For freelance writers on the Internet, low wages come with high costs

Writing for a living isn't all pajamas and lounging.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Published Jan 30, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 3:58 pm CDT

As I write this, I’m seated at my desk in my home in rural California, looking out over the driveway and into the beginnings of what’s shaping up to be a pretty nice day. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a chance to go outside around dusk to have a walk with a writer friend, where we’ll probably talk about writing. And probably money, too.

Until 10 years ago, I supported myself with a mixture of writing and depressing service industry jobs, which make for funny stories (remind me to tell you about how I worked as an ice cream maker) and useful research for future writing projects (if I write a character who’s a bookseller, she’ll be darn accurate).

When I made the leap into freelancing, it was a carefully considered mix of desperation and depression at the thought of reporting in for a day job ever again, and the naive belief that I’d be able to make a go of it on my own—which I somehow managed, by the skin of my teeth and a little bit of help from my friends, about which more in a moment.

We don’t really like to talk about money here in the writing business. People outside it seem to imagine that journalists and writers at sites like, well, this one make oodles of money—or at least, enough to support themselves independently in reasonable comfort (and having a two bedroom house in a place that’s internationally famous for being beautiful sure sounds comfortable, right?)—but that’s not actually the case.

Money is pretty complicated in this industry and one of the things people are most reluctant to break down is the myth that writers are islands unto themselves, making a living entirely by their work and with no support from anyone else. The fact is that most of us do not live the tubercular lifestyle in French garrets, but we aren’t taking baths in Benjamins either.  

I can only speak from personal experience on the journalism and op-ed essayist side, so let’s have a little talk about where my money comes from, because this is a conversation that makes people squirm and we should be putting this all out on the table. My money, like that of many freelancers, comes from the hustle. Comes from constantly pitching and working on stories, comes from aggressively hounding editors for work, comes from chasing down payments from publications that like to drag their feet on compensation.

None of my money comes easily—freelancing isn’t a pajama-clad lounging lifestyle. I work eight to 10 hours a day, every day, including on weekends, pitching, developing stories, and writing. I squeeze in extra projects for my own here and there on the side, like my blog, which I’ve been updating daily for the last 10 years. This isn’t a lifestyle that’s easy—and while I’m not going to tell you exactly what I get paid at the various publications I write for, Who Pays Writers? can give you a start if you’re curious to know what freelancers are making.

Some of those rates might sound like a lot. But imagine paying all your bills with them and maybe even trying to put money into savings on your own. Keep in mind that freelancers pay income tax and payroll/self-employment tax. Suddenly $100 for an article doesn’t sound so great, does it? I’m able to do what I do because I fight for it every day—and it’s not always easy. I’ve established enough of a career at this point that I can do things like going to New Zealand and Japan, but I don’t own my own home or drive a particularly flashy car.

I’m able to do what I do because I fight for it every day—and it’s not always easy. 

I’m not going to lie to you. Coming up is hard: I grew up dirt poor with no safety net. But, guess what: That’s not all there is to know about me. I had the privilege of being in a house where education was valued and my father encourage me to read (and write) widely. I may have clawed my way to the perilous place where I am now, and it’s still a long way from where I need, and want, to be to survive safely, but I didn’t do it entirely on my own.

I’m not going to spin you some tale of lone wolf determination and talent—I got some nudges along the way and I had the emotional support of friends and family. A few small loans from my father helped me get over some important humps. Like Amelia McDonnell-Parry, who disclosed her own financials at The Frisky, I had connections and I cultivated others; not to sound crude but publishing is about who you know and who you blow, as they say.

The myth of the starving artist isn’t as straightforward as people like to make it out to be.

Salon recently republished a really fantastic piece by Ann Bauer—the post that inspired this one—on the business of writing novels and the idea of “sponsorship” and “support” from spouses, cracking open the mythology that overlays being an author, namely, that authors sit around their houses doing whatever they want while money magically pours in.

