Erik Sherman's WriterBiz
A spot about the business of writing as seen by a freelance writer. That includes marketing, sales, contracts, copyright, planning, research - in short, the business end of writing.
- Name: Erik Sherman
- Location: Massachusetts, United States
I'm an independent writer and photographer who covers business, food, technology, books, media, general features, and pretty much anything appealing that results in a signed check. My work has appeared in such places as the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Newsweek Japan, Fortune, Inc, Fortune Small Business, the Financial Times, Advertising Age, Saveur, US News & World Report, and Continental
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Writing News Roundup
- Free Recipes as Cookbook Sales Mechanism Will Schwalbe, former EIC at Hyperion, has started a food site called Cookstr that gives away recipes from top-name and lesser-known but solid cookbook authors as a way to get people to buy copies. (NYT)
- Random House to Digitize Books Random House will make thousands of additional titles available in e-book form. Thius should make any writer who has published with RH check their contracts to see exactly what the company can and cannot contractually do. (AP)
- Writing the Unwritable in the U.K. Britain has much stricter (or looser, depending on your viewpoint) libel laws than in the US, as well as other impediments to freely publishing information. But journalists have developed all sorts of ways to report on that which could get them in legal hot water. (NYT)
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Stops Buying - For Now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has told its editors that it has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts” in trade and reference. They can't say when the ban will end. Although claiming that the move is about "doing things smarter" than "the end of literature," note that not buying now means not having a selection of new titles in 12 to 18 months. Either the house has a massive backlog, or things are worse than management wants to admit. (Publishers Weekly)
- Obama and New Book Directions A Guardian blogger suggests that Obama's election will open the book industry to many new types of titles as well as creating a market for some backlist entries. (Guardian)
- US Branch of Manga Publisher to Close The U.S. branch of Broccoli International, a Japan-based manga, anime, game, and merchandise publisher, will close. Although probably few readers of this blog are interested in manga and anime, it's something to note. Graphic novels have become mainstream business and the same approach to story telling has been moving into the non-fiction world. This might be a very early indicator of changing tastes of younger generations, which could mean the necessity of changing longer-range business plans. (PW)
- EU Book Digitization Project The European Union has launched Europeana, a plan to scan and make available online "millions of books, artworks, manuscripts, maps, objects and films from the most important libraries, museums and archives, and provide them free to download from one website." It will also include video and audio of interest. Having paid attention to the suit against Google, the EU is focusing on works in the public domain. The site is currently down because there was such overwhelming interest that the traffic crashed the servers. (Guardian)
Monday, November 24, 2008
Why No One Should Write for HuffPo
There are people trying to start companies on a shoestring and who aer looking for the time equivalent of investors who want nothing in return. The problem with wanting something for nothing is that generally you get exactly what you pay for. And then there are people like Arianna Huffington. The Huffington Post has just raised a third round of investment money: $15 million. That brings the total to ... $40 million.
As the Wired piece notes, a major challenge is "to sustain or increase its traffic numbers under a friendly administration." But there is another challenge. How can a publisher claim a "progressive" market position and the moral high ground, attacking "selfish" special interests when it wants to build a commercial enterprise using mostly unpaid help?
Though most of HuffPo's 2.5 million contributors are unpaid, the site still has a good deal of overheard (especially compared to the 1.5 man operation at The Drudge Report). Most of the money raised to date has been reinvested to hire editors, reporters and advertising representatives, according to The New York Times.Look at that number again: 2.5 million contributors. Of course there is overhead. Web hosting companies cannot afford to write for free. Utilities cannot provide free power. Owners of buildings must charge rent to justify their investment.
Most of the money has been "reinvested?" It's called paying the necessary bills. Hiring reporters and editors? Maybe a handful, but how many? Five? Ten? Twenty? Even if it were 50, that would still mean that not "most" but "virtually all" contributors worked for nothing. So why does HuffPo think that contributors to the site, the very people that help make it possible, should be greatful for the chance to be read?
