I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by clickbait, starving hysterical looking for healthcare and benefits, dragging themselves through Indeed and LinkedIn, searching for something to pay the bills and make them happy, ambitious writers burning for a decent wage, respect, and a normal life, a future illuminated by checks that arrive on time…
I don’t know when it happened, exactly, when I finally decided that I had had enough. Maybe it was the 50th e-mail to editors that went unanswered. Maybe it was when an editor tried to shame me on social media by posting one of my e-mails to him. Maybe it was when I didn’t have enough money in my bank account to cover the monthly fee. Maybe it was right around the time that “writing” became “content,” when quantity became more important than quality, when everything went to hell.
Whenever that final straw came, I have to say I’m done. I’m just…done. Done with freelancing and everything that goes with it.
A little background: I’ve been a writer and editor since the 1980’s. Like most writers I wrote columns and features for small, local publications for very little pay. I published a music zine in the late 80’s and early 90’s that didn’t make a lot of money but it got me and my friends a lot of free CDs from record companies that we sold for fast food and rent money. I did a monthly TV newsletter too. I went on to do sales and marketing for major magazines and regional web sites, all the while freelancing for print and online publications. I’ve written columns, reviews, recaps, interviews, features, blog posts, and everything else you could possibly think of. I’ve been doing it for 34 years.
There are several reasons why I’ve reached the point where I don’t want to – and simply can’t, financially, mentally, even physically – do it anymore.
The pay is terrible. I’m still getting paid the same amount of money I was getting paid when Reagan was in his second term. This may sound bizarre to people who aren’t writers, but writing isn’t a profession where average pay increases over the years. And while web sites – where a lot of writing takes place now – will give reasons why pay is low that involve traffic and clickthrough rates and all that (side note: a lot of that is bullshit, but we also need a better way to do web publishing that doesn’t involve clicks and eyeballs and “metrics”), it doesn’t mean that writers can live off of it. If I can somehow get $250 for a piece, I consider that a massive amount of money, and I’m giddy all day. And that’s sad.
There’s a math that freelancers do: “If I can work for a certain number of outlets every week and each one pays me _____, that’s ______ a week. Not bad!” But for the past several years the math hasn’t been working out for me.
I’m sick of hearing people say that this is the best time to be a writer. No, it’s the best time to be a reader, a consumer of writing. Making a living writing has always been hard, but somehow, even in this multi-platform world, it’s just as hard today.
I’ve had great years as a writer and really bad years as a writer. There’s been too much of the latter recently. My income last year was below poverty level. When people just starting out ask me for advice, more and more I find myself telling them, don’t become a journalist or freelancer. Be a writer, and either have a job that pays the bills or marry someone with a great job and money.
Good editors are a joy. Unfortunately there are a lot of bad editors. I’m not sure why these editors a.) keep their jobs, and b.) forget what it was like to be freelancers.
I’ve worked with some terrific editors, but a lot of sites are run by editors that are overwhelmed, are more “webmasters” than actual editors, and they just don’t know what they’re doing. Editors that never answer your pitches because they’ve been “buried in e-mails” and “busy” (though apparently not too busy that they can’t post 20 times a day on Twitter). Editors that get irritated when you contact them to inquire about why your pay is late. Half of the time it’s because they forgot to submit the invoice. When you want them to speed up the payment because of their mistake, they say they can’t do it until the next pay period, which is unacceptable. I’m sure they wouldn’t stand for not being paid. Many writers live paycheck to late paycheck.
There are the editors that were born around the time I was already an adult and well into my career and they’re not familiar with anything that happened in pop culture before the first season of Saved by the Bell. In one article I mentioned Asta the dog, from the Thin Man movies. The editor changed the line to “a dog,” not knowing that Asta is pretty famous. Practically the Lassie of dogs. Of course, the people in the comment section dumped on me for not knowing who Asta was.
One editor told me that I couldn’t include Lethal Weapon in my list of favorite Christmas movies because Mel Gibson was in it and they couldn’t include him in the article “in this climate” (her exact words). I’ve had an editor turn down my idea only to see her assign the exact same idea to another, more in-favor writer two weeks later.
(I won’t mention the name of the site that did each of these things, but here’s a hint: it’s a well-known pop culture site named after a bird that waits until an animal dies before it feasts on the remains.)
I had the payroll department of one of the nation’s largest newspapers tell me that I wasn’t going to get paid for the week I wrote for them, even if the editor had told me I was going to be paid, because it was “just a fun assignment.” After I showed her the email promising me I’d get paid and how much, they changed their minds.
I had one editor tell me he wouldn’t hire me because I “wasn’t in touch with the zeitgeist,” which surprised me, because I thought I was up on my zeitgeist touching.
