This report outlines research done to determine the scope and impact of the changing employment outlook for writers and journalists. The research conducted revealed that it has become increasingly rare for writers and journalists to find full-time employment with a single employer. Included is a proposed solution to better equip current writers and better educate writing students with the tools necessary to craft their own careers and support themselves while working in their field. Further study is needed in order to better understand what approaches and what legislation will work or could be implemented, but it is clear that if the problem remains unsolved, writing as a full-time career option will continue to diminish.
Keywords: Writing, publishing, journalism, freelance, entrepreneurship, curriculum development
Writers as Entrepreneurs
Few careers offer as many options and as much variety as writing. From copy writing to drafting the next great American novel, there is a niche for every sort of specialty, and with the explosion of social media, there are a plethora of outlets for publication. However, in the midst of this abundance, writers and would-be writers, regardless of experience or talent, find it increasingly difficult to earn a livable wage.
To a degree, this is not a new development. Some of our most beloved novelists recount working thankless, meaningless jobs while penning their masterpieces in their off hours, or taking a huge risk in leaving employment to devote their time to writing, until their big break allowed them the luxury of being paid to write sequels. A large majority of authors have operated under the assumption that they would earn their income through teaching positions which would allow them time to pursue their personal writing ambitions on the side. Now, tenured positions are becoming increasingly rare, as more colleges and universities are moving toward hiring more adjunct and par-time faculty (Jans, 2018). Those fortunate enough to secure full-time or tenured teaching positions may find themselves with a significantly more demanding work load than their predecessors, which leaves less time for their own writing pursuits (Hesse, 2013, p.17). With the migration away from traditional print journalism to digital media, journalists have found themselves in a changing job climate as well. Now, instead of landing a coveted physical position in a large publishing house, more and more writers are turning to freelance work. Self-employment, in any field, is not for the faint of heart or unprepared. In fact, the CFNC career guidance website speaks as much — if not more — to business and finance training when addressing the job description and job market of freelance writers (CFNC, 2018). Writers in every situation and genre are discovering that they must be prepared to take on not just the role of wordsmith, but also that of agent, publisher, tax adviser, and copyright expert. It is a daunting proposition, both for seasoned, already published writers, and for those who are just now beginning to explore the field. However, the alternative leaves writers unfairly taken advantage of with publishing schemes or frustratingly unpublished altogether.
Writing careers have become more complicated with the decline of single-source employment and tenured teaching positions. Recent and current publishing practices have had a negative impact on the quality and perceived value of writing. I propose that a viable solution is a shift toward an organized professional and entrepreneurial approach to writing careers, both for current writers and in the education of future writers.
I started with background information from the College Foundation of North Carolina website. This helped me get a better idea of different aspects of writing as a career, as well as listing of professional organizations and resources.
I wanted to get an idea of what individuals working in the field identified as problems and concerns, so I read articles from Columbia Journalism Review, which is a publication largely devoted to current events and items of interest for journalists. Those articles commented on both how to craft a successful freelance writing career, as well as some of the pitfalls and drawbacks of freelance writing.
I then interviewed Caitlin Jans, a published poet and author, and editor of an online resource, Authors Publish. Her comments helped me identify the challenges faced by individuals seeking to have their work published at any level, and the unique challenges of pursuing writing as a full-time career. She commented on her husband and business partner’s background and the connection between creative writing and entrepreneurial thinking, which influenced my research in that direction.
I used the Durham Tech ProQuest program and discovered many articles in professional educational journals which addressed this idea of the importance of including business practice and entrepreneurship in the curriculum for writing.
In the professional publication, The Author’s Guild Bulletin, I found an additional interview which discussed various streams of income for writers and discussed how one writer created a writing career which included many different roles. I also found an article that updated readers on important legislation in the state of New York which protected freelance workers’ interests.
I learned that successful writers took responsibility to craft their own careers. While researching this changing job climate, I discovered that more writers are turning to freelance work, in which they write for multiple outlets (Meyer, 2015). I found that many writers still expect to have a “day job”, and consider that a valuable part of their overall writing career. Some have discovered ways to continue blending a career in education with writing (Howe, 2017-2018). Others launch businesses in publishing (Jans, 2018).
I also learned that there are many professional organizations which provide valuable support and benefits for writers of every genre and in every situation, especially those who are working independently in a freelance career (Howe, 2017-2018; Meyer, 2015). One such organization, The Authors Guild, was a driving force behind New York legislation which was enacted to protect the legal rights and intellectual property of freelancers (Reiter, 2017). The legislation is local, but it still sets a precedent regarding the rights of freelancers to be paid in a timely fashion and to retain control over their work. However, many writers, both experienced and new to the field, are unfamiliar with these organizations and therefore do not take advantage of the services and support available to them. Thankfully, there are successful writers who feel a sense of commitment to the writing community at large and are making strides to promote organization and support, especially for new writers (Jans, 2018; Howe, 2017-2018).
I found that there are multiple avenues to modern-day publishing, but the variety is sometimes more overwhelming and discouraging than it is genuinely helpful, making it more difficult for writers to sift through potential scams (Jans 2018; Meyer, 2015). I also discovered that the impact of social media and self-publishing has, in some opinions, contributed to both the publication of sub-par writing and the devaluation of journalism (Hays, 2018). Freelance writers have also been susceptible to having their intellectual property misused or misappropriated, or published in multiple outlets without their permission and without compensation (Hays, 2018; Reiter, 2017).
