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

Thursday, February 5, 2009

About.com Gets Hit With Staff, Freelancer Pay Cuts

About.com, part of The New York Times -- which isn't having a jolly financial time, as I've mentioned -- is cutting just under ten percent of its staff. That's quickly becoming an old story for media companies. However, apparently About is also cutting the pay for its guides, the people that create the content. Page view rates will supposedly drop by 7.5 percent and the monthly guarantee goes from $725 to $675. Given that the money didn't seem that great in the first place, I wouldn't be surprised to see another wave of "help wanted" postings by the site.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Record Label Infringes Own Copyright

This isn't exactly a writing issue, but it is copyright and strange enough that it should provide some dark humor. An Internet-based record label that uses Creative Commons licensing, to give people free use of the music, had its web site taken down by the company that hosted it. Why? Because it was infringing the copyright of the music. Who owned the music? The record label. Then the site demanded paper copies of the copyright registrations, even though the owners hadn't registered copyright because, after all, they were looking to give it all away. Thank heaven's for corporate America's keen understanding of intellectual property issues.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Getting "Real" Success Online

There's a profile of Michael Wolff on the LA Times entertainment blog I'd strongly recommend reading. You can get some good insights into making things work on the web. Wolff has been in the media business, has tried to be a media mover-and-shaker entrepreneur (is doing so again with Newser.com), and has learned some things along the way. One is that people want news more than ever, and yet journalists often are too self-involved to give that to people. That doesn't mean you can't add something beyond a vanilla recitation of facts.

For example, I've been writing my BNET blogging for a few months now. Site management asked people to consider doing news round-ups after some focus group or other. I started adding one on weekdays, only different from how many others do them. Instead of one or two sentences and then a link, I actually do a summary, having some fun in the writing. I might even use a couple of different sources to get some perspective in this short form. As a result, there have already been some days when one of these roundups has been one of the more popular items on the site for that period. The reason I do a full summary is that I've done enough work on the web, and monitored my own sites enough, to realize that very few people will actually click on a link. The links help with search engine optimization and generally raising awareness of the site, which is a marketing function, but only a small portion of people, on the order of ten percent, will look farther. I realize I'm working from a limited sample, but I suspect that the data is not entirely unusual.

Another thing to remember is that there's a difference between notoriety and a real business:
“‘Buzz’ doesn’t get you the kind of traffic that you want,” Wolff said. He’s comfortable, he said, with Newser’s incremental growth of traffic over the last year. “The businesses that make money are the ones you don’t hear all that much about. It costs too much money to get buzz.”

As he points out, a reader on the Web often doesn’t even notice the original source of what she’s reading.

Add that to the many challenges of a start-up Web operation: Establishing a name is fine, but without traffic to back it up, the money disappears.
His experience would tend to support my contention that people won't go farther than what is in front of them. In fact, the site's slogan is "Know More. Search Less."

It also suggests why round-ups can be so popular. I know I read them at various sites to quickly get a grasp on what is going on without necessarily having to wade in too deeply. People want some efficiency and yet they prefer it with some entertainment added. If you can start to generate that, then you stand a chance of building an audience that might indulge your interest in longer pieces, or in books and other media. But you have to first give them what they want, and that is going to mean hours a week in research and writing. That shouldn't be a surprise because whether a full-blown site like Newser.com or your own blog, we're talking about building a business. And if you don't have the funds to invest, you're back to sweat equity.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Navigating the New Terrain of Online Writing Compensation

Publishers are experimenting with new ways of compensating writers in the online world. Look at this article on a publisher of free dailies bringing on non-professionals to write online with compensation based on page views.
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.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why Have a Web Site?

If you've been debating whether to spend the time and energy on a web site, or you have a site and wonder what more you can do with it, here are some suggestions of business advantages you can get from your site:
  • Show a range of writing that you do or topic ares you understand.

  • List special training, talents, certifications, or expertise that might not be immediately clear from the writing.

  • Keep a page of links to recent work so editors don't have to track everything down or deal with attachments.

  • Offer a range of informative articles that provide value to clients and prospects while demonstrating your professional abilities.

  • Show a client list and a set of testimonials so it's not just you talking about you.- Set out the nature of your business and the types of work you tend to do.

  • Show speaking engagements that can communicate a more robust sense of your expertise.

