The case for $20 per word

WARNING: I’m about to make statement that is so revolutionary that you might begin to question my sanity. It’s a goal for writers that will seem not only unattainable, but impossible: as if I’ve been living on an entirely different planet. What I’m going to propose is that writers at mainstream magazines–particularly the ones in the Conde Nast empire, but also Wenner Media, and Hearst–should be paid not only a living wage, but one that values them in the same way that magazines sell their writing to advertisers.  I’m going to suggest that writers at the top magazines in America should make at least $20 per word.

 

The number is ten times the standard going rate of $2 that most magazines pay (check out current rates at my crowdsourced Google Doc).  However, given the current economics of the industry, I have to argue that it also is the only fair rate for our work after you account for how much print advertisements sell for. Take for instance the fact that average rate that Conde Nast sells a single page of advertising to their clients for is about $130,000. Magazines vary pretty widely in their page count, but over the last few days I’ve counted the adds in about a dozen different issues and the smallest magazines have about 30 ads, the fattest more than 100. For argument’s sake, lets saw that the average Conde Nast magazine has 50 pages of advertising. After they give their clients a steep discount, they reap about $70,000 per page in revenues. It’s pretty conservative to say that a run of the mill Conde Nast magazine makes at least $3.5 million per issue. At the very most, the fattest mags in the empire run about 40,000 words for a total payout of $80,000 to writers. That’s only  1% of its gross revenues dedicated to words. However, if you were to ask just about any reader I’m pretty sure that they would tend to agree that words and stories make up more than 1% of the value of a magazine.

 

(At some point people here are gonna say, “what about the New Yorker?” they barely have any ads. I admit they’re a bit of a special case, but bear with me. If you average the payouts across all of Conde Nast they you also have to include Glamour, Vogue, Self and Lucky, which more or less are simply books full of ads with very little original content at all.)

 

The really radical thing that I’d like to suggest is that the budget for writers should reflect their actual value to the industry. To figure out what that is I’m going to borrow a page from the book publishing business–something that as the author of two books, I know a little bit about. In the publishing contracts that I’ve signed I get paid between 8% and 12.5% of the gross revenues that my books sell. The remaining 87.5%  –  92% of the revenues are enough to fully fund distribution, pay editors, print copies of the book, employ a marketing staff and everything else that I didn’t list here. Indeed, that split still allows book publishers to make pretty decent revenue overall.

 

So how did I come up with $20 per word? Multiplication. If we were to make just 10% of the gross revenues of a given magazine then we would earn at least $20 for every word we publish.

 

Think about it. We’re the ones who come up with the ideas for our stories and execute them. Sometimes we travel to potentially dangerous locations–I can remember at least one story I wrote for Wired where I was surrounded by men with guns and swords who would have been happy to take my life if I’d said the wrong thing. They might cover our travel expenses, but we craft the narratives that become movies and book deals. And we always run the risk of having our stories killed and not getting paid for our work.  We deserve at least the same fair shake that book writers get.

 

Of course some people will crow the common fallacy that the magazine business is dying.  How on earth could writers ask for a larger slice of the pie when print pubs are shutting their doors left and right? Well, according to their own press releases Conde Nast is not embattled. It’s actually turning a profit. There are more ad pages every year since the recession. There’s more internet presence. And even the New Yorker, which traditionally looses about $20 million a year, is in the black.  Need more proof? Lets look at its executive leadership. The company is owned by Samuel Newhouse Jr. whose current net worth is $8.2 billion. That’s a lot of money. It’s enough money to Conde Nast to have a huge architecturally amazing building in Times Square–the most expensive real-estate in the country and then buy a  second 104 floor office building on Wall Street with over a million square feet of office space. Meanwhile, if you pooled all of the payouts to writers by Conde Nast on any given year into one pool, we would barely be able to collectively afford the median price for a three bedroom flat in the same city.

 

Journalists and writers have long suffered from an inadequacy complex. The assumption is that it’s an honor to break into the mainstream publishing business, and they mostly just sign the contracts offered to them without bothering to offer a counter proposal or even ask for a higher rate. Over the years this attitude has allowed publishers to assume that words are not very valuable on their own. This is our own fault. But if we started to demand out fair share and turning down terrible contacts then perhaps we’d be able to show magazine publishers that our words are worth more than just 1% of what they sell our words for to other people.

