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
Monday, February 16, 2009
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Q&A with Bloggasm Author Simon Owens
Erik Sherman: Why and when did you start blogging?
Simon Owens: [It was] ego, I think. I started in 2003, second semester my freshman year in college. It was becoming the big thing. They called them journals or diaries or stuff like that. It was much more personal. I forget what year, 2004, or 2005, I started a site called LitHaven.com. It was like a literature blog. I would interview short story writers. I'd post market news for people that wanted to submit their short stories or essays and things like that. That was my first blog when I tried to reach a wide audience. It was semi-successful back then for a 21 year old kid. It had 200 readers a day. But that was the first time I tried to have a blog that was much more than a personal blog.
As the years went on, I became more obsessed with the blogosphere. I ran a few other blogs. The reason I decided to write this blog [Bloggasm] was at the time there wasn’t anything like it. It was going to be non-stop emailed Q&A interviews with other bloggers. I was thinking, "This is going to be a great idea, nobody has ever done it before, maybe I can get a lot of readers." I graduated college and there was probably month or two between when I graduated and when I started my first job.
Once I started getting a lot of experience as a newspaper reporter, I noticed that there weren't a lot of blogs that did what newspapers and magazines did, doing interviews and reporting. I liked the New Yorker. Working for small newspapers I couldn't break into first person, my copy would get hacked apart. Bloggasm was my night time chance. I usually average two articles a week.
ES: How did things change?
SO: I wrote a post about what your chances are of getting laid on Craigslist. I created these fake Craigslist ads to see what response rate a straight female, a straight male, a gay male would have. The male to female ratio was so high that it was almost impossible to get a reply. It became huge and got over a hundred thousand hits, hit the first page of [web reader recommendation site] Digg.
As far as I can tell, I'm one of the few bloggers who does this kind of reporting. The more and more I posted and the more features articles I did, the more I got noticed. Now it's a lot easier to get on the front pages of BoingBoing or Instapundit. It got easier and easier to get on a lot of those big blogs on the Technorati 100 [a list of the top blogs followed by the blog traffic monitoring service]. But while I got a lot of links, it's hard to get repeat visitors [posting once a day]. It's hard for me to create a large background readership. These days, it's almost like a glass ceiling or sorts. Basically, I can't get over a thousand readers a day consistently. If I get on the front page of Instapundit, I get 8,000 readers a day. A lot of these bigger blogs update 8 times a day to get the number of repeat readership.
ES: How do you attract readers and get good placement?
SO: I've really honed my marketing of my work into an artwork itself. Half of the work is behind the scenes. As I’m working on an article, I'm working on a key list of bloggers who will be interested in that article. When I email you, I can reference your posts exactly. When I write, you get addressed by first name; I know the topic your blog covers. But it paid off.
ES: What is a typical day in doing your blog like?
SO: I surf the Internet during the day, always keeping my eye out for something I'd like to write about that night. If I see something, I'll shoot an email saying can I contact you, anytime after 6pm is good for me. Sometimes if they're not available I'll sneak out of the office and interview them with my cell phone in my car. After I do the interview I go back into the office and act like nothing happened. I try to be ethical and not blog during the day time, trying to keep myself from getting into trouble as much as possible.
I did a study a few months ago where I emailed over 250 editors, five from each state, of editors to see whether they'd allow their reporters to have personal blogs. 40 to 50 percent would not allow their reporters to blog. For me, the blog has been the elephant in the room. It's always been such a huge hobby for me that if they said no, I'd have to choose between the job and the blog.
You're always waiting for that hammer to fall. I try to give them as little reason to do that as possible. I've created a code of ethics for myself about blogging. On one hand it sucks. [The blog] would probably be a lot bigger if I could post small things during the day and do the long features at night. Thank god, the new [job] allows you to blog during the day.
I transcribe that night and I'll start pulling the pages doing research and do a marathon writing session, sometimes finishing a single article by night. If I'm lucky, I'll be finished by 10 or 11 and then spend a few hours hyped up on coffee emailing bloggers that I think would be into it. Then I get to bed by 2 and am up again at 7. I put a lot of work into it in terms of actual time spent.
ES: You ended up with a job offer that you're taking because someone read your blog. Was that part of your plan in writing it?
SO: I think it's pretty much a happy coincidence. Out of nowhere, people started approaching me.
ES: What was the difference?
SO: I think it was where I went from one or two articles a month to two or three a week. I started ramping it up in late May. Because I had more consistency, I think I started getting more attention. And I was interviewing top people like an editor of the Los Angeles Times and an editor at the Huffington Post. I interviewed a guy from the strategy company for an article I was doing, and over the next few weeks we were chatted back and forth and that's when he went to his bosses. Because of my contact with him, he was my step into the company.