  • Provide a frequently asked questions section that can offload the more rote and time-consuming questions that you get.

  • Convey the idea to prospects or even editorial sources that you are "real."

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

New Online Uses of Writing

I'm going to ask you to take a detour for a moment to another of my blogs where I mentioned the rumor of the New York Times opening its API, or application programming interface.

Have you ever thought about what electronic use of material could mean beyond posting an article on the Web or publishing it on DVD or CD collection? Opening the APIs is an example. The NYT can do this because it buys all rights, and so can make anything available to anyone it wants in any way it wishes. What if a company doesn't do this? In some cases, it may not matter:
  • Their contract could allow something like non-exclusive "electronic" rights, and that might cover giving the material away to others. There is no set definition of electronic rights that I've been able to find.

  • Some types of writing, like recipes, do not have copyright protection under law. Were I a publisher, I'd argue that even if the other material from writers was under their copyright protection, the recipes were not. It might stand up in court or not, but are you willing to spend the money to find out?

  • Information also does not enjoy copyright protection. If the publication can extract what a court might see as straight information from your article, it could make use of that information. You, of course, could claim that such a use would be a derivative work - that is, derived from your original, and so needing a license from you. But that means either having the contract tight enough up front or spending time in court.

  • What if another site simply links to select parts of your material in the form of an area clearly shown as the publisher to whom you licensed the piece? I don't think there is a clear answer.
The upshot to writers should be clear. If part of your business strategy is to re-license your work, and that work appears on the web, it may be that you find other sites taking it in bits and pieces, no longer needing an article in its entirety, or you, for that matter. And what happens when you marry this with the idea of Web 2.0, in which millions of users are capable of using programming hooks to include information on their own sites and social networking pages? It makes electronic databases look benign in response. At least in the case of the databases, you can point to a few names that create most of the problems.

If you'll notice an additional theme here, many potential uses of parts of an article fall into a grey area. Even if you thoroughly nail down a contract, the chances are that things are going to come up faster than you can possibly predict, and maybe faster than is possible to keep up. I know I was surprised when I read the NYT API story - and I have known of APIs and their uses literally for decades. Maybe the only business strategy will eventually be to keep moving so quickly, and being creative enough in the process, that your work retains its value to others. In other words:
  1. Make sure that you know the value you bring to writing, and "being a good writer" is simply not going to be enough.

  2. Have areas of deep knowledge that are difficult to duplicate.

  3. Move upscale as fast as possible. Those who work at the commodity levels of the markets - service pieces, for example - are going to be the most vulnerable to the cut and paste approaches.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Contract Review: BobVila.com

A copy of the "content provider's agreement" for BobVila.com hit my inbox, and here is my take on it (please remember that I'm not a lawyer and that this isn't legal advice):
  • 1. - Definitions Pay attention here, as these definitions will reappear, and you'll need to know what you're being asked to agree to.

  • 3. - Fee The assignment documents state fees, but notice that they're supposed to be paid within 30 days of acceptance of a work. Nothing says how long the site has to accept some content or what constitutes acceptance - a note from the editor, or is there a committee process?

  • 4 - Delivery of the Work; Editing Process, (b) The web site owner "has the right to delay display or publication of the Work, or to choose not to display or publish the Work, at its sole discretion." That means for any reason, including the phase of the moon. If they don't use it, you get a kill fee of 20 percent, even if you did as you were asked.

  • 4- Delivery of the Work; Editing Process, (d) They can look over what you send in and ask for deletions or changes because they think someone could sue them, but they have no responsibility for problems, even if they don't see anything wrong any more than you do.

  • 4 - Delivery of the Work; Editing Process, (e) "If requested by Web Site Owner, Content Provider agrees to give Web Site Owner access to the Work Files and/or to make copies of all or part of the Work Files at the expense of Web Site Owner, within a reasonable time period after receiving the request" What if you have to hand over the notes and they add something? Now that material may be no longer available for other work you do.

  • 5 - Representations and Warranties, (g) "[T]he Work does not and will not violate any law or regulation, including without limitation, the laws and regulations governing defamation, libel, pornography, and or obscenity..." This is very sticky, as it explicitly says any law or regulation and doesn’t narrow things down to one set that you must be concerned with. Even though there is a later provision for the contract to be construed under Massachusetts law, I don't know if that would offer any protection.

