Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's resolution: should we consider fair pay for freelancers?

In earlier posts, I've suggested that fair payment for freelancers was one of the great, unsolved and unaddressed problems of the Canadian magazine industry. At the management level it is a topic either avoided or treated as of being of marginal importance. Rates for professional freelance writing are not remotely keeping up with inflation. By any reasonable measure, an experienced freelancer should be routinely earning $1.50 to $2.50 a word from a national, consumer magazine. Yet many organizations continue to hold rates flat year, after year, even though the actual content fees are a quite small proportion of the annual publishing budget. (Earlier and related posts may be read here and here and here.)

Senior editors and publishers will express sympathy, but belie it with a shrug that they have no problem in sourcing material. They also argue that they need "flexibility" of paying peanuts to some people so they can top up the pay to experienced veterans they want to cultivate.

More flinty types will argue that the number of eager, young freelancers so outstrip demand that the pages will inevitably be filled at consistently low prices. And, anyway, they say, the nature of magazine writing has changed dramatically, with so much research-heavy service journalism and very few "writerly" opportunities.

This topic was discussed just before and over the Christmas period among members of the Toronto Freelance Editors and Writers Group, an e-mail forum. And it was interesting that their views, too, ran the gamut of opinion. Here are some snipped selections (edited only for clarity):
I'm all for a strategic wildcat strike. Let's target a specific magazine, stop writing for it, convince most of it's major writers to stop writing for it, and ask for a 50% pay increase. Suggested magazines anyone?
* * *
It is deplorable what publishers get away with, and we continue to furnish them with our best work, wringing our hands in this parallel universe populated only by disgruntled freelancers. How many editors and publishers are really aware of how difficult it is to make a living - and how angry we are becoming?

If they are not aware, it's yet another painful irony, given that we're in the business of sharing stories and ideas. We should begin by letting them know, in a polite word at some point in our correspondence. Every time we write. (Perhaps we should establish a small chart or even a rate in brackets, indicating what we make in real terms compared to 1980, for eg.)
* * *
As someone who freelances as a writer while also working full time as an editor, I do see it from both sides. I would love to pay my writers much better (I can tell you all that I at least pay them right away) but it's just not in the budget. And that's frustrating, too. So I get to be frustrated when I don't get paid for my freelance work and frustrated when I can't compensate other, more talented, freelancers.
* * *
We provide a product or a service - call it what you will - and are underpaid for it. Suggesting that the word 'underpaid' is relative, is again missing the point and pretending that writing should somehow be exempt from the rules of the market. The subjectivity of rating writing is already worked into the rate per word. But too many publications have impossibly low ceilings for all but a few star names, for no other reason than that they have not been forced to revise their thinking since the bloody 1980s.

* * *

On a larger scale, we just don't culturally believe that writing is worth a whole lot. And many people look at things like magazine stories and say "I could do that. I'd be fun and easy." Ironically, when people do get a chance to get something in print, they devalue their own work, money wise, and consider themselves just super lucky. But we who are doing it know that every sentence you put down takes serious sweat and time. So, when you're an experienced writer, you do spend a lot of time negotiating with your contacts to get that extra few cents a word. But it just ain't right.

* * *
Why assume that the only alternative is the status quo or changing careers? Is it unreasonable to exert pressure on magazine editors & publishers? Haven’t we seen some change? (I have. I wasn’t earning $1.50/word anywhere a decade ago.) How many freelancers are demanding higher rates? (Handling editors, let alone editors-in-chief, aren’t going to go to bat for writers who don’t ask for more money.) Freelance writers marching down University Ave.with placards is unlikely to happen (let alone attract media coverage), but that doesn’t mean we can’t stand up for ourselves & demand higher rates.
* * *
Magazine journalism is a high-prestige activity. That is likely why it pays so poorly. As a magazine junkie, I am glad there are still so many of you willing to do it. I guess I just don't expect anyone to provide me with a good living doing what I most enjoy or think looks best on a CV. There are lots of things I'd rather spend 8 hours a day doing than going to work, but sadly, I have rent to pay. From time to time, I accept the pittance the Globe pays for book reviews, because everyone reads it... and it gets me props at the office. I suspect that more writers will have to make their serious work a sideline, or a loss-leader.
* * *
I would challenge the freelancers' union, PWAC and other writer-related organizations to put together a formal document for publishers outlining how paying their freelancers more will benefit their publications, andspecifically their bottom line. Not an easy assignment, I know, but at year end all the editors can do is say "we need to pay freelancers more."It'd be great if we had a resource to help support that request.
* * *
As long as print and Web media “products” can be created by anybody relatively cheaply, and as long as writing remains something that human beings burn to do, I can’t see a lot changing. But I’d love to see what a union could accomplish. And we have to be vigilant at educating those who can make a difference.



Blogger Haasim said...

There are other jobs that pay more money, but this is the work we want to do.

It's amazing writers still get paid to write, considering there are so many talented people who are willing to write content for cheap (or even for free).

Soon freelance writing will be considered a clever pastime people pursue when they're not doing "real work".

1:25 am  

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