Based in Chicago, Illinois, The Freelance Beat is a blog exploring the triumphs and challenges that freelance journalists encounter in their early and mid-careers.

Looking for freelance advice? Meet Manjula Martin

Looking for freelance advice? Meet Manjula Martin

As a freelancer, I rely on Who Pays Writers, a free site where writers can anonymously share their rates and experiences with other writers, to guide me toward publications that pay well and on time. The founder of the site, writer and editor Manjula Martin, started it after working her way up from receptionist to editor at Poz and later having her own freelance career writing for outlets like Aeon Magazine, Pacific Standard magazine, and The Awl.

Martin is currently working on “Scratch: Writers, Money and the Art of Making a Living,” which features well-known writers such as Roxane Gay and Cheryl Strayed. In an interview for The Freelance Beat, Martin, who is now the managing editor at Zoetrope All-Story, discussed the founding of Who Pays Writers, her upcoming book and key advice for writers looking to become freelancers.

What made you move back to California from New York?

The choice to move back here wasn’t really a career choice. I grew up in California, so it made sense. But i do think that in the past there was a perception that you had to be in New York to be in publishing. One of the nice things about the internet is that that’s no longer the case. And journalists and writers have a lot more freedom to choose where they want to live, and hopefully tell a wider depth of stories.

Where did you get your start in journalism?

I was in New York in the 1990s from ’96 to 2000. I started working in journalism at the time that I lived there. I actually started out as a receptionist at a magazine. And the way I got the job was one of the editors was a distant cousin of mine, who I never actually met before coming to New York. We became friends and he set me up with a receptionist job. From there, the editors figured out I could write and started assigning me columns and stories to do. And I worked my way up to being editor at that magazine. That was the ’90s. That was the final heyday of print mags.

How did you know you wanted to pursue journalism?

I’ve always been a writer, and I’ve always wanted to write, but I mostly wrote poetry and fiction. And I published my own small zine. It being the ’90s and all. I hadn’t specifically wanted to be a journalist, but I wanted to be a writer. So it was a natural sort of transition. From there, however, I decided that I didn’t want to work in journalism for a while. When I wound up leaving the magazine, I worked a lot of service jobs for many years. I was a waitress and did freelance editing work and a lot of hustle part-time work for several years. Then I came back to writing and editing in the early 2000s by working for nonprofit organizations, working in communications for nonprofit arts organizations. And at that time, I started writing again for publications.

In what ways did freelancing play into founding Who Pays Writers?

The two were entirely related. I have a somewhat non-traditional educational background. I was a college dropout and didn’t go back to college until I was 30 years old, coincidentally around the 2008 economic crash. So I came out of college with a degree wanted to return to freelance writing work, now sort of armed with a bachelor’s degree thinking that would help. And then crash. You couldn’t get any jobs anywhere. So I started freelancing because I couldn’t get a full-time job. Then I sort of discovered that that was a viable way for me to work at that time. I was very used to having more than one job and doing more than one thing at one time. I went back to part-time work, doing copywriting, communications and marketing work and working with arts organizations, helping them with their communications while also writing for publications and doing my own creative writing.

That’s what led me to start Who Pays Writers. And I was having a conversation on Twitter with some other writers who I think lived in New York. We were talking about how surprising it was to sometimes pitch a piece to an outlet, have it accept it and say “by the way we don’t pay.” Coming out of journalism in the ’90s I just didn’t think that that would be an option. I realized that things had changed somewhat since I left journalism work. I needed a list of who pays what. So I asked some other journalists if they were interested in such a journalist being public. And they said yes just as long as it’s anonymous. At the time, I would just post them on Tumblr. And this was in 2012. And then somewhat to my surprise, it took off. Because I worked in various different capacities as a writer, I think I understood that talking about money was something that writers didn’t really do that much and was seen as either uncouth or not strategic. Because I’ve worked in activist organizations and have friends who are involved with the labor movement, I understood that when there’s a group of people doing a job and they don’t know how much each other are making but the people paying them know how much they're making the only people that benefit are the people signing the check. That doesn’t benefit people that receive the check. Transparency is a really important way for people in workplaces whether they’re virtual or shop to build power and to make sure that everyone is getting a fair shake, themselves included. It helps widen that conversation a little bit. I think increasingly over the years people are talking more and more about the economic side of the journalism and publishing industries.

For many editors, budgets are still tight.

I think a lot of editors feel a bit defensive about it, because they’re not really given a budget. It’s not their fault necessarily. I think particularly with early career writers, people who are just starting out, sometimes there’s a perception that editors are working against you. I for one have rarely experienced that. Nobody goes into being a newspaper, magazine or book editor to exploit people. Everyone has the same larger goal which is to put writing out there into the world. With journalism, it’s to find and expose the truth. I think that one of the things I’ve tried to do with Who Pays Writers and also with Scratch is place blame where it needs to be placed. Editors are by and large wonderful people and they have tiny budgets. It’s really hard for them to make it work. One of the things I always encourage people to think about is it’s not just who pays writers, but it’s who is making money off of my writing? By reframing that question, that sort of lends us to an investigation of the economics of the industry as a whole. 

How did starting Who Pays Writers lead to Scratch magazine?

