How I Charge For Work

money-budgetingThis post was inspired by @CClements29 who posted a question on Twitter last week. I was on my way to Australia at the time, via London and Tokyo, so I couldn’t answer directly. But Charlotte’s tweet, plus various other recent queries, made me realise I should write about how I charge for work.

What I can’t tell you is how much you should charge for any work you’re being asked to do. However, I hope that by explaining how I work out my charges – a system developed over 17 years in business – I can at least give you some pointers on how to think about charging, and what kinds of questions to ask yourself and others.

First, I charge by the day (or, at the minimum, half a day). My rates depend on: the type of client and/or source of funding; the complexity, location, and interestingness of the work; and (to some extent) my capacity. For example, if I don’t have much on and I could do with the work, I’m more likely to accept less interesting work at a lower fee; conversely, if I’m maxed out, it doesn’t matter how interesting or well-paid a gig might be, I’m not going to say yes.

As a rule of thumb, I charge more for more complex work, work that involves more travelling, and boring work. If there’s something interesting I can do in my office, I’ll be happy to charge less. I often reduce my day rate somewhat for a longer piece of work, on the basis that if a client buys, say, 20 days of my time or more at one go, they deserve a discount. Sometimes the client sets the day rate: if that’s higher than I would set it myself, I won’t argue; if it’s lower, I probably will (unless there’s some other reason I want to do the work).

In terms of client type, I charge the least to small, local charities, or for any work funded by public donations. I charge the most to national governments, or for work funded by national governments, and to wealthy organisations such as universities. Larger charities and local governments get charged at an intermediate level.

In terms of what my day rate actually is: for UK work, it currently varies between £120 (small local charity, work funded from public donations) and £1,000 (rate set by a client for training when the course is full). I charge £800 to universities, which seems to be pretty much the going rate; £500-£600 to central government or for work funded by central government; £350-£450 to larger charities and funders; and £200-£250 to smaller charities and funders. This sounds like a lot to some people; the rationale is here.

The other part of the equation is working out what you can actually do in a day. This takes some experience, as everyone works at different rates, and the time things take can vary. For example, not all interviews will take the same length of time: an interview with five questions is likely to take less time, on average, than one with 15 questions. Sometimes, too, there’s a chunk of the work where you need to invest some time updating your knowledge and/or skills. I don’t think it’s fair to charge a client for the time you spend doing this, because the update will only help them for this particular job, while it will help you more widely. Occasionally the two will combine, e.g. when a client wants a literature review, as part of the work, about the exact topic on which you need to update your knowledge to do the whole job effectively. That kind of serendipity does happen, but it’s rare.

I can’t tell you what you can do in a day, but I can tell you it will help if you are able to work fast, as then your work will represent better value for money. I touch-type at 90 wpm, I read fast, and I make good use of time. All of this means I can offer my clients a lot of work in each day.

I charge for some expenses on top of my day rate: travel (second-class, taxis where necessary, mileage at Inland Revenue rates if I need to drive) and accommodation when required. I don’t generally charge subsistence to clients, but I do write it off against tax. I absorb all other expenses – stationery, printing etc – within my day rate.

Some clients want a ‘job rate’ so they can budget – or they tell you what their budget is, and ask you to work out how you can do the job within the available resources. Either way, you have  to decide whether and, if so, how you can meet their needs. Sometimes you simply can’t: I’ve lost count of the jobs I’ve turned down because the client wants, say, a three-year evaluation of a publicly funded project for a total budget of £5,000. It’s just not feasible to do a good piece of work, of that duration, for that price.

Charging for work abroad is different: info here.

People may, at times, ask you to work for nothing, or for ‘exposure’ or ‘the experience’ or ‘the contacts’. It is up to you whether or not you take up these opportunities. If you’re at the very start of your indie career, some may be worth the effort; I benefited from such things myself. I still work for nothing at times: I offer free support to groups of service users, community members, activists etc who want help and advice in relation to research. But I’m long past the point of working for ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’. I doubt any of my clients would ask a car mechanic, or a hairdresser, or a window cleaner to work in return for ‘exposure’, so why do they feel it’s OK to ask a researcher to do this? Beats me. And I already have 17 years of paid experience, so I hardly need more unpaid experience.

Whatever you decide, don’t sell yourself short. We all need to value our own knowledge, experience, and skills. This isn’t always easy: the day rates I now charge are this year’s rates, as my post about the rationale shows. I could only bring myself to charge these rates after, quite literally, years of people I respect (including several clients) telling me I wasn’t charging enough for the work I was doing. Yet I now realise that under-selling myself didn’t do me any good, and it doesn’t do the rest of us any good either, because it can lead clients to have unrealistic expectations. So do the necessary thinking and research, take a deep breath, and charge what your work is worth.

