Canadian Magazine Industry News
29 May 2009,     TORONTO
Writers and editors weigh in on the CWG
Vancouver editor Gary Ross says he will turn to non-CWG writers if he can't afford the agency's rates.
Four years ago, Gary Ross offered a freelance writer $4,000 for a 4,000-word feature. Her response: “Gary, we had this same conversation 20 years ago.” The then-editor of Saturday Night—now editor of Vancouver Magazine—was having budget problems and could only afford to offer the writer the same rate he gave her in 1985. She ended up taking the assignment. “What’s her alternative?” Ross says. “She will just forego $4,000 in income.”

The battle for better freelance rates is one that Derek Finkle hopes to win with the launch of a new literary agency, the Canadian Writers Group. CWG, which opened shop on May 11, aims to negotiate better fees on behalf of its 50 plus members. The agency will take a 10% to 15% cut, depending on whether the story was acquired by the writer or the CWG and Finkle hopes to have 100 writers in his stable by the end of the year.

“We need somebody to handle our business”

Russell Smith writes a bi-weekly column for The Globe and Mail, but still sees himself in a very vulnerable position. “I, as a freelancer for The Globe and Mail, don’t have a contract with them of any kind,” he explains. “They could tell me tomorrow that they don’t want me to write a column next week and that would be the end of my employment. There would be no severance; there would be nothing.” Smith thinks reeling in corporate work—an area the CWG is promising to specialize in—could give him some income security. But more importantly, Smith dislikes discussing money with editors. The CWG will relieve writers of asking editors uncomfortable questions about pay.

Writers are often not very good at business and the CWG will help alleviate that problem, says writer David Hayes.
David Hayes
, a nine-time National Magazine Award winner, feels the same way as Smith, adding that some writers are just not business savvy. “If I was any good at business, I’d probably be a businessman and I’d own a company and I’d make a lot more than what I make as a writer. But I’m shitty businessman as a many great writers are,” he says. “We need somebody to handle our business for us. Frankly, I would have been taken to the cleaners if I were handling my own business with book publishers [when I published my books].”

Though Hayes has seen an improvement in his pay—he receives $1.50 a word from most of the publications he writes for—fellow freelancers Marni Jackson and David Macfarlane say their salaries have taken nosedives. “I am now being paid less to write a freelance piece than I was when I first reviewed books for Books in Canada in 1970,” Macfarlane says. All three also don’t believe it when Canadian magazines say they “can’t afford” to increase rates. “If they have the money to publish, they have the money to pay writers more,” Jackson says.

Like trying to “get blood out of stone”

John Macfarlane, editor and co-publisher of The Walrus, insists that’s not the case. Writers asking for more money will be like trying to “get blood out of stone,” he says.

Cottage Life editor Penny Caldwell says she sees the possibility of using the agency down the road, but confesses that her magazine can’t offer higher pay right now due to the recession.

Gary Ross knows that a couple of his regular Vancouver contributors have joined the CWG and says he’s willing to talk to Finkle if the scribes direct him that way. But the veteran editor doesn’t expect the agency will have much to offer in the way of directing him to new talent. “There are no secrets here in Vancouver that I don’t know about that Derek can disclose to me, in terms of who’s capable and who I might be using. I think that’s true of every magazine editor.”

Ross also says he’s not afraid to turn to non-CWG members if the agency demands a rate he can’t afford. “How can you raise freelance rates if you don’t have some guarantee that by raising the rates of freelancers, you’re going to somehow improve the income that the magazine generates?” he asks. “It’s a very hard case to make.”
— Christal Gardiola
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