  • 5 - Representations and Warranties, (h) "...any computer files or other medium in which it is delivered to Web Site Owner, do not contain any viruses or other computer programming defects which are intended to or are likely to result in damage to the Web Site or another web site, computer system, or data of Web Site Owner or any other person or entity." That should be modified with the word "knowing". What if there’s a new virus that your scanner doesn’t notice?

  • 6 - Intellectual Property and Ownership of Work What you do is either work made for hire or, if not allowed under the law, you transfer all rights and interests to the intellectual property (including copyright) to them, and you can't do anything with the material again.

  • 7 - Confidentiality and Non-Disclosure You can't talk about the contract, or even negations you've had with the site, which means no telling others about rates and what things can be negotiated successfully. The language reads as so extreme that it's not even clear you could tell anyone that you were working on a story for the site.

  • 8 - Indemnification by Content Provider "Upon written notice from Web Site Owner to Content Provider, Content Provider shall defend, indemnify, and hold harmless Web Site Owner..." but there's no time frame in which this needs to happen. Also, they want indemnification not just for a breach, but an alleged breach (someone claims you did it) of the warranties - or anything else to do with the contract. For example, if they want to argue that you didn’t deliver what they requested, it might be that they could argue it was a material breach and have you fund the legal case against you.

  • 10 - Governing Law; Jurisdiction If you have a legal beef with them, you have to take care of it in Massachusetts.
There's enough here screaming "deal killer" that, personally, I'd pass on taking an assignment without some significant changes.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Multimedia and the Single Freelancer

A reader of this blog forwarded a link to a post on The Editors Weblog. The World Editors Forum, part of the World Association of Newspapers, publishes it. This post quotes Bas Broekhuizen, a television person from the Netherlands, who argues that the drive to turn journalists into multimedia people is a mistake. He led an effort at the leading Dutch broadsheet to train reporters as video journalists so that they could produce both written and video stories. The experience was less than stellar:
“In my opinion every journalist can learn to be a video journalist, as long as he or she is not afraid of the technical aspects (camera, computer, et cetera). Journalism is about telling good stories and in that regard there's no difference between writing and filming,” said Broekhuizen.

“But to become a real good video journalist, you need talent and time. A lot of time.”

“That's why I do not believe in the so called multi skilled journalist, or in ‘convergence by hardware’. Just handing out cameras to newspaper reporters will – in my opinion – not bring you video reports with the quality you want.”
Broekhuizen thinks that the answer is working with specialist teams, not reporters who do it all. Those who follow my blog might be surprised to hear that I agree, because I've often stated that reporters need to learn additional skills - video and audio and some HTML coding - to deal with the web.

The best approach would be to have separate people doing these jobs, for the same reason that the actors in a professionally-produced play aren't also directing, designing sets and lights, building costumes, and running operations back stage. Specializing does give you the chance to learn something well.

That's the theory, at least. Unfortunately, practice doesn't always follow smoothly. A team is great if someone is willing to pay for it. This Dutch newspaper went that route, and obviously had the money to do so. But publishers keep tightening the financial reins, and it's tough enough these days to get them to send both a writer and a photographer. Can you imagine most of them actually paying for a video crew to join the happy reporting band? Neither can I. And yet, as YouTube shows us, video can become insanely popular on the Internet.

When a publisher looks more and more to the web and sees that video might draw the younger demographics that advertisers, either rightly or wrongly, so passionately seek, what are they going to do? Keep funding long-form articles? Or will they say, the hell with writers, let's get some video on the site? My bet is on human nature, cheapness, and the desire for audience.

Let me be clear: it's not easy to do multiple media at the same time. I've gone into stories both taking notes and photos. When doing one, you can't do the other. Adding video or audio only complicates things. But even my myopia can make out the tall letters on the side of the building. When publishers move to multimedia, you'd better be there if you want to keep clients. So now's the time to start learning, so as the publishers experiment, you'll be there with them, and they'll develop the habit of calling you for the complex assignments.

