Change It Up

Writing Magazine – June 2024

After the loss of one client, Simon Whaley explores how every writing business evolves over time.

In 1963, when addressing guests at Frankfurt’s St Paul’s Church, President John F Kennedy said, “For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life.”

JFK’s quote came to mind when a magazine editor emailed to say they were dropping a section I’d regularly contributed to on a freelance basis for more than a decade. They’d reviewed their online content and decided to make several changes to what appeared in their print publication.

It was a shock. From a business perspective, while this client wasn’t a huge income stream for me, they were still an important one. As a freelancer, I can’t take anything for granted. Markets change, they always have done, but this one was sudden and unexpected.

It made me think about how my writing business had changed over the years. Fifteen years ago, I contributed short stories to the women’s magazine market. At that time, many women’s magazines had one, if not more, fiction slots in every issue. Get the story right and, because the magazines only took limited rights back then, we could sell the same story to publications in the UK, Australia, South Africa, and even Sweden. 

Today, I rarely write short stories. The market has changed drastically. Few of the women’s magazines have a fiction slot now, and of those that still do, they either only accept submissions from a closed group of writers or they insist on taking all rights in the story. All rights are not something I’m willing to give up when selling my fiction. 

Unlike my other magazine market, this change was gradual. It took a few years for the short story market to dwindle to the point where producing short stories was no longer beneficial to my writing business.

Certain Change

To survive as a writer, we have to cope with change, whether it’s sudden or gradual. We can’t avoid change, so we have no choice but to manage it.

Christina Patterson is a journalist, broadcaster, and coach. After working for ten years at The Independent, her writing world changed suddenly when she was made redundant in 2013. 

‘I was worried about paying the bills and mortgage,’ she explains, ‘and, given the redundancy rate among journalists, I was worried about how I was going to earn a living in the future. I was also worried about who I was now. Journalism had been such a key part of my identity. It felt like a vocation, but one that had been snatched away from me. I found the whole thing incredibly painful.’

Pitch Panic

Unlike Christina, I’d only lost part of my income from the recent editorial changes, but it still induced a sense of panic. As a freelance, my work is spread across a variety of clients, but Pareto’s 80/20 principle still applies. Eighty per cent of my income comes from twenty per cent of my clients, and this particular magazine was one of those clients. Immediately, I pitched ideas to other editors.

Christina did the same. ‘There’s nothing like the pressure of paying bills to focus the mind! It didn’t take me long to motivate myself because I was on my own at the time and no one else was going to bail me out. I kicked into action straight away, emailing editors and asking to meet for “a coffee”, which is a polite way to beg for work. But for me the grief of losing my dream job felt like a bereavement and it took me several years to get over it.’

Mourning Loss

Christina is right. I’ve come to realise, too, that we need to mourn the loss. When we contribute regularly to a particular market, we know the style, tone, length and angle those publications require. Fifteen years ago, I knew which markets wanted 1200-word tale-with-a-twist stories, and which preferred something longer and more literary. Now, all that knowledge and skill is of little use to my writing business.

Apparently, we go through seven stages of grief when we lose a loved one (shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, the upward turn, reconstruction, acceptance and hope), and I’m sure we go through a similar process when we lose an important part of our writing business.

Reframing Loss

To move on from the short story market, I turning to novel-writing instead. Looking back, I now appreciate how my novel writing has benefitted from the skills gained by writing all those short stories. This helped me reframe the loss. I might not write short stories now, but that time writing them wasn’t a waste of time. They were a stepping stone to where I am now.

Learning to accept change means embracing new opportunities and thinking about our writing business differently.

‘Pay for most journalists and writers has dropped significantly in the past few years,’ says Christina. ‘I wouldn’t recommend to anyone these days to bank on writing as a solid way to earn a living. I think many writers will need to develop some skills that pay better than writing, or write on top of a job. That’s why, for example, I trained as a coach a few years ago. Building any business isn’t easy, but I love the work and hope to reach a point when I spend half my time writing and half my time coaching.’

Accepting our writing business must evolve can help us manage the change. Sometimes those changes are big, sometimes they’re incremental. Twenty years ago, I tutored writing students on a distance learning course. Then I moved on to tutoring at conferences and writers’ retreats. Now, I also coach authors for an American company via Zoom, and do some editing and proofreading work for them. 

It’s still writing-related work, but my business model has changed. I’ve learned new skills and broken into new markets. What’s more important is that my author coaching, editing, and proofreading brings in more income than tutoring my distance-learning students did two decades ago.

Portfolio Projects

Christina now enjoys a portfolio life, comprising several income streams, which offer her more security. She reviews fiction and non-fiction for The Sunday Times, and contributes freelance pieces to The GuardianDaily Mail, and the Telegraph. She also regularly commentates on radio and news programmes on Sky News, Radio Four’s Today, and Radio Five Live.

‘I don’t think there are any single solutions to the challenge of being made redundant in an industry that appears to be in decline. For some people, getting a job, perhaps in a related field, will be a sensible way forward. I knew it was unlikely I’d get a job like the one I had—as a full-time writer and columnist on a newspaper—and decided to develop a few different income streams and do my own thing. If one fails, there are always the others. I was also quite keen not to have another boss.’

Relying on one boss and income stream means that sudden loss of income becomes a real financial emergency. Whereas having a portfolio of income streams softens the blow considerably. If one takes a sudden downturn, there’s still some money coming in from the others. While losing one of my magazine markets was a shock, it hasn’t been a financial catastrophe for me.

Looking forward and moving on shouldn’t stop us from looking back, though. Going through change gives us a chance to stop, reflect, and consider what we really want to do. It’s also an opportunity to draw upon the change experience itself. Could it become a writing project in itself?

Book Business

Five years after leaving The Independent, Christina wrote The Art of Not Falling Apart. Proclaimed by both The New Statesman and The Mail on Sunday as their Book of the Year, it takes a poignant, but witty look at coping with change at work and in life. It’s a great example of how she used change to further her writing business. The chances are, had she not left The Independent, she wouldn’t have written the book.

Her latest book, Outside, the Sky is Blue, published by Tinder Press, is a memoir of growing up. Another sudden change inspired it—the death of her brother. It’s a reminder of how our personal life can influence our writing business.

It’s easy to only think of ourselves when change happens, but change happens to everyone, often at the same time. When the magazine notified me they were dropping the section to which I had contributed, I know that email went to two-dozen other regular contributors. When the women’s magazine market shrank, I wasn’t the only short story writer affected.

Change can be for the good. When I first went full time as a writer in 2004, ebooks were not a mass market format. Bookshops only sold books published by traditional publishers. Today, I can self-publish a book and offer it to readers on a variety of platforms, in over 150 countries around the world, all from the comfort of my desk.

Everyone’s writing business will change in some form or another. Some markets will close, but new ones will replace them. If we want our writing business to survive, we have to evolve.

Change may not always be welcome, but there is no escaping it. As JFK pointed out, change is the law of life.

Business Directory – Christina’s Change-Coping Counsel

‘Read my book, The Art of Not Falling Apart. I literally wrote it to help people cope with change. Be flexible, maintain your friendships and professional contacts, look for opportunities and find joy in the everyday. Good luck comes to those who can spot it. And this is it, folks. We get one life. If you don’t like what you’re doing, do something else.’