Freelance writer Scott Carney created a few ripples in the freelance universe when he and a friend guesstimated the total pool of money available to freelance journalists.

(Basically, there’s enough to buy the handful of top freelancers a pizza; everyone else gets a Hot Pocket.)

Carney’s numbers were interesting but questionable — and many people did question them — though Carney’s point wasn’t that his numbers were definitive. In a new post, he points out that freelancers simply do not receive a very big sliver of a magazine’s revenue stream:

The reason for this, of course is that last week’s post on how much writing in America is actually worth struck a nerve. Many people were skeptical that magazines might really only pay out $3.6 million a year for their feature wells. The number seems absurdly small. And they might be right. Various commenters mentioned that the New Yorker alone must dish out almost $2 million annually on stories. Tom McGeveren wrote that his own publication (which turned out to be the newspaper the New York Observer) commanded a $3.5 million dollar budget on its own. However everyone seemed to understand the overall point writers get only a tiny sliver of the overall publishing revenues of mainstream magazines.

At the end of the day, almost no matter what set of numbers you crunch I’m almost certain that we will find that feature writing is such an insignificant amount that the advertising revenue from a single issue of one magazine should be able to cover the entire feature budget of all the magazines in America for an entire year. For instance: the December 2014 issue of Wired had 87 full page ads. At the prices listed in the media that would have been worth almost $15 million. Even if we assume that they dolled out a 50% discount to every advertiser, that’s still $7.5 million. The writer’s cut would have been less than $50,000, or about 0.6%.

Oversimplified, but even if his numbers are off by an order of magnitude, his point is well taken. The stuff that actually sells magazines doesn’t really cost magazines much to buy.

What Is That Guy Making?

In what he considers a first step to writers crowdsourcing their way to better freelance rates, Carney’s throwing open his private database of rates paid to freelancers by top magazines (Google Doc alert!).

To someone who is re-entering the editorial marketplace (admittedly on a limited, easing-myself-into-a-cold-swimming-pool kind of way), this stuff is interesting.

I’ve seen rates for many common copywriting projects fall since the 1980s, and I hear similar things from the editorial side. In one hobbyist market (fly fishing), an editor told me his rates have stayed flat or even fallen a bit since the 1970s.

Figure the rate of inflation since then, and you’ll realize why there may be zero freelancers making a food-stamp-free living in that space.

Are magazines paying so little because their revenues are really that much in decline? Or are too many writers vying for too little work, creating a massive oversupply?

Carney’s attempt to de-cloak magazine pay scales might help freelancers demand a little bit bigger piece of the pie.

Keep writing, Tom Chandler.


p.s. — If you’re into free, Carney just published a “Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelancing” here.