What is the Value of a Word?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsThere is a longstanding myth that Charles Dickens was paid by the word because his novels are so long. However, he was actually paid by installments. Book collectors know that his novels were published in parts (chapters) — essentially small pamphlets printed on cheap paper with slightly thicker blue-green front and back covers. Several of his longer works, such as Nicholas Nickleby (952 pages) and Pickwick Papers (609 pages), were printed in 20 parts. As he completed one of the parts, the publisher paid the prolific author. (These novels in parts, found in decent quality today, are extremely rare and fetch up to $45,000.)

So, do modern freelance writers who submit articles to print and web-based magazines get paid by the word? Excellent question. Freelance writer Malcolm Harris was curious about this issue so he did some research. “Freelance writers have long tolerated a wide range of rates, he reports in his fascinating essay “How Much a Word is Worth,” “Freelance writers have no collective with which to bargain, they are not subject to minimum wage laws, and their pay fluctuates all the time. For those reasons, it’s hard to keep track of the averages (and few organizations are compelled to try). But back in 2001, the National Writers Union published a report on pay rates for freelance writers. The report figured that to earn the median wage for college grads — $50,000 per year — writers needed to pitch, sell, report, write, edit, publish, and be paid an average of $1 per word for 3,000 to 5,000 words a month. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $1.40 per word today.”

After talking with several writers, editors, and based on his own experience, Harris found that most writers get paid a lump sum for a typical article that runs from 1,000 to 2,000 words (thus the average value of a word is 50 to 25 cents in this model). One writer mentioned that this $500 fee was standard way back in 1977. So much for inflation… 

Harris discovered that there were certain writers that earned a celebrity rate of $1 per word: “The first account of a publication offering $1 per word comes from 1908. It was for a type of story that remains the single most expensive genre in writing: anything ‘post-presidential.’ The Fourth Estate, an early 20th-century weekly newspaper about the media, reported that Theodore Roosevelt was fielding multiple offers at the unheard-of fee (plus expenses!) to write up the hunting trip he planned to take after he left office.” A few years later, Hampton’s magazine offered the $1 rate to explorer Frederick Cook to write about his amazing trip to the North Pole. By the mid 1960’s, the rate of $1 a word became a standard at national magazines with high circulations, like Time, Reader’s Digest, and Playboy (because men bought it for the articles). It took two decades before freelance writers saw a significant increase in price per word. Harris notes, “And then came Tina Brown. In 1984, when she was named editor of Vanity Fair, she turned the publishing world upside down by doubling the top rate to $2, plus a bunch of fringe benefits….’My ambition is to get the best,’ Brown told the Times. ‘We still are not paying enough.'” However, three decades later, the $2 per word rate has not kept up with inflation — it remains the high end fee for freelancers. Of course, some stories and writers due command the “Carrie Bradshaw” rate of $4 a word.

Harris spoke to one writer who worked for six months on a major feature for a national magazine. He got paid $5,000. Writers who sign exclusive deals with high circulation magazines, and write their asses off, can earn as much as $60,000. But that is peanuts compared to what TV writers can make: typically $12,000 to $25,000 per episode. When you consider that a season has 10 to 16 episodes, that can earn up to $600,000. And writing screenplays, makes TV money look like pocket change. Consider that some screenwriters make $2 to $5 million for a screenplay that typically consists of 110 to 130 pages (at about 175 words per page, that translates to about 20,000 words; so a screenplay’s cost per word is a whopping $250 per word!). Not surprisingly, many freelance publication writers are looking for greener pastures (and greener paychecks). This means the decline of the great feature story; one writer Harris spoke to expressed it this way, “No wonder the stuff in the sixties and seventies was so good. I don’t see anything out there today that shows the kind of thought they got to put in.”

Harris concludes: “I don’t truly know what a word is worth. The historical record certainly suggests it used to be worth more, but longform writers also know that their work can be inefficient. They are people who care too much about their subjects, whose depth of interest defies the rational allocation of labor time… The rational thing for individual publications is almost certainly to continue tightening the screws, hold the nominal rates as close as possible to where they were in the 1960s, increase annual output from full-time staffers (who are facing more competition for their jobs), and find writers who are used to writing a lot for a little. In that scenario, there will still be good writing, and even some great writing, but there will be less of it.” And if Dickens were alive today, he would probably share that same lament.

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Read related posts: What Would Shakespeare be Worth Today?
Words invented by Dickens
Why Read Dickens?

For further reading: medium.com/s/story/how-much-is-a-word-worth-7fcd131a341c

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