The myth of the starving artist isn’t as straightforward as people like to make it out to be.

Bauer pointed out that we often hide the messy part of where the money comes from, because no one likes to talk about money. She noted that some authors—especially men—don’t acknowledge the role of family money or partners who work behind the scenes in their careers, while others suggest that people should give up on having children and sacrifice everything to write.

The truth is that writers rely on support, whether it’s family money that lets them live independently, partners who help them, day jobs that pay the bills while they work nights and weekends on projects they love, or family members who let them hole up while they work on projects and build careers for themselves. Some writers get more support than others and that can be key to the future of a career.

Being an author is expensive, especially at the beginning of a career. Almost every author I know has a day job. Some also have partners who help cover the expenses of the household—and who, in some cases, provide them with time off to write by shouldering the costs of keeping things up. Many are raising children or caring for family members who need assistance.

And let me be clear: I don’t agree with people who suggest that writers shouldn’t have children if they want to have careers (plenty of essayists, novelists, and others had children while supporting themselves or with support). People who tell you not to have children if you want to be a writer are selling you a bill of goods, just like the ones who claim that they wrote a few articles here and there to pay the bills while they established their careers, as Bauer pointed out. “A few articles” nets you a few hundred a month at the outset, unless you happen to get picked up by publications that pay more—and they usually don’t take a gamble on writers who aren’t well established. You’re not going to be writing $500 per columns for the Washington Post in your first year of writing unless by a total fluke.

When you sell a book for, say, $20,000, you don’t magically see $20,000 in your bank account the next day. First your agent has to negotiate the details of your contract, something that can take weeks or months. Then she has to painstakingly extract your advance—a portion of the payment—from the publisher, and then it goes through the agency, which takes its cut (usually 15 percent) before forwarding it to your doorstep. Payments are usually split between contract signing, manuscript delivery, and publication—at very least.

Much-vaunted royalties don’t always materialize. (You have to earn out first, which many debut authors don’t do.) When they do, it may take weeks, months, or years for them to bring in much money. Your sales numbers may be low enough that publishers don’t want to take a risk on you, and you’re right back at the drawing board—some of the authors I know have even gone out under new names, published under entirely new identities. Others write under multiple pseudonyms: one name for YA and another for adult; a well-developed romance persona and a smart, funny essayist; a creative nonfiction writer who moonlights as a cozy mystery writer on the side.

Selling a book doesn’t make you independently wealthy, nor does it mean that you can take time off now that you’re in the money. If anything, you have a couple thousand bucks in the bank that your cat will promptly consume by becoming horribly ill or your car will guzzle up when the transmission blows, you have to keep dealing with your day job, and now you’re sunk into endless rounds of edits and proofs and preparations for tours that eat up all your available time—oh, and you’re trying to work on your next project in the hopes you can sell it.

Maybe someday you have a respectable backlist and a few good deals and you can drop the day job. Probably not, though.

Maybe someday you have a respectable backlist and a few good deals and you can drop the day job. Probably not, though.

We need to talk about where the money comes from in writing both because transparency is good in any industry, so that we all know what other people are making, and because these things should be more transparent to outsiders, too. Whether you want to get into journalism or become an essayist or a novelist or any number of other things in publishing, you need to know where the money comes from. It comes from lots of different places, but it has to come from somewhere.

For Bauer, after years of struggling to support herself and producing a relatively small body of work, it came from having a wealthy partner at a good job with excellent benefits, and the ability to take time to herself as a result. That’s privilege, which she freely admits, and it’s something that not every writer has—but it doesn’t mean that you should give up on the idea of being a writer unless you can marry into a wealthy family or you happened to be born with money. Because there are lots of ways to become a writer, but to get into the business, you still need to know where the money comes from.

Thanks for showing me yours, Ann. Now I’ve showed mine.

And now it’s up to everyone else to show theirs too.

Photo via Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jan 30, 2015, 10:00 am CST