After Who Pays Writers became a popular blog, I teamed up with another blogger named Jane Friedman who runs a publishing blog, who’s wonderful. And we started a magazine called Scratch. It sort of grew out of Who Pays Writers, because a lot of people were saying that they liked the hard numbers, but they also wanted more context. People wanted to hear more about the business side of working as a writer. Scratch was an online only magazine. People paid for it. It was quarterly. It was more in-depth stories, interviews with prominent authors and practical information about the business of being a writer. And that ran from 2013 to 2015. And perhaps ironically, the economics of that proved to be unsustainable. And Jane left to go work on her own career, and I decided after some soul searching to close Scratch the magazine and try and turn it into a book.

Tell me about your upcoming book.

The book is called “Scratch: Writers, Money and the Art of Making a Living”. And it’s hopefully a way to take the conversations that were going on in Scratch magazine and have been going on around Who Pays Writers and give them a more permanent home in the literary sphere in the sort of conversations around in the conversations amongst writers... Scratch is more about publishing than journalism. There are definitely journalists in the book, but it has sort of a wider scope. One of the things that I was encountering in my own career and also when talking with other writers is that we no longer live in a world that is segmented. You’re someone who is only a newspaper journalist or only a book author or only a blogger or only a person who writes personal essays. Most people do a little bit of everything, particularly if you're freelancing. I thought is was good to open up the conversation and include book publishing as well as journalism. It’s a collection of personal essays from authors and writers and their experiences in their careers and their relationship with money. And then there are a bunch of interviews in the book that I’ve conducted with prominent authors on the same topic. The book is broken up into sections. The first section is called Early Days, so it’s more about people at the beginning of their careers. The second section is called The Daily Grind, so it’s more about work. Whether it’s writing work, your day job or whatever it is that you do every day. A mixture usually. The last section is called Someday and it’s about success and perceptions about what it means to make it, whether those perceptions are true or not.

What advice do you have for new freelance writers?

For people who work online or early career journalists, I think there are two main things that I would like to encourage people to do. One of them is to pool knowledge with your fellow writers. Talk to each other. That’s what Who Pays Writers is all about. I think it’s immensely valuable in a variety of ways to talk with your fellow writers and establish a community whether that be online or doing it in person or even writing a fan email to a journalist you love. I think there’s a perception among young journalists that I talk to that it’s a deeply competitive field, and it is. There are not a lot of economic resources in publishing right now and in journalism right now. And there are a lot of people who want to be writers. Often with a lot of writers, there’s a huge community that you can tap. I often encourage people to think of their peers less as competition and more as resources. I think there’s always a perception that, particularly when people are asked to work for free you might say yes and work for free, and think “If I don’t do this, someone else is going to do this.” Which is probably true. But another way you could think about this is if I accepted this job with no pay there’s going to be another writer who is starting out 6 months after me who will also be expected to work for free. You’re setting a certain standard for your industry that other people will be happy to follow because it’s cheaper. But it’s not in everyone’s best interest. I think that’s one of the things that I’m interested in is encouraging young writers to pool their resources and talk to each other as friendly competition, not as cutthroat competition.     

I’ve also been thinking about this a lot after the election as we enter a time when journalists are likely to be under a lot of pressure and potentially under attack by the powers that be in addition to the already economic pressures we’re experiencing. If you’re a journalist that’s just starting out in your career, question your assumptions. Question all own assumptions as well. Do the math. What are the assumptions about the resources that you have? What are your assumptions about the resources that you need and how you’re going to get them? Write that s*** down. Look at yourself as a worker and look at your job as a job. Be realistic about what you have and what it takes to do it and what you need to acquire whether its time, energy money, whatever. Questioning your assumptions about the idea of what it means to be a freelance writer. A lot of fear and insecurity comes from not looking at details. If you feel like you’re not going to pay your rent next month, that could be true. But it’s really going to be true if you don’t look at the numbers and figure out how to make your money.

What pointers do you have for negotiating rates?

I have a personal rule which is: always ask for a little bit more money. One of the important parts of that is to always have a reason why you’re asking for more money, not because I need it. You definitely always need it. It’s because there’s this much amount of research or because I know you pay x per word for these pieces normally whatever it is or because I’ll work harder. I’ve been thinking about this because I think that the job of journalists is to seek and report the truth. Think about the kinds of truths that will be told if only people who can afford to work for free are telling stories. If you’re a person who cannot afford to work for free, which most of us are, it’s difficult burden on you. Think of the kind of stories that you want to tell. No one is going to try to tell the story that you want to tell as well as you for free. I’ve worked for free. Lot’s of people worked for free, but I also live with someone who also has a full-time job. Everyone’s circumstances are different.

Going back to the book, that’s one of the main things that I’ve learned on this project is everyone’s situation is different when it comes to money. Everyone has different resources. Everyone has different backgrounds. Everyone has different goals and needs. People have different family situations. People have different emotional issues about money. It’s hard to go by five blanket rules. Everyone wants to know “what are your top five things you can do.” There are a lot of great resources like that out there, but one thing you can do is know yourself. Understand your situation and understand where you need to be and where you’re at.

Any additional words of wisdom for writers who want to freelance?

Sharing information is really important. If you’re going to learn from the information that other people have shared, also share information yourself. You can share anonymously through Who Pays Writers. There are ways to do that in a community setting like Facebook groups or your friends at a bar. It goes both ways. Share and receive.

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