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How Much Is a Word Worth?
Declining pay for freelance writers hurts more than just the quality of the prose
When people who read magazines read an article in a magazine, I don’t imagine they know how much the writer was paid. As consumers, we aren’t responsible for what workers make; market competition and minimum wage laws take care of that. So, as long as we pay for our purchases and we pay our taxes, we’ve done our part. We assume there’s some rationale to the pricing of labor, with industries coalescing around sensible rates that increase over time according to inflation and productivity.
But labor markets don’t always work much like that, and if anyone should know, it’s a freelance writer.
Freelance writers have long tolerated a wide range of rates. Nearly a century ago, a writer named Ring Lardner declared that he would “rather write for the New Yorker at five cents a word than for Cosmopolitan at one dollar a word.” It’s hard to think of another profession in which pay for comparable work can vary so much from assignment to assignment.
One of the benefits to freelancing is that writers can place value on rewards other than money — like being part of a hip new project, like the 1924 New Yorker. But the downsides are many, and as a result, most pros today find themselves still answering the same spiritual question Lardner did, but for a whole lot less cash.
Freelance writers have no collective with which to bargain, they are not subject to minimum wage laws, and their pay fluctuates all the time. For those reasons, it’s hard to keep track of the averages (and few organizations are compelled to try). But back in 2001, the National Writers Union published a report on pay rates for freelance writers. The report figured that to earn the median wage for college grads — $50,000 per year — writers needed to pitch, sell, report, write, edit, publish, and be paid an average of $1 per word for 3,000 to 5,000 words a month. (That’s the length of this article.) Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $1.40 per word today.
Most freelance writers didn’t hit those numbers then, and they don’t hit those numbers today. Based on my reporting, my own experience, and interviews with more than a dozen writers, the current median price for a freelancer’s work is between 25 and 50 cents per word (though, to be clear, most places no longer pay per word; they pay lump sums that work out to about $500 for a 1,000- to 2,000-word article). Speaking to Black Enterprise, Ben Carruthers, vice president of the Society of American Travel Writers, suggested that a similar $500 rate was standard…in 1977.
During the past 52 years, a single dollar has lost nearly 87 percent of its value, and so have the words of professional freelance writers. That has meant, unavoidably, a big change in the quality of the job.
It’s hard to understand how it happened. Ring Lardner was an elite writer of his time, but even his charity rate doesn’t look bad these days. Adjusted for inflation, that five cents per word is now worth about 70 cents, which is considered a respectable fee at legacy publications and well-funded startups. The $1 per word Lardner got from Cosmo, on the other hand, is worth over $14 now. I’ve spoken with dozens of freelance writers throughout my career and can report that’s more than twice as much as I’ve ever heard of a writer receiving, period. Twelve of Lardner’s stories — let’s call that a year’s worth of work for a feature writer — would earn him $600,000 in 2018.
Either Lardner is the greatest writer of all time by a wide margin or something screwy happened to writer pay over the past century. No offense to Lardner, but evidence suggests it’s the latter.
There are no solid numbers for how many Americans are making these numbers work for them. When I asked a few people who earn a solid upper-middle-class living from freelance writing alone, they estimated only a couple hundred other people in the U.S. were in the same boat—and not one of them makes Lardner money writing for magazines.
As any owner of a taxi medallion can tell you, reducing the value of a product or service can have serious repercussions — for the workers themselves and for the wider society they help comprise. When it comes to freelance writing, I fear that low prices have already begun to cost us. Talented writers walk away from the industry, plutocrats are free to pick stories and choose writers even when they don’t own the outlets, and the quality of the work declines. All of that looks to worsen over time.
