It does not matter where you are in your life’s story there are choices to be made and opportunities to be recognised and seized if the ‘gypsy’ life of the freelance is for you “tra la la..” As a youngster, I was heavily influenced by my mother’s brother Ted, a lovely man who had fled the valleys, gone to London and become an actor of some note: Edward Rees– a member of the Richard Burton crowd. I spent a great deal of time with him in my teens and later and vowed to set my sights high and never to say ‘if only’. But of course, life, children and those elements of the reality check come to bear and personal ambition has often to be shelved, especially if you have made a life with someone who neither shares your passions nor has one iota of belief in you… I am (I sincerely hope) as ‘bad’ an influence on my own children and nephews and nieces as my uncle Ted was on me…and I intend to continue so to be.
For us, the bottom line was always moving here, renovating the house and getting on with work to survive. In the event, this has not been the easiest of winters for the ‘other’ income streams from property renovation, supervision, woodworking and so on became a trickle. But then everyone we know here is affected in some way by a recession as they are in the UK – so there is an enhanced sense of camaraderie. Italy’s economy is dire, though the toupéed, superannuated games-show host, Silvio Berlusconi denies it. No aspect of the 85% of the media he controls tells the truth about this (or indeed much else…). Italians do not carry the debt that Brits tend to, for the memory of grinding poverty until the 1960’s and later is still there. I need make no comment on the UK economy to readers of this blog, nor on that across the pond. Just to say that, as a touch of personal genius, where is my work but in Italy, the UK and the US?
I am not panicking (yet) for, at long last, a payment log jam has been broken, royalties from the US for a book are promised to be ‘decent’ and a couple of projects seem to be coming together. I have often been this way before…and maintain a healthily sceptical optimism. There is no choice really. Either one of us is allowed to grow despondent but never at the same time…an unwritten rule.
This freelance life is certainly not for all, but if that is the way you are built so be it…after all, in a back-handed compliment, an old friend of mine once said “I recognised from the outset that you were a prime candidate for self employment.” However, although writing and photography are essentially solitary I am gregarious – as long as I can choose the company!
This blog has become important to me both because I am involved with people I respect and because it brings a lot of feedback from kindred spirits. It also allows the three of us to stray into areas for which we have not been pigeon-holed. It seems odd to me, but if you are a cameraman then that is your recognised ‘skill’ and you can point your lens at any subject you like. But, as a photographer you get known for particular things: I built a useful reputation for shots of orchids and that grew (slowly) to encompass other plants, insects and a host of things though it took ages to get publishers to accept I might be able to do other things. And, of course, for aeons Niall was the ‘squirrel man’ – it’s his ear tufts but don’t tell!
Within the last couple of years I have had my shattered faith restored in the editorial and publishing process by working with Lark, the specialist photographic wing of Sterling, the giant US publisher. Its editorial director is a visionary and the editor I work with is enthusiastic, highly literate and motivated, qualities as scarce as hen’s teeth…even, dare I say, as rare as the faecal material of “Equus oscillans” ( rocking horse). People who have never been there criticise the USA and Americans but the first time I went to the USA, as a guest of the American Orchid Society and did a lecture tour, it was a revelation. Enthusiasm was prized, admired and not something that people shied away from and, if you had prepared your material and ‘performed’ rather than hesitantly stumbled your way through endless poor slides (the British way at the time) you got the plaudits. For anyone who enjoys the to-ing and fro-ing of banter it was a delight. I shall never forget the first talk I gave in the Bronx to an audience of mixed Italian and Jewish extraction, any one of whom seemed to have grown up with a microphone in hand able to hold an audience. I showed some close-ups of ‘anatomically correct’ orchids such as Orchis italica (either naked man or Italian man orchid in common parlance)…to hoots of female derision!
For lengthy periods in your pursuit of your goal you may well find you cannot do what you feel you are inexorably drawn to. At the time of my first American trip I was living a ‘looking glass’ life where, in my other world I had returned to a year’s teaching when the early ’90′s recesssion hit. I had, in desperation, taken a job in a dreadful Surrey prep school working away from home during the week. There, one was a piece of faecal material (and not rocking horse) at best, but on that trip to the US I realised how easy it was (and how great it felt) to reinvent oneself. I had stumbled in my freelance career, reacted wrongly, and that school was the aversion therapy needed – it was a waking nightmare but when I next leapt into the abyss I worked much harder and in a more targeted way. All it took was the many spoilt pupils, some dreadful aspirant parents and a bullying, deeply insecure head whose inferiority complex was the only honest facet of his character. I am sure others could find easier ways…
The thoughts in this post are prompted by the fact that I still recognise the need to change tack periodically, for change through ‘reinvention’ is a part of the freelance life. To continue with the projects that I feel are worthwhile I am prepared to do other things, too: run trips, courses (as I have always done) and make furniture. To that I will add self-publishing or rather a move to publish with like-minded folk or a publisher prepared to work with their authors.
