In Slate magazine last night, book critic Laura Miller has a review of a new volume called Scratch in which writers famous and obscure describe how much and whether they get paid for the work that they produce. The general consensus is that writers aren’t paid enough (which is true), but some of the reasons the writers gave were a little less than compelling. I’ve published many books, which by most measures would be impressive, but I’ve learned the hard way even selling thousands of copies won’t make enough money to pay the bills. Prometheus Books, the publisher of my first book, made big promises and delivered to me about $0.24 per copy.
You can understand, then, why I feel no sympathy for Cheryl Strayed, who complained that she wasn’t able to survive on her $400,000 advance for the book Wild, later a major Hollywood movie. She whined that she had to use the money to pay off her credit card debt and support her family, a real challenge since she had “only” received $100,000 for her previous novel, spread over four years. The solutions are quite obvious: Either write more books, or produce shorter works for pay to fill in the gaps. But anyone who complains about half a million dollars in income from only two written works over five or six years does not have my sympathy, particularly since those advances eventually translated into a continuing royalty stream she continues to receive today.
Similarly, Miller says that feminist writer and professor Roxane Gay’s $150,000 income in 2014 is not commensurate with her fame and influence. She wrote four books, two of which were published in 2014, but neither of which I had ever heard of. Frankly, I had never heard of Gay either.
The writers in Scratch talk of the love of writing, somewhat like a carpenter who speaks of a love of hammering. It was always my impression that writing was a tool and that one must first have something to say before trying to say it. Maybe it is different for fiction writers. Novelist Alexander Chee marveled that his nonfiction work and journalism is similarly devalued relative to the effort it takes. A fun fact is that H. P. Lovecraft received the same pay in nominal dollars in 1926 that many publications still pay today, pennies per word. With inflation, today’s pay rates are so low that even Depression-era writers would have tried selling apples on the street rather than bother. And do not get me started on the publications that want people to write for free while they profit off of it...
This extends not just to professional writing aimed at the public. It also extends to commercial writing for businesses. The average rate a freelance writer can reasonably charge hasn’t changed since I started 15 years ago. Worse, clients don’t want to pay even that. A few weeks ago, a potential client told me that charging the industry standard rate was ridiculous because he could get his corporate website written by a writer from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or a similar freelance website for only $3 or $4 per “unit” of 250 words of text. (Yes, writing is now sold in “units.”) I assume you can calculate yourself the speed one would need to write “high quality professional” text to make anything more than minimum wage at that rate. I also assume you can imagine the type of “high quality professional” writing one gets for that price. Since companies now believe that no one actually reads text, they only need the words to meet Google’s indexing standards to improve page ranks.
And that was hardly the first time a client has declined to pay a living wage because foreign writers will work for pennies, albeit with inferior results. One client said he would bump the pay up to $7 per unit, but wanted the text to be researched with interviews and references from current business literature. The time that would take knocked the price right back down to minimum wage. Fortunately, not all clients are like that, but a growing number certainly are thanks to a combination of indifference to quality and the perceived benefits of outsourcing to foreign writers and desperate students.
But I have gone on too long about this.
This week Nephilim theorist L. A. Marzulli produced a video from an “undisclosed location” in the Poconos in which he reported a truly ridiculous claim about the “discovery” of a new “giant” in the photographic archive of Catalina Island. His co-producer of the Watchers DVD series was combing through the archives of Ralph Glidden’s museum when he found a photograph depicting two skeletons buried in the fetal position with a small round object with a hole in it between them. There is nothing in the photograph to establish scale, so Marzulli decided to invent a way to turn the bodies into giants.
The object with a hole in it could be any size, but Marzulli says that by “assuming” that the rock is “around six inches” across, his team could then calculate the length of the skeleton at seven and a half feet tall because they estimate that the larger skeleton is fifteen times longer than the round object. He conceded, however, that the object’s true size is unknown and might have been four or five inches across, though he declined to note that doing so would reduce the size of the skeleton to around five feet.
Marzulli also falsely claims that the skulls on these two skeletons are “elongated,” but in a way unseen in other cultures, claiming that there is no forehead. It looks like a skull within the normal range to me, though I can’t claim special expertise in forensic anthropology.
“The point is, if it’s six inches, then we’re looking at […] an entity that is well over seven feet tall with an elongated skull. That shouldn’t be there! It’s an incredible find!”
It isn’t. He literally made up the measurements and then crowed about how anomalous they are.
Marzulli finished up his broadcast by citing Scott Wolter of America Unearthed as his continuing inspiration for proving history is wrong, and he ended with a commercial asking viewers to buy his products, including the Watchers X DVD that he admitted last year incorrectly reported that a taxidermy hoax was the likely body of a demon fairy. He is selling an 11-DVD Watchers set for $99.99 plus shipping and handling. I guess in these times you have to make money however you can.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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