Professional screenwriter John August’s weblog covers pretty much everything a would-be screenwriter needs to know.
Professional screenwriter John August’s weblog covers pretty much everything a would-be screenwriter needs to know.
The Guardian’s Bad Science Awards give a well-deserved kicking to some of the charlatans, snake oil salesmen and clueless hacks who fill page after page of our newspapers with health news that’s wrong in many cases and completely invented in others. But it also raises a serious point: journalists are bad for your health.
There are exceptions, of course – the Guardian’s Ben Goldacre, for example, does a wonderful job of skewering health hackery in the aforementioned Bad Science column; some of the health correspondents for the more serious newspapers are incredibly knowledgeable – but in many cases, the people who write health stories and features for newspapers and consumer magazines have qualifications in writing, not in medicine. That’s why every day or so there’s a “cure” for cancer, and why every drug is a “miracle drug”.
Incidentally when I mention a product or health issue here, it’s not from a position of knowledge: I’m as clueless as, well, a youngish hack on a newspaper writing a story about the latest health fad, desperately trying to write 500 words on something they don’t really understand on a half-hour deadline.
Part of the problem, I’m sure, is that if you go to the doctor he or she won’t tell you what you want to hear. We don’t want to be told to change our diets or our lifestyles, to take more exercise or to cut down on the things that are bad for us; we want a quick fix, a miracle drug, a magic bullet. That such things rarely, if ever, exist doesn’t stop newspapers from levelling entire forests to bring us articles expounding the virtues of assorted quackeries.
Before his death, John Diamond began writing Snake Oil, a broadside against some of the quackery that’s printed without qualification in newspapers. He recalls a visit to the GP when he was suffering “one of the routine bouts of vague and minor mental and physical distress which strike most men as they slip out of young manhood”:
What I needed was somebody to tell me to stop working fifteen-hour days and playing twelve-hour nights; what I wanted the doctor to say was “Ah! Chronic Farnsbards Syndrome! Take this linctus twice a day for a week and you’ll feel better again.”
In many cases, newspapers do just that: Chronic Farnsbards Syndrome makes a better story than “stop overdoing it, you silly sod”.
The list of examples is depressingly long. Faddy diet after faddy diet, alternative treatments that are presented as cast-iron cures when the evidence for their efficacy is questionable at best and entirely absent at worst, “breakthrough” after “breakthrough”. Soon afterwards, the backlash. For example, Goldacre writes:
The Daily Mail… made big meat of a scientific study proving that the Atkins diet worked. The study, which only lasted six months, showed that the Atkins group lost just 4% more weight than the control group. A month later the paper turned on the Atkins diet as a result of a passing comment from an expert who had worked for the carbohydrate-peddling Flour Marketing Board.
Do you remember the Zyban hype, and the Zyban scares? They’re fairly typical of how tabloid and middle-market newspapers report health stories.
First, the hype: a new miracle drug stops people smoking, by removing the desire to smoke. It’s amazingly effective! It’s the drug everyone who’s tried and failed to stop smoking has been waiting for! Hallelujah! Look at all of these case studies! Zyban changed their lives!
Such claims were largely lifted from press releases – and when Zyban was made available on the NHS, GPs were inundated. But as GPs tried to explain to their patients, Zyban wasn’t a miracle cure: its success rate was one in three – still double that of nicotine replacement therapy, but hardly miraculous – and for it to be effective, you also needed to take part in counselling sessions. There was also a serious risk of side-effects: where most drugs have side effects that affect 1 in 1,000,000 people, Zyban’s side-effects seemed to affect 1 in 1,000.
(I have first-hand knowledge of this: I took Zyban and it plunged me into the worst depression I’ve ever experienced.)
Soon afterwards, the backlash came. Zyban is dangerous! It’s killing people! It’s plunging Scottish hacks into severe depression! It doesn’t stop everyone from smoking!
