Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pay the Writer

Jean Mills, my friend and colleague in the Professional Writers Association of Canada, is inspiring this post. She is an award winning writer-a real award winning writer, with a plaque and award money and everything. She is also a multi-published essayist for the Globe and Mail. But no longer. The Globe and Mail stopped paying for the Facts and Arguments essays, but they still take all the rights and use them however they choose. Here's Jean's take on it.

I wrote for nothing when I was starting out. It was a good way to build clips quickly. Then, I wrote for the equivalent of nothing because at the time, it was steady money and no one else was publishing me. Writing has an element of ego to it, and we are so darn happy to see our name in print that we sometimes take inadequate money because of it. There's nothing quite like a grown woman doing a happy dance on the driveway the first time your article makes the cover of a mainstream publication. I am ashamed to admit that I would write an average of 1500-2000 words a week for a column that was labour intensive, and received the princely sum of $50. Yep, $75 with pictures. Do the math...The local police departments loved me because I was writing about the criminal activity that doesn't always make headlines-the speeders, the drunks and the people who really should not be let out alone-you know, the ones that think it's okay to break windows or spray paint buildings. (although I had to laugh out loud at the Halloween prankster who wrapped a food inspection car in food wrap...come on, now that's clever.) When the publisher stopped paying me, and I finally had to resort to a collections agency to get the money I was owed, all of my pieces were pulled from the site, so I can't even show you what I did for that paltry sum.

Our local chapter of the Professional Writers Association of Canada was contacted the other day to provide some writing for a local business. The job description sounded interesting and promising-consumer information pieces on products, which would involve research, interviews etc-a mini-white paper for consumers rather than business to business. It sounded interesting until you checked the pay rate $5 an article. Turning on my computer costs me more than that.

So here's some things that you might not know about magazine writing:

  • The average mainstream publication in Canada-the ones that are in your local supermarket and that you recognize immediately, pay about $1 a word for feature articles. So a 1500 word article will earn the writer $1500. Sounds good, doesn't it. I've earned it. I like it. BUT-a writer is not paid for the time it takes to research the topic, the telephone charges to interview the experts or any of the other "production" costs in crafting the article. We are only paid for the finished product. 
  • Trade magazines pay considerably less than $1 a word.
  • $1 has been the standard rate in Canada for 15-20 years.
  • The average article takes at least 10 hours to craft, including research time, interviews, drafts, and revisions. Complex articles can take significantly more time than that.
  • Rights are a hot button topic with writers. In simple terms, rights are what a publisher can do with the article after they have paid the writer for it. Until recently, that meant that they got the right to publish it first in North America. After that, if they wanted to post it on a website, or in an anthology, or translate it into another language and print it again, or turn it into a chapter in a book, they had to pay the writer more money. That changed with the explosion of the internet. Now, more and more publishers want to use the article any way they want to...but they only want to pay the writer once. Did I mention that rates haven't changed in 15-20 years? Rights are how writers earn additional money. We always have more research and interview material than will fit in the article. Re-purposing an article from a different angle is stock and trade for writers. Now, however, a publisher wants "all rights" which limits what a writer can do with the article. Used to be, writers were willing to give up some rights in exchange for more money. Not anymore. (and I won't get into a very detailed discussion here. If you want to learn more, go to ) 
  • Article factories like Suite101 and Demand Studios and a bunch of other ones are further undermining the business of writing. They pay pennies, and people write for them. A quick scan on Elance or a number of other freelance writing sites show people who are unwilling to pay industry rates for quality work. Writers should be happy with the "exposure". The editor for Facts and Arguments at the Globe and Mail rationalized the decision to stop paying writers because of the "national exposure" they get from being in the Globe. (and she said it to a roomful of writers) Exposure doesn't pay my bills. 
  • In contrast, corporate writing pays $50 an hour at the absolute minimum. We can charge upwards of $125 a page for web copy, and if you write white papers, according to "that white paper guy" Gordon Graham, you can craft one with 3-4 interviews, 10 hours of work and earn around $5K, with 50% paid up front. I made thousands of dollars in about 4 months working on brochures, member information and the like for a medical association that was launching.  Oh, and corporate writing pays you for the time to create the thing, not just the finished product. When we quote a project rate, we factor in the time it will take to create it, the interviews, the meetings, the telephone calls and the thought process.
I, and hundreds of my professional colleagues, make my living writing. More and more of us are turning away from magazine writing and working on corporate writing, white papers, business to business copywriting and the like. Writing a brochure on a widget might not the be most interesting thing to do, but I bet it pays a whole lot more than an article for a trade magazine on the same widget.  I love to write for magazines. It's challenging and interesting and I love to learn new things while I'm working on the topic. But I can't make a living at it any more. Our family finances cannot survive me working purely as a magazine writer, and that's sad. Like so many of my peers, I am now concentrating on finding corporate work. Sure, I still query magazines with story ideas, but I'm focusing my efforts on finding corporateclients.Writing is writing, and it is my business and my profession. I work from home as a writer to take care of my young child but I still need to contribute to the family coffers, or I'll be trying to write under a tree because we're living in our car, and my laptop doesn't have a charger that works on the cigarette lighter.

Writing is a profession.  Those of us who call ourselves "professionals" take pride in our work, take care in our research and work hard to craft an informative and clear piece. And yet, we are expected to be happy with "exposure." I somehow doubt that the publishing executives are doing their jobs for "exposure". I doubt that the lawyers who are doing their job by crafting the rights-grabbing contracts (and no, they are not the enemy) are completing their work for the rate of pay that writers are expected to accept. Hell, I bet the cleaning staff make more than some of the writers. It's not that hard to fathom:  without the writers, there is no publication.

It shouldn't be up to the writers to fight this fight alone. If you like a well crafted magazine article tell the publisher to pay the writers. If you enjoy carefully thought out, logically presented and well executed opinion pieces, tell the publisher to pay the writer. If you like humourous pieces that make you nod along in agreement and spit coffee in amusement, tell the publisher to pay the writer. It should not be this difficult for a writer to be paid a decent wage. Pay the writer.


Jean Mills said...

Yes, Lisa, that pretty well covers it! Thanks for the support.

Suzanne said...

Thanks for sharing this important message, Lisa!

Jane Langille said...

You have articulated the magazine writer's dilemma very well. Thanks Lisa!

tanya gulliver said...

Great stuff. Send to Sandy and Lauren, maybe they can link it from our blog. Or to christine for PWAC contact

Christine Peets said...

I will definitely post this in Contact under Rants.
It's great.
This should also go on the PWAC site, and other places where more folks will read it.

Well done!

Trudy said...

Nailed it on the head Lisa. Well put. Trudy