Writing is like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.–Philip Roth
It goes without saying that poets and writers don’t make big bucks. People seem to think that writers, especially those who don’t have a dozen fat books on the shelves of Barnes & Noble (e-books haven’t yet achieved the same status) don’t deserve to be paid, because we aren’t really working: writing is viewed by most people who’ve never done it as child’s play. They imagine writers as dilletantes who loll about all day in our pajamas fiddling with words. Unlike the factory worker or waitress or computer technician, we have fun doing what we do. Besides, what of any import have we ever contributed to society? I readily admit that my work is not as laborious as, say, a day in the coal mines. I do, however, work hard, and like other workers I deserve a living wage—yet I’ve been shown over and over again that few people agree with this principle.
For instance: several years ago I taught a creative writing class for seniors in the upscale apartment complex where I lived. I charged a mere $5.00 per class, after trying for $10 and nobody showing up. But wait—that isn’t the crux of this anecdote.I didn’t mind the pennies too much since I love teaching and hoped that by doing it I’d get my name out and attract clients to my writing services . Sure enough, I soon received a call from one of my students’ friends who was working on a memoir and needed help. This is just my line! Helping another writer structure her work, eliciting someone’s story and talent, editing her words and sentences–this is my favorite kind of work. Besides which, this woman’s story held elements of fascination for me, and we talked for a good half hour. I told her how I work and explained the process by which I’d help her complete and revise her book, and also advise her on publication routes. We scheduled an appointment for our first meeting. Before we hung up I said, “The only thing we haven’t discussed is my fee.”
After a moment of dead air she said, her voice dripping with outrage, “You mean you charge for this?”
I had never met this woman. She didn’t know me. She called me out of the blue and actually thought I’d be glad to donate my time, experience and skills out of the goodness of my heart. Can you imagine calling a car mechanic, or a piano tuner, or any other skilled professional expecting free service? This incident still knocks me out when I think of it—and believe me, I’ve run into dozens more like it.
Okay, that’s “creative writing.” So let’s talk journalism—surely a profession, no? Except for the few journalists who live at the top of the heap—those who publish in Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, for instance—we’ve never been paid fairly. Before the online phenomenon burst into life, I wrote for magazines and newspapers, earning $50 here, $100 there, sometimes a whopping $800. I wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the East Bay Express, and even the SF Chronicle, with an occasional coup such as once for Mother Jones. Since the coming of the Internet, however, I cannot believe I complained about the low pay.
With all these entrepreneurs getting rich online, we writers thought our rate of pay might also rise. Instead, things went from bad to woefully worse. Go onto the job sites—Elance, Guru, Media Bistro—and browse through the ads; go ahead. Online employers offer $10 or $20 for 500-word articles of the kind that once brought in $100. They want ghostwriters to do 300-page books for $500. My proposals are consistently rejected for fee estimates that are “too high.” Recently someone wanted an editor to put together an erotic anthology. You’d think since I’ve done a dozen of them I’d be a shoo-in. Not! Knowing they’d never pay it, I lopped off half the $3000 I used to get for the same work—and was told yet again my estimate was too high.
I’ve gotten nasty emails telling me I’ve got chutzpah asking for so much money—and I give back as good as I get, with my own workers’ rights messages. One reasons they get away with paying so little is that the Internet makes it seem as if anyone and everyone can write, and all writers are created equal. There’s always a newbie or incompetent willing to write for bubkes. You may have noticed the quality of online writing, or rather lack of same.
I’ve done online work that, when I added up my hours, paid less than minimum wage. A few months ago I began editing manuscripts for a publisher who paid $75 per. Each manuscript took me 15 to 20 hours. After I did four of them I calculated my earnings: $3.75-5.00 an hour. When I asked for more I was flatly refused, and the publisher stopped sending me work. Was I better off with $75 or with nothing? I imagine other writers ask themselves this question, and must sometimes answer by continuing to work for less than minimum wage.
Speaking of other writers, I am not alone. I’m not the only one who can’t make a living at this anymore. While it was hard ten or fifteen years ago, many of us managed to eke out an impoverished existence. We can no longer do even that. To expand my base of colleagues, the same goes on these days in the fast food industry, retail establishments, corporations, small offices, non-profits, upscale restaurants, hotels—name an industry and the people who work in it are doing 40 or more hours a week, have two or three jobs, and yet have to sleep in their cars or worse; they jump through hoops for food stamps (a whole other topic); go hungry so their children can eat; and let us not forget mothers, who get paid for none of their work (another whole topic). We’ve heard the stories and we know the causes. We’ve demanded change in a million ways. Will it ever come? Will people ever make a living by honest labor again? I don’t know.
Happy Labor Day to all my writing compadres and other workers! Enjoy taking the day off—if you can.