The realities of the writing life

By Caitlin Kelly

So many people want to be known as a writer, preferably one with multiple best-selling books, maybe a movie or TV deal on top of that.

Hope is charming.

But the reality of writing for income is simply not that, for the vast majority.

If you want to produce freelance journalism, you need a steady supply of sale-able ideas, smart editors ready to reply to you quickly, pay you well, edit you intelligently and promote the work. That’s a lot to hope for in one person!

Despite the lone-wolf perception of freelancers like me, having a wide and supportive network of smart, generous peers is essential — we steer one another away from lousy clients, share pay rates, send work to others when it’s not one of our specialties (and vice versa.) We meet at conferences, join online communities like ASJA and Study Hall.

Journalism pay rates have dropped enormously to a “competitive” $1/word — banal in the 80s when $2/word was standard at every glossy magazine. Today that’s a wildly elusive rate and we’re all struggling with inflation.

I still write occasionally for The New York Times, at a pay rate unchanged since the 90s. But if I can do the story efficiently and have an impact, there’s value in that for me.

This is a powerful and candid piece from Esquire by memoirist Nicole Chung about the precarity of the writing life, especially fiction:

I became an editor by volunteering for an Asian American magazine, a nonprofit mission-driven labor of love where no one drew a salary. Ten to fifteen hours of unpaid labor a week in exchange for the editorial experience I wanted was, to me, an acceptable trade—nearly all my labor then was unpaid. I cared for my infant and toddler during the day, then went to writing class at night. I spent every spare moment I had and some that I didn’t pitching freelance pieces and working on my first book proposal.

Then one of my favorite indie websites hired me to edit on a part-time basis. The job started at thirteen dollars an hour, twenty hours a week, and after a couple of months I was brought on full-time and granted a salary in the mid-30s. I loved that role, the tiny team I worked with, our community of readers. I was responsible for editing and publishing two to three freelance pieces a day, reading and responding to hundreds of pitches a week, and handling social media. I found my confidence as an editor, as the volume of work meant I had no time for imposter syndrome. By the time that website shuttered two years later, my salary had risen to the mid-40s. My agent and I had finally managed to sell my first book for a small advance. The independent publisher that acquired it later offered me a job as managing editor of its digital publications, starting at a few thousand more than I’d made in my previous role. Again, I felt lucky, working and collaborating with fellow writers every day—it felt like a dream job.

People who want to sell their books — certainly fiction — face multiple challenges, from finding an agent to represent their work (or self-publishing) to finding a reputable publisher. There are scammers out there preying on the naive.

Even those of us who have been multiply published may have to find a new agent — a slog — and a publisher, another slog. Obstacles appear you could only dream of, like a friend whose new book has not gotten the publicity boost she very much needs due to a strike by workers at that publishing company — this, after a decade of her hard work on the book.

Then you face another serious challenge — getting the word out as far and fast and wide as humanly possible — to boost your book sales. This is where a wide network with some serious social capital can offer a real help; I called the host of a TV show I appeared on many years before to tell them about a friend’s new book. It may now get a second look.

As I wrote here earlier, my husband and I co-authored a book proposal and found an agent, but 30 publishers rejected it. We offer tremendous credentials and a huge potential audience…but no luck. I may try again, but have been too discouraged since January by this failure.

An interesting recent story finds that later-life journalists in their 60s, 70s and beyond, are now working as mentors and editors, still passionate about the essential value of journalism.

From Neiman Reports:

These retirees include everyone from a onetime local sportswriter in Washington state to former top editors at The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Reuters, a retired senior editorial director at CNN, familiar names from NPR, the ex-editors of the San Diego Union-Tribune and Miami Herald, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalists, a retired AP bureau chief and a former top executive at Hearst. Many are in their 70s or 80s.

Many also share a collective frustration with the decline of the profession in which they spent careers that date back to a time when media organizations were flush with resources and influence.

