My Life as a Hack
It was glorious. Now it's over.
I can recall seeing only one movie about a freelance writer: Woody Allen's Celebrity. In an early scene, a movie star (played by Melanie Griffith) takes the hack (Kenneth Branagh) on a tour of her childhood home then seduces him in her old bedroom.
That struck me as unrealistic. It's been my experience as a freelancer that film stars almost never invite you to their houses.
It did happen to me once, however. About 15 years ago, Rolling Stone asked me to profile the teenage Uma Thurman. We had lunch at the Russian Tea Room (where Rolling Stone bought Uma a caviar-blini combination so expensive it had an unlisted price) then took a pit stop at her family's apartment on the Upper West Side. There was no seduction, the least of many reasons being that her little brother was due home from school any minute. Even so, the whole thing was a highlight of my freelancing career to that date.
Shortly after I submitted the piece, my editor phoned to say she was so sorry, but they couldn't use it: It wouldn't do to run two profiles of oddly-first-named starlets in one issue, and another editor had inadvertently assigned an article about Winona Ryder. Moving swiftly to Plan B, I mailed (no e-mail yet) the story to American Film magazine, which accepted it. Out of courtesy, I informed my Rolling Stone editor. The next day she phoned: On second thought, Rolling Stonedid want to run my piece, only I would have to cut 3,000 words to 900. I was embarrassed to have to withdraw it from American Film, but the connection led to three rewarding assignments from that magazine. Then it folded.
That was nothing new. The majority of magazines I've written for no longer exist. A moment of silence: American Stage, Atlantic City Magazine, Business Month, Channels of Communication, Connoisseur, Fame, Horizon, In Health, Lingua Franca, Memories, New England Monthly, Next, the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Phillysport, Politicks, Push, Saturday Review, Ultrasport, and Working at Home.
We freelancers have always had to put up with magazines that die on us, along with butchered copy, chuckleheaded editors, rights-grabbing contracts, isolation, lost manuscripts, whacks to the ego, changed quotes, the absence of security or benefits, and—unkindest of all—the kill fee (i.e., paying authors a third or a quarter of the agreed-upon rate if an assigned piece is not used for virtually any reason, up to and including the fact that someone else wrote about Winona Ryder). Usually, though, these indignities are outweighed by the good stuff about freelancing: freedom, no commute, funny war stories, the periodic ego boost of appearing in print, and the chance to eat caviar with Uma Thurman.
But something has changed. These days, when the pros and cons are put on the scale, the minus side sinks every time. I've spent 29 years as a freelancer—some of it full time, most of it on the side—but it may finally be time to take down my shingle.
Perhaps this is just the Lion King factor—the circle of life. Freelancing, with all its scrambling and uncertainty, is like rock climbing or white-water kayaking: one of those things that comes fairly easily in your 20s and 30s but requires some mulling over as you enter your 50s.
But I'm convinced that the nature of the game has changed as well. For one thing, the economics of the freelance life seem worse than ever. And they were never good. Just take a look at George Gissing's 1891 novel, New Grub Street, about London hacks barely breaking even. In the cosmos of skilled tradespeople, freelance journalists have always been bottom-dwellers. Plumbers don't do kill fees. Screenwriters have negotiated an ironbound fee schedule: currently, a minimum of $53,256 (I said minimum) for two drafts of an original script, plus $17,474 more for a rewrite and $8,742 for a "polish." But for magazine hacks, an unlimited number of rewrites and polishes have always been gratis.
As far as freelancing rates go, they were modest when I started out and are about the same now. I don't mean the same adjusted for inflation. I mean the same. I became a full-time freelancer in 1978, and the first piece I published in a prominent national magazine was a "My Turn" essay in Newsweek. I was paid $500. Just a couple of years ago, I had a slightly longer essay in a popular online magazine that will go nameless. $500 again. I received the check 97 days after publication, which broke a personal record.
Ben Yagoda is author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and the just-published How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. He is a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.