True enough, some people did die while taking Zyban – by 2001, the toll was 18 people out of the 1,000,000 Brits taking the drug. Most of those deaths were unlikely to be connected to Zyban – people whose doctors urge them to stop smoking because of serious heart disease or other severe health problems, people with underlying and undiagnosed health problems and so on – and people also die while taking nicotine replacement therapy, or going cold turkey, or while merrily puffing away on a cigarette, or while living a virtuous, smoke-free life.
The truth about Zyban is that it’s neither a miracle cure nor a tool of the grim reaper: it’s a drug that in the right circumstances and with the right support and attitude, can improve someone’s chances of stopping smoking; its side effects can be nasty, and it should be prescribed with caution. But “new drug slightly improves your chances of binning the cigs, but you’ll still need determination and willpower; it isn’t suitable for everybody and you really need to talk to your GP about it” doesn’t make a good headline.
You can see the same trends in other health stories: the Atkins diet, MMR jabs, cosmetic or eye surgery, miracle homeopathic treatments, magic drugs that shift weight, improve your skin and make your hair glossy, and so on. The hype is usually based on press releases and the excitable claims of people with something to promote – self-appointed health gurus, pharmaceutical companies, beauty firms – and the backlash is the inevitable result of the products, services or treatments failing to live up to the ridiculous claims parroted from the original press release, or made by a well-meaning but clueless “expert”. Most of these stories are flatly contradicted soon afterwards: coffee kills you, coffee is good for you, no, coffee kills you, oops, we meant it’s good for you… and so on.
In many cases the problem is that the writer doesn’t understand what he or she is reading. Goldacre again:
The Daily Express [declared] in September that “recent research” has shown turmeric to be “highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially of the prostate” on the basis of laboratory studies into the effects of a chemical extract on individual cells in dishes, and no (zero) trials in humans.
One of the most worrying developments is the way in which information about alternative treatments is often presented. If that information you’re given is wrong, it could kill you. As Goldacre explains:
Ah, Susan Clark of the Sunday Times (What’s the Alternative?), how I love her. This time she’s giving advice about which natural substances are safe to take with warfarin. First, she bemoans the dearth of research on the subject. Then she ignores the useful stuff in what we do know. “As a simple guideline, patients who are taking warfarin should avoid any natural remedies that have an action on the cardiovascular system.” I have no idea where that idea came from: but warfarin is famous for being interfered with by other drugs. St John’s Wort, for example, is a very popular drug – herb, collection of drugs in a plant, whatever – that reduces the plasma concentration of warfarin, along with phenytoin and rifampicin: that’s not because they’re active on the cardiovascular system, that’s probably because they interfere with liver enzymes, which means it makes them work harder. Those enzymes also break down warfarin, so if they’re working harder, they break down the warfarin more too, so there’s less of it around in your blood, and you’re more likely to have another nasty clot and die. Likewise, ginseng reduces the plasma levels of warfarin, so they shouldn’t be mixed either. And lots of others.
This is serious. He continues:
In a recent study, 2,600 patients on warfarin were sent a questionnaire on what alternative therapies they took: 1,360 responded (believe me, that’s a high response rate) and a whole 19.2% of those responders were, it turned out, taking one or more complementary therapies. Ninety-two per cent of them hadn’t thought to mention this to their doctor. Only 28.3% of all respondents had even thought that herbal medicines could interfere with prescription drugs. Because hardly anybody’s telling them.
That doesn’t mean that all of the claims made by alternative health “experts” are without merit; the problem is the way in which they’re reported. As Diamond points out:
Alternative medicine in Britain is a business with a turnover of billions of pounds and an establishment all of its own, a business which gets regular and often uncritical coverage in most of our popular papers and magazines, which regularly makes – or allows to be made on its behalf – remarkable claims for its abilities, which are often untested, let alone proven, which has no independent body monitoring its activities and which from time to time kills its customers as a direct result of the advice or actions of its practitioners.
Of course, traditional medicine often kills its customers too – and not just when your GP is Harold Shipman. But to become a GP or a hospital consultant you need to undergo years of intensive study followed by a tough apprenticeship, and you need to stay on top of developments in medicine.
