Hitting the wall



It is 2.30 am, and I can't sleep. Today I must file my final piece for American Express's FXIP blog, which is being mothballed. Writing for that blog has been my main source of income for the last four years. Once it is gone, my income will once again become precarious and inadequate, as it has been all too often in the past. Hence my sleeplessness.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not sorry that the blog is closing. I've done some interesting work for it, and learned a lot. And it has been a reliable source of income during the difficult times of the last three years. For that, I am grateful. But I don't enjoy writing for it. The house style is dry to the point of desiccation, devoid of all opinion, emotion and metaphor. It is also SEO-driven, so I am constantly trying to find ways of including key words assigned by someone else. True, the key words are set from the brief, but it means there is no flexibility. I can't simply go where my mind leads, as I do when writing here. Writing in such a way is like hacking through rocks, exhausting and unfulfilling. And the worst of it is that I know the eventual piece will be published on a site which is hard to navigate, has little in the way of search facilities and has zero presence on social media. I tried many times to persuade American Express to upgrade it, to no avail. I suspect that the unfriendly nature of the site is the reason why it is being mothballed. It can't possibly be generating the traffic they need to justify the expense of maintaining it.

The site itself will stay up, though there will be no new posts on it once the batch I am just finishing now are published. It is free to read, so do have a look around. Maybe at some time in the future it will be revived. But I must move on. I have to find something else that will earn me a living. Right now, I am facing short commons for the foreseeable future.

The self-pitying part of me is hurt and angry that after nearly a decade of writing I am still living hand to mouth. I thought I was a good writer, but it seems I am not good enough for anyone to offer me a regular job on a decent salary - and yes, I have asked.  Freelance writing is all I have, and it is a mug's game. I can pitch to a variety of publications, but there is no guarantee that my pitches will be accepted. I didn't even get a response to the last pitch I made to the Financial Times. And even if pitches are accepted, the pay is pitiful: the most recent offer (from Byline Times) was £100 for a piece which required significant research. I do have a regular writing slot at Forbes, but the pay there is even worse. They downgraded my contract last year, and now five pieces in a month pays me the princely sum of $250. No, that is not per piece. It is for all five. If I am lucky, one of the pieces will generate a lot of traffic, in which case I will be paid per click. When I say "a lot" of traffic, I mean tens of thousands of page hits. My normal hit rate for a Forbes piece is 2000-3000. That isn't enough to earn me anything more than the basic. And if I don't write five pieces in a month, I am paid nothing, even for the pieces I have written. I can't live like this.

There are also far too many publications and event organisers that expect me to write for nothing, speak for nothing, moderate panels for nothing. Some offer "publicity" in return for my contribution. But I don't need publicity, I need income. Others tell me they "value my expertise". But if you expect me to work for nothing, you value me as nothing. And some publications, and many events, don't pay anyone and largely rely on pro bono contributions from people who have regular jobs. This is unfair to people who earn their living from writing and speaking.

I've hit this wall before. I've always been good at my job, but for some reason stability and a decent income evades me. In my banking career I was a project manager, which by its nature is unstable: your job only lasts as long as the project, and if the project is suddenly cancelled, you are suddenly redundant. That happened to me rather a lot. And when I gave up my unstable banking career and returned to singing, I could only achieve stability by doing an awful lot of peripatetic teaching in schools. This was soul-destroying and rendered me too tired to sing. I was eventually forced to cut teaching back drastically at considerable financial cost. Interestingly, writing for American Express seems to have had a similar effect on my writing ability. I have become too tired to write my own blog.

I suppose it is possible that my time is over. I was a creature of the chaotic period after the financial crisis when there was room for new voices with something to say, and new platforms on which those voices could sound off to a large audience. The rise of social media and blogging coincided with the financial crisis and was even more disruptive. It created an opportunity for a singing teacher from Kent who knew quite a bit about banking and finance and was angry that so much nonsense was being written about it. People are still writing nonsense, and I am still angry, but the world has moved on. No-one wants to learn about banking and finance now. They want polemics, not informed arguments. When I started writing, I was severely critical of banks: but now, I am frequently accused of being a friend to banks, because I won't join in the chorus of ill-informed voices shouting about "evil bankers" and demanding that the financial system be smashed to smithereens, at who knows what cost to ordinary people. 

There's another problem too. The chaos of the post-crisis period has given way to naked tribalism. To be successful as a writer and speaker in the new landscape, you have to join a political tribe. Political neutrality is for the birds. But today's political tribes look like cults to me, dangerously inward-looking and deeply divisive, promoting ideologies that have little basis in reality and are potentially extremely damaging - and yes, this applies to the left as much as the right. I don't want to join any of them.

