Last week, I tweeted that I felt like roadkill on the freelancing highway. Not words I would use lightly. I’m still cooling off over what happened, and my blood pressure rises when I think about how these events played out. (You’ve probably never seen me upset here before because, frankly, it rarely happens.) Basically, I pitched a national magazine about a conservation story for an eastern bird population. The editor responded that he liked the idea and wanted me to write it, but that the magazine did not sign contracts with writers until the whole story was accepted. Nor did they pay until the story was published. (Should have been my first warning signs to walk.)
That was in April of 2009. He gave me a due date of July 2010. I talked to the main sources and opted to do the interviewing work in late May and early June 2010, so that we could capture the spring 2010 seasonal data. Despite the main source’s mother dying right when I was trying to interview him, and despite being in a horrific car accident myself right around the deadline, I wrote it and turned it in. The initial response was “Nice work,” with a note that they’d send more detailed comments in a few weeks. On Wednesday, I received the detailed comments tearing the piece apart and questioning basic elements that were included in the initial pitch. (Which, you know, ought to have been dealt with a year ago when the pitch was reviewed. Just sayin’.) But the worst part was that instead of asking for it to be re-worked, the editor wrote that it could not be published “as is,” that they had removed it from the scheduled issue, and that I had the option to re-submit it but that there were no guarantees they would publish it and no kill fees. But that despite all that, they still really wanted a story on this bird species. What? How is it that they can so evade the industry’s professional standards?
At first, I felt chagrined. Perhaps I’d done a poor job. Who was I to have wasted their time. Then I re-read my pitch, and re-read the story — and I felt extremely frustrated. Because I had written the story as outlined in the pitch. I poured more than 30 hours of work into this when you combine the initial research for the pitch, the pitch itself, the back and forth emails with the editor, research and writing the piece and then going through the follow-up comments. All with no contract in hand. This is the first time I have ever worked without a contract and I am never, ever doing it again. I sought advice as to what to do next from a journalism professor and a veteran journalist that I keep in touch with.
The prof’s take:
This is a crappy way to treat writers, and they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. My initial reaction is that you ought to tell them — professionally and politely — to take a hike.
The veteran’s take:
Ugh, this sounds really annoying. I’ve never heard of a mag refusing to send a contract until they accept a story – so that means they work with everyone on spec?… Sounds like maybe the editor talked to his boss, who felt differently about the story… I might say politely that I’d be willing to rewrite, but given the extensive nature of the comments, I’d like to have some promise of eventual publication (or at *least* of a kill fee). Those kind of guarantees are standard practice at any publication, so you wouldn’t be out of line asking for them.
Except, this publication operates outside the industry norm and doesn’t offer any of this so that is a non-starter. And don’t ask me to post which publication, because a professional is discrete. I did, however, detail an accurate report of the events and the outcome in the National Association of Science Writers database, Words’ Worth, which tracks publications, pay rates and contract issues for NASW members to reference.
People often say they wish they were a freelancer, they think it’s a glam-shellacked life. So I opted to air my dirty laundry on this one because this is the dregs of what freelancers deal with. It’s not always like this, I’ve had many, many satisfying and mutually respectful exchanges with other editors. And I have often tweeted that there is nothing better than working with a great editor, because though their work is largely hidden to the reader, a good editor can take a good piece and make it superb by asking questions that the writer may not have thought of, pushing for more examples or better quotes, or giving insight on structural aspects that would make the piece better. But in this case, the editors asked questions that ought to have been addressed at the pitch-level, and instead of asking to work with me on changes (most of which I would have worked with them on), they simply canceled the whole deal after I’d done 90 percent of the work — a huge professional no-no. This is the sort of dilemma that causes freelancers to lose sleep — and money — and recite the freelancer’s mantra of “This is great! This is shit. This is great! This is shit,” as we yo-yo in an existential crisis over the value of our work. I can’t help but think that if I were more established as a writer then I would not have been treated like this. It’s frustrating beyond belief to be pulled to the final stages of the reporting and writing process only to be dumped on the doorstep like a pair of discarded muddy boots. As one fellow science writer tweeted to me via direct message, “Mother cluckers.”
The worst part is that I care about what’s happening to the birds this story is about, and I want to see it told. My editors at the Observer can use half of it but now I’m going to have dig in, fix the controversial part up for a different publication and try to run it elsewhere, at a financial loss. Touring the sausage factory is not a fun way to grow into your career, but it is undoubtedly informing. Lesson learned, lesson learned — the hard way.
So, dear writers, a cautionary tale: Do not ever work without a contract in hand. Ever. No matter who is asking you to.