Welcome to the second half of my Q&A with journalist and academic Nicole Cohen. Part 1 is available here.
Jaclyn Law: You wrote an article for Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society, titled “Negotiating Writers’ Rights: Freelance Cultural Labour and the Challenge of Organizing.” You suggested that a union could be “the most effective way to challenge powerful publishers.” Unions for Canadian freelancers are a relatively recent development. Why, historically, has it been difficult to organize freelancers to take collective action?
Nicole Cohen: I think the history of PWAC as an organization is instructive here. When PWAC was forming in the late 1970s, there was a big debate about whether to become a union or a professional association. Ultimately it became a professional association, but at its formation the group was oriented to spirited resistance: it negotiated contracts with 19 magazines and twice threatened to go on strike.
That spirit faded over the decades, but recently we have seen renewed energy around organizing freelancers, both from the Canadian Freelance Union and the Canadian Media Guild, which has long represented freelancers at the CBC but is now organizing freelancers across the media industries. This is exciting, and I think the recent contracts introduced by TC Media, The Toronto Star, and other media companies are spurring freelancers into renewed action—they have had enough. There has been an increase in public outcry, meetings and campaigns in the past few months, which is promising.
There are, of course, challenges to organizing freelancers, but I wanted to begin my answer to this question by pointing out that it is not impossible, as most assume, and there are many historical examples of freelancers successfully organizing (see, for example, freelancers in film and television, in the visual arts, and the Freelancers Union in the United States, which is the fastest-growing workers’ organization in America).
That said, there are specific conditions that make organizing freelancers in Canada difficult. For example, freelancers work alone, isolated from one another, and often don’t know other freelancers (this makes it difficult to organize to withhold labour or services, for example). Freelancers have long had antagonistic relationships with unions, as newsroom unions worked to limit the amount of work contracted to freelancers (this is changing, as the CEP is now the parent union of the CFU). Legally, the structures of labour representation in Canada are built on a model of single-workplace bargaining, which makes it difficult to organize workers who work for multiple employers or on multiple worksites to collectively bargain.
What I found interesting is that the skills one needs to develop to be a successful freelancer, and the structure of freelance journalism as highly individualized work, mean that freelancers develop highly individualized coping strategies and particular occupational identities (as individuals, entrepreneurs and professionals) that are not conducive to collective action or organizing.
Finally, in a small industry based on reputation, many freelancers are hesitant to speak out or complain, for fear of losing work (Amber Nasrulla’s recent post on Story Board speaks to this problem).
There are challenges, of course, but it’s not impossible to organize freelancers to collectively confront the challenges they face. There is a lot of activity going on right now around contracts, which is encouraging.
JL: Many freelancers do traditional media work such as article writing and copy editing in combination with corporate work, which is typically work-for-hire—freelancers don’t retain copyright and don’t expect to, and they are often paid better rates. Is this the way of the future, in terms of having a viable freelance career? What could it mean for the profession of journalism?
NC: Freelancers have always done other work to sustain themselves, especially in Canada, where we have smaller media markets, fewer companies and lower rates of pay than, for example, in the United States.
What I found in my survey was that freelancers note that they are doing more and more of the corporate or teaching or non-journalism-related work and less journalism, and many express frustration at this because they got into freelancing specifically to do journalism. In my survey, most freelancers say they want to write long-form, investigative journalism or books, but most earn all or some of their living from corporate writing.
Of course, not all freelancers are journalists and many do not want to be. The problem, however, is that fewer people are able to earn a living doing journalistic work even though an increasing amount of journalistic work is being outsourced to freelancers. I think this has several implications. For one, it means that skilled journalists committed to their craft are leaving the occupation. It means that journalism will increasingly become an occupation for only those who can afford to be a journalist, which increasingly means being able to sustain oneself as a freelancer. This will have the effect of limiting whose voices and perspectives will be heard.
Ultimately, the challenges freelance journalists face affect the quality of content in media. Low pay means that people focus on the stories that are faster to produce in order to make freelancers’ time worthwhile, and we will lose the kind of journalism freelancers have traditionally excelled at: long form, more creative, challenging types of journalism.
JL: Is there an upside to precarious employment? In an age of newsroom layoffs and outsourcing, could freelancers be better off in some ways—more adaptable, more responsive to the market? There’s been a lot of talk about the creative class, and recent developments like communal workspaces and the benefits of technology for mobile workers. Are these developments a good thing?
