Ask The Editor

January 4, 2010

The New York Times and freelancers (A.K.A. filthy non-staff writer scum)

Clark Hoyt, The New York Times public editor, has continued his predecessor’s attack on freelance writers. He doesn’t exactly call us an odious bunch as his predecessor did but seems to feel it’s perfectly fine to impose draconian rules on non-staff writers while refusing to pay their reporting expenses or a decent pay rate, and to ignore the huge transgressions of staffers and stars.

Hoyt points to three freelancers who “transgressed” and were tossed by
the Times, but the offenses are minor compared to those of Times’ stars who are still with the paper.

  1. Mary Tripsas, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School wrote a column about innovation and included 3M in her column without disclosing that 3M paid her expenses to go to their site. Because her university research involves checking out such sites, if 3M hadn’t paid Harvard certainly would have. And presumably, that would have been okay with the Times. Otherwise, her career as a professor, which qualified her for this column, would have been viewed by the Times as an ethical failing and also disqualified her for this column.
  2. Mike Albo, who accepted a travel-sponsored junket to Jamaica but didn’t write about it for the Times. Hoyt fails to mention that few travel publications or columns pay travel expenses to travel writers.  So writers who wish to write about travel have three choices: pay their own expenses (usually greater than the assignment fee); accept complimentary trips from travel companies; or stop writing about travel.
  3. A third freelancer, Joshua Robinson, identified himself as a writer for the Times while soliciting photography work from airline magazines — and asking the airline magazines to cover his airfare. Wouldn’t any of us, if pitching an airline magazine A) promote our major credits and B) ask the magazine to cover the travel and other expenses of the project?

Virginia Postrel was asked by The New York Times to write the column that Tripsas eventually accepted and was fired from. Postrel turned it down due to the Times’ measly pay and refusal to cover research expenses. However, she says, had she taken the gig, she also would have been disqualified on “ethical” grounds.

She had a correspondence with Hoyt about the hypocritical so-called ethical stance of a media outlet that demands purity from freelancers but refuses to pay in full for the research and reporting it profits from. Worth a read.

– Anita Bartholomew

Post has been updated to remove a statement that Hoyt didn’t mention that Tripsas’ expenses could have as easily been picked up by Harvard. Hoyt did mention this.

September 3, 2009

Before tomorrow’s opt-out deadline: What you need to know about the Google settlement

Tomorrow is the deadline for opting out of the Google settlement.

Here are some bits of information that may help people better understand the broad strokes — and why you’re better off opting out:

1- You are not shut out of the Google Book Search program if you opt out of the settlement. You are only shut out of the bad terms of the settlement. You can still participate in the Google Book Search program as an individual author, retain all your rights, and remove your books at any time.

2- You will not get 63 percent of the proceeds under the settlement for any use of your book by Google. That 63 percent goes to the Book Rights Registry which skims an unspecified and unknown amount off the top for expenses.

3- The remainder of that 63 percent, once the Book Rights Registry takes its unspecified and unknown share, goes to your publisher which sends a portion to you based on its interpretation of your contract. If it interprets your contract wrongly, your only recourse is binding arbitration, a process which favors major players, not little guys.

4- The settlement terms will obviously conflict with some book contract terms. It is unclear how this will be resolved. As the settlement is written, binding arbitration is your only option if you disagree with a publisher’s interpretation. This issue has some lawyers scratching their heads because of the uncertainty that’s bound to result.

5 – It’s a pretty good deal for large publishers, for the above and other reasons.

6- Based on published quotes from its leadership, the AG appears to have initiated this class action with the goal of negotiating a settlement that would result in Google getting rights to books that it otherwise could not get. (See author/attorney Scott Gant’s objection which is a pdf file).

7- The AG will control half the Book Rights Registry and will choose half the board members. The AAP will select the other half. This deal with Google gives these groups future security at a time when the future of publishing is anything but secure.

– Anita Bartholomew

July 9, 2009

Two disconcerting tidbits of publishing news

These come via Publishers Lunch, which is emailed to subscribers, so I can’t provide a link:

1. Announcing the sale of: “seven zombie books from Permuted Press in a co-publishing deal.”

I was wondering when we’d finally move past the era of a vampire in every novel. This wasn’t exactly the evolution I’d hoped for.

2. “Portland, OR-area bookseller Stephanie Griffin closed her store Twenty-third Avenue Books in January and then became homeless. ‘Startled neighbors discovered this in June’ as ‘Griffin had started panhandling outside her old store,’ Willamette Week writes. Neighbors have set up a relief fund.”