A quick quiz for you. You’re ill – who do you ask for advice?
(a) a qualified medical professional who spends all day every day dealing with health issues
(b) a journalism graduate whose last assignment was comparing lipsticks
(c) a self-appointed health guru with a mail-order PhD
(d) Big Dave down the pub
I’m a simple soul: if my car’s knackered I call a mechanic, if the central heating packs up I’ll call a plumber, and if I want advice on interviewing techniques, subheadings or newspaper style I’ll ask a journalist. But if I’m sick, I’ll go to the doctor.
One of my favourite South Park episodes features the Underpant Gnomes, who have a plan for world domination:
Step 1: collect underpants
Step 2: ?
Step 3: profit
I’m reminded of them any time I browse the various journalism jobs sites, where you’ll invariably spot jobs that aren’t jobs, all of which have been posted by the internet equivalent of the Underpant Gnomes.
Jobs that aren’t jobs? Underpant gnomes?
A job is something you do for money. Jobs that aren’t jobs are those job listings that look like job ads, read like job ads, have the same requirements as job ads, but have one key difference from job ads: there’s no cash involved. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Instead, you’ll be offered “exposure” and, if you’re lucky, an unspecified share of the unspecified profits that will result from an unspecified level of success at an unspecified point of time.
This, then, is what they’re offering would-be writers:
Step 1: write stuff for us
Step 2: ?
Step 3: profit
And this is their business plan:
Step 1: get people to write stuff
Step 2: ?
Step 3: profit
As I said, they’re underpant gnomes. But the explosion of blogging has given them a new lease of life, and the same old ads are starting to reappear – but this time they’re headed “bloggers wanted” rather than “writers wanted”.
The reason for the resurgence in such adverts is that the people behind them have looked at weblogs and thought “hey! People write for free! That means they’ll write for free, for me!”
What amazes me about the write-for-free crowd is that their ads wouldn’t be acceptable in any other industry. For example, some people like tinkering with cars. Can you imagine if a garage placed ads looking for mechanics, charged its customers for any work carried out, but expected the mechanics to work for free? Some people like doing DIY. Would a firm of painters and decorators hire new employees on the understanding that they wouldn’t get a penny for their efforts (Work experience aside)? Yet when it comes to writing, there’s this assumption that businessmen and women – which is what the people behind these ads believe themselves to be – should pay for every aspect of their business except for the important bit: their site content.
Think I’m exaggerating? I saw one ad a few weeks back (can’t remember the URL, sorry) looking for bloggers, whose content would be syndicated across 17 different web sites. The pay? Zero. The promise? Exposure. The employer? A large chain of local newspapers – that is, a perfectly profitable business that pays its existing writers, but expects people to provide its online content for free. Meanwhile the firm will sell ad space on its sites, and the blogs would drive traffic to those advertisers – and the bloggers wouldn’t get a single penny. You can bet that the firm asked its existing writers first, and those writers said “sure, at the usual rates” – so the newspaper publisher thought “aha! Bloggers!” Is it me, or is that taking the piss?
Journalists have some experience of this – and we’re pretty good at spotting the scams. For example, about a year ago I was approached by a music site who wanted to re-run an article I’d already stuck on the web. We talked for a bit and it turned out the site was strictly non-profit, designed as a resource for musicians. Great, I said. Go ahead, reprint away. And then a month later I visited the site and discovered that my article was being used to sell advertising, the profits of which were being kept by the site owners. Underpant gnomes. Cue some very irate emails and the article being removed from the site (it’s still online, ad-free, on my own music site). Writing for free? Sure. Writing for free so that someone else can make money from my work? No chance.
It’s important to point out that the internet underpant gnomes aren’t hobbyists, or charities. They’re people who have decided that there’s gold in them thar interwebs, and that the way to get that gold is to get lots of people to provide content for nothing. That’s the online equivalent of opening a shop and expecting Nike or Armani to give you all your stock for nothing, with no cut of any sales.
