By Ursula Vogt

Are you familiar with the Report on Pay Rates for Freelance Journalists recently issued by the National Writers Union? You can read a copy at the National Writers Union and you should become very familiar with it. It’s nothing less than an outline of your professional future.

If the ability to provide the luxuries in life like health care, housing and groceries are tied to your future income as a freelance writer, being familiar isn’t an option. You, my fellow writers, are about to live it unless changes are made.

Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Have No Income

Low pay for writers is not a new problem; in fact, most of us struggle with that each time we choose where to send the query and each time we look at a bank statement. The report takes it one step further, asking and answering the question of what we should be making compared to staff writers and college grads. The long-term financial inequality is alarming, but the trend that really should give freelancers a kick in the backside is that very few of us have a solution we are committed to. In the absence of an answer, a group powerful enough to change the course of entire nations with nothing more than words, has become powerless to control our own professional and financial futures. Why?

problem certainly isn’t apathy or lack of courage. The mention of the name Tasini is enough to rally even the newest among us, dispelling that theory. But fairness in dealing with financial compensation, like the rights issues, remains a constant and necessary struggle. What hurts writers collectively is the one thing we value; individuality. We create alone. We submit alone. We negotiate, you guessed it—alone.

It’s no secret that turning down an assignment for lack of fair compensation, whether in the form of pay, rights, or both, means it gets assigned to a writer who will ignore the long-term consequences. We write for what we can get or we stand on principle, receiving nothing. It isn’t an easy decision. Try telling the checker at your local market that you haven’t got the cash right now, but he should be really proud of you for turning down unfair pay. My guess is you’re not coming home with much for diner.

“Writers are such kind, gentle push-overs,” says Meg Weaver of Wooden Horse Publishing, and author of Twelve New Things Writers Must Do Today To Make Money. “First we allow our customers to set the rates we will be paid. Then, we don’t complain when the rates can’t even feed a gerbil.. It’s time to put our proverbial foot down and stop accepting the pay and the rights publishers allow us to receive. Magazines are in the business to make money,” she says, “It stands to reason that they won’t voluntarily pay writers more. We have to ‘convince’ them. That means we can’t undercut each other but to agree what reasonable rates are and to stand firm, even if we have to give up jobs in the short run.”

Meg encourages writers to join organizations like the National Writers Unionand the American Society of Journalists and Authors and to become active. “It’s the age-old strategy of many organizing for a common goal. It works.”

Solutions We Can Work With

While the strategy is time tested and effective, the publishing world employs another strategy: divide and conquer. New writers especially struggle with this issue. To break into freelancing, they almost certainly have to write for nothing or on spec, just to accumulate the bylines. But is this being disloyal to the efforts of the freelance community as a group? We’ve all gone back and forth with this one and it’s time to set some standards and stick to them.

Brett Harvey, Executive Director of ASJA, says there are no easy answers.

“Since the most important things to acquire as a beginning writer are clips, or credits, it’s OK to write ‘on spec’ (meaning for no pay unless they publish your piece) once or twice—but NEVER more than once for the same publication! If they liked your work well enough to ask you to write for them again, they can pay you.”

For seasoned writers and novices alike, Brett encourages a visit to the ASJA website at www.asja.org and a click on “Resources.” “There you will find position papers and tip sheets about all aspects of freelance writing.”

Toni Brandmill, Grievance and Contract Division Coordinator for the National Writers Union, also encourages writers to be informed. “Much of the information you are interested in is available in the Union’s Freelance Writers’ Guide, available for sale from the National Office for $24.95. This book contains a lot of narrative about the Union and the writing life/business as well as rate scales. If I were you,” Toni suggests, “I would start there and then make your decisions about membership.”

Membership dues for the NWU are currently $95 and will be going up in the fall or winter of 2001 to $120. For membership information and application to the ASJA, use their site link.

Can You Afford Principles & Freelancing?

You can’t afford not to have them both. Your options are to quit writing or quit eating. If you’re here, reading this article on a website committed to writing excellence, choosing not to write would be as damaging as choosing not to eat! Yet, by allowing pay scales of competent, professional writers to be dictated by something other than the financial ability to pay is allowing high-income publications to make the decision for you.

There will always be writers who either don’t have the commitment to the profession or the ego, and yes, ego is what it takes to turn down a publication charging millions of dollars in advertising. But until freelance writers learn to develop both, the trend will continue.

Income isn’t something we can do without, now or in the future. Explore options offered by organizations like the NWU and ASJA. And until the trend changes and more than a handful of writers can support themselves and their families, explore all your financial writing options, too. Be a little less individual in the pursuit of fairness and test your individual creativity. You can’t afford not to.

Copyright © 2001 Ursula Vogt

Ursula Vogt is a freelance writer whose work has been seen here as well as Writer’s Digest, The Writing Parent, Parenting Today’s Teens and Writer’s Exchange. For links to her weekly parenting column, and other information, you can contact her at www.UrsulaVogt.com.