Dead stories and the small fees for killing them

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During the summer and fall of 2017, I began to experience a kind of social death common to freelancers: Many of my commissioned stories, several of them multiple months and drafts old, were getting killed by the publications that had commissioned them. For any unfamiliar with the parlance, this meant that instead of invoicing publications for the agreed-upon rate after a story had been published, I would be invoicing for a fraction of that amount. The post-mortem inevitably ended with the “loop around,” a process that involved checking in with editors and billing departments until I was paid, a timeframe that was also sometimes in the order of months. Essentially, I was being paid to go away.

Kill fees are just one of the banal indignities attendant in the writing-for-pay world: Kafkaesque editing tests that lead nowhere; ceaseless competition between writers, some of whom are satisfied with producing content in exchange for exposure; and the simple act of collecting any promised money at all. The bottom line: If you’re a freelancer, you are left adrift in a world in which no one can afford to care about your plight. As someone who grew up in a multi-generational union family involved in coal mining, I recognize it’s hard to organize a group that is by nature spread out, across the country and around the globe, typing away in coffee shops and libraries dedicating the free hours we have to all that goes into make a living piece-by-piece—or, as it may be, not making a living. Without an ongoing public conversation about these indignities, how can we build the sense of solidarity essential to demanding improved treatment from our employers?

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Like many who stumble into the profession, I embarked on writing for pay in a fortuitous but decidedly unsystematic way. I had spent many years toiling in graduate school, and although I harbored a desire to write for a broader audience, I had written little that I thought fit for public consumption. However, on the heels of one surprisingly viral Salon essay about my time working at Abercrombie & Fitch, editors invited me to pitch, and I soon earned enough, in addition to my salary as an assistant history professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, to make the down payment on a house during the fall of 2014.

 

Without an ongoing public conversation about these indignities, how can we build the sense of solidarity essential to demanding improved treatment from our employers?

 

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That same year, I also got my first kill fee—for what was pitched as a simple explainer on the merits of electing Supreme Court justices based on work I had done in grad school. The idea of a story “dying” like this was new to me, as was the importance of agreeing to a kill fee in writing prior to submitting a draft. I had studied journalism at the University of North Carolina and worked for a pair of college newspapers, The Daily Tar Heel and The Pitt News, yet knew next to nothing about the actual business of freelancing. I did know, however, that the editor who axed the story was overwhelmed and the publication where she worked restructuring. Without looking at the first draft, she offered me $100 on a $400 story and told me to take it elsewhere. I eventually sold it to Mic for $150. At the time, $400 was a hefty sum for online-only pieces, since legacy publications like The Atlantic were paying $100 to $125 a story for digital work, often regardless of word count or required reporting. I was broken up about it at the time, but I came to realize it was the best-case scenario for a killed piece: An editor quickly passes on a story they can’t give the proper attention to so that the writer can take it elsewhere.

Other stories died a slower death. One I wrote for Vice in 2014 chronicled my exploits as a debt collector; not long after I found myself hounding publications for money I was owed. Once, after several months and a dozen emails, a story was killed with a single sentence: “Hey dude, so I do believe the Cindy piece is getting killed so bill me for 1/3 of your usual rate as a kill fee.” I netted $83, and I never worked for that particular editor again.

When I left both Texas and higher ed in 2016, I thought I had secured enough work to freelance full-time. By then, my piece on the pain of leaving higher ed in a story for Vox netted me representation at a literary agency and solicitations from still more editors.

I was sorely mistaken, and it was a mistake that would dent my pocketbook and eventually break my heart. 2016 and 2017 were bad years for the journalism market, much like every other year since people began writing stories about the “death of print” and the “pivot to video.” Commissions dried up as publications like Vocativ closed their doors. Between March 2016 and the end of 2017, I earned a measly $27,000 from selling my work to mainstream publications—a wage that would be unsustainable for someone who didn’t live in an affordable city like Pittsburgh, and whose partner did not have health insurance and other benefits.

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Around $4,000 of these earnings came from fees for killed work, roughly a quarter of what I would have made if those stories had been published. My Google Drive folder became a graveyard of dead drafts. I started joking on Twitter with other freelancers that my byline should read “The Ghost of Oliver Bateman.” That term had arisen, oddly enough, in an essay that was killed by one publication before eventually being published elsewhere. This was a story that had mattered a great deal to me, a personal essay that dealt with the adolescent pain and loneliness of my difficult high school experience. “The ghost of Oliver Bateman, like the ghosts that wander through a mystery train the heroes board during the first half of Final Fantasy VII, has lingered behind…in an old future that had once seemed far beyond the horizon but now was history,” I had written of coming to terms with my past spent locked in the bedroom, playing the same video game over and over while my soon-to-be-divorced parents went all Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on each other. It was a story that meant something to me, and I gave everything I had to its composition. In this case, that everything wasn’t enough, and the sense of selfhood I had put in essay form wound up on the cutting-room floor.

