The Declining Market for Freelance Writing
Ring Lardner said he would "rather write for the New Yorker at five cents a word than for Cosmopolitan at one dollar a word." A century later, he'd be lucky to get those rates.
Writing at Medium, Malcolm Harris ponders “How Much Is a Word Worth?” and argues, “Declining pay for freelance writers hurts more than just the quality of the prose.”
Freelance writers have long tolerated a wide range of rates. Nearly a century ago, a writer named Ring Lardner declared that he would “rather write for the New Yorker at five cents a word than for Cosmopolitan at one dollar a word.” It’s hard to think of another profession in which pay for comparable work can vary so much from assignment to assignment.
One of the benefits to freelancing is that writers can place value on rewards other than money — like being part of a hip new project, like the 1924 New Yorker. But the downsides are many, and as a result, most pros today find themselves still answering the same spiritual question Lardner did, but for a whole lot less cash.
Freelance writers have no collective with which to bargain, they are not subject to minimum wage laws, and their pay fluctuates all the time. For those reasons, it’s hard to keep track of the averages (and few organizations are compelled to try). But back in 2001, the National Writers Union published a report on pay rates for freelance writers. The report figured that to earn the median wage for college grads — $50,000 per year — writers needed to pitch, sell, report, write, edit, publish, and be paid an average of $1 per word for 3,000 to 5,000 words a month. (That’s the length of this article.) Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $1.40 per word today.
Most freelance writers didn’t hit those numbers then, and they don’t hit those numbers today. Based on my reporting, my own experience, and interviews with more than a dozen writers, the current median price for a freelancer’s work is between 25 and 50 cents per word (though, to be clear, most places no longer pay per word; they pay lump sums that work out to about $500 for a 1,000- to 2,000-word article). Speaking to Black Enterprise, Ben Carruthers, vice president of the Society of American Travel Writers, suggested that a similar $500 rate was standard…in 1977.
There are no solid numbers for how many Americans are making these numbers work for them. When I asked a few people who earn a solid upper-middle-class living from freelance writing alone, they estimated only a couple hundred other people in the U.S. were in the same boat—and not one of them makes Lardner money writing for magazines.
As any owner of a taxi medallion can tell you, reducing the value of a product or service can have serious repercussions — for the workers themselves and for the wider society they help comprise. When it comes to freelance writing, I fear that low prices have already begun to cost us. Talented writers walk away from the industry, plutocrats are free to pick stories and choose writers even when they don’t own the outlets, and the quality of the work declines. All of that looks to worsen over time.
The most common complaint is that the numbers just don’t add up to a good living. Without signing writers to exclusive deals, most magazines top out in the $1 to $2 per word range (exclusivity can get you $3). It’s possible to publish 30,000 words of freelance writing a year at those rates — about eight articles the length of the one you’re reading — but it’s extremely difficult to land and execute that many assignments successfully. And if you manage to pull it off and place a full year’s worth of writing in top-flight publications, you may make as much as the average personal trainer: $60,000.
In reality, writing a story — especially an interesting or important one — is not an efficient process. “I wrote a feature for [a national magazine] in 2014, and I still remember getting the $5,000 check,” one writer told me. “I sent a photo of it to my father, because I wanted him to see you could actually get paid for writing. Now I wonder whether in the back of his mind he was thinking, ‘Five thousand dollars for six months of work?'” (That $5,000 is worth $5,322 today, but I’m willing to bet the publication has not increased its rates to keep pace.)
I would be remiss if I omitted that almost every person I spoke to brought up one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets: New Yorker staff writers, some of the most admired journalists in the business, don’t typically receive health insurance. Of course, that magazine isn’t alone in keeping top talent on freelance contracts, often without benefits.
Freelance staff writers are still freelance in that they’re legally considered independent contractors, but in nearly all cases, they write only for the one place. If that publication doesn’t want to run their idea, the writer can’t take it elsewhere.
Beyond the basic numbers, writers also told me about a grab bag of smaller frustrations and indignities that make the economics of their job problematic: checks that arrived on a geologic time scale while the landlord still charges monthly; publications squeezing out reprint, TV, and film rights; editors who assign and fix pay for pieces at word counts they know writers will likely exceed to meet the scope of the assignment.
“If the editors announced a 50-cent per word pay cut next week, I don’t think any of us would quit,” one contract staff writer told me, “and they know it.” Writers cite a cartel mindset among editors. And the editors I spoke with, like the writers, did not expect rates to rise.
The writers who talked to me about their compensation did not generally complain that they were underpaid, per se, more that they were under-resourced. They didn’t talk about what they would do with an extra $50,000 a year; they talked about what it would be like to be able to spend twice as long on their stories.
“No wonder the stuff in the sixties and seventies was so good,” one writer said with a laugh as we discussed the impact of inflation on rates. “I don’t see anything out there today that shows the kind of thought they got to put in.” Though I’m less rosy about the writing of that era, the bottom line is hard to escape.
