteries from the 1920s and wanted a creative outlet that I was in sole control of. Six months later the amount of time it took to make the show had increased to the point where I either needed to make some money from it or wind it down.
I started a membership scheme to support it in the form of the Shedunnit Book Club and a steady trickle of listeners has been joining up ever since. The overall listenership for the show has increased too, to the point where it does now make some money from advertising, and alongside that I also run a slightly haphazard merchandise shop from my bedroom cupboard. The last way the show brings in money is via direct donation, and whenever an email pops into my inbox to let me know that someone has sent me some cash on PayPal, I want to cry.
The pie chart, I should say, records my turnover not my profit. The podcast does take a fair amount of money to run even before I factor in the time I spend on it, with costs including hosting and website fees, my editor, the membership software, and so on. I haven’t ever dared to break down the amount of time I spend researching, recording and administering it, because I don’t really want to know what I’m making per hour as I suspect it’s not a lot. I love doing it, and sometimes that counts for more. But regardless, I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that all of the podcast’s revenue streams together account for 33 per cent of the money I brought in 2020. That gives me energy to keep going with this model — total independence is brilliant in lots of ways but it does also mean that there’s nobody to do anything or solve problems apart from me.
Three: Newsletters are an extremely big deal for me
If you’ve even glanced at my pie chart, you will have noticed that the biggest slice — 42.2 per cent — represents the writing I do for newsletters. Specifically two newsletters: Hot Pod, the trade publication for the podcast industry, and The Listener, a daily subscription podcast recommendation newsletter that grew out of The Browser.
If you’re interested in writing and how it is done on the internet (and if you’ve read this far, then I’m assuming you are) you will be well aware of how paid newsletters have grown in recent years as an alternative to the traditional freelance journalism model I referenced above. I don’t mean that newsletters aren’t publishing journalism, plenty are. A lot of what I wrote for Hot Pod this year falls firmly into that category, because I did reporting, I did interviews, I did analysis, I did commentary, and so on. I even hesitated over whether to separate out my newsletter work from the “journalism” in the chart because they are so interrelated. But in the end I did it because I think it’s useful for me and perhaps for others to see how much I’ve benefited from the combination of email distribution and reader subscriptions as opposed to the conventional pitching and invoicing model.
However, this is also the bit where I share ~ some personal news ~ as the kids say. I’m taking a sabbatical from Hot Pod in 2021 while I work on some other writing projects. In the last two and a half years I’ve covered the podcast industry through some massive acquisitions and changes, and it feels really weird to think that I’ll be seeing it from the outside rather than the inside for a while. Working with Nick Quah on what he has built at Hot Pod has been brilliant and he has been kind enough to say that as long as the newsletter still exists there will be a slot there for me to return to. So watch this space, I suppose.
I’m firmly in the no resolutions camp this year. For me, resolutions have always functioned as a kind of intentional prediction about the direction I want my life to take, and the last five years have completely cured me of trying to make any kind of guess about what will happen next. The best I can do is try. I’m going to try to spend more time with Adriene doing yoga, try to cook more new recipes, try to send this newsletter more regularly. And I’m going to try not to be disappointed in myself if I don’t do any of those things.
Thank you for reading this far and for being part of the reason that I have a pie chart at all. I hope I will have good things for you to read and listen to in the months to come. Subscribe to my newsletter to keep up with what I’m working on.