How to Survive in Oz as an Academic Part 2. The Power Dynamics in American Publishing and How To Navigate Them as a Freelance Writer.

This post was revised on May 7, 2022.

Last week I wrote about the three different types of book reviews an academic needs to know about if they venture outside the field of academic publishing. This week I will be talking about how to publish articles as a freelance writer, for the same reasons that I talked about book reviews last week: institutions of higher education in the United States keep churning out more graduates and post-graduates than they can employ, and because of that more academics publish work in both mainstream media and academic publications. But mainstream media and academic publishing are not the same; this is as true for book reviews as it is for articles.

Freelance writer

Most of the articles you read in a magazine, either print or online, are written by freelancers. A freelancer is a person who is hired by a publication to write a specific text. Freelancers are independent contractors and not part of the staff.

Being a freelancer is fun and exciting, but it is also hard and nerve-wracking. As academics we are taught how to submit articles to scientific journals. It is part of what we do as scholars, especially if we are on the tenure track.

When we submit articles to scientific journals, we submit them as finished pieces. If the journal is peer reviewed, the editor sends our article to other scholars to recommend it for publishing, or they will recommend that the journal not publish our piece. This process can take months, sometimes even years. When the results come back, we are either told that our article will be published as is, it will be published after revisions, or it will be rejected. Either way, we are always told whether or not our article will be published. We are also told the reasons why our article is either accepted or rejected.

Not so in mainstream media. When you want to publish an article in mainstream media, you pitch an idea. The turn around time on your pitch is quick. If you are rejected you will not be told why. Sometimes you are ghosted. You will be paid for your efforts.

But just like academic publishing, mainstream media publishing is built on power dynamics. If you are not aware of them, when you go from academic publishing into mainstream media, it might feel as if you are going from the fire into the frying pan.

American publishing is based on two types of power dynamics. The first power dynamic is that American publishing is built by and for white heterosexual men. This is a fact regardless of whether you write for magazines or newspapers, or if you write books. Anyone who is not part of that group, or whose writing doesn’t pander to that group, needs to work harder to get to where they want to go.

The second type of power dynamic is between editors (and agents, if you write a book) and writers. There are of course exceptions, but on a systemic level, the attitude in publishing is that writers exist for the benefit of the editors, that is to say, a writer is dependent on the goodwill of an editor because without them the writer wouldn’t be a writer. An editor (and an agent) can dictate the terms of the working relationship between them and a writer, even if those terms are based on something as flimsy as pet peeves.

But at closer scrutiny, the reverse is true. A writer doesn’t have to be published to be a writer. All a writer needs to do is write. Meanwhile, editors (and agents) wouldn’t have their jobs without writers. Crucial to remember when you start pitching your work is that the power lies with you, even when someone else is trying to make you believe that it does not.

Here are steps you can take to exercise your power as a freelancer when you pitch your work for publication.

Identify Your Deal Breakers.
It might sound counterintuitive that the first step is to decide on what will break a deal rather than make a deal. But this is important, because by setting boundaries for what you accept and don’t accept in a business transaction, you enter into the negotiations on your own terms.

The first step towards identifying your deal breakers is to think about your writing goals. Why do you write? Why do you want to be published? What kind of writing do you want to do? Do you want to make money off your writing?

The answers to this type of questions will determine what your deal breakers are. The answers can be vague at first and crystallize as you start pitching and publishing, and that is okay. The answers, and the questions, might change over time, and that is okay too. Whenever I am in a situation where I need to decide on making or breaking a deal, I ask myself the question: Will this take me where I want to go? If the answer to that question is no, I don’t make the deal.

The Pitch.
Setting your writing goals and identifying your deal breakers will determine what kind of publications you will send your pitches to. Do your research before you pitch so that you don’t waste anyone’s time.

A pitch is the email you send to an editor where you propose your idea for the text you want to write for their publication. Some publications, especially those who publish essays, may want you to send in a finished piece, but most newspapers and magazines want you to send them a pitch.

A pitch consists of three parts. The first part is where you introduce your idea and get the editor hooked. The second part is where you explain to the editor why your idea is right for their publication. The third part is where you introduce yourself and include any links to previous work (bylines). If you don’t have any previously published bylines, this might seem like a Catch 22, but it’s not. Just like in any other kind of business, we work our way up. Now, if you want to pitch the New Yorker right off the bat, I’m not going to tell you not to do it. After all, that’s how Anthony Bourdain got discovered, right? But wait, wasn’t he a…? Yup.

Oh, and one more thing. Look at the publication’s masthead to find the name of the editor you need to contact. Sometimes it’s confusing as to who does what, and sometimes there is only a generic email address. You need to work your best guess here, or lead with the name of the publication, because a pitch that starts with “To Whoever It May Concern” or “Dear Editors” will go nowhere.

Contracts, Rights, and Fees.
So, you have identified your writing goals and your deal breakers, and you have sent out your pitch. You check your inbox and the editor likes your idea. Yay! This is when you need to make the tough decisions because this is when you need to talk about the messy stuff like contracts, copyright, and money. And remember: The power lies with you. As soon as you feel that something is off or you come up against one of your deal breakers: WALK AWAY. There is always another publication that will treat you better.

Before you send in any text to the editor, you need to agree on the following: payment, kill fee, and copyright. The payment is the fee you will be paid for your work. You negotiate this with the editor. Some publications don’t pay or pay minimally. If you are okay with this, you can continue the discussion. If you are not okay with this, WALK AWAY. The rule I go by is that I only work for free when I work for me. If you want me to work for you, you need to pay me. The kill fee is the fee paid if your article for some reason doesn’t make it to publication. Copyright is determined by the clauses in the contract.

