Writing in Obscurity
Struggling as a Freelance Writer
By Antonio Graceffo
This article is dedicated to anyone who has ever written an article for $70 or less. It is particularly aimed at anyone who has been REJECTED by a magazine which pays $70 or less. And most important, it is for all of those who ASPIRE to write an article for a magazine that pays $70 or less.
Unless you are a complete mook, you have probably figured out by now that you won’t get your first article published in Vanity Fair, Play Boy, or National Geographic. More than likely, you probably fought tooth and nail to get your first article into a non-paying, regional magazine in rural Iowa, with a circulation of two thousand. When you first started writing, seeing your name in print, in the “Propane Salesman Monthly” seemed an unattainable dream.
The day the issue finally hit the newsstands you were afraid to leave the house for fear of being mobbed by your new fans. You knew that someone very important was going to read your treatise on charcoal vs. propane, recognize your genius, and give you an assignment to write for the New Yorker, for $4.50 a word. You hung around the house, waiting for that phone call, THE phone call, the one that would make your career. Eventually, the need to go out and buy a pizza or rent a video overtook your desire for anonymity. You donned a fake mustache, putty nose, and dark glasses and headed into town.
No one noticed you.
In my case, I actually went to a store, picked up a copy of the magazine, and accidentally flicked it open to the page with my name on it, hoping the checkout girl would notice. She didn’t.
“That’s me.” I said, turning the magazine around so she could see the story.
“That looks like a barbecue grill.”
“No, I mean I wrote it, the story, I wrote the story.”
Yeah, this is about the best response you will get showing your clippings to strangers. Nothing in their past experience prepares them for insecure writers hoping to redeem their self-image by soliciting praise from them. When in doubt, the average person says, “Well…” This is often followed by “Isn’t that nice.”
In my case, it was followed by, “Do you want to buy the magazine?”
It was four dollars. “Sorry, I can’t afford it.”
“Do you still want the other stuff?”
Just so that it wouldn’t be so obvious that I was praise grubbing, I had picked up a random collection of compulsion purchase items at the checkout counter. I looked at this pile of Kit Kat, Recess Cups, batteries, and a dental pick, wondering what I was thinking.
I had been sweating pretty heavily during this whole exchange. Finally the adhesive dissolved, and my false nose fell onto the counter.
“Just the candy bars.” I said. I followed this up with, “Can I pay with a check?”
This was the beginning of my life as a freelance writer. Over the next seven years, I published more and more, and in bigger and bigger magazines. Finally I published books and wrote for TV. I sometimes get recognized, and I receive reader mail daily. I get to do a good number of interviews and appear in web videos, TV shows and movies. But things never got any easier financially.
As for recognition, with exception of the celebrity authors, which we will talk about later, authors don’t often get recognized. In 1996, I read an interview with Isabel Allende, who was at that time, the number one female novelist in the world. One day, she went to a grocery store and they refused to accept a check without ID. She was earning millions, but no one in the store had heard of her, her books, or her movies.
I gave up on maintaining an apartment about two years ago. Currently, I am sleeping on a wooden bunk bed in a small, concrete block room in Manila. The room has no windows and no air conditioning, and the temperature hangs around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t have to beat off fans with a stick, but even in the Philippines, people recognize me from martial arts videos or magazine articles.
“You’re famous. What are you doing living here?”
“It’s research for my next book.” I say. Luckily, no matter how bad things get, I can always claim I am getting into character for a new book. But in reality, I live in a 3,000 Peso a month cell, because that is all I can afford. And actually, I can’t even afford that. The money for my rent was donated by deposed Burmese, Shan royalty who support the writing I do about the war in Burma.
That is a whole other story, which illustrates the bizarre dichotomy that is your everyday life when you have almost made it. When I turn on the TV or flip open a newspaper and see anything about Burma, Cambodia, or obscure martial arts, I will inevitably know either the journalists or the people they are interviewing. Someone showed me a memoir he had bought, written by a Shan princess. I said, “That is the woman who pays for my studies.” You get to know a lot of interesting people and stories along the way, but you suffer financially.
Everything I own fit in two backpacks, but I lost one of the backpacks in an accident on the Burma border. Now everything I own fits on the upper bunk of my concrete room. Most days, when I wake up, I have to think of a good reason not to jump off of something very high, after taking poison first.
For the last six months, before coming to the Philippines, I had been embedded with the Shan State Army, one of the rebel groups opposing the Burmese government. My project, called “In Shanland” called for me to publish one story and one video per week in about two hundred Burma and Human Rights related magazines and websites around the world. I was doing this for free because I believe in the cause. Also, the rates that no-name magazines pay are so low that it makes no sense to give them an exclusive. They want to make all sorts of copyright demands for $50. It would be better to give the magazine for free, and have it run all over the web as an advertisement, rather than have it run in a web mag with 100,000 viewers, once.
This could be a good consideration for any freelancer. If the magazine is offering you a ridiculously low sum of money for your piece, and wants an exclusive, it might make more sense to give it away for free, to a number of magazines, to get yourself some advertising.
An extremely well-known Burma author, named Edith Mirante, contacted me to say, “When I was at the front desk of the library the other day, a lady checked out a copy of “The Monk From Brooklyn.”