As for the corporate world, I expect it will do as it has in the past - assume that video or audio is a separate undertaking and pay for specialized crews to do the work. Having mixed skills could offer a competitive advantage (lower costs), but only if the video and lighting and audio come out as well as the writing.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

CJR Column on Blogging

It's interesting to see how blogging has become part of the professional journalistic landscape. The Columbia Journalism Review has a piece this month on the economics of blogging. Anticipating that blogging could end up with its own guild like the WGA is probably unrealistic. After all, author Chris Mooney describes a group of freelance writers, and that means no "real" union. (Here's an earlier post where I describe how the WGA writers differ.)

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.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Eons.com Restructures, Shrugs Off Professional Content

Eons.com, an over 50 social networking site started by Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor, laid off just over a third of its staff, according to various accounts, including this one from Mass High Tech. Part of the restructuring is a tightened focus on the social network area. If you had been thinking of this as a market - and it had cooled, demanding all rights for pitiful pay - think again:
While no product lines will be cut, according to Taylor, the company will take a more user-generated and user-aggregated approach to its content, including focusing more on the feature called "BOOMing" wherein members submit interesting online articles they have discovered. That will enable the site to rely less on content that requires heavy editing.
One reason for the heavy editing, from what I saw, was that Taylor didn't want to pay going rates in the first place. That resulted in either using less able people or in more experienced writers repositioning things they had already done.

One lesson to learn from this is that the whole "Web 2.0" view of the Internet is as inherently flawed as the dot com bubble of the late 90s. Companies buy into their own hype and think that just because they do something, people will come. But more often than not they don't. So if someone tries to get you to work for too little because theirs is the next big thing, just walk away and look for real business.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Filing DMCA Complaints

If you've ever found some of your work posted on the Web without your permission, you know it can be an upsetting experience. Someone is taking and using your property without so much as a by-your-leave. Many writers will try to track down the site owner and either threaten legal action (impossible to do if you haven't registered copyright) or send an invoice (often ignored).

There is another choice: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. Under US law, if the ISP that hosts the Web site is in the US, then it must respond to a demand from a copyright holder to remove material that is posted without permission. I've added a file under Writer Resources with a summary of what you have to include in such a request and a short primer in how to find which ISP hosts a site.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Seeing the New Media Shift

Alan Mutter (great aptronym for someone writing a blog) is a "veteran media executive, who fears our news-gathering companies are stumbling to extinction," as says his blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur. I only came across this last night via the BoSacks blog (worth being on the mailing list).

Mutter's background makes his observations in his post Dead animals, large and small even more telling. He mentiones how he's seen two occasions where a post of his received attention from Major Media Sources and a site called Small Dead Animals, written by "an airbrush artist and schnauzer breeder who resides in a small town in Saskatchewan." In one case, the latter sent 1,000 readers to Mutter's site while a mentions on the sites of Forbes and BusinessWeek resulted in ... 1. That is, one, singular, do not go to two, but still bigger than zero. A similar overwhelming imbalance in attention happened with a second post, this time pitting Small Dead Animals against Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News.

Folks, this isn't just amusing (though it is decidedly that). It shows you that as media moves to the web just how unbalanced the playing field can be. In this case, the largest media companies in the world are outclassed by a small cadre of schnauzers. Yes, the Internet is still relatively new, but few people are getting just how much of a change there is from the past. Sure, the Major Media Sites can attract traffic because of their brands and audiences. But how much pull do they have? How much do new generations of media consumers care about what they are doing? Money alone isn't going to establish them:
With the formidable creative talent, market reach, commercial relationships and financial capability they possess, the Large Ones ought to have an enormous edge over Canadian schnauzer breeders in creating editorially compelling and commercially successful online content. But they are failing, because they try to confine their new media ventures to the tightly edited and carefully modulated conventions of their existing brands.
Right. So where does that leave all of us? With two big lessons, I think. One is that you can't depend on someone making your business happen, and that especially includes Major Media. I can attest to several times having a post on my BizBlast blog ending up being references via Sphere on the Wall Street Journal's site - and getting, oh, three readers from it.

The other lesson is that if you do something smart and entertaining and work to get how things happen on the web, you could become one of the Small Dead Animals, which apparently isn't such a bad thing.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Time for Online?

When trying to understand publishers and where they're going, it always makes sense to watch the usual business leaders - like Time Inc. It's not necessarily the most cutting-edge or experimental, but the organization is one of the most prestigious in the industry, and others look when it moves.