NC: I would never say there is an upside to precarious employment—research consistently shows that conditions of precarious employment have negative implications for workers across the labour market: lower wages, economic and social insecurity, no access to benefits or social protections, and risk of poor physical and mental health, for example. But I do think it’s important to recognize that many people do choose to work as freelancers and become self-employed—this is not entirely a top-down process (even though a quick scan of job postings and a look at the numbers of layoffs in media in this country show that it is getting more and more difficult to find employment in media, especially for writers).
Self-employment offers opportunities and advantages, and I think historically we can think of freelance cultural workers as refusing to engage in waged-labour and seeking ways to be autonomous and in control of their work and their lives. And the ability of freelancers to have access to workspaces and mobile technologies and, perhaps, even ways to self-publish, does show promising signs that workers can, potentially, liberate themselves from employers.
The challenge, however, is that in our economy, security is tied to employment, and although we have a rise of self-employment and freelancing, we are not seeing an increase in social protections and institutions to support these workers or this form of work—our social policy and security is tied to employment. And while many individuals do succeed as freelancers (interestingly, they are usually the ones advocating that we all become freelancers), self-employment is polarizing: most earn low incomes, experience insecurity, and would prefer secure work.
I think it’s important to look at the power relations that underpin freelance work: who is benefiting and at whose expense? And what do we need to do to make flexible work flexible (and secure) for workers, not just provide flexibility for companies to offload the risks and costs of production onto individuals.
JL: Can you talk briefly about your current research?
NC: My doctoral research investigated traditional realms of freelance journalism, specifically newspaper and magazine publishing. I am now beginning to research new publishing models that have emerged in the digital age, or digital-first journalism, and the production practices that are made possible by the rise and spread of a freelance media workforce. I am interested in examining what possibilities exist to improve media workers’ autonomy, opportunities and material conditions, and in investigating the social and power relations emerging with a new era of digital publishing.
I am also currently collaborating with Greig de Peuter and Enda Brophy on a research project we have called “Cultural Workers Organize.” We are investigating how cultural workers in a range of flexible employment forms (freelancers, interns, contract workers, the self-employed) in the most vaunted sectors of the creative economy (media, fashion, art, etc.) are collectively responding to precarious employment. We are examining experiments happening on the margins of the labour movement globally to respond to precarity (you can read more at our website, culturalworkersorganize.org).
I’ve long admired Nicole Cohen for co-founding Shameless magazine and for her research into the labour conditions of interns and freelancers. At the end of March, she gave a presentation about her academic work, including the results of her online survey about freelancing, conducted in 2010. I attended along with other freelancers, and I was stunned by her talk—I thought, “More people need to hear this!” So I invited Nicole, a recently minted PhD and, as of July 1, the University of Toronto Mississauga’s new assistant professor in the Institute of Communication, Culture and Information Technology, to take part in a Q&A.
Jaclyn Law: Can you tell me about your education and journalism background?
Nicole Cohen: I graduated from Ryerson’s journalism program in 2003 and planned to be a journalist, but wanted to learn more about the world, as I spent most of my time at Ryerson working on The Eyeopener and not in my classes. I was really excited about the prospects of working as a journalist in Canada. I had done an internship at Eye Weekly and was hired as a staff writer, had done a short stint in The Star’s Radio Room program, and was freelancing for several publications: The Star, This magazine, Eye Weekly and others. I had also co-founded Shameless magazine with Melinda Mattos in 2003, when we graduated from Ryerson. While starting my journalism career by freelancing, I was taking part-time classes at York University, which eventually led me to do a MA in political science at York. I decided to do a PhD in the Graduate Program in Communication and Culture, as York offers good funding for graduate students and I was awarded a fellowship and realized that graduate studies, oddly, was a more secure form of employment than freelancing, one that would also allow me to continue to write and publish.
Based on my experience as a journalist and working in alternative/independent media, I gravitated toward communication studies and began studying political economy of communications, a critical approach to media and journalism that examines the power relations and social relations in these industries. It was then that I began thinking much more critically about my own experiences as a media worker and why, for example, I was spending weeks researching long, investigative articles for Eye Weekly and being paid $250 per article (of course now I realize that I should have negotiated a higher fee!).
At the time, around 2006, a lot of academic research was emerging that was paying attention to work and labour conditions in media and cultural industries, and this research intersected with research in political science and sociology on precarious employment, which has been spreading into growing numbers of occupations in the past few decades. At the time, I was part of a freelance journalist community that was experiencing low and stagnating wages and increasingly restrictive contracts for copyright. The Canadian Freelance Union was also emerging, which pointed to the very serious issues Canadian freelancers were facing in trying to earn a living—serious enough to establish a trade union.