Monk was my first book, and the one I am most closely associated with. My nickname has become Brooklynmonk, which is the name I use on all of my blog sites.
Someone checked out my book? Now 108 people have read it.
The standard commission to an author is usually 9 or 10% of the cover price of a paperback. If your book sells for $12.99, you get $1.20 for each copy sold. The average income in the USA is about $4,000 USD per month. So, you will need to sell nearly 3,000 books per month to make it. The poverty level is about $800 per month, so you need to sell more than 600 books a month to stay out of the projects.
The numbers are depressing.
When I first started out, I thought I would build up from the free and $50 a month magazines, up to the $500 a month magazines. I would get a few of those per month, plus some book sales, and it would add up to a living. I was doing an assignment, both playing in and covering the World Elephant Polo Tournament, in Thailand. My presence at the tournament represented a cooperative effort of about ten magazines, all pitching in a little bit of money for my lodging, bus ticket, and my pay for the resulting articles. There was a big journalist from New York, covering the even for two very large magazines. I envied him. It must be great to earn $2,000 – $4,000 per story. His first book had come out a year earlier and he had received an advance of $15,000.
Later, when he was drunk enough to talk, and no one was listening, he told me the truth of big time journalism. True, he earned a lot more per story than I did. BUT, he spent 90% of his time in New York, tracking down contracts and submitting proposals. He received less than one assignment per month and his annual income was less than $50,000 USD. When he went on assignment he was traveling, often at his own expense, so he wasn’t even clearing $50,000, which in New York, would be a paltry sum to try and live on.
True, he had received an advance on his first book, but it didn’t sell 15,000 copies. So, he hasn’t received any more money from that book, and probably never will.
To make a living, you need to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. You can promote and do a number of things yourself to make that happen, but it will become a full-time job, and you will need to ask yourself if you are a salesman or an author. With a few exceptions, such as Elron Hubbard or Tony Robbins, few people can promote their own book to riches. The publishing companies, on the other hand, can. They have the budget and the contacts. If they decide to make your book a best seller, it will be. But if they just publish it and let it sit on the shelves, it is unlikely that you will be very successful.
The Burmese community in exile is pretty supportive of my Shanland project. A Burmese doctor in California offered to send me copies of Edith’s books. We have known each other for over a year, but I couldn’t afford to order her books. It is also difficult to receive mail when you don’t live anywhere. I have never read my latest book, “Adventures in Formosa,” and was hoping that my publisher would send me a copy. It has been out for almost a year now, but I haven’t managed to save up the $12.99 plus shipping it would cost to order it.
The one bright spot in my wrist-slitting publishing career is: I watched an interview with Stephen King on youtube. Apparently, he had “made it” freelance journalism, writing for name magazines on a regular basis, BUT he still had to teach school full-time and couldn’t always afford to have electricity in his house. He got a $2,500 advance on his first book, which he was grateful to get, but he still hadn’t made it. The next book sold shortly after that for $250,000 and the one after that for 400,000. All three sales came in over a period of months.
I guess the answer is, it is a struggle and writing for big mags is not the goal. The goal is the big book contract and the movie deal…. When I started out, I never planned to write for magazines. I wanted to write books. Also I always wanted to be like Jack London, the celebrity author. In addition to being an adventurer, seaman, and boxer, he was the first author to do product endorsements. He used to write out his proposed spending, mostly to support his boat and his lavish lifestyle, and match it with his writing. He knew how many stories he had to write, to earn X dollars, and he wrote accordingly. At times, he produced at a rate of stories per week.
I also produce at a rate of stories per week, but I am starving. And yet I am overweight. Where does that come from?
Something I learned from my own experience and from reading about Jack London is that the absolute least common reason your work is rejected is because it isn’t good. Most rejected pieces are never even read. They aren’t even opened. And there are a million reasons why something is rejected. Often it is rejected simply because it doesn’t fit the plan for the upcoming issue. The same piece, submitted to the same magazine, and read by the same editor might be accepted if it was submitted at a different time.
The novice writer believes the editor read his stuff and rejected it because it was bad. The novice writer then scraps what he wrote, changes his style, and tries again. Jack London, on the other hand, believed in himself and what he had written. He saved all of his rejected items in a trunk, for years. When he became famous, he knew he could sell anything he had ever written. He opened up that trunk and sold every piece of previously rejected material. He actually sent pieces in with red REJECTION stamps on them, and they were purchased. Some of the pieces had been rejected from free, non-paying, magazines, and were now purchased, for top dollar, by prestigious periodicals.
I always save everything I have written, and, now that I have published a number of books and have a bit of a name, I find I am selling pieces that were rejected five years ago. Sometimes I rework them into new pieces, sometimes I just attach the word file and send them in.
I answer every single reader mail that comes in. Many of these correspondence I save and re-work into saleable magazine articles (like this one).
In another interview, Stephen King was talking about how the total market for books has shrunken dramatically, and now there are a limited number of genres. To be carried in book stores, or even to get published, you have to fit within these very few categories.