Twelve Top Tips for International Indie Work

plane.jpgMy chosen career has offered me some interesting opportunities to work outside my own country. First I went to Syria, before the conflict began, to teach qualitative research methods to doctors. It was a fascinating experience, I met some wonderful people, and I grieve for the plight of that delightful country. At the time I thought it was a one-off opportunity, but since my book on creative research methods came out last year, several others have arisen. I’ve taught in Scotland and Canada, next year I’m teaching in Wales, and next month I’m off to Australia!

Glamorous, right? Well maybe above the surface, but beneath, the administrative feet are paddling like mad. If you, too, want to do international work as a freelance indie/altac, here are my twelve top tips.

  1. Charge more for international than for national work. You need to factor in at least two unpaid days for pre-trip admin: sorting travel and accommodation, planning work, applying for a visa, getting travel insurance, having vaccinations – there’s a lot to do. I recommend adding 50% to your usual day rate as a minimum.
  1. Find out what you can charge in the country concerned. It may be more than your usual day rate plus 50%. If so, charge the going rate, or a little less. If you charge much less than the going rate, people will think you’re not worth much. Strange, but true.
  1. Make sure any costs you quote include, as extras on top of your day rate, any taxes and/or visa costs payable locally.
  1. Charge half your day rate for any full day spent travelling, e.g. on a long-haul flight.
  1. Make your own travel arrangements. Otherwise you risk several changes of flight and a hotel that is grotty, or inconveniently located, or with no wi-fi. Making your own arrangements takes more time but it’s worth it because you can suit yourself. Having said that, you can still use an agent for some of the work. I booked all my own travel for Canada and it took ages; for Australia, thanks to a suggestion from my Dad, I used FlightCentre (available worldwide) and I would recommend them highly. They understood my needs and my budget, and evidently have an encyclopaedic knowledge of international flight options.
  1. Don’t take the mick with expenses. I book economy class direct flights: that usually costs a bit more than flights with changes of plane, but I arrive in better condition and am fit for work sooner. I book accommodation that is comfortable and suitable for a business traveller but nowhere near top end (examples: Premier Inn in the UK, Best Western in Canada). I will use taxis, but only if I need to; I’ll use public transport where that’s easily accessible with suitable routes.
  1. Search for more work than the job you are initially offered. There’s no point flying all the way to wherever-it-is simply to deliver one short workshop or keynote speech. Use your contacts, your contacts’ contacts, social media, even cold emailing – any ideas you can come up with to generate more work. Don’t be shy. The very fact that someone wants to bring you to another country to work will impress other people. You need to maximise this opportunity, both financially and interpersonally.
  1. Where jet lag will be a factor, build in an initial day in which you won’t be working to help you acclimatise. Get onto local time as fast as you can: start before you leave for your trip if possible. And similarly, build in at least a day after you get home, before you have to do any substantive work.
  1. Plan for a final day with no commitments, so you can take up people’s offers to ‘grab a coffee’ while you’re in the area. If there are no such offers, you can spend the day exploring and having fun, so it’s a win-win.
  1. Check and double-check all travel arrangements, timings, and contact details. If someone has flown you thousands of miles for work, it’s enormously embarrassing if you don’t actually turn up in the right place at the right time. (I imagine. I’m glad to say I’ve never yet suffered such embarrassment – and I do not intend to in future.)
  1. Prepare your work carefully, and deliver it to the best of your ability. You are, to some extent, on trial. If you do well, you may be asked again.
  1. Do the follow-up work: send the emails you promised to send, pass on the references you mentioned, put people in touch with others as you said you would.

Working internationally is a lot of hard graft. It’s also a great deal of fun. I love to travel, meet new people, and see new places. But I find it helps to be realistic about what is involved, clear about what I can offer, and unambiguous about my terms.

University Bureaucracy Is Driving Me Mad!!!

I understand that where there are institutions, there must also be bureaucracy. I know that when I work with a new university, I need to fill in a New Supplier Form for their records, and someone will have to raise a purchase order before I can get paid. This is how most universities work. The initial form-filling can be a bit of a pain, and it can take a while to get set up on the system, but once that’s done, the admin is usually straightforward. I do a job, a purchase order arrives in my inbox, I create an invoice for the specified amount bearing the purchase order number, email it off, then some time later the money appears in my bank account.

