Announcing the What Doesn’t Kill Us Trailer


For the last four years I’ve been investigating the limits of human endurance in harsh environments. After all, our ancestors crossed frozen mountain ranges and endless ocean miles without a whisper of modern technology. So why can’t you? This trailer is just a taste of the incredible journey that took me to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro without a shirt, meditating on the banks of snowy rivers in Poland and into the training gyms of top athletes, all to understand what makes us human.


​Available everywhere January 17, 2017. Pre-order Today
Here’s what early readers are saying:
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If you’re willing to buy a kidney, you’re willing to exploit the poor

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 8.28.39 AMWhat would happen if the United States legalized the sale of human organs? Economists will note the seductive market logic: with regulation, proponents of legalization suggest the organ shortage will disappear, the market will arrive at a fair price for human tissue and new laws will regulate away criminal elements.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the U.S. would be able to create its own equitable system. What would happen in the rest of the world? Whether we like it or not, we live in the era of globalization, and if the U.S. legalizes the market for body parts, there is no reason to think that international economies won’t play a role in how a patient decides to procure transplant organs.

According to the National Foundation for Transplants, a kidney transplant costs about $260,000. In the illegal organ markets in India, Egypt and Pakistan, the same procedure rings in at just shy of $20,000 — certified organ included.

Immunosuppressant drugs have come so far that a broker can arrange a transplant in as little as 30 days. The only thing stopping the typical American transplant patient from going abroad and buying an organ is the difficulty of making contact with a broker and the threat of what might happen if they get caught.

In the real world, kidneys don’t have a fixed price. Instead, the market for human body parts is a lot like the one for used cars: They’re only worth what someone is willing to sell them for. In the age of cheap international travel, where state-of-the-art hospitals abut the most impoverished slums on earth, hundreds of thousands of people are available and willing to sell their flesh for pennies on the dollar. Some of these areas are so well known among organ traffickers and brokers that they’ve earned the name “kidneyvilles” for their plentiful supply of willing “donors.”

Between 2006 and 2010, I made India my home while researching the global trade in human body parts. India is notable in the organ trafficking world because of its advanced hospitals and plentiful supply of extreme poverty. In 2004, after a tsunami ripped across South Asia and slammed into the eastern coast of the country, hundreds of thousands of people wound up in refugee camps. These desperately poor people had few options for work or making a livelihood, a perfect opportunity for organ brokers. It was a buyer’s market, and everyone sold.

Typically, the brokers promised $2,000 per organ, but only delivered the advance, always finding one excuse or another not to pay the rest of the money. Even so, husbands sold their kidneys and then pressured their wives to sell theirs. The price for a kidney fell to as low as $600.

When I visited one camp called Ernavoor outside the bustling metropolis of Chennai, I met 80 women with foot long scars across their abdomens. These were not the equitable arrangements that proponents of organ markets advocate for. This was a symptom of extreme poverty. Of course, none of the people in that camp could ever expect to receive an organ should one of their own fail. The one rule with organ markets is that human tissue always moves up — and never down — the social hierarchy.

Still, that was an illegal market. What would happen if the trade were well regulated abroad? To answer this, it’s helpful to review what happened in the market for human surrogate babies. In the U.S., it is legal to pay a woman to carry a child, so long as the money is called “compensation” and not coercion. Even so, an American surrogate might cost as much as $100,000 in such arrangements.

Once the market was clearly defined in America, other countries, with looser definitions of human rights, fought for their share of the market. In 2002, India became the go-to destination for procuring a budget surrogate womb. To the surprise of no one, the Indian industry soon began to cut corners. Women were housed under lock and key in houses known to the press as “baby factories.” Because U.S. patient demanded to know the condition of their child during the entire course of the pregnancy, surrogates became virtual slaves under the doctor’s perpetual surveillance.

The factories multiplied and soon tens of thousands of international customers reasoned that if it was legal to hire a surrogate at home, why not save money abroad? In some cases, when a pregnancy didn’t go as planned and the doctor had to choose between the life of an unborn surrogate baby and the life of mother, the mother did not always survive. Late last year, India finally outlawed surrogacy tourism after non-stop incidents and official inquiries into the surrogates’ wellbeing. Now the commercial surrogacy boomseems to be moving to Cambodia where regulations are still loose.

Still, the rise of surrogacy scandals is a warning about what might happen if we legalize organ sales in America. Even if the trade appears to work at home, there is no way to ensure that American customers won’t look for better deals abroad. We cannot solve our own organ shortage by exploiting the poor and helpless people on the other side of the world.

Explore these other perspectives from the Washington Post’s In Theory blog which, this week was talking about government compensation for organ donors. 

