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Scratching Out a Living as a Writer

Slang for both writing and cash, scratch is not a pretty term, but then the points where money and writing intersect typically aren’t all that pretty, which is why they’re so often kept in the dark. Now Scratch (www.scratchmag.net), a new quarterly digital magazine from writers and editors Jane Friedman and Manjula Martin, is aiming a light directly at this last literary taboo. In the spirit of other movements, such as the VIDA Count, which are demystifying who’s getting published and why, Scratch dares to ask: Who’s actually making a living from writing—and how?

In their first full issue, published in February, the editors explain the magazine’s ethos by inverting a familiar publishing term: Rather than “closing” their first issue, they declare it “open,” like a new venue or an event. “That’s one of the exciting things about a digital magazine, that it really starts when people start reading and talking about it,” Martin says. “Because we exist in an online space, there’s more real-time conversation and more interaction.”

Scratch evolved from Martin’s Tumblr, Who Pays Writers?, which she began “a bit on a whim” in December 2012. Inspired by what she saw as a writer’s need for “more transparency around the way that payment works,” Martin solicited anonymous reports concerning which magazines and journals pay writers, how much they offer, what type of work is published, and when editors accept new work. Writers latched onto the resource and began clamoring for more: “People wanted more context around the conversation. The information was great, but data without context is not always the most illuminative,” says Martin, who wanted to offer more guidance to those accessing the site. As a result, Who Pays Writers? is now available and regularly updated on the Scratch website; while a subscription to the magazine costs $20 a year, Who Pays Writers? is still accessible for free.

It is also free to read the magazine’s Transparency Index, a regular column that not only breaks down the economics of each issue and the gender and ethnicity of its contributors, but also records how the writers and editors met. “There’s a difference between the kind of relationship you need to disclose editorially, and not knowing someone at all,” says Martin. “And so while the index is fun and gossipy, the real lesson is that relationships matter.”

The Scratch editors themselves, in fact, only met in person in February at this year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Seattle, but have been collaborating since May 2013, when Martin, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, wrote a story for the Virginia Quarterly Review website, VQR Online, which Friedman edits. Their initial correspondence revealed a shared fascination with the ways money affects all writers, whether of blogs or best-sellers, and how online opportunities are changing traditional publishing. “Genre distinctions and field distinctions are only getting blurrier as things go digital,” Martin says.

Friedman, the former publisher of Writer’s Digest, who regularly teaches and speaks on digital-publishing issues, is a particular evangelist for the possibilities of tech. In Scratch’s first full issue, she profiled poets who make money through entrepreneurial online ventures, and explored the digital marketplace for writers of serial fiction. “One of my pet projects is to try to show writers the creativity and imagination involved in using these digital-media tools,” she explains. “Tech doesn’t have to be antithetical to the creative process.
It can be part of what helps you make a living.”

Friedman’s commitment to providing practical help for professional writers emerges in her Contracts 101 series, which explains legal issues that often seem arcane and bewildering. “I know that writers are hungry for this information, especially during a really transformational time in publishing,” she says. Scratch, she hopes, is just the beginning. “The magazine establishes the tone and the philosophy, the culture and the community that we’re attempting to build. But we have all these other things that we’d like to do as part of the mission of Scratch—bringing people together to discuss these issues, and more formal education.”

That might even mean raising the specter of money in the MFA classroom, despite the lack of professional development offered by some programs. “I think most professors don’t feel that belongs in the classroom,” says Friedman. “But it does a great disservice to MFA students and undergraduate writers if they don’t understand the realities of the marketplace they’re about to enter into.” Martin is a little more sympathetic to this resistance, seeing it as rooted in the artist’s fear of the corrupting marketplace. At the same time, she says, “There’s a wide area between allowing young writers to form their craft and sending people out into an incredibly difficult industry and a crowded market with zero knowledge of what it’s really like.”

Scratch shares moving testimony from writers struggling to keep afloat alongside interviews with Jonathan Franzen, Susan Orlean, and others who breathe the rarefied air of success. The breadth of the magazine’s editorial mission demonstrates just how far money reaches into all aspects of a writer’s life, while offering the reminder that writing is a viable, if unpredictable, career. It may look a little different for each of us, but it can be made to work, and work better, with a little more light shed on the subject.

Joanna Scutts is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle whose reviews have appeared in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Her website is joannascutts.com.

Reader Comments

  • DarrellLindsey says...

    I look forward to exploring scratchmag.net. There are a lot of international haiku contests, but precious view tanka contests. One good contest source for Japanese short form poets is the New Zealand Poetry Society website. Here's a tanka from Edge Of The Pond, Selected Haiku and Tanka by Darrell Lindsey ( Popcorn Press, 2012):

    our blue bag
    of recyclables
    placed curbside—
    yet you would waste years of love
    without sorting through much at all

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