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“I’m not definitively rich” (or: The strange economics of the creative life)

Earlier today, I received the proofs for a 2,000 word article I have coming out in the next issue of Emory Magazine, the alumni magazine of Emory University, one of my alma maters.

The subject of the article is visual artist Brendan McConnell, also an Emory grad. Earlier this year, McConnell rocketed out of relative obscurity and straight into the pages of The New Yorker in a lengthy profile piece written by Susan Orlean. The publication of that article was followed by a nearly six-minute segment on “The Colbert Report,” a spot on the front page of The Boston Globe, and a post on NPR’s popular food blog, “The Salt.”

Despite all this coverage, I actually hadn’t heard of O’Connell when I was assigned the article. I read all the press, watched “The Colbert Report” segment, and spent a lot of time on O’Connell’s website before we met for our interview at a restaurant in Manhattan. Without intending to denigrate the other writers and folks who had covered O’Connell, I was struck by how each piece was essentially a rehash of Orlean’s article. Everyone focused on the part of O’Connell’s oeuvre that Orlean had written about: his series of paintings about Walmart.

Yes, Walmart.

I had to write about that, too–it was a significant element of the specs I’d been given by the magazine editor. But I also hoped I’d be able to angle into some other aspects of O’Connell’s life and career that no one else had addressed in their pieces about him.

One of the things I was most interested in was what impact O’Connell’s seemingly sudden success had had on him so far. He could now sell a painting for $40,000. $40,000! How did that feel? Was it life-changing? Did he view all this media coverage as a total game changer?

I’ll admit, the interest was as personal as it was professional. Since the publication of the Pope book this spring, I’ve had a number of friends and acquaintances assume that I’d suddenly hit the big time, the jackpot. Now don’t get me wrong: the book was a game changer in many ways. And financially, it came at a time when I really (no, really needed the money). I’m incredibly grateful for the financial and professional gains it granted me. But because the economics of the creative life are so strange, the book has not (at least not yet) been a windfall because what happens when a writer or artist comes into a chunk of change is that he or she can finally pay off bills that have been sitting around for a while. He or she might be able to invest in a little professional development or get a haircut or buy filet mignon for dinner instead of beef tips or make half a year’s deposit on their kid’s tuition. Maybe they can sock away a month or two worth of rent. Maybe they can purchase a health insurance plan. And these are not insignificant purchases or investments.

“I’m not definitively rich,” O’Connell said. “I can pay my phone bill now, and that’s nice. But definitively rich? No, not that.”

One of the things that happens when writers and artists suddenly start making money is that it tends to come, like O’Connell’s and mine has, in a couple of large deposits. Those are what people focus on. “O’Connell can make $40,000 on a painting?! He’s hit the big time!” What they don’t consider is how many paintings O’Connell needs to sell or how many books need to move off shelves for an artist or writer to approach the kind of “salary” that someone with a “regular” job makes in a year. If O’Connell only sells one painting at $40,000 this year, it’s not really a windfall at all. It’s $10,000 below the median household income in the United States. O’Connell, like me, has two kids. $40,000 can go surprisingly fast.

But don’t get me wrong. O’Connell and I are both grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given, opportunities that have given us more freedom and flexibility and, yes, liquidity, than many of our peers. He talks about that, and about many other themes, in the piece, which will be accessible in print and online in the fall issue of Emory Magazine. No more spoilers here- I hope you’ll read the piece when it’s available.

Hazards of Freelancing: The Hidden Costs of Freelancing

I hope I will never need to work in an office again; the past 10 years of freelancing have spoiled me in many ways, above all with respect to determining my own schedule, which is different every day. I am grateful beyond words to be able to work from wherever I wish (which can also be different every day) and to be able to have my husband and our children close, to have the freedom and flexibility to be spontaneous with them and on my own, too.

That being said, there are some drawbacks of freelancing that wear on me more as the years go by. I wanted to take a look at some of them this week in a series of posts about the hazards of freelancing.

My first post in this series is about the hidden costs–and by “costs” I’m referring to quite literal expenses–of being a freelancer.

These costs are nothing new to me, but recently, I’ve been acutely aware of how onerous they are. And the particular burden they’re imposing on my life compels me to wonder why, in an age when so many people (at least in this country) have untethered themselves from cubicles and biweekly paychecks, our institutions can’t seem to find a way to manage us and certify our existence without a pay stub.

How very 20th-century.

Back in 2007, I moved to Mexico to establish residency and battled with Immigration to explain my financial situation. Though I exceeded the total annual income required to be granted residency, I could not prove this with pay stubs, which Immigration insisted were necessary to substantiate that I wouldn’t become a burden to the country and its government.