Huffington wants to grow the site and plans to use the funding to expand its local coverage and investigative reporting — two areas that may be hard to monetize. Scaling local content in a shrinking ad market will be tough, and hunting down scoops can be a costly pursuit, especially for a site that specializes in commentary rather than breaking news.Ah, so the company - it is a company, not an individual, not a movement - wants local coverage. Undoubtedly for free, and probably hoping to take audience from local newspapers in the process.
Even notedly impoverished advocacy publications like The Nation manage to scrape up something to pay contributors. (Calvin Trillin has spoken of being paid in the "high two figures.") Couldn't Huffington manage even a Starbucks card with the cost of a latte on it? For those who tell themselves they are getting great exposure, remember that it is exposure suggesting that you can be had for nothing. (Or should that sentence have ended "you can be had?") Once a company sets its practices early on, it is very unlikely to significantly change the model, for those holding out hope that one day HuffPo will pay. But why should it? There is no reason to change your ways if the people on whose backs you ride don't stand upright and say, "No."
Thursday, November 20, 2008
The Fault, Dear Brutus: Writing and Personal Responsibility
Forgetting the particulars of political machinations at work in the play, the statement is an exquisite summation of the source of much human failure and pain: We seek a star, or excuse, on which to blame our choices. And, has become clearer to me this year, that is emphatically true in the field of freelance writing.
I've started magazine editing this year and have had just enough experience to empathize with editors and their often low opinion of writers. In just one special project for one regular client and the first issue of the new quarterly I'm editing, I have run across the following:
- a writer who kept promising to get things done, but who kept lying (even after I caught the person at it and brought it up) and then ducking phone calls/emails to avoid confrontation
- a writer who took the topic I assigned and focused it specifically on a business vertical that I never said was the focus of the piece
- a writer who after a week under an admittedly tough deadline (known from the get go) said, "I can't find any sources" and who had never heard of profnet or haro, and then ignored two of three sources that I found and then discounted an interview with a third because the subject wasn't good enough (I did a second interview and agreed with the comment about the quality of answers - and *still* found a way to use the information and one quote)
Now the really distressing parts. These writers are all highly experienced pros and they represent two-thirds of the writers I've dealt with so far. I don't think my standards are unreasonable. If a publication is paying $1.50 or more a word, I expect deep research, a plethora of sources, and care in the writing. Hell, if I took an assignment I'd expect to do that at any price.
I remember years ago writing for a trade magazine and having an editor say to me before I turned in a first assignment, "We need at least three sources for 1,200 words." I was startled. Of *course* they would need that many. I'm often aghast at online discussions in various venues, as writers complain about having their material heavily reworked, or chafe at being asked to put more work into an article. Ever wonder why editors don't get back to writers? Chances are that they are spending hours and hours working over copy that came in, trying to make it work. Sometimes even conducting additional interviews and undertaking research to prop up thin work. Writers who get angry about seeing an editor add a byline might wonder how often editors ethically could add their own names, but simply don't.
My experience has me double-checking my own behavior. I don't claim to be perfect and certainly am not one of those who can say "I've never turned an assignment in late." But when there are problems, I generally talk to editors up front. In some cases, I've gotten even more time because there was a lot more time than I had thought and I and the editor badly wanted to get a particular source or bit of information in that wouldn't otherwise be available. There are times I've written an entire draft and tossed it because I was unhappy with the result. There are times I can feel a probelm with one section and look to an editor for a clearer eye.
But, really, I'm surprised at the number of people who give up when things get even mildly difficult, or who complain, complain, complain about ALL the work they had to put into an article. Well, why shouldn't they put work into an article? If I'm writing, say, 1500 words, I fully expect to spend a good seven or eight hours interviewing sources, additional time researching and planning the article, and then a day or more of writing to get something reasonable.
I'm becoming convinced that way too many "pro" writers only get work because the average writer performance is so poor that it takes next to no effort to look good in comparison. The editors have to hire *someone*, after all. But when times are getting tight and more competitors hitting the streets after losing their jobs, the attitudes of many writers are going to leave them stranded.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Eleven Tips for Dealing with Bankrupt Clients
- Do some research. Go on the web and find information written by lawyers/law firms whose practices are bankruptcy. This is a specific and intricate legal area, and a general business lawyer is not going to have the answers you need. Neither will friends, family, or other writers. Looking for help on some discussion site is a good way to thoroughly screw yourself, because if you don't do what is necessary, you could end up not getting a dime of what you are owed.