So it's interesting to see a couple of items about the company's commitment to online publishing. About a week ago, Gawker reported that Time Magazine was "shoving its reluctant writers online." As managing editor Rick Stengel wrote in a memo:
I suspect that some of you regard writing for TIME.com as an obligation, and not what you came to TIME to do. But times have changed, and we have to change with them. If you care about what you do - and I know you do - then you need to display your talent, your expertise, and your dedication online as well as in the magazine. That goes for editors as well as writers. Everyone should now have beats and areas of responsibility (Ratu has the list), and you should talk to Josh as well as your editors about what your contribution to TIME.com should be.
And now Advertising Age has an article about how 1.2 million subscribers to the company's publications are getting emails pointing them to People's first digi-mag - a 30 page magazine/website hybrid found only online with an animated cover. The print version of People (notice how we adjust our language almost unconsciously to address the changing circumstances) will also promote the site.

The online world is already business as usual, but emphasis will continuously shift there. Now is not the time to bemoan print magazines folding or how the world is changing. Yes, it is - and it always does. Now is the time to position yourself to become an expert at online work. If you asked most writers now, I'd wager that they'd say it's just a matter of writing.

That will change. You'll see a growing push for additional skills that make the lives of the publishers easier. At least some degree of HTML coding. Knowledge of popular web software. These and others will become what business calls barriers to entry. Then there will be the additional skills - multimedia, use of specialty programming languages, comfort with databases - that will be the additional value making some people worth paying more than others.

So how are your skills?

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Better Way to Web Pay Writers Say

The Writers Guild of America, both the East and West divisions, are the major professional organizations for those who write movie and television scripts. And the entire organization is pushing for writers to get a cut of what the studios will be making online, according to an LA Times story.

The studios are calling the stance an attack on the entire business and further demanding that the industry revisit how it allots residuals - the money paid for reruns and reuse of same movies and TV shows. They only want to start paying after a show breaks even.

Let's take this argument apart a bit. Here's something from the story:
Chief studio negotiator J. Nicholas Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, called the demands an "assault on the entire industry."

"We are committed to making a deal — one that is fair to both sides … one that is realistic, reasonable and respects our contributions and our business needs as well as theirs," he said.
So, is the negotiator tacitly admitting that a percentage is fair and only disagreeing with the amount? Or is he pulling what newspaper and magazine publishers still claim to writers: that there's no revenue to be had from the Internet? If that's the case, then obviously there should be no problem in offering a percentage of the nothing they get. If there is revenue, it's unreasonable for the the studios to divert everything into their own pockets.

As far as residuals, when does "break even" happen? Anyone who has watched chronicles of the business dealings in Hollywood knows that the answer is often never, after the accountants are through with such things as deducing the money that the studio would have made had it invested in something else instead. After all, not not only are there expenses from money the studios spent, but from what they didn't spend. And are these people suggesting that they get free air time, free engineering, free ... everything, until they decide that they've broken even? Tell you what, as we're only writers, let's make it simple to understand and leave the high finance out. If the studio heads want writers to forgo their share of these new revenue streams, that's fine - so long as the studio heads have their entire compensation cut equivalently. I'm sure that will work; I hear that climate change is going to bring a freak snowstorm to the ninth circle of hell.

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Newspapers Going Strong Online

If you write for newspapers and editors tell you that online is still a small thing for them, be wary. According to a Nielsen//NetRatings study for the Newspaper Association of America, a third of all active Internet users visited newspaper web sites in the first quarter of 2007. That's a 5.3% jump over the same time last year, and the average visitor spends more than 45 minutes there a month. That part may not sound big, but it's 11.5% longer than the same time last year. Notice this paragraph:
This report comes on the heels of NAA’s spring 2007 Newspaper Audience Database (NAdbase) report, research that analyzed the total audience (print readership and online usage) of the nation’s top 100 newspapers. NAdbase, released April 2, revealed that on average Newspaper Web sites have helped drive a 13.7 percent increase in total newspaper audience for 25- to 34-year-olds and a 9.2 percent increase for 18- to 24-year-olds (according to data from Scarborough Research).
Those demographics are big deals to advertisers, who are the ones ponying up the money to make the sites run, and supposedly represent unique visitors, even taking into account those who might show up both at home and at work. There's certainly an axe to grind for papers that want to remain relevant, but that's fine. When the editor says "We need the web," answer, "Yes, I've seen the figures - and I need to make a living."

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