– Anita Bartholomew

June 23, 2009

“The View” star accused of plagiarism

Susan Hassett, a self-published author of a book on celiac disease, claims that “The View” star Elizabeth Hasselbeck’s book on the same topic borrowed heavily from hers.

Hassett’s lawyer’s letter to Hasselbeck, which you can download at the TMZ site, cites a number of similarities.

There’s one line in each that jumped out at me. Each book talks about how shoppers should “shop in the outer isles [sic] of the supermarket.”

I can’t and won’t pass judgment on the claim as a whole but, how likely is it that both authors would misspell the word “aisles” in the same way?

Hmm.

– Anita Bartholomew

March 19, 2009

Google and Sony take on Amazon’s Kindle

Talk about a smart move for Sony. It’s made a deal with Google that will allow all Google’s public domain (expired copyright) books to be read on the Sony reader, the Kindle’s biggest rival.

Amazon requires that all Kindle books get purchased through Amazon and appear in its proprietary format. Sony doesn’t require you to buy all your electronic reading material for its reader from it and, as far as I know, never has. But that difference hasn’t been publicized. Or, if Sony has tried to publicize this, the media haven’t covered it.

Getting access to all the public domain classics that Google has scanned gives it a publicity boost. (I believe owners of Sony’s e-reader can already use the Sony devices to read many if not most of the same public domain classics via Project Gutenberg).

– Anita Bartholomew

UPDATE: My colleague, George Sheldon, pointed out that, on the Kindle 2, you can read Word documents, not just documents prepared in Kindle’s proprietary format, and the device has the ability to convert other formats to its own. Like Sony, it can access Project Gutenberg public domain books.

March 4, 2009

Why writers shouldn’t bet their careers on magazine writing

An article by Francis Wilkinson in The Week asks whether writing is now a career that only the rich can afford to pursue:

The high end of publishing—books, magazines, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal—has always contained a contingent of wealthy worker bees who don’t actually live off their often meager salaries. But even a couple decades ago, a writer without independent means could still scrape together a living writing about something other than movie stars. Not a good one necessarily, but a living.

It’s not obvious how young writers without accommodating, well-to-do parents or a trust from gramps make it these days. Surely they can’t spend a year or two blogging without pay until an audience evolves to nurture them. They’ll starve.

He also says that “freelance rates for non-fluff magazine writing have barely risen in the past 15 years.” Apparently, Wilkinson doesn’t write for many magazines or he’d know that the problem isn’t just that rates haven’t risen; they’re recently begun falling.

Moreover, the trend of stagnating rates isn’t a recent phenomenon. According to Murray Teigh Bloom, one of the original members of the trade organization that is now known as the American Society of Journalist and Authors, told me about 15 years ago that he earned $1 per  when he began freelancing in the 1950s.

Today, many magazines are still stuck at $1 per word and several want to pay less than that. And it’s not simply because they want to exploit writers (although, they often do because too many writers agree to be exploited).

Every week, at least one magazine goes under. Hallmark magazine folded last week, not because it was doing poorly. It was one of the very few magazines where ad revenues were up.

If a magazine folds because (my assumption) it sees dimming prospects for the future, that solidifies my sense that focusing all one’s energy on writing for magazines is like focusing all one’s energy on selling VHS tapes. Not wise.

I recently wrote an article, for far less than I normally get paid, for an online magazine. It was on a controversial topic, close to my libertarian heart, and I wanted it published, even if it meant taking a pay cut. I felt good about getting the word out there. But the online magazine quickly folded (although its content is still up).

Even writing for major magazines that offer $2 per word and up, you have to contend with the possibility that the publication may not still exist when it’s time to pay you.

But books will always be with us, in some form, even if ebooks supplant paper. And that’s where I’d recommend any writer focus the greater share of his or her energy. It may mean that, in the not-too-distant future, you take on the multiple roles of author, publisher, publicist, distributor and warehouser, because major houses are trimming their acquisitions to those they believe (often wrongly, but that’s another post), will be surefire hits.

Only the intrepid, with an entrepreneurial bent can expect to do well under current conditions that are bad for the economy as a whole but worse for publishing. Any writer who sees him- or herself as too delicate to take on the business of marketing probably won’t survive in this climate absent a hefty trust fund or other means of support.

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