How much is a writer worth? If one looks at many magazines, newspapers, print advertisements, PR communications and even TV soaps’ sub-titles, you may be forgiven for thinking not much.
So then the question would be how much is a good writer worth? That really depends on who is picking up the tab and on his or her ability to distinguish good from mediocre (or worse). It’s a funny thing writing – some people can write, others can’t. Many who think it’s a piece of cake stringing a few words together often don’t recognise their own inadequacy.
For those of us who make a living out of words and related industries, we are only too aware of clients who have no appreciation of the skill required and who shirk at paying a fee comparable to the job.
I run a writing company which provides expert, freelance writers. I service industries across the board including tourism, business, technology, engineering, events, TV and entertainment. The advantages for the client are that s/he can depend on someone else to manage the job, maintain standards, ensure grammatical and spelling accuracy, meet deadlines and deliver subbed, final copy. My writers are as varied as the commissions and often so are the fees. I do my utmost to be fair to client and writer alike, although it’s often clients who get the better deal. Like actors, most writers would rather eke out a living writing for next to nothing than do something else or be out of work. And yes, one can say that’s called the free market.
However, for those of us in this industry, it’s problematic. Rate per job is often a contentious subject with the “going rate” sorely lagging when compared with other areas of employment. In the magazine industry, for example, the rate per word probably hasn’t changed to any real extent since I was a magazine editor in the ‘80s. I’ve learnt that what an IT writer commands is not comparable with the lesser fee a general print writer has to accept to remain in that field. I have writers who slog away for the bottom rate (which can be as little as R1 per word on a big job), and writers who won’t get out of bed for under R5 per word – and some clients who wouldn’t dream of paying it.
Everyone knows that if you call a plumber, an electrician or a handyman you’re looking at paying anything from R300 upward just for the call-out fee. And yet when it comes to writers – in my case freelancers often with tertiary qualifications but without medical aid or other perks – it’s a constant juggling act to produce budgets my clients find acceptable.
To illustrate this point: a potential client recently approached me with a short story written, she said, by a 12-year-old. She explained that the American publisher had requested that the story be “Harry Potterised” by an adult writer for an international young audience. Furthermore, it was likely that the book would evolve into a television project.
I handpicked a writer for the project and sent her the manuscript. The ‘short story’ was 30 000 words – the length of a short novel – and my writer’s view was that it needed to be written from scratch to achieve anything approximating JK Rowling. A time consuming exercise by any stretch of the imagination. The terms and conditions from the client’s side were that my writer would receive no credit for the job and no acknowledgement or royalties from the possible TV spin-off. How much would that be worth? One might as well ask how long is a piece of string. My experienced writer with a good book or two to her name was both reasonable and flexible – but we could not meet the client’s expectation of R15 000 for the job. It’s probably worth mentioning that a by-line goes a long way towards making up for poor pay.
So why is there such a gulf between what clients will pay and what writers expect to be paid? It’s not straightforward but I believe that in part, it’s because most people think they can do it themselves. And far too often, they do. One needs only read the plethora of incomprehensible media and press releases distributed in the name of promotion and marketing which we all delete or dump in the waste paper basket every day.
Previously published in the Saturday Star 16 September 2006