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.

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Brian Williams and the Myth of the Intrepid TV Journalist

Brian Williams in Iraq

Brian Williams poses next to a soldier and some big piece of military equipment Iraq in 2003.

For almost a decade NBC anchor Brian Williams has repeated a story that when he was reporting from Iraq the helicopter he was flying in was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. It turns out that he was lying and for the last week he has been at the center of a media whirlwind with people across the country calling for his resignation. After he apologized, investigative sleuths dug deeper into other statements that he has made over the years and it appears that quite a few of his stories don’t check out. A lot of digital ink has been spilled on the affair, but I think that there is a larger issue at stake that has a lot more to do with the American public’s lack of knowledge about the media rather than Williams’ own statements.

Television is a medium for entertainment, and just about everything that appears on it is carefully produced behind the scenes. While it often appears that television hosts are investigating black markets, on the front lines of a war, or painstakingly filing FOIA requests to uncover government corruption on their own, the truth is that while the information they may present might be accurate and fact checked, the representation you see is almost always a fabrication. Before an anchor appears in the field producers, researchers, fixers and investigators have already tracked down leads, scouted potential locations, shot B-roll and prepped the interviewees and had them fill out release forms. When the anchor arrives on the scene the story is wrapped up in a tight little package and most of the time all the host has to do is shoot a few hours of film and then fly hope to begin prepping another story. The host gets the credit for the story and the TV viewing audience gets to identify with a single personality from one broadcast to another.

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How kill fees ruin writers, hurt magazines and destroy journalism

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Just about every journalism contract contains a clause called a “kill fee” that states that if the magazine decides not to run a particular story then it will pay out only a fraction of the agreed upon rate. The writer is then free to sell the story to another publication. The logic behind this policy is that the clause is insurance so that a writer won’t simply accept a contract and then write a half-baked and poorly reported story and then run off with the full payment. Unfortunately the kill fee serves a much more diabolical role in the modern magazine industry. Not only it is bad for writers, it also exposes magazines to potential libel suits and degrades the overall quality of journalism in America.

Last week I had a conversation with a former editor at the New York Times Magazine who told me that they kill between 1/4 and 1/3 all assignments they issued to their on-contract writers. The magazine killed a much higher percentage of stories that they assigned to freelancers who weren’t already on the masthead.

While a kill fee is supposed to be insurance against bad writing, the NYT magazine was using it in a different way. A story can be killed for literally any reason: not only because of poor quality, but because an editor no longer thinks an idea is fresh, or that a character doesn’t “pop” on the page, or the piece was covered in another magazine between the time it was assigned and then scheduled to be published. (Those are three reasons that I’ve had stories killed over the years). Instead publications now routinely use the kill fee system as a way to increase the overall pool of material they can choose from to publish.  They intentionally over-assign and account for a certain percentage of killed pieces in advance.  Stories that are on the bottom of their list don’t make the cut.  This policy has nothing to do with the quality of what a writer submits, rather a business model that intentionally transfers risks reporting onto the backs of their authors.

Anyone who has written for a major publication knows that there is a wide gap between what a writer pitches to a magazine and what they encounter when they are actually reporting a piece in the field. This is the basic  disconnect between any proposal and the reality on which that proposal hangs. There is no guarantee that when a reporter gets out into the field that they will find the juicy narrative anecdotes that will make a piece sing on the page. Still, the only way to find out what is happening in the world is to actually do the work, travel to the locations, report the hell out of what you find and then try to write it up.

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Are you Pitching to a Silo or to a Market?

At this point it’s no secret that writers get a pretty lousy deal in the publishing business. Every day someone asks me if there’s a way to fight back. In fact, there’s one common practice that writers take on that hobbles them from the very start, and it’s our fault that the problem exists at all. Most journalism schools, editors, and old-time-freelancers advise new writers to only pitch one magazine at a time when they are trying to sell a story. In turn, most editors assume that pitches are exclusive material and will go as far as to say that they wont even consider an idea if another publication is reviewing it as well. This is called “silo pitching”, and it’s the surest route to penury for a writer.

 

That silo pitching is the standard method to market story ideas to publications is indicative of just how scared writers are of the people they work for. Most writers tell me that they would never take their ideas out to multiple publications because they worry they might be blacklisted and never find work again. Loyalty, they say, also has its perks because a good editorial relationship might secure future assignments. Unfortunately the loyalty that writers feel to their editors is rarely reciprocated. At the mainstream magazines editors almost always take a very long time to respond to pitches. Even after an initial expression of interest, an assignment can take months—yes months–to finally receive a green light. Sometimes editors don’t even bother to respond in the first place which means that a good idea that might have found a home at another magazine could malinger and die in the inbox of the first editor you sent it to.

