Derek Finkle
credit: Christopher Wahl

Derek Finkle doesn’t think Canadian freelancers are getting what they deserve. The former editor of Toro will be officially launching the Canadian Writers Group on May 11. The group has 50 freelancers signed on now, and the plan is to at least double that number by the end of the summer. It’s not a union. It’s one of those good ideas you wonder why it never existed before. Since the fall, Finkle has devoted almost 50 percent of his time to his agency that will relieve writers from negotiating their contracts with editors – separating business and writing. If the initial buzz was any indication, a lot of writers are excited

Who can join the group?

Well first of all they have to tell the agency that they’re interested in joining. So it’s not like we’re randomly picking people out of the ether. But we’re making selections mostly based on who they write for, which says where they’re at in terms of their career. And second, the type of writing they do.

credit: Christopher Wahl
credit: Christopher Wahl

The idea really started last summer when I was at the National Magazine Awards in early June, listening to Charles Oberdorf receive his lifetime achievement award. He actually spoke about the problems in our industry in relation to freelance writers. He said, that most Canadian consumer magazines still pay freelance writers about what they were paying 35 years ago when he was a young freelancer. A few exceptions only pay about 25 to 50 percent more than they did then, while the cost of housing in Toronto, for example has multiplied by 400 percent.

And things haven’t really changed despite the fact that we’ve been in a pretty good boom time for a decade or more, up until recently. But one of the huge problems for freelancers, being independent contractors, is that they don’t have much power at the negotiating table because there are so many other people who, theoretically, could replace them. And that’s why so few freelancers even try to negotiate. The truth is, there are a number of very healthy successful magazines that have increased revenue significantly over the last decade or more, who are still basically paying the same thing that they paid when I started in the early nineties.

Why do you think that is?

I think one of the fears that a lot freelance writers have is that there are all these other hungry new freelancers, flooding the market every year. And I actually don’t know if that’s true. When I talk to people who teach at Ryerson or places like Ryerson, or when I talk to students who are at Ryerson or just graduated from Ryerson, there’s a very small percentage of those students who actually become freelance writers. The reality is, to make it as a freelance writer, it requires almost perverse perseverance.

And I think, unfortunately, a lot of even established freelance writers have a kind of inferiority complex that’s been drilled into them over the years-one of many reasons why they don’t negotiate very well.

So how do you think the Writers Group can change this mentality?

Overall having someone looking out for their best interest. It’s very hard for a writer to have a difficult conversation with an editor without fearing that their going to be cutting themselves off from potential employers. Basically, it’s a fear of rocking the boat. We’re talking about perfectly reasonable requests, but the fear is that they will b seen as difficult.

If you have an agent who’s representing 120, 200 writers that that publication is going to have to deal with on a regular basis, the whole dynamic of that relationship is completely different. Ultimately and hopefully we can start to change things. It’s worked pretty well in the book world. It’s worked pretty well in the film world. It’s worked pretty well in just about every other creative field you could think of. So I don’t really know why it wouldn’t work as well here. And an agent can say things that writers are very reluctant to say.

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About the author

Eve Tobolka was the Front of Book Editor for the Summer 2009 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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