How I earned ‘enough to live reasonably comfortably’
ANDREW DON (@DonsHardNews), freelance journalist and author of The Bounty Writer, Writer: How to Earn Six Figures as an Independent Freelance Journalist, shared with July's London Freelance Branch meeting his secrets of how freelancing earned him "enough to live reasonably comfortably" over the years while avoiding the morning commute.
Andrew has sustained himself through writing and editing in the business-to-business (b2b) sector, a "lucrative area of steady work". In The Bounty Writer, written in the pandemic, Andrew emphasises that he is "really nothing special: if I can do it why can't you?"
A lot of Andrew's advice is, he warned, "as much about the type of character you are as your skill set". A premature baby, Andrew fought "a life-long fight" to boost his hearing, his life eventually transformed by a hearing implant. As a child, learning to speak was "delayed... I wrote my first poetry on mechanical adding machine rolls which Dad sold in office equipment shop in Clerkenwell - before I could talk".
He stuttered well into his twenties, he suffered from depression and anxiety. A "highly stressful career, racing against the clock", involving "interviewing on the phone" was "not what the doctor ordered. Except it was. I loved it."
A full-time career in journalism started at the Fleet Street News Agency, where Andrew read other journalists' articles on the phone to pre-internet copy takers at the national tabloids. From this, Andrew learnt "how to sell a story".
The business-to-business (b2b) weekly Supermarketing was an early-career full-time job in journalism, where he worked his way through the ranks to deputy editor. At Supermarketing, Andrew built up a contacts book "second to none". That was "gold dust" when he went freelance in 1990. "Never stop developing your contacts book. Record everyone you speak to, and their secretaries. Get friendly with the gatekeepers - and the spouses."
Not wanting people to typecast him as exclusively a specialist food industry journalist, when asked what he specialised in Andrew would reply: "I don't" - though, he said, "I do have areas where I get my most work." The long list of these includes food, food retail, general retail, property, plumbing, sewage, brewing, beauty, and hairdressing.
On any given day, Andrew could be working on anything from chemical risks from hair straightening treatment for the Mail; to multiple stories on GDPR; to contributions to the Observer's "Cash" section; to "loads of GDPR" stories - case studies on how the General Data Protection Regulation would affect different sectors. These were often based on already-sold articles but "topped and tailed with case studies to suit each industry" and "angled" to different sectors.
From 1996, early morning news digests for the b2bs brought in the money. By then the first "interactive" (online) versions of these outlets were appearing. Andrew's news digests featured in Estates Gazette Interactive, Farmers' Weekly Interactive, Chemical News & Intelligence, Martin Information and other outlets. Through earlier work for Hairdressers Journal Andrew landed news digest gigs on the websites of hair care companies.
That news digest work was so successful that Andrew subcontracted others to work overnight on the morning news digests. He took "a reasonable margin on those people's work, but not in an exploitative way". His sub-contractors "liked working for me, because I paid promptly". In 2013, though, Estates Gazette "pulled the plug on me... I had to reinvent myself."
Andrew also "knew this wasn't a pace I could keep up until the official retirement age. I paid huge amounts into private pension during my peak earning years." He advises, "pay into a pension as much as you can - even if you have to forgo things."
Semi-retiring in 2019, Andrew moved to West Wales, two minutes from the beach, just before Covid hit. He now writes novels that "may or may not make it onto shelves of Waterstones".
In response to a member, Andrew guessed his best-ever rate was £1200 for a single job, for a national tabloid. And, yes, he had turned down work because he didn't like the contract - he won't name the company. He admits that with "another customer I had to bite the bullet and indemnify and sign away the copyright because I got so much work I had no choice..."
The bane of our industry is, Andrew said, "the contracts we have to sign... Disgraceful... They should be outlawed." ("Indemnifying" a publisher means agreeing to take on the financial risk of, for example, your work leading to a libel suit: see "Indemnities - challenge them and get insurance" in the Freelance Fees Guide.)
Andrew offered members a digest of advice. Rule One is "Never miss a deadline" and never make excuses, "miss a deadline and word gets around that you're not a professional." Neither the loss of a baby nor having his head positioned "over a sick bucket" as he wrote has stopped Andrew delivering to deadline. Which brings us to his next recommendation: "train your family to understand the need" for you to work "anti-social hours."
A practical software tool for keeping track of it all, for the "juggling", recommended by Andrew is Scapple, on which he colour codes "who I've spoken to, haven't spoken to, need to speak to" and so on.
Other tips? "Handle rejection". Andrew has forgotten the number of times "I have been told I am crap and will never make it."
Also: "believe in your abilities - if you believe in them, there's a chance your commissioner will do so too." And "Exercise! Without physical and mental health you are, as they say, stuffed."