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|October 2-8, 2008
Back to Letters
Will work for nothing
by Ben Corbett
It’s a bad habit of mine, but I got into a heated argument with another so-called “editor” last week. (Editor’s note: It wasn’t this one.) Most writers argue with editors over some precious piece of verbiage that they whipped up and don’t want to see altered, but not me. I’m not that vain. After I finish a story, I could care less what they do with it, as long as the check’s on time. As an independent writer (i.e. freelancer), I spend about half my time looking for work and the other half doing the actual writing. Anyway, so there I was, surfing the Net, sniffing out assignments, when I stumbled across an ad that said something like “New Magazine seeks Contributors,” and I broke down and wrote an e-mail showing my interest. I got an immediate response, and the catch was that they wanted you to write the first article for free, and then after that they’d talk about pay.
“Everyone has to eat. Plumbers, writers, everybody,” I put him on the spot. “You wouldn’t ask an auto mechanic to work for free. How on earth can you not pay for any article, whether the first, second, third?”
And the editor fired right back, “We’re not trying to screw the writers. We want people who write because they’re passionate about it, so we decided to do it this way to weed out those who are just trying to make a fast buck.”
Huh? A fast buck in writing? Except for a fortunate few, everyone in this field does it out of passion and not for the money.
That old maxim, “Success is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration” is a lie. At least for writers. It’s more like 1 percent stupidity and 99 percent starvation. Despite the Hollywood glamorization, most careers in writing pay chump wages. In ads seeking reporters and writers, the wording is always “salary commensurate with experience” and “competitive wages.” After toiling for four years through journalism school, the average starting pay at any given daily newspaper is $9.50 per hour. One of the main archetypes drawn into this field are those respect chasers who were ignored as children and who, later in life, feel as though they have to prove something to the world. Others do it because of some deep-seated savior complex, as though they have the answers to solve everyone’s problems. And a major part of the attraction, and perhaps the worst one, is this fantasy about writing being a road to fame and renown, which is the biggest lie of all. A recent study found that only one of seven of newspaper and magazine readers even glance at the name of any given article’s author.
In my Internet travels chasing work, on average, about nine out of 10 ads seek writers who will work for free, and it’s baffling and insulting to say the least. The bait is always, “Get your name in print!” A few times a year, editors e-mail me out of the blue asking me to do some free writing. One of the biggest problems journalism faces today, and one of the biggest reasons legitimate writers are being offered less and less to the point of exploitation, is the Internet. Not only is it killing the newspapers and other news dissemination media, but it’s destroying the craft of journalism altogether. Suddenly anyone with a keypad can print up a business card and call themselves a writer regardless of their talent or experience. YouTube recently announced that it was teaming up with the Pulitzer foundation to create a new prize for “Citizen Journalists,” where any hobbyist with a video camera could send in their one-minute clip to be juried alongside the prestigious scribes and photographers who have historically filled the Pulitzer ranks.
A few weeks ago, I was surfing for work again, when I fell upon yet another ad “Seeking Talented Writers.” It was a blog-type site, and they wanted people to write 100-word blurbs about current political events to spark online debate.
“Ah finally,” I thought. “One that pays.”
The hook in the ad was “Earn up to $1500 a month.” You can imagine my excitement. So I wrote the editor, sent a few clips, and got the response back that yes, “You’ve been chosen as a prospect!” Whoopee! So I wrote back and asked, specifically, how much it paid.
“For instance, can you give me a per-word pay rate or a column-inch pay rate,” I wrote. “This $1500 you have written is pretty vague.”
He was reluctant to answer, and it took a few e-mails to chisel the information out of him. But once again, he wanted you to write the first 10 for free, and then, if you worked out, it paid $1 for 100 words — which comes out to a penny a word. The math is simple: You’d have to write 100,000 words to make $1000. Most novels are 100,000 words, and most novelists need at least year to write one.
Yeah, sure man. Where do I sign up?
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