One Week to WordRates!

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 11.04.11 AM

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

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 9.06.43 AM


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


Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 9.17.57 AM



And every member will have their own profile:


Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 9.18.39 AM

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.

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

Why “Cult” is the Wrong Word


The early 1960s saw a flourishing of fringe religious groups that the press had no other word for than “cults”. It was a simpler time, and the word was meant to describe religious movements that didn’t easily fit into the established religions. The word encompassed hippies experimenting with alternative ideologies, Christian evangelicals, crystal energy healers, and back to the earth types who, might be a little odd, but basically harmless. It was hard to identify exactly what a cult was, except that there were millions of people searching for a personal connection with God. Then, in 1969 everything changed when followers of Charles Mason murdered Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of the director Roman Polanski. They coated the walls in her blood and inked the words “Helter Skelter” above the crime scene. Nine years later 800 followers of the People’s Temple killed a US congressman in Guyana and then took their own lives with cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

After that bloody introduction the world took a new perspective on the word “cult”.  Cults weren’t harmless. They were dangerous.  They stole people from their families, brainwashed them with false ideologies and sometimes even took their lives. Today, the word brings to mind the Branch-Davidians in Waco, Texas and the exploitive practices of the Church of Scientology. There is a burgeoning field of anti-cult literature, support groups for former cult members and exit counselors whose main job is to bring people out of these groups and back to their families. It is clear that many of these groups prey on their members, take their money, and often leave them in dire straights with no one to turn to except for their charismatic leader.

Continue reading…

Tantric Obsession

On Wednesday the Rubin Museum invited me to have a conversation with David Vago, a neuroscientist at Harvard University, to speak about tantric obsession and how spiritual bliss can sometimes go terribly wrong. It was a fascinating discussion in an amazing venue. Here are a few highlights.


The Enlightenment Trap

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 1.35.57 PM CroppedIn March of 2006, Emily O’Conner was sure that she was on the cusp of enlightenment. We had spent the last seven days on a silent meditation retreat together in the holy city in India for Buddhists called Bodh Gaya. I was the director of her abroad program, and Emily was my student. Late in the night she filled her journal with a scrawl about what she had learned in the silence. She wrote that contemplating her own death was the key to deeper spiritual realizations. A few paragraphs later she wrote the words, “I’m scared that I will have this realization and go crazy.” Then, on the last page, in a paragraph all by itself, she penned her last words — a final resolution to her spiritual progress: “I am a Bodhisattva.”

When she was done writing she wrapped a shawl around her face, stood on the ledge of the three-story building, and jumped. One of the other students on the program found her body an hour later.

In Tibetan Buddhism a Bodhisattva is a fully realized being whose deep spiritual insights have opened the door to Nirvana. However, rather than stepping though the threshold, Bodhisattvas pledge to remain on earth to help other people to the same realizations. In a way, you could think of a Bodhisattva as a sort of god that exists beyond the realm of life and death. Almost three millennia earlier, in a spot less than a mile from where Emily took her own life, the man who would become known as the Buddha had a similar realization. He spent the remaining time he had on earth translating his knowledge to a growing community of followers. Continue reading…

Editors weigh in on market pitching

A few weeks ago I posted about the relative merits of market versus silo pitching and the post kicked up a lot of conversation around the internet. Yesterday Lesley Evans Ogden reached out to a few editors to see what they thought of the practice. Her piece “Simultaneous Pitching: Views from the Other Side of the Desk” has responses from seven editors, including one that I have known for four or five years (who somehow got my name wrong).

Of course, there’s no reason for editors to like the fact that they might have to compete for particular ideas. So I was happily surprised to see how open most of them were to the fact that the notion that simultaneous pitching is just a fact of the industry. While one or two bristled at the idea that not every pitch they receive might be truly exclusive, they also grudgingly admitted that it could take weeks to even read an idea. One wrote  that the ten minutes that they have to dedicate to reading a pitch can be a burden to an already packed work day. This of course assumes that it isn’t a burden to freelancer to wait in some sort of queue, possibly weeks, for an up or down answer that should only take minutes. What happens to that freelancer if the editor says no? There are only 52 weeks in a year, how many chances can an idea get at bat before it is stale?

All the editors did seem to agree that even if a pitch does get accepted into a magazine, it usually changes as writer and editor work together. And, from this perspective, you could say that there is no such thing as multi-pitching, anyway, since the final product will always adapt to the specific publication.

Tracy Hyatt, Editor, WestworldBC Magazine, notes:

“Back when I started 15 years ago, it [simultaneous pitching] was a no-no because every publication wanted to have exclusive content… Nowadays, we’re seeing a lot of the content repeated all over the place. So you don’t really have any exclusivity on any content, or any ideas for that matter.”

It’s definitely a worthwhile read. It also seems to clear the way for an idea that I’ve been working on to transform the way that ideas get to the market. Keep an eye on this website. Big things are going to happen in April.