The relationship between a publishing company and its freelance workers tends to be small-scale and personal. You know this person does that sort of work; you trust this person; you send them a job; the job gets done on-time and up to expectation; you OK the invoice; the freelancer gets paid. Everyone’s happy, and so it goes.

Now of course the problem with the gig economy is those boring things like pensions and, in US, medical insurance. It’s all very well being a free spirit and leaving the future to take care of itself: only rarely does this work out without serious sacrifice — wealthy parents in the deep background help here, but it will always be hard to put aside some of your irregular earning for those rainy days. Of course many freelancers are seeking a full-time job. Designers and copyeditors who have recently been laid off make up a sizable proportion of the freelance workforce. Many of them can continue taking on freelance projects even after they get a full-time job. Subcontracting work to a full-time employee in your own company flirts with the unethical. I have done this myself, at both ends, and of course I wouldn’t do anything unethical! I’ve never done on a freelance basis work which I would have had to do during work hours, and this seems to me to be the boundary. Still the ethics of all this are so murky that I do think it wise for a company to have a policy against freelance work being done by current employees. There are enough other publishing companies for whom you can freelance after all.

The idea that freelancers should be organized keeps cropping up, but it seems almost to be a contradiction in terms. If you wanted to be organized you’d be trying to get an in-house job wouldn’t you? The Freelancers Union started in 2001, having grown out of Working Today, and now has 350,000 members about 25,000 of whom buy insurance through the union. If you are that free spirit who can tolerate the uncertainty which comes along with forgoing a salary in return for the ability to work when and however you choose, then joining the Freelancers Union does seem to me to be a good idea.

A couple of years ago Publishing Perspectives brought us the story of Whitefox, a UK publishing services company with a large team of freelancers which can be called into play on appropriate projects. I don’t think this is really the freelancer central that the story implies it is. It really looks more like a publishing services company (surprise surprise). Almost all publishing services companies already rely on freelance workers, but Whitefox does seem quite a large one. The idea of a central register of freelances, all vetted by the organizers of the register, does seem like something that might be valuable, but, circling back to the beginning of this post, so much freelance subcontracting is based on personal relationships that publishers might never need to use such a service.

The New Yorker has a piece on the gig economy. Much of the slow increase in employment after the last recession has been in 1099* work rather than in the W2 jobs which were largely the ones lost. More and more people are being tracked into part-time or contract work. And maybe this is the way things are going to be for the foreseeable future? Certainly there are a lot of young, well-educated people who like things that way. In principle the entire publishing process could be handled perfectly satisfactorily with such an employment model. The main motivation of companies who encourage gig working must surely be cost reduction. If you employ only contract employees you save all those large outlays on pensions, time-off and medical coverage: what’s not to like for a company? The main motivation for the workers who like this sort of work? No doubt a feeling of control: you work when you want and do what you chose. Still, there may come a time when the young English graduate tires of cleaning bathrooms in Airbnb apartments. Maybe then the response is just to move on to something different: as long as you keep on keeping on perhaps you can get by. Maybe fulfillment is to be found in other areas of life — as, be it said, it probably should.

Now if we lived in a world where a universal basic income were available to all this sort of problem would evaporate, especially if we managed also to get our (American) heads round the obvious concept that a single-payer health scheme is the way forward. If W2 employment really is going to dwindle with more and more people “gigging” there should in theory grow a constituency for these radical alternatives to the rat-race.


* For the non-US reader; these numbers refer to tax forms. If you are a full-time employee, every year your employer will send you (and the taxman) a W2 form, detailing what you were paid, and what taxes etc. were deducted. A 1099 MISC is the form a part-time, contract employee will receive. Part-time workers no doubt receive several of these which must make tax preparation that much harder. But hard seems to be the way we like tax prep to be over here. Heath-care in America was originally designed to be provided through the employer: most 1099 employees will not be receiving benefits of this kind.