ES: When did you start talking to him?
SO: It was probably some time in June. I got the offer for this job either Wednesday or Thursday of last week. He initially said something like, "If you ever want to work here, I'll definitely recommend you to the bosses." I didn't take it seriously. But then it got close to the end of July and my lease was coming up, so I thought if I wanted to make a jump that would be a good time.
ES: How will that change what you are doing with the blog?
SO: It's really hard to tell in the sense that I was told by them that I should keep blogging. They wanted to say that we have these people who are already entrenched in new media. I guess what I had in my mind was that I'd continue how I am now, but do some micro blogging, like Instapundit links during the day. [Note: a quick count on Instapundit.com yesterday shows 54 short posts on 8/19/08 alone.] Because by the end of the day those links are widely distributed, it's too late to do something. I would like to post during the day links that fit into my niche.
ES: How did your experience change how you look at blogs?
SO: I mentioned my glass ceiling, because I didn't have the full time capacity to blog, to really put all the energy I wanted into it, I got frustrated that I could never get over the humps. I've wanted to be able to attract thousands upon thousands of readers a day and then sell advertising and make money off the blog. But in these anecdotal cases, I realized that it served other purposes. If it wasn't for Bloggasm, I wouldn't have gotten my foot into the door. It's a resume, a way for me to introduce myself to the new media world. This is the first job where I didn't have to actively submit my resume somewhere. It allows you to go into an interview with more confidence, if you're not just a person on the assembly line going into interview.
ES: A lot of writers start blogs to make names for themselves and money and to get noticed. Most fail. What's your difference?
SO: I've been in the blogosphere so long, I know how it works. I know the scaffolding and I know how to market. The way the blogosphere works now, it's hard to make a name for yourself if you weren't in early. If you're somebody already famous and you start a blog, it's easy to get a lot of links.
The blog Eschaton, a liberal blog, the guy is not talented at all. He got into blogs at the right time in the right place. He doesn't even do that much writing. If he were to start from scratch, he wouldn't be able to get to where he is now. Even if you're a good writer, you [have to] know how to sell your writing. [My entry yesterday points to his piece on the politics of Digg.]. A lot of getting links to your stuff is a lot of rubbing elbows.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Learning to Dig Digg
Friday, August 15, 2008
Navigating the New Terrain of Online Writing Compensation
Clarity is looking to get hundreds of people (in 60 cities and 25 different categories) to write for them online, and these writers will get paid between $2.50 and $10.00 per 1,000 page views, Gawker reports.This isn't an unusual arrangement, at least as a bonus, and Gawker itself uses it. But Gawker has been cranking down the figure because bloggers were too good at attracting traffic, and the company would have had to pay more than it had planned. And paying in such a manner without a ground level amount of compensation for doing the basic work is ridiculous, although I'm sure many writers will jump at the "opportunities."
Negotiation is going to get tougher, not easier, and you're going to need to pay attention and be careful that you don't agree to a harebrained scheme that some publisher declares to be "standard" on the web.
Monday, August 4, 2008
Important Clause in Blogging Contracts
I can understand trying to give writers incentives to pull in more traffic, and they can work to everyone's benefit, but there is a bottom line degree of marketing that the site owner must do. Yet, because many sites have implemented such a demand, there is some expectation of this being "reasonable." Obviously it isn't; asking writers to help create increased success is one thing, but expecting them to guarantee traffic unfairly shifts a responsibility of the business owner to the contractor.
I did find a negotiation strategy that worked. In the contract was also, as one might expect, a termination clause, giving either party the right to end the association with a certain amount of notice. I argued that as I am a professional writer, I must be paid if I'm producing the required work, but as the company could terminate the agreement without cause, it was free to do that should the traffic not meet its minimum expectations. Had they said no, I would have walked, even though there was an exemption for a number of months, as they realized that the site was still ramping up. Because I had already been doing some work during the negotiations, and they had seen a building of traffic, they were probably disinclined to have me leave. If they were happy to see me leave, then it was a relationship that wouldn't have lasted long anyway.
In contracts for online work, remember that practices are still developing, and writers overly anxious for exposure and an outlet have often encouraged ones that are simply untenable for a professional. Don't get outraged. Instead, Break apart the roles as laid out in the contract, contrast them to accepted basic business customs and look for other protections that the contract gives the publisher.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Gawker Media Traffic Jumps with Page View Incentives
- It's impossible to say what caused the growth - general expansion of blog readers, Gawker Media marketing programs, or the work of the bloggers themselves.
