There is a charity in Boston that helps the homeless by publishing a newspaper to which they contribute articles and poems. The thinking is that if a panhandler has a newspaper to sell, as opposed to merely asking for a handout, people will be more likely to give him or her money. As a happy byproduct of this retail transaction, the theory goes, the downtrodden will acquire valuable skills by cranking out content for the good sports who fork over cold, hard cash for their efforts.
What a great idea; help people get out of poverty by turning them into freelance writers. While we’re at it, why don’t we take away the deposit cans and bottles they’ve been collecting?
As someone who first sold a freelance article for $100 thirty-five years ago (adjusted for inflation: $3.26), and worked the better part of a summer to get it, all I can say is if you want to lift people out of poverty freelance writing is as good a tool as any, if by “any” you mean maypole dancing.
As a freelance writer, you deserve to be treated like the professional you are, although with pay for print articles being as low as it is, you may feel like you’re preserving your amateur status for some future Freelance Olympic Games in Oslo, Norway.
I sold thirty-five freelance articles in 2012, my best year ever. At the everyday low prices that prevail in the marketplace for unsolicited non-fiction, my take-home pay averaged twenty cents a word. Not bad, you think. You’ve got plenty of words—you’re the freaking Wal-Mart of words, fer Christ sake! The problem is, no one wants to buy the Big Gulp size; everyone wants to buy the little, teensy 430-word sip.
And then there’s the phenomenon of reverse literary panhandling. One editor to whom I sent the taboo-breaking article “How to Tell Your Teenaged Son From a Dead Rodent” went out of his way to tell me how much he enjoyed it, and how eager he was to run it in his suburban weekly. “Of course, I have no budget for freelance articles,” he added with a fraternal tone, as if an experienced writer like myself would know that one doesn’t actually get paid for this sort of thing.
“Mais oui, mon ami!” I replied with the devil-may-care attitude of a blase, sophisticated boulevardier et flaneur, like Maurice Chevalier. “Why should you pay me for something that will mean so much to your readers, when it is but a trifle to me!”
The purchasers of freelance writing have a well-deserved reputation for responding as slowly as possible, thereby increasing your pleasure in much the same manner that the Pointer Sisters longed for a slow hand. I was pleasantly surprised in 2007 by the jackrabbit response of a publishing company to an over-the-transom Hail Mary I sent them. “Thank you for your submission,” their friendly, personalized form letter read. “You should hear back from us in approximately six months.” I set my snooze alarm for January of 2008, and waited for the big check to arrive, Ed McMahon-style, at my front door.
Time passed. Buildings rose and fell outside my office window. The Tampa Bay Rays went to the World Series, an African-American president was elected, the Arizona Cardinals played in the Super Bowl. We were surely in the end times predicted in the Book of Revelations, but I had to wait for a year after I received that first “Save the Date!” semi-rejection letter to get my official rejection letter. All I can say is, it’s a good thing I didn’t send them a live report from Pearl Harbor.
If one were to adopt this policy for a one-on-one transaction with a panhandler, instead of going through a middleman non-profit newspaper, the exchange might go something like this:
BUM: Hey man, spare a quarter?
YOU: Actually, I’d be happy to give you more than that.
BUM: You would?
YOU: Sure. Just send me a draft of a short, humorous piece about sleeping on heating grates.
BUM: That ain’t funny . . .
YOU: Well, no, not strictly speaking, but if you embellish it, and I take it, I’ll pay you within 30 days of acceptance.
BUM: (To another passer-by) Hey man, spare a quarter?
And then there are the unintended consequences of training the currently unemployed to become freelancers. My going rate for a +/-500-word article is $100; you will note there has been no price increase since I sold my first piece thirty-five years ago. My “hit” rate for print articles last year wasn’t bad, around 95%, which was Larry Bird’s career-high free throw shooting average, so I’m in good company there. On-line it was about the same, but the prices were a fraction—around 10%—of what print outlets pay. No wonder newspapers are going out of business.
So additional writing supply from panhandlers means prices will go down even further, leading to uncomfortable negotiations like this:
ME: . . . so that’s the news hook. Unless we rescind the Hungarian Toy Tariff right now we face the collapse of the domestic Play-Doh market, which will course through the economy like the chocolate part of Fudge Ripple ice cream.
EDITOR: Um-hmm. So . . . what kind of fee were you looking for?
ME: Well, my usual.
EDITOR: I don’t know. I met a guy sleeping in the vestibule who said he’d write a three-part series on how the Pope controls his bladder—for a 50 ounce jug of Thunderbird wine!
ME: (Pause) Okay, I’ll do it for a quart bottle of malt liquor.
Con Chapman did not get paid for this article. —Ed.
Con Chapman is the author of The Year of the Gerbil, a history of the 1978 Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees pennant race; two novels, Making Partner and CannaCorn; and over forty books of humor.