That kind of administrative overhead seems reasonable and proportionate for the kind of work I do and the amounts I charge. Most of my invoices are in three figures or the small end of four. However, some universities have a massive administrative overhead for new suppliers. I’ve just come across one at the other end of a very long spectrum. Nameless University requires me to do the following:

  1. Complete a New Supplier Form
  2. Complete a Vendor Appraisal Questionnaire
  3. Read and understand their Terms and Conditions for Purchase
  4. Complete a Supplier Engagement Tool online

The New Supplier Form is on a spreadsheet and has 22 questions. The Vendor Appraisal Questionnaire is two pages of A4 and has several of the same questions that are on the New Supplier Form.

The Terms and Conditions for Purchase are 11 pages long. Being savvy in these matters, I skipped straight to the insurance section, where I found that they want me to hold £5m in public liability insurance and £1m in professional indemnity insurance. My own insurers, in whose interests it is to sell me as much insurance as possible, have told me that I only need £2m in public liability and £250,000 in professional indemnity for the kind of work I do. To raise my cover to the levels demanded by Nameless University would cost me more than I will earn from my work with them.

The online Supplier Engagement Tool was the icing on the cake. Sample question: ‘Is there someone in your organisation who is responsible for sustainability? To qualify, sustainability must form 50% or more of the person’s job role.’ Yes, there is someone in my organisation who is responsible for sustainability. It’s me. I make sure we buy recycled paper and compost our teabags. But is that 50% of my job role? Is it heck. For a start it only takes about one minute a week to ensure that my business is as sustainable as possible, and for a second thing, if I spent half my time on sustainability, I wouldn’t be able to earn a living.

Most of the questions in the Supplier Engagement Tool were irrelevant to me, so I ended up answering almost all of them with the ‘other, please specify’ option. At the end of the process I got a personalised action plan for my business. This turned out to be a pdf of a single page with my company name at the top and NOTHING ELSE AT ALL.

I said in an email to the person commissioning my work that Nameless University was by far the most bureaucratic I had come across (it is). That person forwarded my email to the Head of Procurement. The HoP wrote me a lengthy email saying, among other things, that it is ‘standard business practice’ to operate in this way for any contract over £1,000 in value. (As this is the first university which has done this to me, I’m not sure what the standard is here, let alone the business; even the local authorities I used to work with didn’t operate like this for costs under five figures.)

The HoP did acknowledge that there was duplication between the spreadsheet and the questionnaire, and said they are ‘looking to merge the documents into one in the future’ (a job that could be done in five minutes flat). The HoP also said that ‘insurances can be negotiated… with suppliers such as yourself’ – so why not put that in the Terms and Conditions of Purchase? Some suppliers will reach that point and conclude that they are ineligible. Bureaucracy is not only a nuisance, it can also exclude, which is unlikely to be in anyone’s best interests.

Apparently the Supplier Engagement Tool will enable Nameless University to ensure that all their suppliers ‘fully comply with the recently introduced Modern Slavery Act‘. I know I can drive myself hard at times, but I didn’t realise I was at risk of enslaving myself. More seriously, this Act is only applicable to businesses with a turnover above £36million. The UK Government evidently understands the need to keep red tape to a minimum for small and micro businesses; why can’t Nameless University get its head around this too?

Most galling of all, it will take me a couple of hours to jump through all their hoops. I’m debating whether to reply to the HoP asking who I should invoice for my time. What do you think? Is that a good way to make a point? Or is it a good way to shoot myself in the foot?

Back On The Indie Researcher Rollercoaster

rollercoasterI’ve written before about the indie researcher rollercoaster. I’ve been riding it again recently. The last few months have been quite tough. I’ve had one contract rolling along, and some bits and bobs of teaching work. I’ve also had:

  • The promise of ten days’ sub-contracted work in the second half of 2015, which turned into two days’ work at the very end of December, for which I still haven’t been paid.
  • An associate role with a national organisation, since last summer, that seemed likely to yield a fair bit of work but hasn’t yielded any yet (though I do have one whole day booked in for them in May).
  • The promise of almost full-time contract work from January to March of this year, which didn’t materialise at all due to staff sickness.

So overall I’ve been keeping my head above water, but only just. I have consistently been able to pay myself £1,000 per month, and had calculated that I would be able to carry on doing so while continuing to break even up to and including June. However, the rolling-along contract is about to end. I have some more bits and bobs of teaching work booked in over the next three months, but after the end of June I was going to fall off the edge of the work cliff into the cold deep workless sea.