- There's no way of knowing how much of the growth will stick with the blogs, or if it will churn, requiring ever more effort to attract people to maintain the numbers.
- From these figures, there is no way to translate between page views and unique audience members.
- People may come by periodically to read the sites, or they may be landing there after a search - and that would put a different interpretation on where exactly the efforts of the bloggers had been most effective. Do readers drop by because of the voice of the writers, are the writers doing their work in such a way that it comes up on popular search results, or are they breaking stories that drive interest?
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Gawker Pay? Gaak
"We've broken the site budget," Gawker Media owner Nick Denton told the staff in an email yesterday. The only answer, from the company's perspective? To keep getting more traffic—but to pay the producers of that traffic less for each pageview. So for the second and now, according to a new memo regarding the pay rate for the quarter that began this week, third quarters of 2008, the company has reduced the rate of pay per pageview. Other Gawker Media sites, including Jezebel, also had their pageview rate cut.It used to be that if a writer got a million page views a month, that translated into $7500. Given the amount of work it takes to get that much attention, the money seems short. But now it's even shorter, at $5 a thousand, or $5000 for that million page views.
So more ad inventory—actual pages served—should mean more income for the company—particularly since Gawker seems to be mostly increasing in pageviews not attached to any writer. At the same time, reducing the cost of the creation of that inventory also gets the company more of the income that is attached to a writer. Kicking down less money to the workers seems, at best, cheap.How about predatory or exploitive? Those are pretty good words, too.
Friday, May 23, 2008
Technique: Another Blogger Trick
Friday, May 2, 2008
Blogger Advance Posting Seems to Work Now
Thursday, May 1, 2008
Someone Who Blogs for Cash
- He was an expert in something.
- A large number of people wanted to learn what he knew.
- He started this on the side over two years ago.
- It seems to have spread by word of mouth.
- The topic is one he can keep returning to, analyzing new shots to extend the underlying principles.
- There is a companion spot on Flickr that allows people to upload their own photos, making the site interactive.
- He's broken out some posts, like his Lighting 101, so they can be easily found.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Blog Ahead of Time
What you're reading today I wrote on Sunday, when I had a bit of time and was knocking off some blog entries in advance. I write when I have a chance, and then set the date and time when I want the post to appear, and then publish. Voila! Instant literary (or not) time travel. It doesn't solve the overall issue of time commitment, but it does let you work on your schedule a bit more. Then, if something comes up that is timely and you want to cover that instead, get to the post before it goes up, change the date, and keep it for another time. In Blogger, you get to this by going to Blogger in Draft; that's the version with all the new features that haven't quite made it to regular Blogger. As for other blogging engines, you're on your own there.
I'm still experimenting with this, and the feature doesn't seem completely solid yet in the way it works. But, hey, it's free, so I'm not going to argue
Friday, January 18, 2008
CJR Column on Blogging
Where he's right, though, is in understanding that publishers, whether print or online, cannot assume that they can reach significant audiences and reap the advertising economic benefits while continuing to assume that writers shouldn't be paid. Unfortunately, too many writers - not just the casual ones, but the professionals - have gone along with this nonsense, buying the arguments that the publishers "aren't making any money on this - it's the web, after all." Do you realize that traditional print magazine business models assume that publications run in the red for three years? Does that mean the writers, designers, and printers are all supposed to work for free? No, it's called an investment in the business by the publishers.
That's what web sites and blogs are: investments. Until writers start thinking like business people and stop thinking that they have to be grateful that someone allows them to provide value, they will continue to undercut themselves and all other writers.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Practicing Your Craft Though Blogging
It all comes down to practice. Say that you're writing four features a month. That would be one a week, except you're not writing all week long. Instead, on the average, you're probably spending a day on the writing, several days on the research, and time for selling, invoicing, chasing down payments, and other administrative tasks.
That means you're actually in the writing process at most 20% of your week. It's a rare musician who's any good that doesn't spend hours practicing every day, even though there may be only one or two evenings actually playing music for a living. Jazz great John Coltrane was said to practice upwards of 12 a day, and lesser names can easily put in three, four, or six hours. Painters sketch to develop the sensory connections between their hands and eyes, and do so constantly. Chefs spend years working long hours doing the basics in food preparation and cooking. Why should writers be any different?
The more you practice, the stronger you can build your craft. When the mechanics become second nature, it's easier to listen to the story and to tell it in your voice, instead of struggling with how to get to the next part of a narrative. If that's not enough, getting better and more assured means being able to improve the quality of your work - making the acquisition of additional assignments easier - and shortening your day, making everything more profitable.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
Blog Links and Responsible Writing
It was a depressing thought, in a way. It could be a result of a skewing of my audiences, and this is a small sample, but I'm now wondering to what degree people actually use links. In other words, if you provide links for additional information and to back up what you claim, very few people have a practical care. They just read what you wrote and go on to something else.