Of course, bloggers write for free – but free of charge doesn’t mean free from benefits. You might run an amazon wish list, or google ads. You might blog because you want to flex your writing muscles, or because you’re obsessed with a particular firm, film star or technology, or because you’ve found that blogging is a much easier way of communicating than posting on spam-filled newsgroups or avoiding flame wars on messageboards. Or you might blog because you’re a journalist who wants to mouth off about any old crap (raises hand). There are almost as many reasons for blogging as there are bloggers, and they’re all valid.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t blog for others at all. For example, like-minded bloggers could and do get together to create multi-author blogs for no financial reward, and that’s great. However, far too many of the “writers wanted” (and now, “bloggers wanted”) ads are something very different: someone that intends to set up a business and wants people to help them do that for nothing.
In most cases those “businesses” are doomed from the start: let’s start a gadget weblog! Yeah, that’s a great idea, because Engadget and Gizmodo don’t exist. Let’s start a Republican blog! Aye, because there aren’t any of them on the web. A music weblog! Yeah, that’ll sell lots of ads. In most cases these sites will disappear in a fairly short time without generating a single penny, and the time and effort you’ve put into such sites would have been much better spent on your own weblog. If you’re not being paid, any benefits that derive from your writing should go to you.
Influential blogger Jason Kottke has run into a spot of legal trouble with Sony after he blogged about the TV show jeopardy, and the situation has exposed one of the biggest differences between blogs and Big Media: newspapers and magazines have legal teams and big pockets, and bloggers don’t.
Inevitably, as blogs become more influential they attract the attention of lawyers, and it’s very important to know the law to make sure you don’t get into trouble. For UK bloggers, there are three key things you need to watch out for: copyright, malicious falsehood and libel. These things are drummed into every trainee journalist from day one, and as the lines between blogging and “proper” publishing continue to blur, bloggers should pay attention to them too.
Libel is the biggie. Put simply, libel – often described as “defamation” – is when you write something that’s provably false, and which damages someone’s reputation. Such cases are open to interpretation, and because libel cases are so expensive they are often seen – rightly, in my view – as a way for rich and powerful people to suppress legitimate criticism. Robert Maxwell was a big fan of libel cases, and won countless cases against journalists; after his death it emerged that most of the supposed libels were in fact true.
It’s important to note here that you don’t need to be the person who started the libel: under UK law, repeating the libel is enough to land you in hot water. There have been a number of cases where sites have been held responsible for their users’ posts on message boards, and they have set the precedent that the site owner is the publisher – which means it’s the site owner who gets sued. In the case of a blog, that means you.
It’s also important to note that it doesn’t matter where your site is actually located. Successful legal action has been brought against site owners in the UK and Australian courts over material posted elsewhere, on the grounds that while the material may have been on a US server, it was available to readers in the UK or Australia and therefore still damaged the person’s reputation in those countries.
(Incidentally, libel and slander are often confused. Slander is verbal, libel is written.)
Copyright is a fairly common one, and the main thing to watch is content that encourages others to infringe copyright – such as links to illegal software downloads, or files that break copy protection. If you’re unlucky enough to catch the attention of a firm with deep pockets, the penalties for copyright infringement can be severe.
Malicious falsehood is similar to libel, but works in a slightly different way. It applies when a false statement is published maliciously and causes (or is likely to cause) financial loss. So for example if you say a firm has gone out of business but it hasn’t, then that is potentially a malicious falsehood: it isn’t defamatory – you’re not suggesting that the firm’s boss eats babies or has sex with Saddam Hussein – but it’s a false statement that could cause the firm financial harm.
David Price has an excellent guide to this stuff here. If you’re writing controversial content on your blog, it’s worth reading up on media law. The last thing you want is a lawsuit.
More proof that the Chancellor hates self-employed people: The Times reports that the Treasury wants to dramatically increase the amount of tax paid by people who dump well-paid jobs for less lucrative, home-based jobs.