I had one of the web’s most well-known pop culture sites dump me after I wrote two features because I “wasn’t pitching the right kind of stories,” after pitching them stories they wanted me to pitch. (I won’t name that site either, but I’ll give you a hint: it’s The A.V. Club.)
And then there was the editor at Esquire that not only didn’t answer my pitches – even though I had written for the site for six years – he posted on Twitter the e-mail I sent him saying I was withdrawing the pitch after a month and didn’t want to work with him anymore, because it was just a waste of his time and mine. This is a well-known editor some of you may follow on Twitter, where he frequently posts when he’s not ignoring emails from writers. He posted the email – where I was very cordial and calm – and wrote “don’t do this,” using me as an example to other writers as how not to pitch an editor. He suggested that maybe he was too busy right now, and maybe he was just about to answer me. And of course, all of his Twitter sycophants, dying to get their opinions in and dying for him to “like” one of their tweets, chimed in with their support of him. One guy made a comment along the lines of “these millennials really should learn how the writing business works.” I appreciate that he assumes I’m young, but I was born when The Dick Van Dyke Show was still on and I currently take two high blood pressure medications.
These types of editors will eventually reply with a “no” after you follow up with them once or twice, which is how most editors reply now, especially if they just don’t want to bother with you anymore. That’s particularly frustrating.
I still have editors saying that they can’t pay me, but their site gets “a lot of traffic” and I’ll be “seen by a lot of people.” Jesus Christ. So they’re offering nothing. At least 30 years ago when I wrote for the exposure it was a print publication and they’d send me a couple of free copies.
I’ve seen a lot of articles and Twitter threads where editors give advice on how writers should pitch them and how writers should treat them. Someone needs to write a tweetstorm on how editors should treat writers.
Here’s the thing: it’s not that I don’t understand. I’ve been an editor for decades, for several publications and sites. I’ve managed a staff, hired freelancers, dealt with queries and invoices and pressure and dozens of e-mails a day. I know what editors go through. It’s because I know what they go through that I know how it should be done. I’m not a twentysomething just starting out, naive, not knowing how the industry works. I’ve been on both sides. Which leads me to…
Maybe, like Danny Glover in that movie I wasn’t allowed to write about, I’m too old for this shit. What I mean by that is, I don’t want to write about the things editors are looking for. I see so many ads where a publication is looking for writers to cover celebrity gossip or reality shows. I see so many pop culture sites just trying to get up as much “stuff” as quickly as possible, because readers really need to see that recap of Vanderpump Rules four minutes after the episode ends (side note: I have no idea what Vanderpump Rules even is). Do we need to read the reviews of every single episode of a show just because they premiere all at once on Netflix? We have binge watching, do we also need binge reviewing? And do we really need the 150th “25 Greatest Sci-Fi Shows of All-Time!” list? (We’re drowning in lists – they’re meaningless now.)
Social media is now everything. I’m just not a Twitter and Facebook person. I was for years, but I gave them up a long time ago because they’re too distracting, irritating, and exhausting. But that’s where everyone seems to live now, to the point that they’ve completely given up their own sites and blogs (people can complain about how Facebook has eaten publishing and has too much influence but they’re the ones giving Facebook all that “content” and time). And maybe that means I’m off of everyone’s radar. Oh well.
So what’s next? I’m certainly not going to give up writing, I’m just going to change the way I do things and what I concentrate on. At some point you have to decide whether you’re just going to be someone who only writes about the art of others or creates your own. I’m working on another book. Two, actually, one non-fiction, one a novel. I have a regular column I do every week, and maybe I’ll write something for someone once in a while. It’s not that I’m against “freelancing” in the most general definition of the word (on a related note: hire me!) but daily freelancing is a grind. It’s a daily job search (unless you’re fortunate enough to have regular, well-paying gigs). You have to hustle hustle hustle, query query query, and wait wait wait. I’ve been doing it for over three decades, and at my age I don’t want to do it anymore. It’s a young person’s game. I shouldn’t have to do it anymore. Why aren’t editors coming to me when they need someone to write for them?
I thought when I reached my 50s things would be….different.
I’m looking for a regular staff job (even with all the recent layoffs, I still hope), something local or something I can do remotely. I’ve even looked for non-writing jobs but when your resume has said “writer/editor” for the past few decades it’s not easy. I’ve been offered editorial positions in New York but I don’t see myself moving there at this point in my life (hey, what happened to that incredible new world where we’d all be working from anywhere we wanted, with so much freedom and flexibility, making so much money?). Dreams of skyscrapers and cocktails in an old literary New York are something I gave up a long time ago (we have tall buildings and drinks in Boston too). Maybe more corporate work is where it’s at. Maybe I’ll also do a Patreon and a newsletter and go back to selling CDs. (In the meantime, you may have noticed that Donate button over on the right – every little bit helps.) Can you get money for giving blood?
It’s time to say goodbye to freelancing and hello again to writing.