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.
During the past 52 years, a single dollar has lost nearly 87 percent of its value, and so have the words of professional freelance writers. That has meant, unavoidably, a big change in the quality of the job. [emphasis added]
It’s hard to understand how it happened. Ring Lardner was an elite writer of his time, but even his charity rate doesn’t look bad these days. Adjusted for inflation, that five cents per word is now worth about 70 cents, which is considered a respectable fee at legacy publications and well-funded startups. The $1 per word Lardner got from Cosmo, on the other hand, is worth over $14 now. I’ve spoken with dozens of freelance writers throughout my career and can report that’s more than twice as much as I’ve ever heard of a writer receiving, period. Twelve of Lardner’s stories — let’s call that a year’s worth of work for a feature writer — would earn him $600,000 in 2018.
Either Lardner is the greatest writer of all time by a wide margin or something screwy happened to writer pay over the past century. No offense to Lardner, but evidence suggests it’s the latter.
When I was in my twenties I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to get into journalism. That didn't happen. I managed a few freelance projects here and there. Sometimes I still land a few little projects at a few spots. I obviously love to write.
I have also written a lot for not just no pay but what practically has amounted to writing a lot at my own time and expense. I have refused to monetize this blog and the plan is to keep on keeping on not monetizing the blog. What I write here I write because I want people who may read it to have an opportunity to learn about things without having to go through a paywall. I also have a day job which, however modest its income might be to many is at the moment more or less more than sufficient for yearly needs. I also live in a city with a pretty impressive library system so there's a lot I can read or watch without having to pay for as long as I'm willing to wait months or even years to see stuff that I might not feel able to afford to go see in the news-making phase of a cultural item.
Growing up in a fairly conservative Protestant home I got the impression that mainstream reporters did not seem to know or understand the subject of religion very well and also really did not want to understand that range of topics. Twenty and thirty years later I don't see that that impression has been discounted. Had I thought that either the independent or mainstream press had been doing an adequate job covering what was going on Mars Hill I might have stuck to writing that big analytical series on the guitar sonatas of Matiegka, Diabelli and company back in 2011 and 2012 when I really first began to want to do that.
But I felt obliged to write about what was going on at Mars Hill in the late 2011 through 2014/2015 period and I never made a cent writing about that church. I'm proud to say that.
But I also realize ,as a writer once told me, the institutional press only takes itself seriously. If a local Seattle paper ran a story mentioning that Mark Driscoll got $X advance for Real Marriage they might just mention that information. Exactly where or how that information was available for public consideration might not show up. That's not to say there was no possibility of someone getting ahold of documents connected to Real Marriage that weren't already published here, just that it was interesting to finally publish some of those documents and then observe that the institutional press could run with information that, as best I can tell, I made available for public consideration which was reported in the institutional press without any reference to where or how they got the dollar amount of Driscoll's advance on Real Marriage.
But $400,000 is a lot of money and those kinds of advances for what amount to self-help books (because, really, what else are we going to ultimately call Real Marriage if not a self-help/advice book?) could inspire any of us who write to ask what it takes to land a deal like that? Would a publisher offer Wenatchee The Hatchet a comparable sum to write a Dostoevsky-sized history of the movement formerly known as Mars Hill Church? That seems pretty much impossible to imagine and, honestly, I'd be dubious about who would want to pony up that much money and why they would because after what I saw of the culture of Mars Hill and how popular/mainstream Christian publishing dealt with the Mark Driscoll plagiarism controversy that's about where I am at, a bit more jaded than I'd like to be about the integrity of Anglo-American Christian publishing. I mean, if Carl Trueman or Darryl Hart wanted to compare notes ... but by and large I've gotten to a point where if someone gave me a Thomas Nelson published book as a gift my first thought would be to burn the thing.
My own gut reaction, which is all that it is, is that what it takes is for a writer to be willing to compromise on matters of scholarly integrity and intellectual consideration that are not worth making.
If, as libertarians have been raving for decades, the American currency is being debauched that's not exactly news to people who try to pay any attention at all to those kinds of things. But it's perhaps so commonplace a commonplace it couldn't even be considered news.
Come to think of it, something I have been thinking hasn't come up is that there was a giant, substantial musical work published a bit more than a year ago and I have not seen a single review or heard of a review of the work anywhere. That's the kind of thing where, just on the principle of the thing, I'd make a point of writing about that musical work at some point if there were a suitable venue or platform for it.
And I will, eventually. But for now this is about the money or lack thereof from writing. Particularly freelance writing. I wouldn't be entirely surprised if, for instance, the blogging I did about Ferdinand Rebay's music for guitar was longer than what's usual for discussing Rebays' music in the English language. I do still plan, per what I wrote late last year, to blog about a few things musical.