This grew out of a response I wrote to someone considering full-time freelancing on Facebook. It comes with some provisos.
I haven’t been a full-time freelancer for nearly 4 years now. Things change fast, and no one still freelancing is going to bother to keep me in the loops, so while I stand by the generalities and warnings, the specifics may well be different nowadays.
I had a spectacular set of advantages when my freelance career really took off. While I went to full-time freelance sometime in 1997, at the time my wife made enough money, and got enough insurance, that my miserable first few years didn’t need to be self-sufficient. It’s when I restarted full-time freelance in 2001, after being laid off from Wizards of the Coast, that I had to cover my share of buying houses, paying all the bills, cover insurance, and paying college expenses based purely on what I could earn as a freelancer. And at that point, I was a d20-proficient writer during the d20 boom, multiple people who left WotC to start their own businesses or work as editors and developers for bigger companies knew and liked me, and I already had some major game titles under my belt thanks to 14 months as a WotC designer.
That made things much, much easier.
I was a full-time freelance RPG content provider from 2001 to 2014. So it can be done. But it’s hard.
I lived in Norman, Oklahoma, one of the cheapest places in the US to live and, thanks to being a college town, one that still had a fair number of modern amenities. I recommend finding cheap living options, whatever that can mean for you.
I discovered being a full-time freelancer was actually three jobs.
>First, you have to get work. That means promoting yourself online, contacting potential clients, and going to conventions or similar events to make contacts and network.
>Second, you have to do the work. This is the only part anyone pays you for.
>Third, you had to get paid for the work. Most of my clients were great, but I *still* have a $2000 outstanding bill for a project that got published, and numerous pay-upon-publication projects that were never published, despite me doing my part, and thus never came due.
I strongly recommend spreading yourself around to as many kinds of writing as you can. I once traded writing copy for a repair shop’s website for $600 in repairs. which is good, because I did not have $600. In bad periods I worked for trade for food, yard work, clothes, and even editing or similar favors for other work of mine. Much of that work was not game-related.
I joined Super Genius Games, and when I left it began Rogue Genius Games, so I would always have a place to write, when other companies weren’t hiring. Of course that meant I only made money on those projects if people bought them, since it was all on royalties. Before that I wrote for d20 Weekly and later Pyramid magazine because they would publish whatever I wrote, without fail, every week. And they paid on time.
It isn’t always smart to start your own game company, but it is always smart to look for a place that will publish you regularly. They may pay less or pay only royalties. You DO need to get paid, but I found a mix of high-paying but rare work and lower-paying or royalty work that was always of often available was the way to make ends meet.
Magazine columns were great. Lines with regular releases and developers who liked me were great. One advantage of smaller projects is that you often do less work before you get paid. A 30,000 word project sounds great… but it’s 3-6 weeks of work you have to do before the clock even starts on getting paid.
Similarly, ongoing contract work is great. Especially if it pays by the month. This is rare, but there are companies who need a single developer or editor, or project manager (or, much less often, has a whole contract staff) that will pay you for a certain amount of time or a certain cut of what gets done, every month. This is a huge help, as it cuts down time spent getting work and tracking down payment for work. Even a small monthly amount can help balance the budget (and see Patreon thoughts, below.)
Don’t work without a contract. Look at the terms. An advance is best, but almost nonexistent nowadays. Pay-upon-acceptance, especially if it talks about when you’ll be accepted by and what happens if you’re not, is great. Pay upon publication kinda sucks, but is fairly standard. Flat rates are often better than royalties, but royalties are a legitimate business plan. I’ve made more money on freelance projects that paid royalties than I ever have on flat rates. of course, I’ve also had such projects end up paying nothing or nearly nothing. And, full disclosure, my own company (Rogue Genius Games) mostly pays royalties, so my opinion on this may be biased.
Your budget may be feast-or-famine. My wife and I were very cautious about spending money when a big check came it, because we literally did not know how long it had to last. We tried very hard to do nothing on credit, because credit can pile up and kill you, but even so after 13 years of freelancing I had tens of thousands of dollars of medical and educational debt that we still haven’t fully paid off.
The 80 hour work week because my norm. The 100 hour work week happened way too often. I pulled more than one 30-hour “all-nighter” shift, a feat I am physically no longer capable of pulling off.
I can’t recommend full-time freelance writing tabletop games as a career choice. In my case, because I had cared about games more than a career or education, I ended up with no other marketable skills.
But if you feel you must try it, I hope you get advice from lots of different people first, and I wish you well.
Things like Kickstarter and Patreon have change the potnetial freelance landscape. I recommend everyone have a Patreon-like subscription service and a blog or similar ongoing outlet you can ask people to pay you to continue.