It seemed to me at the time that it was impossible to understand contemporary media and journalism, as political economy aims to do, without understanding the material conditions of those who produce media and journalism. And so, when choosing a research topic, I chose to research what I knew and investigated the working conditions and labour conditions of freelance journalists in Canada. I defended my dissertation in February 2013. I wrote my dissertation as a book and plan to submit it to a publisher this summer or fall.
JL: Can you tell me about your academic work, in particular your PhD work and online survey?
NC: Broadly, I research in the area of critical political economy of communication, with a focus on work and labour organizing in media and cultural industries. My dissertation examines the working conditions of Canadian freelance journalists and freelancers’ efforts to collectively address the challenges they face. I spent about three years researching and writing the dissertation.
The empirical section of my work draws on an online survey I conducted in 2010 of self-identified freelance journalists across Canada. Two hundred freelancers responded. The survey consisted of a mix of quantitative questions (salary, hours worked, type of work, etc.) but also contained a significant qualitative component, where I asked a series of open-ended questions about how freelancers experience their work, what they like and don’t like about freelancing, their attitudes toward collective organizing and unions, for example. I can’t say the survey is an accurate representative sample of all freelancers in Canada (freelance journalists are very difficult to count, as it’s such a fluid profession, and each freelancer has vastly different experiences of and expectations from work than the next) but it does offer insight into the tensions and challenges that underpin the experience of freelancing in contemporary media industries.
To supplement the survey, I interviewed members and organizers of writers’ organizations and unions, including the CEP, CFU, PWAC, CMG and others (including the Freelancers Union in New York City, the National Writers Union in the US, and the National Union of Journalists’ freelance branch in the UK). The rest of the work draws on theoretical and academic literature in communication and labour studies. Overall, I look at the underlying processes, practices, and social relations that shape the work of contemporary freelance journalism and challenge taken-for-granted assumptions that freelance writing is inherently low-paid work.
The argument I make is that freelance journalism has been transformed from, historically, being a strategy of resisting salaried labour by journalists—an effort to gain some control over the terms of commodification of their labour power and autonomy over their craft—into a strategy for media firms to intensify exploitation of freelance writers’ labour power through two primary strategies: the exploitation of unpaid labour time and control of copyright to writers’ works.
JL: Freelance income rates have remained stagnant—and even declined—since the 1970s, and contracts are demanding more rights than ever before. What are some other challenges that freelancers face?
NC: Low and stagnant rates are a major challenge, as is the new contract regime that publishers have introduced, contracts that demand all rights to writers’ works, or rights in a bundle for a very small fee (including, recently with TC Media’s contract, moral rights). These two key aspects of freelancing mean that while there is lots of journalistic work available to freelancers, especially as media companies contract and layoff staff, this work is low paid and freelancers are not earning as much as they can from their works due to highly restrictive contracts. Publishers are buying rights to writers’ works for multiple formats and venues, and so it seems that writers should be able to earn increasing income from the stories they write. But this is not the case—publishers are in a very powerful position and most individual freelancers are in a very weak bargaining position.
These two challenges to freelancers’ incomes are linked to a host of other challenges freelance journalists (and, arguably, all freelance or self-employed workers) face: because rates per word or per article remain very low, freelancers must work longer hours to earn higher incomes. Although most freelancers say they are freelancers because they want flexible schedules, or more control over their time, most work long hours and have intermittent but intense workloads. Work is experienced in feast-or-famine style: too much work tempered by stretches of no work at all. Freelancers must take on multiple projects at once and always be hustling to find work. Self-employed workers have limited access to benefits and social protections, such as EI, pensions, or parental leave.
These challenges have been experienced by freelancers throughout history, of course, but they have intensified in recent decades, as more people are working as freelancers than ever before and, as you note, rates of pay in Canadian journalism remain absurdly low. The freelancers I surveyed, most of who report enjoying the work they do, say the aspects of the job they like least include marketing and promotions, the constant and relentless pitching, and not having control over how much work they have or how much money they will earn (most freelancers do not set their rates for the work they do). Many are leaving journalism, or taking on more and more non-journalistic work, even though many say they became freelancers in the first place to do more interesting work.
JL: In your 2012 paper for tripleC, “Cultural Work as a Site of Struggle: Freelancers and Exploitation,” you’ve applied the framework of Marxist political economy to freelance writers, pointing out how independent workers experience the exploitation typically associated with the employer-employee relationship. Can you talk about the ways that freelancers are exploited?
