How Do You Make a Living, Freelance Investigative Reporter?

Noah Davis talks to Scott Carney about the difficulty of making a living as a freelance journalist, the art of negotiation, and the evil of Condé Nast.
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(Photo: shuttercat7/Flickr)

(Photo: shuttercat7/Flickr)

Scott Carney is a writer who has written features appearing in publications from Mother Jones to Wired, but he recently made news for writing a series of blog posts arguing that writers should be paid $20 per word and starting a crowd-sourced Google doc that lists word rates at nearly 200 publications. The author of the Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelance Writing talked to us about the difficulty of making a living with words, why Condé Nast and other conglomerates are evil, and how he scrapes by.

Is it harder now to make a living as a freelance writer than it was 10 or 15 years ago?

I think the golden age for freelancing was probably the 1990s. Unfortunately, I didn't start writing–at least not successfully–until the mid-2000s. During the Internet boom when there was plenty of money around, it wasn't uncommon to hear about writers making $5 or $8 per word on stories. That was mostly because there was a tech bubble. Before the Internet, writers got paid reasonably well for their work, but it was also harder to submit and distribute content, so there were fewer opportunities to be a writer. But when you did make it into those echelons as a freelancer, you were treated reasonably well.

The Internet has given way to a declining amount of money for words, but you're also able to publish much more frequently if you want to. My feeling is that right now there are actually more writers who are trying to make a living than probably at any other time in history because there are so many outlets. The converse side of this is that there are very few people who can actually make a living doing this. The writers I know are supplementing their income doing other jobs. Writing is their passion and what they want to do, but actually making it work is almost impossible.

Scott Carney. (Photo: Sonya Doctorian)

Scott Carney. (Photo: Sonya Doctorian)

What's in the guidebook you wrote?

I break down what the economics are for writers and how you can make money. There are really two models. The first one is that you write a lot of small pieces, and just work your ass off. You make between $100 and $300 or maybe $500 an article, but you do tons of them. These people are usually harried and overworked, and they feel underpaid. Their work circulates on the Internet or in low-paying publications. They are always trying to get one step ahead.

The other model is to do really big stories. Stories that are big features for big outlets that get big audiences. You do fewer of them but hopefully those stories make a splash and create ancillary income opportunities, whether that's TV shows, movies, speaking engagements, or books. You grow articles into these things. That is the model that I think is the better one of the two because instead of doing small projects that have no equity, you have the potential to create equity.

That's getting harder as magazine companies ask for more rights.

A lot of magazines are taking a tremendous number of rights in their contract. It used to be fairly straightforward to sell First North American Serial rights. In the 1990s, that was what everyone signed. Since then, the various conglomerates out there are pushing for worldwide rights, lots of reprint rights, fewer movie rights. Sometimes they even get book rights. I've seen contracts that ask for theme park rights. They are trying to get everything so you can't create equity in your work. That's a real, serious problem that writers need to get together and fight really, really hard.

You wrote a long post about how little magazine companies pay writers compared to their revenue.

Conglomerates like Condé Nast spend a total of 0.6 percent of their gross revenue on words. That's just disgusting. They know that writers are up against a wall and traditionally undervalue their work. They get it for the lowest possible price, and then they take all the equity and all the ancillaries. Because of practices like that are spreading and becoming more common, it's becoming less possible to be a professional writer. All the writers who I talked about who do the first model are all subsistence. I know one person makes a good living doing this, but she's also the most stressed-out person I know. She writes like 200 articles a year, and none of them are ever going to get her retirement. She's never going to become a middle-class person.

When I first started writing, I did a lot for free. Even getting paid $0.10/word felt like a victory. That's part of the problem, yes?

I think there’s an element of that because there are a ton of people who want to write. There's definitely a feeling that if you don't take an offer, they will go for someone cheaper. That's a super common sentiment. The flip side of that equation is that there are only so many good writers out there. The point you just made is that writing is a commodity and that words are of equal value to each other. I think that is not true. I think the writing market is a lot more like the art market. There are millions of people who will paint paintings, but only a few people who can sell their paintings for hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are also a lot of middle-class artists who can sell paintings for $500 or $800.

We need to look at stories as works of art instead of as a raw commodity. Magazines, however, buy articles as commodities. The $2/word rate, which is the standard at most major magazines, is essentially saying that the war correspondent who went to Afghanistan, got shot at 500 times, and came back with this killer narrative should get paid the same amount as someone who sat down with Katy Perry for two hours and wrote something really bubbly. It's a completely fucked up way to think about the value of writing.

And then you look at the amount of money that publishing makes. Magazine sales people are not going to advertisers and saying, "We have words and images in our magazine that are exactly the same as our competitors." GQ doesn't go out and say that it's basically the same thing as Esquire and MensJournal.com. They say, "We're GQ, and we're the best damn place for your advertisements because look at our writers, our stories, and the risks people are taking to do these great things." They are selling your writing as a piece of art to advertisers. Why should they be buying those stories as a commodity?

It's a perspective problem that writers see their work as a commodity. It's been my experience that if you go out there and sell your work as a piece of art, you actually are able to sell it for more money. The reality is that if you go and have something that they really want, you can sell it for market value. Take the Rolling Stone article that took down General McChrystal. He could have sold that for hundreds of thousands of dollars because that's what it was worth on the market, but he probably sold it for $2 a word.

What do you do when it comes to negotiation?

You need to treat your work as something that's special. I've been able to negotiate contracts. I've been able to get rights back. I've been able to get generally higher pay for my work by saying no to a lot of assignments. I only write one or two articles a year, and I'm able to survive on that. It's because I'm selling it for a higher rate. I'm keeping the rights. I'm re-selling the article in foreign markets. I'm doing speaking engagements. I'm selling books.

What's the most you've ever gotten for a piece?

This is a good example of why rights are important. My very first piece for Wired was about a group of grave robbers in India who were stealing skeletons and selling them to medical schools in America. I think I got paid somewhere around $4,500, which was shitty considering it took me like six months to write it. I was able to sell that article in reprint markets for $25,000. That event is what opened my eyes to the fact that writing is worth a lot of money.

Condé Nast has a really shitty contract for reprints. They pay you like $0.40 or $0.60 a word in their foreign editions, but after a certain time period has expired, you can sell it for whatever rate you can. I didn't accept a low rate. It really worked.

Did those foreign publishers come to you?

Initially, they came to me. I didn't know it was possible until people came to me. Then I started going out to other people. I don't actually do that very much any more. I could but I'm focused on other things. It's a little labor intensive to develop those contacts. It's hard to find the highest paying magazine in Sweden and then locate the editor. It's a little easier to sell it when they come to you.

So are the economics of writing going to keep getting worse?

This depends on writers getting a spine and standing up for their work. It's already pretty clear that writers can't make a living in the current system. It's apparent that you can't actually survive by getting paid $0.60/word or whatever people are getting paid on the Web these days. If you feel like it's an honor to get published on MensJournal.com, NewYorker.com, or, hell, even the New Yorker, you're not going to be able to put food on your plate. Honor doesn't have any market value at the grocery store.

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.

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