When I first started writing for marine publications—yes, it was considerably after the Civil War—the newbie boater and wannabe world cruiser had no choice. They either had to buy a major magazine to read me—or they didn’t read me.
They had to either take it or leave it—to put up or shut up.
This bred an arrogance in the publishing industry, as being the only-game-in-town often does.
Nowadays, things are different. Anyone with a mobile phone can instantly access a wide variety of sea gypsies like myself in their natural habitat at the furthest corners of the Seven Seas—for free, in living color, and on a weekly, up-close-and-personal basis.
Anyone on the planet with a phone can be—and increasingly is—a content creator.
That’s big. Actually, it is bigger than big—it is industry-changing.
And change is what life is all about—whether we like it or not. So, that said, here’s the sad truth as I see it: freelance writing is currently an awful profession—if you look at it through the telescope of money.
However, being a freelance writer—even at the lower end—is a fantastic lifestyle. And it is quite ego-boosting. Thus, there’s no shortage of applicants, especially among the wealthy. And that’s part of the problem. I work for publications that pay me upwards of $3000 for a feature article. All the while, those publications get thousands of submissions per month, each of which are written by writers who would be ecstatic to receive a $40 ‘honorarium’ and the ability to proudly show their byline to their mothers.
So how do you actually earn a living as a freelancer—other than the ole weary ‘write well’ cliché.
Well—honestly? I don’t know ‘how to do it correctly’ but I can tell you how others have done it and how I did it, step by step.
First off, I fell in love with the process of writing, not the result.
I didn’t just ‘want to have written,’ I wanted to write. Daily. For the rest of my life. And from an early age.
Thus, I never wrote a story and waited to see if it would sell. I wrote my heart every day and merely offered my scribblings to the marketplace—a market place which took years to take (initially lukewarm) notice.
I never asked myself if my writing was good—only if it was the best I could do on any given day. And I never lost sight of the fact that I didn’t get paid solely to write—I really got paid to send off what I’d written. I got paid to consummate.
Now, the first thing you have to do with magazines and publishing houses is to get by the editor. Notice I didn’t say please the editor! Here’s the truth of it—the reader signs my paycheck, not the editor. I merely had to write well enough, and PC enough, to get around the editor so that the reader feeds back to that editor and their publisher my actual worth as a communicator.
In essence, editors are often wrong—readers are never wrong!
That’s it. That’s the key. That—and to write the truth because truth always resonates. But the bottom line is that a writer’s job is to please the reader—to be worthy of their momentary attention—and everything else is BS.
How do I know my writing has worth? Because, for the last four decades, people have been paying me for it.
I’ve had editors who personally hated my guts and ones that loved me—but so what? What counts is reader feedback with a climbing subscription rate.
Speaking of subscription rates and why contemporary magazines are in trouble—just as the readers had no choice but to buy the mag to get to the writers—the advertisers also needed the mags to get to those same readers. RayMarine simply had no choice. If they wanted to advertise their products, they had to buy the back page of the December issue or, gasp, the evil empire of Garmin would.
Nowadays, each of us carries a spying device with us. If we click on a video of a young lass wiggling a cute butt as she grinds (sic) a sheet winch with Tahiti in the background on YouTube—our iPhone knows that we’re 1.) a sailor, and 2.) a pervert—and thus showers us with ads for RayMarine and Garmin.
That was never possible before.
Suddenly, the major mags no longer have a stranglehold on their advertisers or their readers! Double-damn!
Of course, not all print media is dependent on subscriptions. There are, ahem, wonderful fish wrappers such as Caribbean Compass. Latitude 38, and ALL AT SEA. I love these locally-
focused publications—they gave me my start as a salt-stained inkslinger.
Because of them, I always encourage my publishers to go to boat shows, not to sell magazines—but rather to be sitting there when a drunken reader stumbles up and slurs, “That silly son of a bitch had me laughing so hard that I fell outta my chair!”
Yes, marine media is strange, freak’n strange!
Now, once the publication that you’re working for thinks that you’re the cat’s meow—you have to take a deep breath and… are you ready? …wait for it, dude… you have to quit. Trust me—this is how it works. Until publications are competing against each other for your work—your writing is, pretty much, valueless.
Once you’re back swimming in the free market place, with at least one or two publishers who know your true worth, you’ve got a shot at earning a (meager but adequate) living with your pen. Then you arrange to be rehired by one or the other—only now the thing that you’re selling isn’t merely your writing—it’s your exclusivity.
That’s where the real money is.
Whew, a dangerous game, eh?
Yeah, it is—especially in the marine field where there are only three or four publications on the planet that pay enough to make cashing their checks worthwhile.
For years I cashed paychecks that were so abysmally small that I’d mutter to the bank teller, “just a refund for my subscription’ so she wouldn’t think I was a brain-addled fool.