The Times notes that self-employed people pay National Insurance at 8% instead of the 11% paid by full-time employees, and suggests:
Ministers’ particular aversion to “lifestyle” businesses is the lack of contribution they make to the economy: in general they are run from home, with no employees and the owners often have no ambitions to grow them into large companies. There are an estimated 500,000 such businesses in Britain.
I’m sure that many of the people reading this will think “well, it’s only fair that self-employed people pay the same amount of national insurance as employed people.” I’d disagree with that: if you’re an employee you get holiday and sick pay; self-employed people don’t. Your boss pays you on time; when you’re self-employed, that’s a rarity. Self-employed people pay more home insurance, pay higher car insurance, find it much more difficult to get finance, have to provide their own equipment (whether that’s a joiner’s tools or a writer’s computer), have to deal with a tax system that was designed by Beelzebub, can’t get benefit if their wage drops from £10,000 a year to £1,000 a year, etc etc etc. Financially any benefit from a lower national insurance rate is more than compensated for by the risks and costs of going it alone.
As the article notes:
John Whiting, a partner at accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, pointed out that while there are tax advantages for the self-employed over employees, they also receive fewer benefits and have to take more risks emotionally and financially than employed people. “All this seems to be forgotten,” Mr Whiting said.
I suspect that this move, like the recent rise in NI rates for everybody and the growing number of stealth taxes, is motivated by a desire to increase the tax take without boosting the headline rate of income tax. Which is a bit rich when the government cheerfully flogs off the Inland Revenue’s buildings to a company based in a tax haven, and Murdoch’s News International doesn’t pay a penny in corporation tax thanks to some clever financial footwork. Compared to those activities, any lack of revenue from the self-employed sector is very small beer indeed.
Originally scribbled in July 2004; updated February 2005; updated again February 2006.
I know that a number of writers and editors visit this blog, and I’d really appreciate it if you could add your own tips or links in the comments section, whether anonymously or on the record. Thanks.
Largely because of this site, every week or so I’ll get an email asking for advice on breaking into journalism. I’m not sure how much help I can be – I’m hardly an expert – but I do my best to reply; when I was taking my first steps into writing, I was lucky enough to get lots of good advice from more established writers, and I’m forever in their debt. However, because I’m invariably in deadline hell and don’t usually have the time to write a long reply, I thought it would be sensible to stick some advice up on this site to save my aching hands.
What follows isn’t a how-to guide; it’s a collection of comments based on my own experiences and prejudices, listed in no particular order. Here goes…
Read these first
The late John Diamond wrote an excellent demolition job on those “so you want to be a writer?” correspondence courses, and it’s a must-read.
If you want to be a games or consumer technology writer, then I’d recommend “So you want to be a videogame journalist?” by the inimitable Stuart Campbell. Although Campbell’s article was written in 1997, the industry – and come to think of it, the money offered to writers – hasn’t changed much.
Should I quit my day job?
Not until you’ve got a steady stream of freelance work – and make sure you have six months’ money in the bank. Freelancing is a game of “feast or famine”, which means it’s very risky. Like any form of self-employment, if you’re going it alone then get some savings stored up, clear off your credit cards and build up your client portfolio before making the move.
Be aware, too, that unless you’re extremely lucky, freelance writing isn’t necessarily a licence to print money. Have a look at the NUJ’s handy Rate for the job site and you’ll see that in many cases, publications pay less than 10p per word. So if you’re doing music writing and get commissioned for a single 300-word review each month, you might have to cancel your order for an Aston Martin. In 2004, the NUJ reported that 50% of UK journalists earned less than £13,000 per year (the average UK wage is double that).
There’s also the problem of late payment. Go to any journalist forum and you’ll see endless tales of companies that took up to a year to pay their writers, or publications that went bust owing writers thousands of pounds. When you’re a freelance, the only time you can be sure you’re going to get paid is when the money has actually cleared in your bank account.