NC: In my work, I look at how freelance journalists, like all workers, are exploited under capitalism. I use the term in its technical sense: as Marx explained, workers are exploited because they produce more value (surplus value, or profit) than what they are paid, and that surplus is controlled by an employer.
These relations become difficult to see in the case of freelancers, who are self-employed workers, yet workers nonetheless. For one, freelancers sell single pieces of work to a publisher, so it appears that they are not paid for their time at work, like other workers, and freelancers’ names are attached to their articles and to the invoices they submit for payment, further emphasizing that freelancers work for themselves. But with low and stagnant rates of pay, it is becoming increasingly clear that relations of exploitation underpinning freelance journalism are intensifying in contemporary capitalism.
I outline two primary areas of exploitation in my research: one, unpaid labour time, and two, copyright. Freelance labour is very cheap for publishers. By purchasing finished works, for which freelancers are paid an arbitrary per-word or per-article rate, publishers don’t have to pay for the time it takes to develop a piece, research, do interviews, rewrite and edit, and all the tasks that are necessary for producing journalism. For freelance writers, this includes the time of developing ideas, networking, pitching, running a business, invoicing, promoting—a very long list. This unpaid work is critical for the work of writing, yet the low rates writers are paid—rates that have remained stagnant for decades—mean that the cost of writers’ labour power is lowered, or, exploitation is increased. And this is for writing that is paid. The spread of free writing, or writing for “exposure,” on major news sites like the Huffington Post increases the generalized exploitation of freelancers and further lowers the value of their labour power.
The second aspect of exploitation is through contracts for copyright, which are demanding escalating rights for minimal pay and limit writers’ abilities to resell and repurpose their works. Media companies, on the other hand, retain all rights (in perpetuity, throughout the universe, in formats yet to be invented, as most contracts now stipulate) to endlessly exploit a piece of writing. These exploitative practices have generated highly unequal conditions for freelancers in Canada.These practices, of course, are not evenly applied across the media landscape, as there are many publications in Canada that do not exist simply to earn profit, ranging from activist media to not-for-profit and independent publications. But the majority of newspapers, magazines, and websites in Canada are published by large, converged media corporations that are very, very profitable. Key to their success has been offloading of the risks and costs of media production onto individual freelancers who have little power to negotiate for higher rates of pay and improved contracts.
What do freelancers in the U.K. need to know about running their businesses? Pretty much the same things we Canadians do. Here are two helpful new e-books by British freelancers.
Become a Freelance Writer: Your complete guide to the business of writing
By Rachael Oku; Harriman House, 2013; 52 pages
About $7 for Kindle and iBooks editions
London-based writer/editor Rachael Oku provides tips on setting up, promoting and running a freelance business. In a conversational tone, Oku covers networking, finding work, creating a social media presence, positioning yourself as an expert, pricing your services and much more. (Her list of common freelancing pitfalls is, on its own, worth the price of admission.) She also includes ideas that are likely more common in the U.K. than in Canada (such as selling ads on your site or creating a “media kit” with a list of your services and rates, a photo, clips, etc.).
Oku is well acquainted with the ups and downs of freelance life—she’s the driving force behind Creative-Bloc, a social enterprise/hub for writers, launched in 2012. (Disclosure: I’ve written a couple of blog posts for the site.) The wide-ranging topics and encouraging words of Become a Freelance Writer will be especially beneficial for new and aspiring freelancers.
Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers: A Guide for New Starters
By Louise Harnby in association with The Publishing Training Centre, 2013; 126 pages
About $8 for Kindle and Smashwords editions
Editors, there’s an e-book for you too. Author Louise Harnby has been a freelance proofreader since 2005, and she’s also the owner of the Proofreader’s Parlour, a blog for editors and proofreaders. Her e-book covers freelancing essentials such as business plans (yes, you need one), different types of editing, training, promotion, networking, working with clients, resources and more.
Written with absolute beginners in mind, the e-book also contains ideas for gaining work experience, as well as case studies featuring stories from other freelancers (including a Canadian editor). This detailed, practical guide is a great read for anyone hoping to bust out of a cubicle and into a rewarding and sustainable editing career.
In a videotaped interview for CBS, More Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Lesley Jane Seymour, offers career advice for aspiring editors: “If you’re young and you’re getting out of school, you must go digital, you must know how to code, you must start in the digital area. You can always go backwards into print.”