And, of course, I’d appreciate it if you consider supporting mine. 🙂
Addendum the Third: There is no shame in being a part-time freelancer. You can do it as a second job, or as a hobby. You can also do it mostly, then with some little extra thing on the side to make sure you survive. I’ve known awesome freelancers who were fast food dishwashers, Uber drivers, substitute teachers, and temp workers. If that’s what you need to have a safety margin, or to live at least part of the life you want to live, do it with your head held high. If, someday, you feel secure in leaving the non-freelance part of your life, great. If not, your work is no less ‘real” or “professional.”
I used to send type-written article proposals to Dragon Magazine via US Postal Service, with a S.A.S.E. (That’s a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, for those of you who weren’t trying to get published in the 80s and 90s.)
Then I’d wait 4-6 weeks for a response. If there were things he’d like to see some different version of, I had to send ANOTHER written physical piece of mail. If something was approved, or approved with changes, I had to type that out, then mail in the typed article.
When then-Editor of Dragon Dave Gross sent me an email address (sent my US post) I could use to send in magazine proposals and submissions from that point on (with orders it Not Be Shared), around about my third article, it was a HUGE boost to my career. But I began with paper submissions.
By the time I was interviewed for a job at Wizards of the Coast, I could bring files with me on a 3.5″ floppy, in case I stayed someplace with a business center that had a computer I could work on. (A laptop, though they existed, was entirely outside my economic grasp.) So when I was flown out for a in-person interview, I managed to finish a Dragon article between when I left home and when I arrived at the old WotC building to wait an hour or so for my interview, so when a Dragon editor ran down and asked if I knew when the article would be ready, and I gave him the disk, he hugged me and ran back upstairs to begin editing it immediately.
Of course, that meant the people who were about to decide if they wanted to hire me heard about how I brought a much-needed article with me, just before my interview.
Paper. Stamps. Email. Floppy disks. It could be done before filesharing and blogs and Google Docs.
(Looks around. Nods once. Trundles back to dinosaur cave.)
The Modern Era
Now, I can offer material directly to the end-users, with things like My Patreon!
So… look. You have to promote yourself.
Yes, it’s a pain for a lot of people. And it can be uncomfortable or embarrassing, especially if you aren’t used to it. And doing it wrong can turn off some folks, especially early on, who may reply to your promotion with “Who the hell are you and why should I care?”
Those people are doing you a favor, though they don’t know it. They’re giving you a chance at more self-promotion.
Look, if you want an RPG career, you HAVE to self-promote. Because either you want other people to hire you to be part of their projects (in which case you need to get your name and work out there, so people know you are available to be hired and have some idea why they might want to hire you), OR you are doing your own projects (in which case you need to promote them, which if they are your projects is the same as promoting yourself).
Even if you currently have a stable industry job, you should promote yourself. This can increase your value to the company, increase the company’s awareness of your value, and give you options if a meteor strike that company and suddenly you don’t work there anymore.
I am not a social media guru or an example of vast success or riches, so take all my suggestions with a grain of salt. But I had significant problems with self-promotion for years, and these ideas are how I (partially) overcame them.
1. Promote Everyone Else
“Hey, I got to work on this neat project with Awesome Designer and Amazing Editor! They’re doing fantastic work, and I can’t wait to see the end project!”
“Neat Folks have a new Kickstarter, and it looks great to me! Check it out!”
Often the easiest ways to self-promote is to insert your promotion as part of promoting other people, and to simply talk about the things you find exciting even if you aren’t involved with them. Doing these things still puts your name out there, and when you promote other people you encourage them to promote you in return. For introverts, this can be much easier than talking up your own part in projects.
2. Just Do Stuff
Self-promotion doesn’t have to be about saying how great you are. If you put out a new short story, or a cool story hook, or a single feat designed to allow halfling war-bakers make potions out of muffins, you can just put it out, link to it, and make sure your name is easily associated with it.
One of the reason my blog is OwenKCStephens.com is that anything I put on there is easily tied to me.
One of the reasons I put a lot of stuff on there is so people see my name, associated with things they might like.
Creation is promotion, as long as you give everyone involved credit.
3. Have a Way to be Contacted
My email is not hard to find. I let everyone ping me on Facebook. My Facebook and Twitter accounts are linked from my blog. I have a Paizo.com account that accepts private messages. If you want to get in touch with me, it’s easy.
Now, there are good and reasonable circumstances that might make any or all of those a bad idea for the security, safety, or sanity of someone other than me. But whatever method you choose, from a specific work-related email to a forum you can moderate yourself, if you want work in the industry, you need to make sure people know how to get hold of you.
4. If You Mention It, Make It Easy to Find
I have a Patreon campaign. And now, just by linking it, I have made it easy for anyone who wants to give me as little as $1-$3 a month to support these blog posts to do that.
I have both made my point, and self-promoted.
