Should Freelancers Remain Freelancers?

For a long time, I’ve thought of myself — more than anything else — as a freelance writer. But I’ve made a conscious decision that I’m not going to refer to myself as a freelancer anymore. I’m a business owner, maybe an entrepreneur, and, of course, a writer. It’s just a name, but that name is important. I’ve been thinking about long-term plans and every so, often, I feel like freelancing is something of a dead end. You can freelance for years, but the odds of doing much more than increasing your income incrementally each year aren’t great. There are six-figure freelancers out there — but what comes after you hit $100,000 a year? I don’t know about you, but I’d like to one day hit seven figures in a single year and it doesn’t seem like freelancing will get me there.

Freelancing is a Good Gig, But…

Don’t get me wrong. Freelancing is great. If I’d actually gotten (and stuck with) a job right after I graduated from college, I would never have had some of the amazing opportunities that freelancing has given me. Even more importantly, it made it easy for me to explore running my own business and figure out which types of writing I actually enjoy. It let me quickly build a reputation that will stand me in good stead as I continue to develop my business. It’s been an incredibly easy way to launch into being a business owner, with a lot more flexibility than any other option. To be truthful, most of what I’ll be doing in the future is pretty much identical to what I’ve been doing for the last few years.

But the job title sucks. A freelancer, in the mind of most of the people you’ll meet, works alone. She takes on pretty narrow projects and has set rates. To a lot of big clients, a freelancer handles only a part of a project — preferably by way of an agency that handles all of the actual management work. That means that a freelancer doesn’t always get certain jobs. And the growth potential for freelancing seems limited. If you work alone, by definition, you can only take on the work that you yourself can do.

That right there is enough to make me think that ‘freelancer’ isn’t a long-term career title. Rather, it’s where you start. When you move up the ladder, maybe you become the owner of an agency or the head of a firm. You still walk into your home office every morning and start banging out work on the keyboard — just the job title is different.

Freelancing’s Income Streams

The other concern with freelancing, at least for me, is that you’re exclusively trading your hours for money. That’s it. If you want to release a product, you’ll almost certainly need a job title other than freelancer to get buyers interested. That fact is something that I’ve struggled with at least a little in selling my two ebooks — because I’ve marketed them under my freelance writing brand, I’m certain I’ve missed out on at least a few potential buyers. Both ebooks are certainly targeted towards freelance writers, but, if they weren’t, I think I would have sold far fewer copies.

Image by Flickr user Alexander Henning Drachmann

16 Comments

  1. TXCHLInstructor   •  

    I am also a “freelancer”, although in different niches (3 of them right now), and the fact that I’m trading time for money is a definite problem. Not only does everyone have a hard upper limit on the amount of time you can trade, but when you stop, even temporarily, the money stops flowing in.

    I am looking seriously for ways to get an income that is not directly dependent on my available time, as well as geographically independent. My current 3 ventures (while enjoyable and reasonably lucrative) are neither. I’m told that I write fairly well, so I’m going to try my hand at some technical articles. For that, all I need is access to the Internet.

    I’m not sure why you think that “freelancer” is a title that you would have to change in order to sell a product, even though I probably would not use it myself. I would like to see more explanation of the reasons you don’t like the title. Maybe “freelance writer” doesn’t have the connotation you want?

  2. thursday   •     Author

    As far as products go, you’ve got to have a job title that inspires confidence in your expertise in a topic. A freelance writer may specialize in covering small business topics — but that doesn’t make her sound like an expert in accounting. If I were publishing ebooks about accounting, it would be a lot easier to sell them if I had accounting credentials.

  3. TXCHLInstructor   •  

    Ok, I can relate to that. I would not refer to myself as a “Freelance CHL Instructor” even though that would be an accurate description. I emphasize “Texas Concealed Handgun License Instructor, State Certificate #01528065” in my advertising, along with my other certifications and experience. No need to mention “freelance” anything, although I occasionally have to explain that I do NOT work for the State of Texas, and that I don’t actually own, or work for, the range where I teach (I use the term “Independent Contractor” when I mention that).

    I never really even considered “Freelancer” to be a job title, but just a minor part of a description of what I do, but neither negative nor positive. I’m sure you could pick out any of several “titles” to emphasize, such as the one mentioned in the “who you and I are” section: “Resume Specialist,” or better yet, “Resume Coach.” The latter would probably make more money… That’s just part and parcel of marketing. I noticed that you don’t really get into any detail about what type of writing you are currently doing.

