20 February 2001
2,200 words

Syndicating your stories at Featurewell.com; CondeNet pays $1/word, 2 kinds of web sites "The Energizer Bunny of resales"

NEW YORK--David Wallis, a writer turned syndicator, recommended a remarketing strategy to help freelancers make a living in the world of the web.

Of course, if the web paid well, freelancers could make a living even without those strategies.

Of course, if the web was making money, they could pay freelancers well. But so far, it's a money sink, not a profit center.

"The problem with abysmal fees is an abysmal market," said Kerrin Griffith, Managing Editor, CondeNet, whose fees actually aren't that bad ($1 a word for writers, $25 to $50 an hour for editors).

Publications haven't figured out how to make money on the web, said Griffith, or in webspeak, there is no "business model." Magazine sites are "brand extensions" of the print publications. They're marketing expenses that don't generate revenue. The revenue streams -- venture capital and advertising -- have dried up. Surfers are used to getting content free, so you can't sell them subscriptions, except for the Wall Street Journal and pornography. So, she brainstormed, maybe a pornographic financial web site....

"There was a brief golden age for web writers," said Wallis, "when they could get decent money and worthless stock options." Print newspapers were having trouble luring people for $25,000 a year.

"If you don't like the rates on the web," said Wallis, "stay in print."

Wallis and Griffith spoke at a meeting of the Editorial Freelancers Association , "Getting Business (and Getting Paid Properly) from the Web," on 20 February 2001, at the EFA office on W. 23rd St. and 6th Ave., to a crowd of about 70 writers and editors, most of them from print, most of them moving online, many of them already wearing black. They explained and debated syndication, all-rights contracts, web writing style, email queries, and journalism job sites. Griffith profiled CondeNet.

Syndicating on the web

Wallis founded Featurewell.com , a kind of eBay for writers to post and sell stories to editors, mainly print, many international. Featurewell.com gets 40%, and the writer gets 60%, which is more generous than most syndicates. And they hold out for higher fees than most syndicates. So if Featurewell.com gets $500 for a story, the writer gets $300, "within 30 days of collection." He now has 270 writers, including a few stars like Jimmy Breslin and Christopher Hitchens. He basically sells second rights to stories that have already been published, and occasional killed stories, but "we discourage" unpublished stories. In 4 months they've sold $30,000 worth of stories (average $110 per writer) in 20 countries. Anyone can see the abstracts on the site, but only editors can register to read the full articles (though you may find the original article elsewhere with a search engine if you're curious). Of course, Wallis reminded everyone, you can't sell any rights if you've signed them all away to the first publisher.

(However, Featurewell.com doesn't have much demand for medical stories, Wallis said. They have a sprinkling of health and science stories, like "Where's the Golden Rice?" by Ronald Bailey , which is opinion rather than news.)

Featurewell.com pays writers "if we collect," said Wallis, "and so far it hasn't been a problem." But "if we don't get paid, you don't get paid," and he thought it was fair for the writer to share that much of the risk. And if they have to wait, you have to wait. Turnaround varies. Some publications pay in 20 days, but "there's this wonderful Irish paper," which is well edited and really appreciates the language, "but they pay in 5 months and there's nothing I can do to speed them along." Still, it's money you wouldn't get otherwise.

The Energizer Bunny of resales

Wallis got into syndicating because he was successful at marketing his own stories.

"I was getting 1/3 of my income from reselling abroad," said Wallis, whose credits include the New York Times and Wired.

"I interviewed Manuel Noriega in jail," said Wallis. "I sold that story 21 times and made over $21,000," he said. "I sold it for over a year. It was the Energizer Bunny of stories." Sometimes he changed it. One magazine asked him to turn it into a Q&A .

The contracts from publishers got worse and worse and worse," said Wallis, graciously excluding Conde Nast. That trend would put an end to resales. One publication wanted exclusive rights for 90 days, "throughout the universe," in that quaint legal phrase. Time Inc. wanted all rights.

From a writer's perspective, "Salon has been very unscrupulous" about syndication, said Wallis. Salon might syndicate a story with Universal Press Syndicate, which might sell it to a newspaper like the Vancouver Sun, for $100. The syndicator gets $50, and Salon will give the writer $12.50. (Some writers report that, after they wrote for the New York Times, the Times syndicate offered them 50% for republication, at their option.)

[Salon's business plan is included in their SEC 10Q filing ]

One of the most bizarre recent contracts is from Savoy, as reported by Cynthia Cotts in the Village Voice, which reduces the writer's fee by 25% for every week past deadline.

Wallis thought that "micropayments," where users would pay a small amount to read an article, could be a good model. "I could turn Featurewell into a subscription service." Most medical journals are on the web, accessible to print subscribers, and non-subscribers can download a PDF file or other electronic text for, typically, $16 an article, a concept Wallis embraced enthusiastically. Amazon.com is encouraging voluntary micropayments.

But it won't happen in the current environment. "I don't think we're anywhere near micropayments," said Griffith.

No electronic rights

"Every time you sign away your electronic rights, you're getting ripped off," said Wallis.

