When it comes to business-related subscription services, freelance journalists occupy a sort of purgatory: their needs are greater than that of typical individuals who have little reason to splurge on subscription software and databases but they’re not flush like large corporations with money to burn.
Yes, freelancers can deduct many of these expenses for tax purposes but they’re still paying the upfront cost and saving only part of that cost come tax time. (Just ask this freelancer, who upon tallying up her 2012 business expenses discovered she’d paid for a few subscriptions that she never actually used. An expensive oversight, albeit a tax-deductible one.)
Ebyline talked to several accomplished freelancers to find out what premium subscriptions they pay for and even uncovered a few they can get for free. We winnowed the list down to the most popular, weighed the pros and cons, and have even included tips on how to get them for less than retail.
Mediabistro offers two separate subscriptions. AvantGuild ($59 for one year or $89 for two) provides access to premium content like How to Pitch articles and discounts on classes and media-related products. AvantGuild members also get a discount on the Freelance Marketplace, which is Mediabistro’s other paid subscription service allowing freelancers to set up an online profile that’s searchable by prospective clients (regularly $145 per year or $119 per year for AvantGuild members).
New York-based writer and journalism professor Katie Gilbert has both subscriptions. Gilbert doesn’t have a website but she does have a Freelance Marketplace profile set up last fall. So far, she’s gotten inquiries from two potential clients—one for writing instructional manuals and the other for copywriting on-site at an advertising agency. Of the latter, she says, “they liked that I had a finance background and I had experience writing for kids’ magazines.” Gilbert ultimately decided that neither gig was right for her at the time, but she adds that, “I’m now heartened that the profile is worth it.”
How to get it cheaper: If Mediabistro hosts parties in your city, you can volunteer at parties to earn credits towards classes and other offerings. An AvantGuild subscription also includes a year’s subscription to The Atlantic, Wired, New York or W, so if you live in the U.S. and choose to cancel your magazine subscription, you can get refunded $10 of the $59 you paid for a year of AvantGuild.
There are a ton of online tools, both free and paid, that allow social media users to manage multiple accounts, schedule status updates and generate reports. Hootsuite is one of the most popular, both with individual users but also big brands such as Virgin, McDonalds and Sony Music since it offers features that let marketing teams within a company work together to manage a social media strategy.
Austin, Tex.-based freelance writer and editor Natalia Sylvester, who manages several clients’ social media presences in addition to her own, has been using Hootsuite for almost three years. She pays $20.99 a month for Hootsuite’s pro account plus team features. “If I were just tweeting through my personal account, I’d probably choose a free option, but at this point I’ve come up with a system with Hootsuite that really helps me do my work more effectively and efficiently,” she explains. “For example, I can quickly switch between four different Twitter accounts, and in each I have columns through which I monitor important keywords, and columns that I use for private lists of people I want to keep an eye on for a client’s industry.”
How to get it cheaper: Hootsuite’s free option may not have all the bells and whistles that some users want but it includes message scheduling, unlimited apps and up to five social profiles. Tweetdeck is another popular free option that allows user to manage multiple Twitter accounts and schedule tweets.
A premium membership ($7.95 a month and up) on the social network for professionals allows journalists to send InMails (LinkedIn messages) to hard-to-reach sources and perform advanced search functions not available to those with a basic membership. Syracuse, N.Y.-based freelance journalist Gina Roberts-Grey upgraded her LinkedIn membership a few years ago because she was curious about who was viewing her profile, information that’s restricted for free users. After a few months, though, she decided to downgrade back to the basic membership.
“I’ve just found that there’s so many ways to connect with people, I feel over-saturated with social media,” adds Roberts-Grey, adding that she does occasionally reach out to other users on LinkedIn but sends a connection request rather than an InMail. “I would just send them a message and try to link to them. I never really reached out to somebody who didn’t connect or respond.”
How to get it cheaper: Join the LinkedIn for Journalists group and sit through a 30-minute phone training session to get a free, year-long Executive LinkedIn subscription (normally $99.95 per month), which includes features like InMails and more detail on who’s viewed your profile. You can renew your subscription for another year by doing another training session.
Invoicing is an important (if tedious) part of freelancing. Some freelancers use a basic template in Word or Excel but others, like New Jersey-based freelance writer, editor and coach Steph Auteri, prefer services like Freshbooks that generate a more polished invoice and offer other tracking features. Auteri has been using Freshbooks since 2008 and pays $19.95 a month to manage up to 25 clients. “It’s nice to have a professional-looking standard invoice,” she says. “I started using it just for invoicing at first and it was a good way to keep track of who I’d been paid by and who was still outstanding. I generate reports through it when tax time comes.”
Auteri also likes the ability to access Freshbooks from anywhere; for instance, a client’s office if she’s working on-site. Her clients generally pay by check but for those who accept payment via PayPal, Freshbooks has an option where users can pay a flat PayPal fee of $.50 per transaction rather than a percentage of the transaction.
How to get it cheaper: Freshbooks offers a free version but it only allows for managing up to three clients at a time. AvantGuild members can get $20 off any paid Freshbooks subscription.
What you can live without
Two subscription services that are conspicuously missing from this list: ProQuest and LexisNexis. Freelancers told us repeatedly that those research tools were beyond their budget, even with discounts through organizations like ASJA or Mediabistro.com. An individual buying a year’s access to LexisNexis at the bronze level can expect to pay around $141 a month, while members of Mediabistro’s AvantGuild program pay $59 a month. Instead, they found workarounds such as gaining access through a university library where they teach or using a spouse’s login.
Of course, it’s important to consider not just the sticker price of a subscription but also the potential value in terms of productivity and efficiency. As Sylvester points out of her Hootsuite subscription, “considering what I charge to manage my clients’ accounts and the price of my sanity that fee more than pays for itself every month.”