- File early. Don't wait until the very end. I know that the courts have to wait until the official filing deadlines, but there's no harm in getting your claim in early. If there are any problems, you'll have beaten the rush and you might have an easier time getting answers. Wiht Pages, I actually filed the minute I heard about it and didn't wait for the official notice.
- Find out what court is handling the bankruptcy. The bankruptcy courts handle specific geographic regions, and the governing factor is the state in which the company is incorporated. For many, that means Delaware. If you've received a notification, it will indicate the proper court. If you haven't, the company (or possibly a quick web search) should be able to tell you.
- Find the trustee. In any bankruptcy, there will be a company that handles the process - a trustee. This company supervises payments and handles the business of bankruptcy. It can give you definitive answers, even if the bankrupt company itself seems confused.
- You are an unsecurted creditor. That means you're lower on the payment priority than copmanies whose debt was secured with some sort of goods or inventory. That's just the way it is. You don't sell a physical product, and so cannot have a legal lien on that property.
- Fill out the paperwork completely. Yes, it's a pain to pull together all outstanding invoices and to fill out forms, but do it. The amount of time it takes is a lot less than you're thinking, and the upside is that you will get at least a portion of the money you're owed.
- Be ready for demands that you return recent payments. Trustees can demand that anyone paid within 90 days before the official bankruptcy filing return what they were paid, because that is considered a "preferred" payment, and the bankruptcy laws are set up to keep one creditor from getting an unfair advantage over another. If you do get such a notice, do not ignore it. You don't want the trustee, who enjoys the support of the court, to come after you. Instead, answer the demand.
- Don't expect to get everything you're owed. You'll only get some fraction of the money you had invoiced, so unleash your cry of outrage and get it over with. You're interested in getting something rather than nothing. It sucks, you're taking it in the wallet, that's life. It happens to many of us.
- Ignore the offers to buy your claim. There are companies that probably make a very nice living taking the public lists of creidtors for companies (including the totals owed) and making offers, starting at probaby 10 to 15 percent and maybe inching up when you don't bite the first time. Realize that they're not being nice and if they offer to give you 25 percent, they're expecting that your claim will be with 35 percent at least. (That would be a 40 percent return on their investment, which isn't bad at all.) Given that the total amount will be low, you're not getting any real advantage, because by the time you're getting the offers, you've already moved on by force of circumstances, because you've long had to make up your cash flow shortage. So let them troll after some other unfortunate and be patient, though getting your money can take months and months and months.
- Payments can come in parts. Depending on the conditions of bankruptcy, the trustees are probably disposing of assets to free up cash. This takes time. For example, the owner of Pages filed for bankruptcy early in January 2007. I received a third payment some time in the summer of 2008, and for all I know, there may be an additional one coming. All in all, I got at least a third of what I was owed. So if you are moving, make sure the court and trustee has your current contact information.
- Ongoing business may be acceptable. Once a client goes bankrupt, you could be reasonably concerned about doing business with it. However, in the case of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which means reorganization (unlike Chapter 7, which is a liquidation of assets), the courts have already put the debts to one side and payments for ongoing work are considered separately. So any work done for the company after the filing goes into a separate category and doesn't go into the queue with old debt.
Monday, November 17, 2008
State of Fashion Magazines
Thursday, November 13, 2008
NYT Debt and Watching Clients
The long and short of it is that the company owes $453 million more than it has in assets in the short term. In the long term, it actually has about $33 million more than it owes, but that counts current market rates for things like land and buildings. That would mean the company would essentially have to liquidate itself to have that much left:
When a company like NYTCo is healthy and generating cash, none of this really matters. The New York Times's value isn't in buildings or land--it's in the value of the brand and ongoing business, which aren't reflected on the balance sheet. Now that NYTCo has gotten itself in a financial pickle, however, the balance sheet and current cash flows matter a lot.That doesn't count the potential cash value of such properties as the Boston Globe, which it's been trying to sell off, but who wants to buy a newspaper these days? The short term view is the real killer, because by May it could be facing this big deficit in a tough credit market.
