How to Get Paid
FOUR years ago Jennifer Percy decided she wanted to report on the lives of women in war-torn Afghanistan and get paid to do it. A graduate of both the fiction and nonfiction MFA programs at the University of Iowa, Percy was about to publish her first book, Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism (Scribner, 2014), but she had written only one previous magazine feature and knew that few editors would be eager to send a new writer halfway around the world to report from a war zone.
So Percy launched a GoFundMe campaign to help finance her travel, lodging, and personal protection while in Afghanistan and contacted an editor at Harper’s who had handled an excerpt from her book that had appeared in the magazine’s Readings section.
“I wanted to take a leap and not build up pieces that were maybe easier to get but rather jump right into things and do international reporting right away with a big project,” Percy says. “I think I raised three or four thousand dollars on GoFundMe, and the rest I took out in student loans, which I’m still paying off.”
Percy’s bold move produced results. In January 2015, Harper’s published her ten-thousand-word article, “Love Crimes,” which examined what liberation looked like for Afghan women after the U.S. occupation, and while she was in Afghanistan, Percy traveled to meet the country’s lone female warlord and pitched the story to an editor at the New Republic, which ran it later that year.
“This is kind of how it works,” Percy says. “Each time, I went to a different magazine and said, ‘I’m on the ground, I have this piece, I know how to do this.’”
Percy, now a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, has hardly had a typical career trajectory, but her story points out a salient fact of the world of freelance writing in the post-print age: It has never been easier for a writer without a wealth of connections or experience to break in. The downside? For writers who lack Percy’s moxie and reporting chops, it’s hard to make a living at it.
The decades since the advent of the web browser in the early 1990s have not been kind to traditional newspapers and magazines. Advertising revenue, the economic
lifeblood of the industry, has fallen off a cliff. Flagship publications have shut their doors. Daily newspaper circulation has plummeted from a high of 62 million in 1990 to about 31 million today, triggering massive layoffs.
But even as the web has gutted print publications, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs, it has unleashed a flood of new blogs and websites in constant need of fresh content, much of it written by freelancers. Before the Internet, freelancers pitching stories to editors had little choice but to draw on contacts built up over years of apprentice work with local newspapers or regional magazines. How else would a writer get an editor’s attention—by sending a cold pitch via fax?
Today, with the blogosphere adding new digital-native publications daily and venerable print publications like the New Yorker and the Paris Review running their own content-hungry websites, an enterprising freelancer needs no more than a good idea and a serviceable prose style to get that first byline. But because there are so many websites competing for readers—and because much of the ad revenue that used to go to news outlets has migrated to online platforms like Facebook and Google—it is hard for a writer breaking in to turn a pleasurable sideline into a paying profession. Still, a dedicated freelancer, especially one willing to combine occasional bylined features with a steady diet of marketing and technical copy, can make writing pay.
The difficulty of making a living at the keyboard is borne out by surveys of freelance writers, which show that most work part-time and fall far short of earning a living. In a 2018 survey, the website Content Wonk found that nearly three-quarters of freelance writers work fewer than twenty hours a week, and more than half earn less than $20,000 a year from their writing. On the other hand, a small subset of those surveyed, about 5 percent, reported earning more than $100,000 a year.
The disparity in annual earnings is driven by an even wider disparity in what writers make for a piece of writing. At the upper end of the freelancing food chain, Percy, as a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, gets paid three dollars a word, meaning that a four-thousand-word article would earn her $12,000, plus expenses.
Paydays like that are rare for freelancers, however. In general, print publications pay more than digital sites even for the same type of article, so that a humor piece that appears on the New Yorker’s online Daily Shouts page pays $325 while a similar piece in the print magazine’s Shouts & Murmurs column will typically pay $2,000. Both in print and online, longer articles that involve extensive reporting, which is time-consuming and requires special skills and experience, typically pay better than personal essays or reviews.
But even within these broad guidelines, pay rates vary enormously, from a dollar or more a word for slick magazines and a handful of high-traffic websites to a flat rate of a few hundred dollars per piece paid by smaller news and culture sites. And of course many online publications pay nothing at all, offering their contributors a byline and online exposure in lieu of payment.
Add it all up and for most writers freelancing is less a job than an interesting, highly flexible side gig that can be juggled around a full-time job or slotted in with other part-time gigs and child care. But, says freelancer David Hill, writers willing to take on less glamorous, better-paying writing assignments can indeed cobble together a living.
“I would not suggest anybody quit their day job on a lark and give it a shot,” says Hill, who left a job as a union organizer to freelance fulltime in 2015. “I think everybody has to figure it out on the side. What I did to get to this point is what I think a lot of people have to do, which is do it
on the side until you can figure it out, and then you can make the jump once you’ve got your sea legs.”
Hill, a vice president of the National Writers Union (nwu.org), which advocates on behalf of freelance writers, cautions new writers against accepting lower pay to get a foot in the door. But it’s an unavoidable fact of the freelance market that most new writers have to start out writing for smaller publications that pay little or nothing to their contributors, in the hope of using those early bylines to help open doors with editors at more prominent outlets.
This was the path traveled by novelist Teddy Wayne, after he published his first piece on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency in 2004. At the time, Wayne, now the author of three novels, including Loner (Simon & Schuster, 2016), was a few years out of college and trying to launch a writing career. “McSweeney’s was the obvious place to start in that you didn’t need any kind of bio to get in,” he says. “It was unpaid, and it remains unpaid, but because of that, other paying gigs started coming my way.”
Eighteen months after his first piece appeared on the McSweeney’s site, an editor with Time magazine approached him about writing an article, this time for pay. Over the next few years, while Wayne completed an MFA and supported himself with teaching and copyediting work, he continued freelancing, publishing in Esquire, the New York Times, and Radar, while still contributing pieces to McSweeney’s.
