What Hollywood can teach Magazine Writers

How is it that a screenwriter in Hollywood can get paid a six figure salary by simply giving a movie studio the option to see their work before anyone else does? How are some authors able to convince publishers to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars on their book advances?  And, why is it that freelance journalists are almost perpetually broke and rarely make more than two dollars a word?

best-literary-agent CroppedThe answer to these questions lies in the history of these different industries. At one point most journalists had staff jobs at newspapers or on the mastheads of magazines. They were expected to produce a lot of material, had stable salaries and their work pretty much always belonged to the companies they worked for. Hollywood and book publishing were different. No one was guaranteed work. Writers came up with their own ideas and then sold them to movie studios and publishers on a freelance basis.  They hired agents who knew the industry, looked out for their interests and held auctions to drive up the price of their work. Book publishers and studios paid the increasingly high prices and still turned a profit.

In the last decade the rise of the internet led magazines and newspapers to drastically reduce the size of their staffs. Now they produce a lot more content but have to rely on freelance labor to produce it. And here is where the problem started. They kept the old model of keeping all the rights for themselves, but never offered their freelancer workers stability in exchange. For some reason–most likely the general sense of inferiority that most writers feel–freelance journalists never fought to have their work sell at a market rate. They often gave up their movie rights and accepted kill fees and chronically late payments by the publications they worked for. The major publishing houses had no reason to raise rates and today they spend less than .6% of their gross revenues paying writers. Meanwhile, those publishers post quarterly reports that reflect multi-billion dollar valuations.

Today it’s almost impossible to make a living as a freelance writer without having a job on the side or a generous spouse to support your work. Even the most successful freelancers out there–I count myself among their numbers–know that you don’t make money from magazines, but from the book and TV deals that come afterwards. This doesn’t have to be the case.  Being a journalist could actually be a middle class profession again. There’s a way to change the industry for the better.

Writers need to take a page from Hollywood and start fighting for better pay and stronger copyright. They need to hire agents to represent their very best work and force multiple publications to bid for the right to publish it. Of course, magazine publishers will resist at first. Some writers will lose assignments in the process. However, it will soon become clear to them that in order to publish the best stories magazines will have to give writers a cut of advertising revenues. When you take into account the incredibly high rate that magazines sell advertising for, this might mean that some writers could command as much as $20 for every published word–which would put them on par with what has become industry standard 10% royalty rate among book publishers.

For the last few weeks I’ve been talking to some of the highest profile literary agents and writers in the country in an attempt to suss out how feasible it would be to start a literary agency for magazine writers. Instead of pitching a magazine, writers would pitch the agency. And the agency would work for them to get the very best rate possible. For this to work, it will need to attract the best writers in the country to join the effort. It will need to become a broker of amazing ideas: an exclusive destination for top-notch reporting.

In other words, it will have to be the sort of effort that made being a script writer or book writer a viable profession. It is something that we could make happen together.

7 Comments

  1. Doug Pizac   •  

    While your premise may be correct, it is ideological in terms of reality. Yes, writers in the book and movie industries can command good pay and hold onto their rights but that is because they represent a small percentage of the populous. Why small? Because they are talented people and/or have name recognition; plus their work is tied to a single product at a time that in itself generates a large amount of revenue — a do or die scenario.

    However, when it comes to the newspaper industry the product comes and goes on a daily basis; and with online a story that took a week to produce can lose its top billing to a Hollywood star being arrested in a matter of seconds. Newspapers and magazines don’t have the content stability/need that book and movie producers have/require. And because of that they don’t need the same quality standards. Just look at all the typos that are festering in story copy.

    Let’s look at the photography industry as a prelude. During the film days it was expensive what with the cost of film, processing, printing, equipment, etc. To get the most bang for the buck talented people were employed as staff photographers. Yes, there are still talented shooters, but not in the numbers it once was. This is evident in the huge drop of photo staffs worldwide who have been replaced with freelancers, anyone with a camera and reporters with iPhones. The other advents that have lessened photography is the Internet and the monumental explosion of dSLR cameras that essentially do all the technical thinking of the camera holder much like the old Instamatic point and shoots but with much better quality. Because of this, everyone can be a professional photographer in their minds and unfortunately many editors think that too. The difference is the quality of the imagery — pro photographers make better pictures. However, with the high turnover rate of content on the web and in daily print there is no longer a need to demand gripping images because they last only until the next click of the mouse button.

    And then there are the business models that have changed with the web. With print, the value of the publication was based on its circulation and still is in terms of ad rates. The more circulation, the more money it can charge. Simple. And that same model held true for photography but in terms of usage. A color cover shot pays a heck of a lot more than an inside one-column b/w. But that’s not the case with online usage. The online business model is based on the number of clicks a web page gets. The more clicks the more revenue — plain and simple. And because of that model quality and/or size and/or placement plays little to no role in the value of imagery on the web. A dozen out of focus, off-color photos that are clicked on generate 12x the revenue than a single Pulitzer prize winner. That’s the economics of online publishing. And that is why you’ll see dozens of images in photo galleries that should have never been considered in the first edit. It doesn’t matter how good they are; all that matters is getting people to click on them. Yes, editors will say that’s not true and they value photography but when it comes down to generating revenue clicks matter to the bottom line — a lot. And I’ve had editor friends confirm that reluctantly.

