One thing about Lena Dunham’s book deal is that suddenly, a ton of people are talking about writing as work — about how you get into it, what you get paid for it, and why. The thing is, I think money is (in our classless society) a dirty subject. One of the reasons we’re talking about Dunham’s deal is that we actually know how big it was. I think a lot of people who see writers’ work don’t know a lot about the job, and how it pays, and how people make it; I know that was one of my big misconceptions, or areas of mystification. So, for what it’s worth, I thought it might be useful if people started talking about their pay and how they Made It As Creative Professionals.
This is neat, and I will do it, too.
I haven’t had a day job (minus a 16-month stretch from late-2008 to early-2010) since 2003, when I worked at Half-Price Books. I left that job because I had an opportunity that paid me a large amount of up-front cash to develop screenplays for a successful friend who was looking to transition from the gaming industry into film, and wanted someone to help him develop his ideas. That didn’t really work out for a few reasons, but it was a shove out the door. After that, I got the bug for writing all of the time and not working a day job, so I found other ways to survive. Mostly, these were participating as a subject in clinical pharmaceutical research studies (a well-paying field that is one of the weirder ways to spend your life) and operating a Craigslist-based moving company. From the time I left my last day job I didn’t make more than $10,000 in a year until 2009, but I was privileged in my 20’s to not need a lot of money, and the drug studies provided very basic health care (well, they gave me frequent physicals so I could be assured I wasn’t seriously, and I didn’t need much more than that). I won $1,000 off a scratch-off lottery ticket once. I haven’t had health insurance in ten years.
In late 2008, I decided to try to make some money writing, because the recession meant that it was hard to get people to pay me to load up moving trucks anymore, and I wanted to avoid doing drug studies because it starts to feel riskier the older you get, I think. I decided to switch my focus from fiction and poetry to journalism. The A.V. Club was hiring for an associate editor for a local brand it was launching in Austin, among other cities, called Decider. I applied, interviewed, and didn’t get the job. But the editor asked me to consider freelancing, because the new site was going to require a lot of content, and I worked very hard at it.
The pay at Decider was not great, but it wasn’t terrible for someone who’d never really written for money before. I think it was $0.10 a word, with a $100 cap per story; some types of stories, like show recaps, were capped lower. I made anywhere from $25 to $100 a story working with the A.V. Club (they quickly dumped the Decider name) and hustled a lot — it was a network of sites, and I pitched editors at every edition with ideas, usually related to bands touring through their city that I wanted to write about. (The Chicago edition let me write about the Bears, which was a dream for me.) I also co-wrote a weekly feature with Sean called Bandwagon, which started out funny — we wrote in-depth analysis of “musician wanted” ads on Craigslist — but eventually made me feel like shit, since we were basically making fun of people for chasing their dreams. That one paid $25 a week.
I started expanding my horizons, and signed up for a paid membership at MediaBistro. Others might have different opinions on the utility of this membership, but I’ve had it one for four years now, and I usually land at least one gig through the site each year that more than pays for the service. One of the outlets I learned about through MediaBistro was Asylum.com, which AOL owned. Asylum usually paid about $40 a post, though there were opportunities to make much more than that — if the story required multiple sources, or extensive research, or travel, you could make a couple hundred dollars. Between the A.V. Club and Asylum, I was probably pulling in about $600-$800 a month.
I also worked part-time at a criminal defense law firm. I was hired in late 2008 as their runner — that’s the guy who goes back and forth to the courthouse to drop off documents, and performs other odd tasks. One of those tasks was to watch and take notes on every client’s arrest tape on DWI arrests. I liked that part of the job, and my notes were usually pretty detailed, and the attorneys thought they were funny. Pretty soon, they transitioned me out of being the runner and had me create a firm blog, write some web/marketing copy, and create case summaries.
I pitched a lot, too. I tried to develop relationships with people I already had some connection to — I began working with a few other AOL properties, like MovieFone. They paid the same as Asylum, roughly. I had really good editors at a number of these sites, including names you might recognize, like Emily McCombs, who’s with xoJane now; John Sellers, who’s written some books I like a lot, and Sean O’Neal, who now runs the newswire at the A.V. Club.