Mr. Magazine, a.k.a. Samir Husni, has a new series of short videos called “Mr. Magazine Minute.” Watch clips featuring American magazine luminaries such as Chris Johns, editor-in-chief of National Geographic; David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines; and Richard Stengel, managing editor of TIME Magazine.
The horror! In a bid to reduce confusion, officials in southwestern England’s Mid Devon District proposed that “All punctuation, including apostrophes, shall be avoided” on street signs. Find out who won here. Thanks to Corinna vanGerwen for alerting me.
Freelancers are often nervous about saying “no” when they’re offered work (what if the editor never calls again?). WordCount and Freelance Folder have good suggestions on how to decide, and how to offer value even when you can’t accept the gig.
Is it tax season already?! Self-employed people have until June 17, 2013, to file their income tax returns, says the CRA—but any money they owe is still due by April 30. Check out Story Board’s tax tips for freelancers, and consult a tax pro if you’re not sure what expenses you can deduct.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
I grew up in Vancouver and studied English at UBC. While working in communications, I completed an editing certificate through Simon Fraser University and began doing freelance editing work on the side. I was always interested in how editorial fit into the larger publishing process, and so after working for the Magazine Association of British Columbia for three years, I returned to SFU to do the Master of Publishing program. I moved to Toronto recently to intern in the editorial department at McClelland & Stewart as a part of my graduate studies, which led me to my current position as the publishing assistant at Coach House Books.
It’s been almost three years since the 18th edition of The Canadian Writer’s Market, updated by Joanna Karaplis, came out. How does the 19th edition reflect changes in the market since 2010?
One of my priorities for updating the guide was to give due attention to some of the business models and publishing platforms that have taken off in recent years, including publishers that specialize in e-books (such as Iguana Books), print-on-demand (e.g., Frog Eat Frog), and self-publishing (e.g., FriesenPress). The guide recognizes that in addition to applying for grants and awards, authors may seek to finance their writing through crowdfunding websites such as Indiegogo, or participate in collaborative publishing efforts such as those at Deux Voiliers, a small press where authors, editors, and artists pool their skills and resources to bring books to market. Certainly, there have been consolidations and closures in the market since the last edition of the guide was published, but many launches, as well; as noted in the introduction, there are currently almost 2,000 Canadian magazines listed in CARD Online, as compared to 2010 when there were roughly 1,800. (Users of previous editions might also notice the 19th edition also has a spiffy new cover design, by Andrew Roberts, that reflects changing technology!)
Can you tell me about the process of updating the guide?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the framework established by editors of previous editions, including Sandra B. Tooze and Jem Bates. At the outset of the project, I reviewed some of the statistics, reports, and information available through resources including The Writers’ Union of Canada, CARD Online, StatsCan, Masthead Online, Quill & Quire, and the Book and Periodical Council of Canada, to get a current snapshot of the industry. I also spoke informally with a handful of writers, as well as editors and educators, about how the book might be made more useful and relevant from their respective points of view. I then reached out to publishers and editors across the country to find out what kind of writing they’re looking for, how they prefer to receive it, and their rates and payment terms. Often, this information is not readily available on a company’s website, or it’s difficult to find, or outdated, and this is where a central reference helps make the researching and pitching process less opaque. I would suggest that to complement the information found in The Canadian Writer’s Market, writers would do well to attend networking events and participate in the discussions happening on writer-oriented blogs, listservs, and community forums to share information. I should note that I also had assistance from a former colleague, Rachel Geertsema, with updating the awards section of the guide.
The book has a rich directory of Canadian consumer, trade, business, farm and professional publications and newspapers, plus educational resources, writers’ retreats, literary agents, writing contests and grants, organizations and more. As you were researching, what did you find especially useful, compelling or surprising?
What I found most heartening, while doing the research, was the numerous venues for underpublished and emerging writers to get their work out there, including cultural and literary magazines that have launched in the past few years, such as Sad Mag, Lester’s Army and Poetry Is Dead, and small independent presses such as The Workhorsery and Invisible Publishing. Corresponding with the staff at these organizations, and reading through their respective submission guidelines, I found their enthusiasm to be both palpable and infectious! Also, the sheer number of B2B magazines is impressive. We list nearly 300 in the 19th edition—everything from Canadian Pizza Magazine to Manure Manager to Canadian Funeral Director Magazine. B2B is a fast-growing sector, and although it can be a harder market to break into, your persistence, when combined with your passions, could pay off here.