On top of this, there were a number of unavoidable expenses looming: from essential repairs to my elderly and infirm car, to all my underwear developing holes at once. I was resigning myself to digging into my savings for the first time in many years, reasoning that if I’d saved for a rainy day, it was now, metaphorically speaking at least, about to throw it down.

Then last week there was one of those reversals for which the indie lifestyle is famous. A colleague and I went for an interview at a Russell Group university that wanted to commission some research – and we got the gig! Sensible budget (not so sensible timescale, but you can’t have everything) and the people were lovely.

So now I don’t need to dig into my savings, instead I can pay myself a little extra to cover the unavoidable expenses. Plus I don’t have to start worrying about work again until the summer. This is a huge relief – I have, quite literally, been sleeping easier.

Plus I landed another teaching client, and the more of those I can reel in the better. I’m working to build up my teaching because, although the work lasts for days rather than months, it’s more regular than research. If I can reach the point where I have a few days of teaching work in each month of the academic year, I’ll be able to stop chasing commissioned research altogether. Though the Teaching Excellence Framework is looming here in the UK, and I don’t know whether my input will help universities to manipulate the metrics successfully enough to make it worthwhile for them to use me. So while I can take a break from the rollercoaster for the next little while, I’m sure I’ll be riding again soon.

Costing A Research Project

 

currency-signs-33431_960_720Following on from my last post about funding, I thought it might be useful to explain a few things about how I cost a research project. There are two parts to this process: setting a day rate, and working out how long the project will take.

My day rate is flexible, depending on the nature of the commissioning or funding body and the size and nature of the project. For example, I will charge less for a small project for a local charity than for a large project for a Government department. I will charge less per day for a long project that offers months of financial security, or for a project where the application is not onerous. And I will always negotiate on rates – at least, up to a point.

When it comes to working out how long the project will take, I break it down into individual elements. Let’s say a national client tells me they want a three-month project to include a focused literature review, 20 interviews with key people, presentation of draft findings at a meeting in London, and a written report with an executive summary (and let’s say I agree this is a suitable approach to the work – which is not always the case). We will also need a project initiation meeting, and I’d need to build in time for correspondence and administration: my rule of thumb here is half a day per month.

The first thing I need to do is a quick check of the literature, as a ‘focused literature review’ takes different lengths of time depending on whether the key search terms yield three items or 300,000. If it’s the former, I start thinking more laterally about potential search terms. If there are lots of hits, I start thinking about how to narrow down the search: I usually start by restricting the date range on Google Scholar and then take it from there. I am always mindful that a client’s budget is limited, and that they are unlikely to want to fund six months of my time to review the literature in detail. In fact, I’m lucky if I get six days. So I need to come up with a search strategy that will work for quite a limited review – and it does no harm to point out to the client that I can only read, on average, 10 documents a day. (Of course the exact number depends on the length of each document, but I work on the basis of a 15-page average, i.e. 150 pages/day or 20 pages per hour (7.5 hours per working day) or one page every three minutes.)

Then I need to think about the interviews. If they’re with professionals, I can probably do them by phone or Skype; if with service users, they would need to be face-to-face. And if those service users are scattered around the country, there are huge implications for travel time and cost. Plus I need to factor in time for setting up the interviews, and rearranging the inevitable ones where I call or turn up and the person I’m due to interview isn’t there. I also need to have a first go at drafting the interview questions, to get a sense of how long the interviews themselves might be. That is impossible to predict entirely, as some people are much more talkative than others, but I have another rule of thumb: for a shorter set of questions (say, nine or fewer) I’ll schedule an interview every 45 minutes, for a longer set I’ll allow an hour per interview. (Unless I’m interviewing school teachers, who are ninja level question answerers, in which case I’ll allow 30 minutes however many questions I have.) Occasionally people are willing to talk for longer than 45-60 minutes but if I’ve got someone really chatty, I’ll start drawing their attention to that within the first 15-20 minutes of the interview to help us both to manage the time.

It’s also important to think about recording and, if necessary, transcription time – which is usually calculated at four hours for each hour of talk. Indie researchers often outsource transcription, to make it cheaper for clients, though you need to be sure the service you use will yield good quality transcripts.

Then I have to work out how long it will take me to code and analyse data (I reckon to code 10 interview transcripts per day, but then I’ve been doing it for a long time), draft reports, and prepare for meetings. So, assuming the interviews can be done by telephone, and the project will take three months, my time allocation for this fictional project might look something like:

  • Project initiation meeting in London (including preparation and travel) – one day
  • Focused literature review – six days
  • 20 telephone interviews (including set-up time etc) – four days
  • Data coding – two days
  • Data analysis – one day
  • Drafting report – two days
  • Preparing for presentation meeting – 0.5 day
  • Presentation meeting in London – one day
  • Finishing report and executive summary – one day
  • Correspondence and administration (0.5 day/month) – 1.5 days

That gives a total of 20 days. I multiply that by the day rate I’ve decided to offer this client, which produces a rate I can quote for the job.

