End of a Freelancer

I’ve been meaning for about a week to write about my friend Ben Yagoda’s Slate article in which he bids farewell to a freelance career.

I see a few bloggers couldn’t resist taking a dig at him for having another job as an academic. Reading comprehension, folks: it’s not like he sounds like Barbara Ehrenreich in the essay, whining about the cruelty of America or the direness of his circumstances. Snarking about the mere fact that somebody is an academic seems a favorite blood sport these days.

The essay does observe a couple of things that I thought were significant. One is that making a living off of freelance writing or even getting a regular dose of ego-gratification from it was once difficult, and now close to impossible. I remember in college having a copy of the Writer’s Market and leafing through it for all those little magazines and thinking about writing query letters. Even then, it was pretty clear that it would take a big dose of serendipidity, some networking and a lot of work quite aside from actually researching and writing articles in order to get published, let alone make any money at all from it. It’s pretty interesting that in between the beginning of his career as a freelancer and now, the payment for equivalent articles he’s written was the same: $500.00.

I do think weblogging has something to do with recent changes in the economics of writing. A lot of bloggers are giving away for free what might at an earlier time been done for money. Fewer would have been able to publish then what they write now. Some bloggers are hoping to break into the bigger time, with their blogs as loss-leaders, but most aren’t. That’s a challenge for freelancers, but also for the magazines that employ them. Getting people to buy a magazine (or even a book) means providing value that is distinctive and unavailable from free sources.

There are clearly “serious nonfiction” writers who publish in both magazines and who write books who are making a good living doing it, but I think at least some of them have other revenue streams, either from speaking engagements or being on the payroll of major publications. But were I a publisher, I’d worry a little about the atrophying of the rungs on the ladder just below that, and wonder if there wasn’t something that could be done to encourage freelancers and non-fiction writers who didn’t have huge contracts or steady gigs to stay in the game.

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6 Responses to End of a Freelancer

  1. RCinProv says:

    I would venture to guess that if you were a publisher, you would leave the business. Judith Regan is now the biggest name in publishing, serious mid-list books are no longer published by any major commercial press, and everyone seems to be focused on the immediate bottom line. Someone should get George Soros to think about this, since trashy conservative books can always find a home. But publishing is in bad shape; and I agree, Ben Yagoda’s article gives us even more reason for concern.

  2. isorkin1 says:

    The irony being that he got published as a free-lancer to announce he was finished with being a free-lancer. Perhaps he’ll be launched on a career as a pundit on the death of free-lancing?

  3. Doug says:

    The pay at publications often seems to be inversely proportional to their fame. A full-page feature in the Washington Post would have drawn $300 three years ago. They pay that poorly because there’s significant cachet in saying “I have also written for the Washington Post.”

    Maybe uber-famous places like Rolling Stone or the NY Times Magazine pay really well, but that’s like saying the NY Yankees pay pretty well out of all the baseball teams in the country. There’s not more than a few dozen people who are going to be playing on that team.

    On the other hand, corporate magazines and trade publications can pay quite nicely. If a freelancer’s skills include editing, then the trend toward outsourcing things in communications can actually be a benefit.

    But the economics of doing just writing and doing it only for publications that the general public has heard of are brutal. And even with steady gigs from trade publications, corporate quarterlies that I shepherd through production and other related revenue streams, I’m also getting out after five years. I think that I’m moving up, but maybe I’m just moving out.

  4. Dr. Adam L. Gruen says:

    It’s possible to make good money writing. I do it all the time, for a living. However, the caveat is that the good money also means almost total loss of control over the end product. I am not an author; I am not even a wordsmith. I am, in effect, a hack. But hey. It feeds the bulldog.

  5. abstractart says:

    I took the particular comment you linked to, anyway, not as some slamming academics for being bleeding-hearts or whatever, but just saying that it’s disingenuous for someone to talk about how difficult it is to make a decent living as a freelancer when that person doesn’t *have* to make a decent living as a freelancer.

    It doesn’t invalidate any of his points, true, but his personal experience of the insecurity of freelancing can’t have harmed him all that much if he’s also experiencing the unparalleled security of being a tenured faculty member.

  6. He talked about unfeasibity of making a living writing magazine articles. As a reader, I found it interesting that my getting bored with most magazines isn’t a side effect of age. They actually *are* boring!

    However, I’ve heard of people making a living as free-lance non-fiction book writers, with the major drawback being that you’re frequently not writing about what you’re interested in.

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