When I started writing I freelanced a lot. I wrote for many of the publications in Botswana. When I look back now, I wonder how I ever managed on the pay I was receiving.
It was crazy. You’d spend an entire day at an event, or interview people, travelling distances or using up your air time. You’d spend another day or more doing research and writing. And then for a 1000 word article if you got P300 you were having a good day.
On top of the bad pay was the way you were treated. Stories were used, or not. You only got paid when they were used. With one publication, I was told they really appreciated my well researched articles that were always delivered before deadline, but “they had to give other writers a chance now”. The quality of my work was irrelevant. What kind of profession behaves like? We get a lot of lip-service in this country about excellence, but with such outdated ideas I doubt we know what that word means.
The same thing happens with freelance scriptwriting. I remember BTV offering P1500 for scriptwriting on a 30 minute episode of a sitcom. The minimum pay according to the South African Script Writers Association was R12,000 for a 30 minute episode of a sitcom. When I brought this up to the commissioning editor at BTV, she told me if I didn’t like the pay I should not apply for the job. What sort of freelance scriptwriters are you going to get for pay that is 10% of the going rate? And we wonder why the quality of writing in this country is so low or why projects fail before they even get started.
This sort of pay for freelance writers is the reason you see the type of unprofessional, poorly written, often obviously plagiarised articles that populate our magazines and newspapers.
The other thing I’ve found in Botswana is that doing a good, professional job as a writer is irrelevant. It’s rare that an editor will appreciate the time you’ve put into a piece, that they’ll mention that you get things in before deadline, that your text is nearly error free, that the story is well written. All writers are treated equally. Conscientious, hardworking, professional writers are lumped in the pile with the chancers who copied and pasted from the internet. To a conscientious writer, this is a slap in the face. The end result is the loss of talented writers and a situation where mediocrity reigns supreme. Sort of like the situation we have now in Botswana.
The problem right now is that many publishers of newspapers and magazines use the substandard pay of freelancers to subsidize their publications. Their business plan does not include a living wage for the freelance writers that fill their pages. This is a situation that will continue until writers take the situation into their own hands.
What, if instead, writers agreed that there was a minimum pay under which they just would not write. I think P1/word is fair. If that was agreed and publishers knew no writer would write below that price, would that not help?
Many new freelancers get roped in with that dirty word- “exposure”. What if we don’t accept that? Journalists complain about the lack of respect they get in this country, but do they respect themselves? I think it comes down to seeing yourself as a professional. Making sure you approach your work as a professional. Making sure every article is the best it can be- and then expecting everyone to see you only as the professional that you are.
I’ve been in numerous forums where establishing a writers’ union has been discussed. It’s a great idea but the establishment of such an organisation, I’ve seen, is a road full of land mines. But I do think that a guideline with what the basic pay for writers should be would be helpful to all of us. For now, we look to South Africa for such guidance, which we shouldn’t have to. We should learn to know our own worth.