Of Dollars Per Word, and Words Per Minute

Who and what determine the value of our work?

Literary Twitter went berserk last week when one writer revealed she demands — and gets — $4/word for celebrity profiles and reported pieces. Things got ugly, and I had very mixed feelings about all of it.

On the one hand, I want to celebrate a woman writer who has the chutzpah to ask for what she deserves, especially in a field where a particular man famously doesn’t get out of bed for less than $10/word. I want to be inspired by her boldness, to feel encouraged to be bold in negotiations myself. Honestly, when you figure in all the work and thought that goes into one of her pieces, $4/word isn’t even really enough. And I do believe that as you accrue experience and develop your talent, you deserve to be compensated at a higher rate.

On the other hand, it brought up issues of elitism, popularity, selective access, and cliquishness — things which, as something of a perennial outsider, I have always had a distaste for. Surely other writers with similar promise never get those chances. And when one person is paid so much, it leaves less for those others.

What’s more, as the conversation progressed, I witnessed too many younger writers and writers of colors getting shot down for raising the legitimate issue of pay disparity industry-wide, and it upset me. Various established writers and editors scolded them, and told them their problem was that they just didn’t measure up — as if publishing were any kind of meritocracy. It made me realize that in late-stage capitalism, as with pretty much every field, publishing is woefully top-heavy. How does any industry not collapse under that?

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Four-dollar-rate-gate reminded me of a rant I’d started writing a dozen years ago, toward the end of 2007, about how women’s magazines were still paying the same lousy $2/word as they had been when I graduated from college 20 years before, in 1987, and it was never enough to cover all the time spent reporting, writing, going through rounds and rounds and rounds of sometimes circuitous, fruitless editing and fact-checking.

Of course I abandoned that rant when the 2008 recession hit and the glossy women’s magazine for which I frequently wrote health articles cut my rate to $1/word. A year or two later, the magazine brought me back up to $2/word, but I stopped writing for them soon thereafter because I suspected some of the weight loss regimens and beauty treatments they wanted me to cover (favorably) were likely harmful to women. (See: irreversibly nuking the glands in your armpits to avoid getting sweat stains on your couture.)

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Shall we rewind to 1988, where we our last installment left off?

Actually, let’s drop back just a little further, and revisit the period in 1987 when I was trying out for secretarial jobs in publishing, taking typing tests every goddamn week, shooting for 60 words-per-minute but never quite hitting it.

I took those tests on actual typewriters. IBM Selectrics. Typewriters were all I wrote on in those days, other than first drafts of personal essays on legal pads. I typed every single paper in college on an electric Smith-Corona, correcting my (many) errors with liquid WiteOut. I worked on clunky desktop computers at my internships at the I ❤️ NY campaign and Newsday, and at my claims processing job at Blue Cross/Blue Shield I used a Mac Classic. But computers were still a rarity in my world outside of offices. In those days, no one I knew had a computer of their own.

Senior year I met one guy who had a word-processor, and I thought it was the coolest thing. I asked my parents if they would chip in and get me one for graduation, but they said it was too expensive. I didn’t have a “home computer” of my own until 1991, when I was 26.

Okay, but we’re not up to 1991.

We’re back in March, 1988, I’m about 22-and-a-half, and I’ve just landed at my second post-college editorial job, at WWD, as an assistant editor on the accessories beat — covering the wonderful world of costume jewelry, handbags, small leather goods (wallets and whatnot), belts, hats, scarves, etc.

My business card. ^^^

I was so excited for my new job at a trade publication that was taken seriously — and more importantly, which also seemed to contain within it possible routes out of trade journalism.

I was also thrilled that I’d now be working in the Village, as opposed to midtown, where my job at Body Fashions/Intimate Apparel had been. Fairchild Publications was located at 7 East 12th Street in those days, between Fifth Avenue and University Place, across the street from Gotham Bar & Grill, which provided great socialite- and celebrity-watching.

I was given a desk in the front row of the 3rd floor newsroom, right across from the receptionist, Lee, who chain-smoked cigarettes all the livelong day. Lee smoked so much her teeth were falling out; she looked like a public service ad for why you should quitting smoking. Smoldering cigarette butts overflowed from the ashtray on her desk. I have never smoked a single cigarette in my life, but I worry all the time that about the second-hand smoke I took in while working across from her.

Obviously this was before smoking was banned inside office buildings and restaurants. There were even smoking cars on the LIRR, which I rode in to work from Long Beach, NY, where I’m from.

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At Women’s Wear, we had to share computers. There was one desktop PC for every two reporters, balanced on the edges of our adjacent desks, with a monitor on something like a lazy susan so it could be easily swung to face whichever reporter was using it. I shared mine with an accessories fashion editor, who did less writing and more styling of photo shoots, so it was rarely a problem. If your computer was occupied, you looked for another vacant one at someone else’s desk. At super busy times, you just had to wait. There were also typewriters scattered around the newsroom, which we used to write letters to people in the industries we covered.

After working at a monthly publication, it was exhilarating to get back to the pace of a daily. I went out into “the market” a few days a week to visit accessories manufacturers and retailers, to get the scoop on the latest trends and happenings. I’d often return with samples that I then had to bring to the art department at the back of the newsroom so one of the fashion illustrators, brilliant artists like Steven Stipelman and Robert Passantino, could draw renderings of them.

Fashion illustration by Robert Passantino ^^^

Then I’d write my articles and send them to my editor, who’d do one round of tightening and tweaking. From there my pieces were sent on to either the city editor or the managing editor, two older men, depending on who was free. This is where the hard lessons were learned.

Those men went through your work with a fine tooth comb. You had to sit beside them on the hot seat and answer questions about every aspect of the article, from angle to structure to word choice. They were not at all friendly about it, and sometimes when I was done getting the third degree, I’d run to the bathroom and cry. Many reporters did.

Still, I learned so much from those two men. They made me a better writer, and also taught me how to be an editor. I incorporate much of what I learned from them in my job every day. (However, I make a point of being kind.)

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Every day, flowers arrived for WWD reporters, sent by the manufacturers and retailers who were covered in that day’s paper — as long as they liked what was published. If you didn’t get flowers, you knew they were pissed.

When I received my first bouquet, the managing editor came over to my desk. “Don’t ever think that has anything to do with you,” he said, rather brusquely. “But also don’t take it personally when they don’t send them. It has absolutely nothing to do with you, your work, or your worth.”