At the suggestion of the ever-helpful C., whose blog Small Dog Syndrome is consistently sparky, a meditation on the value — literally — of words.
She asked me to talk a bit about how the writing business has changed, but what’s as interesting to me is how much, in some ways, it hasn’t, for centuries. The English majors here, or lovers of the classics, will know that Charles Dickens used to write really long novels, partly because he was paid per installment of each book, each installment being 32 pages in length.
Dickens was, in some unlikely way, a blogger — he created demand for his writing by offering it only as a serial, published in pieces, making his audience wait, hungrily, for the next bit, and the next.
In journalism, as long as I’ve been doing it which is, God help me, more than 30 years, we are still paid by the word. Yup. Every single word.
I have a pretty clear set of metrics now what’s needed to produce a readable 1,00o to 3,000 word magazine or newspaper piece.
This usually means one source per 250 words, so when I write a 2,500 word story, as I’ve been doing the business section of The New York Times, I have to find and interview, usually, at least 10 people, sometimes more. If I am paid $1/word, low for magazines but high for newspapers, that’s $2,500.
My job is not only to hit my final word count but to estimate efficiently how much time I need to research, interview, write, revise and answer all the editors’ questions — additional time I can’t predict but have to build into my estimate. I aim for an hourly rate of $100 to $150, so let’s call it 20+ hours: 10 interviews at 60 minutes each; three for Internet and other research and seven for writing, revising and editing.
Obviously, each of these is flexible — only the final payment is not!
The larger challenge, and this is very much a result of the Internet, is that rates are so low and stories are so short — when the most you can earn is $700 or $300 or maybe $1,500 — do the math.
If you want, and need, to earn $30,000 or $50,000 or $80,000 a year, (which includes paying the full 15% of your Social Security tax, normally 50 percent of which your employer pays, and saving for retirement as you have no 401(k) match), you will be producing at a rate that can quickly exhaust you.
A few years ago, big magazines in the U.S. were paying $3/word, and you could get a long assignment — I did a piece for Glamour maybe 15 years ago that, then, paid $6,000. That size check, now, is very difficult to attain — at $1/word you’re literally having to work three times as hard for the same income.
I recently turned down two assignments, one from a Canadian newspaper whose chain would have re-used my story nationally for no additional pay and from a college alumni magazine, one for $300, one for $350. I’m getting to the point I don’t want any assignment worth less than $1,000. Exceptions might be made for editors with whom I have an ongoing relationship — i.e. repeat sales and no revisions.
Writing books is a little different, if only because you’re expected to produce 80,000 to 100,000 words for most books — e-books and self-published works might be different and some authors do quickies of 30,000 words. And book advances are challenging indeed; typically 1/3 to 1/4 when you sign your contract, another payment when you turn in your work (usually a year later); when the book is published (another six month wait) and, as happened with “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, the final payment came a year after publication.
Not exactly an advance!
Of course, the essential problem, for writers in every genre, remains:
Which words are the right ones?