Issue #57, Fall 2015

The Price of Writing

Between the Lines

Jennifer Niesslein

The Price of Writing

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I edit a web magazine called Full Grown People. I’ve been at it for two years. I read, I edit, I collaborate with writers and Gina Easley, the staff photographer. Work from Full Grown People has earned special mention in Best American Essays and has been included in the Best Food Writing anthology. I’ve published one Full Grown People anthology and have just launched another. The magazine has a healthy readership. The business is a registered LLC. It’s all legit.

I just haven’t made any money yet. I don’t know if I ever will.

•••

When we talk about “the publishing industry,” we’re really talking about three different realms, both in terms of business and writing.

On the lowest rung—where Full Grown People is now—no editor is getting paid, and writers are paid nothing or almost nothing. There are a lot of us on this rung because it’s crazy easy to start up a web publication: you buy a domain name, teach yourself WordPress, and—presto!—you have yourself a magazine (albeit one that won’t generate much revenue by itself).

The average reader probably doesn’t know that some of us are on this lowest rung because the quality of the writing can be tremendous. For instance, I didn’t know until this spring that the venerated eighteen-year-old Brevity was, as its editor Dinty W. Moore put it, “funded almost exclusively by the loose change in my pocket and the occasional donation from members of our literary community” before the Kickstarter campaign that grossed the magazine $12,571.

The Rumpus—the web magazine founded by Stephen Elliott—started out here, as well. Even today, the magazine pays only its managing editor and assistant editor. Literary rock stars Cheryl Strayed and Roxane Gay garnered their first huge attention and recurring audiences at The Rumpus. I still look to the magazine to find exquisite work by writers I’ve never heard of.

On the next rung, you’ll find a lot of slightly bigger pubs, usually with honest-to-god print issues. This rung is occupied by a lot of nonprofits, such as Creative Nonfiction, The Sun, and Bitch, as well as magazines that aren’t technically nonprofits but might as well be given the modest salaries of the staff and the modest pay for writers. (Publications with university affiliations are also usually here, although their fortunes can vary widely.)

Before Full Grown People, I cofounded one of these with my friend Stephanie Wilkinson. The first issue of Brain, Child came out in March 2000, and we sold the magazine at a healthy profit in August 2012. We started it with $20,000 of our own money and paid the writers and artists from day one and our staffers when we felt financially secure enough to hire them. It was five years before we started paying ourselves anything at all, but we worked up to a modest salary for both of us. And when I say modest salary, I mean “Honey, I can get three of the utility bills this month” money, not “Hey, honey, you can quit your job now” money. (I have no idea what Brain, Child’s finances are like these days; Stephanie and I are no longer affiliated with it.)

There’s an enormous space between this rung and the next because after this rung, the magazines are no longer primarily supported by reader subscriptions, grants, and donations in the virtual tip jar. On the top rung, advertisers pay most of the magazine’s bills.

This is where you’ll find the glossies—ranging from The New Yorker to O—as well as websites with corporate backing, where the editors and writers both get paid. Not as much as they used to—print advertising is the first budget cut a lot of businesses make when money gets tight—but still.

Every magazine has its raison d’être, and depending on what it is, up on the top rung, a writer can find herself paid well for a smart, nuanced essay—or a listicle on ten ways to look younger. Sometimes these pieces appear in the same magazine; as I read Dionne Ford’s masterful “My Family Tree: In Black and White” in More, the site suggested I might also be interested in “The New Over-40 Hair Color Rules.”

Editors at top-rung magazines tend to be smart cookies, and I like the ones I’ve met. Their jobs are simply different from mine. They need to accept and assign writers and writing that will reach their magazines’ demographics, which are boiled down with precision in a “media kit,” a packet sent to advertisers to explain the audience their ads will reach. In a sense, all writers are doing this anyway—don’t we all want to reach our ideal readers? (God knows my work wouldn’t get any play with the bro crowd.) It starts to feel icky only when the writer can’t trust that the editor truly won’t breach the sales/editorial divide, letting commerce dictate writing.

Each writer, it seems to me, has to cobble together her own moral code of which rung or rungs she’s willing to work with. Some flat-out refuse to work for publications that don’t pay well; from my perspective, these writers might make some bank, but often it’s for writing service pieces or articles that aren’t especially close to their hearts or that require intense months-long immersion in stories.

Other writers look at where the money is and decide from there—if someone’s making a boatload of cash but the writers get squat, no dice. The Huffington Post is a notorious example among freelance writers. And if you think you’re guaranteed some decent payout by writing for, say, The Atlantic, slow down, cowboy. In 2013, writer and journalist Nate Thayer made news when an Atlantic editor in its online division approached him about reworking—for no pay—a piece that had appeared elsewhere. He wrote about it on his blog and later told New York magazine, “I don’t need the exposure. What I need is to pay my fucking rent. Exposure doesn’t feed my fucking children.”

Me? I like money, but I don’t have the kind of life that gives me the flexibility to do, say, immersion journalism, no matter how well it pays. I look to the quality of the publication. If I enjoy at least 75 percent of what I read, I submit there. I want to write alongside those who I hope are my peers. I want an editor who has tastes similar to mine. I want readers as well as respect, and, to me, respect doesn’t always have to dress in green.

•••

My husband and I met in college. We lived together as equals—none of that playing house malarkey for us. We each did our own laundry, took turns cooking, and spent our evenings with our heads bent over our homework, Brandon’s mind filled with complex math and chemical equations, mine with complex ideas about literature. One summer, I paid my share of the bills by waiting tables at night, interning at a local alternative newsweekly by day; he tended bar on the nights he didn’t play trumpet with his band.

