Riess, Winner, Crouch & Crosby Just Say "No"—mostly —June 2006

Imagine the surprise of the eager Calvin Festival crowd when Jana Riess (Publisher's Weekly) leaned toward her microphone to say, "Can anyone make a living as a freelance writer? We're here to tell you, 'No.'"

A hip-looking blonde to my left just about fainted. She twisted her pen into her notebook. "I quit my day job a few months ago to freelance, and I'm working at Starbucks," she said.

Oops!! Murmurs of pity rose like a meager offering all around. People looked from the blonde to Riess, as if to say, "You need to set this right."

But, Riess stood her ground. Freelance writing isn't for the person who needs to make a living. Yet, for the person who doesn't mind eating canned peas, she offered a bright spot of comfort.

"I set my own hours. I have flexibility. I can write in my pajamas." But, she also admitted, "I have no 401k and no company health plan. (A sure risk for canned-pea-less status in the future.)

Andy Crouch interjected with a chuckle, "That's why I'm a kept man!"—meaning his wife works and gets paid, while he works and gets underpaid. But, they don't have to eat canned veggies.

Riess suggested the solace of connection, direction, and minimal promotion that can be had for $90 from the Author's Guild. Among other things, this little organization will review a book contract and post a basic website for its members.

However, to the dismay of the hip blonde to my left (and a lot of other people too), Riess reminded us that no organization can save freelancers from the IRS. This big organization collects not only regular taxes, but also self-employment tax of 13%, from those who are unhitched from corporate commitment. These taxes must be paid in estimated portions on a quarterly basis...

...unless, like Andy Crouch and me, the freelancer in question is a "kept person." Because, a spouse's income withholdings will generally cover our pajama bottoms, the exceptions being if withholdings are set far too low or if we are drawing a Purpose-Driven income.

Next, Lauren Winner shared that she only makes $1,000 a month in magazine writing. This, I suspected, was supposed to prove to the crowd once and for all that freelance writing is a dead-end job. If Winner can't go beyond canned peas to splurge on canned cherries, who else might?

But, I did not despair. For, there seemed to be a distinct lack of details from the Winner microphone, regarding her current net income from book royalties and speaking engagements. (Not that I blame Winner. I wouldn't share my income with a room full of strangers either.)

But then, I'm not Andy Crouch. He was quite open, revealing that he'd made $22,000 writing and $23,000 speaking in the last four years. In his opinion, this was "no way to make a living."

If you want to succeed in a similar livingless writing endeavor, he had a few tips. Editors are "desperate for things to print," he insisted. "If you can offer something fresh, abandon your ego," you've got a chance. "Go to theology conferences or other interesting places," he also suggested.

I wondered if the canned-goods aisle at Wal-Mart would qualify. It would be cheaper to attend. And, you never know, you might even run into someone like Jana Riess or Lauren Winner.

Anyhow, Crouch added that every writer needs a website. And, I would agree—not just because I have one, but also because the marketing director at my new publisher tells me it was this site, along with a good proposal, that sold him on my first book.

"A blog is a waste of time," Crouch also suggested. This quiet comment drew loud cries from the Riess-Winner side of the panel—which said to me that they both have blogs.

Crouch pushed back, though. "You don't develop an audience with a blog. Your writing is at its worst. And writing for a blog doesn't improve your skill."

I didn't know what to think. Here was a major topic being discussed by major people who (supposedly) aren't making a living at freelance writing. Shouldn't they have something definitive to share about blogs? It seemed to be a critical issue for we who are (truly) not making a living at freelance writing.

No matter. Cindy Crosby saved the day. Enough about blogs and measly freelance salaries. Crosby writes in all the secret places, for money even. Book reviews to $400. Book jacket copy to $300. Press kits at a $1,000 a pop. Publisher catalog copy. Speaking for $300 (though she implied that Winner gets far more). And, at a speaking engagement, the chance to sell about $1,000 worth of books.

This was the note of encouragement the whole crowd had been waiting for. After all, it was a comfort to think that each of us might have a future beyond Starbucks—or even a shot at the occasional fresh pea.