Joining the freelance club
December 24, 1981
I've made my living as a free-lance one-thing-or-another my whole adult life. Some people envy me that; I try to explain that while it can be a fine life, it is makes for a rotten living. (I would amend Dr. Johnson's famous remark on the subject to read, "No man but a blockhead wrote for money.") In 1981 I sat down and wrote about it. Here's is a shortened and updated version of the original.
And yes, I really did sell pieces to Gimbel's and the Alabama office of State Farm Insurance.
Some people will confess to murders they didn't commit. Others will claim to adore hand-painted neckties at Christmas, and others will swear on a stack of Newsweeks that they vote for politicians according to their stands on the issues. David Stockman even professed a belief in supply-side economics. But why, I asked myself a few weeks ago, would anyone want to pretend to be a freelance writer?
The question had occurred to me as I read Melissa Ludtke Lincoln's nice piece in the September-October Columbia Journalism Review called "The free-lance life." Lincoln cited one Warren Bouvee, dean of journalism at Marquette University, who once said that while some 25,000 people consider themselves free-lance writers, only about 300 actually make a living at it.
I have no reason to doubt Mr. Bouvee's figures. Anyone can call himself a free-lancer. It requires no degree, no license, not even a clean suit. I know, because I have none of those things, and I am one of those 300. I have sold work to such august publishing houses as Gimbel's and the Alabama office of State Farm Insurance, and in the process I earn a living which compares favorably to that of most Third World bank managers. [Third World bank managers are doing rather better today.]
However, 1 am sophisticated enough to know that relatively few Americans want to live like Third World bank managers, which brings me back again to the question of why anyone would want to call himself a free-lancer. Ms. Lincoln writes of the "romantic lure" of free-lancing. 1 suppose there are people who find excitement in racing their landlords to their paychecks every month. Readers, take my word, freelancing is anything but romantic. It has its rewards—for which you pay, in my case at a cost in foregone earnings that I estimate to be anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 a year.
But money is why most writers quit free-lancing, it is not why they begin it. They begin it because they hate every other job more. When you're an underpaid statehouse radio reporter, a sacked staff reporter for a small weekly, a disaffected editor (to name three people I know who've tried free-lancing in recent years), when in short you are bummed out, burned out, or just plumb out of choices, even free-lancing looks attractive. This is understandable; much the same sort of impulse elected Ronald Reagan. But, as many voters are learning now, the consequences of their choice quickly impress themselves. As soon as their savings run out, or a better job comes along, they trade romance for a better return on labor.
No wonder. Free-lance rates on average not only have not kept pace with inflation but have actually declined even in nominal dollars. The explosion of part-timers—housewives, graduate students, moonlighting beat reporters, and the like—have glutted the market. What happened to pocket calculators has happened to writing: Demand created a market for cheap substitutes, which drove down the price. One paper I will not name paid me $100 a piece in 1978; in 2017 I was getting $175; had rates simply kept with inflation that would have been $400. I do not blame; most worthy publications' gross profits haven't kept up with inflation either.
I gave a talk once in which I explained that money is to the freelancer what syphilis is to the libertine: Each turns a pleasant pastime into a risky business which, if it goes untreated long enough, will drive you mad. The magazine ecosystem has long since exceeded its carrying capacity. I'd go to work for the state tomorrow, except that 1 don't know anybody in Jim Edgar's office. I once considered dealing cocaine, but I don't know enough lawyers. So 1 write. And write.
Any business has its headaches, of course, and I would exaggerate if I said that the free-lancer's hurt more than those of, say, the small-town convention center manager. Still, free-lancing ranks respectably high among life's more aggravating pastimes. Rejection, for example. No one who cannot handle rejection should be a freelancer. There was a novel published in 1963 called The Hack, written by Wilfred Sheed, who isn't one. It contains this passage:
He began sending some of his best things . . . which meant mostly padding down the drafty stairs on frosty mornings to haul the manuscripts out of the mailbox and pat them back into shape . . . . A women's magazine said that he had an unpretentious charm; Sport for Men said he showed promise. He gobbled at the crumbs and kept running.
But it's not rejection per se but the manner of it that grates, as Lyndon Johnson learned. Typical is the magazine that waits three months to read your piece, only to tell that they can't use it because it's out of date. Once I submitted a piece to one magazine, only to have it rejected by another; the subeditor to whom I'd addressed it took it with her when she changed jobs.
Hostesses make both legislators and free-lancers enter by the back door, since they figure that if they aren't poor they must be dishonest. Really. The financial price one pays for being a free-lancer is steep enough. But there's a social price too. It's no wonder the profession's gotten a bad name, what with so many poseurs running around. You'd think we were lieutenant governor candidates or something.
Eventually, however, I realized that there was a saving lesson in Bouvee's arithmetic. I was one of only 300 real free-lancers! Its membership may consist of thieves and liars, but a club is a club, and as clubs go, this one is pretty exclusive. There's the 700 Club, Tennyson's 600, Fortune's 500, Mrs. Astor's 400, Warren Bouvee's 300. There are fewer genuine, self-sustaining free-lancers than there are U.S. Congressmen, major league baseball players, TV talk show hosts, and paid-up members of Illini Country Club. I'm gonna start going in through front doors, head held high, like a Republican. □