Monday, March 17, 2014

A Look Back at "The Good Old Days"

Made a fascinating discovery: a survey I had tucked away in a book years ago. It was done by a publication named Publishing News, which I don’t think is around any more, or not in the same form. It was their pilot issue, so they pulled out all the stops to make it useful.

The survey, circa 1988, shows just how far things have fallen. Of 400 contacted, 260 editors of business and consumer magazines responded to questions about their policies toward freelancers. Lots of interesting  answers to interesting questions, but of course payment is the interestingest.

Lay this alongside today’s penny-a-word and $4 per article: 

    Q: How much do you pay for freelance articles?
    A: 200-499 words, average of business and consumer magazines: $132.81.

That’s right; not a typo. The editors who paid by the word paid -- check my arithmetic -- from 27 to 66 cents a word. Five hundred to 999 words would get you, average,  $232.67. That’s the entire yearly budget for many online Guru and Elance buyers. An article less than 200 words, for Pete’s sake, brought you $47.87 on average, or $53.25 in the business magazine area where I worked.

It’s been 25 years and the numbers had gone a little dim, but I do remember that I could start to make a living at it if I hustled, and here’s the proof. 

The difference, of course, is that these were working editors, not on-line “employers” buying words by the hundredweight. They had specific angles on specific stories they wanted covered, so  a little over 50 percent answered that they preferred to pay by the type of article. Length was a factor, but not the governing one. You couldn’t snow one of those business-book editors with a big gob of “content”; you talked his business to his readers or you weren’t invited back.

Refreshingly, plagiarism wasn’t even mentioned in the survey. If an editor discovered it I’m sure his publisher would have dealt with it, but it wasn’t the obsession we see today. Not hard to see why: decent rates attract professional workers who (a) don’t need to swipe others’ work, (b) find it worth their while to put in the necessary time to do it right, and (c) have too much self-respect to do it in any case. I tried to explain this to a Guru “employer” once; the advice was dismissed as “drivel.”  

Another prominent difference is that two-thirds of the time the buyer didn’t demand all rights. Think what that means. For starters it means, even if you were new to the game, not being insulted with a laborious lecture on work for hire: how you the writer will have no rights to the work and we will have all rights in every form in perpetuity including the right to make money selling it and incidentally your name will not appear in, on, or near the work, for ever and ever, amen.

Most of the folks in the business knew the rules, and they didn’t have to listen to them being laid out in the overbearing tone many “employers” use today. But again, follow the money: 0.003 cents a word (a rate I actually saw offered, recently) is going to attract a workforce that will need to be educated.  Maybe about more than just work for hire and plagiarism.