Sally Satel: Generosity won’t fix our shortage of organs for transplants

Francis Delmonico and Alexander Capron: Our body parts shouldn’t be for sale

Scott Sumner: The moral case for paying kidney donors

Benjamin Humphreys: Will lab-grown kidneys fix our transplant waiting lists?

Josh Morrison: It’s time to treat organ donors with the respect they deserve

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TEDx-Boulder – Body, Mind and Spirit






It doesn’t matter what you call it, but the pursuit of that divine force has inspired some of the world’s greatest civilizations, its most enduring architecture, foundational philosophies as well as the wars that have time and again sought to tear all that down. But can any of us mere mortals truly understand the hidden clockwork of the universe? If we assume that it exists at all, then the actual state of transcendence poses an interesting problem. What are people supposed to do with the rest of their time on earth once they’ve gained that ultimate knowledge? Revered gurus who teach that status and power are meaningless in the ultimate reality, nonetheless have to muck about in the mundane world. They gather followers, build institutions and dispense knowledge from lofty thrones. Is it hypocrisy when enlightenment simply reproduces familiar hierarchies? Another way to put it is how does a Buddha remain in the world, but not of it?

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Countdown to Revolution: WordRates to launch Oct 19th

The journalism business is about to change forever.

On October 19th at 8:00 a.m. will bring transparency to the publishing world by allowing freelance journalists to compare rates between publications, review contracts and rate editors, magazines and websites. Called “a Yelp! for journalists,” WordRates will give writers a crowdsourced periscope into the industry in order to help them better target their stories to publications and negotiate competitive rates for their work.

In addition to the ratings database, WordRates will also launch “PitchLab,” which uses a revamped literary agency model to represent feature writers to magazines. PitchLab will pair writers and their story ideas with “mentors” who will sell those stories to mainstream magazines. The mentor team features award-winning writers from The New York Times Magazine, New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, Rolling Stone, and Bloomberg-BusinessWeek, including Trevor Aaronson, Vince Beiser, Erin Biba, Charles Graeber, Jonathan Green, Jon Lackman, Robert Levine, Jason Miklian, Luke O’Brien, Neal Pollack, Paul Tullis, Joel Warner

WordRates was made possible after a successful Kickstarter campaign in May raised almost $10,000 from 246 freelance journalists around the world. These journalists, and others like them, have noticed that for the last 20 years pay to freelance writers has remained stagnant. Despite the internet’s promise to level the playing field for content, and potentially allow anyone a chance to find an audience for their work, the profits, by-and-large, have stayed within the large publishing houses.

According to their own figures, magazine publishers like Conde Nast and Wenner Media pay less than 2% of the revenue they make from advertising to their writers. Meanwhile, publishing contracts have gotten worse and made it increasingly difficult for writers to get fair terms on the film rights, reprints, translations and book deals that have long been important revenue streams for creative professionals. WordRates envisions that a little transparency and some healthy competition will change that.

There has been a lot of anticipation in the media for WordRates in the last few months. Here are a few of the highlights: Continue reading…

One Week to WordRates!

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After almost five months of development after a successful Kickstarter campaign I am pleased to announce that WordRates & PitchLab will go live on September 8th, 2015 (barring any unforeseen last minute design SNAFus) at

If you haven’t seen it, WordRates has gotten some amazing press, with Fast Company musing that after September 9th “We’ll begin to see just how powerful accountability and agents can really be.” And the Columbia Journalism Review throwing in it’s two cents.

We have 12 world-class mentors who are going to evaluate pitches and take them out to the best publications they can find as well as a completely re-thought way to rate magazines and editors on how easy they are to work with. I can’t tell you how excited I am to see it live. Keep your eyes peeled for updates over the next week.

Anyone who gave to the initial Kickstarter Campaign will get a complimentary membership to the site once it is live.

A Look Behind the Scenes at WordRates

There’s some big news in the wide world of WordRates. In the last month or so there has been a ton of work going on behind the scenes figuring out how to best structure the project. Here’s a quick update: WordRates is now an LLC in Colorado. We’ve brought on the Rao Law Group to handle the legal side of things. The website is being put together by the Colorado-based design company Lime9web, in conjunction with Umar Ilyas of eJuicy Solutions in Islamabad.

We have a group of 9 mentors who have signed up to tackle PitchLab. Together they’ve published more than a dozen books and contribute to the top publications in America includingVanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Bloomberg-BusinessWeek, the New Yorker, Atlantic and Conde Nast Traveler.

We are still in the very early stages of design and managing the back end of the site. But here’s some very rough sketches of what the site will actually look like when you start to use it. I’ll start posting more refined designs as we get them ready

Here is roughly what you will see when you log onto

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Individual reviews of editors and magazines will lead to a page that is laid out like this:


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And every member will have their own profile:


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Our Collective Problem

1220001-3584For 40 years the business of translating one language to another was controlled by the AIIC, a group of professional freelance translators who worked for governments, the United Nations and every business you could imagine. They set fair rates for their services and standards for the quality of their work, but weren’t technically employed by the AIIC.  They were part of the gig economy and they made their livings as independent contractors.

