The Writer's Economy

The New Freelancers


Earlier this year, The Financial Times reported that fifty-four million workers in the US are now freelancing for a living. The word freelancing, traditionally associated with writing and journalism, now extends to any job a person does as an independent contractor for a firm. Sometimes called the “gig economy”, or “agile talent”, freelancers come into a firm to conduct any kind of work – often technical work, research, or some sort of limited management function – and then they leave. They are paid for their work but with no further promise of employment once they’ve completed a project. They are not given any assurances, have no employee rights, no pension contributions and cannot expect any professional development or mentoring.


Writers are very familiar with “agile talent.” It’s how we get to write an article for The Sunday Times without actually having a job there. We pitch articles or get assignments and we know that after our 800 words delivered by Thursday, we have to look for another gig. My mother freelanced; I freelance. I don’t think I’ve ever questioned the practice of freelancing. Until now.


From the point of view of big firms, “agile management” is a great idea. In their book, Agile Talent, Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood describe the growing need for companies to “have expertise on tap” but also the problems inherent in the practice of temporary hires in which the expert is treated as separate but not equal, and most importantly, extremely expendable.


The global chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Bob Moritz, told the FT’s Ben McLannahan in March 2016 that this new brand of freelancers allows him to “bring in the right talent in the right place at the right time.” What he didn’t add, however, is that the “talent” is a person, and that this person is not given any employee rights or benefits, let alone ongoing professional skills development, and that it is often this shift of responsibility that makes agile talent so valuable to an organization.


Nonetheless, Moritz sounds convinced that the “talent” wants it this way. “We know when you look around the world, that an increasing number of people will want to be more of an independent contractor than a full-time employee,” he said. Deloitte reports that as  much as a third of America’s workforce is now working as “agile talent” or “super temps”.


Nobody has to convince me of the advantages of working for oneself. I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years. I’ve even freelanced for professional services firms, though not PwC. However, working as an “independent contractor”  is not unusual for writers.  Writers have been “agile talent” for publishing houses forever. That’s just the way that the publishing business operates.  I write a novel on spec, the editor either wants it or doesn’t want it (and is usually under no obligation to accept it), then makes an offer.  With very few exceptions I’ve only been offered single-book deals and for wildly different sums.


This financial arrangement is acceptable to me because, I suppose, I’ve always imagined that the financial risks of writing fiction must be borne by the novelist. We produce something with a value that is difficult to define, hard to signal to the market, and about which opinions vary tremendously. Also, the publishing house is investing in us, in our books, and in our careers. There is a deal defined by cash and commitment. The publicists and marketing people work hard on the novel’s behalf. If the book is published well it is a good deal for the writer. Of course, if the book is published badly, and the publishing house does not put enough effort into it, it is always the author who is blamed.


With businesses now defining themselves not by what they produce but by the solutions they provide (the company that makes my dogs’ food does not sell dog food, but solutions to my dogs’ hunger), the solution my novel can offer might be to help people think about a subject in a new manner, or about their own lives in a new manner. Novels feed a kind of cultural appetite.  In contemporary business parlance, I don’t sell novels but solutions to cultural hunger.


But it turns out there are a lot more novels out there than there is hunger for them, which is why my book has to be just that little bit better, or my publishers marketing of it has to be better, or I just need raw luck. Usually the last.


I might like it to be different. I might like more job stability, financial stability, a sense of being part of a larger organization and team, the feeling of being valued by my colleagues on a regular basis instead of every few years when I bring out a book (unless they reject it, which is always a possibility, in which I feel terrible). It would be great to be groomed for success the way I imagine that executives are taught, to be taken by the hand by a publishing house and given advice on how to conduct myself during interviews, speak on television and radio, how to build networks, or make good relationships with key media figures. But that just doesn’t happen. It’s not the way publishing works.


If I wanted stability, if I’d wanted continued professional development, I’d have to go into a different profession, a more stable profession. If I didn’t want to have to always be pitching, selling and looking for the next gig, I’d have traded in my jeans and kitchen office for a crisp suit and a job at an international professional services firm, a place like PwC. After all, it is an enormous, profitable firm, the most prestigious accounting firm in the world.


Oh, except maybe I wouldn’t. Now that companies like PwC are building their “Talent Network”, so that they don’t have to offer anything more than short-term contracts, it seems that a “regular job” is becoming a rare thing, indeed. And being a writer has become no riskier than any other profession.


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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Jon Younger
    August 4, 2016 at 10:40 pm

    Marti, thanks for the shoutout on my book, and for your insightful comments about the life and times of freelancers. As you point out, the independent workforce is anything but revolutionary for many professionals and crafts people. But, the scale of it is new, different, and global. I distrust the estimate of 50 M freelancers that’s been bandied about here in the States, but I do believe its a large population (17 M work more than 15 hours per week) and increasing rapidly as organizations seek to gain more flexibility in their staffing and individuals seek more control over their work and work lives. That said, organizations need to adapt to this trend. Leaders too often foolishly and disrespectfully treat freelancers as expendable, second class citizens. I don’t like the term “contingent” or “on demand” and think it conveys the wrong message. Instead, I prefer to frame the issue this way:
    1. Most organizations – public and private sector – are headed to a blended workforce of full-timers and part-timers.
    2. Both populations are valuable and worthy of good treatment, fair pay, and interesting work.
    3. Organizations need to adapt to this new blended workforce and this will require change in systems, procedures, culture, and mindset.
    4. The organizations and leaders that successfully adapt will have an advantage over those that do not.
    Thanks again for the reference. All the best.

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