Bankrupt British Freelancers

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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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.

After this, we were made aware that a computing magazine of Live’s had folded, with six people losing their jobs. Around this time, the aforementioned management made a request for further subscriptions to be taken out. They were offering a very generous deal, and many readers eagerly started signing up. This concerned us, since the combination of not being paid, another publication closing and these pleas for subscriptions all meant that a company called Live would soon be very dead. There was a general feeling in the group to warn readers that their subscriptions would never be honored. On August 18th, we revealed the situation on the company’s public forum; only in polite terms, and only to warn readers against subscribing. Two minutes later, our words were censored, our accounts on that forum removed, and management accused us of being “unprofessional.” Many continued to subscribe, unaware of what happened.

On August 22nd, the company went into administration and the staff was laid off. The administrators explained that freelancers were not “secured creditors” and as such would not see a penny of their owed money. This revelation encouraged some detective work. Government website Companies House provided us some much-needed answers. We discovered that many of Live Publishing’s magazines were now owned by a publisher called Magnesium Media. It turned out that Magnesium had apparently been incorporated sometime during the August pre-administration period, and that it was owned, or at least part-owned, by the exact same gentleman who owned Live. We even acquired several key figures’ dates of birth and housing addresses, along with the dates of when they were appointed. Magnesium was based in the same building, with the same directors and key members of staff, and now owned many of the same assets that Live had previously.

No combination of words can ever describe or explain what each of us was feeling at that point. The brain’s higher functions shut down, relying on some kind of primitive reptilian instinct. Waves of uncontrollable anger wash over you, and you can do nothing but go along with them. We had worked hard and had rightfully earned the money we were owed. From our perspective, it appeared that those in charge were simply washing their hands of the debt while keeping all the valuable company assets.

Worse still, the law backed up our presumptions by stating that it was perfectly legal. I want to emphasize this. The people behind this scheme were perfectly within their legal rights to do all of this. Morally, though, I leave judgment up to you.

The website administrators eventually sent us all a thick booklet detailing exactly how far in debt Live was. I won’t reveal the whole figure, but let’s just say that my four figure sum was a tiny percentage.

My problems didn’t end there, though.

Roughly three months later, Highbury House also went bankrupt. I was only owed a few hundred pounds, but the situation beggared belief, and I can hardly find the words to eloquently describe it. There it was again. Waves of the most indescribable and uncontrollable anger, but now also mixed with a deep sorrow. Having seen how hopeless it was pursuing my money, I chose simply not to bother and didn’t fill in any of the administration forms. I instead poured myself a whiskey and got back to work.

There is no rest for a freelancer.

John Szczepaniak is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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