If a project of yours gets a review, link to it in a way that makes it easy to find both the review and a way to buy the product. Endzeitgeist, for example, links to where you can buy the products he reviews when he posts them on his website. That encourages me to use the links to his site when i mention the review, since people can then click-through and buy my stuff. Because he promoted me, I promote him.
If you are excited by your new project, link to where people can find more ifnrmation on it. That increases the chances people will get excited about it, and that helps drive that they found this neat thing because you mentioned it.
If you are going to go to all the effort to promote that you work for multiple companies (such as Paizo, Green Ronin, Rite Publishing, and Rogue Genius Games), promote that fact in a way that helps drive traffic to them.
Readers and fans and customers are often lazy. Make it as easy as possible for them to give you money, follow your posts, or read your thoughts.
This is something it took me a long time to figure out as a freelance writer and developer, and it’s a mistake I still make much too often.
You can’t let the whole world be your job.
What I mean by that is you can’t allow every place, every time, and every contact to be work-related. Yes, you may be someone who gets freelance work done at 7am, 9pm, or 3 am depending on how your insomnia impacts you. But you can’t let your expectation be that you should be working at all those times.
Similarly you may well need to have your home workspace overlap with your personal space (though the tax benefits of a home office are not to be underestimated), but you can’t allow ALL your home space to be a place where work often gets done.
It’s great to have friends in the industry… but you need to have conversations and activities and interactions with them beyond things you do for your career.
The reasons for needing to at the very least carve out SOME time and space that is kept separate from work concerns are many and varied, but they can be boiled down to one basic idea.
Sometimes you don’t want to go to work.
Now, whether you can spare the time off, get vacation time, can take a mental health day, or need to play hooky is beyond the scope of this article. The important thing is, if you don’t want to go to work, and you have allowed your entire life to be defined primarily by your work, then you don’t want to get up and engage with life.
And that’s a problem.
Burnout, depression, imposter syndrome, introversion, and even panic attacks are not uncommon in creative writing careers. To survive, you need to know there is a way to exist outside your job.
Yes, your email may be ubiquitous, and your editors may always have a question (or a panicked demand) asking about changes, availability, late projects, and so on. But you can decide there are hours when that isn’t your problem. Time when, even if everything is on fire, you get to read a book, or sit on the balcony and listen to the rain. Whatever works for you.
I can’t tell you how to achieve work/life balance. There’s no magic number of hours per day, or per week, you need to take away from being “on call” to your career. But you need to know you CAN take time away. Subconsciously, your brain needs to be able to grasp the idea that after this project, this crunch time, this weekend, you have a place you CAN get away.
Because, to quote one of my editors, you are no use to anyone dead.
Speaking of My Career
I have a Patreon. It’s how I justify taking the time to write a lot of this material on my blog. I’d love your support.
So, assume for a moment that you have to pick from a range of projects available to you, and you can’t do them all. This isn’t necessarily a matter of being blessed with 7 companies all offering you too much freelance. You might be offered one or two simultaneous jobs by a long-time source of work. Or you might be asked to outline which of several lines you want to work on during an interview. Or you might have no work coming in from other sources, so you need to pick a project of your own to develop.
However it happened, you need to pit project outlines against each other, and decide which one you are going to do. So, how do your compare apples to cthulhupunk airship murder mysteries?
Here are some factors to consider.
How much are you getting paid, and WHEN are you getting paid. This is not the end-all be-all of these consideration, but you have to include it. How much, under what circumstances, starting when, and ending when, if the money? I have taking pay rates that were 20% of my normal take, because the publisher promised (and delivered) “Payment by PayPal within an hour of turning it over.” I’ve also had times where 10 cents/word in 13 months sounded better than 8 cents/word in 6 months. I’ve taken royalties for the life of a product over flat rates, and vice versa, based on my needs and hopes. (I almost never accept royalties for the first 1 or 2 years of sales, because that discounts things like compilations and rereleases, which have made me tens of thousands of dollars over my career, but even then the right terms would make me do it.)
Know what money you have, what money you are getting, how much you TRUST that you’ll get that money when you are supposed to, and what money you need. If you have regular payments coming in or a “day job” that means your writing/game industry money is all gravy, you can take bigger risks and wait longer periods than if you need $50 to make a care payment next month.
The less you need the money, the more you can worry about fun. I have honestly considered defining “professional game designers not as people who make enough money to cover their expenses with industry work, or people who get paid for anything game-related, but as people who get paid to do game work they don’t find interesting. (I then decided I’m not the fucking high poo-bah of who is a game industry professional and gave up on the idea of defining squat, but I DO think people who can and do make money on game projects that don’t excite them have a useful and rarer professional skill.)
Not every project needs to be fun, but learn what you like and what you don’t, AND how it impacts your speed, satisfaction, burn-out potential, and so forth. If I love a project, I can do it faster and be happier, and that absolutely gets considered in my choice of projects.