The first account of a publication offering $1 per word comes from 1908. It was for a type of story that remains the single most expensive genre in writing: anything “post-presidential.” The Fourth Estate, an early 20th-century weekly newspaper about the media, reported that Theodore Roosevelt was fielding multiple offers at the unheard-of fee (plus expenses!) to write up the hunting trip he planned to take after he left office. “At the rate things are going Mr. Roosevelt will find it far more profitable to shoot game in Africa than to be President of the United States,” the Fourth Estate joked. The press buzzed: $1 a word! A satirical poem in New York World imagined Roosevelt’s process:
After that, $1 per word became a sort of celebrity rate, a way to indicate epic importance. In 1910, Hampton’s reportedly gave it to explorer Frederick Cook to describe his trip to the North Pole, which he was credibly attempting to claim as his “discovery.” The magazine took his story and cut in a mea culpa, conceding the race to Robert Peary and headlining the issue “Dr. Cook’s Confession.” Peary is to this day credited with the achievement. (And though it made him one of the better-paid magazine writers in history, Cook’s deal was among the worst publishing agreements anyone has ever made, at least on the writer’s side.)
William Randolph Hearst, immortalized in the film Citizen Kane, remains the classic model for American media moguls—and perhaps moguls in general. By the late 1920s, he was already past his prime, but he didn’t let insolvency or declining circulation stop him from offering top dollar to attract the architects of an exciting new philosophy emerging out of western Europe: fascism.
Hearst was enamored with Italian Premier Benito Mussolini, first hiring him in 1928 to write about the fascist perspective on gender relations, which is exactly what you might think: “Man is in full possession of woman’s liberties, and measures them to her as a merchant does a piece of cloth,” etc. Mussolini faced backlash at the time, but Hearst still contracted him in 1931 for a monthly column in Cosmopolitan for $1 a word. That’s $15.66 per word today.
In the same year, Hearst also hired Adolf Hitler to write about current affairs from a Nazi perspective, though for much lower pay than Il Duce. According to Hearst biographer David Nasaw, the problem wasn’t his ideas, it was Hitler; he was an undependable writer who promised exclusives he failed to deliver.
In the expanding postwar years, $1 a word also expanded beyond the province of imperialists and dictators. A 1952 issue of the communications journal Printers’ Ink cited $1 as the top standard word rate for big names at large-circulation women’s magazines. Ten years later, Time reported that it was the rate for excellent unsolicited submissions to Reader’s Digest. By the mid-1960s, $1 was standard at the highest-circulation national magazines. It’s what Playboy paid, and, looking through old copies, it seems like the magazine could get anyone in the world to write for it. J.G. Ballard’s 1967 story “The Dead Astronaut” commanded $4,000; that’s somewhere around $30,000 in today’s buying power.
It was an exceptionally well-paid time to be a professional freelance writer, and it shouldn’t surprise us that it’s commonly thought to be the form’s most vibrant era. Over time, however, the rate declined — or, rather, it stayed the same; it wasn’t adjusted for inflation.
And then came Tina Brown. In 1984, when she was named editor of Vanity Fair, she turned the publishing world upside down by doubling the top rate to $2, plus a bunch of fringe benefits. “Big Spender at Vanity Fair Raises the Ante for Writers,” was the New York Times headline. New magazines trying to follow suit suddenly had to be willing to shell out $1.50 a word on feature stories, and at least a handful did. “My ambition is to get the best,” Brown told the Times. “We still are not paying enough.”
Thirty-plus years after the big raise, $2 per word remains on the high end for big freelance features from nonexclusive writers in national magazines. That doesn’t mean publications don’t occasionally pay more depending on how badly they want a story or how big the writer’s name is, but that’s the exception. Brown’s $2 would be worth around $5 in today’s buying power. But today, $2 is just $2.
Of course, decades of wage stagnation and a fall in the labor share of production are not unique to freelance writing. Taken together, those two trends are arguably the country’s most important story over the past few decades. The media largely missed it, even in our own backyard, where it has played out in such easy-to-follow numbers. If we can’t look out for ourselves, how can we be trusted to look out for the public? If publishers aren’t afraid to shrink the wages of independent investigative journalists, who would they be afraid of?
