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The Indie Writers Survival Guide 

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An Interview with James O’Brien

Writer James O’Brien has published a much-needed book about full-time freelancing as a writer. His book, The Indie Writer’s Survival Guide, isn’t about finding agents or publishers, though. It is a guide to professional writing. That is, writing for clients and audiences who are looking for reportage, expertise, and information. The founder of MASH stories, S.E. SEVER, had a short discussion with James about his survival guide.

S.E.: Hello, James. How easily can writers support themselves as full-time independent professionals these days?

James: They can, and I’d suggest there’s probably never been a better time to do it, at least since the traditional channels started to significantly change. There are so many publishers out there, right now, looking for talented writers to help them in the digital space. I’m not talking about copywriting and marketing. I mean journalists and storytellers. Making fifty thousand a year, given two to three years of hard work, this is now possible for indies. And that’s from blogs and online content, alone. Now, that’s not a lot different than working your way up (say) the community newspaper ladder in most places around the U.S., but instead of hitching your wagon to a single newsroom that’s subject to the vulnerabilities of advertising and other bottom lines, you’re now flexible and able to react to the marketplace. And you can do this from anywhere. And you can craft your own beat.

How do you get the most out of online marketing tools? What happens when you start making money, in terms of taxes? Do you really need to incorporate?

S.E.: What is it about the first year of full-time independent writing that requires a book to get through it? Is it that hard to get started?

Indie Writers Guide  book by James O'Brien

James: There are knowledge gaps that I encounter again and again. I talk to writers, excellent ones, who still don’t know much about the source-finding tools and other resources that are out there, online. I talk with independent writers who aren’t yet catching on to the growing model for finding new clients online. I wanted to write a succinct and to-the-point book containing the practical information every writer needs today to make the transition from full-time employment to full-time independence. The book is a manual that I would give to myself, if I could travel back to 2008 when I was just getting started in my independent phase. It fills in a ton of the gaps that otherwise might never even get identified by the new full-time indie, and not just about digital considerations. How do you set up an office in your home on a limited budget? How do you get the most out of online marketing tools? What happens when you start making money, in terms of taxes? Do you really need to incorporate? A huge part of making the leap is about having the key questions in mind. The book supplies those, and then answers them.

S.E.: James, you’ve been working your way through a half-decade of full-time indie writing. What have you learned that surprised you?

James: That it works so much like a traditional job. I mean that the internal voice is much the same. When you get a promotion in the workplace — you get a new beat or a column of your own, or whatever the case may be — for a week or two, however long, you notice everything that’s changed and you enjoy it . . . you relish the notion of success. And then it wears off and you go back to the same concerns and irritations that you experienced before. Even as you go up the ladder, as an indie — landing bigger and better clients, getting paid more per piece — you still end up in the same cycle. Managing this is critical to staying in it for the long haul. You have to look square on at the things that aren’t working for you. More money and more prestigious publications are good things, but the salve of upward movement is only ever temporary. As a bandage for writing on the wrong beat or for the wrong editors — whatever is grinding your gears — advancement is not really the trick of it. Writers need to follow their interests and craft assignment lists that keep them engaged. This is one of the topics that a second Survival Guide, a post-year-one guide, would significantly address.

Writers need to follow their interests.

S.E.: What’s the key challenge for independent writers, right now?

James: It’s competitive out there. The downsizing of in-house staff within the newspaper and magazine world means the talent pool of hungry indies is deep and the ecosystem is groaning to accommodate them. There’s no easy solution to this challenge. You can be excellent. You can be tenacious and you can be professional. But you’re still going to have to hustle, and to a certain extent winning a great assignment is going to depend on luck.

S.E.: What do independent writers need to know after they get through year one? 

Journalist Author James O’Brien,

Author James O’Brien,

James: Start with the idea of career crafting. I don’t subscribe to the supposed axiom that writers must specialize to succeed. But I do believe that, if they have several strengths, writers need to establish what those are to editors and publishers, early on. If you’re great at describing technology to the everyday reader, keep working that groove to the point that outlets are calling you to take jobs. This leads to second — and third — year sustainability and growth. Importantly, it frees up time, relieving you a bit from pitching and developing the same old kind of gigs, so that you can work on some long-game enterprise-level projects. This is part of the fight, managing burnout. For a writer, burnout is the condition of no longer being able to enjoy the process of your work because you’ve done too much of it in a given period of time. But while it is a real part of working, for almost everyone, it’s also not the end of the road. You can work with it, roll it back, and move forward. Writers do this all the time. I include some ideas about it at the end of the book, in a section that points to where we might go if this becomes a series of guides, but the point can’t be emphasized enough: you’ve got to work to get out of the repetition box, and into a place where you can pursue your interests. You’ll stay interested, you’ll try harder, and you’ll write better because of it.

For a writer, burnout is the condition of no longer being able to enjoy the process of your work because you’ve done too much of it in a given period of time.

S.E.: In your book, you state that indie writers should recognize their writing as a commodity, and not write for free. What is your advice for newbies who do not start off with a substantial portfolio?

James: If you can absolutely make the case to yourself that writing this one article for no pay is going to advance your ability to get paying work, then so be it. However, I think the clips tend to be the last thing that an editor considers. Your pitch, your writing in the cover letter, and your use of language during correspondence tell an editor a whole lot more about how you actually write — and about how you’ll approach an assignment — than a clip. I don’t doubt that when your portfolio is substantial, and rich with the right publications, that you’ll edge out other qualified writers for the best gigs. But at the beginning, when you’re just getting your foot through the door, I’d suggest that it’s chiefly how you present yourself that opens the dialogue. All this being said, if you’re the kind of full-time independent writer that my book presumes, you’ve had a career already as a full-time writer in some other capacity. Your clips are probably secure, and you’re making the leap from traditional employment to the indie track.

S.E.: You’ve gathered a comprehensive list of resources in your book. But can you give us a few examples that you’ve found the most effective when it comes to job hunting as an indie writer?

James: I think the future of online work is social media and constructed, curated networks. Twitter has been responsible for more than one job and more than one source, when it comes to my work. With this tool, you have to put out there what it is you’re looking for, and you have to grow a network of followers, and users that you follow, that align with your professional life. People really do tweet about experts needed, and they tweet about writers needed, and about their search for editors and proofreaders and the like. Have a window open at all times during your workday. Be part of the community with which you wish to do business. Constructed networks are companies such as Contently and NewsCred’s NewsRoom. These are curated experiences. They work to attach seasoned writers to teams for branded custom content and other kinds of projects. The pay is extraordinary, compared to what I hear independent writers talk about most of the time. There are also networks such as Gotham Ghostwriters, which work to bring established, published authors together with clients in need of novelists or nonfiction writers. It’s super competitive, but you can make a year’s salary — or most of it  — from one well-funded assignment in the upper tiers of the ghostwriting world.

People do tweet about writers needed, and about their search for editors and proofreaders and the like. Have a window open at all times during your workday.

If you liked what James has to say, you can pick up a copy of his book at Amazon. Alternatively, connect with James on LinkedIn.

Thank you for reading!

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S.E. is the Founder of Mash Stories. She has had short stories published in fiction magazines across the US and the UK. One of her stories was included in The Subtopian: Selected Stories. Her poetry book, Before Me, is published by Thought Catalog Books, New York. She is currently working on a science fiction novel called Split Watch. You can read some of her short stories and poems at http://sesever.com.

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