Do you want to be better at what you do? Then value those opportunities that will help you grow. I have taken jobs, and even worked at companies, specifically because of the quality of designer, editor, and producer that lets me interact with. Working with great creative in different task and different kinds of projects very much helps me grow my skills. While I have never worked with anyone without learning SOMETHING from them, there are certainly people I learn more from than others.
Where possible, convince these people to be part of your own game company and pay them a cut of all the money you make, so they feel encourages to just sit around and say smart things. J (This is an advanced technique… )
This is harder to define, and not everyone is going to have the same career goals, but it’s worth looking at what projects will position you to do the things you want to do later in life. This can include taking types of projects you don’t have a track record with. For example when I had developed a strong reputation as a specialized game mechanics “crunch’ guy, I began looking for more adventures and worldbuilding projects to work on. And then right after those got published, I find myself in a game company interview being asked if I had done any adventures recently. (Phew.)
You may also find it useful to work with new people. A small project that doesn’t much interest you may be entirely worth taking if it gets your foot in the door with a company, property, or person you want to work with more. DON’T let yourself get taken advantage of (and if they want to, reconsider if you want to work with them), but do consider the value of taking on things outside your normal schedule or preferences to prove you can do a good job for them. I have, for example, taken more than one assignment on a Friday that was an emergency that needed to be done by Monday. Those never paid extra, but they did still pay well, and they let me prove I was reliable, useful, and able to work under crunch-time conditions.
Visibility can also be important. I did, in fact, “work for exposure” early in my career, writing reviews for TSR’s AOL content for no pay, and contributing to pro-am netbooks that were sold for money, without receiving anything but a credit. Those were both useful and paid off for me. Nowadays I’d recommend you NEVER do what I did, but it can totally be worth it to write for a blog or Patreon or social media without a guaranteed paycheck, assuming you own the material and that when money comes in you get your cut. I’m also fine with doing free work for projects that no one makes money on, like fan sites and charity projects, but beware. Those rarely boost your visibility any more than a good blog of your own material that you can control and own the rights to.
THE SCALES OF CONSIDERATION
No one but you can decide which of these factors are most important to you, and there are lots of other things that might influence your thinking. If you find something morally or ethically objectionable, don’t do it. If a friend did you a favor and needs one in return, feel free to cut them the same kind of slack you would if they needed someone to watch their pet for a vacation or pick up soup when they were sick… as long as it isn’t an ongoing thing.
And always check your assumptions in the middle, and at the end of each project. If it turns out you find satisfaction more important than money, it’s worth knowing. If you love doing something as a hobby but hate doing it as a job, it’s good to know. If you find it easier to make money writing games you hate than your existing corporate job, it’s good to know.
Contemplate, weight, balance, reconsider, and be ready to do the whole dance again for your next project.
And always, always find a way to turn every job into an ad for other ways for you to make money.
For example: “If you actually found that worth reading, why not become a patron, and support my efforts to blog on various topics?”
(Seriously, if this was helpful to you, why not throw a few bucks my way?)
I turned down an offer of work today. On a cool project I’d love to do, too.
Now, this is unquestionably the right decision for me. I am behind on a lot of projects, and booked out for months and months on Starfinder opportunities and other things. I can’t, responsibly, take on anything else right now. When I had a thin wedge of availability, I filled it with high-priority items I think will pay a lot of career dividends, and even that was as much excitement as smart planning (though it did get my Business managers approval).
But my Freelancer Reflexes remain strong. The idea of someone offering to pay me to make games, and declining, rubs me the wrong way and often sets of waves of near-panic. I mean, if I turn down work, people will stop offering to me, right? And then I’ll have huge gaps in my production, and everyone will forget who I am, and I won’t be able to get any work, and I’ll go broke and starve.
Yes, it’s not rational. But it is part of what drove me for so many years.
But being a GOOD freelancer, even a good creative employee, means giving the people paying you their money’s worth. And that means you can’t take on so much work that you either rush any of it, or end up not being able to complete it on time, or maybe at all.
Those are hard lessons to learn. Most freelancers I know, myself definitely included, make the mistake of agreeing to too much early on, and then re-make that mistake from time to time.
You can’t do everything. You need some down time. More work will come. And, in my experience, telling someone that you’d love to do a project, but right now you are overbooked, never causes them to write you off forever. Frequently, producers appreciate that you know your limits, and make notes to contact you for other projects later on.
So yes sometimes turning down work is part of the job.
Become a Patron!
And another part of the job is self-promotion! Do you enjoy the content on this blog? I can only take the time to do niche things like this, because I have patrons supporting me! Why not become a patron, and support the creation of more free material! Or you could even become a sponsor, and get me to link to YOUR content!