I know that one of the issues holding me back is that I don’t fit clearly into a genre. There isn’t really an adventure genre. There is fantasy adventure, but this means stories about winged beasts and crossbows. And although I do occasionally have a crossbow in my stories, it isn’t a good fit.
All of my big breaks, TV, movies, and now two more book contracts with large publishers, and two more contracts with magazines, all came from martial arts writing. It is a small market and a not-very-well paying one, but it is an accepted genre, and now I am getting known in those circles. So, I am getting more assignments and offers.
Unfortunately, however, martial arts is only one area that I write about. It is also the one I least wish to be remembered for. I also write articles about linguistics, ethnic minorities, Asian culture and adventure.
The book I am doing now, “Pinoy Paramedic” should be a lot of fun and very interesting, but, like most of my writing, it won’t fit neatly into a genre. It is based on my experience of attending paramedic school in Manila. It follows me and my classmates through our training, where we are taught, “When you cut the clothes off an accident victim, be careful to cut along the seems, so they can reuse the garments.”
The teachers also urged us, that if our patient died, we should not to become a broker for the sale of organs. “You can give the family a phone number for the organ salesman, and that’s all. It would be unethical for you to accept a commission.”
The book, like all my books, has humor, adventure, and represents a deep and intimate involvement in a foreign culture which most foreigners would never have. I am not the paramedic instructor. I am the student. I sit in a room with 28 Filipinos, and go through the training and experience with them, as one of them.
When I read other people’s travel writing, it seems so superficial. I really get into these cultures before I write about them. “The Monk from Brooklyn,” is my diary from when I spent three months living and training at the Shaolin Temple, in China. To prepare for that experience, I first spent more than a year in Taiwan, learning to speak Chinese.
The book was rejected 3,000 times by agents and publishers, before it was finally accepted. There is almost no marketing for it, apart from my other writing in magazines, so, to date, it hasn’t had a huge impact on my poverty.
“Pinoy Paramedic” is one more Antonio-esqu work which doesn’t fit nicely into a category. I know that in terms of quality it is 1,000 times better than “Monk,” because it is less angry and after seven years of publishing, I have nothing to prove. It is written from the heart. Being a book about paramedics, it also uses the words “vomit” and “nipples” quite a lot, words I generally don’t get to use.
“Pinoy Paramedic,” will be an exceptional book, and I don’t want it to go to a no-name publisher, then languish on the shelves, generating $800 per year in revenues. Unfortunately, I don’t know what will become of the book, and as I am in the middle of living it, I have no time to worry or think about what to do with the end product. The same is true of my Shanland book, which I hope to complete when I get back to Thailand. No writer has ever spent the amount of time that I have with the Shan, learning to speak Thai and doing countless interviews to understand the victims of a genocide. I wear the Shan State Army uniform, and work as a hand-to-hand combat instructor for the soldiers while I document and write about their lives. Part of the reason I went to Manila to become a paramedic was so that I could help the Shan with direct medical aid when I return. As a writer or photographer, we TAKE an interview or TAKE a photo. As a paramedic, I can GIVE something back. And of course, the book will have one more very unique dimension to it.
Of course, there is no section at the book store entitled, “Southeast Asia Conflict Paramedic Books.” So, I have no idea what to do with the book when it is done.
Recently, I read Tim Page’s autobiographical book, “Page after Page.” Being a Cambodia hand, he is one of my huge heroes. He has been considered a leading expert on Cambodia and Vietnam for the last forty years and one of the greatest Vietnam photographers of all times. AND YET, he didn’t make any money till about five years ago, when his newest book became a best seller.
Both King and Page were substance abusers and alcoholics, and they struggled financially, really struggle. Page, like me, normally didn’t even have an apartment, just lived and slept where he happened to be.
Page was already world famous and regarded as a leading expert but was STILL poor.
Is this encouraging, that two of my greatest heroes suffered? Not sure. Perhaps it means I should also become a substance abuser. I am too broke to afford alcohol or drugs, but a lot of street children in Manila use rugby, a plastic bag full of glue that they inhale. They pass out on the sidewalk, in front of Seven Eleven, and I have to step over them when I go to get my breakfast in the morning. Some basic medical equipment has already been donated to me, so I have an inhaler mask, but I am not sure where you are supposed to insert the glue. We weren’t taught that in my paramedic training. Or maybe we were, but that was one of the questions I missed on the exam.
Whether or not I chose the rugby option, the suffering and substance abuse of two great writers made me think that there might be a glimmer of hope somewhere down the trail. Even though I haven’t made it yet, maybe….someday, I too will be passed out on the sidewalk in front of Seven Eleven, and Stephen King or Tim Page, visiting the Philippines, will have to step over me when he goes to buy his breakfast.
The intent of this article was supposed to be to encourage young and upcoming writers. So, let me just say too things. Don’t quit. And, buy some glue.
Antonio Graceffo is the author of four books, available on amazon.com
To see Antonio Graceffo’s Burma and martial arts videos, click here.
Currently, Antonio is in Manila attending paramedic training. When his course finishes he will return to the conflict in Burma as a medical volunteer. He is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to his paramedic training or his “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.
Contact him at: Antonio@speakingadventure.com