Look Back in Envy by John Paxton Sheriff

The older we get, the more we look back and yearn for the good old days—usually forgetting that the good old days were what we used to complain about when we were struggling through them. But for some of those people involved in writing for a living the past is beginning to look more and more attractive, the frustration with the present day’s mounting difficulties making many wish they really had left school pursuing their ambition to be bin men—or whatever they’re called nowadays.

The people looking back with nostalgia are the freelance writers, those earning a living by selling articles and stories to newspapers and magazines in the UK and elsewhere. For the freelancer, the world has changed dramatically. The freelance photographer is also affected by those changes. Suddenly, publishers who would answer quickly and pay reasonably well for articles and photographs are able to get almost everything free. Just as some people will do anything at all to see themselves grinning and capering on television, so there are millions of people worldwide willing to accept zero payment for articles or photographs. Their reward is to see their literary or photographic efforts published in the pages of a magazine—which means another letter of rejection pops through yet another hard-working professional’s letter box.

Or perhaps not.

Perhaps it’s an email, pinging.

Or perhaps it’s . . . well, nothing at all.

Before I moved into novel writing, I used to concentrate on writing and selling short stories. Several were accepted by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, bless them, and my latest will be published in AHMM in the March 2023 issue. That magazine, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, remain unchanged apart from alterations in design, format, and the number of issues published each year. The quality of their crime stories was and is exceptional (and that’s me blowing my own trumpet!). However, their response times when a story is submitted now varies greatly, from weeks to several months.

It was inevitable

We all know the reason for the sometimes long delay between submission (as in sending in, not giving up) and reply. All kids nowadays pop out of the womb with fingers punching the keys on laptops, tablets or smart phones; and, since word processors came onto the scene, manuscripts fluttering about in editors’ offices are like plagues of locusts. And another reason why work might be rejected is that magazines publishing anything that takes more than ten seconds to read can be counted on the fingers of one hand—with a calculator, of course.

Did I mention that as well as markets disappearing, standards are dropping?

This, by the way, is not a rant by a frustrated author sitting staring at a blank screen. Back in 1995, after decades of writing articles and short stories, my novels began selling. In the twenty-seven odd years since then I’ve had sixty published, plus several non-fiction books on writing technique. Most have gone to large-print editions, but although the sheer volume of work puts me in the top 3% for PLR (Public Lending Right) earnings here in the UK, I’m still undeniably a mid-list writer. Or perhaps that’s me having delusions of grandeur. But whatever it is, I mentioned all that because it does lead neatly into another topic.

Look Back with Resignation

A friend of mine (now deceased) began selling novels some 30 years ago. The genre doesn’t matter, but at that time he got a flat fee for each book he sold. Since then, let’s say it’s from 1985 to the present day, average incomes for staff in most publishing firms have probably increased tenfold—and even that might be a conservative estimate. But my friend was a writer, an author, one of those unique, indispensable talents without which no publisher would have a business. So my friend’s flat fee for his novels didn’t increase tenfold, nor even fivefold. There was no increase at all. He was getting, in his final writing days, exactly what he got in 1985, which means that his flat fee had been decimated: it really was worth one tenth of what it was back then.

Remember? The good old days?

We talked from time to time, he and I. And, as you’ve probably twigged by now, we both wrote for the same publisher (now also gone to the happy hunting ground) so everything I’ve said about my friend applies equally to me. You’ll also have worked out that I’m way past retirement age, the income from writing doesn’t really matter. A hobby’s a hobby—and I appear to be stuck on one of those horses.

I’ll stay in the saddle for the moment, because I haven’t yet mentioned the internet. Not because I don’t use it, but because it’s too damned vast to comprehend. Yes, there are new markets out there. And, yes, some of them pay quite well. But it occurred to me the other day when thinking about magazines made from paper covered in real print that if college students can download essays and paste them into their exam papers, surely magazine editors could do the same. Find articles—I’m talking non-fiction here – in the bottomless Blue Nowhere and paste them on to the pages of their magazine. Because there used to be something called the public domain. I presume it still exists. But couldn’t that term apply to the internet? There are domain names, after all. And if anything is public, surely it’s the wonderful worldwide web (wwww?).

I mentioned falling standards a little earlier, and with written work that can be difficult to judge. But I also mentioned photography and, although everything is subjective, there the decline is quite clear. In the past, the covers of the magazines we’ve been talking about nearly always used images taken with medium- or large-format cameras, and the clarity was amazing. Then along came digital cameras. Suddenly everything was so simple. Images arrived at editorial offices as digital files sent as attachments to emails, and could be pasted straight on to a magazine’s pages. Convenient, but the cost was in loss of quality. Grass and distant trees began to look like watercolour smudges. Flesh tones could be peculiar. As for definition, that’s always been limited by the magazine printing process, but it’s been estimated that for a digital file to equal the clarity and definition of even a 35mm film transparency, it must be taken by a camera with a 25 megapixel plus sensor, at the very least. Nowadays that figure is beginning to look old hat (think mobile phones), and yet . . .

Which brings us back to the writing

If magazine covers are not what they used to be, what about the inside pages? Should we assume that the same drop in standards is evident there? And not because our (the professional writers) standards are dropping, but because—and here I’ll use a word I hate—some material is sourced from non-professionals willing to work for nothing. It can be understood—barely—but it fills a space, it’s free, so it’s used.

So where does all this leave us—or, to be more specific, those who need to earn their living from freelance writing? Soldiering on is probably the right term. If looking back nostalgically is always a waste of time, surely looking forward with optimism is to be preferred—isn’t it?

I’ll let a well known writer have the last word on that:

The man who is a pessimist before forty-eight knows too much;

If he is an optimist after it, he knows too little.

Mark Twain, Notebook (1935)

1 Comment

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One response to “Look Back in Envy by John Paxton Sheriff

  1. Your essay is spot-on. I began freelancing in the 1970s, and was paid well enough to support myself and save a little, but since then I’ve experienced only decline. I miss the discussions with editors as we worked out the job in hand, reviewing the final ms, corresponding with the author (if an editing job). I miss the collaboration of word-lovers. But I’m still here, still writing. I wouldn’t have chosen any other way to live and work.

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