  4. Ali Hale   •  

    This is something I’d love to chat more about (BlogWorld, maybe? ;-))

    When I started out freelancing, I was hugely proud to be able to say “I’m a freelancer” — it meant freedom! I’d also been reading a lot of the big freelancing blogs for a while, so I was excited to be part of that community for real.

    A year or so ago, things started to change for me. I was getting more advertising revenue. I’d published my first ebook. And I was getting itchy feet: like you, it seemed like freelancing was a bit of a dead end.

    I think of myself as an entrepreneur rather than a freelancer now — though I tend to describe myself as a “freelance writer” when offline people ask what I do. I’m not totally comfortable with the label “entrepreneur”, but I’m not sure what a good alternative is.

  5. TxCHLInstructor   •  

    Ali, I would suggest you do what I do: Pick out a particular activity that fits the occasion, and use that as your “title.” For instance, you might say, “I’m an author specializing in xxxxx.”

  6. I like the word “freelancer” because it describes who I am in a specific role. I do agree with you that most freelancers will eventually move on to other roles over time. We’ll grow out of the position, just as you would at any other one. And when they do, they will move on to other job titles.

  7. Lorraine   •  

    “To a lot of big clients, a freelancer handles only a part of a project…”

    Yes. Big corporate marketing departments often work within silos: Copywriters–and other freelancers–are frequently seen as cogs in a complex marketing machine. To keep the gears running smoothly, many marketing directors want you to hush up and do your work with cog-like efficiency.

    This may be appropriate for newcomers learning the ropes. But for more seasoned freelancers, it chafes. We have our own opinions on content and marketing strategies, media and format choices and project planning– based on scores of failures and successes we’ve seen and participated in firsthand. And certainly we have strong ideas about our craft itself.

    It’s a joy to work for clients who see these ideas and energies as assets. But often folk just want the freelance cog to do its little spin…

    The solution to freelance frustration definitely lies in seeing yourself as a business—rather than a fee slave. More than that, I believe it involves forming partnerships with other craftsmen—designers, coders, graphic artists, etc—to form your own little creative shop.

  8. Farouk   •  

    you are right
    more effort is needed in order for the transformation to a real business to happen

  9. Prime   •  

    “That fact is something that I’ve struggled with at least a little in selling my two ebooks — because I’ve marketed them under my freelance writing brand, I’m certain I’ve missed out on at least a few potential buyers. ” – yeah i think so too. I think theres a need for books that will cater to writers who see writing not just a freelance gig but as a business that can get big and generate a passive income in the future. I’m using journo models here but I think Michael Arrington’s Tech Crunch and Rafat Ali of paidcontent.org showed that writers can put up and nurture a once small news biz into a major industry player

  10. Steven H   •  

    “That right there is enough to make me think that ‘freelancer’ isn’t a long-term career title. Rather, it’s where you start.”

    I like this way of thinking about it. Freelancing is great because you are self-employed, you learn how to manage your own work, and you are, basically, independent. However, if you don’t have any plans of moving up the proverbial ladder, than you are probably not a very good freelancer to begin.

    Just my two cents.

  11. thursday   •     Author

    @Ali, That really sums up a lot of what I’ve been feeling. We should definitely chat more about this at Blogworld.

    I like ‘entrepreneur’, as well, though I’ve been going with ‘consultant’ or ‘writer’ a lot when I’m trying to get away without a full explanation of all the various things I do.

  12. thursday   •     Author

    @Lorraine, You’re so right in suggesting that more freelancers need to see themselves as business owners. This is a pretty well-worn soap box for me — I’m a firm believer that the fact that so many freelancers don’t seem to really take their work seriously is the reason that they struggle to get ahead.

    I have seen some successful agencies created by freelancers banding together and it’s not a bad option for a writer looking to move forward.

    • Prime   •  

      @thursday –“I have seen some successful agencies created by freelancers banding together and it’s not a bad option for a writer looking to move forward.” — think this is something we can do now! freelance writers banding together, like a writrers collecvtive, creating one agency marketing and selling what we do best (writing, of course!).

      This is another journo model, but I think the project of this bunch of newsmen and newshens is the best example of what I’m talking about. http://notonthewires.com/

  13. thursday   •     Author

    @Prime, Looking at the bookshelves of most stores for entrepreneurial advice for writers is just depressing. The fact of the matter is that most writers have a mindset that we have to work for someone else (a magazine, a publishing house, whatever) to get paid. But the price of publishing has dropped — you’re right, Arrington is a fabulous example — and traditional publishing is losing money. The only way we’ll continue to earn money is to take charge of our own businesses.

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