Quite simply, I didn’t have pay stubs. I also didn’t receive the same amount of money every quincena (every pay period). I tried to explain the concept of freelancing (“cuenta propismo” in Spanish), but it didn’t matter. The system was set up to handle only those applicants for residency who could conform to the requirement requests being made of them, that is, people who held “stable” office jobs with biweekly paychecks cut with the same sum each pay period.

Though I was ultimately able to establish residency (the “how” of which is too long to explain here), I’ve realized that the problem of substantiating my earnings is a problem here in the States, too.

Our daughter recently started pre-school. An expensive pre-school. Thankfully, the school offers some modest financial aid and a monthly payment plan, but guess what? It too wants to know what our biweekly income is and, not unreasonably, school administrators want us to pay a fixed sum on the first of each month.

The problem with this system is that it’s not at all flexible. It doesn’t acknowledge that a growing number of parents may have the means to pay for their child’s education, but that those means aren’t always available in the same sum or on the same day.

As a result, we are penalized financially. If we don’t pay the full tuition payment on the first of the month, we’ll be levied a $40 “administrative fee.” (read: late fine). We’re already three months behind on the tuition payments because our daughter was a late admission to the school and the tuition payment plans started in June. I suppose there are plenty of parents who happen to have three months’ worth of tuition lying around, but we’re not among them.

Preschool tuition payments aren’t the only place where we’re feeling the squeeze of such fees. As freelancers, so much of our income flow follows a “feast or famine” pattern. We may be quite flush this week, but close to flat broke next week. And that’s not because we’re bad at saving or financial planning; it’s because we tend to have to pay all of our bills at once. And inevitably, as we’re waiting for checks to come in from clients and publications, we’re racking up at least a few late fees. Even when these fees are “modest” (ie: $5), they add up… and fast.

There are other hidden costs of freelancing. Many of us, for example, have to bear the cost of incoming wire transfer fees when we receive payments from clients outside the US, or fees collected by third-party agents like PayPal when payments are rendered through those platforms.

And that’s not all.

For those of us who are published book authors with foreign editions, we’re often losing part of our advances in international taxes (which may or may not be recovered when we do our own taxes domestically the following year. Either way, keeping up with these accounts is, frankly, a major pain in the ass).

And have I mentioned research? I recently had to pay $8 to access a magazine via iPad for which I had an assignment because I wanted to see the style and format of the department for which I was writing. I would have gone to the bookstore and flipped through the magazine on the rack, but it wasn’t available. And the editor didn’t respond to my request to send me a PDF of a single page of the magazine (which, by the way, is not available online). If I tabulated my research costs (not to mention the expenses involving travel for publications that don’t pay expenses–which are most of them) the confined space of the office cubicle might look better than freelancing after all.

What other hidden costs of freelancing are you taking on and how are you managing them? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writers and Money

What Fitzgerald made on his essays. Read it and weep.

What Fitzgerald made on his essays. Read it and weep.

As I tend to do with all overly hyped things, I’ve been avoiding anything related to The Great Gatsby film… though I confess to having read the absolutely eviscerating review in The Wall Street Journal and A.O. Scott’s exceptional meditation on the movie and much larger themes in The New York Times.

Somehow, though, I found myself checking out a book of essays by F. Scott Fitzgerald this weekend. Actually, it wasn’t coincidental; I was trying to track down the full source of a quote I’d read recently. I wanted to read it within the context of the complete essay.

And so it was that I spent a lazy, rainy Sunday in bed, reading a pair of Fitzgerald pieces about money in My Lost City: Personal Essays, 1920-1940. First up: “How to Live on $36,000 a Year.” The essay is totally tongue in cheek, but as my mother has said to me over and over again throughout the years, “Many a truth are spoken in jest.” In this essay, Fitzgerald explains that he and his wife find it impossible to live on just $36,000 a year. They’ve moved out of NYC proper and into the suburbs, where enterprising city butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers have decamped to take advantage of the status-conscious nouveau riche. The Fitzgeralds must, of course, employ help. And they must make frequent trips back to the city they’ve left in order to remain cultured. At the end of each month, they find they’ve spent $3,000 and can’t rightly account for at least $1,000 of that sum.

Keep in mind, this was in the 1930s. $3,000 was a lot of cash. $36,000 was practically mogul money… especially for a writer.

