Friday, August 26, 2005

My Life as a Hack:

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.


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.