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 dinner with 30 of his closest friends.
Antitrust laws make it illegal for freelancers to unionize so the only practical solution is to rely on the principles of the free market. It is time for a disruptive website that will change the playing field for freelance writers and photographers. By sharing information and promoting a business model that has been successful in both the book publishing and film industries it will be possible to get a bigger piece of the overall publishing revenue.
A Disruptive Solution:
WordRates solves two interconnected problems:
1) The inability of journalists to assess a market for their work before they pitch a story. And, 2) Our general reluctance to negotiate for favorable rates and contracts.
To address these issues, WordRates provides user-submitted ratings of editors and publications with Yelp-style reviews. The public submissions will allow writers to easily gather contact information for editors, compare boilerplate contracts, and submit comments about their experience working with a particular publication. Ratings will carry weight with the community and put pressure on editors and magazines to get better reviews. Journalists will be able to use the power of the community to increase the competition between magazines, create upward pressure on word rates, get better terms on contracts and hold magazines accountable for bad business practices. Except for contact details, these profiles will be freely available online in order to facilitate writers to become the best possible negotiators of their own work.
The second role of WordRates, a section of the website that I'm calling Pitchlab, is perhaps even more revolutionary. It's a new way to get promising material into the hands of decision makers who assign stories.
“PitchLab” will be a space for both journalists to workshop their pitches with seasoned mentors. Not only will the mentors help polish a story idea into a work of art, they will take on the role of a literary agent and use our contacts in the media industry to shop for the best possible deal for the story. After a piece is accepted, WordRates will issue a standard writer friendly contract to magazines as a negotiating counterpoint to increasingly hostile magazine boilerplates. Just like literary agents, we will pitch to multiple publications at once so that the writer's ideas can get market rates for their work instead of silo rates that are invariably uncompetitive.
Book authors sometimes receive six or even seven figure advances for their work and it isn't a secret why: competition. Literary agents take ideas out to multiple potential buyers at once and ask them to bid. Book publishers have to bid well on great ideas because they want to publish the best possible material. Every term of the contract is up for negotiation and great ideas can make significant money. There is no reason that this couldn't work in the magazine business. Great stories sell more issues, which in turn means higher advertising rates.
Magazine pieces that might sell for $5000 in today's uncompetitive market, could get double or triple that with the right sales strategy. Indeed, with ancillary rights attached, it could be much much more. Here's an example: Once, a story that Wired commissioned me for $4500 sold for more than $20,000 in foreign markets. If my contract had been the one that Conde Nast offers now, they would have gotten most of that money.
With PitchLab the mentor has a financial interest in selling the pitch for highest possible price and earning a commission in the process. PitchLab will split that commission with the mentor in a way that is industry standard among literary agencies.
PitchLab will be more than a way to allow seasoned journalists to have a real stake in developing new talent. In time, it could turn into an entire payment ecosystem. In practice, it is easier to negotiate for the value of someone else's creative work than your own because an agent isn't afraid to say no to a bad deal. Not to mention, seasoned writers could well use PitchLab to take advantage of mentors who have particularly good negotiating records.
I already have the URL (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.
What better way to celebrate the power of the written word then with books and membership into this program.
- $5 Every contributor at this level will get a free copy of "The Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelance Writing"
- $25 contributors will receive six months free premium membership into Wordrate.net, which means access to contact details and access to PitchLab.
- Three $100 contributors will be able to consult with me over the phone about a pitch they are working on.
- $100 contributors will get their choice of an autographed copy of my first book "The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers and Child Traffickers" or my new book "A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness and the Path to Enlightenment" which comes out on March 17th.
- $150 contributors will receive autographed copies of both books.
- $200 I'll offer to read over a magazine contract and give you negotiating advice (disclaimer: this is not legal advice)
- $1000 contributors will receive all that stuff, but also a personalized piece about their contributions to WordRate.net and a lively discussion with me about whatever they want to talk about. This is great level for sponsors, philanthropists and anyone else who wants to invest in the future of journalism.
Risks and challenges
As long as there is enough money to hire a designer, I don't see how this project won't get off the ground. That is the only stumbling block to it actually coming into existence. However, there could be an issue of not enough users coming to the website for it to become a real active community.
For this platform to work I will need the participation of lots of engaged and active journalists who want to change the way that freelancing happens in America. I'm not the only one who will be able to pull this off; it will take a a broad community of writers to make it a success.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)