The NYT's "current ratio"--current assets vs. current liabilities--is now about 1 to 2, which is horrible (In the next year, the company will be required to pay out more than twice as much value as it has on hand). For comparison, a robustly healthy company, such as Google, has a current ratio of 8 to 1. Even General Motors has a better current ratio than the NYT.
I'm not inclined to write for them in any case given the contracts and my back being up over retroactive provisions. Heck, even the NYT Magazine insists on joint copyright ownership these days. But even if I were inclined, this would make me concerned about whether a day might come when I wouldn't get paid.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Big Landmine in Google Agreement
Monday, November 3, 2008
16 Tips to Check Information and Avoid Egg on Your Face
In the 2008 July/August issue of Materials Today, an article discussed a graduate student’s claims of finding evidence that Thomas Edison was involved in a conspiracy to murder a rival. Explosive stuff, that, so why didn’t the author get the piece into a major publication? There was enough evidence in the story that the writer was completely duped, if not trying to pull a fast one herself.
According to the story, Edison wrote in an 1870 diary entry that he got a call from France telling him that the man who first created the moving image, Louis Le Prince, was no more. "Eric called me today from Dijon,” said the writer’s source, who claimed to have verified the handwriting with an expert at the University of New York. “It has been done. Prince is no more. This is good news, but I flinched when he told me. Murder is not my thing. I'm an inventor and my inventions for moving images can now move forward.”
The red flags jumped all over the page. I checked the Web: the first transatlantic call occurred in 1918. Edison would have written that he had been wired, cabled, or telegraphed. There is no “University of New York,” although there are the State University of New York system of schools and New York University. The expert mentioned didn’t seem to exist, nor did the source. And “murder is not my thing?” How 1960s can you get? (There's a full account on one of my blogs.)
Don’t laugh, because writers – and not just beginners – get duped all the time. Back in March, for example, the Los Angeles Times had to publicly apologize for a story it ran that claimed Sean "Diddy" Combs had attacked rapper Tupac Shakur in 1994. The reason was it learned that documents vital to the reporter's story turned out to be good forgeries. Enron duped business journalists for years into thinking that they were on solid financial footing. Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes lost their jobs at CBS over “Rathergate” and reliance on papers critical of George Bush’s military service that would later be challenged as possibly forged.
Most sources, thank heavens, don’t become anywhere nearly as problematic. Yet even in the absence of scandal, there is always the risk that someone will try using you to promote themselves as experts when they are not, pass on biased information because they have axes to grind, or simply pull a prank because they can. It's bad for the story, bad for the readers, bad for the publication, and bad for your professional reputation, because editors start to see you as an easy mark.
You don't have to be. By taking some basic precautions and learning a few techniques, you can weed out questionable material and build stronger reporting. The following 16 tips can help keep you out of hot water:
- Look for the appearance of authority. It's great that the local pizza store owner is an expert numismatist, but when seeking interviews for a freelance article, look for someone who makes a living in the coin collecting industry. The reason publications want sources qualified by third parties is the need to communicate trust to readers and to sift through all the people who will make claims with no basis. Of course experts can be wrong, but there is often a greater chance that they have some real knowledge of the topic.
- Who published that book? A growing number of public speakers and consultants, who want to strengthen their business credentials, become authors. That would be fine if they actually were writing or collaborating on books, but many of them are now going to publication mills that commission ghost writers create the manuscripts and then print copies, sometimes under their own publishing imprints. There's nothing necessarily wrong with what are essentially self-published books; the growing ease of desktop publishing and print on demand is making it easier than ever before. But if a book is self-published, the author had better be a widely acknowledged expert on the subject. A book from a major publisher, known small press, or university still offers some degree of vetting.