And all of this crap is happily bypassed if you’re a YouTuber and in direct contact with the person who consumes your content.
Of course, YouTubers have a totally different set of problems which, since I’m not one, I know little of.
But all of us, like it or not, are slaves to the marketplace. I used to work for mags that were adding pages (and staff) on a monthly basis—and whose back covers were selling for six digits. Nowadays, those same publications are a mere anemic shadow of their former selves. Their weary ad salesmen are now pedaling the back page to such down-market commodities as ‘sea monkeys’ or local Mister Dollar stores.
Wow, how the mighty have fallen!
Celestial Navigation Part IV – Publication 249 and The Universal Plotting Sheet
Of course, there are still those of us who are in love with words. My father wrote for Yachting. My mother wrote all her life—was published when she was in her 90s. My sister Carole published two marvelous books. For a while, my sister Gale was a professional grant writer. My brother Morgan had a workbook on Gestalt in print for a while.
It’s almost an addiction, scribbling for spare change is. I write five hours a day, seven days a week and have for forty plus years. And, truthfully, I have little to show for it—save the coolest, happiest life on the planet.
Hustling on YouTube or begging Patreon just doesn’t float our family’s boat.
Which isn’t to say that YouTube doesn’t have its place. It does. There are sailors creating wonderful content there every week for free—a few of whom are more knowledgeable and talented than I; and far more-than-a-few who don’t know their a-hole from their hawsehole.
So be it. The gatekeepers are gone—and long may they rot in their greedy graves. Publishers used to strain nearly all the money into their own bottomless pockets—only begrudgingly giving crumbs to the writers upon whom they preyed so profitably for centuries. No more. Anyone can start a YouTube channel that reaches the entire world—for free, within the hour.
Ha ha! Take that, greedheads!
Yes, it’s a brave new world. Successful YouTubers don’t know who I am—and I don’t know who they are. The competition is ferocious within the marine field. Increasingly we cruisers are surrounded by floating ‘content creators’ who make their living pretending to be ‘totally off the grid’ and yet, in reality, sit in a marina in Papeete nervously video-editing while plugged into broadband—and only venture to sea when it is convenient for their cameraman and sound technician.
Many YouTube content consumers have lost contact with reality as well. They constantly suggest that I and my wife do a ‘survivor-type show’ aboard, demonstrating that they haven’t the foggiest notion of who we are or why we are. If you bring a video production team to Chagos—it ain’t really Chagos no more; it’s a phony-baloney set to put money in your pocket and clicks on your page.
We sail the world in each other’s arms—not with a film crew that includes a make-up artist and plastic surgeon specializing in breast enlargement.
That’s not who we are—that’s not what we do.
So here are the conclusions I’ve come to as a professional writer who is intent on surviving in a fast changing, technically-metamorphosing communication industry.
If you’re interested in money, don’t pick up a pen. However, if you have stories burning within you—you’ll simply have no choice. You’re mentally f’ed up and you are also a rank sucker—so you may as well acknowledge it. I’m driven to write—so driven that I’ve written 12 books in the last 7 years that I haven’t published merely because they don’t make me smile. And also because I don’t have to; because I’m my own boss and worse critic and I really don’t care what anyone says—because my pen has painfully earned the right not to.
So, yeah, the writing and publishing biz is one tough racket—but anyone can play, even a fool like me. And, ultimately, communication is about story—whether captured in prose on the printed page or on video in flickering images of light and shadow.
There used to be huge money in making records when the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen came up—now their members are still touring from their wheelchairs because there’s not.
The pendulum of profit swings.
Just as we writers are now temporarily freed by ebooks and print-on-demand, Spotify and Apple Music have currently stolen (the lion’s share) of the royalties once paid to songwriters and performers.
The big money is now in live performance—just ask Taylor Swift and Ticketmaster if you don’t believe me. The marketplace changes. The technology changes. The ability to communicate, however—for me to touch you with the primal hopes and fears that reveal our common humanity—that remains the same.
And Marshall McLuhan remains correct. In many ways “The medium is the message” is still accurate.
So, yes, every morning I uncap my pen, leave my GoPro in the drawer, and ruefully acknowledge that I’m too set in my ways to ‘beg for beers’ on YouTube. It’s true—it really is hard to teach an old sea dog new tricks.
Fatty and Carolyn are currently anchored between Pulau Ubin and Pulau Ketam, just out of sight of the skyscrapers of S’pore.
Thanks Fatty. You’re perspective is beautiful, and inspiring, with your entire spectrum of tomes. I hope some of the others out there that haven’t been in the inkslinger trenches, the millennial You-Tubers, and hawsholes too, take note. Thank you for your writing. I am a true fan. Keep it up. Be safe out there!
St. Petersburg, Fl
S/V Ramble On