How To Build Time For A Book Without Losing Your Freelance Chops

Fran Hawthorne and I have worked together off-and-on for many years in the business media. Along with being a successful freelancer, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday and Crain’s New York, she is also the author of five books, the latest of which is Ethical Chic, excerpted here. The others are Inside the FDA, Pension Dumping, The Overloaded Liberal, and The Merck Druggernaut.

I asked her how she juggles thriving freelance and book writing careers.

How do you carve out the time in a busy freelancing schedule for the books?

With my first book, I decided, I’m just going to devote myself solely to the book … for six months. There’s no other way I can do this. I was in book hibernation. That was great. It does not hurt your status at all with assigning editors.

I mostly did [what I said]. I did get tempted. I still was subscribing to email news feeds. I’d see something that would make a good story. I did on a couple of occasions break my vow. (You can’t resist The New York Times, for instance.)

The idea was to get the bulk of the reporting [for the book] done. It’s where you were least in control of your time. Once that was mostly done, then I felt I could start reporting other things while writing.

The hard part, interestingly, was going back to freelancing articles: For my first freelance article after I finished the book, I approached the research like it was a book. I was still in book mode. I didn’t know how to ratchet back.

How did you make time to do the proposals?

For the first book I was working full-time at Crain’s New York Business. A lot of that [proposal] you could do evenings. You can build on your own reporting that you’ve done for other publications. The proposal will never ever be published.

Ideally, I would have much preferred to take a book leave or work part-time. The publication’s policy was that it did not grant book leave. My editor told me “Your job is too important.” So I had to make the decision to go.

What gave you the confidence to make that decision?

It wasn’t confidence so much as desire. I had been in the grind of daily 9-to-5 jobs for years. [I] knew every September was the real estate section. I just can’t go through life doing the September real estate section every year. I could not turn down this chance.

I did have some savings. I had a few other things. I had already been asked by a friend at The New York Times to freelance. I knew I would have an outlet to freelance at Crain’s. I had three outlets lined up for freelancing.

[For others considering writing a book], I would say try to line up a freelancing arrangement with your current employer.

Practically speaking, how did you manage the income flow?

I’ve always been very frugal. I don’t buy clothing. As soon as my six months were up, I went and tried to line up freelance work.

For my three books after the first one, I took a different stance. I have really been combining freelance and book, so there is no hard stop.

When you’re working on a book, do you set aside hours during the day?

I do always know in my heart that the book is the most important thing I’m doing. Maybe I sound unrealistic to somebody who hasn’t done it. But we all juggle.

If you’re a freelancer already, you have the skill to do this juggling.

You can think about it that way, too.

How did you find your agent?

I’ve had two agents. I found the first one the good old-fashioned way by going through, I think it was, Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents. You’ve probably all heard this advice. I looked at the books in the field, looked at the acknowledgements and made a list of names. A few people were interested and I met and talked with them.

What percentage of the income comes from your books versus your freelancing?

Maybe 2/3rds of my income is freelance. Of course the advance is spread over a couple of years. But the books lead directly to other income.

Your advance is spread over a couple years. For instance, with Inside the FDA: The editor from Self magazine [who had been searching the internet] called me up and asked me to write an article about diet drugs.

Why do you write the books?

The thrill, the challenge. To me at least, there is nothing, no freelance article that can compare to having a book in the Library of Congress, and an ISBN number. All the magazine newsprint in the world doesn’t compare to that. It’s just such a different kind of writing and reporting.

Anything else you think people should know about if they are pondering making this jump?

The amount of work that goes in also cannot compare: Literally, several hundred interviews, sources to collect, organizing this mass of notes you’ve taken, writing 75,000 words or however long your book is. It’s not simply multiplying. They all have to combine and cohere into one manuscript. It’s incredible, exhausting work.

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