The Rest of the Story

The Rest of the Story
Bankrupt British Freelancers

John Szczepaniak | 14 Nov 2006 11:02
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The feeling was what I imagined joining the most exclusive club in town must have been like. I was officially a freelancer for Highbury House, the second biggest game-magazine publisher in the U.K. I left the website and proceeded to write many articles to supplement my buzz-saw job.

In early 2005, one of the people from the original website, who would later become a close friend of mine, came to me and asked how to go about freelancing for Highbury House. I provided the details of the editor who headhunted me. In return he informed me of Live Publishing, a very small and very niche publisher for which he had recently started freelancing. They dealt with computers and videogames, covering specialized subjects. Freelancing had become addictive, and I wanted to expand. So I, too, began writing for Live Publishing, which also paid £50 a page. Except there was no contract, meaning once published, you could do as you pleased with work.

I was invited on February 24th to join a private freelancers forum. It was set up independently and management didn't have access. It was mainly a place to discuss ideas and events. Then, my first article was published, which included some very exclusive and highly desirable content. I received my first paycheck in mid-March. (As a freelancer, you usually receive checks for your work after what you write has been published. By the time this happens, you may have already written and submitted further work, so signs of trouble arrive too late.)

During coming months, I tripled my freelancing efforts, producing an incredible amount of content very quickly. Seeing how much money all these different publishers owed me (at one point five separate publishers), I decided to go "career" with freelancing, believing I could live off it.

Big mistake.

To maintain momentum, you need to work like a Trojan, relentlessly pitching work to anything and everything that pays, then staying up until the small hours of the morning sweating the stuff onto paper. Eventually, you end up even writing technical guides for some nobody publisher in the Southern hemisphere, which no one has ever heard of, for £25 a page, just to keep things together. While freelancers normally earn more per page than their in-house cousins, you'll seldom get enough decent work to live off.

After that first check from Live Publishing, I didn't receive any further payment. We assumed April's was simply a little late; the publisher had a reputation for this, so few were concerned. But even then, I had been forewarned, almost as if by fate. Looking through my archives, it shows that on April 20th I raised the alarm about Live Publishing's PS2 magazine mysteriously disappearing from their website and store shelves. But nobody paid any attention. I didn't want to face the truth, either, so work continued. It wasn't until June that our suspicions were truly ignited, but by then we were all owed vast sums of money. Without divulging the full amount, I was owed a very healthy four-figure sum - and that doesn't include pennies.

In June, our private forum had 18 members, and only 20 posts. Between months, the numbers were not accumulative. In July, there were 105 posts, while in August there were 380 posts. Throughout this time, all of us were phoning Live's offices, daily, to demand answers. There was a new excuse each day, urging us to continue working. Only on July 13th did I make a stand: I was the first in the group who refused to write anything more. Afterward, we collectively drafted a letter to management, explaining that we were pulling copyright on all work, so it couldn't be printed, and that we would no longer be writing anything. We also demanded all the money we were rightfully owed. Management pleaded with us; assured us that things were fine, and that it was just a small delay. The checks would go out soon, they said.

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