When you sign away your electronic rights, said Wallis, the magazine has a right to post it on their web site forever, and you get nothing for it. If you sign away all your syndication rights, they can sell it everywhere on the web, and you get nothing for it. Even if you sign over nonexclusive syndication rights, that devalues your story because they're selling it everywhere, and if you try to sell it, you have to compete with yourself, for as little as $2.

His competitors, Screaming Media [SEC S-1 filing ] and iSyndicate , "make deals with publishers like Rolling Stone," said Wallis. "They syndicate it and sell it to thousands of web sites." Suppose he writes an article for RollingStone.com about fishing. They sell it to fishing.com, salmon.com, trout.com, fishmonger.com, and e-fish.com, he said, making up names. "Sometimes they'll sell it for a few dollars, sometimes they'll give it away," because Rolling Stone's name is on it and they may get a few subscriptions out of it. If it's all over the web, you can't sell it again.

"I encourage writers to edit their contracts," said Wallis. "If they can."

"I'm not saying you should bargain with the New Yorker," said Wallis. But "if you're writing for a lesser-known magazine, where you have a little sway, cross out the part about syndication."

"They may still ignore it," said Wallis, and magazines often syndicate without telling the author, but then you'll have a case of copyright infringement (although it probably wouldn't be realistic to sue over it). He also recommended that you check your name periodically on the search engines to see what people are doing with your stories.

Griffith thought that "no electronic rights" went too far. She didn't think magazines would be willing to give up non-exclusive rights in perpetuity. Archiving it on the web forever is like archiving it in the library. Suppose a reader sees something on the web, goes back a few months later to find it again, she said. "It's lost." And your story is already over the web. On a popular site, it might get 5 million hits.

Walis retorted, when they sell it to thousands of web sites at $2 a shot, "it devalues the story."

Companion and destination sites

CondeNet is a separate company within Conde Nast Publications, Inc. Publishers have companion sites and destination sites.

Companion sites, said Griffith, are brand extensions of a magazine. The companion sites use "repurposed" material from the original magazine, created by the magazine's staff, and labeled as such. Companion sites reinforce the magazine, they are "the garnish," she said, "the cherry on top." They give the readers a place to interact with the magazine, a place to post letters, so original content may not be that important.

(The New Yorker now finally has a web site)

Destination sites are separate sites of their own, like epicurious.com, swoon.com, phys.com, concierge.com and style.com (all on Condenet.com ) said Griffith. Content for the destination sites is commissioned separately, and "never licensed" out to syndicates or other publications. Original content that comes in over the transom is "not frequently" bought.

CondeNet pays writers $1 a word, said Griffith, which is about as much as you get on the web, everyone agreed. (Although some financial sites pay as much as $2.)

CondeNet uses a lot staffers, freelancers and stringers, especially for travel, said Griffith. Editors who were brought up on a blue pencil have to make the transition to editing on screen. They use people for "QA and QT," for proofreading, checking links, making sure that the fonts and HTML codes are right. "There's lots of work for people like that," she said. Copy editors get $25-30 an hour, and substantive editors get $35-50 an hour, which is about as much as you could get in print, everyone agreed.

Writing for the web

Griffith started writing for the web in 1995, with a business card that said, "Purveyors of fine content since before they called it that."

Compared to writing for print, "you have to try very hard to hold someone's attention," said Griffith. The writing seems "less real." The language has to be "stronger and more direct and clear." The graphics have to be stronger.

But the fact-checking and researching isn't as good "across the board" on the Internet as in print, said Griffith.

"The web has lowered the standards of journalism," agreed Wallis. "There is no fact-checking on the web," he said. (Indeed, this story hasn't been fact-checked. What do you expect for free? You're welcome to fact-check it and send the corrections back to me.)

"A lot of writing on the web sucks," said Wallis. "It democratizes journalism. That's good and bad."

"Because the rates have been low," said Wallis, "it hasn't attracted the best people." Some of the best writing is on Slate , Salon and The Onion , he said, despite Salon's contract terms.

As for most of the writing on the web, "I would not call it content," said Wallis. "I would call it filler." He cited ads by his competitor iSyndicate, which showed their content as flypaper, with people stuck to the flypaper like little bugs. The message was that iSyndicate's content could make your web site more "sticky," as they say in webspeak.

The web writing market

For getting work, Wallis reminded people that most web sites have help-wanted pages, although they're mostly for full-time jobs. Mediabistro.com "is a strong site," with job listings among other offerings, and also Staffwriters.com , Journalismjobs.com , and the American Journalism Review Joblink .

The way to approach editors is now email, Griffith and Wallis agreed. Many editors don't like file attachments, for inconvenience or fear of viruses, so put it in the body of the email instead.

By a show of hands, about half a dozen of writers had gotten work on a web site by cold-calling.

A query letter should be "short and clever," said Wallis. Griffith likes to have a reference of someplace where you've worked before, that she can check, perhaps by email. If you have recent work on line, you can link to it. But check the url to make sure it's working. One editor who had been hiring writers for a web site said that in the query letters he got, "90% of the links had gone out of business."

At least now, when an editor wants to throw your resume and clips into the trash, "we can just drag it," said Griffith.

(For the Silicon Alley Daily story about the same meeting, see "The Bleak Future For Web Freelancers," Dakota Smith .

(I wrote an earlier story about an EFA meeting about the web )