Every freelance writer has a horror story -- or several. For Josh McHugh, a former contributing editor for Wired who now runs a digital agency, the worst experience came while working on a feature for [Inside] magazine. After several rounds of edits, countless drafts and days of reporting, his editor emailed him abruptly: The magazine was going under. Despite all his effort, McHugh never got paid for his work.
While freelance writing can be rewarding, offering flexibility that a traditional job does not, it also leaves one vulnerable to editors and publications that treat writers unfairly in any number of ways -- by failing to pay for completed work or delaying payment for months, by dragging the edit process along interminably, or failing to respond to emails in a timely manner, if at all. What’s worse, freelancers often operate in an information vacuum, not knowing which outlets pay and treat writers well.
“It’s a tough way to live, especially if you become accustomed to being on staff somewhere,” McHugh says. "And if something goes wrong, who are you going to appeal to as a freelancer?”
Other freelancers, believes investigative journalist Scott Carney. Seeing strength in numbers, Carney recently launched WordRates, a sort of “Yelp for freelance writers.” The site allows journalists to rate the publications -- as well as individual editors -- and see what various outlets pay for submissions. Carney sees WordRates as a market solution to a labor problem: In the same way that Yelp leverages information to reward and punish businesses depending on their service, WordRates seeks to direct the best writers to publications that will compensate and treat them well.
Carney says he was inspired to create WordRates after noticing that writer contracts seemed to get “worse and worse” every year. Among the changes Carney noticed were publishers wresting away valuable reprint rights from writers. After the movie “Argo,” partly inspired by an article in Wired, mega-publisher Condé Nast inserted a provision into its freelance contracts claiming future movie rights.
“They would take things away that I was making my living on,” Carney says. “I tried to think, ‘Is there a way to fight back against magazines that do this rights creep?’”
But WordRates’ mandate is broader than licensing rights, seeking to improve the way writers are treated and compensated, as well as bringing transparency to how much different magazines pay.
The product of a KickStarter campaign that raised $10,000, WordRates also features a “Pitch lab” where users can submit pitches and have outlets bid on them.
“The larger goal is to organize writers and encourage them to think about their careers as business decisions,” Carney says. “A lot of us think of ourselves as creative professionals -- truth-tellers -- but we also have to put food in our mouths.”
The site’s Pitch lab employs a market approach, operating like a stock exchange with publishers as bidders. WordRates shaves off a 15 percent commission from pitches that are accepted.
“Writers for some reason feel they have to only pitch one publication at a time,” Carney says. “We have to make magazines compete for us.”
McHugh, who is a registered member on WordRates, compared the online hub to a writers' group he joined in San Francisco, which he said made his freelance career “much easier and more rewarding.”
“Becoming part of that group was a huge advantage because you finally had multiple sources of information on where good editors were, which magazine paid well and on time,” he says. “Being on the outside -- being a sole, single freelancer -- was really frustrating.”
With 500 users registered on the site and several dozen reviews, WordRates is only ramping up. But it’s already becoming clear publications have endeared themselves to writers. High Country News, which covers the American West “keeps you from making a fool of yourself” and offers “solid” pay, says one writer. The editing process at Texas Monthly is “thorough,” says another.
It’s just as evident which outlets and editors have burned a bridge or two. The online editor at one men's magazine is described as "very unprofessional,” another at a general-interest magazine as “terrible at answering emails, reacting to pitches, reading drafts, or being responsive at all.”
However, the WordRates review system, which allows anonymous contributions, has the same shortcomings as Yelp -- where a disgruntled, unreasonable customer can wreak havoc on a small business. In the struggling publishing industry, many editors are overworked and find themselves unable to respond to the dozens of pitches they receive each day. Even a polite, curt response has the potential to rub a sensitive writer the wrong way.
“I think it's unfortunate that WordRates lets freelancers post reviews anonymously,” says one editor who received a poor review on the site. “Even Yelp doesn't allow that -- and having your story rejected stings at least as much as overpaying for a bad meal."
While a disgruntled writer or two have the potential to harm a publication or editor’s reputation unfairly, in the publishing ecosystem freelancers are far more often the ones losing out. WordRates offers the promise of tipping the information and power scale in their favor.
Digital Dive is a running series looking at the future of the media industry.