Funding for Indie Researchers

coins on handOne of the great frustrations of being an indie researcher is inability to access funding. Maybe this is easier in other parts of the world but there are few options here in the UK. The UK’s Research Councils, which hold most of the country’s research funding, do not regard indie researchers as eligible to apply for that funding. For example, as a social science researcher, I would look to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). They have a budget of almost £200m to fund research, but indie researchers are not even eligible to apply for any of this public money. (ESRC also says it ‘has no budget’ with which to pay indie researchers for work they ask us to do directly, e.g. independent assessment of its end-of-project reports – but that’s another story.) Indie researchers can form part of a team to apply for research funding from ESRC, but that team must be led by someone employed in a university or research institute.

I would like to see this change. I believe independent social scientists have a lot to offer to research, because we have perspectives that are not directly affected by institutional pressures, constraints, and power games. Therefore, I think excluding us from national funding is a waste of a valuable national resource. I’m not asking for funding to be ring-fenced for indie researchers, or for any special treatment. I’d just like to be allowed to apply for funding, as I could if I was a researcher from a university or a research institute.

If the ESRC isn’t sure about how to distribute funding effectively to single operatives, they could always ask the Arts Council who have a great deal of experience in doing just that. However, much though I’d like to change ESRC policy, I realise I’m unlikely to be able to achieve that with this blog post – or with anything else, for that matter. So I’m glad to say there are a few other funders who are offering small pots of money which are accessible to indie researchers. Here are the ones I’ve found out about.

The British Academy offers Small Research Grants of between £500 and £10,000, which may be spread over two years. These grants are for primary funding in the humanities and social sciences. The lead scholar must be based in the UK, but beyond that, people from other countries may be involved in the project. They look for a clearly defined piece of work with an identifiable outcome.

The Wellcome Trust offers Small Grants of up to £5,000 for small-scale projects in the humanities and social sciences. You can apply for up to £10,000 if you intend to hold an international meeting or attract international speakers. Applicants must be based in, or travelling to, the UK or Ireland or a ‘low-to-middle-income country’ (long list from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe).

The Wellcome Trust also offers Seed Awards of £25,000 to £50,000, usually over a 6-12 month period. These are intended to help researchers develop a novel idea that will enrich our understanding of human or animal health. They encourage the development of new approaches and collaborations. They are also piloting Themed Seed Awards of £75,000 to £100,000.

The Independent Social Research Foundation offers independent scholar fellowships for European researchers (scroll down). They are intended to buy out someone’s time for up to a year, with a maximum award of £25,000, to enable them to work on a research project or an article or book.

That’s all I’ve been able to find so far. On the one hand, these are paltry amounts of money compared to the £193million of ESRC funding that indie researchers can’t access directly. But on the other hand, I could do a great deal with a small five-figure sum. This is partly where I think the larger funders are missing a trick: indie researchers don’t have big overheads so we’re very cost-effective.

Do you know of other funding for which indie researchers can apply? I haven’t looked beyond funding available to UK-based researchers. Shall we try to develop an open access spreadsheet of global opportunities? If you like this idea, and you know of suitable funding, please leave details in the comments.

Review of the Year 2015

I was interested to check my blog stats and find ou2015t which were the three top posts of 2015. By far the most popular was my declaration that I will not work for nothing for wealthy institutions such as universities. That was published on 19 May, almost halfway through the year, and has had many more hits than any other post. Perhaps it will contribute to some universities becoming a little less reluctant to pay independent experts properly. Wouldn’t that be nice?

The second most popular post was published in June, and called for researchers and academic writers to make reading a priority. This was a useful post for me to revisit, as in amongst my autumnal travels I forgot about the commitment I’d made to read at least one book chapter a day, six days a week. I have been reading, but more sporadically and lumpily, so now I’ve remade that commitment.

I was surprised and delighted to find that the third most popular postwas the one from September when I announced my new venture into indie publishing, and launched my first self-published e-book, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know. The second in the PhD Knowledge series, Gathering Data For Your PhD: An Introduction, was published in November, and I’ve now written the third, Analysing Data For Your PhD: An Introduction. That is with my editor and due for publication in January. My brand-new publishing company, Know More Publishing, has already had three enquiries from other writers who want to publish with us, and that was something I did not expect at all.

