Friday, September 24, 2004

Declining Pay for Freelance Writers

Travel Writer at Pyramids

Getting It Write

With per-word rates shrinking and salaries sinking, our freelancer rethinks how she measures success.

By Kristen Kemp – September 22, 2004

In the fiscal year 2000, I made $77,000. I didn't pimp myself out (in the literal sense), and I didn't get in on Martha Stewart's IPO. I just freelanced. I wrote more magazine articles than I can remember. I had a contract for a series of four kids' novels. I was paid $800 for two days of speaking at a public elementary school. Those days, fees were hot, and anyone with a semi-important job title was looking to hire a hack. As a result, my scrappy lifestyle went upscale. I visited the Bliss Spa twice (and no one had given me a gift certificate!). I traded my cheap chain restaurants for the ones they show on the Food Network. I bought a Bichon Frise and upgraded to Ketel One. I spent a lot of time writing and hustling, sure. But what I remember most is how much time I spent playing.

Now it's September 2004, and I'm balancing my checkbook. I have $500 dollars left. The money is trickling in at the drip-drip pace of an IV tube. I have no book contracts, and invitations to speak are nonpaying. This year's calendar definitely doesn't include appointments at Bliss. But it's not just the money that's scarce—it's my time. I work harder and more diligently and more skillfully than I did in 2000. I spin my wheels pitching and turning in copy and taking on kooky tasks (I write advertorial letters that go out to stores' credit card holders). The buzz phrase for those of us with middle-class jobs right now is work more for less. Secretly, I still hope for a raise.

But it ain't gonna happen.

Let me set the record straight: I'm not complaining. Last year, I earned upwards of $40,000. For a freelance writer, that's OK. It's not $75,000, but it's not $20,000 either (which is a sum I've been familiar with in the past—that's the no cable, no Blockbuster, no fun range.) Last year, I carried a debt on my credit card, and I ate at Teriyaki Boy, but at least I could afford a few plane tickets. Life isn't luxurious, but it certainly isn't bad. I mean, how can I complain? I stretch the budget to add DVR to my cable, and I can spring for the better health insurance—the one that includes appointments with my shrink.

The bone that does beg to be picked is the one with the workload. Magazines and newspapers are under budget constraints, same as everyone. For this, I could blame the economy, the Republicans, or the pizza delivery boy. It doesn't matter who's at fault; things are still the same: I turn in story after story, complete edit after edit, and crank out ideas and revises. But I'm not getting raises for work that I'm told is well done; I'm getting salary cuts. One editor at a major magazine—a cool woman I've worked with for years—felt badly when she recently told me: "I want you to know that we aren't paying $2 a word anymore. We have to pay $1 to $1.50. Is it OK for me to still put your name in the hat for this story?" Of course it's OK. I'm happy to work for her, and I don't blame her for my mid-40s salary. After all, a smaller freelance budget at her magazine means she'll be spending longer hours at her office doing the writing she used to pay me to do.

I wonder what good it does for all of us middle- to upper-middle class folks to sit around feeling sorry for each other. Some writers—even the good ones—aren't getting much more than $.50 a word. But still, I gripe to my freelance friends—scrappy troopers scattered across the country from Park Slope to Hollywood—and they're having the same experience as me. "I'm still getting $2 a word, but I'm getting screwed on the word count," one says. "If they assign me a story for 1,500 words, then they'll ask for 2,000, end up running 1,800, and I won't get paid for the extra."

She's right. Four years ago, 1,000- and 2,000-word assignments at $2 per word were the standard at major publications. Now I get 800 to 1,000 word counts at $1.50 per word or less. That's not an economic slump; that's a new standard. Two other writers admit that they're taking smaller assignments for less money. They're afraid if they don't, they'll price themselves out and lose work. Another freelancer explains the current situation best: "There are so many newbie freelancers and freshly unemployeds who are willing to work for so little and do so much that seasoned freelance writers are competing with glorified interns for the steady, if not most satisfying, jobs."

You said it, sister.

I started in the magazine business in 1996, and I made $1 per word straight out of Indiana University Journalism School. (This is the rate writers have been paid since the 1960s.) One of the freelancers quoted above—five years more accomplished than me—advised me to start demanding more money in 1998. I did, and I wound up with a fat yearly income. Now, we're both taking whatever we can get. We aren't demanding. We are yes-women.

But even though our salaries have sunk and our playtimes are less playful, things are OK. She ended up taking a fulltime job and uses her freelance work as an income supplement. I'm starting to teach more writing classes so money will be steady and predictable, though hardly what I'd call abundant. Other freelance friends have taught dance classes, gone to grad school to get medical degrees, or taken corporate PR jobs. Most of us have some form of income supplement, and that's how we stay in the freelance game.

I've just accepted that the workload is going to be heavier. Who cares? I still love my job. I've downgraded to Stoli, but at least I can drink it at two o'clock in the afternoon (even though I don't). I can flip on the TV while I sit on my couch and work with the dog's nose propped next to my keyboard. I may not have the playtime—or the extra cash to make playtime more fun—but I still have the best job for me. I can't imagine life without freelancing, and I can't imagine that I'll ever stop complaining about it. I've mentally signed up for the duration, which means I'll write till the skin wears off my fingers. Who knows? One day—maybe in 2014—I'll see that raise.

Anything can happen, right?

Kristen Kemp is a freelance writer living in New York City. You can read her other "Getting It Write" columns in the archives.

Falling Pay for Freelance Writers

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