Today’s writers are encountering increasing frustration in publishing, as well as facing financial constraints. Students are often discouraged from pursuing writing studies because of the perception of a bleak job market. Current writers will need to shift their thinking and be willing to educate themselves in marketing and entrepreneurial thinking. They will find it necessary to seek out professional organizations and other opportunities to bolster the professional aspect of writing. Writing and journalism curricula should reflect this new dynamic, and students should be taught not only the art and craft of writing, but also the business skills to take responsibility for their careers and financial success. At the same time, the writing community must take care to continue to define successful writing by its quality, not its marketability.
Resource availability. Professional organizations already exist and work to provide writers with support and resources, including webinars and resource libraries with information on finances and legal concerns of specific interest to writers. While some organizations are for published authors, others welcome new, unpublished writers and students. In an interview with one such organization, The Authors Guild, novelist Tayari Jones spoke specifically regarding the importance of recruitment and reaching out to new writers; not just young writers, but anyone new to the career (Howe, 2017-2018, p.17). These organizations go beyond the important work of creating a sense of community and moral support, however, and also help promote and keep the writing community informed and up-to-date on policies that protect writers. Several organizations worked together with a small group of freelancers and were influential in the passing of legislation in New York which created a much-needed protection for freelancers to be assured of timely and complete payment for their work (Reiter, 2017. p.2). Author Caitlin Jans (2018), faced with dwindling teaching opportunities, launched a publishing business which not only provides her a steady income, but also serves as a means of support and mentoring for other writers to have their work recognized and published. With the growing use of social media and networking, these and other similar organizations are poised to expand and become more prominent and valuable to the writing community.
Sustainability. While current writers can benefit from organizations and resources in place and increasing in usefulness, the writing curricula at every level could be adapted to ensure that future writers are better equipped for the modern day realities of publishing. Journalism has been the field arguably most impacted by the changing climate of publishing, with the strongest shift toward freelancing. This shift has prompted researchers such as Chimbel (2016) to call for a focus on entrepreneurship as an integral part of journalism studies (p. 341). Jans (2018) pointed out that creative writers tended to gravitate naturally toward entrepreneurial thinking, and suggested that business studies were as useful as writing courses for many writers. If writing education is arranged to reflect and realistically prepare students, this will provide both immediate and long-term benefits and a more stable and financially sustainable employment outlook for writing.
Objections and Refutations
Unrealistic expectations. There are those who would contend that recent publishing policies have so devalued writing and journalism that it is next-to-impossible to make a living as a writer. Self-publishing, in particular, has contributed to an increase in volume of unedited and, some would suggest, poor quality published works. There has also been an uneasy tension and a fine line between what is conventionally accepted in the publishing world as a necessary gratis publishing for the benefit of exposure, and blatant abuse and misuse of writers’ labor and talent, especially by digital publications which routinely published material without compensation (Reiter, 2017, p.14-15). In his article on the topic in Columbia Journalism Review, Matthew Hays (2018) insists that this practice, particularly on the part of Huffington Post, has been objectively damaging to writers and to the perception of quality and value of writing, and that even the recent reversal of the policy may be too little, too late. The practice is diminishing, however, and will continue to diminish as more writers become better equipped and informed through participation in professional organizations which help steer writers toward more beneficial publications and away from scams (Howe, 2017-2018, p. 17). In the opposite extreme, there are prestigious literary journals which are recognized as quality publications, but which charge reading fees for submissions (Jans, 2018). While this dynamic may prove resistant to change, there are alternative sources of funding for these publications, and authors and readers alike may be able to convince the journals to reconsider.
There is also the observation that writers may, at times, need to sacrifice some measure of quality in order to produce the quantity of work necessary to be financially viable (Meyer, 2015). However, this is not to say that the writing produced in larger quantities is objectively or completely lacking in quality. Also, it is important to note that not all writers want or need to support themselves entirely with their writing. It possible, and help and resources are available to those who want to write full-time. Others, like Tayari Jones, find satisfaction in maintaining multiple careers or blending several writing-related jobs, and consider all of the varied positions and roles as equally valued parts of a cohesive whole (Howe, 2017-2018).
Professional organizations such as The Author’s Guild, and publications such as Authors Publish need to continue to promote and recruit both seasoned, published authors and fledgling writers. An organized and deliberate dissemination of information and resources is the most effective way to bolster professionalism. Writing, either in the most traditional format or the more modern freelance iteration, is by nature a somewhat solitary pursuit. It is in the best interest of all writers, however, to think in terms of engagement within the broader writing, publishing, and academic communities. The writing community should demonstrate ethical and financially viable practices, and in turn, expect ethical and financially viable treatment from the publishing community. The academic community should take steps to ensure that writing and journalism curricula are preparing students and including the business and entrepreneurial skills which are required for successful careers in today’s publishing market. Concurrently, the writing and academic communities should seek to maintain a high regard for quality writing in any form, not just those situations in which it proves financially lucrative.
Chimbel, A. (2016). Introduce entrepreneurship concepts early in journalism curriculum.
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Hays, M. (2018, January). So now HuffPost decides to pay writers: Its effect on the
industry still lingers. Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved from https://www.cjr.org
Hesse, D. (2013). Sustainable expectations? College Composition and Communication,
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Howe, I. (2017/2018). Tayari Jones Q & A. Authors Guild Bulletin, (Fall/Winter), 15-17.
Retrieved from https://ww.authorsguild.org
Jans, C. (2018, March 5). Personal interview.
Meyer, M. C. (2015, March/April). Survival strategies of an online freelancer. Columbia
Journalism Review. Retrieved from https://www.cjr.org
Reiter, B. (2017). New York City passes landmark bill to protect freelance workers.
Authors Guild Bulletin, (Winter), 2,15. Retrieved from https://www.authorsguild.org