The Freelance Creative

This Startup Will Piss Off Publishers—And Make Freelancers Happy

Award-winning investigative journalist, author, and anthropologist Scott Carney thinks that writers are getting paid too little. Way too little. His solution? To make publications compete against one another—and after raising $9,307 from 246 backers (full disclosure: I was one of them) through Kickstarter in May, he’ll be launching a two-tiered project next week to do just that. [UPDATE: The official release date is now set for October 19.]

WordRates, the first tier of the project, will provide a Yelp-esque database of user-submitted ratings of editors, publications, and boilerplate contracts, along with contact information for editors. The second part of the project, PitchLab, is modeled after the book publishing industry. It will employ mentors to workshop pitches with journalists and help shop them around to multiple publications in order to get the best rate and contract.

For freelancers frustrated with stagnant rates and the lack of transparency in the publishing industry, WordRates and PitchLabs are exciting opportunities to level the playing field (which we previously covered in a guest post published in Fast Company). To get more detail, we chatted with Carney about the history of the project, freelancers’ bad pitching habits, and how editors are responding to WordRates and PitchLab so far.

What has changed about the project since its initial conception?

The idea is pretty similar to what I’ve always had. We were always going to have Yelp-for-editors built, and we were always going to pair people up with mentors—people who have been freelancing for a long time, usually very established folks, to sort of become literary agents for magazine writers.

We figured—instead of pitching directly to a magazine—you’d pitch us, and we’d have one of our people pitch it to eight magazines at once, and try to get the best possible deal. It’d likely be someone who writes for the New Yorker or New York Times Magazine regularly.

The idea is that even if we charge a commission, we’re going to be able to get more money and better terms. It’s the same model that works for book publishing. There’s no real difference to it, except that our mentors are not professional agents; they’re journalists.

Why would a magazine want to get a pitch from a mentor rather than the journalist?

Two reasons. One is that we’re basically going through a slush pile. We’ll have a bunch of pitches that we’ll look over and we’ll be representing the best ones from that. You’ll have a higher quality just because of that process.

But also, if we have a great idea, and the only way for the magazine to get that idea is to go through us, they don’t really have that much of a choice.

And what’s the commission going to be for people who sign up for PitchLab?

15 percent. That’s industry standard.

I recently pitched two different sites the same topic. One of them definitely wanted it, and the other asked for more information. I ended up not giving them more information because I went to the first site. They changed their mind sometime before I submitted it, and by then it was no longer timely and the other site didn’t want it anymore. Is this the type of thing PitchLab could help prevent?

That’s the whole point. I wrote a blog post on market pitching versus silo pitching, and the thing is that our stories go bad. Your pitches can go bad because of timeliness.

If you’re only pitching one person at a time, you’re effectively putting yourself in the worst possible negotiating position. By the time you’ve gotten the green light, your pitch is often eight times more stale than it used to be. Then you’re really stuck if you only have one offer. But if you have two offers on the table, now you have power.

I think editors still think that people pitch one publication or site at a time.

A lot of them even prefer that. They’ll tell you that they only accept ideas that are one at a time. But unless they have a contract with you saying that, then what they’re doing is very anti-competitive. It might even be illegal, because basically what they’re saying is they need exclusivity and you’re not going to get anything back for it. It’s a very bad practice.

Say somebody keeps sending crappy pitches to PitchLab. Are they going to be getting feedback? What is that process going to look like?

I don’t have a direct answer for that, but it’s not a service where anyone can just submit crap and we’re going to edit it and make it awesome.

We’re looking for the diamonds in the rough. I assume that we’re going to be very selective and most people’s pitches that get sent in are going to be rejected, just because there’s a volume of ideas out there and we’re only going to represent the ones that we think we can turn into big money.

So if somebody sends a pitch that isn’t that great, are they going to know that it isn’t getting sent on to editors? Are they going to get any feedback?

Yeah. When someone submits their idea, they’re going to get an automatic message saying that it’s under review. The mentors will have a list of pitches in a database, and they can approve a story and take it on and represent it, they can pass on it, they can delete it in the database. When it gets rejected a writer will get a letter saying, “Sorry, we can’t represent it.” And if it gets accepted then they’ll work with that person.

When you first started sharing rates through a Google Doc there was a big backlash from editors, correct?

There was some sabotage on the Google Doc where people erased things, but then I just locked it.

One editor did contact me and say, “It’s not cool that you’re posting our rate,” but I’ve also had editors write me and say, “We can’t wait for WordRates and PitchLab, particularly PitchLab, to come out.” And I’ve also had magazine editors add their own magazines to the rate list, so it’s sort of a variety of reactions.

So it’s not like you’re pissing off all the editors, just a select few.

The thing is that we’re not against editors at all. Editors are great. They make your work better. But we are very strongly against the business practices that make it impossible for freelancers to make a living, and that ultimately sits with the people who manage those publications.

But I think some people are happy to get paid less than $2/word, especially for websites.

Could be, but here’s the thing: Writers often think that their work isn’t worth anything—they don’t know how to value their work.

If they’re working for a company that’s valued at $100 million—and they pay their writers less than half a percent of their revenues— you’re getting screwed, even if you feel personally that it’s an okay rate. When I write for Wired and I get $2.50 a word, or whatever my rate is right now, if they sell one single page advertisement to go with the story—one page of advertising is worth $140,000 at Wired. My story may be 10 pages. They do not give me a million dollars.

What about websites?

Websites should be paying a lot more. You have to look at the revenue their web traffic generates and what their actual business model is based on. If you look at the book publishing industry—I’ve written two books, and I just got my third book contract—they give you about 10 percent as a royalty of the book sales, 10 percent of the gross.

If any of these magazines paid you 10 percent percent of their gross, we would be getting a standard rate of $20/word [Editor’s note: You can check out Carney’s calculations here]. Websites I’m sure would be paying at least a dollar a word, more than likely three or four dollars a word if you were making 10 percent of the gross.

The thing is that writers just don’t fight it, and we think we’re valueless.

If someone wasn’t a backer and is just finding out about the project, is there a way they can get involved?

Once the site goes live then people can sign up for a free account and start rating editors and doing all the stuff the site was built for. They can submit pitches, and we’ll review them at our launch.

Is there anything else about this project people should know about?

I think that people really need to understand that writers’ work is valuable, and that fighting for the value of your work is not against your interests.

PitchLab may be the way this will happen, but even if nobody uses PitchLab, I hope people take the message from this project that you’re supposed to argue for every contract that you get—then I’ll have won. Because we need to put pressure on magazines and realize that writing is a business. It’s not some art form where it’s not tied to your own survival.

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