Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Making a Living

With one exception that lasted about a year, I have not held a real job since 1969. I am not rich but I have managed to financially support myself and my two sons as a single mother and put a few dollars away for a rainy day (which is now). Needless to say, I have had a number of white knuckle months, wondering if I should throw in the towel on my free-lance lifestyle. I read want ads and reassured myself that I was qualified for a number of different kinds of jobs including teaching and public relations, but then I would decide to just hang in there one more day. And the money gods always came through. Over the years my income has had its ups and downs but has been reasonably steady. However, its nature has changed. Early in my career most of my income came from writing and I did very little public speaking. In the last fifteen years, more than half of my income came from speaking engagements, with advance money and royalties making up the other half. There were a few very good years in there when I could relax—the money just came, mostly from a very busy lecture business. The increasing importance of paid speaking engagements compared to paid writing may be echoing what has happened to artists in the music business. Years ago, musicians gave concerts to sell albums. Today, in the era of 99-cent downloads from I-Tunes, concerts have become the big money makers for recording artists and their recorded songs have become the necessary credentials to be in the concert business. People seem to want live contact with artists even if it is from a bird's eye view high in stadium seats. In the olden days, when I visited schools, kids were very familiar with my books. Lately, schools use contact with authors to motivate and initiate students' interest in books. The recent economic downturn has made huge inroads into my lucrative lecture business and has me dusting off my financial survival skills, which you may find useful.

My focus has always been on getting work rather than cutting costs. (How much can we cut, anyhow, working from home?) Go to conventions and meetings. Join professional organizations. Network, network, network. Collect business cards and make notes. I carry a little spiral-bound notebook and tiny stapler. Then I staple people’s cards into the notebook with notes for follow-up. Listen to what people are looking for. Gone are the days when publishers asked writers for ideas and books were sold over lunch. (There are no more free lunches.) Recognize that samples of your work may just be calling cards. Publishers are looking for suppliers of product, not just product itself. Don’t let rejection affect your personal self-worth. It’s all about the marketplace and publishers are now doing their own share of sweating. Timing is a key factor over which one has little control. If someone offers you work that is not your usual thing, learn to say, "Let me think about it." Never reject something out of hand. Remember, a learning experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. My marching orders for taking on a job:
1. You might learn something
2. It might lead someplace
3. It pays well.
If a job fulfills two out of three of these criteria, take it, including work that pays nothing (like writing a blog).

Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself. This could mean acquiring new skills that could eventually be marketable. In this downturn, I have learned how to be a videographer and I am set up to do videoconferencing. Neither has yet given me a ROI (return on investment) but I am hopeful. Investing in yourself may also mean spending some money on a website, advertising and promotion.

Follow the money. The economic stimulus package has funding for teachers’ professional development and for literacy under Title I. Grant money pays for school visits. Do some research and provide it to your market.

Do something every day that could potentially lead to work. This means sitting and thinking every day, “What CAN I do?” It allows you to be proactive, keeps hope alive and anxiety at bay. I keep a list of all my breads cast upon the waters. Currently I have sixteen active items on my list.

It also helps to have a solvent spouse and to be collecting social security.

1 comment:

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Spot on. David Wisniewski, who won the Caldecott in 1997 for Golem, once told me that the vast majority of his income came from his school talks and other appearances....and this was the year AFTER he won.

Finding out about grant money is a great idea. Where did you look?