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From the Periodical Writers Association of Canada

I Want a Raise

By Leslie C. Smith

I never expected to make a fabulous living off professional writing. After all, scribes from the days of Aeschylus have been bitching about the rotten pay, so why should I be any different?

What I did not expect was that the financial remuneration would remain essentially static throughout my career while declining steeply in real dollar terms when inflation is taken into account. And I did not expect to have this pittance further squeezed to the last drop by corporate upper echelons intent on making media convergence a reality.

In other words, the fairly level playing field I started off on 12 years ago now slopes away from me at dangerously steep angle. I am clinging to the same centre line where I began, while younger, less experienced freelancers keep tumbling out of bounds.

Here's how freelancing used to work: You pitched an idea to an editor, he or she liked it and commissioned the work, you wrote it up and submitted it with your invoice. If you were writing for a newspaper, you accepted a lower fee - $.50 a word or less - than a magazine would pay because it was a local publication. You could therefore turn around and sell the same piece to a wide variety of non-competing papers for extra money. If you were writing for a magazine, you would get $1.00 a word plus compensation for any expenses involved, mostly travel costs for research and interview purposes. These pieces too might be re-sold in time to other magazines, although this market was always considerably smaller, given magazines' greater reach.

Here's how present-day freelancing works: You go through the same process of pitching an editor through to the final submission of your piece. You are paid at either the exact same rates as before or less, because it seems whenever a publication goes through financial difficulties the first thing it does is cut the freelance budget, and when times get better it conveniently forgets to reinstate this former beneficence. The money you earn from these initial sales is now all you get, since re-sale of pieces is next to impossible under today's all-rights-grabbing contracts.

Newspapers have become downright stingy, often making mere token payments to writers under the assumption that the prestige of being published by them is compensation enough. Well here's some news for them: no matter how well seasoned, one cannot eat prestige.

Even magazines are not exempt from these cheese-paring ways. I have noticed travel costs that once were subsidised are currently under attack. A freelance friend of mine was just assigned a story to cover in New York where, the high-profile magazine informed her, she was expected to find and pay for her own bed and board.

More shocking was the discovery I made a few years ago that the top rate of freelance pay, $1.00 per word, has been around since the 1950s. There it sits, apparently carved in stone, while every other profession, from pro athletics to prostitution, has gone through significant compensatory adjustments over the last half century.

Let's face it, a dollar would take you far further in the 1950s than it does today. Small wonder so many talented writers I know are opting to work almost exclusively in the corporate sector these days. When you have ever-escalating family expenses, mortgages, car payments and taxes to cover, you cannot go on forever without receiving a pay hike, or at the very least a little something to offset inflation.

Then there are the young writers, just starting off, to consider. Only the other week, someone I know told me she was going into teaching full-time, due to the difficulty of making a living as a freelancer. It's a pity, because she is a good writer. And it's a pity because she is not the first of us to throw in the towel, nor will she be the last.

At a recent industry luncheon, a guest panel of editors was asked if they knew whether any of the $150 million doled out annually by the Canadian Magazine Fund, created in part to beef up Canadian editorial content, found its way into freelancers' pockets. After some initial hemming and hawing, it was conceded that it generally doesn't. The real question here is why not?

Sooner or later, the powers-that-be in the periodical world will be forced to wake up to the fact that freelancers are not widget-makers whose work can easily be contracted out to offshore Honduran child labourers. We are trained craftspeople whose voices help make our publications timely, literate and uniquely Canadian. This is of real service to readerships, and one that would be greatly missed if lost.

Sure the bottom line is important. But freelancers, being marvellously cost-effective, can help there too. Think about it: we do not use your office space or supplies, your long-distance telephone lines, your computers, photocopiers, courier services or coffee-makers. We are not on full-time salary, are offered no sick leave or medical benefits, take no vacation pay, expect no Christmas bonus; heck, we don't even rate an invite your office Christmas party.

So is it really asking too much to be properly compensated for our own burgeoning bottom line expenses, not to mention our loss of income due to market restrictions, which have been imposed upon us against our will?

When you get right down to it, doesn't everyone deserve to be given a raise, at least once every fifty years?

Leslie C. Smith is a freelance writer and president of the PWAC Toronto chapter


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