To research this article, I talked to about a dozen freelance writers and a handful of magazine editors about the present state of the job. These were mostly writers who have been doing this work for between 10 and 20 years, who write pieces of national and global importance, and who, from the outside, look like they have reached the top of their profession. I’m not talking about 24-year-olds cobbling together $250 paychecks for their TV recaps so they can afford a corner in a tiny three-bedroom (though I’ve been there, and they too deserve much better). I’m talking about writers you might recognize from their bylines on the covers of magazines or as guests on cable news and Morning Edition. They are mid-career professionals, many with spouses and children. These people are more successful than I or almost any freelance writer can hope to become. And not one of them had a nice word to say about their working conditions.
The most common complaint is that the numbers just don’t add up to a good living. Without signing writers to exclusive deals, most magazines top out in the $1 to $2 per word range (exclusivity can get you $3). It’s possible to publish 30,000 words of freelance writing a year at those rates — about eight articles the length of the one you’re reading — but it’s extremely difficult to land and execute that many assignments successfully. And if you manage to pull it off and place a full year’s worth of writing in top-flight publications, you may make as much as the average personal trainer: $60,000.
In reality, writing a story — especially an interesting or important one — is not an efficient process. “I wrote a feature for [a national magazine] in 2014, and I still remember getting the $5,000 check,” one writer told me. “I sent a photo of it to my father, because I wanted him to see you could actually get paid for writing. Now I wonder whether in the back of his mind he was thinking, ‘Five thousand dollars for six months of work?’” (That $5,000 is worth $5,322 today, but I’m willing to bet the publication has not increased its rates to keep pace.)
Once a writer proves him- or herself, depending on their politics and temperament, they might be eligible for a staff writing job. Some of these are legitimately good gigs with regular paycheck and benefits—the whole enchilada. Many of them, however, are not, and it’s virtually impossible from the outside to tell which is which.
I would be remiss if I omitted that almost every person I spoke to brought up one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets: New Yorker staff writers, some of the most admired journalists in the business, don’t typically receive health insurance. Of course, that magazine isn’t alone in keeping top talent on freelance contracts, often without benefits.
Freelance staff writers are still freelance in that they’re legally considered independent contractors, but in nearly all cases, they write only for the one place. If that publication doesn’t want to run their idea, the writer can’t take it elsewhere.
Beyond the basic numbers, writers also told me about a grab bag of smaller frustrations and indignities that make the economics of their job problematic: checks that arrived on a geologic time scale while the landlord still charges monthly; publications squeezing out reprint, TV, and film rights; editors who assign and fix pay for pieces at word counts they know writers will likely exceed to meet the scope of the assignment.
“If the editors announced a 50-cent per word pay cut next week, I don’t think any of us would quit,” one contract staff writer told me, “and they know it.” Writers cite a cartel mindset among editors. And the editors I spoke with, like the writers, did not expect rates to rise.
There are other consequences to the declining value of the written freelance word. The most obvious is that skilled and insightful writers will ditch the profession for greener (but arguably less prosocial) pastures. Many of the writers I spoke with are looking for other kinds of work or have already started splitting their time between writing and more lucrative jobs. One recently did some television work and estimated it paid four times as well for labor that was considerably easier. (Earlier this year, when a Google spreadsheet of TV writer salaries circulated, it left some of us print writers agog: $12,000 to $25,000 per episode, or $4,000 per week.)
Freelance writers are subject to capture in other ways too. Many of my interviewees brought up the New America Foundation (NAF), a think tank with a list of supported fellows that includes a bunch of prominent writers. Google and Eric Schmidt have provided more than $20 million to New America, and some writers said they were skeptical of the influence that gave the tech giant, especially after the organization booted scholar Barry Lynn and his Google-hostile Open Markets initiative. Some writers felt too conflicted about the money to try to get an NAF fellowship.
Being willing to take the cash whenever it’s available, mind you, is an adaptation to this stagnant market. It’s hard to hate the players.