“If you can do something to help reverse that tide, you do it,” says Walter Robinson, the former editor of The Boston Globe Spotlight Team, who has taken on a second career helping set up nonprofit community news sites, mentoring younger journalists, and serving on the board of a government accountability and First Amendment coalition. 

“I had a great run and a lot of good fortune, and I just feel I have an obligation to give something back,” says Robinson, who is 77, of his continued involvement in the cause of journalism. “A lot of people I know who are my age have the same impulse.”

I recently signed up to become a mentor with Report for America and am very much heartened that others want to keep our industry thriving in whatever way we can.

Two lovely signs of ongoing life for my two books…524 libraries hold a copy of Blown Away, according to Worldcat., arguably the coolest website in the world for authors — as it lists every library in the world with a copy of your book, beginning with those physically closest.

I am so honored to see it in the libraries, and law libraries, of major American universities like Harvard, Yale, Brown, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins, and many smaller colleges, including community colleges. This, not making a best-seller list, was always my goal. I wanted my intensive national research to help inform and guide possible policy decisions.

It’s held by libraries in New Zealand, Germany, Viet Nam, the Philippines and the Netherlands, to name only a few.

The other joy, annually, is a small check I get thanks to Canada’s Public Lending Rights program — which pays authors for the public use of their books in libraries.

It means a great deal to me to know my hard work has had some lasting value.

9 thoughts on “The realities of the writing life

  1. Yeah, I get it. Even when I write something good or at least publishable, finding a home for my work, getting it edited up to snuff, and then spreading the word is a lot of work. And getting anyone to take interest beyond a core group of friends, family and readers is like winning a battle royale against twenty-five hundred other fighters. Especially when it comes to books, because there’s already so many established writers, so many hours in the day, and getting people to choose you over them has to be sold with the book!
    I’m lucky that, nearly ten years after publishing my first book, I’ve been able to build a brand and a base and a reputation, as well as make a couple thousand a year from writing. But I am far from being able to pay my mortgage off of my writing, and I don’t know, even with a new collection out this fall, if I’ll ever get to that point.
    Still, you gotta try. After all, this passion calls too strong for you to give up based on obstacles and realities.

  2. Jan Jasper

    That must be so gratifying to learn that Blown Away is in 524 libraries. And while it’s good to hear of veteran journalists remaining involved, staying in the good fight – it’s depressing that it’s necessary. I’d guess they were laid off. About freelance magazine rates, I wrote several contracted articles in the early 1990’s for New Woman magazine – and I was paid $1.25 a word It’s shocking that decades later $1.00 a word is considered standard. And BTW I’m sorry to hear that the book proposal you and Jose did has not found a publisher, but I’m not terribly surprised.

    1. Thanks. It’s not that the journalists were laid off — many are in their 60s and 70s — but they had great careers or (like me) won’t ever get back into a newsroom again.

      Why are you not surprised we failed to find a publisher?

  3. I know how hard you work to do your writing in a professional and mindful manner, keeping all fair options open, networking, submitting, etc. it must be very discouraging when doing all the right things, knowing you are a great writer, and not getting the compensation or recognition you deserve. after your years of experience, it is clearly hard to break through, as expressed here and by many other journalists/writers. you are fortunate for all you have had published – books and in media outlets, for your helpful leadership and teaching of other writers, and that you are in so many libraries. I’m sorry after all you and Jose did, that no publisher picked up on your book, and I think you’ve made a great choice to join Report for America as a mentor. your experience and writing skills will be invaluable. we all want to be recognized for the work we’ve taken pride in and are so passionate about.

  4. I recently finished an introductory creative writing course. The instructor told us that it’s the love of the art that keeps him and his peers in this field, not the money. The most he ever got for a published short story in a magazine was $200 years ago. I think when he wrote his first book he relied on his network of fellow writers to give him feedback and he does this for others. He also warned us of scams, people pretending to be agents. Despite all of this, he told us to keep writing.

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