Most prior killed pieces had felt like business—the story wasn’t timely anymore, the friendly editor had quit—but this unkind cut seared. Deep down, all I had ever really wanted from my career was to write, and each time a meaningful story like that died, I felt like I “wound up missing happiness by a few minutes at some appointed location,” as I had written in another long-dead but heartfelt piece eventually republished in a significantly revised form. “What does it mean, you have to ask yourself, to be so close to something that you can taste it, yet still so far from it that nobody would believe you were ever there?” I asked at the conclusion of this second story. In that piece, I had somehow managed to express how the deaths of important essays had left me feeling: “You always believed you were lying to people when you told them you had almost done something great, like you were fudging the record merely by reporting it wie es eigentlich gewesen, ‘how it had really happened.’”

 

One I wrote for Vice in 2014 chronicled my exploits as a debt collector; not long after I found myself hounding publications for money I was owed.

 

By the end of the year, a trail of killed pieces and dead dreams followed me. At many outlets, freelancers are the bottom of the barrel, serving as a source of cheap reporting and potentially viral but exploitative personal essays—which are stressful to write, and even more disappointing to have killed. Editors are there to bring your stories to life, but endless slash-and-burn reflows related to one’s own traumatic personal experiences can trigger all kinds of painful emotions. “It just wasn’t coming through the way we’d envisioned,” one editor wrote—a kiss-off familiar to any writer who has received such classic publishing industry blow-offs as “love the content, hate the writing” or “hate the content, love the writing.” It was only my life, after all; it’s a shame it hadn’t come through the way the editor and I envisioned.

The biggest disappointments, though, the kills that threaten your livelihood most dramatically and directly, are the features. Given the hours invested in their creation and the money paid for them, these pieces are often make-or-break propositions for both writer and publication. But that didn’t stop a recent story about drug testing and drug deaths in professional bodybuilding I had sold to a popular new publication for $1,500 from spiraling out of control. The project reached 20,000 words across two drafts and a separate “interactive story” file, totaling roughly 75 hours of work and many screens of yellow Google docs revision notes. It was killed for $300 when a new editor took over the section and did what almost all new editors do, requesting that I write a completely different story that suited their tastes instead.

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Many jaded veterans of the industry accept this as a fact of life. One longtime colleague sold a story to a Hearst publication in December 2016, submitted a draft in January 2017, and was reassured every three to four months that this editor was “digging out of [his] email” and “so excited to make this work” before concluding in January 2018 that he didn’t “have the bandwidth” to proceed and so was killing the $800 story for $200. “How much email do you think he was dealing with?” she asked me. I shrugged, wishing that I had this problem since so many of my pitches went unanswered.

I knew others might be in a similar boat, so at one point I created a Google doc with notes about editors and the rates their publications paid. I shared it with dozens of freelancers, but many wrote back saying they believed this was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” business; nobody wanted to tell me, or potential rivals, about their meager pay from a prestigious publication or the times they misinterpreted an overeager editor’s signals and submitted work “on spec.” (Last year, CJR published guides on some of the better outlets to pitch, for writers and photographers.)

What I learned from the Google doc experiment was that freelancer openness and solidarity are critical in an industry that takes advantage of its most vulnerable members. As such, I felt I had to disclose this information, as well as information about my earnings. The freelance field was assumed to be competitive and cutthroat, but it was more like we were scattered to the four winds and scared to talk about our experiences for fear of coming off like losers unworthy of publication. Even in a best-case scenario, however, many of our most important stories were dying, and it ate at me to think that these piddling kill fees were all some of us might have to show for it. The doc still exists, but it, too, has joined the Google doc graveyard.

In January, I “quit” full-time freelancing and took a full-time job so that I could pay my bills, although I haven’t stopped selling my writing (hence, the article you are reading). I just have to be smarter and safer about it, as should other freelancers, since many of these fees we are trying to recover are too small to justify paying the fees associated with going to small claims court; and local laws such as New York’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act aren’t likely to prod a reluctant and perhaps failing publication into sending you the $50 you’re owed for services rendered. There are a variety of best practices one can follow to avoid having their writing killed or forgotten, such as working on edits over the phone rather than via marathon Google docs comment-resolving sessions, and working as much as possible with outlets that have always been reliable about payment (in my case, that means sticking to MEL Magazine, Pacific Standard, Splice Today, and Mike Elk’s labor news co-op Payday Report, for which I serve as editor).

My ultimate hope, as a person from a family with deep roots in organized labor, is that one day freelance writing will be sold through a kind of union hiring hall, similar to that utilized by unions in the building trades. But that goal will entail a lot of self-help: holding other writers, particularly academics writing solely to burnish their “brands,” accountable for writing for exposure; sharing information about pay rates and editorial practices; and ensuring that all commissioned stories, however small the offered rate, come with contracts that specify detailed procedures about kill fees.

Without the kind of genuine candor that paves the way for solidarity and cooperation, freelancers will remain easy marks for exploitation by their bosses, and the powerful stories they wish to tell risk becoming so many tombstones to what might have been.

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Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He edits Payday Report and his work has appeared in The New Republic, The Paris Review, Pacific Standard, The Atlantic, and VQR. Follow him on Twitter @MoustacheclubUS, or visit his website at oliverbateman.com.