Ask The Editor

March 4, 2009

Why writers shouldn’t bet their careers on magazine writing

An article by Francis Wilkinson in The Week asks whether writing is now a career that only the rich can afford to pursue:

The high end of publishing—books, magazines, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal—has always contained a contingent of wealthy worker bees who don’t actually live off their often meager salaries. But even a couple decades ago, a writer without independent means could still scrape together a living writing about something other than movie stars. Not a good one necessarily, but a living.

It’s not obvious how young writers without accommodating, well-to-do parents or a trust from gramps make it these days. Surely they can’t spend a year or two blogging without pay until an audience evolves to nurture them. They’ll starve.

He also says that “freelance rates for non-fluff magazine writing have barely risen in the past 15 years.” Apparently, Wilkinson doesn’t write for many magazines or he’d know that the problem isn’t just that rates haven’t risen; they’re recently begun falling.

Moreover, the trend of stagnating rates isn’t a recent phenomenon. According to Murray Teigh Bloom, one of the original members of the trade organization that is now known as the American Society of Journalist and Authors, told me about 15 years ago that he earned $1 per  when he began freelancing in the 1950s.

Today, many magazines are still stuck at $1 per word and several want to pay less than that. And it’s not simply because they want to exploit writers (although, they often do because too many writers agree to be exploited).

Every week, at least one magazine goes under. Hallmark magazine folded last week, not because it was doing poorly. It was one of the very few magazines where ad revenues were up.

If a magazine folds because (my assumption) it sees dimming prospects for the future, that solidifies my sense that focusing all one’s energy on writing for magazines is like focusing all one’s energy on selling VHS tapes. Not wise.

I recently wrote an article, for far less than I normally get paid, for an online magazine. It was on a controversial topic, close to my libertarian heart, and I wanted it published, even if it meant taking a pay cut. I felt good about getting the word out there. But the online magazine quickly folded (although its content is still up).

Even writing for major magazines that offer $2 per word and up, you have to contend with the possibility that the publication may not still exist when it’s time to pay you.

But books will always be with us, in some form, even if ebooks supplant paper. And that’s where I’d recommend any writer focus the greater share of his or her energy. It may mean that, in the not-too-distant future, you take on the multiple roles of author, publisher, publicist, distributor and warehouser, because major houses are trimming their acquisitions to those they believe (often wrongly, but that’s another post), will be surefire hits.

Only the intrepid, with an entrepreneurial bent can expect to do well under current conditions that are bad for the economy as a whole but worse for publishing. Any writer who sees him- or herself as too delicate to take on the business of marketing probably won’t survive in this climate absent a hefty trust fund or other means of support.

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3 Comments »

  1. I am a short story author at heart, but I would never dream of trying to live off the ‘salary’ I make publishing my work. I’m grateful enough that I am getting published for pay, and that all of the e-zines I’ve submitted to are still alive. I don’t see much hope for literary magazines surviving much longer if things keep going the way they are. :-/

    Comment by uninvoked — March 4, 2009 @ 12:57 pm | Reply

  2. Writing’s value as a salable content is disappearing. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I do know it’s time to find another way to put it to use.

    Comment by Julie — March 4, 2009 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  3. Early last year I considered leaving my marketing/technical writing job to go freelance. I’m sure glad I didn’t. I write for a living, but have a secure job and steady paycheck writing web copy, press releases, that kind of stuff. Maybe one of these days I’ll reconsider freelancing, but I sure won’t focus on magazines. It seems to me that one way to be successful in freelancing right now is to focus on business writing–there is still a great need for good writers in the commercial world.

    Comment by Jennifer — March 5, 2009 @ 9:04 am | Reply


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