The essay is funny but also likely to be uncomfortable for many writers, who are notorious for having “money issues,” for being resistant to budgeting (especially when it comes to denying oneself an expense that might produce a story), and for regularly cashing in the meager savings one has managed to accumulate. It’s also oddly poignant to see, through Fitzgerald, how much time we spend waiting to be paid, and how much we pin our hopes and financial plans, such as they are, on the expectation of a particular financial return (that, of course, rarely materializes) for a work that’s “sure to be successful.” At the end of the essay, Fitzgerald is not just broke; he’s in debt. Zelda suggests that “[t]he only thing you can do… is to write a magazine article and call it ‘How to Live on $36,000 a Year.'”

The article was, by his account, received so well that he believed (rightly) it was worth anthologizing. It also warranted a follow-up essay, “How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year,” because, of course, Fitzgerald is now broke and forced to economize.

Well, sort of… to economize in that New York City writerly sort of way, which is to say, subletting out your own home and moving somewhere cheaper for a season. Having heard about the affordability of the French Riviera, the Fitzgeralds pack their suitcases, withdraw $7,000 from the bank, and quite literally set sail. Living frugally on the Riviera, of course, isn’t any easier than living frugally on Long Island and to no one’s surprise but their own, they find themselves broke by the end of the summer.

If it all feels familiar, well, it probably is.

An appendix at the book’s end details the sums Fitzgerald was paid by each of the magazines that originally ran the essays included in the collection. What’s interesting (and disheartening for modern readers who are also writers) is that Fitzgerald really was making bank. Rates have hardly kept apace with what he made between 1920 and 1940… much less been adjusted for inflation and cost of living.

Bottom line: these essays are great. Spot on. Uncomfortably so. Get the book, read the essays, and then, maybe, think a little bit more about your own finances. How can you, as a writer, be more financially responsible?

I mean “me,” of course.

The Myths of Opting In to (Nearly) Everything

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo

**
You may know that I was offline last week, not by choice, exactly, but by circumstance, as I was in Cuba. Land of slow, expensive, and typically inconvenient Internet, I decided I’d simply not make efforts to get online, check email, and keep up all the things we’re told we have to do to “maintain our brand.”

It was fantastic, really, until I logged into gmail and saw 363 messages in my inbox, 360 of which were totally unimportant. I felt both overwhelmed and saddened by this, and I vowed that when I returned home I was going to make some changes that would make my online life more manageable and sane.

I've been on an unsubscribe spree and let me tell you: It feels good.

I’ve been on an unsubscribe spree and let me tell you: It feels good.

When I got home, I made good on my promise. I started unsubscribing from mailing lists and digests that either provided little or no value or which I wasn’t sure how I got subscribed to in the first place. I started “unliking” businesses on Facebook that I actually didn’t really like or whose social media messaging I found terribly annoying (“‘Like’ this post if you want to be on the beach with this cocktail!'”).

I was just starting to feel good about getting back to the basics of email and social media–you know, connecting with people I know and like and value. And then, I got together with a colleague to discuss something else entirely and our conversation eventually came around to all of the organizations and groups and lists we opt into because we think we “have” to.

“So there’s this new blogging collective,” he said, “and I joined–did you?–even though I don’t really know what the value is.” I knew about the collective. I’d even read the website and its “sell” pretty thoroughly. I’d considered joining, too. Ultimately, though, I had a hard time justifying the $75 membership fee. $75 may not be a lot, but when you multiply that by the number of groups you think you should belong to, your expenses add up quickly (though you can, if you’re a US freelancer, deduct professional membership and conference fees on your taxes).

E. went on to talk about a number of other groups and services he’d heard about lately, and I started to feel like I’d felt when I opened my gmail after five days in Cuba: Was any of this actually important?

Somehow, many of us have bought the myth that we have to opt in to nearly everything: professional societies (even when they haven’t proven their worth, or, in some cases, even established what benefits they’re actually conferring upon members); social media platforms and “influence” ranking programs (“Maybe I should sign up for Klout, just in case it’s important!”); newsletters (“Maybe one press release out of the hundreds I receive a month will actually be useful.”); and events (“If I don’t go to TravelMassive/TBEX/TBU/fill-in-the-blank, no one will know who I am and I won’t be considered for opportunities.”). We end up spending massive amounts of time on the upkeep of these things (time we don’t even realize we’re losing until we go off-grid, like I did), and missing out on the other things in our lives that we really cherish (in my case: family, reading, other hobbies, and oh yeah, actually writing).

