Free lunches, or the freedom of the freelance life?

Nearly seven years ago, my husband came home from work one day and said, ‘I don’t think I can work under her for much longer,’ meaning his line manager. Nine months prior to this, we had taken on a mortgage on the basis of his salary. Some nine months after this moment, we agreed that he should resign from the job, after several months off work with anxiety and depression. His supervisor had been micro-managing him, finding fault at every opportunity. The last straw was an appraisal, filled with negative feedback, which he was then asked to write up.

Work-based counselling, talk of mediation – any benefits were cancelled out when, on a phased return to work, the first thing she asked of him was to complete the appraisal process. The very thing that his counsellor said should not be raised at this time, as it was the trigger for his illness. We realised that there would be no positive changes as long as he worked under this manager. The only way was out.

So, for some five years plus, my husband has been working freelance, pursuing the work he loves – commissioning and editing books. (The paid employment had not been so interesting, editing examination questions.) The work is often speculative, and there is no income while book projects are in development; they may or may not be taken up by publishers. In short, some of the work does not pay at all. And outlets for the kind of books that he commissions are in decline, with some of the big players pulling out of that area of publishing (Science, Technical and Medical). When he does get a book accepted, or does a piece of editorial work, it often takes several months of chasing up invoices to receive the money.

He has no sick pay, no holiday pay as a freelancer, even on some of the long-term contracts. He has worked through sickness, and if we have taken a holiday, it has been in the knowledge that there would be no money coming in that week.  One ’employer’ ended his contract the same day as he sent notice of termination, with no financial recompense; he had worked for this publisher for eighteen months. Legally, the contract should have been on a direct employment basis, as regular work of the same kind for the same employer. He should have received the same rights as an employee, but who would argue this point when the work could easily go to another freelancer? We had discussed approaching the publisher about this, to put my husband’s work on a more permanent footing. Then came the termination notice. He saw a solicitor about pay in lieu of notice – the contract gave two months. The employer said that he was giving this notice, but had no work for my husband during this time, and payment was only due for work actually carried out. The solicitor thought my husband had a case, but when he approached the employer with this information, asking for two months’ pay, the scoundrel threatened him with bad-mouthing his work publicly.

As for myself, I have worked in a very stressful environment and found it hard to stop the speeding waltzer that was my working life. It felt more dangerous to jump off than to cling on tight and carry on. I was brought to a halt by ill health. That was sixteen years ago, and despite periods of extreme poverty (as a single parent on sickness and disability benefits), and relative poverty (still on benefits, married to a freelancer, growing older, and with a mortgage outstanding), I would not go back to that life, employed and relatively well off financially, impoverished in health and leisure time.

Were we right, my husband and I, to decide that he should resign from that job? From sick and holiday pay, from the free lunches (no such thing as…) in the staff dining room, a perk of that job? Hell, yes! He now chooses his work, his hours, his commute is from the living room to his study, in the cellar. If we want to  go off to the seaside on a summer’s day, he can decide to do that. He is free to pursue his music, to potter in his shed, to spend time with our granddaughter. The lunches might not be so good, but he can eat them in his armchair, in my company.

Every so often, we have ‘the conversation’ about whether he should apply for jobs in London, which would bring in twice his freelance income. The money seems attractive. The commute, about three hours per day, the unknown nature of management, the fact that he reaches sixty this month, and deserves to be slowing down … it’s a no-brainer.

Wellbeing versus a reasonable income – it shouldn’t be a choice. And low income, money worries, can affect your wellbeing. My closest friends and family regularly listen to me talk about money, the lack of it, particularly when unexpected expenses come up. We recently had a leaky roof. Rain was dripping through the bedroom ceiling onto the bed. We were bailed out by a loan from a friend to pay a roofer, spared some of the cost by using a scaffolding platform owned by another friend. We often wonder if we can carry on living in our house, whether we should sell it and rent another property. One friend reminded me that she had heard me say this before, a couple of years previously, and yet we were still there.

We begin 2016 overdrawn, like many people. In 2015, we borrowed off Peter to pay Paul, so that we could keep up with the mortgage. It’s something I learned from working alongside a debt advice service – meet your housing costs before anything else. Holidays were dropped, as were meals out, takeaways, concert tickets, gym memberships. It’s felt grim sometimes, but we are better off than some.

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar.  Area 51 Photography

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar. Area 51 Photography

On New Year’s Day, we went for a walk, ending up at a pub. ‘Let’s pretend we are rich people, ‘ I said, and we had lunch at the pub, toasted the new year. And remembered the amazing things we had achieved in the last year: publishing eleven books with Cultured Llama, my husband producing Hopping Down in Kent, a community-based folk opera from scratch, in less than three months. And we were thankful for our families, friends, and the freedom of the freelance life.

Bob Carling is a freelance commissioning editor, editorial consultant, publisher, science journalist, and typographical designer. He is also Managing Editor of Cultured Llama Publishing. See his website here.


  • By Peter Cook (@AcademyOfRock), January 5, 2016 @ 9:23 am

    My story of departure owes more to the Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, but I recognise the build up and the anxiety that it creates.

  • By Peter Cook (@AcademyOfRock), January 5, 2016 @ 9:37 am

    Of course, if all the HR Directors and staff out there read Punk Rock People Management, we’d be better off …

  • By Paul Shearing, January 5, 2016 @ 7:26 pm

    Apart from a short period of employment when I left Uni. I have been self – employed / freelance all my working life. I concur with all your observations and often wonder what life would have been like in somebody’s employ. I dare say I would be wealthier, but happier? I doubt it. I too have no paid holiday, no canteen, no health insurance, no accounts department to work out my tax for me. I have to do my own VAT; service, repair, MOT and insure my own car. If something has to be posted, muggins gets to do the packing, wrapping, addressing as well as buying the stamps and taking it to the post office or post box. It’s these things, they add up to a lot, that people forget or simply don’t consider when they accuse me of “being my own boss” which for some reason equates, in their thinking, to working some kind of financial scam. I doubt that many would survive without the backup they receive from steady employment. Well done Rob. Good but difficult decision.

  • By Sarah Butler, January 6, 2016 @ 8:52 am

    I’ve been a freelance editor and writer for 23 years and love my life: yes, I earn less and have often had to work when ill, and I have a smaller pension in comparison with employed friends. But I have enough. I choose not to work full time all the time. I can choose who I work with. I can choose when I work. I can write my novel all week if I really want. I can go for walks and take my mum to hospital. I can lie on the grass and look at the sky at half past ten on a Monday morning and it’s nobody’s business but mine.

    One thing I would say is that I’d have struggled to do this if I’d remained a commissioning editor and copy editor in book publishing – the pay for freelancers in the book industry is terrible, and most major publishers seem to prefer low rates and quick turnaround to good quality work these day – I used to lose projects to off-shore teams who didn’t speak English purely on this basis.

    I’m a copywriter now, and find that it’s much more sustainable. Rates are higher, you never work speculatively, jobs are shorter, and expertise is valued.

    I’m 52 now and never regret walking out of my last employed job. I may be working till I’m 90, but at least I like what I do!

  • By Bob Carling, January 6, 2016 @ 4:14 pm

    Interesting comments – thanks all. The related issue is what to concentrate upon, given that I have several irons in the fire, hoping that one or other might actually earn me a decent amount of money… Currently it’s writing – and I’d like to follow up the copywriting point that you make Sarah.

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