    Now, how does that apply to writers? It is starting to. What word people are starting to go through now which you write about in your story happened to photographers many years ago. The writing industry is only starting to catch up to what shooters have been experiencing for a long time but in a different way. For example, similar to getting photography from micro stock photo agencies and/or those who are willing to sell cheap or give away their work for free in exchanged for a photo credit, publications and content generators are having more and more stories being software generated. Automated Insights, a company that enables AP and others to automatically write business stories, was acquired by an investment company last week that also owns of a sports media operation that will use the software to generate sports related stories. In January AP said it used to do quarterly earnings for about 300 companies but with Automated Insights it does 3,000 such reports each quarter of which only 120 have an added human touch by updating the computer generated story or doing a separate follow-up piece. Instead of hiring 10x more staff (plus editors) to do that volume of work the software does it for substantially less cost. This means there will be less work for writers in the future; and less work will mean a glut of writers on the market which will drive down their worth and price which is exactly what has already happened to the photo industry. And this in turn creates a “if you don’t like it we’ll find someone else” mentality; and they will because there are plenty of people out there looking to get published even for a simple credit.

    So yes, while your premise should be correct, the reality of it is like comparing apples to oranges, or apples to turnips in terms of business models and revenue streams.

  2. Sue Russell   •  

    After my “Amen brother!” moments a little brick of reality hit me upside the head. This then means that said best work must be executed before a penny is earned. Fully executed, right? Not unreasonable for a “think piece” but how about a story requiring investigation or travel? Given that, as you rightly say, freelance magazine writers are so often broke, I wonder how that dream could be realized. Does sound lovely though. Hmmm.

    • Scott Carney   •     Author

      No, it should be possible to sell a pitch at auction. Just like non-fiction book proposals.

  3. Erik Sherman   •  

    Your premises are also largely incorrect. Years ago, there was a lot of magazine journalism produced by freelance writer who knew to keep their rights. Publishers only started a much harder push to keep all rights after the Tasini v. NYT SCOTUS decision and when everyone started to realize that ancillary rights had a lot more value than most thought. The old model was only granting a periodical publisher First North American Serial Rights. Relatively few sold movie or TV rights. Instead, the pay rates were much higher compared to the cost of living.

    Your assertion that freelancers largely have to hold down a job on the side or sell to Hollywood is simply untrue. A good number of my fellow freelancers gross $100K or more a year. With expenses, paying for benefits, taxes, etc., that isn’t as much as people think. But I know many who live decently.

    Writers in Hollywood worked under a very different model. They were and are union members who work a series of temporary positions. Production houses pay money to the Writers Guild for benefits coverage. Therefore, Hollywood writers had the ability to call strikes and shut down the industry, giving them far greater bargaining power. You can’t get agents for most magazine work because they don’t make enough money from their percentages to make it worthwhile. And that’s generally been the case for many decades.

    Also, your assumption that publishers are rolling in massive profits and paying a pittance is incorrect. Look at the number of publications being shut down. Ad pages in print keep dropping year over year. Ad rates for digital, where much of the readership is coming, are a fraction of page rates. By the way, “standard” royalty rates in publishing are increasingly on net sales, not cover price, because most of the sales are in paperback, not hardback. (And for 70 percent of books, authors never earn out the advance they get because the books don’t sell.) Getting $20 a word in magazine publishing is not an equivalent, it’s far more than that and so beyond what the economics could manage as to be almost beyond comment. You can’t compare books and magazines because the business models are so divergent.

    You clearly mean well, but I think you need to do a lot of basic work in understanding the business of publishing from all angles, not just what writers would like to make.

    • Scott Carney   •     Author

      Erik, Thanks for writing and you make a few good points here, but I believe that you are missing the larger point I’m making. Yes, at one point we only sold north-american serial rights. But if you’ve seen contracts recently publishers are routinely trying to grab every part of copyright. I can’t tell you how hard and dispiriting it is to constantly fight for movie and reprint rights every time I want to go to work. Like you, I do make a decent living, but it is only because I fight tooth and nail for every scrap.

      As for my assumption that publishers are rolling in massive profits. Have you ever sat down with an advertising rate sheet from one of the top publishers? I suggest that you do. And then count the pages in one of the magazines you write for. Since you frequently contribute to Inc, I’ll paste the link. The rates aren’t as robust as Conde NAst, to be sure (which routinely asks for upwards of $120,000 per page even if they might settle for half that) but Inc still asks for about $84,000 per page. Now multiply that number by the number of ads in a given issue and tell me if what writers are making even 1% of that gross. Sure magazines are going out of business, but it’s not because they are paying writers too much. We are quite literally the smallest possible burden on their profits.

      Hell, read this article and try not to feel sick. The CEO of Vice, a publishing empire that routinely pays its writers $250 for a fully reported piece, dropped $300,000 on dinner when attending CES this year. There certainly are profits to be had in publishing. It’s just that we’re not getting them.

      Let me ask you a question: How much value do you believe writers contribute to a magazine? Is it more than 1%?

  4. Tom Chandler   •  

    There are some sizeable differences between Hollywood and your average magazine, but your point is well taken.

    The image of an agent sparking a bidding war over a particularly choice pitch should excite a lot of first-tier magazine writers.

    Would it excite them enough to work together when the inevitable blacklisting begins? (You’d know better than I would.)

    Still, even at the mid-level, magazines would almost certainly pay better rates if they knew every pitch was being read — maybe even at that exact moment — by other editors.

  5. Pingback: Help Kickstart Wordrates & Pitchlab - scottcarney.com

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