While I’m not arguing that these things are unimportant or that they’re not useful, I am questioning whether we’re doing/joining these things because we’re truly convinced they’ll be beneficial or because we think that we’ll somehow be left behind if we don’t opt in. I wonder if we think, before we opt in, about whether the “sell” of this “must-do” thing actually aligns with our personal and professional values and goals.

I’m also suggesting that many of these opt-in groups, activities, and lists may actually be distracting or, in some cases, a waste of precious time and resources. I value networking and connecting with other writers, but I’ve found that the most valuable, lasting, and mutually beneficial connections I’ve made have come out of one-on-one encounters where I’ve reached out to someone I respect or they’ve reached out to me, not at the events where sharing is occurring over well drinks or where bloggers are speed dating to get a tourism board’s attention.

I’d love to know how you handle the opt-in choices in your own life and career. Do you feel pressured to join groups or sign up for events or lists because you think it’s what you should do? How do you make your decisions about what to join? Do you feel overwhelmed by all the noise about what’s supposedly important? Share your experiences and advice in the comments.

We all have to stop working for free… don’t we?

Last month, Francisco* and I narrowly averted an argument. As is the case with most couples’ arguments, our near-miss fight was about money.

Francisco and I are not an argument-prone pair; though we’re both hard-headed and opinionated, we don’t like conflict and we’re very careful about protecting one another.

Which is why we were almost fighting.

Should this guy work for free?

Should this guy work for free?

While photographing an event on assignment, Francisco met a producer from a local radio station. They exchanged pleasantries and business cards, and the next day she contacted him about a gig. Would he be interested in photographing some VIP station supporters before and after a Broadway show? He said that he would and discussions began about the particulars of the gig.

He was flattered to have been asked and he was visibly excited about the assignment when he told me about it. He shared some of the details and it all sounded great. And then I asked, “So what are they paying you?”

“Well, um, the producer said they don’t have a budget for this because they’re a public radio station and they don’t have a lot of money, but, you know, it’s great exposure and they’ll definitely keep me in mind for future paying work, and they’ll credit me and I can use it in my publication history.”

“What a bunch of bullshit,” I said, before padding off to the kitchen for some seltzer. I returned, glass in hand. Imagine a full, bright balloon floating in a child’s hand and then being popped by a cynical older kid on the playground. Then imagine what the balloon-holding kid’s face looks like, and you’ll have a decent approximation of Francisco’s expression.

In short, he was defeated.

I knew I’d fouled, though that hadn’t been my intention at all. He felt that my “Bullshit!” declaration was a value judgment about his decision-making skills. “I feel like you think I’m an idiot for accepting a gig that doesn’t pay anything,” he said. And though I scrambled to explain that it was actually a statement of how much value I place on his photography, there weren’t any words–at least not at that moment–that were going to salve the wounded ego.

**
When the initial bruise of my words had faded, I raised the issue again. I wanted to explain what I had meant. I have more experience than he does with the dilemmas surrounding “work for exposure” schemes, and I felt like my own grapplings– some successful, most not, but all having led me to a clearer personal and professional stance on being asked to work for free– could shorten his own learning curve in what has turned from his hobby to a career.

“Look,” I started, “the radio station would never call a web developer and ask them to build a website for free. They’d never call ConEd and say, ‘You know, we’re a public radio station and we don’t have much cash, so we’re just not going to pay our light bill. But hey, we’ll give you a shout-out on the station– sound good?’ But for some reason, they’re completely okay with asking a photographer to provide his services for free in exchange for the promise of a 3-second mention on air. See what I mean?”

I’ve done enough of the “work for exposure” gigs to know that the “exposure” is usually nominal at best, meaningless at worst, and almost never leads to anything bigger, better, or paying.

**
Though our exchange was a sore spot and though his enthusiasm for the gig had vanished completely, Francisco had committed to doing the job, and he did it. When the photos were published, his name didn’t appear on them as promised… not until he contacted the station and requested that they make good on their deal. Francisco conceded (and no, I didn’t crow a triumphant “I told you so!”) that he probably could have spent the time he invested in the gig better– either by hustling up some paying work, processing the massive backlog of photos sitting on his hard drive, or moving some images over to a stock site.

“Live and learn,” I said. “It’s all good.”

**
I’m not against creative people sharing their gifts for free. My friend, Lola Akinmade Akerstrom, is a wonderful example of someone who makes a living as a professional photographer and offers a percentage of her time and talent to pro-bono causes that are important to her.