That puts a great burden on the writer. You can't reliably use links as a way to help explain a story. You can't use statements that are cryptic unless understood in the context of a reference you provided. In short, we may all need to assume that for many people, what we write could be it.
Let that sink in. Posts really need to be thorough, recap all the necessary information, and be able to stand on their own if necessary. Most need to have the discipline of miniature reported articles. That's just on the craft and writing side. How about marketing? Getting a link to your piece in someone else's story is probably going to draw a lot less traffic than you might otherwise want.
We all have a lot of learning facging us when it comes to these new media. No one can give you certain answers because they don't know them. The experience does suggest that paying scrupulous attention to the usage numbers of your blog are important for writing quality and responsibility in addition to better controlling your marketing.
Here's to finding out that this "easy" form of writing is a lot more difficult than one might think.
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
A Smart Use of Blog Search Optimization
In my food blog, I've recently found an uptick of of traffic coming in from web searches. What surprised me was that they were all for a product called Vacuware. This device is a system for storing food in a container or bag and then removing all the air to preserve it better. I had reviewed the product, but then I had reviewed many products. Yet people kept coming in for this one.
I went to the Vacuware site to see if there was a new model. Instead, I noticed something about seeing the infomercial. The company was pushing its products on television, and some number of people were going to the web to look for reviews - like mine. In fact, I just did a Google search for "vacuware" and "review." My blog listing was literally the top match.
This wasn't good for Vacuware: I had panned a bad feature that they had admitted to me had serious shortcomings. But it did help me me realize how to write what would normally fit on my blog in a way that uses advertising and other aspects of popular culture to drive more readers. Find what's happening in the world that connects to what you you cover, and then anticipate what an audience will need and search for. In my case, I didn't know about Vacuware's television campaign, but I could have and then asked to see a review unit as a result, figuring that someone would want to know whether the device worked.
I set up the headline in the blog entry when I first wrote it to improve searchability. It says "Review: VacuWare Fresh Food System." I wasn't adding search tags at the time, but I'm going back to add some to those reviews, at least: vacuware, system, review, product, vacuum, and storage.
The idea isn't to become the literary equivalent of a prostitute, but to think from the view of your intended audience and anticipate its needs. That helps you provide what they want, which means they'll be heading to your site.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
The Business of Blogging - Stream of Micropublishing Consciousness
- Write for love, not money. Well, maybe love is a bit strong, but write something you feel a connection to. Most of these bloggers didn't go into a particular area because they thought it would lead to bucks. They wrote about something they wanted to write about, and the audience found them.
- Be patient. Most of these bloggers spent time developing their sites. They didn't generally see overnight success. Instead, they kept working and interest built over time.
- Audience is everything. Yes, you want all the marketing tips to make your blog huge, but the biggest tip is having content. If you do, and it's something that some group of people connect with, then you and the audience will find each other. The most important type of marketing is having something customers want.
- Monetize after attracting people. When you start a blog, don't worry about selling ads. It's clutter, and no one is going to be interested - and you won't make anything, because you don't have the traffic. Wait until you've actually got something going.
- You're in the fashion business. No matter what the topic, people are looking for both content and entertainment. Any oddball topic that takes off shows that a good part of the blogging business has to do with fad and fashion. Keep an eye on the business practices in fashion-based industries, whether clothing designers or consumer electronics. Learn that you need to keep things fresh and be ready to experiment with the next idea.
- You're in the information business. Fashion, in the broadest sense, is a big part of a blog, but people are motived by the particular expression of ideas. They don't care about your personal takes on the world. They want something that relates to them.
- Give readers a way to take part. These bloggers give the strong sense that it's important for readers to have a conversation. Read comments and email, respond to them, and even come up with ideas that will encourage more interaction.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Blogs: the Writer's Weight Room
I've seen many writers take up blogging and then drop it, or only do so sporadically. My own experience over the last six months would suggest that even when you are busy, it can make sense to set aside time to blog.
To write well, you have to set words to paper. Lots of them. The more you write, the better and faster you will get. But there are only so many assignments you can land. So unless you're writing constantly and getting paid for it, try blogging. Not just a quick line pointing to something that has appeared somewhere else, but actually writing.
I'm currently maintaining four blogs with new posts once a day, Monday through Friday. At even a few hundred words a post, that adds up to well over a quarter million words a year. No, I'm not getting paid for it (although I've had at least one assignment come from an editor I knew looking at a topic I had pointed out).