There’s a fourth post, from the very start of the year, on how to write a killer conference abstract. That was the most popular post from last January but only received a tenth of the hits of the top post overall. However, this post probably outstrips all the others, because it was picked up and reposted on the LSE Impact Blog. Of course I can’t be sure, because I don’t have access to their stats, but through the year I have seen this post being retweeted more than any of my others, right up to and including last week. So I suspect this one may be the real big hitter.

Beyond the blog, 2015 has been a terrific year for me. Highlights included the publication of Creative Research Methods for the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide in April; the creative research methods conference at the British Library in May; working in Calgary, Canada, in October; and being made a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in the same month. It’s also been a rather tiring year, so this blog and I are going to have a little rest, now, till the New Year.

I’m excited for 2016 as I have lots of plans. I’ll be publishing the next four e-books in the PhD Knowledge series, convening a session on ‘research for social justice: moving ethics forward’ at the Research Methods Festival in July, collaborating on special issues and e-books, teaching, speaking, and doing research. And I’m sure lots of other fun and interesting things will happen that I have no idea about as yet. I love my life!

Let’s Talk About The Day Rates

coins on handI was halfway through a post in response to Debs’ latest blog in the ongoing conversation with her and Naomi Barnes and Katie Collins when I was stricken with a chest infection. One of my disabilities is asthma, so these things hit me hard, and I’m now in bed, on steroids, coughing and wheezing and waiting to feel better. My brain isn’t working too well so I’m going to write a post inspired by a real-life conversation with my friend and collaborator Katy Vigurs earlier this week, about day rates. Katy told me it would be useful if I explained how they work. So here goes.

My day rates are between £250 and £550. Generally speaking, I offer the lowest rates to small charities, medium rates to national charities or charitable funders, and the highest rates to the private sector, central government and universities. Having said that, I will negotiate, and may offer a lower rate if it’s work I particularly want to do, or I’m feeling flush and it’s a good cause, or it’s a low-hassle job I can do from home. I may charge more for work I don’t really want to do or which will involve lots of travel or unfunded collaborative extras.

So my median rate is £400. That’s fairly low by the standards of most of my competitors, but seems high to salaried people. They wonder how, if I am self-employed and work from home, I can justify charging so much. Partly this is because I am an expert and have a wide range of skills and abilities to offer. More prosaically, it’s because of the economics.

Let’s start with holiday pay. If I take a standard level of holiday – 4 weeks per year, 8 bank holidays, and 104 weekend days – that leaves 233 working days in the year over 48 weeks. In theory, therefore, I could bring in £93,200 each year. In practice it doesn’t work that way.

I need an average of one day per week for essential business-related tasks: marketing (including writing these blog posts), keeping up to date with my field (oh the never-ending reading!), administrative management of my finances, my office, and my paperwork. So now I’m down to 185 chargeable days per year. But there is other work I can’t charge for. Lots of other work. Pre- and post-contract work, hold-ups caused by clients who cancel meetings at short notice or don’t meet agreed deadlines, writing journal articles, replying to queries via email and Twitter, my own professional development. Nobody pays me for any of that. If I do a day’s work at your university, it’ll be around two days’ work in reality, with all the planning, preparation, and follow-up work. And travel. There’s lots of travel. Sometimes it’s included in the day rate, but I would estimate about half of it isn’t. So overall that’s another day a week, so now I’m down to 137 working days. (Actually it’s more like another two days, which probably explains why I mostly only have one day off at the weekend.)

Then there’s sickness. The average annual sickness absence in the UK at present is just 4.4 days per worker, though there are suspicions that this hides ‘presenteeism’ i.e. turning up when you’re not fit. I certainly do this, because I hate letting people down, because if I don’t turn up I don’t get paid, and because I need people to know I’m reliable. Though sometimes, like today, I just can’t. I’m supposed to be chairing an event in Cardiff tonight for the SRA – expenses only as I’m on the Board, so at least I’m not losing income, but I am gutted to miss it and to let them all down. So let’s say another five days per year on average for sickness, leaving 132 working days.

At £400/day on average, in theory I could make £52,800 per year – though that would be pre-tax turnover, not profit. But it is very rarely possible to secure paid work, at my median rate, for every available working day. In reality, last year, my turnover was just over £25,000. To work out how much I can pay myself, I have to deduct all my business expenses: heat and light for my office, accountants’ fees, subscriptions, IT equipment, telecomms costs, stationery, books, etc. I have to put away a big chunk of my turnover, usually around 20%, for tax, which I pay once a year. And I need to keep 6-12 months’ running costs in the bank in case of lean periods or cash-flow problems. For the last year I’ve been able to afford to pay myself £1,000 per month. I’m hoping I can continue to do so, as dropping below that means some belt-tightening. But there are no guarantees.

