In the beginning of 2011, I decided to give up having a full-time job so I could work exclusively on my book. I took up a position as Consultant at Zubaan Books where I still work and go in twice a week. It’s a four-figure salary, but it’s possibly the best job I’ve ever had. Great team, great lunches (we have an in-house cook) and a great vibe. For the longest time it has been my only steady income.
Fortunately, I live in Khirki Extension and my rent is surprisingly cheap for the breadth of the space I live in and share with my two flatmates. But this fixed monthly income just about covers my rent, my internet and electricity bills, leaving a marginal amount for supplies.
So what did I do for extra cash? I freelanced as a writer.
In India, to be a freelancer is to be a beggar. To start with, you must network widely, and when you meet the right people, you must beg, however subtly, that they let you write for the publication they edit. You must expand your range, write on as many issues as you can, increase your repertoire to include reviews of books, films, art, food, and anything in between.
If you play your cards right, you’re on their list, and when the need arises, they get in touch with you to write for them. You try your best to suppress your disbelief when they tell you the rate per word which ranges from Rs 3 to Rs 5. A pittance.
But this is a beggar’s market. And you, if anyone, need the cash. So you accept, grudgingly, with a benevolent smile, because someone has agreed to throw a few crumbs your way.
You spend a minimum of 48 hours working on your 800-1500 word piece. It takes time to read a book or watch a film, or check out a show at a gallery, read up on the artist’s previous work and write something intelligent that isn’t necessarily loquacious.
You send it to your editor. Then you wait for it to appear in print. This can be excruciating. Because the time taken for it to published belies the emergency of the deadline that you were given. You wait not out of the vanity of seeing your byline but because, unless your article appears in print, you cannot send an invoice and your money cannot be processed.
Then, you wait. For anything between two to four months for your cheque to arrive in the mail. This is the tricky part. A part of you wants to be patient, a part of you resents not being able to buy yourself a nice meal in a moderately fancy restaurant, or being able to accompany friends to a movie, or a trip out of the city, because you don’t have the extra cash.
So you try to increase your output. You try to write at least three articles a week, so that by law of hit-and-miss, at least two cheques arrive within the span of two to four months. You learn to get excited about having even Rs 15,000 in your bank account.
Which means you spend less time working on your book and more time worrying about the pitiful state of your finances.
In true beggar fashion you take whatever comes your way, at whatever price. You forgo all bargaining skills. Beggars can’t be choosers.
For a year I’ve been exploited by this nexus.
For instance, last August, I wrote a 1500-word piece for Himal, a South Asian magazine, and have still not received any payment.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a review for Business Standard upon one of the editor’s request, the piece has yet to be published, the show I reviewed has already been dismounted. The editor refuses to respond to my emails and text messages.
I’ve had to maintain a spreadsheet of publications that owe me money. Every two weeks, I’ve had to write letters to the editors asking for my money. They respond by cc’ing in their accounts team who can’t seem to figure out the reason for the delay.
By the time the cheque arrives, if at all it does, the money is almost devalued. No one seems to account for the cost of money which I’m sure is a real economic term.
What amazes me is that no one seems to want to stand up to this exploitation. No one seems to have any qualms about being paid such a pittance for what is indeed quality work. I’ve treated each piece I’ve written with nothing but respect and professionalism, which is more than I can say for the publication in question.
To be honest, I’m overwhelmed. I can’t seem to figure out what it takes for your writing to get the kind of money it rightfully deserves. I’m now the Editor-in-chief for the Indian Edition of a rather prestigious online arts daily for whom I write two art stories a day because they value my work and are paying me well enough. I’m the editor of a soon-to-be released anthology of women’s erotica, the first of its kind in India. My book is garnering more curiousity an excitement than I’d ever anticipated, and my work with Zubaan continues. I also edited what will be one of the most significant books on art writing to have ever been published in India.
But recently, when someone from a leading publication contacted me to write a rather important piece on the art market, following a story I did for in.artinfo.com, I was treated as a newbie. “You’re a first time writer for X,” I was told, and by that logic, I was supposedly in no position to command a higher price. I may not have written for this particular publication before, but I’ve written for many others, including The Caravan, India Today, India Today Woman, Men’s Health, Robb Report, Outlook, Open, Sunday Guardian, Business Standard, Mumbai Mirror, Mumbai Boss, and a few more. Clearly, that doesn’t qualify. The publication in question tells me that their rate of Rs 5 per word may be poor but is on par with newspaper standards in India. Which means I’m supposed to feel ingratiated somehow instead of humiliated.
Which brings me to the question of how is it that publications fix their freelance rates? Is it merely by word and does it at all account for the nature of the story being commissioned?
I’m no longer a beggar, and perhaps that’s why I’m writing this piece. You suffer being exploited as long as you are a voiceless minority. Beyond that, doesn’t one have the right to demand money that is commensurate with one’s writing skills and the amount of time and energy one spends on a piece?
How much more must I establish myself before I am to be treated as an equal and not a beggar or a mad woman demanding an increased rate per word that at least respects my output and is worth my time?
A few months ago, writer Jerry Pinto had a rather angry status update on Facebook, and I totally identified and felt his anger. And perhaps I’ll end by pasting his update in the hope that it will spur some discussion on the subject. Mind you, I’m not ranting against editors, I know they have their hands tied and have budget restrictions, somewhere the onus is on us, the mass of freelancers who are freelancing for good reason, to work on our books, to work on our films, to create art; we, who rely on freelancing in order to keep us going, so we can pay our bills and have a half-decent standard of living.
I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up burning bridges and never get another freelance assignment ever. I suppose it would only confirm my suspicions about the lack of respect for what we do and what we produce. But I don’t care any more. I’m tired of being treated as a second-class writer, someone who has to constantly prove their worth before they can be treated fairly and given their due. I do my fair share of charity work, I don’t mind working for peanuts if its a cause I believe in, or a publication or organisation that champions independent thought, and exists for reasons other than for profit but I refuse to accept crumbs from organisations that organise luxury conferences and who often have more advertisements than good content.
Forgive me for standing up against being treated like shit.
Pay me a rate that is reasonable and just, and I’ll write you a piece. I am tired of begging.
To end; here’s a statement by Jerry that really hits the spot;
“To all those who say: why don’t we see your writing in the papers? When I started writing freelance, I was paid 50 paise a word. That was 20 years ago. Today, I am offered, and editors/fellow journalists don’t even feel a faint sense of shame about this, Rs 4 a word. In America the cost of a Big Mac is used as an index of inflation. Let’s use a plate of bhelpuri here. When I started out, bhelpuri cost Rs 2. Today it costs Rs 15. That’s an increase of 650 per cent. Now, if I ask someone for Rs 15 per word (a similar increase) they gasp and wonder if I’m white. Because the Indian media are such racists, that we pay American journalists and green-behind-the-ears green-card holders dollar rates but no one thinks to pay an Indian journalist a rate that can even beat inflation.”
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No body did jackshit.