Ever since I began blogging in 2007 I’ve posted an annual Labor Day semi-rant defending the high salaries of baseball players (yes, defending them) and complaining about the economics of being a writer. Writers have much in common with baseball players—but not, unfortunately, the money. You can read the baseball half of the post here . Following is my defense of higher pay for writers and editors.
It goes without saying that poets and writers do not make big bucks. What we have in common with baseball players, however, is wide misperception of our work. 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, like baseball, is viewed by those who’ve never done it as pure fun and games. 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 enjoy what we do. Besides, what do we contribute to society?
I readily admit that my work is not as laborious as a day in the coal mines. What I do, however, is work, and like other workers I deserve a living wage—yet time and again I discover 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—there’s more to this story.
I didn’t mind the pennies too much since I love teaching and hoped that by doing it I’d 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. 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. And this woman’s story held elements of fascination for me; 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 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.”
I had never met this woman. She didn’t know me. She called me out of the blue, thinking 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 worker expecting free service? This incident still knocks me out whenever I think of it—and I’ve run into others like it: not quite as blatantly insulting, but just as clueless.
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, 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 like once for Mother Jones. Since the coming of the Internet, however, I cannot believe I complained about low pay.
With all these entrepreneurs getting rich online, you’d think that a writer’s rate of pay might rise. Instead, things went from bad to woefully worse. Go to the job sites—Elance, Guru, Media Bistro—and browse through the ads. 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 bids 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 my bid was again rejected as “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, firing off workers’ rights messages. One reason 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 might have noticed a deteriorating quality of the written word.
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 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 this question, and 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. My base of colleagues has expanded, since all workers are suffering these days, from those in the fast food industry to retail establishments, corporations, non-profits, upscale restaurants, hotels—name an industry and the people who work in it are working 40 or more hours a week, have two or three jobs, and yet have to sleep in their cars; they jump through hoops for food stamps; 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.
- Time Magazine Essay on the Irony of Labor Day, 2013 (scaypgrayce.wordpress.com)
- 5 Reasons to Celebrate Labor Day, Presented by CreditLoan.com (prweb.com)