Today’s guest post is written by David Hayes, an award winning freelance writer living in Toronto. In addition to contributing articles, essays and reviews to publications such as Toronto Life, Reader’s Digest and The New York Times Magazine, Hayes has written or ghost-written five nonfiction books. He also teaches advanced feature writing in Ryerson’s G. Raymond Chaug School of Continuing Studies and has lectured on various aspects of journalism to a variety of organizations.
In Canada, the biggest freelance issue in recent years has been rates.
For decades, the basic fee for the top, most prestigious consumer magazines was roughly $1/word and it has remained, for the most part, at $1/word to the present day.
Very recently, a few senior writers have negotiated up. I mainly write for the largest Canadian magazines and for several years have worked for $1.50/word, and somewhat more in the case of Reader’s Digest. If I were writing for some of the equivalent top magazines in the U.S., with my level of experience and a brace of National Magazine Awards on my resume, I would command anywhere from $2.50 to as high as $5/word. Still, for the most part here in Canada, writers are still being offered, and accepting, $1/word.
According to a 2006 report by the Professional Writers Association of Canada, in 1979 the average annual income for a Canadian freelance writer was $25,000. In 2005, it was $24,035. Yes, it dropped. If you were to take just three examples from 1979 – the cost of office leasing space in downtown Toronto, the price being charged by the better printers, and the salary of a magazine’s advertising sales director – and compare them to 2009, they will have risen exponentially. Not only have writers’ rates remained stagnant, but publishers today are demanding more rights and often taking even longer to pay than they did three decades ago.
With discontent rising amongst the ranks of freelance writers, several years ago a Canadian Freelance Union formed under the umbrella of the large Communications, Energy & Paperworkers union, which unionized much of Canada’s newspaper and broadcast industries. Nothing much seems to have happened with it. However, the mere threat of a union began to create a nervousness among publishers and owners of publications.
Then, just a few weeks ago, Derek Finkle, a freelance writer and former magazine editor, created the Canadian Writers Group, which functions much like the literary agencies many of us are signed to for book work. Its goal is to relieve freelance writers of the responsibility of negotiating their fees – like it or not, many excellent reporters and writers are less than brilliant businesspeople – and seek a more equitable rate structure as well as more favorable rights arrangements.
Some argued that launching the agency in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression was a bad idea. But after more than three decades of publishers stubbornly claiming they couldn’t afford to increase writers’ rates even as they found ways to absorb rising prices for every cost associated with their business, many of us thought the momentum happened to build now so the time had come.