The business landscape being what it is, the law firm decided that having a blogger on-staff didn’t make much sense in 2010, and I left that job. I managed to pick up some work writing for a few alumni magazines, though, and those paid very well — the first time I ever made $1/word, it was for alumni magazines. I also appealed to my editors for extra work, which they offered; John put me in touch with some other editors he knew, and I landed some work at an in-flight magazine, which paid very well, too. Between MovieFone, Asylum, the A.V. Club, another AOL site called City’s Best, the magazines, and maybe something else (I actually can’t remember) I landed on my feet well enough after the law firm let me go. I made a couple of rules for myself: I had a target number of how much money I needed to make each month to survive ($1,600) and I had to make at least $400 from four different sources, so if one of them disappeared, it wouldn’t cripple me.
Asylum disappeared not long after that. But I’d reached out to the editor of AOL’s music site, Spinner, a couple of weeks earlier. I didn’t hear from her, and then she wrote me out of the blue to tell me that she’d been hired to launch a new property for MTV, and was looking for writers. I worked on the launch of MTV Hive a few months out, which was a neat, exciting thing to be a part of. The pay there was in the same neighborhood as at the AOL properties, though a little better, and there was more opportunity to make a better rate more often there. Generally, I’ve found that almost every decent website pays between $40-$150 per post. If they pay less than that, you should make sure you’re writing something that you really believe in, or working with people you really admire. If they pay more than that, good looking out.
I reached out locally to people who had the sort of career I wanted. Some of them didn’t respond, or didn’t have much to say. One of them was Michael May, who did pretty much all of the Austin-based stories for This American Life. He agreed to meet me for lunch, and it just happened that he’d been hired as the managing editor of the Texas Observer that same week. I told him about a story I’d pitched to This American Life that they’d passed on, after some back-and-forth, and he said, “Why don’t you write it for us?” That was a lucky week. Michael held that job for about another year, and he bought a few more stories from me. The Observer was my first experience doing real journalism — that is, the long-form, magazine-style journalism that I dreamed of doing — and while the rate was low by the standards of, like, Conde Nast, it was better than I’d made anywhere outside of the alumni/inflight magazines, and I’ve liked everything I’ve done for them.
Generally, most of the new work I’ve picked up has come one of three ways: Cold-pitching, which is intimidating and has a very low rate of return, but which can sometimes pay major dividends (I cold-pitched Parade a story in May of last year and they paid me the unheard-of rate of $3 a word; I put down a down payment on a nice used car with it.); through editors I’ve known elsewhere, who’ve moved on to new assignments (my friend Cody, who ran a blog that I wrote a column for for free a few years ago, took a job at Adult Swim a while back, and recommended me to his editor there when they expanded their blog content; coincidentally, the other writer they had there was the former editor of the A.V. Club Chicago, which meant I had two good referrals); and, lately, through being sought out. I won’t lie — that is a very nice thing for a fragile writer’s ego. I’ve read a lot about negotiating a rate for freelance work, but I’ve never actually been in a position to do that, except when an editor has come to me and asked me to work for her.
Last year, all told, I think I made around $30,000? Somewhere around there — I haven’t got my tax return handy. But that was an exceptional year for me as a writer, with a lot of good luck and coincidences that paid off, and it was more money than I’d ever seen in my life. This year, I’m on pace to make probably around $26,000, I think. In Austin, that’s enough to live off of, feed a dog off of, and help support a two-person household where one member spent most of the year on unemployment.
It’s also a wildly uncertain career. In May, I was on-pace to make something like $40,000, but I lost a bunch of my regular outlets this summer. I’ve been focusing on broadening that pool again — someone (maybe Ann Friedman?) said that you shouldn’t go full-time as a freelancer unless you know at least four editors who will always return your emails, and that’s good advice — and I’m hoping to rebound well. For someone whose main beat is arts/music/entertainment, September-November offer a lot of opportunities in Austin, with all of the festivals we have, but December and January are always lean months. The best advice I can give anybody considering this field when it comes to managing money is to stash every check you get in a savings account, and then pay yourself a regular weekly stipend out of that, so you don’t blow money in flush times and starve in the poor ones.
So, the upshot: The money can be pretty good (much better than working at a bookstore, lab-ratting, loading trucks in a half-assed Craigslist-based company) and you get to do something you care about. If you cover arts/entertainment, you get into a lot of things for free that other people have to pay for. You can write-off a lot of expenses on your taxes. The downside is that you get the occasional reminder that this is a dying industry, and jobs that you relied upon can dry up without any notice. Asylum, MovieFone, the local A.V. Club network, the in-flight I worked for, Adult Swim, and a bunch of other bread-and-butter jobs I had no longer have any freelance opportunities. You have to constantly hustle and expand that pool, if you want to be able to sustain this career, I think. But it’s the only thing I’ve ever felt satisfied doing.
Reblogged from sadybusiness