A freelance story
About nine months ago or so, I got an email from a relative bigwig in the publishing industry saying that the publication he was editing was going in a new direction and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in freelancing for him. I’m not going to say his name, but if you’re a pop culture writer like myself, chances are good that if this major player expressed interest in working with you, you’d be flattered, impressed and interested.
I was certainly all three, and I’m always looking to make more money. So we had a nice, hour long conversation where we talked about our respective experiences in the industry and my ideas for stuff we could work on together. We were both world-weary survivors at that point and I like to think we bonded at least a little over having been kicked around a bit by a brutal business.
I pitched to him ideas that included what would become Lukewarm Takes (lots of sites were interested in that one, but none came close to pulling the trigger) and an idea involving Youtube and me watching a fuck-ton of seriously terrible entertainment. He was interested in Lukewarm Takes but pulled the trigger on the Youtube piece.
I’d have to watch anywhere between six and fifteen movies, in addition to at least one season of reality TV for the article. It was essentially a week’s worth of work for two day’s pay but I agreed to write the piece for 450 dollars with the understanding that it would lead to more work and I wasn’t just writing an article: I was establishing a relationship with people I’d be working with extensively in the future.
So I did the work and turned in the piece maybe a week after it was assigned despite the enormous amount of research involved. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. I’m still waiting. My first sign that things were awry came when one of the editors (also a fair-sized name in the industry) I’d been working with emailed to say he’d no longer be with the publication.
Even more distressingly, nobody at the site seemed to have read my piece. I sent lots of emails gently and not gently prodding my editors to get back to me on when they piece would run and when I would get paid. They went distressingly unanswered. Finally, about five months into the process, I got an edit on the piece that looked just fine to me. Huzzah! The piece was going to run. I was going to get paid!
“This piece was for 200 dollars, right?” the editor enquired and I corrected him that it was actually for 450 dollars, and even that was way below my usual fee. Then came nothing. In the subsequent four months, I have continued to email the editors of this publication asking to be paid for the enormous amount of work I did.
At this point it’s been eight months since I foolishly turned in that piece on a tight deadline, imagining that it represented merely the beginning of a fruitful and lucrative relationship. Part of my brain thinks I should just accept that I am never going to see that 450 bucks, and it’s foolish and delusional of me to imagine that the 450 dollars is still forthcoming.
Here’s the thing: I really need that 450 bucks. I could do things like pay off a credit card bill or pay for a month and a half of my son’s preschool tuition with it. I’m not in a position to write off 450 dollars. Obviously it’s frustrating to do an enormous amount of work and then not get paid for it but I’ve been relatively lucky. In the two years I’ve been freelancing full-time this is the first time I haven’t been paid for a piece that was accepted.
When you’re freelancing, the big fear is that you’ll work yourself into an early grave and then not get paid. I don’t want to bring Donald Trump into everything, but as a freelancer, I am particularly insulted that he’s so proud of stiffing the people who work for him. I’m equally disgusted that people seem to look at him grousing, “Eh, I didn’t like the way the people who built my latest golf course dressed, so I refused to pay them” and thought, “Who can possibly fault a man for such keen business instincts?”
Am I irritated that I haven’t been paid yet, and will probably never get paid? Of course I am. But I’ve been in this business long enough to have some perspective. For so many people in this business, it’s all about a Darwinian struggle for survival. People are just trying to survive and keep their heads above water, and the fragile emotions of freelancers become collateral damage in the day-to-day war to stay in business and keep the lights on. Hell, I had to start my own website (the one you’re reading right now) in order to feel like I had any power, autonomy or freedom in this business.
So while I’m able to empathize with fellow world-weary survivors who are doing what they need to do to survive, my empty wallet and my sorry bank account, are a lot less understanding.
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