This determination is fuelled by the possibilities for control offered these days through the digital revolution. Whether it is the editing process, design, production or marketing I have found a level of ‘shamateurism’ you would find hard to credit in UK book publishing. Sadly, in recent years things have changed for the worse and there is now precious little respect for the skill of an author/ photographer – in the former role you become a purveyor of words and in the latter offer a freebie. And it works, for these kleptoparasites because too many of us have been willing to be authors for the ‘kudos’.
I find the ‘little’ things that seem to earn respect in the US (such as being literate, prepared to work with people and having a capacity to change things free of prima donna fits) just simply relegate those who take pains and care about the standard of work (that, after all, goes out with their name on) to the ranks of the awkward squad in the UK. One of the things that I have never found endearing in the UK, in general, is the promotion of mediocrity as an art form. I prefer a society where to excel (or work to do) so is not derided.
And, for anyone out there who thinks of ‘doing a book’ here’s a piece of advice – get what you can ‘up front’ as an advance…and, if you can get copies to sell yourself at a good rate, get that written into the contract as well. Believe me, that advance is all you will make in most cases and I speak as someone with books translated into French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Chinese.
So, let me tell you a cautionary tale about ‘publisher prestidigitation’… Once upon a time, an author received a fixed percentage of the cover price as their royalty. Then, with the abandoning of the Retail Price Agreement (the reason supermarkets can now virtually give away books) things changed so that a typical contract entitled an author to a percentage of ‘publisher’s net receipts’.
The small question and answer book (Digital Photography Q&A) I have just completely revamped with Lark is the first book I have done in 27 years that granted me a percentage of cover price. The book was something different for me and a direction I enjoy since it reaches (and I hope enthuses) more people rather than a small group of specialists. It paid the advance and was into profit in a matter of months.
This contrasts strongly to sales from a UK publisher whose statements are greeted at home by hoots of derisory laughter (when we can read them, that is) . There is no way I want to work with them again (and I am sure the feeling is mutual) so it does not hurt to explain how they function and how their book club does not work to the advantage of authors.
When I signed a contract, I took on board that they operated a book club and that this enabled them to sell a substantial number of books and thus make the title a ‘success’. They would, they said, pay a reduced royalty on those they effectively sold to themselves (actually to the company a few doors down the corridor) …so I would end up with 7.5%. But, wait a mo… what I did not compute (so much for being a ruddy mathematician) was that, whereas the cover price was £19.99 they sold themselves the books at £3.99 each (a fraction of the price even to Amazon) and paid me a royalty on that…about 30p rather than £1.50. Thus, an advance seldom gets paid off.
And yet, poor deluded fools, we go on writing even when the Society of Authors, in a survey just a few years ago, revealed that a very high proportion of their authors made just £10,000 or less per annum: gross, in every sense of the term.
Well, at least in Italy we can grow our own veg and now Lois has discovered the secret of the perfect tomato sauce… only tomatoes. Just need lots of warmth to generate vitamin C then prolonged but gentle cooking to concentrate and change the phytoflavins. Meanwhile, I fire up the ancient pizza oven…it makes it so much easier to tolerate the hardships of the writer’s life that way.
To come back to the near present, last year was the first where I felt that I could step back and consciously enjoy the fruits (literally) of our endeavours and of living here. It is one of the (many) design faults in my make up that I find it hard to detach…when friends who saw this place at the beginning come to stay we are reminded of the changes. However, when your nose is close to things it is much easier to see the imperfections and all that remains to be done. It does not help living in a place where most bits are comfortable but to get to my study I go from the comfort zone through chaos. Though we both get fed up with routine I also have a bloody-minded side that means I doggedly keep going, whether it is with plastering or preparing digital files to spec for an agency. After all, these things won’t go away and will nag at me.
We live in a bit of an ageist society and whether that will change as the proportion of ‘silver surfers’ increases I know not. Stupidly, and I know, it is only a count of orbits of earth around sun, I am not as ecstatic as I might be to be reaching 60 this year… At that age my grandparents might have been decrepit but, hell, I can still play some nifty blues on my Fender Stratocaster.
Not everyone who reads this blog is a ‘spry young thing’ after all, but there will still be dreams. So, perhaps, it becomes even more important to try to do things we have put off. I certainly want my work to move in other directions and so I am delighted about the level of control that the digital revolution offers – it is up to us, no excuses. Anyway, I am reconciled to having to work until I drop…which, I trust, is some way off.
The unexpected can make one far more aware of one’s own mortality and act as a wake-up call. Those ‘new pastures’ need not involve huge expense…young, and not quite so young, can get so much from what is close to home. For those with skills then please take the time to pass them on – be generous. Via a series of happy encounters I have been able to continue to do that here. You will get so much in return, too…