Labor cost-cutting by publications can also lead to access for billionaires with an agenda. Michael Bloomberg, for example, funded The Trace to report on gun violence. The site collaborates with various media outlets, thereby reducing the average cost of pro–gun control stories. (These stories feature disclaimers about the cost sharing, but few readers think twice about a public-interest magazine working with a nonprofit.) If Bloomberg’s anti-gun message seems benign or even agreeable, imagine this same playbook being used by a rich person or firm or nation with politics you don’t agree with.
Of course, freelance writing is better paid for those willing to receive support from the NAF or Michael Bloomberg or the Nation Institute or Cato or the Kochs or some other interested pile of money. And if pay continues to drop in real dollars, those checks could make the difference between who’s on the cover and who does something else with their time. They probably already do.
When I asked one writer why they kept writing even though they could get more money elsewhere, they compared it to the financial sacrifices of artists. I pointed out that, archetypes aside, if they were an equivalently successful visual artist, they would be making considerably more money, and they conceded that is definitely true.
The writers who talked to me about their compensation did not generally complain that they were underpaid, per se, more that they were under-resourced. They didn’t talk about what they would do with an extra $50,000 a year; they talked about what it would be like to be able to spend twice as long on their stories.
“No wonder the stuff in the sixties and seventies was so good,” one writer said with a laugh as we discussed the impact of inflation on rates. “I don’t see anything out there today that shows the kind of thought they got to put in.” Though I’m less rosy about the writing of that era, the bottom line is hard to escape.
I was assigned this story at $4,000, and I turned in a draft of 4,000 words. Another site offered me $850 for the idea, and there is an $850 version of this story that is significantly shorter, with less research, and of a weaker quality overall. (If that sounds cold or unprofessional, imagine what the effect on the quality of your work would be if your boss cut your pay by 80 percent.)
There is also a $2 a word version that has more background research—in physical, not just digital archives—and for which I would have been more willing to press my sources to take risks and talk to me on the record.
I imagine a $4 per word version would include the specific, surprising allegations about the labor practices of particular beloved media institutions, the printing of which likely would make it difficult for me to find work for a while, but that would be fine, because I could live off that check for six months.
It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a return to the ’60s equivalent of $8 a word.
I’m not saying I deserve $4 per word (known in media circles as the “Carrie Bradshaw rate”) never mind $8, but I wonder what other stories or facts the public isn’t reading because the questions at hand are too sensitive for staff writers and not worth reporting for freelancers.
For a number of reasons — some particular to writing, some not — none of the freelancers with whom I spoke had any idea what their work is worth to their employers, except when it comes to the publications’ prestige. Their confusion is understandable: Most publishers are privately held, and there’s not a strong sense of what their revenue per word is. If writers were in possession of that number, however, based on my research, I think it would improve our bargaining position rather than weaken it in most cases.
Writers do know, from experience, that writing in any genre can be worthless. It can be worthless in market terms, as in no one is willing to pay any dollars for it. It can be worthless in audience terms, as in no one is willing to pay any attention to it. And it can be worthless along the third axis of social (artistic, political, historical) importance.
But writing in any genre can also be incredibly valuable. One article can drive the public conversation, save lives, get millions of reads, and even put a whole publication on the map.
In a rational, comprehensible system, there would probably be a reliable relation between these values — stories that are better and more important should cost more — yet that is often not the case. Rather, it’s almost always possible for a publication to get more for less, if that’s what they want and they know where to look.
I don’t truly know what a word is worth. The historical record certainly suggests it used to be worth more, but longform writers also know that their work can be inefficient. They are people who care too much about their subjects, whose depth of interest defies the rational allocation of labor time. Paying well for that time has traditionally been the province of economically irrational men with their own agendas — and Tina Brown.
The rational thing for individual publications is almost certainly to continue tightening the screws, hold the nominal rates as close as possible to where they were in the 1960s, increase annual output from full-time staffers (who are facing more competition for their jobs), and find writers who are used to writing a lot for a little. In that scenario, there will still be good writing, and even some great writing, but there will be less of it.
I think this means that we, as a society, will miss things. We’ll get things wrong. We may even, on occasion, be purposely misled. I hope we can afford it.