Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Writers decades ago earned more, begging the question: WTF?

Freelance writers, wrap your head around this: "Hemingway signed a fresh contract with Collier’s in early 1944 that would pay him $3,000 per 2,500- to 3,500-word article." That's more than $43,000 today. 

Paying writers in palm slaps is NOT cool cool cool.The article about Hemingway focused on his filing a massive bill for expenses (it was $13,000 in WW2-era cash, or $187,000 when adjusted for inflation). The headline was about the expenses, but the part of the article that grabbed me highlighted how much more people used to be able to make freelancing for magazines and newspapers.

Just imagine making even the $3,000 today, never mind how much he got when adjusted for inflation. Most freelancers get nothing like that for a piece. Maybe if you're a recognizable name, but few get the David Sedaris rate (he's in a position to demand top dollar, and I hope he does).

It's stunning the degree to which writing work has been devalued over the years. You may say sure, but you're comparing to Hemingway. Hemingway! Of course he got the big bucks. OK then, there's Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was a journalist and novelist. She earned $1,200 for a magazine article in 1930 (as I read in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography). That's $18,000 today!

Worse yet, writers increasingly are expected to write for free. The fuck kind of nonsense is that?! Years ago I freelanced a monthly column for an entertainment magazine in a sub-medium market. I also worked full time as a newspaper copy editor, full benefits, etc. I made $100 a column, thought it was low, but didn't care because my job in newspaper covered the bills and provided health insurance. I just enjoyed writing it. I ran into a guy one night out who wrote funny horoscopes for the same publication, and joked about how it only paid $100, but who cares, it's fun! The look he gave me. He was doing it for free. 

Maybe he didn't even ask for pay, maybe he didn't think it was an option. I don't think he had years of experience writing for print media and enough clips to choke a horse like I did. BUT STILL. He had other writing experience, and even if he didn't, the publication was having him write for them and some coin needed to change hands.

I don't know how people earn much writing anymore; I sure don't. Editing pays more, and people at least realize they need to pay for it. I may decide to submit my writing to non-paying online publications one day for some pieces that I'm not sure where to sell, just because I love to write. Maybe. I could even put them on this blog, but that would rule out submitting them to some publications later if they won't accept pieces that have run elsewhere, even if they only ran on a blog that isn't exactly trending. It feels good to be read, but not so great to just give it away, especially for pieces that I could've sold to paying publications in the past. Those freelance budgets some publications had that weren't huge 10-15 years ago have dwindled massively or disappeared. 

Outspoken and over-the-top author Harlan Ellison, on being told others were not paid for work used in DVD extras for Babylon 5, replied: "Everybody else may be an asshole, but I’m not. ... How dare you call me and want me to work for nothing.” In his hilariously caustic style, he added: "I sell my soul, but at the highest rates, the highest rates. I don’t take a piss without getting paid for it.” Hell yes. Just imagine having the success and stones to say that.

Later, when Ellison called WB because he never received a free DVD and was told he could buy one, he lost his shit. "You send me the goddamn DVD now, or I’m gonna come down to your office and I’m gonna burn it to the ground, how ‘bout that?" Not the most prudent threat to make, but Ellison did not give AF. The Ellison quotes came from Dreams with Sharp Teeth. Here's the clip in question, titled, appropriately enough, Pay the Writer (a fitting title).

It's sad how much harder it's getting to make a living writing. Or to even do it on the side, not trying to make a living from it, but still be paid for your work. I have no solutions. Just keep scribbling away any damn way. The act of writing enriches your soul, even when it does nothing for your bank account.  

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