In 1994 a group of businesses complained to the Federal Trade Commission arguing that freelance translators had no right to determine what fair pay was for themselves. They argued to the FTC that freelancers were independent businesses  and that setting a minimum standard for their labor was the the same as operating a cartel. In the dull legalese of the day the FTC ruled in their favor saying, “We find that respondents price-fixing practices and market allocation rules are per se unlawful agreements in restraint of trade and a violation of the FTC Act.” After that companies no longer had to be held back by the tyranny of paying a living wage to their skilled workers. Instead, translators were forced to slash their prices against one another in an all out race to the bottom.  The result was that today translators don’t make nearly what they once did.

No one predicted that self-employment would be the new employment standard for the millennium. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics the number of self-employed people has gone up by half since the ruling.  As millions of people join the “sharing economy” or have to freelance their way into a job, the rights of freelancers are more important now than they ever were.

Inline image 1Being self-employed has some major advantages–creative control, setting your own hours and being your own boss–but there are also a lot of disadvantages, too. We pay twice the social security taxes–the so-called “self-employment tax” means we pay the employers share as well as our own–and we have no protections for minimum earnings.  When you’re a freelancer your work is your commodity, and like all commodities, its value fluctuates with the market.

While there have been some brave attempts to organize freelancers since the FTC ruling. The Freelancer’s Union, whose founder Sarah Horowitz won a MacArthur Genius award,  the sheer numbers of independent workers under its banner to negotiate for slightly better deals on health care. However barring that one incremental victory, no one advocates for freelancers. And no union can legally bargain collectively on our behalf without running afoul of the Federal Trade Commission.

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Should Writers Dream of Being Middle Class?

I have the audacity to believe that writers should be able to make a middle class living. I began writing about the difficulties that writers have negotiating for the value of their work amidst increasingly hostile market conditions back in January. I asked “How much are words worth?” and since then I’ve received almost a hundred emails from writers around the country who are fed up with their inability to make a living off.

This in part explains why the first three days of the Kickstarter campaign to create a new platform for writers to share market information and pitch stories have been so amazing.  As of right now when I’m typing this blog post Wordrates and Pitch Lab is 29% funded!

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 8.49.52 AMI’m incredibly grateful to the community of writers and journalists out there who see this as a worthwhile project, and your continuing efforts to get the word out about it.  Even so, there is still a lot of work left to do to get over the finish line. We just need $4,590 more so that I can hire a web designer to start banging out the code.  However, since Kickstarter is all-or-nothing funding, if I’m even one dollar short the campaign will fail and all the pledges will go unfulfilled.

So, If you haven’t pledged yet, please consider it. Even a modest donation of $25 will get you a six months of membership and access to editorial contact information and inside market data.  There are a lot of other cool rewards, too.  If you have already pledged there are other things you can do to help out. Fundraising campaigns like these live and die by social media so please keep tweeting and posting updates on Facebook.  Post about it on Reddit (r/writing might be a good place), Digg and get your local writers groups involved.

Share this link ( and maybe one day the dream of writers making a middle class living will be one step closer to reality.

Help Kickstart Wordrates & Pitchlab



I am proud to announce that this morning I’m going to do more than just write about the problems in the publishing industry. I’m going to do something about them. I’m launching a Kickstarter campaign that I hope will shift the ways that writers think about and market their work. I’m only asking for enough money to design the website. Please share this widely and lets make some great journalism together.

Here’s a link to the project:


The Problem:

Freelance journalism is dying. For the last 20 years, word rates have stagnated. Every year publishers grab more reprint, book and film rights and it is harder than it ever has been to make a living as an independent journalist. This is an important problem that deeply impacts the quality of the news you read. According to a survey by ProjectWord this year, almost half of stories that journalists thought were important to produce were never written because of lack of funding. Along with declining payments, boilerplate contracts weaken copyright and take away valuable ancillary revenue streams.

The dirty secret of the publishing business is that there is still a lot of money in the media. It’s just that writers aren’t getting any of it. Publishing empires like Conde Nast pay less than 1% of their gross revenue to writers and instead buy billions of dollars worth of real estate in Manhattan. VICE, a company that has been valued as high as $2.5 billion, pays a mere $250 for a reported piece. And let’s not forget that its CEO was willing to blow $300,000 on a dinnerwith 30 of his closest friends.

Antitrust laws make it illegal for freelancers to unionize so the only practical solution is to rely on the principles of the free market. It is time for a disruptive website that will change the playing field for freelance writers and photographers. By sharing information and promoting a business model that has been successful in both the book publishing and film industries it will be possible to get a bigger piece of the overall publishing revenue.



