Business of News

A new website wants to disrupt how freelancers do business

May 20, 2015

It was over a dinner of Chinese food that the seed for Scott Carney’s new business was formed. Carney, a book author and journalist, was catching up last year with a friend who writes for The New Yorker. The conversation drifted to the value of the written word, and soon the two friends started calculating how much top magazines pay their writers (the answer, they concluded, is “not much”).

The topic stuck in Carney’s head, and in January he decided to turn the dinner conversation into a series of blog posts about the worth of good writing. The posts drew some attention in the media world, sparking online debates about the value of freelance writing, and writers’ reluctance to openly examine the practicalities of their trade. The reaction inspired Carney to create a Google document: A crowdsourced spreadsheet, open for anyone to edit, that collects information about how much various publications pay freelance writers.

Now, Carney wants to professionalize the basic idea behind the spreadsheet with WordRates, a website where writers can not only share information about freelance payment, but also rate publications and editors they’ve worked with. A section of the site called PitchLab aims to connect writers with mentors, who will represent and pitch writers’ ideas to magazine editors. The basic idea of WordRates, Carney says, is to do for journalism what Yelp did for restaurant-goers.

Carney, who has authored several books, worked as contributing editor at Wired, and freelanced for various publications such as Mother Jones, Foreign Policy, Playboy and Fast Company, is trying to get the project moving through the help of a Kickstarter campaign. So far, he’s raised $8,162, well beyond his goal of $6,500, and will launch his new site in August. With just a few days left in the campaign, Carney spoke to CJR about what he hopes to accomplish.

How did the Google doc project inspire WordRates?

WordRates came out of that project because I get continual emails from freelancers about how useful it is, and how much more they want out of it. It also ruffled a lot of feathers, and I got a fair amount of emails from editors saying, “You can’t share this information.”

I put in about half the entries myself, information that I’ve collected over the years, and then another 100 or so entries came in from outside people. It showed me that there’s a lot of interest and willingness to share information, and so I decided that I would do something even more useful for people. WordRates almost represents a new philosophy on how writers can work together.

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What is that new philosophy?

Writers often view themselves as in competition with other freelance writers. As if you’re somehow going to lose opportunity in the future if you share anything about an idea with another writer.

But because writers aren’t sharing information and aren’t negotiating in ways that are beneficial to them, we have given all of the negotiating power to the mainstream magazines, where it’s almost routine business now to horribly exploit writers by, for instance, taking away contract rights. Since unions–or real collective bargaining for freelancers–is illegal, the only real option seems to be to organize our negotiating potential. And that’s what I’m trying to do with WordRates: let writers think about what they do as if they were businesses.

There’s a trend where all of these websites and nonprofits out there, trying to come up with new models and solutions to save journalism, state that it’ll come down to either government subsidies or increased involvement with the nonprofit sector. I don’t think we should be relying on charity to make good reporting. The problem is that we have an exploitative business model and people are not fighting for their own values. If we want to save journalism, we have to make it for-profit.

In your ebook, The quick and dirty guide to freelance writing, you describe two models for freelance writing: writers who piece together a salary through many small stories at low rates, and writers who do a few major pieces at higher rates. WordRates seems to cater to that latter category. Why?

I think that writers should be able to make a middle-class living, and by and large, we don’t. Subsistence writers who follow the first model, as I write in my book, will barely make a living wage, and almost have no shot at retiring. You can work your ass off your whole life doing stories at $100 each, and maybe you’ll be able to make rent, but you’ll not actually grow. You can only grow if you look at your work as something that has the capability of growing, and I want to move more writers in that direction. I want people to grow actual useful, interesting writing.

I don’t think “content generation” has been a useful term for freelance writers. If a magazine wants to make a lot of listicles they should find a rational business model to build it, and not depend on basically free labor.

In your blog posts, you write about how the big magazine publishers’ payment models don’t respect the worth of good reporting. Besides low rates, how does the current model undervalue writers?

Word rates are based on an idea that all words are worth the same. Saying that an interview with some celebrity is worth the same as a seven-month embed in Afghanistan is ridiculous, and it’s disgusting that magazines have been able to get away with valuing things like that. I say the piece from Afghanistan is actually worth more per word. It’s just a rational discussion about what things are worth.

How will the rating system on WordRates work? Why include ratings of individual editors, not just publications?

The architecture is not built yet, but the idea is that you’d have to have an account with us, and can leave either comments with your name attached, or anonymous comments.

There are a lot of editors who are amazing, and there’s a fair number of editors out there who don’t have the freelancer’s best interest in mind, who have bad business practices that can really affect the success of the freelancer.

As freelancers, we are independent businesses. When we go into business with a magazine and an editor, and they have a tremendous amount of power over our financial future, it is very important to share that information.

I think we need to have a fair number of reviews to get an idea of what these people are really like. Just having one bad experience with one person might be meaningless, but if someone has 20 terrible reviews and not one good thing to be said about them, writers should think about that.

With PitchLab, you want the mentor to represent a writer to editors and negotiate rates. How is that going to work, and why would it be useful to insert a middle man into that equation?

There are two things that can happen with PitchLab: One, an inexperienced writer can pitch a more experienced writer and use that person’s business savvy and experience to get a real deal in a magazine. The other option, which I think is the more promising one, is that you can have two very experienced writers pitching and letting the other writer represent their work to magazines.

It almost comes down to psychology more than hardcore business practice: When I pitch a magazine a story that I love and have spent much time on, I’m not in a great negotiating position because I’m so attached to my work, and realize this is the editor I’m gonna have to work with. I’m negotiating business with this person, who I’ll also have a creative process with later.

However, if someone else gave me a piece and I went to that same editor, I think I’m in a better negotiating position. I’m more likely to say no to the editor and look for something else, and this is where I think the potential to earn much more money comes in, because I’m not attached to the piece in the same way and can risk being the bad guy.

Theres also a financial incentive for the mentor to get the best deal possible. Even with the mentor’s commission, I believe we will be able to push overall rates up.

Right now it’s a small community because I don’t know how big the site will be, but I’m looking at about five people as mentors, and plenty of people have expressed interest. I’m really only looking at people who write regularly for the top places.

What will it take for WordRates to get enough impact, and for the magazine industry to play along?

Especially at the beginning, I’m not accepting every pitch that comes into PitchLab. We’re only looking for the best stuff. We may never be anything but a boutique place, but I think even if that’s the case and, let’s say, we only sell two stories a year, the idea is that we’re still putting upward pressure on magazines.

One of the reasons rates for books and movie deals go up is that it becomes industry information when someone gets a six-figure deal with a publisher, and that helps other people push for more.

I’ve been inspired by the fact that with my book publishing contract, there’s real money involved, and there are people who really fight for rights. This is something that has worked in other industries. There are organizations that are looking out for independent, freelance writers, but there is no one out there that has been really systematic about it.

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.