About freelance writing and crowdsourcing your paycheck

A funny thing has happened over the last few years, and I’m still not sure what to think about it. It’s the popularization of crowdfunding as a source of income, not just as a way to fund the making of something. We’re all familiar with Kickstarter and its various, promising projects (in my case, it’s a year later and I’ve still yet to see a product from the one I donated to) but now there’s Patreon, a new site for people to use to ask for your money.

Don’t get me wrong, I see nothing wrong with asking readers or listeners to donate so that you can go on and continue doing what you (and they) like you to do. For the record, however, crowdfunding is nothing new. We’ve been able to donate using PayPal and other means for years and years. Hell, I used PayPal donations to help pay for ad-free content or to buy my wife a plane ticket to a convention many moons ago.

The rise of personal social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook) means that almost anyone can get several-thousand likes or shares or notes and instantly they feel as though they hit the big time. This is the age in which a teenager thinks that 6,000 friends on Facebook means, well, 6,000 actual friends.

Patreon sort of feeds into that same mentality. Give me money, promise me funds so that I can continue doing this thing, and I will continue doing it. Basically it works like this: I stumble onto Patreon or I am linked there by some poor writer or artist who needs to get paid for doing that they love. I promise to give a certain amount, up to a maximum, per piece of content. The person who creates the content gets super-excited because they have $200-$1500 promised for each song, video or article and thinks that all of their problems are solved.

A month goes by, or two, and things work pretty well. Of course we have to ask that if the person asking for the money is in such a need then how can we trust that the content they create will be good enough to donate to (because they should already be in demand and already have employment) or perhaps after a month or two of bland articles or crappy songs we do not want to donate again. The artist or writer has to now go outside of their 2500 Twitter followers and ask for money so they can continue to do what they love to do.

In other words, crowdfunding, even the kind that eventually amounts to 10s of millions of dollars, does not mean a thing in the long run. It is, at most, an injection of cash that comes attached with a shit-ton of expectation. We’ve all witnessed new games or projects that cost millions and millions of dollars — hell, I’ve talked to many of the people who have worked on these projects — and what happens after the game or movie or song is released and fans enjoy it, get bored by it, and move on. The money moves on as well.

All of this is to say that an injection of cash is not a guarantee. The only guarantee is persistence. The good news is that a writer or artist or game-maker doesn’t even really need to be amazing at what they do, just persistent and reliable for delivery.

And that brings us to another question: if the person is having to ask for money on what is essentially a tip jar, what brought them to that point? Aren’t they good enough to make some sort of living in the first place?

Well, maybe yes and maybe no.

As a freelance writer who has now done this for about 4 years from home (although I have kept a blog since 2002, a gaming blog and podcast since 2006) I can say only a few things about making money doing what you love.

1) It’s hard as shit to do. It takes loads of time, and if you live with someone or are in a relationship with someone, it takes understanding and another paycheck. If it wasn’t for my wife and her abilities as a designer, I would not be able to do what I am attempting to do (freelance writing and eventually authoring a novel.)

2) It takes persistence. You just have to keep doing it, and should do it on some sort of schedule.

3) It takes original ideas or, at least, a good gimmick. You have to be good (I mean gooder) at writing. You have to bring something original and catchy to the incredible noise that is the internet. Think you are doing something wonderful and original? No, you’re not. Check Google. I’ve always attempted to cover games in a different way by concentrating on games that no one else seems to want to cover. It’s worked well for me, but I am certainly not the only one.

4) You have to, you know, work. If you see a successful YouTuber or writer, you are most likely seeing someone who got serious about what they do, invested time or money and kept at it. They treated it like a job, getting up early to do it and often volunteering to keep it going.

5) You don’t want others to know how much you get paid. I don’t want people to know because it’s embarrassing in its microscopic amount. I’ve been a paid writer for several different sites, and none of them pay me a living wage. It’s freelance, however, and we all should know what that means. (Hint: it means you need to work for a lot of different employers.) When you have people donate 300 or 1,000 dollars for a single article, song or video, you better impress those people. Despite the fact that you might be doing a ton of work, outsiders do not really care unless that work shows in the work. You might consider covering a war overseas, otherwise people are going to just shrug and say “I can just get this info for free somewhere else.”

6) You can’t do these odd jobs and expect to raise a kid, have a house and two cars and spending money. Me and the wife think that kids suck, anyway, but we are not stupid enough to have one when we are working like this.

As an example, a typical work week for me goes like this:

Get up around 7 am, make breakfast. Look at calendar. Prepare for any appointments for the day. Write emails, respond to invitations, download games. More prep, basically.

Start playing games. I write three columns for Massively alone, so let’s say that I want to play a game for 10 hours before I write it up. That’s 30 hours a week, roughly, just playing games. Of course that’s not always the case, but we’ll even knock it down to 20 hours to be really conservative.

Next, I have to write rough drafts. A good rough can go in an hour or so (if I’ve been stewing on it) and a bad one (or one that is just not working out) can take several hours. Then I have to edit the rough, add photos, etc etc. Let’s say I did that for three columns, that’s somewhere like six to 10 hours a week just writing/editing/formatting. That brings our total to 30 to 40 hours this week.

I also livestream games. While I used to do three a week, now I only mess with one simply because the money I make for a stream is not really enough to make it worth doing more. I have to email the developer (I usually interview a developer in my streams) and then prepare by downloading the game, making accounts, sometimes working out press accounts (requiring several emails) and then doing the stream. One stream can easily take a few hours of work total. That brings us to over 40 hours per week for this one client, and I don’t make enough to avoid the search for more work.

The point is this, even though this could be unique only to my situation: freelance work, working for yourself, starting a business where the product is you, is very hard. It’s not going to pay you much until you make it relatively “big” and even then, internet fame is very, very fleeting. Money goes away faster than that, and you can only ask your friends for cash a limited number of times.

The way I see it, the only things crowdsourcing does is (maybe) give you an infusion of cash, cash that will run out faster than you know it. It also makes your intake of cash a public thing. People will demand that you dance through hoops, especially if you get a decent amount. Look at Anita Sarkeesian to see just how much people can hold the amount of funds you raise against you. Granted, her project drew in trolls who jumped on any chance to attack her, but the point is that she only raised $158,000.

If you think that the money is the factor that changed her life, you have probably not made it out of your parent’s house. The attention is the thing that changed her life; a good project will burn through 150k in a year or less.

Now imagine that you raise $10,000 on a crowdsourcing site. That will last you several months, unless you already have another job. And you think you can continue to get $10,000 donations… for how long, exactly?

Like I said, I am lucky to be doing what I am doing, but I am always looking for more work. I would probably never use a service like Patreon simply because I would rather spend the time writing and applying for gigs.

Also, who would want the public to be in control of the pursestrings?