Most importantly of all, you need to learn about tax. The UK self-assessment tax system is the work of Beelzebub, but you have to endure it. If you muck up your tax then you’ll enter a world of pain and hurt, so if you’re not sure what you’re doing then get a good accountant to do the dull stuff for you.
Should I study?
If you want to work in newspapers or corporate journalism (or get work experience on a magazine) then a formal journalism qualification will be a big help. However, for freelancing qualifications are utterly irrelevant: in six years of writing, I’ve never been asked whether I have a degree (for the record the answer is “no” – I left school at 16). I know dozens of journalists and I can’t think of a single one who actually studied journalism.
Will editors laugh at me if I don’t have any published work?
Not necessarily. That said, unless you want to take the risk of writing on spec – which means you do all the work with no guarantee that it’ll ever end up in print – then you’ll need to prove that you can actually write. There are various ways to do that: you could write for fanzines or special interest Web sites, you could have a weblog (but not one of the “got up this morning, felt depressed, why oh why oh why is the world so unfair?” type), or you could self-publish by writing some articles and putting them up on your own site. The downside to each of those methods is that you’re writing for free, which is never a good thing, but if you’re doing it purely to build up some decent samples of your work then it’s a sacrifice that may be worth making.
What should I write about?
What do you know about? If you’re a specialist in something fairly unusual you’ll probably find it easier to get work in big quantities than if you’re chasing the same work as everyone else. The trick to journalism is to find a niche: Jeremy Clarkson gets work because he’s pitched himself as a stereotype: right-wing, sexist, anti-environment and so on. You’ll find that most successful working journalists do something similar: they get work because they have a unique way of looking at things, because they do something a bit different or because they’re an expert in a niche market.
Research is essential. If you’re not familiar with the magazine you’re approaching, your pitch is probably doomed. There’s a huge difference between newspapers and magazines, or between magazines in the same genre: for example .net is quite irreverent, while PC Plus is more serious; FHM is laddish, GQ is more aspirational, and so on. If you don’t know the personality of the title you’re approaching, you’re wasting your time. And if you pitch a story that was last month’s cover feature, expect to be ignored at best and mocked at worst.
Get your hands on a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. It gives contact info for pretty much every magazine, newsletter and paper in the UK together with details of how to submit articles. However, use the Web too: contacts change over time, so the ed of X magazine today may not be the ed when you’re pitching a story. And of course, magazines go out of business. Current contact info is essential – and the *right* contact is even more important. For example in most magazines, it’s not the editor you need to approach: it’s the features editor or the reviews editor. You’ll find their details on the web, or in the mag’s “flannel panel” – the bit, usually near the letters page, where it lists the staff, contributors and contact address plus legal bumph.
Many magazines and newspapers have formal submissions policies, which you’ll usually find on their web sites. If such policies exist, you must read them; if you don’t, your pitch is likely to go straight in the bin.
Should I write for free?
If you’re working for a charity, absolutely. If you want to do a favour for a friend, sure. If the magazine can afford to pay writers but doesn’t want to, no.
There are all kinds of magazines and Web sites that say “we can’t afford to pay you, but we can give you exposure”. That’s nonsense: in the overwhelming majority of cases you get sod-all exposure from these things, and if they can’t afford to pay you then they’re obviously not doing well enough to take seriously. And more to the point, you’ll find that the people who can’t afford to pay *you* can still afford to pay for web space, printing, salaries, coffee, train tickets, photography etc etc etc. It’s a con: because there are so many people willing to work for free, editors think they can get you to do a professional job for nothing or next to nothing. Avoid them, they’re scum.
The other “write for free” thing is the issue of spec writing, when you put together a story and try to sell it. Generally speaking that’s a bad idea, because you’re doing all the work and you’ve got no guarantee you’ll ever get paid for it. Much better to pitch the idea to a magazine and then write it if you get a commission, not least because every magazine has a different style so a spec article is unlikely to match that exactly.
Are there any nasties in the contracts?
Sometimes. The three things you need to watch out for are rights grabs, syndication and liability.