While these freelance gigs never turned into a full-time occupation, they provided much-needed supplementary income and gave Wayne a bit more visibility when he was ready to send out his first novel, Kapitoil (Harper Perennial, 2010). “I didn’t have much of a name at all, especially at that point,” he recalls, “but having some connections, having published some things in the New York Times, it made them feel more comfortable taking me on, thinking maybe I would be able to generate a little publicity for myself with my own writing.”
This is a key point: that freelance publications, even when they don’t pay very much, can offer a valuable platform for writers looking to publish a book. For one thing, agents and book editors are avid readers of blogs and magazines and often seek out writers whose work interests them to see if they have a book in them. And, as newspapers and magazines continue to cut back on book reviews, publishers are relying more heavily on writers to drum up their own publicity, which often takes the form of personal essays written for magazines or book blogs.
This brand of publicity is built into the business model for Literary Hub, a website funded by the publishing house Grove Atlantic. The site gets roughly half of the one hundred fifty pieces it runs each month directly
from the publishing houses, literary magazines, and bookstores that it partners with, according to founding editor Jonny Diamond. The site pays for these pieces, typically book excerpts and literary essays, not with cash but with a free ad on the site for the partnering organization and the opportunity for exposure for the author.
The remainder of Literary Hub’s articles are written either by its six full-time staffers or by freelancers, who get paid between $100 and
$400 per article depending on its length and the depth of reporting it requires. Though Literary Hub’s editors reject roughly nine out of ten articles pitched to them, Diamond says, the site remains open to any writers with strong ideas for a piece, even if they don’t have much experience writing for pay.
“Previous experience doesn’t matter that much,” he says. “If the writing is good, if the sentences are good, and there’s a clear idea that the sentences are taking us to, that is really important. It doesn’t actually matter what the byline is.”
At each rung up the ladder from smaller to larger publications, the winnowing process grows fiercer while professional connections and reporting and writing skills become more essential. But if a byline in a widely read national magazine brings prestige, and occasionally even a rich payday, even the most talented freelancers struggle to string together enough assignments to guarantee a stable income.
This is where corporate work enters the picture. Savvy freelancers can decide to use a portfolio of well-written articles in a particular field—travel, say, or men’s fashion—to help win more lucrative but less glamorous assignments writing “branded content,” a hybrid form of advertising in which a company commissions articles, often with no byline, that tout its products. These corporate-sponsored articles, says NWU’s Hill, often pay double the word rate of an unbranded piece of similar length and complexity.
Other freelancers pay their bills by writing marketing copy or composing scripts for corporate training videos. Many more churn out short blog posts and other web copy for so-called content mills like iWriter and WritingBunny. One member of Hill’s union specializes in writing lavish descriptions of food for restaurant menus.
Hill himself mixes heavily reported features for Vice and the New Yorker with work for a roster of corporate clients and earns between $38,000 and $70,000 a year. “The writers that you’re reading who write those long-form features, very few of them are making their entire living from doing that,” he says. “Some of them may have partners who earn money and that may help them out, but a lot of writers do this kind of stuff on the side, or they work in television, or they sell scripts.”
Of course freelancers write books, too, sometimes with their names displayed prominently on the cover, other times as ghost writers supplying the words for people who have a story to tell but lack the skills to tell it. Book ghosts, who are often moonlighting journalists and editors, have traditionally worked either under contract with publishing houses or directly for the “authors” themselves, earning anywhere from a few thousand dollars up to $250,000 per project.
At each rung up the ladder
from smaller to larger
publications, the winnowing
process grows fiercer while
professional connections and
reporting and writing skills
become more essential.
But as digital technology continues to shake up the publishing industry, a new model of book ghosting is emerging that allows entrepreneurs, inspirational speakers, and minor celebrities to bypass traditional publishing houses and create print-ondemand books they can hawk online or use as professional calling cards.
One of the innovators in this field, Scribe Media, a four-year-old company based in Austin, Texas, now employs a hundred freelancers to write, design, and market books for its clients, who pay $36,000 for the service. At Scribe, which is taking on thirty to fifty new clients a month, freelancers are paid fifty dollars an hour to interview the client and then use those interviews to write a book that will be published under the client’s name, says Hal Clifford, head of manuscript quality at the company.
“The traditional book publishing model is broken, and we’ve found a niche we can fill that is really a different model,” Clifford says. “People want to read books. There are a lot of books out there. But there’s an enormous number of impediments to getting those books made and to making money on them for authors.”
The company’s busiest freelancers— called “scribes,” naturally—are working on between four and eight books at any one time, Clifford says, and it’s not uncommon for freelancers to join the company’s growing full-time staff, which now numbers thirty-five. “That’s how I came in,” says Clifford, who has published three nonfiction books under his own name and ghostwritten many more. “At least half of us on the editorial team started that way.”
Scribe is a young company, and its business model has yet to be tested over time, but its early success is yet another sign that the gig economy has come to publishing. In media, as in the broader economy, tradition-bound organizations staffed by full-time professionals are finding themselves outmaneuvered by smaller, more nimble competitors heavily reliant on freelancers.
This is disheartening news for anyone looking for lifelong employment, with health insurance and a 401(k) plan, in the news business or in publishing, both of which have been shedding jobs. But for freelance writers, especially those willing to hustle and take jobs in the less glamorous corners of the industry, the digital age is a time of plenty, albeit not always a wildly lucrative one.
COMING THIS YEAR
Future installments of How to Get Paid will focus on other sectors of the literary community in which writers can find opportunities to earn money, including literary nonprofits; colleges, universities, and private writing programs; writing contests, grants, and fellowships; and, of course, book publishing.
MICHAEL BOURNE is acontributing editor of Poets &Writers Magazine.