Frustrations and Freelance

I’ve been freelancing for a few months now, and my resume is finally starting to fill out. I’ve been published at a handful of different places, with new ones coming on the horizon — I even got a paycheck once! But that’s my problem — the issue of “once.”

If you’re a burgeoning writer looking to become known, it’s for a reason. Perhaps you want to be a journalist, or an essayist, a poet, or a memoirist. I want to be a novelist because I’m just masochistic enough to understand that the novel is a dying art form, and just cocky and stubborn enough to think that I can write one (and not just any one, but a good one) anyway.

I remember being roughly 13-14 years old and reading In the Forests of the Night by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. I didn’t look any of that information up. It’s burned into my brain. This girl, already my age, had written multiple YA books and had a contract with a publishing company to write more. Now, she’s 30 years old, has published 17 books with Random House, and I don’t want to begin to estimate her net worth.

In contrast, I’m 26 years old, have zero books published, have only been paid for one piece, and my Level app tells me that I can’t spend any money today (and most likely tomorrow) if I want to meet my goal of saving $125 a month.

And my husband wonders why I burn through e-cigarette cartridges.

But the point of that tangent is this —

I’ve wanted to be a writer since writing my first poem at 7 years old. I have wanted to be a novelist since I was at least 13. There was a brief period of time where I wanted to be a screenwriter, but I’ve arrived solidly back into novel territory, and I want so badly to earn a good reputation for myself while I work on my novel.

My mindset for 2015 is “keep going, and aim higher each time,” and so far that’s been working for me. Each new pitch has led me to a more respected pitch, or a pitch for a place with a higher readership, or simply the opportunity to be the best voice of the bunch, the best voice I can be just then.

It begins to fall apart, though, once you begin to understand how little return comes from any of this. I have published twelves pieces across five online magazines/collablogs, and thus far have been paid $50. Math-math-math: that amounts to $4.16 per piece, and fuck if I’m not worth more than that. Many of us are — and I say us because I also run a magazine of my own Every one of my writers is talented, and I would love to be able to pay them $50 a piece, or more. They deserve it, for what dedication and quality they give me. But, without people willing to advertise on the website, where does this revenue come from? I certainly don’t earn enough to pay people out of pocket.

There are some websites, though, that could easily afford to pay their writers. If not $50, then something smaller, but they could pay. Thought Catalog is estimated to be worth $2 million. The Daily Muse is estimated to be worth $93K. But Elite Daily  is aptly named — they have an estimated net worth of $64.5 million. They can bring in an average of $55K daily, which is more money than I make in a year. And yet a contributing writer is paid in exposure alone.

Meanwhile, of what worth is this exposure? How much of it can a single writer get from a single piece?

Obviously, that depends on the popularity of your piece, which, for those of us who hope to turn contributing to websites into a career of some kind, can be utterly maddening. You see, websites like these run on click-bait, non-content that will tell you “____ easy ways to ____,” or “____ things you didn’t know about ____.” Often there are no easy ways to _____, and you either knew those things about _____, or, once you read them, realized you didn’t care to know. These are the most popular forms of content for Gen Y. These are the pieces that perform the best, that get the most exposure, that are most likely to be featured on a website’s front page, or their Twitter, or their Facebook newsfeed.

And I ask you how exactly will this exposure help me become a novelist? How will it help someone else become a journalist, a poet, an essayist, or a memoirist? Because at the end of the day, the New York Times isn’t publishing listicles. Neither is HarperCollins or Random House, or Crown Publishing. So if listicles get you exposure, but no bona fide publisher wants them, how does this system benefit the writers?

I’m asking you because the online magazines aren’t answering.

Accuse me of being a typical millennial, unwilling to put in the time and effort to earn the job she wants if you’d like, but I know how hard I work, how many places I pitch to, how much time I spend writing, and editing, and podcasting — oh yes, I do that, too — on the downtime from my day job, and without any support from Mommy and Daddy.

Tell me that everyone is waiting for their big break, and I should keep trudging on until I hit mine, but there is a value to my time, to everyone’s time, and if I’m wasting it here, I want to know it as soon as possible so that I can move on and try something else.

Tell me to abandon internet pieces entirely and focus my attention on my novel, and I’ll remind you again that the novel is on hospice. You need to be known, as well-known as possible, before your novel hits the shelves, or in a month’s time, no one will be facing your book out at Barnes and Nobel anymore. Meanwhile, the average debut author’s advance is $5K-$15K, while debut royalties land somewhere around who the fuck knows. If your advance is the amount of money I make a month in my day job, that’s one month of living like a 26 year old married lady, and then eleven months of waiting for royalty checks that may or may not come, and whose amount cannot be well-estimated ahead of time.

So, then. It’s a balance between putting yourself out there, and putting your butt in the chair to write. And writing time must be distributed somehow between these online / freelance / contributing positions, and The Big Thing, the thing that’s going push you into the upper echelon of author, poet, journalist, and so on.

What’s the ratio? I haven’t a clue.

I’m just another writer like you, with a blog, an online resume, and some published articles. I can hope that my magazine and podcasting gigs will help me out, but the crystal ball is out of service. Sorry, folks.

But it’s almost damned certain that the system is broken, or at least fairly flawed — the surface of a thawing lake, with fault lines showing through. And it’s not something you can work. In the end, it works you.