I’m not writing this post as a complaint. I love my lifestyle. It buys me my greatest luxuries: time and space. I am writing this post to debunk the assumptions people have about me: that because I’m an expert, a published author, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, my income is commensurate with all those status markers. It’s not. The world doesn’t work like that any more.

Indie Publishing for Academia – Ten Top Tips

SYPhD_green_SQmarks_noblend_LC2_RGBThree weeks ago I became an indie publisher as well as an indie researcher and writer. In that time, my embryonic publishing company, Know More Publishing (see what I did there?!), has gained a website. Also, my first short affordable e-book, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know, has gained three five-star reviews on Amazon UK and a fourth on Amazon US. I didn’t bribe a single reviewer!

It’s around a year since I decided to go down this road, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. I think there’s a great deal of potential in indie publishing for academics, altacs, doctoral students and others. Indie publishing doesn’t figure in organisational performance metrics, which creates a barrier for some people, though perhaps one day it will. But it’s a great way to produce work which is too long for academic journals, or doesn’t fit their requirements, but is shorter than a traditionally published book. And it’s open access – you can make your work available for free if you wish, or at a very low cost.

On the down side, there is no quality control. I know there are arguments about whether the peer review system actually enhances quality, but editors certainly do, if they’re doing their jobs properly. With indie publishing, it is possible to plonk any old drivel online for sale. That’s not the kind of indie publishing I advocate. I worked in traditional publishing, I write for traditional publishers, and I have loved books all my life. So I want to see good quality indie publishing from academia and its associates, and to publish good quality books myself. Here are my ten top tips for anyone who shares my aims.

  1. Write something nobody else has written. As an academic or altac, you should be used to spotting gaps in literature. Your work will gain much more interest from others if it’s the only one of its kind.
  1. Get feedback on your writing. Starting Your PhD went through three sets of beta readers, from potential doctoral students to experienced supervisors. It wouldn’t have been worth publishing without their input.
  1. Use a professional editor. It doesn’t matter how experienced a writer you are, you will have blind spots. I know I did. I will always pay to have my books edited by a skilled professional who can bring fresh eyes and a keen brain to improving my text.
  1. Unless you are really good at design yourself, use a professional cover designer. You need someone who knows about book covers, how to make them stand out even at thumbnail size on a mobile device.
  1. Join the Alliance of Independent Authors. This worldwide organisation has approved ‘partner members’ including editors and cover designers which is useful if you don’t have people in your networks with those skills. They also have an active and ALLiEthicalAuthor_Badgesupportive closed group on Facebook where you can get help with all aspects of indie writing and publishing. And they have an Ethical Author code, as well as a publicly accessible searchable blog full of sound advice.
  1. Be prepared to do lots of promotional work. As an indie publisher, you’re not only the author, you’re also the sales and marketing departments for your work. This could involve anything from chatting on Twitter to lugging print copies around with you. You will need to decide what you can do, when, and how. It doesn’t have to be much – but if you don’t do anything to promote your work, it will sink beneath the ocean of available literature.
  1. Buy ISBNs, aka International Standard Book Numbers. These are the 10 or 13 digit numbers used by cataloguing systems to identify each unique book. You can only buy them from one organisation in each country, they’re not cheap (though the more you buy, the cheaper each number becomes), and you can’t transfer them between publishers or even leave them in your will. Also they take ten days to issue, so don’t leave this until the last minute, or you’ll have to postpone your book launch (like I did, ahem). You can get free identifiers such as ASINs from distributors such as Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble (Nook), but these are distribution codes, not unique book identifiers – or if they are actual ISBNs, they are owned and assigned by the distributor, not by you. This effectively means you are giving away part of the control you have over your work, and having control of your own work is a big part of the rationale for publishing independently in the first place. There’s a more detailed explanation of this on the Alliance of Independent Authors’ blog.
  1. Research the different ways you can publish your work – and expect to spend a considerable amount of time on this, as there are a lot of options. To begin with: e-book only, print only, or both? I’ve gone for e-book only, as I’m writing short books for students who will be comfortable with technology, and e-books are more affordable than print books. So then I decided to publish via Kindle Direct Publishing. This is a no-brainer even if you regard Amazon as the evil empire, because you will sell most of your work from this platform, so if you’re not willing to do business with Amazon at all, don’t publish independently. I also decided to use Draft2Digital, who take a small commission from your income for distributing through most of the other major channels – Kobo, Barnes & Noble (Nook), iBooks, Scribd etc – and they’re very helpful when you get stuck with your uploading, as I did. You could upload your work with each platform individually, and save yourself the commission; it’s your decision whether the hassle is worth the benefit. I decided that, for me, it wasn’t – and my sales figures, so far, bear this out (see below). I might decide to produce print books one day, in which case I’d use CreateSpace on the advice of fellow members of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
  1. Launch your book with some kind of a fanfare – then relax. I had a virtual launch day with a dedicated blog post and a lot of tweeting. Ten days later I went on holiday, which was excellent timing, as the process of preparing and publishing the e-book was much more difficult, stressful, and exhausting than I anticipated. I won’t be able to take a holiday every time, but I’m going to build in at least a weekend off after each one from now on.
  1. Write another book. Full disclosure: in the first three weeks, I’ve made £56.48 from sales on Amazon and $6.30 from sales through Draft2Digital. Not bad for a first e-book priced at £1.99/$2.99. However, given that I’ve shelled out around £500 on editing, cover design, and ISBNs, at this rate it will be six months before I break even. But I have a cunning plan for world domination: the next book in this series, Gathering Data For Your PhD, will be out in November, and I have four more planned for 2016. There is clear evidence that the more you publish and promote, the more readers you will acquire. This applies in the same way to free material.

