Traditional Publishing

Low-pay writing

By James A. Haught
Editor Emeritus, The Charleston Gazette – Tuesday September 3, 2019

Moliere said: “Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it. Then you do it for a few friends. And finally you do it for money.”

Unfortunately, many of today’s writers can’t attain the level of a self-supporting hooker, because markets and communications have evolved into strange new territory.

A colossal Niagara of writing occurs in this astounding new Cyber Age. The Internet now has two billion websites, and 500 million of them are blogs written on every conceivable topic. Each day, millions of words flow.

But few of the authors earn a livable sum for their work. Most do it just for the joy of offering their ideas to the world, while relying on other income.

As a retired newspaper editor, I’m a blogger on three sites. The Good Men Project and Canadian Atheist pay me nothing for reprinting my previously published essays. Daylight Atheism at Patheos pays me two dollars per thousand readers of new or recycled skeptic tirades.

At D.A., I average near two thousand readers per posting. So far, I’ve gotten two checks, one for $158, the other for $98. I’m delighted with my hooker pay.

Right now, around 300 of my essays are in cyberspace at CounterPunch, Free Inquiry, Church & State, Secular Web, PeaceVoice, etc. After I’m gone (I’m 87 now), I hope they remain online, giving me a bit of immortality.

The Canadian website just launched a blitz to repost 90 of my columns in 90 days. Readers may suffer shellshock.

Bottom line: I’m quite happy to write seven days a week for almost no pay, just for kicks. I can afford to do it, because I live on a fat newspaper pension and fat Social Security.

However, for younger writers trying to earn a living, the story is much bleaker. An Authors Guild survey of 5,000 full-time and part-time writers found that their average 2017 earnings fell to a pathetic $6,080, far below the poverty line – down more than half from $12,850 a decade earlier.

Apparently there are so many write-for-nothing authors like me that the market doesn’t need to shell out big money to get quality prose.

Looking back through history, there were plenty of writers who went hungry. Edgar Allan Poe reportedly earned only a few hundred dollars from his immortal work. But others cashed in.

When I was young, plenty of paying markets existed. In its heyday, Penthouse paid me $4,000 and $3,000 for a couple of pieces. But paper publications barely survive today, wrecked mostly because readers switched to cyberland, where nobody needs to pay for subscriptions – and advertising followed the readers.

Many voices lament the collapse of writer pay. Authors Guild President James Gleick said:

“When you impoverish a nation’s authors, you impoverish its readers.”

Vice President Richard Russo added:

“There was a time in America, not so very long ago, that dedicated, talented fiction and nonfiction writers who put in the time and learned the craft could make a living doing what they did best, while contributing enormously to American knowledge, culture and the arts. That is no longer the case for most authors.”

Guild member T.J. Stiles said:

“Poverty is a form of censorship…. Limiting writing to the financially independent and the sinecured punishes authors based on their lack of wealth and income.”

Well, I don’t know any cure for the pay decline. Society and technology evolve constantly. Changes often inflict harm on people who previously were secure.

All I know is that the Internet teems with unpaid and low-paid authors, and compulsive writers like me are neck-deep in the new reality.

About the Author

I'm the longtime editor of West Virginia's largest newspaper, where I've won two dozen newswriting awards. I've written 11 books and 150 magazine essays. I'm in Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Contemporary Authors and 2000 Oustanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. I'm a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine. I'm a weekly blogger at both Daylight Atheism and The Good Men Project. I formerly was writer-in-residence at the United Coalition of Reason.