How to Get Paid

Free­lance writ­ing.

Poets and Writers - - Departments - By michael bourne

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 (, 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.


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.

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