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.


UPDATE: This, of course is pretty bad news for freelancers, but there are a few ways to fight back. I recently started offering an online video course teaching some of the tricks that I use to negotiate better contracts, and grow my freelancing business from nothing to becoming a New York Times bestselling author.  It might be useful for you. Check it out.

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