There is no info about working for corporate clients, marketing companies or other agencies. Why doesn’t the guide cover this type of writing?
Indeed, opportunities abound to write for clients outside of traditional publishing channels, and these can be quite lucrative. However, the size and shape of this market is not readily defined—at least not within the scope of this particular guide. I would suggest writers interested in entering these markets connect with groups such as the Professional Writers Association of Canada, the International Association of Business Communicators in Canada, and the Canadian Public Relations Society. I would add, also, that writing for the professional and trade publications listed in the guide could potentially lead to other projects down the line.
As a freelancer myself, I feel like writers today need to arm themselves with a huge amount of information in order to make a decent go of it and protect our assets. The book’s introduction features sections about querying, copyright, taxes, libel and other topics. Based on your research, what are your top three tips for new freelancers?
1. Know your audience. I heard consistently from magazine editors that writers should avoid telling their readers what they already know, such as rehashing already-overworked topics or interviewing the usual suspects. Read several recent back issues to understand the magazine’s tone and focus, and consult their media kit and audience profiles.
2. Follow submission guidelines to the letter. I know this is obvious, but it bears repeating. Forgetting to enclose a SASE or submitting a whole manuscript instead of a query letter indicates to an editor that you might have trouble sticking to a word count or meeting deadlines.
3. Brush up on your photography skills. Even if their magazines employ professional photographers, many editors mentioned they were looking for high-quality photo support from freelancers. If you’re multimedia-savvy, you might also pitch video, slideshows, or podcasts as part of the package.
Network and get to know the editors.
Always submit well-written copy on time and to length. Do it again and again and the work will come your way.
Mara Gulens, Director, Publications, and Editor-in-Chief, CMA Magazine
Networking is vital. Attend industry events, join professional organizations and sign yourself up for listservs. Make the most of your time at events by having meaningful conversations with a few people rather than trying to meet as many people as possible (think quality over quantity). We work in a very small industry, and meeting editors and other writers gets your name out there and establishes relationships that can lead to work.
Cara Smusiak, Managing Editor, Canadian Family
CSME’s great because A: it’s cheap and you learn stuff; B: it’s a night out once in a while and freelancing can be very lonely; and C: you’ll meet working editors who aren’t necessarily the Top of the Masthead types but rather the hard-working assigning and knowledgeable pros. Networking with these people will always be your BFF. Not only will you find out about stories, you’ll get early warnings about mat leaves, contract jobs, and other “non-story” editing assignments, with which you can feed your family while you’re working on your prize-winning Toronto Life story. Whenever I was freelancing, my kids ate better and my wife slept well partially because I was active in CSME.
Peter Carter, Editor, Today’s Trucking
I wish that writers knew that, in this fast-paced age of online publishing, the speed at which they respond to editors’ emails could significantly impact their chances of getting assignments. I sometimes have stories to assign that I need turned around in a day or two. When considering which writer to reach out to, I hesitate to choose the guy who I know usually takes a full business day just to write me back. Because, what if he says no? Then I’ve lost an entire day.
Kim Shiffman, Managing Editor, Connected
1. Know what the work is worth—and what you’re worth. Connect with other freelancers (TFEW is a great resource) and ask what they would charge and/or have been paid for similar work in similar markets. What is the size (and presumed wealth/budget) of the client? Take into account your level of experience (if you’re a newb, no, you don’t deserve the same rate as someone who brings 15 years of experience to the table). And then figure out what the work is worth to you. Is it an opportunity to do a story you’re passionate about? To work with an editor who is particularly open to helping new writers get great clips? To help an indie publication that you believe in? All of those factors might mean that you’ll work for less than if you were writing marketing copy for Dow Chemical. Run the numbers before you get on the phone to discuss rate with the assigning editor. And if you think the work is worth more, make your case. You may succeed. You may not. But you definitely won’t get if you don’t ask.
2. Don’t personalize professional interactions. This one is tough, because lots of people on the other end of the equation (editors and publishers) do personalize it, taking it as a personal insult if you ask for a higher rate or stand up for yourself in an editorial discussion. But behaving professionally—and by that, I mean not emotionalizing or personalizing conversations about money, editing changes and other issues—will get you further in the long run even if the person you’re talking to isn’t behaving as professionally as you are. If you need to blow off steam, do it after the call or email with a trusted friend or colleague (not in a heat-of-the-moment Facebook post, tweet or message board rant). Does that mean you shouldn’t tell colleagues about poor behaviour by particular editors or clients? No. But do it rationally, calmly and after a cooling-off period. And remember, whatever you share is likely to find its way back to that editor or client, so be prepared to stand by what you say.
