Writers want more, but can publishers afford it?

Marco Ursi

If pay rates for freelancers don’t increase, the Canadian publishing industry will end up with a pool of writers who consider magazine writing a hobby, Kim Pittaway told a room full of editors gathered yesterday for a luncheon hosted by the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors. “If I want to write [for magazines], I need to do it on the side while I earn better money doing other corporate work,” she said. The former editor of Chatelaine was speaking on a panel that also included Derek Finkle, of the new Canadian Writers Group, and John Macfarlane, the former editor of Toronto Life and current editor of The Walrus.

“In 20-some years working in magazines, I never once questioned my decision to be a magazine writer and editor—until this year,” Pittaway said. “And that’s including that little kerfuffle at Chatelaine a couple of years ago.” Pittaway told the room that at the beginning of 2008, she made the “financially foolish” decision to focus exclusively on writing for magazines. With 25-30 magazine pieces published or scheduled to be published this year–about 40,000 words in total—Pittaway’s total net income will work out to about $55,000. “That’s less than my executive assistant was making when I was working at Chatelaine.”

Finkle, the former editor of Toro magazine, plans to launch the Canadian Writers Group to help writers like Pittaway make a better living contributing to Canadian magazines.

“Some writers are clearly worth more than they are getting and some writers are not,” says John Macfarlane.

Macfarlane said he hopes the agency “thrives.”  He agrees that writers aren’t paid enough and “would be happy to pay them more.” He also sees an advantage for both editors and writers in negotiating fees through an agent—conversations can be more open and frank, with no one having to worry about the writer’s feelings being hurt.

But, he argued, “There is no more money.”

After paying for printing, paper, distribution and staff salaries, publishers are left with only a small amount of money with which to pay freelancers, Macfarlane said. “The problem isn’t that [publishers] here are meaner, nastier people than they are in New York [where rates are much higher], the problem is that magazine publishing in Canada is a marginal business.” The small size of the country’s population, he said, puts severe limits on that amount of revenue magazines can earn in Canada.

“We may be able to, on a case-by-case basis, to improve the compensation of some freelance writers and I hope this agency can do that. But to think an across the board increase in rates is going to be achieved overlooks the real causes of this ongoing problem.”

Douglas Thomson, editor of Canadian Home Workshop magazine, took issue with the suggestion that magazine’s can’t afford to pay more. He pointed to the fact that publishers have been able to meet the continually rising costs of printing and paper. Publishers continue to pay low rates because they can. “To say that there’s not money available is a bit of an easy answer.”

At the end of the session, Macfarlane was asked what would happen if he is unable to find the money to pay writers from Finkle’s agency. “Magazines will have a choice: Either they raise the fee for that particular job or they walk away from the writer. And believe me, there’s going to be a lot of that going on. Some writers are clearly worth more than they are getting and some writers are not. The writers who are not are not going to get any more.

(This article was originally published on Masthead Online.)

Next week on J-Source, Tanya Gulliver, president of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) looks further into the rights and rates debate in Canada’s freelance world.