I am by nature a pragmatist, and my natural home is the radical centre, the source of ideas such as universal basic income, land value taxation and helicopter money, all of which have adherents from across the left-right political divide. But in the minds of many, the "centre" is associated with the failed policies that led to the financial crisis. It has no place in the new politics. And so, neither do I.

For those of us who belong to the centre, the current polarisation of politics is frightening. Politics has become a tussle between extreme nationalists and extreme socialists. Those who reject extremes are damned by both sides. The nationalists call moderates "traitors" who would give political power to foreign states and let foreigners swamp "indigenous" residents. And the socialists accuse moderates of being "neoliberals", the pejorative label they attach to those who they believe shredded the welfare state and trashed the country's industrial base. Both sides silence and purge those who won't subscribe to their extreme views. Thus, even to exercise my democratic right to vote in the forthcoming election, I must choose from a menu of equally unappetising dishes. I am not only unemployed, I am disenfranchised.

I do not know what the future holds. But the need for someone to talk sense about banking, finance, economics and the like has surely not gone away. So maybe, as this door closes, another one will open. Maybe, somewhere out there, there is a stable job for me, one that will not only pay me a decent income, but give me the time and energy to say what I have to say.

In the meantime, due to my precarious financial situation, if anyone asks me to write or speak for nothing or next to nothing, the answer will be a resounding "NO". I am not doing any more pro bono work. If I want to write for nothing, I can do so on this blog. I have a few unpaid commissions at the moment, which I will complete. But after that, the party is over. If you think I am good enough to write for your publication, or speak at your event, you need to show me your appreciation in financial terms. If you aren't prepared to do so, then you don't really want my contribution.

The world may appear turbulent, but beneath the surface, nothing has really changed. Editors of publications, and event organisers, are driven by a rational desire to get something for nothing, just like concert promoters and parents of children who want singing lessons. And I am equally driven by a rational desire to earn a decent and stable income. The struggle between those who want to be paid and those who don't want to pay is eternal.

Related reading:

The end of the road
I am a bank

Image: Statue of the "Tired Man", by József Somogyi. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Comments

  1. Have you tried Patreon ? I'd chip in 5 euro.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, because it means moving to a different blog platform. This site has a Paypal donation button on the main page though.

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    2. Frances - of all the bloggers on the internet - you are one that stands out for your lucidity of thought and clarity of expression. I've visited the blog a lot recently hoping I might see a new post. It may not be much, but i've donated a little something. I hope things look up soon, you should not doubt your talent!

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  2. Dear Frances Coppola,
    Could you send me your business email because I would like to present an offer.
    Kind regards,
    Agata Stachnik

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Agata, business email is frances@coppolacomment.com, or you can use francesmcoppola@gmail.com.

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    2. Thank you for your reply. I will send you the offer.

      Delete
  3. Dear Frances Coppola,
    Could you send me your business email because I would like to present an offer.
    Kind regards,
    Agata Stachnik

    ReplyDelete
  4. I imagined that your new book would be doing quite well after it was put on the reading list for John Authors' newsletter. I must be overestimating the readership for this sort of book? Well at least 25% of my office have bought a copy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have not received a penny from sales of my book yet. I presume I will, at some point, but I don't know when.

      Delete
    2. Well I hope you receive your fair share. It was a very readable book and the perfect length - I find it frustrating how many 400 page books there are that could easily be condensed to 200 without losing anything substantial

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  5. This company has jobs in London; https://careers.spglobal.com/ListJobs/ByCountry/GB/

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  6. It is easy to feel downcast - I think most people do for one reason or another in the present appalling political climate, and I am certainly glad I have had the opportunity to finish with paid journalism before having to endure conditions as bad as you are correctly describing. This does not mean that my writing has no value, but one has to find different ways of looking at it. In the short term one answer might be to get a job of any kind to bring in some money for a while, to take off the immediate pressure, and then develop your personal interests around a field which is progressive, forward looking and here to stay. The environmental movement seems to me the most vital and of course it has to be all about finance at some level, and yet money rarely seems to feature in discussions except in terms of criticising exploitation of natural resources etc. You might care to look at the very interesting work Thomas Lovejoy has done with the World Bank - he developed the "debt-for-nature" swap programme for instance. Incidentally I do not agree that centrism is a spent force, but I think that there is now widespread annoyance and even disgust with the main political parties, and I have detected in pretty well everyone I know a feeling that party politics as presently exists is broken and something fairly major must now be done. Many people are in fact swinging from one extreme position to another, rather than settling down permanently in an extreme position. I have certainly been doing this myself, to my surprise (since I usually know what I think). There needs to be a sea change in how we do politics, but nobody knows how yet. Meanwhile the threat to the environment needs some attention from people with good financial minds. Or you may be able to think of something else that grabs you. Anyhow, good luck, and do not take this downturn personally.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In the U.S. political parties were identified by George Washington and James Madison as the greatest internal danger to our nation. Madison wrote a letter to Washington prior to the Constitutional Convention in which he said that if the national system did not have the power to veto the legislative acts of the states, "in all cases whatsoever," that our nation would fail. At the end of the convention, Washington wrote a letter to his nephew Bushrod, in which he said that the Constitution contains fatal "imperfections," by which he meant that political parties would ultimately destroy our national government. In Federalist 10, immediately after the Constitution was sent to the states for their approval, Madison warned that political parties, "factions," would destroy us, and at the end of his two terms as President, Washington again warned that "cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men" would form political parties by which they would elevate one of their members to the highest office in the land which would lead to the destruction of our nation. He accurately predicted the rise, and the destructive behavior, of Donald Trump. Despite all these early warnings, and despite two centuries of clear evidence of the irrational acts of political parties, we Americans have done next to nothing to restrain their destructive actions. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did not attend the Constitutional Convention, and Adams later sent a letter to Jefferson in which he said that "corruption in elections," had doomed all "elective governments" in history. The next election will be our last chance to elect people who will focus on dealing with global warming.

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  7. For what it's worth, I have nothing but admiration for anyone who's made freelancing pay for this long - i got out (and into teaching) in 2004, so from my perspective the freelance world you came into was already impossibly harsh. I met someone a bit back who seemed to be living the dream, having made it from blogging to a regular spot in the national press - and without even moving to London. I was keen to know how it was done, out of nostalgia if nothing else, but it turned out that the secret was not giving up the day job.

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  8. Dear Frances,
    I'm reading you from Italy and, to be be perfectly honest, I fell in love with your wonderful writing some time ago, when you were describing your father's death. I also lost my father last year. It was so sad reading you, in such a way that I could understand not only your wonderful English but also the deep emotions that you put in your posts. It's amazing how you can move people feeling.

    From that moment on, I cannot ever lose your posts. They're brilliant.

    I just would like to say thank you for all the things you're writing here, I've learned so much that you can't imagine, not only in terms of English! Thank you.

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  9. You're not alone in feeling exploited and dis-enfranchised. I expect there are millions who would say the same. Social media has made voices sound very strident.

    To get on you have to adapt and show entrepreneurial skill eg set up your own company tutoring in companies or hire a room and charge 20 children £5 each for an hour to do some musical games. Spot an opportunity. Another avenue would be to accept a 9-5 type job. HE tutoring or in an office. If you do it well you might get promoted to MD or show something on your CV that would lead to another job.

    Are you too young to retire? Then you could work part time or use your writing ability for a local club/charity or in a way you really enjoy. Push open that door and another may open for you further down the line.

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  10. BTW, I just looked at your book on quantitative easing for the people and I like it, and I should, it reminds me of my own book by the name of Faction-Free Democracy. This book is about two systems for the US: Faction-Free Democracy and Democrato-Capitalism.

    In the latter system I propose giving money directly to the people from birth to death. I do it for many of the same reasons that you list in your book, and that is to be expected, right? We are both trying to solve the same problems.

    MMT of which you have been accused of being a secret admirer, has now come our way. Go to the site and read the front story by J. D. Alt. It is a four part essay of which three parts have been published. He has copied my ideas, and he has not given me credit. In fact he claims my ideas as his “discoveries.” I kid you not. I have written to some of the rulers of MMT complaining of this larceny but I have heard nothing.

    In any case I have put a copy of two chapters of my book on my site: jerryrhamrick.com.

    If you go there and then click on “sample chapters” on the right top of the front page you will be taken to another page with links to two chapters. Chapter 6, Tyranno-Capitalism, which discusses the failed system of capitalism which rules us now. Chapter 12 An Unlimited Supply of Money describes how our new system of Democrato-capitalism works.




    ReplyDelete
  11. Hi Frances,

    Do you sell copies of your book directly? My email is chrislwills@aol.com if so.

    Chris

    ReplyDelete
  12. One practical observation and one idea for consideration:

    I can't find your paypal icon on the pages as displayed in the USA.

    Try accepting payment in crypto currency. I have long wondered why charities and authors don't use the digital payment system when they have international appeal? I know it is (right now) not the most convenient way to accept donations, nor is it the most cost efficient, but something received is better than nothing received.

    That said, please accept my (no pecuniary value) thanks for your efforts on this platform, where I occasionally comment.

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  13. Frances,

    Have you looked at the Australian Royal Commission into Banking?

    If that doesn't change anyone's view of banks nothing will.

    Have you looked at the prospects of UK banking and the finance industry post Brexit?

    I can't believe someone with your talents and experience can't find a place in a relevant organization.

    Punch on (if that's not too male chauvanistic!)

    Henry Rech

    ReplyDelete
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