Show me the money! Yes, it's National Freelancer's Day

It's been something of a trying time for literary editors of newspapers. I only heard last night that Amanda Craig, Children's Books Editor at The Times, had been let go, to be replaced by someone 'in-house'. The same day, David Robinson, literary editor at The Scotsman, told me he was taking voluntary redundancy and leaving the paper in March. I was also told this week by Boyd Tonkin, former literary editor at The Independent, that he was now a columnist and feature writer.

Does this mean anything in the wider world, beyond a change of faces in newspapers whose readership is in decline anyway? Will anybody care that Amanda is no longer guiding reading in children's books, except for children's writers themselves and their publishers? Do readers at large even notice when the books pages of a particular newspaper are cut by half?

Paid reviews by newspapers are getting cut back, just as publishers' advances decrease and bookshops 'streamline' their workforce (and in many cases, if the latter could offer less than the minimum wage, I'd have no doubts at all that they'd do it). The way that writers earned extra money in the past (or perhaps their main money, given how low advances can be) - some book reviewing, a bookshop job, as an inhouse publishing editor - are fast disappearing.

They are being replaced by other ways, though, if you're flexible enough to jump across the great divide that's taking place. We're moving from 'critique' to promotion, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing. But if you can't beat them, you have to join them - as a freelancer, you have little other option.

And so, you look around and what do you see? You see literary festivals that are bursting at the seams, and need people to chair them (preferably other authors or journalists who are good at asking questions). You see creative writing courses that are over-subscribed and in dire need of teachers of all literary colours to cope with the increasing student load. You see Amazon trouncing the High Street bookshop but it needs those reviewers to keep adding or detracting stars for books to get noticed and sell.

It's all about what generates income, of course. And so, in the spirit of flexibility rather than desperate financial need, I've been trying some new ways. I've started chairing more literary events, which is something I now really enjoy. The 'critique' aspect is no longer there, and I do miss that, but it does get you out of the house (never something to be under-rated when you're a book reviewer for a living) and most writers are pretty good sports, making your job a pleasant one.

I've also signed up to more editing consultancies, which I guess is my way of participating in the creative writing boom, as it's all about giving advice on manuscripts and writing reports. I've resisted the request to be a mentor in the past and am still not sure how I feel about that aspect of it, but time will tell.

And I also sell review copies of books on Amazon from time to time. I have too many to keep in my flat, and I don't always want to give them to the charity shop right next to the indie bookstore. I'm not helping the latter with that method either, I can see that. But there have been many occasions where an Amazon payment or two has meant food shopping for the week, shopping I couldn't have afforded.  

It's all even more haphazard, payment-wise, than freelance reviewing, of course. You have to pay your own travel expenses to an event then claim those expenses back later, which means having the cash to pay for travel in the first place. I spent my last pennies on petrol for one event, only to be invited to the pub afterwards which I felt too embarrassed to attend - I didn't have enough on me even for one drink. Same goes with selling on Amazon, as you have to have the cash to post out the books first. Editing consultancies at least tend to be fast payers and there are no upfront costs, which is a real bonus.

But do I want things to go this way? I worry that more creative writing students means more disappointed hopes. I worry that more promotion means less criticism and that the art of criticism (and yes, there is an art to it) will gradually disappear, or only be kept up with those lucky few who have a private income (does such a thing still exist in the 21st century?). And I worry that I'm not helping the local indie bookstore (though I do have to ask how much they're helping me, as a local writer...).

Freelancers get used quickly to ducking-and-diving, and spreading their skills as widely as possible. But we're losing something culturally valuable, in this current process. We're losing excellent literary critics to arts admin jobs, we're losing good writers to marketing or sales positions. As I asked earlier, does anybody in the wider world really care? Possibly not. And there might not be anything they could do, even if they did.  



  1. Well, it's interesting you should ask that. I'm that rare creature, a paid primary school librarian (and not an independent school, either). Started the library as a parent 12 years ago, and they never let me go. Eventually they even started paying me a bit.

    Festivals, etc, are lovely, but they're also expensive. Well out of the reach of many hard-pressed families. The children's literature you see in bookshops (what's left of them) is increasingly genre driven and horribly gendered compared to what was available in my 1960s childhood. Often it's more geared to building a brand than broadening imaginative horizons. Parents, and even teachers, lack the time or confidence to know what their kids would like to read, so the children either don't read much at all or move seamlessly from Rainbow Magic/Beast Quest to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

    Who's left to give them any other ideas? Librarians? Very few schools can afford to appoint one these days. Public libraries are closing nationwide. And all that really bothers me and makes me feel I do a worthwhile job. I think it matters a great deal when knowledgable, committed reviewers like Amanda Craig, already a rarity, are let go.

    I've often found myself in Waterstones drawn into conversations with people looking for suitable children's books. The need is there, but there are fewer and fewer people meeting it.


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