Writers tend to keep their thoughts in the realm of ideas rather than calculate the seemingly mundane matter of the mechanics of the trade. However, a few months ago I sat down in a Chinese restaurant with a friend of mine who writes for the New Yorker and we agreed to leave our narrative musings to the side and think about practicalities. We were going to try to figure out how much the printed word is worth in America today.
We wanted to calculate how many feature stories the top magazines in America assign every year, and how much they typically pay their writers for the assignments. The list was only going to be for the top publications in America–the ones that pay between $1.50-$5 per word and that comprise the top tier of journalism. These are the magazines that line the shelves of airport bookstores everywhere and the ones that we write for pretty regularly. Think The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Atlantic, Wired, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, O, The Atavist, and the dozen or so other magazines that sits on the tops of toilet tanks and the tables of dentist offices from Seattle to Orlando.
It was back of the envelope math at best, but as far as either one of us could determine, it was the first time anyone had tried to figure out how biG the pie was for long form freelance writing in America. There are hundreds of amazing writers in the country, delving into stories that drive the national conversation on everything from politics to the cult of celebrity to human rights abuses to cutting edge scientific and technological discoveries. These are the types of pieces that we make a living on, and ones that, frankly, we feel are important to write.
After ten minutes listing the average number of features in each magazine multiplied by the number of issues annually we had a number: 800. On average these stories would run at about 3000 words and pay $1.50 per word. It was only a ball-park estimate of the overall freelance writing market cap. But it was also a rather depressing one. Let me put this in bold so it stands out on the page.
The total market for long form journalism in major magazines in America is approximately $3.6 million. To put it another way: the collective body of writers earned less than Butch Jones, a relatively unknown college football coach, earned in a single year.
$3.6 million. That’s it. And the math gets even more depressing. If we assume that writers should earn the average middle class salary of $50,000 a year, then there’s only enough money in that pot to keep 72 writers fully employed. And, of course, those writers would have to pen approximately 11 well thought out and investigated features per year–something that both my friend and I knew was almost impossible.