Neither a Veal Calf Nor a One-Trick Pony Be
Apologies for being scarce recently — I was hurtling towards deadline on a book. I’m a big Star Wars fan, and write books for Lucasfilm’s licensees. Which is a good introduction to this post.
For the first time in my adult career, I’m a free agent with no immediate plans to take up a permanent position somewhere. I’m trying to make a living by writing, editing, and helping people think through their strategies for journalism and social media. (If I can help you, drop me a line.) As many a freelancer before me has discovered, it’s simultaneously a frightening and exhilarating life.
Am I cut out for this life? I’m not sure yet. But I do know that for more and more journalists and writers, this is the future. I’ve preached and warned as much on this blog. And so it behooves me to figure out how to make my way in that world as best I can, as soon as I can.
If you’re a journalist (or any other kind of writer), the days of being an artist insulated from the business considerations of what you do are over. You can no longer afford that kind of blissful, basic ignorance. And unless you’re a very lucky journalist or writer, the days of being able to make a career doing just one thing are either over or numbered. You can’t afford not to diversify, or at least to think hard about how you’d do so if you had to.
My path to learning both these lessons began accidentally. In late 2004 and early 2005 I found that blogging — then the stuff of revolutionary talk — kept finding its way into Real Time, the technology column I wrote for The Wall Street Journal Online. I realized that my columns would be better if I wrote a blog for a month or so, and so my friend Greg Prince and I started up a blog about the New York Mets, which we christened Faith and Fear in Flushing. My idea was that we’d keep the blog up through spring training — experience enough for making future columns better-informed.
At the time, despite nearly a decade as a Web guy, I had internalized some unfortunate ivory-tower attitudes that more typically afflict print reporters. How many readers read my columns and how they reacted to them was something for people elsewhere in the building to worry about — I was a thinker and a writer, and thinkers and writers didn’t have to dirty their hands with traffic numbers. The first month of co-writing Faith and Fear erased that mindset forever: I saw our numbers every day, and I sifted through them for clues about why one post connected with readers and another one didn’t. Instead of seeing myself as part of a monolithic entity, I was singing for my supper. That taught me the foolishness of being a veal calf about my own business, and immediately made me a better columnist. (As an added bonus, writing without an editor forced me to get a lot better at proofreading my own work and scrutinizing its arguments and structure.)
Now that I’m on my own, I’m learning to take this a step further by crunching numbers and evaluating whether potential projects pay the bills, might lead to other projects that will, or don’t make economic sense. (One of my to-dos is to put ads on the baseball blog, still going strong after nearly five years.) I have a lot to learn, but at least I’m a long way from the veal pen — and I know I’ll never go back into it.
Faith and Fear was also my first real step into diversifying what I do. From there, I began writing Star Wars books for publishers such as DK, Del Rey and Penguin. While working for EidosMedia I began writing this blog — and am keeping it up now that I’m on my own. I accepted an invitation to write a weekly column about sportswriting and new media for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, building on co-writing and editing the Daily Fix for WSJ.com and my experiences as a Mets blogger. I write other articles on a freelance basis. I’m an editor-for-hire. I work as a consultant.
That’s a lot of different things, and makes for busy days and nights. I don’t know which of these various mini-businesses will prove profitable, which new ones I’ll enjoy, or what I’ll do when profit and enjoyment get out of sync. I don’t know what new things I’ll add to the mix. I don’t know if the entirety of what I do will bring in enough money to pay for food and clothes and doctoring and my kid’s schooling and my half of the mortgage and hopefully the occasional Mets game, dinner out and day at the beach. I don’t know that keeping records and crunching numbers and negotiating deals will ever feel natural to me, or get done without gritted teeth.
But I do know that this is the reality for most writers these days. And since for better or worse writing is my calling, I need to learn to get along in that world instead of wasting time in wistful thought about what being a writer used to be. The days of being a veal calf are over, and the one-trick ponies were last seen being herded into the same truck that took away the veal calves.