Freddie deBoer explains why he’s planning to drop out of the freelance business:
I just find, at this point, that the process of pitching, composing, shepherding through edits, promoting, and trying to get paid sucks the life out of me. The commercial interests of publications require editors to ask for things that are tied to the news cycle in the most facile way imaginable. I get it, and I don’t blame them personally. But I’m opting out. And it’s increasingly hard for me to explain to editors what I want a piece to do and say without writing the piece. I’m just really not interested in the “beats” of a piece of nonfiction anymore; the argument, in the sense that people traditionally mean, is just about the least interesting aspect of nonfiction writing…
Meanwhile, the money generally sucks. I am very grateful for the LAT [Los Angeles Times] publishing me in their print edition, for example, and I knew what the rate was going in. But writing and editing a thousand-plus word piece for one of the biggest newspapers in the country got me $200. So many younger writers I know think that the higher profile, more established places are where the money is, but often that’s not true. Not anymore. And if I don’t enjoy it and the money’s not good, what’s the point?
It’s depressing, mostly because it’s true. Freddie has published in some of the country’s most important media outlets, like the New York Times, The Atlantic, etc, and still he finds himself mounting a herculean effort to think and plan and write and edit quality content, for roughly the cost of a pair of Beats headphones. And that transaction is considered “success” in the freelance industry, which traffics overwhelmingly in unpaid content.
Alan Jacobs puts it even more directly:
Here’s the way the game works: You should write newspaper pieces for peanuts because that will bring you to the attention of the monthlies, where you should write for peanuts because that will bring you to the attention of the trade publishing houses, who will give you a contract that over the course of your book’s life will pay you, if you calculate the hours you spend writing, well short of minimum wage — but that’s okay, because your book will bring you to the attention of the newspapers.
I don’t think many young writers, particularly Christian ones, are hoping to get rich off their words; it would take a pretty oblivious person to earnestly hope that. But the dynamic that Jacobs describes is what many of us get sucked into. Print is the promised land, but as you soon find out, it’s often reserved for writers who already have history there. “Exposure” turns out to be something of a con; being published at many non-paying outlets only really helps you get “in” to other non-paying outlets. Making the transition from “exposure” to “fee” is far more a matter of developing the right relationships–something you’re likely not doing very much of if you’re too busy cranking out free weekly content in the desperate hope of being picked up (which, if we’re being honest, doesn’t happen anymore).
I was talking about this stuff with a friend the other day. We both observed that the one apparent equalizer in the new writing economy was social media “platform.” It’s sad to say, but if you have 10,000 Twitter followers or Facebook “Likes,” you probably don’t need to be as good a writer or even as well-connected. Publications want clicks, and if a writer’s social media following alone guarantees a few hundred of those, that’s the game. This has the dual effect of training young writers to focus more on platform than on their work, and also shaping the culture of writing and journalism in the image of marketing and PR, rather than ideas. Thoughtful writers find themselves pressured to use manipulation and/or dishonesty in titles and opening paragraphs, for example, or issue half-brained reactions to the day’s Trending Topics–since they are, in a very real sense, “selling” their writing to readers instead of to publications. It’s Don Draper all the way down.
If you try to figure out how this dynamic can be fixed, you’ll end up confronting the inconvenient truth: Click-based advertising, the agriculture of the internet, is the crucial factor, and it’s probably not going anywhere anytime soon. The best thing a young writer can do for their passion is to get a regular full time job, support themselves sufficiently with that, and then write in the margins of their week. No one can thrive in a vocation if they have to constantly make a choice between paying their bills and doing honest, excellent work, which is precisely the dilemma facing young writers who want to go full-time. Nor is it healthy, I think, to invest hours and hours and hours every week into growing a social media platform, a lifestyle that by necessity requires you think small thoughts about small things. Is mastering the meme culture of Facebook or the insta-snark of Twitter really worth the sacrifice of being unable to finish books or focus on a train of thought for more than a couple minutes? What will it profit a young writer to gain a platform and lose her mind?
To end on a personal note, I’ll confess that I don’t have a good social media platform. Very, very few people know my writing, and only the tiniest fraction of that group would pay to read it. That’s ok, because I’ve been blessed with a wonderful day job that I enjoy very much. That’s a privilege I don’t take for granted. And yet, I still write, because I still love to write and still need to write. I love the writing life and (almost) everything it entails. I want to write for bigger and more respectable publications because I take ideas seriously, and sharing my ideas with wise editors and large readerships is part of the satisfaction of the writing life.
Over the past year I’ve felt a powerful urge to step away from social media and the pursuit of its platform. I deleted my personal Twitter account last week, after a several months-long period of trying different methods to control my use and put boundaries around my experience. The straightforward use of Twitter was swallowing my time and emotions to a degree that, honestly, no hobby of mine ever has before. It’s embarrassing to admit that you stay on a page clicking refresh, or search 20 times per day for anyone linking to your blog, but that’s where I was. Worst of all, I was becoming easily angered over stuff that had no legitimate impact on me, and I was feeling what was obviously the psychological effect of byte-sized information intake. My book-reading pace has become much slower than it was in college. I struggle to finish even a couple pages at a time without checking my phone. Philip Yancey’s “Reading Wars” blog hit me like a revival sermon. I knew the disease he described was mine.
After talking to a couple friends who had also deleted Twitter, I followed suit, knowing full well that my Twitter readership was meaningful and that not publishing my writing there would be eliminate a good portion of my “platform.” I did it not because I’m an incredibly self-disciplined person but because I am the opposite of that, and because I knew that it wasn’t going to get easier, and because an addiction to anything but grace is a snare.
And so now I write practically without a social media platform. Instead, I have invited readers to participate more directly in what I do, through my Patreon. At the risk of “selling” to you, let me just once again express my appreciation for those who have supported me through Patreon, and my gratitude for anyone who would consider giving me money to help me write the best I can write. I’m willing to bet a lot that friends are better than followers and patrons are better than ads. I can only hope that the future of evangelical writing agrees with me.