I was assigned this story at $4,000, and I turned in a draft of 4,000 words. Another site offered me $850 for the idea, and there is an $850 version of this story that is significantly shorter, with less research, and of a weaker quality overall. (If that sounds cold or unprofessional, imagine what the effect on the quality of your work would be if your boss cut your pay by 80 percent.)
There is also a $2 a word version that has more background research—in physical, not just digital archives—and for which I would have been more willing to press my sources to take risks and talk to me on the record.
I imagine a $4 per word version would include the specific, surprising allegations about the labor practices of particular beloved media institutions, the printing of which likely would make it difficult for me to find work for a while, but that would be fine, because I could live off that check for six months.
It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a return to the ’60s equivalent of $8 a word.
There’s some irony in the essay appearing at Medium, which mostly publishes unpaid work of highly variable quality, because the proliferation of such sites has helped flood the market with content, thus diluting its value.
The prestige economy that Lardner described nearly a century ago still remains. There are enough people clamoring to have their bylines appear in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Harper‘s and the like that they don’t have to offer high rates of pay. Which is probably a good thing in that literary and political magazines have always been vanity projects; few of them make money for long. That was true before the Internet and the ethos that “information wants to be free.”
It’s also worth noting that 3,000 to 5,000 words a month isn’t exactly a high rate of production for someone doing it full-time. Then again, it’s a lot if the expectation is that it’s heavily reported work, featuring archival research, interviews, and the incumbent travel expenses. There remains a market for that kind of long-form journalism but, alas, it remains small and is facing competition from instant analysis pieces flooding the Internet (including here at OTB).
Harris’ complaint is interesting but it is just that. The late Shimon Peres observed, “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact—not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.” I’m afraid Harris has described such a fact.
Times change, and I suppose I’m getting on, but I remember when Ring Lardner didn’t have to be identified as a writer. And I was born decades after he died.
I’ve watched this through the lens of a good friend of mine who used to be an internationally known newspaper reporter. He was complaining the other day how he couldn’t make a living doing what he had done for 30 years–namely, writing. Globalization–and the incredible number of writers offering stuff in English out of India–has done a number on the demand/supply curve. I suspect writing is going to become something considered to be more of a hobby rather than something one can get paid for.
I’ve noticed a similar effect with translation–what I used to be able to charge for Japanese-to-English translation has dropped dramatically. And it’s just going to get worse with more automation and AI.
@CSK: I mostly think of him as a sportswriter. But, yes, he’s been dead 85 years now.
@grumpy realist: Yup. The problem is that paying a living wage to Americans is an awfully high bar compared to what it takes to hire someone from the developing world or have a program do it. The work will likely be better if we hired Americans, who are going to get cultural and idiomatic references much better than Indians, much less an algorithm, but the cost differential is seldom going to be worth it.
TFW “they don’t have to offer high rates of pay” becomes “they don’t have to offer pay.” You can’t pay your bills with exposure.
There’s also the publications’ income to consider. The market is more crowded than it used to be, subscriptions are down, online competition, ad rates, paywall workarounds, etc.
I know many businesses won’t pay a quarter cent more than they absolutely must, but it’s common sense that when there’s less money coming in, there’s less money to pay for services.
BTW, according to Asimov’s memoirs, the leading pulp magazines int eh 1940s paid writers 1 penny per word. Asimov’s early hit “Nightfall,” a sci-fi story about an eclipse, was deemed good enough to get a 1/4 cent per word bonus.
In other words, writing is returning to its historical norm of being a liberal art. Are we returning to the much desired precapitalistic age?
Well, this continues the false narrative that just because someone went to college they should earn the median wage for a college grad regardless of the utility of their chosen work. College may give a person a leg up, but eventually, work is about producing something that is in demand regardless of the amount of time spent in classrooms or taking tests.
But if we run the numbers. The federal government uses 2040 hrs/yr for work, after removing holidays, weekends, etc and 8-hr days. So a $50k salary is $24.50/hr. In his example, that translates in to 25 words/hr. If we assume 4 hrs of research for every hour of words, that’s 125 words every 5 hours. Hardly, a draconian production goal.
Writers might want to consider ways to increase their productivity. Factory workers in the 50s and 60s got their high wages due to productivity increases brought about by finding better methods to utilize new tools and processes. Seems unlikely that a writer using pen and paper couldn’t produce 125 words every 5 hours. On its face, it looks like there is a lot of slack to take up in freelance writing.
Let’s be clear about something. It’s not a “productivity” issue. It’s that publishers think they can rip off writers.
Asimov was making a penny a word in the day of the manual typewriter, SASE, and printing press and today’s writers, composing and submitting their word electronically to substantially larger markets can’t make a dime?
No publisher would ask their janitorial staff to forego payment for taking out the trash, but they think of freelancers as volunteers, and that’s why freelancers find it so difficult to make a living. They’re either superstars, to be feted, or suckers, to be scammed. They are not thought of as laborers providing a service, but that’s exactly what they are.