Maybe that’s why, when Brandon got a job that put his engineering degree to work (read: that paid way more handsomely than most editorial positions, anywhere, ever), our attitudes about whose work was more important didn’t change. He’s always been supportive of what I do, and, in fact, he subsidizes it without expecting me to pick up any more than my equal share of housework and parenting.

This sometimes makes me queasy on a personal level. What kind of wife am I? What kind of feminist am I? What kind of fool am I?

It also makes me queasy as a citizen of the literary community. Even if Full Grown People cost me less than a thousand bucks to start—an amount that, I realize, is beyond many people’s grasp—I have something else that only rich people have: time. (I didn’t grow up with this kind of financial security, and I know very well what the younger me would have thought of me now: rich bitch.)

It’s a legitimate beef. In The Guardian, Barbara Ehrenreich recently addressed the terrible reality that only the rich can afford to write about poverty. She wrote:

I saw my own fees at one major news outlet drop to one-third of their value between 2004 and 2009. I heard from younger journalists who were scrambling for adjunct jobs or doing piecework in “corporate communications.” But I determined to carry on writing about poverty and inequality even if I had to finance my efforts entirely on my own. And I felt noble for doing so.

Then, as the kids say today, I “checked my privilege.” I realized that there was something wrong with an arrangement whereby a relatively affluent person such as I had become could afford to write about minimum-wage jobs, squirrels as an urban food source, or the penalties for sleeping in parks, while the people who were actually experiencing these sorts of things, or were in danger of experiencing them, could not.

Yep.

And it goes even beyond that in the world of creative nonfiction, where connections matter. (And if you say they don’t, the younger you is rolling her eyes.) I don’t have an MFA, but the time I’ve spent at Brain, Child and Full Grown People has given me cred and scored me connections I would have never made otherwise. To be perfectly honest, I would have never gotten the book contract for my 2007 memoir if I didn’t already have a day job that allowed me to reach well over thirty thousand readers.

On the flip side, though, as the editor of a lower-rung publication, I have the freedom to publish work that might otherwise be overlooked. Some of the work may require a bit heavier-than-usual editing, but I have the patience, the chops, and the willingness to explain why something works or doesn’t. Some of it has required personal connections with writers who don’t have the confidence to trust the value of their writing. Some of it is just dumb luck.

But Full Grown People has been able to publish essays about what having a daughter in prison does to one’s faith (Bonnie S. Hirst); falling from the middle class and living in a broke-down RV (Erica S. Brath); how gender works from the perspective of a trans-man (Alex Myers); and trying to hide one’s chronic pain (Anjali Enjeti).

Lasting change anywhere—not just in the literary world—comes from the bottom up, and I know that influential editors and writers read Full Grown People, and if my experience with Brain, Child is any indication, so do agents. In my more hopeful moments, I think that I may not pay my writers’ fucking rent, but maybe I’ll be a bridge to whatever publishing becomes, whether it stays the traditional course, evolves into something few of us can imagine now, or becomes a hybrid of the two.

•••

Why do I work so hard for free? I have to admit, there is an ego element to it: it’s like being the president of a fan club. I get to connect work I love with readers who love it as much as I do, and I get credit for it. Full Grown People’s community of readers is extremely gratifying to me.

But that’s only part of it. On a more practical level, I personally know only three writers who make a living doing the writing that brings them joy. Two of them are genre writers, a field that can be more lucrative, and the other one put in years and years of unpaid and underpaid work before lightning struck. The rest make a living how they can, whether it’s lawyering, teaching, working retail, or anything in between.

And editing a well-paying publication? It’s nice work if you can get it. I once applied for the editor position at a well-known, although not well-read, publication. The yearly salary for that position was in the $90,000 range. Even with my proven track record of bringing readers to the page and my knowledge of the more arcane aspects of publishing, I didn’t get an interview.

So, even as I hope that Full Grown People makes it to the second rung via the anthologies (Pretty please, buy them!), I’ve had to make peace with a niggling question: what does it mean to succeed as a writer or an editor?

I don’t know how it is for everyone else, but for me, it can’t be about the money, at least not entirely. I want to look back on my life and know that I did something worthwhile. And right now, I think I do. There’s nothing like the pleasant buzz I get when I’m editing and I come across a passage that makes me think, This is going to be just the thing that somebody needs right now. I know that Full Grown People has been effective in a basic human way. Some readers feel less alone; some readers walk away with a new perspective; some readers gain empathy.

And as a writer? I think sometimes about Brandon—my musician, my engineer, my love. The music industry changed dramatically before publishing did. He still plays trumpet and still makes some money at it; he finds it fulfilling. These days, our heads—mine now dyed a hair color that may or may not comply with More's rules, Brandon’s now showing the first strands of gray—are bent over computer screens, sheet music, and spreadsheets, our minds filled with complex ideas about our passions, our ambitions, making a living, and making a life.


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Author Bio

Jennifer Niesslein

Jennifer Niesslein is the editor of Full Grown People and two anthologies: Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume 1 and Soul Mate 101 and... read more

Comments

Isabelle

September 17, 2015

I so appreciate this writer's honesty and how precise she's willing to be about numbers. I've found when the discussion comes to pay range and income for writers most people are maddeningly vague. It's a complex matrix — sometimes value is measured by prestige or literary rung climbed, and as the Atlantic-rejector claims, you can't use that to pay the rent or feed your kids. One thing I've seen over and over is a kind of shill game, however, where the promise is always held out — greater exposure, building a platform, snagging an agent, etc. — and whether that pays off in actual $$ or, more likely, the possibility of more unpaid work — is never clear. In many ways, the writer's plight is no different than those in other arts, where a living in made in other ways, but it's good to have it acknowledged that only those who have enough money or security elsewhere can continue in the game.

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