A Disruptive Solution:

WordRates solves two interconnected problems:

1) The inability of journalists to assess a market for their work before they pitch a story. And, 2) Our general reluctance to negotiate for favorable rates and contracts.

To address these issues, WordRates provides user-submitted ratings of editors and publications with Yelp-style reviews. The public submissions will allow writers to easily gather contact information for editors, compare boilerplate contracts, and submit comments about their experience working with a particular publication. Ratings will carry weight with the community and put pressure on editors and magazines to get better reviews. Journalists will be able to use the power of the community to increase the competition between magazines, create upward pressure on word rates, get better terms on contracts and hold magazines accountable for bad business practices. Except for contact details, these profiles will be freely available online in order to facilitate writers to become the best possible negotiators of their own work.

The second role of WordRates, a section of the website that I’m calling Pitchlab, is perhaps even more revolutionary. It’s a new way to get promising material into the hands of decision makers who assign stories.


“PitchLab” will be a space for both journalists to workshop their pitches with seasoned mentors. Not only will the mentors help polish a story idea into a work of art, they will take on the role of a literary agent and use our contacts in the media industry to shop for the best possible deal for the story. After a piece is accepted, WordRates will issue a standard writer friendly contract to magazines as a negotiating counterpoint to increasingly hostile magazine boilerplates. Just like literary agents, we will pitch to multiple publications at once so that the writer’s ideas can get market rates for their work instead of silo rates that are invariably uncompetitive.

Book authors sometimes receive six or even seven figure advances for their work and it isn’t a secret why: competition. Literary agents take ideas out to multiple potential buyers at once and ask them to bid. Book publishers have to bid well on great ideas because they want to publish the best possible material. Every term of the contract is up for negotiation and great ideas can make significant money. There is no reason that this couldn’t work in the magazine business. Great stories sell more issues, which in turn means higher advertising rates.

Magazine pieces that might sell for $5000 in today’s uncompetitive market, could get double or triple that with the right sales strategy. Indeed, with ancillary rights attached, it could be much much more. Here’s an example: Once, a story that Wired commissioned me for $4500 sold for more than $20,000 in foreign markets. If my contract had been the one that Conde Nast offers now, they would have gotten most of that money.

With PitchLab the mentor has a financial interest in selling the pitch for highest possible price and earning a commission in the process. PitchLab will split that commission with the mentor in a way that is industry standard among literary agencies.

PitchLab will be more than a way to allow seasoned journalists to have a real stake in developing new talent. In time, it could turn into an entire payment ecosystem. In practice, it is easier to negotiate for the value of someone else’s creative work than your own because an agent isn’t afraid to say no to a bad deal. Not to mention, seasoned writers could well use PitchLab to take advantage of mentors who have particularly good negotiating records.


I already have the URL ( and the basic architecture in the works, but I will still need to hire a developer to get this off the ground. Based on extensive conversations with a developer in Boulder, CO it seems that it will cost several thousand dollars for all the bells and whistles—a cool fresh look, a secure pitch lab and rating system. I’ll also need to have some money on hand for legal challenges (this is America after all) and a budget for data entry and secure servers.


What better way to celebrate the power of the written word then with books and membership into this program.

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For the Safety of Journalists

james foley

Freelance correspondent James Foley was kidnapped and murdered by ISIS in 2014.

A few months ago the Dart Center for Trauma and Journalism gathered together some of the top media organizations in the world and hashed out principles for ethical conduct for freelancers and publications that operate in conflict zones. The guidelines are not legally binding, but they are an important first step in reforming the often-broken relationship between publications, journalists and the stories they both want to get into print. As I’ve written over the last year, bad contracts, kill fees and uncertain payments often push freelance writers to take additional risks in conflict zones that can either result in bad reporting, or sometimes even a journalist’s life.

The guidelines issue recommendations for medical training, protective gear, risk assessment as well as transparent payment policies, and credit. They also agree that publications should be responsible for ransom and evacuation of freelancers in the same way that they would be for their own employees. These guidelines are a huge step forward from the previous era where news organizations might simply disavow a freelance writer or photographer who got in trouble while on assignment.

So far there are 60 signatories to the document, but there are still a few notable exceptions that routinely have freelance writers operating in potentially dangerous areas. It’s time to urge The New York TimesNational Public Radio, Conde Nast, Wenner Media, Atlantic Media, and American Public Media to stand up for the safety of the the people who put their lives in their name.

Like many non-binding documents, only time will tell if they signatories are ready to make this more than an on-paper commitment, but something they will act on during a crisis.  I have hope that they will.

I’ll post the complete guidelines and signatories below. Please share them.

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