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 WordRates.com.

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 wordrates.com:

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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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Help Kickstart Wordrates & Pitchlab

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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:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/767033302/wordrates-and-pitchlab-fixing-journalism-since-mid

 

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

“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.

Development

I already have the URL (wordrates.com) 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.

Rewards:

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

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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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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.

Inside Pacific Standard Interview where I swear like a sailor

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A week or so ago Noah Davis, who writes a column for Pacific Standard called How Do You Make a Living, noticed the posts that I’d been doing about the broken model for freelance writing in this country. The series explores career paths as diverse as taxidermy to puzzle makers, but very few industries are as coercive or just plainly unfair as freelance writing.

One thing, however, did surprise me when I read this interview. Apparently when someone asks me about the freelance business I can’t help but to swear like a sailor. It’s not something that I realize that I’m doing, but I guess this really does get under my skin.  Below are a few excerpts. Or hell, just read the full interview here.

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Fragile Freelancers and the Fate of Journalism

Earlier this month Project Word released a one-of-a-kind survey on the ways that freelance journalists make their livings. The 34-page report, titled “Untold Stories: A Survey of Freelance Investigative Reporters,” was part of a collaboration between 22 different journalism organizations and included responses from more than 200 investigative reporters. To no one’s surprise, the survey found that freelances are in in dire straights.

Among the more shocking revelations were that:

  • 44% of respondents said they were being paid less now than 5 years ago. 22% said that their income was half no than what it used to be.
  • Inadequate support for investigative journalism has deprived the public of a minimum of nearly 600 stories that could have served the public good.
  • 92% of 137 freelancers reported experiencing “anxiety on a daily basis over finances.

The study lays out the plight of increasingly marginal freelancers in visceral detail, and peppers in writer’s own language for how they have struggled to make their livings.  Amidst bad contracts, limited reprint rights, declining pay, endless debt, and anxiety ultimately freelance investigative journalism is more charity than a career path.

Here are my favorite three quotes:

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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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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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