Sunday, August 27, 2006

Wrong End of this Business

On July 9th, there was a New York Times article about the perils of choosing "travel guidebook writer" as a vocation. I know where the writers are coming from. They spent a lot of time talking about how much effort goes into researching and writing their guidebooks.

Here's an excerpt:

It's difficult to generalize about the pay scale for guide writing because it varies so widely, though most guide writers seem to agree that the wages are not enough. A writer working from scratch on a comprehensive guide to a country may get an advance of $100,000, from which a year or more of travel expenses must be deducted.

Wha--? $100k?? Who gets $100k? I am so totally in the wrong end of this business. We're talking more like thirteen cents an hour here.


Mark said...

Yeah, I think whoever wrote that piece about guide book writing had a spasm over the zero key. Probably more like "$10,000, from which a year or more of travel expenses must be deducted". Ask Amanda about this one before you switch careers.

Marie Javins said...

Hm, maybe if you are Rick Steves you get $100,000... anyway, I didn't even come close to that with a zero missing for the two I worked on. You sure don't do this for the money. Otherwise, I wouldn't be a comic book colorist currently selling her home.

Ed Ward said...

Yeah, put me in the that's-gotta-be-a-typo crowd, too. I've observed the guidebook work on Berlin guides for Time Out and Rough Guide and Dorling Kinnersley or whatever those cheap bastards are called, and while the first two do have budgets of over $10,000 (although one wonders what the German Rough Guide editors use it for, since the book is still horribly out of date), both editors and contributors are miserably paid.

Last edition of the TO Berlin I was maybe going to participate in (until the editor decided I wasn't a good enough writer, although I had been for the previous five editions) he wanted 25 restaurant review updates. Guess who was going to have to pay for those?

Marie Javins said...

Along the lines of those restaurant reviews... when I wrote the camping books, no one would give me free camping. In NJ, it's $15 a night. For 50 campsites, that would have cost me $750. I was already paying for gas to drive all over the state, and I got no money for expenses. I'm too embarrassed to even say what I was paid for about two months of research and another four months of part-time writing. But I wasn't going to lose a quarter of my vast riches. So I visited each campground. Gas and tolls alone cost a fortune. But I only stayed overnight twice, when I was too far away to return home. Sad, I know, but what choice did I have? It all goes back to the basic problem with writing for a living. Everyone who can write their name thinks they are a writer, so it is devalued as a profession, and there are many who think you should be honored that they deign to print your ramblings. Newsflash: The bank does not accept honor as partial mortgage payments.

The other book's compensation was even worse, so I was lucky to have the keys to my mother's cabin in Virginia.

For every person who tells me they envy my lifestyle, I have to admit that I've questioned my decision to deliberately descend into poverty a hundred times. I've been all over the world but there have been years my income did not go into double-digits. Following your dreams doesn't pay very well, and there are personal sacrifices as well.

Anonymous said...

Tom Brosnahan challenges the industry's pay rates in "Is Guidebook Writing Worth the Money?".

Following his head-for-the-hills example – and with his kind encouragement – I've turned down several allegedly plum gigs recently. Professional writers deserve professional wages ... and certainly shouldn't subsidize major publishing houses.

Since I'm already pounding the pulpit here, can I also point out my all-time favorite professional resources?

The UK's National Union of Journalists offers a Freelance Fees Guide, as well as EU late payment fees and a nifty interest calculator.

Fight the good fight, comrades! Ax.

Ed Ward said...

Well. Yes. But.

The UK Journalists' Union is exemplary, and no such thing really exists in the States. And while charging late fees is a nice idea, the fact is it's more than the people who can write their name, as Marie said, who consider themselves writers. Lots of writers, too, consider themselves writers, and a great many of them are all too ready to work cheaper -- and hey, who knows? maybe better -- than you.

Pester a publisher about money and I don't care how long you've been writing for them or how good you are, you'll get a reputation as a trouble-maker and find your phone calls/emails/pitches aren't getting returned. And when you try a new publication, if your contact there is unusually candid, or maybe a personal friend, you'll hear "They don't want to use you because they've heard you're difficult."

Guidebook writing is work-for-hire. The only way out of this is never to do a work-for-hire project.

And, that said, I've never had trouble being paid on time in the EU, unless you mean Estados Unidos. Or include the UK in the EU. Twice I showed up at Time Out in London and announced I wasn't leaving (this would be in mid-March both times) until the 800 pounds of work I'd finished last October was paid for.

I mean, speaking of tent camping...

Marie Javins said...

Oh dear... as an editor, I have to admit that when someone adds "Late Charge" to their invoice, I roll my eyes and ignore it. Editors have no control over Accounting. All I can do is badger, and there are budgets and set fees and there's no way anyone is going to pay a freelancer a late fee for payment not happening within 10 days or two weeks or whatever.

Then again, I've fortunately never worked (as an editor) for anywhere that took more than two weeks to pay.

But as a freelance writer, I have worked for places that have taken months to pay. Don't know what that's about, but I do know that they always act like I'm some kind of irrational irritant when I ask for very minor things, like reviewing the corrections or for my name to be spelled right. You get the feeling you've just ruined someone's day when you firmly but politely email "Gosh, could you get this minor misspelling right?" And then they tell you they've changed it, but they don't send you the proof, because they are the editor and you're just an annoyance squawking down the pipe. And then when it comes out, something is totally wrong... and all they had to do was pay attention or show you the proof...

Marie Javins said...

AND to top it off, you don't even want to tell the editor when the wrong thing is printed, because they've already made you feel about two inches tall by being utterly exasperated every time you've contacted them.

Anonymous said...

Ed, I disagree. I've very politely prodded editors for money – giving them a reason, like, say, IMMINENT EVICTION, often helps – and maintained good relations.

I once even wagged the "late fee" threat at a regular client. I explained that as a full-time freelancer in a single-income household, I couldn't float loans for a year at a time, unless the interest clock started ticking.

That check arrived quick-sharp. The company now pays promptly by direct-debit.

The more professionally I run my business, the more professionally I am treated – and the more work I garner.

And, yes, other folks work cheaper. I'm the go-to girl hired to clean up that text quite frequently...

Pay peanuts, get monkeys.

Ed Ward said...

Very happy you've had these experiences, Amanda. I'd already been freelancing for a year when Marie was born, however (I should add that I was quite young!), and continue to do it to this day.

Imminent eviction? "Not my fault if you can't run your business efficiently."

Late fees? "Ha ha ha. Don't contact us again."

You are a disposable commodity in this business, no matter how good you are, until you get to the level where Vanity Fair is writing you year-long contracts or you achieve Contributing Editorhood at the New Yorker. I can't think of a single freelancer I've ever known who'd contest this.

All I can say is, you've been very, very lucky. And it won't last forever unless you're luckier still.

Anonymous said...

Well, Ed, fingers crossed, my luck will hold. Maybe my sunny Polyanna outlook helps...