According to the site PayScale the median wage for a writer is around $48,000 while the median wage for a videographer is $62,000. We’re in a visual society. The written word is passé.
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be writers.
@JKB: Despite the downvotes, I think this clearly the direction we’re headed. In the policy world in which I write, almost all of us have day jobs and write without expectation of meaningful pay from the publication, outside of those who manage to have successful books.
@JKB: I think productivity a weird concept WRT writing. It’s true that some writers, like our frequent commenter Michael Reynolds, are incredibly prolific. But it’s unreasonable to expect a freelancer to pitch, write, and research hundreds of thousands of words a year.
@James Pearce: The problem is that nobody is lining up to clean the offices of the New Yorker for free because there’s very little psychic reward for that job. Lots of people would be happy to place an article there—many would actually pay for the privilege.
Sure, some people would sleep with Harvey Weinstein to get a movie role. The fact that people are willing to be abused doesn’t mean it’s okay to abuse them.
The New Yorker could, if they wanted to, come up with all kinds of abusive, scammy ways to get someone to take out their trash –make the unpaid interns do it, for example, — but that would be seen as weird and unnecessary because there are a whole host of affordable and professional janitorial services available.
And yet, when it comes to writers, the tendency is to abuse and to scam. Every writer’s guild or union was founded on it. Signed a publishing contract without a lawyer? Sucka!
My best estimate is that I’ve typed roughly 6 million compensated words in about 25 working years. Using @JKB’s number on hours it’s about 125 words per hour. (That’s not how it works in real life, but it’s a convenient number. And, as always, me and numbers…). I tend to think in terms of pages rather than words and figure that most years I put out between 800 and 1000 pages at about 200 words per page. I use a lot of white space.
I can also see a world where non-literary “writers” are more of a Knowledge Engineer type position that does interviews and research and then formats the results for some sort of AI program that spits out arbitrary length articles given a few high level directions by the editor.
That sounds uncomfortably like the Esthetikon in Cyril Kornbluth’s “With These Hands.” Though his nightmare vision produced visual “art” rather than prose.
@James Joyner: I’ve mentally slotted writing into the same category as lace-making, quilt-making, and knitting–not something you can get reasonably compensated for considering the hours you put in. (I’ve written technical articles and chapters, and acted as editor for scientific books. It was definitely something for the resume rather than for the cash.)
@James Joyner: I totally agree with you on this. As my wife has found out, jobs that offer large intangible rewards tend to pay less due to an oversupply of eager employees. This is why philanthropy/NGO work pays so little, especially since they can draw upon *generic liberal arts major* graduate whose resumes all look alike. There’s an infinite supply of those coming through the university pipeline, after all.
Still, there’s hope. We have historical precedent for certain pursuits which are deemed aesthetically pleasing to a small but culturally elite group. It’s the conservatory model used to preserve classical music. Imagine a future where “average” writers are a dime a dozen but The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and The New Yorker all band together to create a limited supply of exclusive licensed certified professional writers who are trained from childhood to *master* the art. They can rest assured that if they’re good enough to graduate and stay certified, they can earn a good protected living wage. These publications can then charge high prices to cater to an elite crowd. The average hoi polloi won’t be able to tell the difference or even appreciate the subtle art of fine writing, but that’s fine. It’ll be another form of signaling for the privileged few.
Hat tip to Tyler Cowen for making me think of the last point.
A freelancer is just a contractor. Either you learn how to do the job faster and with less material, or you charge higher prices and get undercut by competitors. The complaint seems to be that publishers don’t want to pay the high prices and have alternative suppliers who will supply adequate writing for lower prices. Productivity growth is the only way to keep your wages rising, outside getting government to set wages and kill economic growth.
Carpenters are contractors as well. They would like to make more money per linear foot, but there are cheaper competitors, in this case companies using immigrant labor (lawful status or not) who will work for less. Now, sometimes the builder or homeowner who purchases the cheaper labor has to pay again to someone who can at least give the house the appearance of being square. But in strict framing or roofing from the ground up, the carpenter has to produce faster and if part of his bid, use less material to just make a bare living in the face of competition.
Writers have the problem that the barriers to publishing are minimal these days. A subject matter expert can write a far more informative article on a sleepless night than anyone whose primary knowledge/skill is “writer” can produce after months of research simply because they have first hand knowledge. And that article can be online in seconds free for all to read. For the subject matter expert, the article is the advertising/networking.
Who desires this?
The return of writing-as-a-hobby is clearly due to unfettered capitalism. I *think* we basically agree on that point, right? So I don’t understand the point of your post, except to throw out the strawman that some imagined liberals want to return to the dark ages.
@JKB: @James Joyner:
I’m fine personally with the idea of writers pushing toward productivity. When my wife and I started out we’d mostly been waiting tables. We took the sense of urgency of a busy Saturday night in a restaurant and transferred it to writing. The vast majority of writers come straight out of academia and never develop work habits much different from their study habits. But of course study habits are not geared for profit. If you want to make tips you have to turn those tables over. It’s been a great comparative advantage to. us.