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Jewish World Review March 27, 2001 / 3 Nissan, 5761

Dave Shiflett

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Can you hack it? -- THE freelance writing world is on the edge of its frayed barstool as the Supreme Court considers a subject dear to the heart of every hack: money. At its core, the case is about paying freelancers when their work is reprinted electronically. The argument holds that if your work is used a bunch, you should get paid for those additional uses, sort of like a songwriter gets paid each time her song is played or performed (we speak idealistically, as if Thiefster et al. did not exist).

As one whose entire income is derived from freelancing, this humble hack raises a mug to this splendid cause. Simultaneously, a glare is fired off in the direction of Kenneth Starr and Laurence Tribe, who are defending the publishing industry against the people Tribe endearingly calls "the little guys." He assures us his heart is with us but, of course, bidness is bidness.

Yet here's the bottom line. While goodness, morality, justice, and fairness are all on the side of writers, that doesn't add up to much. In the end, the suits will find some way to prevail. They're holding most of the cards, and writers are their own worst enemy. For one thing, there are far too many of us. Making matters worse, many writers will trade an article for little more than a pat on the head. These fools want recognition! They want to make a difference! These people have day jobs. Dare we call them scabs?

Probably not. Even for seasoned scribes, the glory of having their prose published in a "name" place is nearly glory enough. As has been pointed out elsewhere, many if not all writers would pay to have their stuff electronically enshrined in Nexis Lexis, where even the most dreadful prose becomes part of the national database -- warts, dangling modifiers, misspellings, lies, and all. Publishers, most of whom are Darwinian to the core, look at this pack of simpering beggars and do what comes naturally. Squeeze them dry, then sell what's left to the glue factory. This is as nature has decreed.

The only thing that saves writers is their madness, which goes triple for those who freelance for a living. Not only is there the supply and demand problem. There's the mortgage, the barman's tab, the pitiless taxman (who visits freelancers four times a year), and other stuff like a kid's tuition. Our blissful domicile includes a son planning to attend music school this fall. Tuition and expenses: around 30 grand per year. Reasonable post-graduate salary expectations for a jazz guitarist: 8 grand per year.

That kind of stuff will make you crazier than you started out. So will the National Protocol for Paying Freelancers, which reads: After everyone has been paid -- salaried drones, doormen, mistresses, dog-sitters -- pay the freelancers. Not all at once, of course. Drag it out a bit, so we can watch the blood seep through their corneas.

Soon enough, the weaker members of the tribe begin to fall away. One day, you're jawing with a freelance colleague about the glories of hitting a good editor with a good idea and comparing notes on the price of Milwaukee's Finest (distributors now pay gas money to the store if you'll buy at least a case). The next month you call and find out he's doing full-time public relations for an olive oil distributor. First, he sheepishly apologizes, then tells you he's taking the little lady off on a long-deserved trip to Paris. "Care to come along?" The smirk can he felt across entire continents.

Even those of us with iron constitutions -- and who just so happen to have burned every bridge back out of Freelanceville -- often entertain that midnight tightness in the chest and the shallow dog-panting and flaming bowels of prolonged desperation. It eventually occurs to us that one day, perhaps in mid-sentence, a blood vessel will explode somewhere deep in the brain, leaving us incapable of writing another word. Seeking to protect our families, we call insurance "providers" to get a bit of disability protection. We find that these "providers" do not insure freelance writers. That is the honest truth.

Many have dreams of striking it big by publishing a successful novel. But there are many obstacles. For instance, hacks with dissident political views (dissident from those prevailing in the publishing industry) will quickly discover that everyone who reads manuscripts went to Vassar and can sniff out a heretic within a few paragraphs. The way is clear: Learn to lie, or ye shall die. And don't get too literary. One is much better off trying to write a sex manual for convents -- indeed a lot better off if you'll swear you live in one (don't anyone steal this idea, please).

In short, anyone thinking of going into this field should forget it immediately and proceed straight to the olive oil business. That isn't quite the retreat it seems. Sooner or later your company will probably be bought by Philip Morris, which will eventually own every major publisher. A lateral move from olive oil to the trade paperback division is entirely within the realm of possibility. That's no tall tale.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from Midlothian, Va. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, Dave Shiflett