 

A more serious problem with silo pitching is that by extending exclusivity to a single magazine in advance means the the writer has effectively given up any ability to negotiate the contract when it comes time to sign. There’s never a chance to allow the market to value a writers’ work by getting input from multiple potential buyers. Instead the writer has almost no option than accept whatever deal the magazine puts up. This is why bad deals are now the industry standard. Forget the lamentable payment terms, most magazines now also suck away film and reprint rights, offer low kill fees, and won’t pay their writers until months, and in some cases, years after the magazine has appeared in print.

 

Silo pitching completely violates any attempt for a writer to receive a market value for their work.

 

In Hollywood and in book publishing exclusivity deals are well compensated. A good script writer might make upwards of $50,000 a year from a single studio just so that they have the right of first refusal on whatever they come up with. That journalists give away this right by default shows just how sick this business actually is.

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The case for $20 per word

WARNING: I’m about to make statement that is so revolutionary that you might begin to question my sanity. It’s a goal for writers that will seem not only unattainable, but impossible: as if I’ve been living on an entirely different planet. What I’m going to propose is that writers at mainstream magazines–particularly the ones in the Conde Nast empire, but also Wenner Media, and Hearst–should be paid not only a living wage, but one that values them in the same way that magazines sell their writing to advertisers.  I’m going to suggest that writers at the top magazines in America should make at least $20 per word.

 

The number is ten times the standard going rate of $2 that most magazines pay (check out current rates at my crowdsourced Google Doc).  However, given the current economics of the industry, I have to argue that it also is the only fair rate for our work after you account for how much print advertisements sell for. Take for instance the fact that average rate that Conde Nast sells a single page of advertising to their clients for is about $130,000. Magazines vary pretty widely in their page count, but over the last few days I’ve counted the adds in about a dozen different issues and the smallest magazines have about 30 ads, the fattest more than 100. For argument’s sake, lets saw that the average Conde Nast magazine has 50 pages of advertising. After they give their clients a steep discount, they reap about $70,000 per page in revenues. It’s pretty conservative to say that a run of the mill Conde Nast magazine makes at least $3.5 million per issue. At the very most, the fattest mags in the empire run about 40,000 words for a total payout of $80,000 to writers. That’s only  1% of its gross revenues dedicated to words. However, if you were to ask just about any reader I’m pretty sure that they would tend to agree that words and stories make up more than 1% of the value of a magazine.

 

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Crowdsourcing Journalism Rates

For the last few years I’ve been keeping a list of editors, word rates, contact details and brief notes on different magazine and website editors with my colleagues at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. It was crowdsourcing on a relatively small scale to help us figure out where the best home for our writing would be. However, I’ve come to realize that the list might also be useful for another, perhaps more noble goal. So I’ve scraped off the personal and identifying details and added a few new columns.

 

I’m throwing the database online and inviting writers from all over the world to add what they know about the size of the market. Help out and contribute by clicking on this link. Lets figure out what every magazine pays per word, how many features are in each book, and what they charge for advertising.

 

It’s a Google Doc, and pretty easy to update and modify. I’ve filled in what blanks that I could, but someone should probably check my numbers. Most advertising rates are easy to find on company media kits like the one Conde Nast publishes publicly.

 

The reason for this, of course is that last week’s post on how much writing in America is actually worth struck a nerve.  Many people were skeptical that magazines might really only pay out $3.6 million a year for their feature wells. The number seems absurdly small. And they might be right. Various commenters mentioned that the New Yorker alone must dish out almost $2 million annually on stories. Tom McGeveren wrote that his own publication (which turned out to be the newspaper the New York Observer) commanded a $3.5 million dollar budget on its own.  However everyone seemed to understand the overall point writers get only a tiny sliver of the overall publishing revenues of mainstream magazines.   Continue reading…

How much are words worth?

Writers tend to keep their thoughts in the realm of ideas rather than calculate the seemingly mundane matter of the mechanics of the trade. However, a few months ago I sat down in a Chinese restaurant with a friend of mine who writes for the New Yorker and we agreed to leave our narrative musings to the side and think about practicalities. We were going to try to figure out how much the printed word is worth in America today.

 

We wanted to calculate how many feature stories the top magazines in America assign every year, and how much they typically pay their writers for the assignments. The list was only going to be for the top publications in America–the ones that pay between $1.50-$5 per word and that comprise the top tier of journalism. These are the magazines that line the shelves of airport bookstores everywhere and the ones that we write for pretty regularly. Think The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Atlantic, Wired, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, O, The Atavist, and the dozen or so other magazines that sits on the tops of toilet tanks and the tables of dentist offices from Seattle to Orlando.

