And the former editor of The Idler claimed that his magazine suffered not from lack of government subsidy, but from unfair competition from subsidized magazines that would not have survived in an unfettered free market. He was the only one who even entertained the possibility that any kind of artistic or intellectual Canadian magazine could survive on its paid subscriptions and advertising alone.
My strongest evidence that serious Canadian magazines are simply no longer plausible, except as hobbies or charities, comes from conversations with writers. Writers are always bitter, of course, because a few of them do get the big break - the six-figure book advance, the story in Esquire - and it makes the rest of us feel underpaid and prone to complaint. But I am starting to sense more than the usual bitterness, even among highly successful writers. There is now a sense of exhaustion.
When my colleagues meet these days, it seems to be more and more in order to discuss some kind of business scheme. Maybe we should set up a speech-giving company, for corporate dinners or whatever they do? Maybe we should set up a creative-writing school for corporate executives who are frustrated artists? There has to be some way of extracting more money out of this thing.
The meetings devolve into bitchfests. How is it possible that we have each published a handful of books and won awards and have entries in encyclopedias and get asked to appear on radio shows and TV shows as experts twice a week and get asked to come and talk at universities once a month and no one wants to pay us anything for it?
Everyone has a story like this: "It feels great to be so in demand! I've been asked to drive to a college in a town two hours away and prepare an hour-long lecture. They're offering me $200. And once a month some film executive buys me lunch to ask me to write a script. It's exciting: If I spend the next year writing it, she will add it to her pile of scripts and consider paying me something for it if her boss likes it! Thanks!"
We are all asked frequently to pitch story ideas to magazines, and more and more, I am hearing writers saying they can't afford to do it any more. "Think about it," a very successful book and magazine writer said to me recently. "I have a house and a child. I am asked by a major city magazine to write a big feature story. For it I will have to do about 20 serious interviews, find some criminals, interview their lawyers, the judge, the families involved, maybe a psychologist and some other kind of expert.
"It will take about two months - not full-time, of course, but two months of constant stress. Then there will be a few weeks of rewrites and quibbles over fact-checking. And then when it's published, I am vulnerable to angry response and possible lawsuits if I offend anyone. For that I might get, if I'm lucky, $3,000. Why would I do that?"
And $3,000 would be, indeed, lucky. Most magazines are still paying the $1 a word that they have been paying, in this country, since the mid-1970s. New magazines, and many trade or specialty magazines, are paying much less. Most of us in this business have been paid exactly the same rates for as long as we've been doing it (in my case, about 17 years). I needn't explain how much the cost of living has risen in that time.
It is now impossible for all but a very few magazine writers to make a living as a freelancer. Even if you're at the very peak of popularity, and you get one of these big features a month, you're going to be working awfully hard and you're going to be making between $1,500 and $5,000 a month, which means at peak capacity you're still earning less than $60,000 a year - not poverty, certainly, but harder as you get older, and certainly not commensurate with the education required to do such a job. Which is why our most successful magazine writers get teaching jobs.
This isn't entirely the fault of stingy magazine editors, of course. They would love to pay more, but many of their magazines are on the verge of non-existence because not enough people are buying them, and not enough people are buying them because of the Internet. (Internet magazines are hardly more profitable, though, since the advertisers' money is divided among so many small outlets.) I have no solution to this. Sorry for the bad news, but when I am asked to come to speak to a journalism class on how to become a successful freelance writer, I am going to have to say, "Don't." (I'll still do it, though - for $200.)
Molly Ringle is this year's winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, organized by San Jose State University's English department to celebrate truly awful fiction. Since 1982, entrants have been asked to compose the opening sentence to the worst novel possible. The contest honours the memory of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, who opened his novel Paul Clifford with the immortal words, "It was a dark and stormy night."
Ringle wins top prize for this contribution: "For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity's affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss -- a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity's mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world's thirstiest gerbil."