The Rest of the Story

The Rest of the Story
Bankrupt British Freelancers

John Szczepaniak | 14 Nov 2006 11:02
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Being a fulltime freelance game writer - sorry, journalist - is like living a glamorous rock 'n' roll lifestyle. You get paid fabulous money simply for playing and writing about your favorite games before anyone else even sees them. You rub shoulders with your industry heroes and exotic booth babes at swanky conventions, while partaking in the endless free rivers of PR-provided software and booze. Plus, being freelance means you can get up late, hung over, and sit around in pajamas all day getting paid to enjoy your hobby.

These are lies.

At the very least they are gross exaggerations, perpetuated by God knows whom, especially when it comes to freelancers. Fulltime freelancing is gruelingly hard work, and it can only be born out of obsessive passion. Industry veterans might choose to replace "passion" with other dissimilar words, though. You don't get into this work because you want decent pay or a successful career; you can only do it because there is fire in your guts which won't let you stop. The U.K.'s national average annual income is estimated somewhere at £20,600, while full time game magazine writers earn roughly half this amount. When you earn less than your secretary, you need passion to carry on. It is also a career fraught with terrifying risks.

What I want to tell you about is two publisher bankruptcies, a little whiskey and a lot of articles. Or should that be a lot of whiskey? I've left the names as is, since I'm telling you just the facts of what happened from my perspective. Not passing judgment on those involved. Everything contained within happened to me as is, with no embellishment - apologies if there's no three act structure - this is real life, chaps. Specific times are taken from memory and forum archives, so they may not be accurate to the last second.

Like many game writers, I started by volunteering on hobbyist websites. These are (mostly) without the politics that money brings, and they also allow you to improve your writing skill painlessly. No deadlines, no guidelines; write what you like when you please. But this is dangerous, since it implies in the young, untrained writer's brain that the work is fun and that it might make for a good career. Some show such natural talent that they get spotted by magazine editors who browse the forums of such websites. I have no formal training in "actual writing" beyond the British A-level classes I took in Philosophy and Sociology. So, when, sometime mid-2004, an editor asked me to expand some of my website work for inclusion in his popular print magazine, I was only too eager. I was paid nothing for website work, but he was offering a few free games and my name in print. How could I refuse? Free games and the adulation of my not-so-fortunate peers, not to mention my hallowed words immortalized for eternity by the printed press.

I expanded the article. They liked it and the readers loved it. So, I agreed to do another, on whatever subject I wanted, they said. After the second batch of games, and requests for a third article, I demanded monetary payment. They agreed, and so sent me an official freelancer contract. It was very strict, far stricter than the contracts at any other publisher, I would soon discover. They basically owned all submitted content, entirely and forever. Payment was £50 a page (roughly 500 words), which I am certain must seem like a fortune to every gamer alive, considering you're only writing about stuff you enjoy and know anyway, and especially if you've ever done any kind of low-pay manual-labor. It sure as hell beats buzz-sawing wood for a living!

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