 

It was back of the envelope math at best, but as far as either one of us could determine, it was the first time anyone had tried to figure out how biG the pie was for long form freelance writing in America.  There are hundreds of amazing writers in the country, delving into stories that drive the national conversation on everything from politics to the cult of celebrity to human rights abuses to cutting edge scientific and technological discoveries. These are the types of pieces that we make a living on, and ones that, frankly, we feel are important to write.

 

After ten minutes listing the average number of features in each magazine multiplied by the number of issues annually we had a number: 800. On average these stories would run at about 3000 words and pay $1.50 per word.  It was only a ball-park estimate of the overall freelance writing market cap. But it was also a rather depressing one.  Let me put this in bold so it stands out on the page.

 

The total market for long form journalism in major magazines in America is approximately $3.6 million.  To put it another way: the collective body of writers earned less than Butch Jones, a relatively unknown college football coach, earned in a single year. 

 

$3.6 million. That’s it. And the math gets even more depressing. If we assume that writers should earn the average middle class salary of $50,000 a year, then there’s only enough money in that pot to keep 72 writers fully employed.  And, of course, those writers would have to pen approximately 11 well thought out and investigated features per year–something that both my friend and I knew was almost impossible.

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The Contract that Kills Journalism

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I’m not sure when it started, but there’s a dangerous trend in the publishing industry to leech value from a writer’s work and make it almost impossible to earn a real living off of journalism.  Yes, yes, we all know that media revenues are declining and even 100 year-old publications like The New Republic are teetering on the verge of extinction. For freelance journalists this has meant a general decline in word rates from a high in 1999 of $5/word at the top publications to as a low as $0.50/word at once-mighty institutions. Some publications now only pay their writers base on per-click, which as the venerable Erin Biba once said “is bullshit“.

But, I’m not writing to lament the decline of freelance revenues. I’m writing about something far more sinister: the way that publications today often demand that writers not only accept far less pay than they have received in the past, but also forfeit any rights over the work that they produce. While most new writers don’t think about much more than the pay they get for their words, a good story can go on to have a long life in several different mediums. The most lucrative of which are book, movie and TV deals. In those cases a writer could stand to make upwards of six figures for the research and narrative work that they put in up front.  Indeed, many of the best movies of the last ten years started out as magazine stories (Argo, Hurt Locker, Erin Brockovich, Adaptation, Coyote Ugly, Boogie Nights, Big Love to name just a few).

Late last month I got ahold of Newsweek’s standard contract that one of my correspondents sent me. Hidden on the second page was this clause:

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National Novel Writing Month

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I don’t write novels, but this morning I got a message from the website Webucator asking me for my thoughts on National Novel Writing Month.In particular they wanted to know what it means to write for a living.  Regular readers will remember that I recently published a short ebook on the freelance writing career path called The Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelance Writing about how to attain that elusive dream of quitting your day job and working for yourself. So, perhaps, they wondered, I could share a few thoughts on how to write for a living.

  • What were your goals when you started writing?

Sometimes I feel like I didn’t choose to be a writer, but that writing chose me.I’d failed or been fired from every other job I’d tried over the years and writing was the only thing that I was ever good at. Part of the problem, of course, is that I have an almost adolescent rejection of authority and working on other people’s projects always seemed less fulfilling than working on my own things. I also have a predilection for exploration and adventure. Writing has given me an excuse to spend months at a time pursuing strange and unusual subjects and call it a career.  As I mention in the book, my first real assignment came after I’d dropped out of graduate school and enrolled in a clinical trial for the erectile dysfunction drug Levitra. I thought that it was hilarious that I was going to be stuck in a room with 30 other dudes on penis-poppers and decided to write to Nerve.com to see if they wanted a feature on the subject. They did, and a writing career was born. Continue reading…

The Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelance Writing

The Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelance WritingFor the last few years I’ve been chewing on the idea of writing a book about the business of freelance writing. Every few weeks someone e-mails me out of the internet ether asking how they can jumpstart their writing career. It turns out that most journalism programs offer a lot of advice about how to write a compelling story, but fail almost completely at teaching their students how to make a living if they don’t have a staff job.

In an age of declining advertising revenues, thinner magazines and ubiquitous free media it would seem that it’s harder than ever to make a name for yourself in the pages of mainstream publications. I wrote The Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelance Writing to buck the assumption that writers have to give their work away for free if they want to break into the industry.

Writing, it turns out, is just like any other business. Yes, it’s difficult to get up and running, but with a little perseverance and a few great story ideas, there is nothing preventing someone from making a name for themselves. In the book, I dissect the several different reliable revenue streams for freelancers, break down the ways that most magazines are structured and diagram out the typical lifecycle of a story from its inception through its eventual publication. The book explores the proper way to deal with publishing contracts (ProTip: don’t sign away copyright or movie rights) and includes almost a dozen examples of successful pitches that I’ve sold over the last ten years of my career.

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