3. It’s better to work for free on something you love than to work for free on something you don’t care about. If you’re going to give away your time, do something you care deeply about, not crap work. Think of it this way: you’re about to give away hundreds of dollars’ worth of editorial value. Is this editor or brand really the one you want to give this gift to?
Kim Pittaway, freelance journalist, editor and consultant
1) Never miss deadlines. Unexpected delays and interview blow-offs happen, but you almost always know before the due date if you’re not going to be able to make it. Most editors will happily grant you a little extra time, as long as they know long enough in advance to prepare for it.
2) To make it as a professional writer, you have to act like a pro. The people you need to interview are generally going to keep office hours, so you should too. (That’s not to say you won’t end up working evenings and/or weekends as well. When it rains, it pours.) Always prepare in advance for interviews (i.e., don’t plan on making up all your questions on the fly). For in-person interviews, show up early (or at least on time) and dress appropriately. A CEO won’t likely take you seriously if you’re in a T-shirt and shorts, but a musician’s likely to be put off by a three-piece suit.
1. Check your facts and send your sources. More and more, editors are also fact-checkers, and if you submit a piece that has the facts pre-checked, and if you provide URLs to your sources along with that piece, your editor will love you (assuming those sources aren’t Wikipedia, of course). Please, please, please attribute any statistics, research findings or other questionable “facts” to a source. Not only will your editor want to know where you found that information, but your readers will want to know, too.
2. Don’t steal other people’s work. This may seem like a given, but I’ve seen far too many writers—amateur and professional—submit work that they claim is original but actually contains passages copied verbatim from websites or other published sources. After all, plagiarism doesn’t just mean the entire piece has been copied—it could be as small as a paragraph or sentence. Accidents can happen when you’re gathering research from various sources, so be sure to note where you found your info, and whether what you’ve written is a quote or your own writing. And if you need to quote another publication, attribute it (see #1, above).
Tammy Burns, Online Content Manager, Travel+Escape
Swallow your pride. Become known as someone who does really good, quick rewrites. When the editor tells you that you have to cut 200 words so that the designer can have some precious empty white space on the page, just smile and say, “Of course.” That’s how a one-off job can be parlayed into a career.
James Chatto, Editor, Harry Magazine
Editors, do you have more tips to share? Writers, what has helped you survive and thrive?
Research the magazine and its readership before you pitch. Be prepared to answer the question, “Why is this important for our particular readers?” And the other question, “What’s your angle on this subject that makes your story important?” Personalize the pitch and follow up two days later. Don’t sit there waiting to hear back.
—James Chatto, Editor, Harry Magazine
Whether you’re writing a pitch, a cover letter or an article, I think the first sentence should make the reader want to keep reading to the last word. It should be infused with passion, emotion, humour, intrigue—something that is gripping and creative. I often receive cover letters and pitches that start off with biographical information—and let’s face it, that’s usually boring. Don’t bury the lede. Start your pitch off with a scene or an anecdote, and once he/she is hooked, outline the details—why it’s a good fit for the magazine, who you’ll interview, and information about your skills and experience. Of course, once you’ve established a relationship with an editor, pitching may be as simple as “I have this idea…”
—Cara Smusiak, Managing Editor, Canadian Family
Google, then pitch. The internet has become saturated with the same service journalism topics over and over. Even if you think your idea is timely and original, chances are it’s been covered. Before sending your pitch, do a quick search and make sure you’re pitching something unique and new for the brand. Or, find a way to twist “5 Ways to Lose Weight” with something unexpected. This goes for both print and online pitches, since print stories are always repackaged for online, too.
Think graphic! I could kiss writers who pitch story ideas alongside ideas for charts, infographics, puzzles, cartoons…anything of visual interest that helps translate the concept to readers. Also, the magazine industry is on the cusp of interactive tablet editions becoming the norm, so if you can think of graphic concepts for your pitches, I would hazard you’ll be more successful in years to come.
—Colleen Fisher Tully, Senior Editor, Fresh Juice & FreshJuice.ca
1. a) Be persistent but polite (and never one to the exclusion of the other). Chase your stories and own them, package your pitches and push them, sell yourself—you are your own best advocate and quite possibly (observed with apologies) your only friend. Re-approach after suitable periods of no response; on average, one week. Never send an email without first proofing. Do not rely exclusively on email—use the phone, too (and, particularly if leaving a voicemail, speak succinctly). COMMUNICATION is possibly your greatest asset.