18 Comments

  1. TCWriter   •  

    You can’t overlook the “free market” element — I’ll bet more than a few people will see your post and point out the market sets the rate (not the revenue potential). There are a lot of writers looking for work.

    But how many truly top-notch writers exist — people who can anchor a big, popular magazine? That’s a much smaller number, and the fact that most of them receive a “standard” rate means that invisible hand of the market isn’t really much at work here.

    I’m curious to see how this post is received. When Nate Thayer outed The Atlantic for trying to cop a freebie, several of The Atlantic’s writers responded with some pretty awful justifications (as did more than a few people who should have condemned the practice).

    An unpretty thing.

  2. Tom Chandler   •  

    Copywriters sometimes use revenue projections to justify higher fees, but I’ve never seen a freelancer take this route with editorial work.

    It’s probably about time.

    You mentioned an inadequacy complex. Perhaps that’s part of it. Given the oversupply of writers, it’s hard to imagine editors and publishers wouldn’t be spreading a little fear and uncertainty.

    (It’s possible my 30 years in marketing have left me jaded and cynical.)

    But it’s not just publishers. When Nate Thayer called out The Atlantic after they asked him for a freebie rewrite of one of his stories (exposure!), several of The Atlantic’s own writers — good writers, in fact — published some fairly embarrassing posts attempting to justify the practice.

    We have me the enemy, and he…. yadda yadda.

    I don’t really play in this sandbox, but I’m very interested in how this plays out — and in the reaction to your post.

  3. Steve Threndyle   •  

    You’re kind of cherry picking the top of the pile when you select Conde Nast. Much of what you say is true in terms of the editorial rates, but I, for one, don’t think that James Wolcott and Michael Lewis get ‘only’ $2 per word at Vanity Fair. Thing is, I don’t at all begrudge the A listers at the New Yorker or VF any of their income, whether it’s $2 or $20. But the VAST majority of magazines are like reality TV shows on distant cable networks- truly terrible publications that seek to enrich publishers by sucking up to advertisers – ‘delivering the target market’, as it were. The irony is that these magazines STILL pay, say, around .50 per word, which is, like, ten times what the average click-bait website will pay. 99 percent of what’s written out there–whether it’s in print or online–isn’t worth the time it takes to read it (I’m even looking at Salon and Atlantic, which are really going the HuffPo route these days). So it becomes a vicious circle of low/no pay and lousy writing. Then again, crappy rags have always been with us; people just find it far easier to e-mail an editor rather than mail an SASE. (That right there eliminated an enormous number of people as a ‘barrier to entry’).

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  8. Paula   •  

    While I’d certainly love ten-times my current per-word pay rates, I’d happy if magazines’ per-word rates kept pace with inflation (you know their ad rates and staff salaries do).

    For a little context, about fifteen years ago I was watching the film noir classic “Laura” and nearly choked when the columnist Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb) said, “Sentiment comes easy at 50-cents a word.”

    Um, that was 1944.

    I wonder how much 50¢ would be in 2015 dollars?

  9. The pay for one article can’t be sliced and diced as “a living wage”. Writers produce at vastly different rates. I see how you came up with your questionable target figure – but it’s irrational to tie writers’ work to ad space sold. Publications do not sell articles to advertisers, they sell the space for advertising.

    Similarly, comparing the situation to book publishing is equally fallacious. Not all books turn a profit for either publisher or author. In fact, few books do. Best sellers subsidize book publishers. Nothing usually subsidizes magazines and newspapers that lose money. They go out of business.

    I’d prefer to be paid by the amount of time I put into a project. Poor writing takes almost as much time as good writing, but the research that goes into a great article requires many hours. Being paid by the word is grossly unfair to writers. Freelance pay rates are going backwards! It’s one reason why I quit freelance writing and charged an hourly rate for my far more remunerative editorial activities of recent years.

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  16. Just discovered this post. When I freelanced for CondeNast in 2000, the pay was $2/word. Not much has changed in 15 years. Per word rates haven’t kept up with the cost of living, as Paula noted above. Even accomplished writers struggle to make ends meet and authors continue to lament over shrinking book advances. What’s going on? Why is it so much harder now to earn a living as a writer?

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