Archive for September 8, 2010

A Writer’s Lament, A Call to Action, or, So You Want to be a Writer, Huh? The Cold Hard Facts and Dismal Prospects for Getting Paid What You’re Worth

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

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A Writer’s Lament, A Call to Action, or, So You Want to be a Writer, Huh? The Cold Hard Facts and Dismal Prospects for Getting Paid What You’re Worth

These are the best of times and the worst of times to be a writer

I am going off script with this post to do what many bloggers do, which is to open up with some of deeply held feelings and thoughts, in this case pertaining to my life as a freelance journalist.  It is one measure of these unstable, pernicious times that despite being a veteran, award-winning journalist of some 25 years, with literally thousands of published stories to my credit, I am finding it increasingly difficult to ply my trade and still make a living at it.

The problem is not that there is a shortage of work available.  Indeed, there are more writing opportunities than ever.  Ah, but not every writing gig is worth the trouble or the toil.  I write for many reasons, including the satisfaction it gives me, but at the end of the day it is how I make my living.  And, increasingly, some of the publishers and editors I have been working with have been slashing the already below market rates they pay contributing writers.  Writing for newspapers and magazines has been my stock and trade, but much to my consternation some of these publications are reducing rates to such an extent that I cannot justify the time and energy of doing assignments for them at slave labor wages.

In two instances, I was abruptly informed that the agreed-upon rate I had been receiving would be cut by half or more due to budget constraints.  In another instance, a publication I had been counting on as a major client in 2011 simply decided they could no longer afford my services, end of story.  At least two other clients pulled the same shit.

In each case I contributed much value to the publication in question, and its editors/publishers consistently expressed great satisfaction with my work, but when push came to shove they showed no loyalty or gratitude and simply pulled the rug out from under me with little or no warning.

The issue is far bigger and more pervasive than a few publications treating writers poorly.  By and large, the print and online world grossly underpays contributing writers, offering far less than fair market value and no where near the professional service fees writers deserve.  Sure, there is no end of print and online writing opportunities, but the vast majority of them pay next to nothing, which is a slap in the face to all professional writers, particularly to those, like me, who have been at this for some time and have established ourselves in the field.

Writing may be the only professional service field where compensation has not only stagnated but retrenched.  No matter how you look at it, writers have lost whatever tenuous ground they held. For example, when I began freelancing 23-plus years ago in Omaha I was making about the same amount per article, perhaps a bit less, then what most publications here are paying today.  The crazy thing is that in a few instances I was making far more then than I do now for like projects. This illogical, inconsistent payment structure has everything to do with the fact that there are no standards in place for writing compensation in this arena.  Writers are, outside a few special circumstances, not organized, not unionized, and not agitating for their rights with one unified voice.  Every freelancer is a lone wolf out for his or her own best interests and free to negotiate whatever he or she can, although in the publications market, negotiation is rarely even possible. Most newspapers and magazines operate from a set pay structure that the writer either accepts or declines.  If you decline, you are out of an assignment and likely blacklisted from being considered for hire by that newspaper or magazine.

Outside of publications, such as writing for corporations and institutions, writers can largely set their own prices or at the very least have great latitude in negotiating terms with clients.  This is the lucrative realm of freelance writing where the real money is, but those gigs are hard to come by. I’ve had my share and I hope to have more, because in that world clients are used to paying writers professional service fees akin to what they would pay any other service professionals, whether lawyers or advertising agencies or consulants.

Unfortunately, as writers we are often our own worst enemies.  That’s because every time a writer accepts less than fair market value, he or she is hurting not just himself or herself but all fellow writers.  With so many new writers popping up everywhere, there are far too many who are willing to work for nothing or next to nothing just to get their name and content out there, and unfortunately there are far too many editors and publishers willing to accept substandard work.

It is not that I am looking for special treatment, but when I have put in the time and the effort to deliver the goods, to elevate my craft, to do my due diligence, then I should be justly rewarded.  But there are many factors at work here that work against this writer and others like me.  Start with the fact that there is a glut of writers today competing for the same shrinking editorial space in print and for the Wild Web writing opportunities that the Internet offers.  So many people call themselves writers these days that sometimes it seems that the old joke about every other person in L.A. trying to pitch a screenplay has now become a generalized reality, only in this new age of YouTube,  e-books, social media, and blogging there are more and more avenues of writing within people’s grasp and more and more are taking advantage of them.

The new Web media landscape is creating an ever increasing demand for content.  Thus, the blogger, the citizen or backpack journalist, along with more traditional journalists, authors, poets, playwrights, and just plain folks, are writing like crazy.  There are so many writers out there, whether professionals or amateurs or wannabes, that the truth of the matter is I am eminently expendable in the eyes of editors or publishers, who damn well know that if I balk at accepting a fee as too low they can readily replace me with any number of writers willing to work for a pittance.  It leaves me with little or no leverage.  The usury rates most publications pay are no where near being commensurate with the amount of time I devote to a project. Doing the math, I end up getting minimum wage or worse for most publication assignments when I factor in the number of hours I put in corresponding, researching, writing, editing, rewriting.

The real problem is that far too few publications reward excellence and long-standing contributions of merit.

I do not expect this situation will ever change unless writers do somehow band together.  I cannot realistically see that happening.  I for one am increasingly standing my ground and refusing to be taken advantage of, even if it means losing clients.  It’s my way of sending a message that I will not be trampled upon.  It’s a message not likely to reverberate very far, but at least I can sleep better at night knowing I didn’t devalue myself or my work.

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