My Life as a Hack

It was glorious. Now it’s over.

I can recall seeing only one movie about a freelance writer: Woody Allen’s Celebrity. In an early scene, a movie star (played by Melanie Griffith) takes the hack (Kenneth Branagh) on a tour of her childhood home then seduces him in her old bedroom.

That struck me as unrealistic. It’s been my experience as a freelancer that film stars almost never invite you to their houses.

It did happen to me once, however. About 15 years ago, Rolling Stone asked me to profile the teenage Uma Thurman. We had lunch at the Russian Tea Room (where Rolling Stone bought Uma a caviar-blini combination so expensive it had an unlisted price) then took a pit stop at her family’s apartment on the Upper West Side. There was no seduction, the least of many reasons being that her little brother was due home from school any minute. Even so, the whole thing was a highlight of my freelancing career to that date.

Shortly after I submitted the piece, my editor phoned to say she was so sorry, but they couldn’t use it: It wouldn’t do to run two profiles of oddly-first-named starlets in one issue, and another editor had inadvertently assigned an article about Winona Ryder. Moving swiftly to Plan B, I mailed (no e-mail yet) the story to American Film magazine, which accepted it. Out of courtesy, I informed my Rolling Stone editor. The next day she phoned: On second thought, Rolling Stonedid want to run my piece, only I would have to cut 3,000 words to 900. I was embarrassed to have to withdraw it from American Film, but the connection led to three rewarding assignments from that magazine. Then it folded.

That was nothing new. The majority of magazines I’ve written for no longer exist. A moment of silence: American Stage, Atlantic City Magazine, Business Month, Channels of Communication, Connoisseur, Fame, Horizon, In Health, Lingua Franca, Memories, New England Monthly, Next, the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Phillysport, Politicks, Push, Saturday Review, Ultrasport, and Working at Home.

We freelancers have always had to put up with magazines that die on us, along with butchered copy, chuckleheaded editors, rights-grabbing contracts, isolation, lost manuscripts, whacks to the ego, changed quotes, the absence of security or benefits, and—unkindest of all—the kill fee (i.e., paying authors a third or a quarter of the agreed-upon rate if an assigned piece is not used for virtually any reason, up to and including the fact that someone else wrote about Winona Ryder). Usually, though, these indignities are outweighed by the good stuff about freelancing: freedom, no commute, funny war stories, the periodic ego boost of appearing in print, and the chance to eat caviar with Uma Thurman.

But something has changed. These days, when the pros and cons are put on the scale, the minus side sinks every time. I’ve spent 29 years as a freelancer—some of it full time, most of it on the side—but it may finally be time to take down my shingle.

Perhaps this is just the Lion King factor—the circle of life. Freelancing, with all its scrambling and uncertainty, is like rock climbing or white-water kayaking: one of those things that comes fairly easily in your 20s and 30s but requires some mulling over as you enter your 50s.

But I’m convinced that the nature of the game has changed as well. For one thing, the economics of the freelance life seem worse than ever. And they were never good. Just take a look at George Gissing’s 1891 novel, New Grub Street, about London hacks barely breaking even. In the cosmos of skilled tradespeople, freelance journalists have always been bottom-dwellers. Plumbers don’t do kill fees. Screenwriters have negotiated an ironbound fee schedule: currently, a minimum of $53,256 (I said minimum) for two drafts of an original script, plus $17,474 more for a rewrite and $8,742 for a “polish.” But for magazine hacks, an unlimited number of rewrites and polishes have always been gratis.

As far as freelancing rates go, they were modest when I started out and are about the same now. I don’t mean the same adjusted for inflation. I mean the same. I became a full-time freelancer in 1978, and the first piece I published in a prominent national magazine was a “My Turn” essay in Newsweek. I was paid $500. Just a couple of years ago, I had a slightly longer essay in a popular online magazine that will go nameless. $500 again. I received the check 97 days after publication, which broke a personal record.

Of course, online publishers are notorious skinflints, but their print counterparts aren’t paying much better. According to Writers Market, the freelancer’s bible, New York magazine paid $1 a word in 1996 and pays the same rate in 2005. Catholic Digest’s fees were $200 to $400 in 1989 and are the same today. The Village Voice was in the news this month for planning to slash its already low fees: Short pieces that used to go for $130 will now fetch $75. There are a few glossy exceptions, but stagnant rates are the rule. That’s even worse than it seems. Magazines commonly pay by the word and have been assigning ever shorter articles—which means that writers are virtually certain to get less for a typical piece.

Freelancers are treated this way not because they’re schlimazels or because editors are jerks, but because of the law of supply and demand. The Harvard Business School could use freelance journalism as a case study of a buyers’ market. Leaving aside a handful of periodicals that value distinctive writing, extensively reported dispatches, and unusual or challenging perspectives, what magazines want is clean and inoffensive copy that fits their magazine’s format and fills the space between pictures and ads. There has always been an overabundance of people eager and able to provide this, even if they are treated lousy. Therefore, they are usually treated lousy. Various attempts to form writers unions have failed because everyone knows that if any such organization called a job action against a publication or, God forbid, the entire magazine industry, other adequate writers would immediately step forward to fill the void.

The culture of magazines also seemed different in ‘78, when I hung out my shingle for the first time. I’m fairly certain I’m not mythologizing when I say that some of the Olympian moments in magazine journalism—the moments when Gay Talese freelanced “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” when Tom Wolfe wrote his profile of Junior Johnson and Michael Herr the pieces that became Dispatches—still retrospectively glowed. The understanding was that good writing was actually a marketable commodity. More: By publishing the right piece at the right time in the right magazine, you could initiate a cultural event.

Today, most freelancers I know aren’t even looking to make that kind of splash: They’d just like to pursue stories that are interesting for their own sakes and that allow for distinctive writing. This is a fairly modest wish, but in today’s magazine world, it’s not a realistic one. Modern titles, formatted to within an inch of their lives, require freelancers to shape experience into small, breezy portions that extol the lifestyle or consumer culture the magazine and its advertisers are looking to promote. The ultimate upside isn’t the creation of a cultural event, but the creation of buzz.

Finally, there’s the dignity factor. A friend of mine, who never got published in TheNew Yorker, still treasures the bunch of hand-typed and personal rejection letters he got in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s from William Shawn. That’s so 20th century. These days, you’re lucky to get a form letter. The pocket veto—that is, the unreturned e-mail, letter, or phone call—has become an accepted way of turning down ideas and submissions, even from longtime contributors. A couple of months ago, I sent, through my literary agent, a detailed query letter to a magazine editor he had worked with before. We followed it up a couple of times. No yes, no no, no nothing.

I’m done.

Yo, Uma! Next time the blini’s on me.

Thanks to Michelle Ruberg of Writer’s Digest Books.