- Beware outlandish claims. Although you'd expect writers to understand the power and danger of the written word, many are looking so hard for something that will wow an editor that they aren't sufficiently skeptical. For years there have been some pranksters who dupe the media with often elaborately-constructed hoaxes to make a point of social commentary. But there often you can find one or more clues to something being a prank. For example, is there something that sounds too good to be believed? That should be a red flag. If you get something from an organization or business, check with directory information to see if it has a listed phone number.
- Check that web page. Putting up a web page is a trivial activity, these days. If someone offers a URL as proof of existence, use a tool like whois.net. Look up the domain (for instance, the example.org part of www.example.org). You can see when the domain was first created and last updated as well as the owner of the site. If the site was created or modified very recently or either someone other than the organization owns it (or the owner is concealed through an anonymous service), then you may be the target of a hoax.
- Ask an analyst. So many companies claim to be the top in their industry, it's a wonder that anyone is left to be second, let alone forty-second. But every industry has its market analyst firms, so search the web for one and ask about the business in question. If the expert has never heard of it, find another.
- Ask someone who's been there. Remember how Margaret B. Jones wrote a fake memoir about her life in foster care and running with gangs? How much pain the publisher Penguin Group would have avoided by talking to people who knew the gang scene in LA and asking if what she was turning in sounded plausible. No one exists in isolation, which means there are always people who should know any given person or organization, or at least will know if someone’s experience or background sounds legit. Pick up a phone and ask some of them.
- Do a web search. Go to a web search engine and look for a person's name along with any of a number of key words that could bring up red flags, such as radical or extremist; prosecuted or convicted; bankrupt or bankruptcy; and sued or lawsuit.
- Run a background check. When the topic is particularly important, you could invest as little as $10 to run a background check on someone, looking for criminal records, lawsuits, previous addresses, and property deed transfers that might back-up or refute a claim, or that could throw light on a hidden agenda or potential lack of veracity. Some major names in this are Intellius.com and Knowx.com.
- Check the corporation. Any corporation must have been incorporated somewhere, and that state will have information on its home, officers, and owners. If the person claiming to be CEO of some firm doesn’t appear anywhere in official records, there might be a problem.
- Check the non-profit. With a free basic registration on www.guidestar.com, you can look at an organization's recent IRS non-profit tax forms and learn about an organization's programs and finances. You might find something out about its objectives and intentions, as well.
- Do claims stand up? Be a little cynical. Corporations, organizations, people, and their press representatives make claims about awards, status, or standing. Do a quick check to see how they stand up. I remember having a PR firm pitch a supposed Fortune 500 company as a source for a story I was writing. I had never heard of the company before, although it was in an industry I knew. Curious, I went to Fortune Magazine's list of the Fortune 500. The company didn't appear. When confronted, the sputtering PR rep explained how his client was a "Fortune500-type" company.
- Look for the bad press. A growing number of firms and individuals try to look good by using search engine optimization techniques to create self-serving sites and stories about themselves, pushing more negative information farther down a search list. Look up the company or person, skip the first couple of pages of results, and see what a little more digging turns up. You could also search for the company name and "sucks", "sux", "I hate", and other terms of non-endearment.
- Fire up the Wayback Machine. Remember the cartoon about a dog named Peabody, his boy, Sherman (no relation), and a time travel device called the Wayback Machine? WaybackMachine.org, which keeps archives of web pages all the way back to 1996. If a company has removed potentially embarrassing information from its web site, you might find it there.
- Don’t trust email. I remember reading an article by a Providence, RI music journalist who told the story of thinking he had an email interview with a famous musician, only to find, after it was in print, that the person was a hoaxer.
- Ask a university. Many people claim degrees and school affiliations that simply never existed. If someone says she graduated from Harvard Law School in 1993, call the school and ask, being sure to ask the source for a maiden name if appropriate.
- Is the person really a veteran? There have been a number of cases where people claimed a military background or certain awards or metals although they had no connection. But you can check. It can be a bit complex, but the authors of the book Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History have instructions at their web site, www.stolenvalor.com.
And then there is the most important tool: common sense. When something in a story sounds too good to be true, take the extra few minutes to see if it is.