Rights and rates: an ongoing battle for freelancers

Tanya Gulliver

The newly formed Canadian Writers Group (CWG) poses an interesting, and potentially viable, solution to the problem of writers’ rates and rights. The CWG is an agency for freelance writers styled much the same as a literary agency, which is being launched by Derek Finkle, former editor of now-defunct Toro magazine.

Ever since I became a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) in 2004 (I am now president of the association) the issue of rates and rights has been a constant topic of conversation, so I was interested to hear Finkle’s proposal when he spoke to a crowd of about forty people at a Canadian Society for Magazine Editors (CSME) luncheon in Toronto on Nov. 12.

The CWG, which is scheduled to open for business in February 2009, will be an agency for writers to help them find work, negotiate fees and determine rights contracts. Finkle says that the idea came to him after listening to Charles Oberdorf’s acceptance speech for the Outstanding Achievement Award at the National Magazine Awards ceremony in June. Oberdorf, a veteran Canadian magazine writer, was lamenting the fact that freelance writers’ rates haven’t changed much in 35 years.

Indeed, PWAC’s Canadian Professional Writers Survey studied the rates of writers in 2005 and found that real earnings, to say nothing of the impact of inflation, had decreased by more than $2000 from 1995. For our members, the lack of ability to make a living doing only magazine writing is part of what prompted us to change the association’s name from Periodical to Professional.

Finkle says Oberdorf’s lament made him think of all the Canadian freelancers he knew who had moved on to US-based magazines, books and teaching positions.  He said  these other career paths can be options for writers, but that he sees them becoming  a “decision made out of necessity”. Finkle says it’s time writers were paid what they are worth and payment increases for writers be taken as seriously as payments owed to printers, paper suppliers and staff.

According to Finkle, the agency will feature a stable of writers and, similar to book publishing agents, will receive a fee for helping a freelance writer negotiate a rate with an editor. Writers, he says, are often not very good at asking for more money, and the use of an agent, and at times legal counsel, should help to increase the payments writers receive.

The agency will shift the focus away from per word rates, which in Canada range significantly, and will  instead focus on the skill and experience of the writer, the time required to write a piece and the amount of research involved. Even at $1 per word – the holy grail of word rates for many freelancers – Finkle says this amounts to only $30,000/year. Writers are therefore making significantly less than editorial staff at magazines, yet have greater overhead and don’t have benefits or the ability to pay into EI or CPP.

Finkle claims this will be an agency for all writers, but there is a sense, or perhaps a fear, in the freelancers’ community that the agency will be only for the elite. Finkle refutes this claim – although he also states he will represent “250 of the country’s best writers” – but the list of those who have expressed interest so far reads like a who’s who of Canada’s freelance writing community.

Rights & Rates  FlyerAt the luncheon, Finkle told the attendees he hopes his agency will encourage the creation of a career arc for writers, so that younger/newer writers will be able to advance and earn more money as their career progresses. In his own career, Finkle recently moved back into more freelance writing after years of working as an editor at magazines such as Saturday Night and Toro (both now defunct). “It made no sense that I was offered the exact same rate as I was offered at the exact same magazine 15 years ago…it goes without saying I am not the same writer,” he said.

Kim Pittaway, a former Chatelaine editor and current freelance writer, and John Macfarlane, former Toronto Life editor and interim editor and co-publisher of The Walrus, were also on the panel at the CSME luncheon and responded to Finkle’s presentation.

Pittaway echoed many of his concerns. “I never questioned my decision to be a writer until this year,” she said. The veteran freelancer said she decided to focus on magazine writing this year (as opposed to combining it with corporate work) and soon realized that her income from working at a fairly non-stop pace was going to net about $55,000,  less than her executive assistant’s salary during her days at Chatelaine. Did I mention no benefits and greater overhead?

In Pittaway’s experience, everyone in the industry, including suppliers and staff, makes a living wage except for the writers who create the content for the publications. She takes on corporate work and then ends up having to “fit in” her magazine work. “If the rates don’t go up, this is an industry for hobbyists.”

“I hope it works, I hope it thrives,” said Macfarlane. “Like most editors, we don’t think writers make enough and would like to be able to pay them more.”  But, he added, there just isn’t more money available after “the printer gets paid and the paper manufacturer gets theirs.” Finkle’s goal is to move writers further up on that list.

According to Macfarlane, magazine publishing is a marginal business in Canada and getting an across-the-board increase in freelance rates is going to be trickier than it seems.

But Pittaway and Finkle, both industry veterans, believe the CWG will put pressure on publishers to increase payments for writers, without whom a magazine would just become an ad circular.

Tanya Gulliver is a Toronto-based writer and president of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC).