A Beggar’s Market

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, 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.”

174 people liked this post. 27 people shared it. 60 commented in support.

No body did jackshit.

This entry was published on March 25, 2012 at 4:54 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

28 thoughts on “A Beggar’s Market

  1. Hi there
    Great article. I’ve been through this in my own field. I was self employed for three years and gave it up because some clients would say “you are quoting like a corporate brand”. What they never understood was that those corporate brands won’t even take the trouble of quoting fur the minimal amount of work they offered me. there is so much of belittling that people indulge in about freelancers. We weren’t forced out of our corporate jobs. We chose freelancing as an io option out of personal choice. We need an all India union that helps us get our invoices paid, that establishes a minimum pay rate by profession n cultivates an entrepreneurial culture in the county.

  2. You’re right. Completely agree.

  3. How about we form a union like a Writer’s Guild maybe? The unity they showed in US a couple of years back – that’s what we need in India. We can also include scriptwriters, copywriters, etc.

  4. Very honest post and it’s very heartening to realize that there is no value for hard work…Everybody is running a profit business…History has proved time and again Journos/Poets/Artists/Writers have led a difficult life…wish this scenario changes soon

    P.S. I too worked as a freelancer with my friend but discontinued and joined IT industry. Don’t know my decision was right or not but after reading your post I would love to start freelancing again as a part-time job.

  5. And here I thought 3 bucks a word was the best it could get.

  6. Worse is when the said organiser of luxury conferences sits on your piece, renders it obsolete and then steals your reportage, to be published under the byline of one of its own.

  7. I am in college now going my pg. I’m very passionate about my writing and I am thinking of freelancing after my studies at least on a part time basis. I think as Raj has already commented we need to form a union or a group so that oue voices too can be heard. We do the hard work so we need to be paid accordingly.

  8. No disrespect to you really, but as I read your peice – I couldnt help but wonder if there is a very explicable demand – supply situation at work here? Since you are in the thick of things, would love to know what your thoughts are, on that being one of the reasons for this sorry state of affairs?

    • That’s why I called the piece a “Beggar’s Market” because there are so many freelancers out there so the tendency is to just take what you get and not ask questions or demand more money. Which is why making any kind of difference would demand the coming together of a multitude of freelancers who can collectively put pressure on publications to increase the rate per word. Like a mass boycott or something. Unfortunately, too many people depend on the meagre income from freelancing for their bread and butter. So it’s not something one can really ask of anyone. Perhaps the next best thing is for individual freelancers to stand their ground and to ensure better rates for themselves…

      • From an economics perspective, standing one’s ground will not work out (exceptions will be there though!) – The market is being spoilt by people willing to work for less and it appears that the final consumers of the media cant or wont make a buying decision based on the quality of work. Collective bargaining as the trade unionists discovered in the industrial era Europe will insure against exploitation to a great extent – but such a system pegs everybody at the SAME level. That I am sure is certainly not what somebody like you, who is a creative person, would find an ideal solution. Really tough situation it seems. What could work out though is a way in which a brand can be created so that the buyers come to you instead of the other way round – which could be done in a number of ways, like specializing in a particular field instead of being a generalist, Or creating a brand around your name and your upcoming book could certainly help in that. But perhaps there are other creative ways out there to create a brand out there?

  9. Charulata on said:

    As my writer’s group a discussion on this topic a while ago, someone said this, ‘they will pay the plumber, they will pay the electrician, they will pay even the beggar on the street to the temple, but not the writer.’

    What sort of a breed have we become? aaarrrrrghhhhh

  10. Also, I am a big fan of the social media and such, but today — thanks to these outlets — every second person I know calls themselves a writer. People don’t really want quality writing, unless it’s creative and is going to be published as a book. They need 400-word articles and don’t usually care about the quality of the content. It’s the turnaround. The number of typos in the dailies nowadays is appalling. With every Tom, Dick, and Harry jumping on the bandwagon, there is obviously a supply-demand issue. That is my other big rant.

  11. Aravinda A on said:

    As a freelance writer with a book on the backburner while i earn the monthly minimum, I agree with you. And I have been wondering about this for a long time, wondering why of all the arts, writers have the rawest deal. I see painters and sculptors manage very well. Indeed, most artists seem to find a ready audience while us writers need to write and then be published and then hope someone will read the ‘art’ we have painstakingly created. But the scary thing is that everyone thinks they can write, especially illustrators and designers I have worked with. I see so many housewives saying they do “content writing” for 100 bucks an article and call themselves writers. In the face of all this, those who pursue writing for the love of words, those who work on the craft of writing to create the perfect phrase, the most lyrical of prose, those who conjure up words where entire lifetimes are lived and relived, are relegate to the place where you and I find ourselves.
    How many avenues do we have for publishing a short story or a chapter from a novel? Its not about fixing a minimum rate, it’s about fixing acceptable rates for various kinds of writing, allowing freelancers to find their niche in this sea of writing jobs, weeding out serious writers from those looking to make an extra buck because someone has said ‘anyone can write’. And it’s time writers accept payment per word. Will a designer charge per pixel?

