The last thing I thought to myself this morning after checking my email was, “oh great, another excuse from these fuckers.”
In August, I was published by ELLE Magazine, and as of this moment in time I still haven’t been paid by that august publication. Since the article went up, I’ve dedicated a small portion of each day to sending out emails trying to find out why ELLE Magazine, whose editor-in-chief has a net worth is estimated to be around $3 million, has yet to deposit $325 into my bank account.
These days, writing is a precarious endeavour. It is made so in my case by non-staff employment, better known as freelancing. This is reflective of the exploitative relationship between writers and the publications they work for. When you are a freelancer, getting paid for the work you do becomes a second job in and of itself; you’re sending countless emails to dozens of people over weeks, months, and (in some cases even) years just to get paid for the labor you did. “This is how it is,” they tell you. And so, you bite your tongue and hope that your bank account doesn’t overdraft, and that your part time job doesn’t cut your hours. The emails do no good, and soon it becomes clear that, despite your cordiality, your demands for updates are being ignored.
In talking with, two friends in the same boat as me, I found out they were waiting to be paid some $3,500 in back pay from an outlet that offered us $150 or less for 800+ words. We would all whisper in the background about how enraging and humiliating it was, that not only were we being paid so little but that we had to wait months for the scraps that we got. “If we go public we’ll get blackballed,” we say to each other, and it’s true. There’s an unspoken threat that hangs over this tiring process, one whispered to writers that they shouldn’t make noise about being screwed on their pay, especially not the kind of noise that involves naming the publications that make them wait to get paid.
At least, if we ever want to get published again.
On top of it, people who aren’t writers think that dragging them on social media with a name and shame will get a publication to immediately stop fucking people like us on their pay. This is ludicrous. If anything, you’d be seen as an inconvenience or nuisance, and it may result in you being offered less work. It’s mind boggling that publications, as big as they come, expect writers to wait for whatever meager pay we manage to fight for while they reap the fruit of our labor.
What’s more, these kinds of shitty pay practices only serve to cut off working class writers from media work. People whose families come from money, or have supportive partners with steady employment, then have the luxury to keep pitching to these exploitative publications while those of us who are trying to write for a living lose time for writing to doing other jobs or our bills go unpaid. This is, in part, how the media sorts out working class voices and oversamples those from privileged backgrounds.
Websites such as Who Pays Writers highlight not only the number of publications that offer abysmal wages, but just how pervasive late payments, and non-payments are in this industry. What’s horrifying is that writers are not asking for anything even remotely unreasonable. We need to be paid in a reasonable amount of time for the work that these publications build their brands on. And it should go without saying that paying someone for work done months afterward is pretty damn far from reasonable. Despite this occurring as a matter of habit for a lot of publications, it is not acceptable and should be treated as a kind of theft. While things like accounting and responding to invoices are not easy services to provide, any publication that can’t manage to do this isn’t organized enough to deserve to profit from the labor of the writers it publishes.
The only way to address this epidemic of wage theft is through collective action, and the way has already been marked out. In September of this year, The Nation magazine and the National Writers Union/UAW Local 1981 signed an agreement about how freelance writers would be treated by The Nation. The agreement included minimum payments, kill fees, and a guarantee that freelancers would be paid within thirty days of an invoice being submitted. As those on staff at publications of the online media continue to organize under the auspices of WGA East and The News Guild, freelancers must take up the fight as well to fight for the basic dignity that the NWU’s agreement with The Nation represents.
I should not have to send ELLE Magazine nearly 20 emails in order to get a straight answer out of them as to when I’m going to get $325 for an article that has made them more than that. It’s safe to assume that these same editors wouldn’t accept the type of exploitative relationship writers are so commonly forced into were it their paycheck we’re talking about. The piece I wrote for ELLE came with a deadline, so why can’t they meet my deadline for payment?
Pay your goddamn writers. And pay them on fucking time.