1. b) Be willing to take “No” for an answer. If an outreach fails to yield the response you expected/hoped for, use intuition coupled with the ability to read between the lines to discern when to accept rejection. This can be accomplished with aplomb and can (sometimes) put you in better standing; in any case, it needn’t be equated with the permanent shutting of a door. Worst case, request (politely!) permission to re-approach another time. With more on-the-job experience, it will become easier and easier to discern where is the proverbial line, not to mention stay on the right side of it.
2. Make sure your story sizzles; still, keep it short and sweet. Be your own editor and reader: Don’t pitch a story that doesn’t impress you. Suss out (or inquire directly about) your editor’s preferred pitch model, and deliver exactly on those terms. My own pitch preference is, typically, one targeted overview paragraph with maximum three supporting bullet points. There are, of course, exceptions—you are, after all, a writer, and if you’ve truly “got it,” you’ll probably be able to make yourself exceptional at all levels.
—Gary Butler, Principal at EditButler, and freelance print and web editor
Next time: More tips from editors on how to survive and thrive in the business.
Setting aside, for the moment, the debate over whether “gifting” is a legit verb, here are a few sweet gifts for the writers, editors and other word lovers in your life.
Out of Print Clothing The classics never go out of style. Give your favourite book lovers (including kids!) one of the soft, distressed tees and sweatshirts by Out of Print Clothing. Titles include Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre, Siddhartha, 1984, Charlotte’s Web and many more, from $28 US. Also available: journals, tote bags, note cards, coasters, e-book jackets and phone cases.
Livescribe Sky Smartpen This new gadget has the same features as the much-loved Livescribe Echo—plus Wi-Fi! Your notes and audio recordings transfer wirelessly to Evernote (extra Evernote capacity included with purchase). Available in 2G, 4G and 8G models. Pen only from $165, bundles from $225 at SmartpenCentral. Special offer for EditFish readers: enter EDITFISH at checkout for a 5% discount on all products except Bundles. Offer ends Dec. 31, 2012.
Bananagrams is like Scrabble—but without the board, the scoring, the four-player maximum or the long waits between turns. It’s even more fun when you add your own rules. $19.95 at Indigo. (For a fun brain-buster with symbols instead of letters, get the clever game Qwirkle, $29.95 at Indigo.)
Caffeine Stuff their stockings with loose-leaf teas from Majesteas and a gorgeous mug (I love the ones by Vancouver’s Heather Dahl). For coffee lovers: a two-cup French press. Buy beans from an indie café or, for an indulgence that lasts well beyond the holidays, subscribe to Alberta’s Transcend Coffee. For chocoholics: fair-trade bars and drink mixes from Canadian co-op Camino.
That old-book smell For those who love the heady aroma of bookstores, Demeter Fragrance Library (how fitting!) makes perfume, foam bath, shower gel and other products in “Paperback” scent. From $6 US.
Crafty e-reader cover If you’re good at DIY, make an e-reader cover with the help of this Canadian Living article. If not, consider the cozy felted covers by Etsy vendor PinsnNeedlesCases. I have one, and I’m impressed by the handiwork. From about $25.
Super-sized computer monitor For someone who’s been really good this year, order a monitor (big enough to view two documents side by side—at least 24”) so the lucky recipient can create a dual-monitor setup with an existing monitor or laptop. I use a Dell UltraSharp model—its colour accuracy and uniformity rival those of pricier Apple monitors. Check often for sales. From $369.
Art imitating books Check out artist Jane Mount’s lovely (and lovingly rendered) paintings of book collections. Buy themed prints (such as “Writing,” “Fashion” or “Jane Austen”), the My Ideal Bookshelf hardcover or, if money is no object, a custom painting (from $250 US).
Stack of magazines One of my favourite indulgences is to walk into a magazine store and drop $30 on publications I consider a treat (or guilty pleasure). On my wish list this year: Dwell, Lucky Peach, WORN Fashion Journal, Granta and National Geographic Traveler. And, in case you missed it, Magazines Canada is offering a buy-two-get-one-free subscription deal.
Gifts that give back Make a heartwarming donation in a friend’s name to any of these fine organizations: Toronto Public Library Foundation, Frontier College Literacy Programs, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (disclosure: I’ve volunteered with CJFE for about five years), PEN Canada or World Literacy Canada
Do you have brilliant gift ideas for writers and editors?
|Simone Abrahamsohn says:|