I hope my learning over the last year will benefit others. If you decide to go down the indie publishing road, do let me know. At present I only know of two other academic types who are doing this: Dr Nathan Ryder, who has published a couple of very useful short e-books on preparing for your viva, and Dr Jenna Condie, who has a book of blog posts on sustainable urbanisation. If you know of other academic indie publishers, please leave a comment. Let’s start a movement!

Why I Am Saying No To Some Universities

piggy bank and coinsIn the last few weeks I have been asked to deliver seminars at the universities of York and Leicester. I had the time and would have enjoyed the experiences. Also, in both cases, the people inviting me were my friends. So why did I say ‘no’?

I was asked to work for nothing.

Both universities offered to pay my travel expenses. This has been standard practice for many years, designed to ensure that academics would not be out of pocket when visiting another institution. Visiting academics don’t need to be paid by their host institution because they are already drawing a good salary from their own institution.

Independent researchers are not drawing a salary and often don’t earn a great deal. I have been open about my income. As I thought about the invitations from York and Leicester, it occurred to me that universities were probably open about their income, too. So I did some research and found that, although often buried deep within layers of web pages, they do indeed publish their financial statements.

In 2013/14, the income of the University of York was £305.4m and its expenditure was £297.2m. It has total net assets of £243.8m, and a retained surplus of £10.5m.

In the same financial year, the income of the University of Leicester was £286.7m and its expenditure was £279.2m. It has total net assets of £172.6m, and a retained surplus of £7.6m.

Clearly universities must exercise sound financial stewardship. They have staff to pay and to provide pensions for, and I believe that university staff work hard and should be paid appropriately. There are buildings to be maintained and refurbished, equipment costs, perhaps debts to service, and so on. But these are wealthy institutions with an annual surplus of millions of pounds. Yet, while they evidently want my expertise, they won’t pay me a couple of hundred.

I found it embarrassing to refuse my friends’ requests. In both cases they said they had no budget to pay visiting scholars. Clearly universities hold on tight to their cash. But in doing so, they minimise the types of expertise available to their students. Is that a sensible educational strategy?

In recent weeks, I have been cheerfully paid a sensible fee for work at Staffordshire University, which is significantly less wealthy than York or Leicester (income: £118.4m, expenditure: £116m, net assets £44.2m, surplus £3.6m). I have also been paid by Swansea University (income £205.8m, expenditure £182.3m, net assets £156.5m, surplus £7.2m). And I am in discussions with Birmingham City University, who said my fee was what they were expecting (income: £173.8m, expenditure £153.6m, net assets £219.9m, surplus £23.2m).

Although this is not any kind of a representative sample, I used my researcher’s eye to try to discern a pattern. York is a Russell Group university; Leicester and Swansea were founded around the same time in the early 1920s; Staffordshire and Birmingham City are post-92. So there is no apparent consistency here.

I wonder what prospective students might think. Would you like to go to a university that will encourage you to learn from a wide variety of expert people? Or would you prefer one that will restrict you to learning from its own faculty and some volunteers?