But…

I now make decisions about how I apportion my own “will work for free” time according to two caveats:

1. Is the person or organization asking for my time and skills really in need or are they simply not prioritizing their desires in a way that includes those desires as a line-item in a budget? Having worked in non-profits, I know the realities of creative financing and the importance of streamlining the cost of contracted services.^ But as a provider of goods and services–writing and photography are products, after all–I’m not willing to participate in a financial system that operates any differently from the office supply store. The radio station producer doesn’t walk into Staples and say she needs office supplies but won’t pay for them because she doesn’t have the budget for them. Why should creative services be any different?

2. What percentage of my time and work am I willing and able to give away freely, without expectation of compensation AND credit? As a person who doesn’t have enough time to realize all of her own projects, that percentage is quite low.
**
But back to our near-fight.

As I’ve reflected on our exchange, I realized that my problem was this: I wanted Francisco to decline the gig based on my principles, not his. And though I truly do want him to value his own work and not give it away, I shouldn’t try to mandate whether he works for free or how he sets his fees.

Among the community of writers and photographers I know, I often hear us trying to influence one another about this issue. “You CAN’T work for free,” a writer friend once counseled me, “because then we’ll ALL be expected to work for free. Writing won’t have any value.”

Though I agree with her in theory, we each have to make our own decisions, and often, these are made on a case-by-case basis. Do we all have to stop working for free? When do you choose to give your work and skills away and what’s the line you absolutely won’t cross when it comes to establishing and defending the value of your work? When do you push an editor or a client who’s asking you to work below-market rate to adjust their fees?

Francisco and I would love to hear from you in the comments.


*If you’re new to the blog, Francisco is the most important member of CuadernoInedito’s cast of characters. He’s my husband and business partner, and most of his professional work involves photography.

^I also know how CEOs are compensated, and let’s just say that non-profits typically aren’t quite as cash-strapped as they appear; they just don’t allocate money as effectively as they could or should.

The financial life of a freelance writer explained in two simple images

1. Deposit check from completed project…


Photo: carbonNYC

2. Immediately withdraw money to research next project.

Photo: Tracy O

How to monetize what you love

There’s a guy–a young guy–who stands outside the Whole Foods at Union Square with a cardboard sign:

“I need money for weed.”

He looks able bodied. He’s clearly entrepreneurial. Ballsy. And, for many passersby, charming; I’ve seen plenty of them pass him a five dollar bill or larger.

But he pisses me off.

He pisses me off because he reminds me that I don’t have this figured out. He’s obviously succeeded at working smarter, not harder. He gets to work outside when it’s sunny. Stay inside when it’s not. He meets lots of people. A good many of them think he’s funny. After a little bit of “work,” he makes money. He’s succeeded at getting people to fund what he loves.

How do you monetize what you love?

It’s a question that lots of friends and I have been talking about lately, or that they seem to be exploring in posts on their blogs. I hope you didn’t come here for an answer because I just don’t have it… yet. For six years now I’ve lived without a “real” job (meaning a 9-to-5), but in many ways, I work harder than ever. I love what I do, but I’d like to be able to take on fewer projects that pay better. And I’d like to spend less time in front of the computer, a desire that’s especially strong right now because summer is in the air. I know that even asking the question confirms just how privileged I am– I have as many choices as I have ideas (and there are hundreds), even though some of those choices are less feasible because of other life circumstances (like being married to someone who can’t travel because of his immigration status).

But back to the matter at hand: how to monetize what you love. While I haven’t figured out yet what works best for me–it’s a complex decision that involves taking into consideration the work I love, the money and lifestyle I want, the ethics and obligations implied by each option–I’ve been reading about people who are experimenting with lots of exciting monetization models, and I’ve concluded we’re living in a pretty exciting time.

  • There’s the author who put together his own book tour, rejecting the traditional dog and pony show put on by publishers (the idea being that he’d sell books, make more authentic contacts, and develop a more loyal/lasting readership);
  • There’s the whole “pay as you wish” end-user concept (tried out by restaurants, PASTE Magazine, and Radiohead, to name a few);
  • There are artists who decided to paint small and sell at reasonable prices in order to get their inventory moving;
  • There are home cooks and chefs who forego the ridiculous overhead of a restaurant, creating an entirely new niche with home meals (this isn’t the first time I read about this phenomenon-wish I could find that article, but it’s the most recent thing I’ve read about this idea);
  • And there are chefs who share the rent for a Brooklyn restaurant that changes its name and its menu (and its staff) every night (can’t find that original article either).

And these are just a few of the ideas.

How many of these options were really and truly open to our parents’ generation?

If you know what it is you love to do, it’s only a matter of time before you figure out the best way to monetize it.

I’d love to know about your successes and your struggles with monetization. Feel free to share in the comments.

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