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.