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Print = Declining Income


Writers were once valued contributors, the people who made a publication what it was. Now we are seen as raw material providers, with low-priced supply the goal.

"How do you make a small fortune in publishing?" went a joke current in the 1950s.

"Easy. You start with a large fortune."

In the 1950s and '60s, many publishers were rich people who wanted to make a creative, cultural contribution to society. They founded publishing companies with their own large fortunes and worked to make a profit but were willing to subsidize a loss when they did not.

At the same time, the Baby Boomers were coming of age, the post-war economy was booming, and everybody was buying lots of stuff, which meant there was lots of advertising. Television was just gaining a foothold and there was no such thing as junk mail, so the really important advertising media were newspapers, magazines and radio.

The money that writers earn from articles doesn't come from subscription fees or generous editors' pockets, it comes from advertising. In the 1950s and '60s, because of high ad rates, good magazine writers were able to earn around US$1 per word for their work, so a 2000-word story could yield $2000--more with second-rights sales.

The catch? $2000 1960s dollars would be worth $12,425.68 today; in 1950 dollars it would be $15,261.41. In other words, if we were being paid at the same rate as in the 1950s and '60s, we'd be getting 6 to 8 times as much as we are now actually being paid, or $6 to $8 per word. (Dream on!)

Where'd that money go? By the 1970s and '80s, with well-educated Baby Boomers into their prime buying years, investors discovered that publishing was not just for the independently wealthy. There was serious money to be made in print media.

Rising literacy, rising appetites for reading material, and the blockbuster book syndrome put real money on the publishing table, and hard-nosed business types got into the game to get it. Print media largely abandoned its cultural purpose and went for the bottom line.

An additional influence in travel publishing was the travel boom initiated by three factors:

— The strong dollar allowed Americans to travel abroad cheaply

— The Boeing 707 got us there quickly, safely and cheaply

Arthur Frommer convinced us that it was possible to travel in Europe on $5 a Day, and showed us how.

Travel became so alluring that Harvard University was able to enlist its students to write guidebooks for free—the Let's Go series. (The student writers were paid only minimal expenses; profits from book sales went to charity.)

So where does this leave us today?

Magazines pay less than 1% of their advertising revenues to writers for editorial content. In other words, if you are paid $2000 for an article, your article propels $200,000 in advertising fees to the magazine.

Demand for writers' services is high, but supply is far higher. All those well-educated people who have read our work also now feel qualified to write it. Low-paid editors do not quibble if they can buy it cheaply. As ever, best is driven out by good enough.

Today's print media are the equivalent of Reality TV: the content is flimsy, but it fills the space between advertisements well enough and, so far as the producers can see, the public loves it. (But for how much longer?)

So what's a writer to do? Go online!


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Tom Brosnahan