Rights grabs are about copyright. As a writer, you make your living from selling copyrights; when you sell a story you are essentially selling the publisher a package of rights. Those rights are typically First British Serial rights, which means the publisher can print your story in the UK.
In recent years, though, publishers have attempted to get more rights for their money, much to the chagrin of the National Union of Journalists. Without upping the fees, they attempt to get all rights, in all territories, in all media, forever. That means you get paid for UK publication, but the publisher can then publish your story in the US, in Europe, on the Internet, in a database, in a book… all without payment to you.
Many journalists believe that’s unfair, because the publisher is getting paid again and again: they get paid for the UK publication, then again for the European one, and again for the American one, and possibly by web site visitors, and book purchasers… why shouldn’t the writer get a share of that? And they’ve got a point: I know of some journalists who make a comfortable living writing fewer than 1,000 words a month, because they sell the same rough story to one publisher in the UK, one in France, one in the US and so on.
The NUJ suggests that rights grabs should be avoided at all costs, but you have to be realistic: in many sectors the choice is between taking on work with a rights grab attached, or not getting any work at all. It’s horrible, it’s unfair, but freelances have to eat and your bank manager doesn’t care about principles if they mean you can’t pay your mortgage. If you can’t afford not to sign a rights grab, at least try to get the rate hiked up to compensate.
[The subject of rights grabs is a touchy one for freelances. Typically freelances who make stacks of money and haven’t signed rights grabs are appalled at anyone who signs their copyrights away; but the freelances who don’t make stacks of money argue that if there’s a choice between no work and rights grab work, they’d rather work than starve. Ultimately the decision is yours, but it’s worth doing a Google on the subject so you know the pros and cons of accepting or refusing rights grabs.]
Syndication is in a similar area to rights grabs, and it’s when a publisher re-sells your work to another publisher. For example, you might write a story for X Magazine in the UK, and the publisher sells it to X Newspaper in the US. The publisher will get paid for that, and by rights you should get paid too.
If you’ve signed a rights grab, you may have lost any syndication rights – which means once again, the publisher gets paid but you don’t. However, even if you do have an agreement on syndication (such as a 50/50 split of the income between you and the publisher) you can still get your fingers burned. It’s possible for firms to syndicate on a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” basis, where the publisher gets free advertising instead of cash. Because no money is changing hands, the writer gets 50% of nothing. Unless your contract specifically addresses such issues, you’re stuffed.
The third problem – and to my mind, the most serious – is liability. Get this wrong and you could end up in serious trouble.
Liability defines who’s responsible if an article is wrong, and in most cases if the cock-up is yours, if you plagiarise someone else’s content or break some other law, then you’re the one who should face the consequences [although the publication can also be slammed for printing your mistake]. However, publishing can be more complex than that: your article might be rewritten or heavily edited before it hits print, and mistakes can creep in. You shouldn’t be held responsible for any mistakes that happen after you’ve handed in your copy, but I’ve seen – and been asked to sign – contracts that attempt to do just that.
For example, I was asked to write a very technical book for a very, very big book publisher. The contract essentially said:
When you submit your finished copy, we reserve the right to throw all of the text away and replace it with someone else’s words under your name. If we happen to libel someone, spark off war in the Middle East or make millions of people’s computers explode by sticking any old crap in the book, you accept full legal responsibility. We know it’s unfair to make you legally liable for other people’s cock-ups but hey! Do you want the work or not?
The publisher in question refused to budge on that clause, so I turned down the job (and cried like a baby – it would have been worth a fortune. Them’s the breaks).
And that’s all I can think of for now. I’ll no doubt revisit this post again soon…
Update, Feb 2006
If you’d like more advice, check out the Journobiz forums, a UK-based discussion group for freelances. There’s an entire section devoted to advice and support for student journalists and people starting out in freelancing, and the Journobiz members are a good bunch of people.
Update, July 2006
Not everyone agrees that writing for free is always a bad thing. Linda Jones has written an excellent article for IdeasFactory that shows the other side of the argument.