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.