But it's like intellectual weight lifting. My writing feels stronger and faster just in the last few months. There is always room to improve, if you're putting in the requisite work. Concert musicians will practice hours a day to keep limber and to stretch their abilities in new ways. The same applies to writing. If you're a pro, you should still be writing every day, doing the equivalent of scales, putting one letter after another. You can write non-fiction, write up material that you couldn't otherwise use, work on a novel section at a time - anything you want. The important thing is to sit and write, whether you feel like it or not. You'll get the direct satisfaction of improvement and the indirection one of being able to more easily impress editors. It's a long term investment, but one that seems to me worthwhile.
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Bill Would Offer Shield for Bloggers
Monday, April 30, 2007
Contract Review: BlogBurst
1.2 In the definitions section, notice that a Publisher is any entity that has an agreement with Pluck to license material. That means potentially anyone, and you have no control over who uses what you write.
2.1 This includes the wording "you grant to Pluck and its affiliates a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, license to reproduce, distribute, make derivative works of, perform, display and disclose the Work (and derivative works thereof) for the purposes of (a) adapting the Work to fit within Publisher web sites without substantially changing its original meaning, and (b) distributing the Work (and derivative works thereof) to Publisher electronic web sites"
Non-exclusive is fine on the surface, because you can also do something with the material. But "make derivative works of" means that the company can change what you write. Yes, it has some limitations, but what does "substantially changing" mean? If you cite a news source that you like in your blog and another one runs the piece, could it replace that reference with one to its own site? I suspect so.
2.2 Pluck can give other publishers the same rights that you grant it, so you could go into competition with others licensing and selling your work - because it's royalty-free. There's another consideration that we'll catch under section 3.
3 Pluck's responsibilities are to ensure that you get a byline (though the size and placement of which - maybe far after the blog entry in a round-up of bylines - it and the publisher determines). You also are supposed to get at least one link to the web site on which your content appears. Now remember 2.2. What happens if the publisher starts sublicensing? It's not clear to me that Pluck guarantees that any further use down the chain of permission will get the same.
4.1 You can get royalties "subject to Pluck's then-current policies." But what will they be? Maybe you won't get any? (Check the site and you'll see that at the time I write this, only the top 100 blogs get any compensation.) And the agreement clearly says that you don't expect payment. It may be that Pluck wants to pay people - at least the current management team does. But what happens if they sell the company down the line? The generosity might be less obvious.
5.1 Trouble here, because we're talking about international publishing over the web. How are you doing to guarantee that your work won't violate any of the list of rights under any legal system in the world? You can't, because what may be legal under one law - take US federal law, for example - may not be under, oh, the libel laws of the U.K. or Canada. There are people who travel to other countries to sue writers because it's a lot easier than doing it in this country.
6.1 If Pluck or some of its licensed publishers do you wrong, you say that $1,000 will be the cap of what you can pursue in court - and that will barely get your lawyer out of bed in the morning.
6.2 This indemnification is not only tied to the overly broad warranties of section 5, but it has the following dangerous clause:
(b) any claim or allegation that the Work infringes in any manner any Intellectual Property Right or any other right of any third party, is or contains any material or information that is obscene, defamatory, libelous, slanderous, or that violates any law or regulation, or violates any rights of any person or entity, including without limitation rights of publicity, privacy or personality, or has otherwise resulted in any consumer fraud, product liability, tort, deceptive trade practice, breach of contract, injury, damage or harm of any kind to any third party.According to this wording, if anyone should so much as charge you with infringing on any of his or her rights, or that something in your writing is obscene or defamatory, of that what you write violates any law or regulation anywhere in the world, you pick up all the expense tabs for Pluck, all of its affected publishers, and all of their managers.
7 The agreement stays in effect unless you terminate it - and you can only do that "by using the Terminate Account feature in the BlogBurst software." Ever try to end a recurring charge, or to stop a series of marketing emails, or anything similar by clicking the appropriate link? 'Nuff said.
8.3 "The parties consent to venue and the exclusive jurisdiction of the state and federal courts located in Austin, Texas" means that if either you or Pluck has a problem with the other, you have to take it up in Austin. That's an expensive proposition unless you live there.
8.7 Pluck can change the agreement as it wants so long as it provides you "notice," and if you send in anything new (and that might be virtually automatic since the company is syndicating your blog), you've agreed to the change. Even if it calls for retroactive changes.
8.8 Any of Pluck's affiliates gets to be included in the indemnification section, and so they could directly sue you.
It takes pluck to come up with some of these conditions, but it would take foolhardiness to agree to them.