  12. you are trying to sell the right product to a wrong person 🙂

    i was reminded of a piece i read recently,

    //Suppose a newspaper asks me to write a 1,000-word article but will pay me only Rs. 1,000 for it. If I agree to this (Rs. 1,000, being far less than I think I should be paid, is a low-quality pay-off), I’ll quite likely pick up chunks from articles I wrote years ago, string them together and knock the whole thing off in half an hour. So I provide a low-quality product, assuming that the newspaper would also not expect me to wrack my brains and spend six hours over the piece. In most cases, my assumption would be correct, and it would be a classic kakonomic transaction. We would have connived on a mutually advantageous low outcome.//

    full story :

  13. Sucharita on said:

    Absolutely! Editors, agents, publishers, everybody takes us for a ride. Deadlines are deadlines for them, but paying the remuneration has no deadline. That’s stretchable.

  14. phoenixritu on said:

    I freelanced for a while too. My reason was extra cash to pay my credit card bills, and some practice before I wrote my first book. Bidding really undercuts the price. And then the standard line … Indian writers will do this for half the price …
    I paid the CC debt and stopped freelancing. It pays too little and is simply not worth the stress.

  15. Me no good writer. Actually, me no good anything. But me has calculator. My calculator say, 4 divided by 0.5 is equal to 8. 15 divided by 2 is equal to 7.5. So me pea-sized brain think Mr Pinto actually get more than Bhelpuri rate of inflation. Methinks he should do right thing and refund 0.25 paise per word.

  16. Oops! Mistook became. I meant 25 paise. NOT 0.25 paise.

  17. Arpit on said:

    Agree completely with the sentiments, but as for Jerry’s status update – a quick calculation shows how far off the mark he is. Bhelpuri’s inflation increase is 650%, applying that figure to 50p a word gives you Rs. 3.75 a word, or closer to Rs. 4 a word instead of the Rs. 15 that he is asking for…

    As I said, agree with the sentiment, but think you should have picked a better example… I personally think the base number of 50p a word was low to begin with…

  18. 1981x on said:

    With all due respect, I totally disagree that being a freelancer is akin to being a beggar. If you are, you’re choosing to be. Editors NEED good writers. Without us, they have no publication. The only reason freelancers get offered a pittance is because too many of us put up with it. We don’t refuse, instead we accept that and then complain about how we aren’t being paid enough. If all of us refused to work at these rates, editors would have no choice but to increase them.

    I’ve been a freelancer for 10 years now and I make a high six-figures-a-month income, at par with my husband’s salary– who is the New Delhi bureau chief of a British media agency. Here are my thoughts on the matter: and here’s how I talk about how to get high-paying work:

  19. Strange coincidence this. I am in the last week of my job. I quit because full time job would not give me enough time to work on my own stuff, which in my case too, is a book. I must have taken a million opinions on freelancing. The opinions were mixed, some said freelancing will get you enough money while some rooted against it. Nevertheless, I quit and am headed blind-folded towards the world of freelancing. What you written gives a detailed insight into what I can expect in the near future. Although the heart of all this will be to successfully complete my book and get it published, I know what I need to be ready with, all due to this article. Cant thank you enough 🙂

  20. sreelata menon on said:

    Hear Hear!

  21. what makes you think it is better elsewhere :-).

    Read about someone who did this for 7 years:

  22. Meghna on said:

    I have been offered Rs. 3-5 for 100 words for articles — by Indians.

    I have got more respect for my time, skills and effort from Americans, Canadians, and Europeans.

    So, when I take up freelance assignments, I choose not to work with Indians, simply because I choose not to be treated like a beggar.

    Has it worked for me? Yes. I make about the same amount of money that I did in my corporate job each month, and I work for maybe 5 hours a day. Oh, and yes, I have never ever written for an Indian magazine, newspaper, Web sites or Publishers. And, I don’t need to either.

  23. Kavitha Rao on said:

    I second Mridu’s and Meghana’s comments. I don’t work as hard as Mridu, so my income varies, but we write for the same international markets, at around US$1 a word. I also do media training, corporate work and a bit of editing, and am now looking at writing apps. Writers who don’t adapt to the changing world and focus only on print media will have a hard time in the future.

    I might just point out that I commented on Jerry Pinto’s Facebook post, and I did something about it. I am an admirer of his work and offered to help him out with a few contacts in the international media. These are contacts that I have won through much hard work, and years of effort, so I do’t hand them out lightly. I didn’t get a response, or an acknowledgement. Maybe he didn’t notice my offer, maybe he was busy, whatever. But I can’t help feeling that if freelancers find writing for the Indian media so terrible, maybe they should put more effort into finding other markets, diversifying and writing for corporates. Unless what they really want is the thrill of seeing their names in print.

  24. fattiemama on said:

    You talk about 3-5 rs low. In these SEO times, I’ve got offers for 50 rs for 500 word articles. Of course, I promptly write back a curt reply asking why they have no respect for writers but with the ever-increasing demand for SEO articles and the fad of housewives getting to earn by ‘working-from-home’, it’s only getting appallingly worse.

    After years of freelancing, I have now pared down my profile into only doing scripts and retainer jobs that involve no research, no field work, no interviews and are deadline-oriented. They come few and far-between but at least at the end of the project I have my self-respect intact.

    There is little one can do about the situation except select your own niche and work hard at making it pay for you, be it newspaper/magazine writing, review-writing, corporate scripts or jingles. After all, writing is considered of little importance as a skill and talent in our country and the ever-ready to exploit corporate organisations will always be only too happy to take advantage of this fact. I also see the publishing industry as an industry that has very recently acquired a makeover and it is still in the process of complete transformation. Say, 5 years from now, the situation would have streamlined, one way or the other, on the basis of how the demand-supply and indigenous growth of the industry itself goes.

    Till then, all the best to us beggars. Sigh.

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