Most of the time you will need to ask for the contract. The editor will say that they are surprised that you ask for one. This is not them necessarily playing games. Because of the power dynamic where writers are led to believe that they are the weaker party, few writers ask for contracts. When a publication says they will not send you a contract or they will not commit to an agreement in writing, even in an email: WALK AWAY.

Read through the contract. Contracts are important because regardless of whether an editor accepts a pitch from you, or if an editor reaches out with the intention of hiring you, they are commissioning work from you. Depending on what your contract says that work can be considered a work for hire, which means that your text, once published, does not belong to you.

The contract needs to contain clauses on who owns the work and who has the right to use it, where, how, and for how long. Most standard clauses say that the publication owns all rights in perpetuity throughout the universe in publication forms existing and not yet invented. If you are okay with that, sign the contract. If not, negotiate. Again, don’t be surprised if this catches the editor off guard; most writers don’t negotiate the contracts, and editors tend not to know the contents of their contracts at the top of their heads. If the editor doesn’t want to negotiate: WALK AWAY.

The contract also needs to contain how their payment to you will be made; what will happen if they don’t pay on time; and the kill fee if you don’t deliver or the publication decides they don’t want your work for whatever reason, which happens more often than you might think. If the publication does not pay you on time, you have the right to send them a reminder. Depending on what your contract says, you might be allowed to send a reminder and add a late fee. However, I know of writers who have been blacklisted by publications for doing this, so proceed with caution. Because you can’t trust when a payment will be made, make sure to have another more stable source of income until you are established enough to have money in the bank and a credit line that can take on added expenses.

When it comes to the fee you will be paid, you decide what is equitable for you, and don’t let anyone shame you for it. Fee shaming is a tactic used in publishing where better paid and more established writers shame less established writers for taking lower-paying writing jobs. Fee shaming is often used by white writers against writers of color as a tactic to push writers of color out of writer networking groups and publishing altogether. Fee shaming is classist and racist. It is gatekeeping and violence.

At the same time, don’t let an editor low ball you. As I said at the top, publishing is based on a power dynamic with white men on top. In second place are white women. This means, that if you are not white, the system is set up to discriminate against you. Because the power dynamic is also in favor of the editors, few writers discuss the fees they are paid. One good place to get an idea of how much different publications pay is the anonymous crowdsourced website Who Pays Writers.

Choose Your Battles.
When things get weird, we need to choose what battles to fight. Once you send in a text to an editor, you make yourself available for edits. And the editor will edit your text, whether you like it or not. That is part of the deal, and it is their job. The editor is a professional who works with texts all the time. The editor is the expert on what works for their publication. Some editors are very hands on; others make light changes; others make no changes at all. Either way, you need to be open for edits.

That is not to say that you need to accept all edits that are made. Here you need to go back to your deal breakers. If you accept the edits, will it change the meaning of your text? If yes, are you okay with that? If you are okay with that, go ahead and make the changes. If you are not okay with that, WALK AWAY. Again, these situations are why kill fees are important.

An editor I once worked with expressed surprise when I, in an article about the Viking Age, stated that white supremacist groups have appropriated viking culture. Here, I had a choice to make whether or not I should fight for this particular part of the text. Instead of making a big deal about it, I decided to delete that part. Why? Because the focus of the article was Viking Age women, not American white supremacy groups, and I had already published an article about that topic elsewhere. And even if I hadn’t already written about it, I knew I could pitch it as a second article to another publication.

You also need to remember that depending on the publication, you have limited say in your article’s headline and the images that illustrate your article.

Turning and Not Turning the Other Cheek
Editors can be the most wonderful people in the world, they can also be jerks, and some might even be racists. Because the power dynamics are set up in favor of the editors, the editor can kill your work at any time as they see fit (once again, this is why kill fees are important). If an editor treats you badly for whatever reason, always remain professional, even when they are not. If an editor puts you in a bad situation: WALK AWAY. If you decide to see the situation through, never pitch them again. If their behavior is particularly egregious and you feel safe to say that directly to the editor, speak up. If you want to spread the word about the behavior of a particular publication, do so in whatever way works best for you. Either way, it’s the editor and the publication that end up losing.

How to Be Hired Again
The easiest way to be hired again is not to roll over and accept everything the editor does to you. To be hired again, what matter the most is that you keep the word count and the deadline. The word count is set by the editor and is non-negotiable. The length of the texts is how a magazine or newspaper creates its own profile; flash prose, book reviews, essays, longreads, or longform reporting, to name a few.

The deadline is something you agree on together, but once set, you can’t break it unless under extreme circumstances. The times I have broken a deadline were when a hurricane destroyed my neighborhood and when a family member died. If you need to break a deadline, contact the editor and give them the heads up. Never put yourself in a situation where the editor needs to ask for the text.

Word counts and deadlines are crucial because each text that is published is part of a larger whole. If a text exceeds the word count or if a deadline is broken, there will be a domino effect that ripples through all aspects of either bringing an issue to print or updating the contents on the website.

And remember…
Each situation is a negotiation between you and the editor, and also between you and yourself. You will need to weigh your options at several points during the time you are working on a text with an editor. And after a while, you will find the editors who work well with you, and you will develop a relationship with them. But always remember that no matter what anyone will have you believe, the power lies with you.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

How Cleopatra Became a Canvas for Society’s Anxieties

One more article for The Week ends 2019 for me, a year that has been something of a roller coaster ride. This year I decided to become more serious about freelance writing, and these articles that I have been writing for The Week is the result of that decision.

Please enjoy this investigation into how and why Cleopatra continues to intrigue us more than 2,000 years after she died.

Happy New Year!

How Cleopatra Became a Canvas for Society’s Anxieties.

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Two-thousand years after her death, Cleopatra continues to enthrall us. Earlier this year, the British tabloid The Daily Star reported that a new movie about this last Pharaoh of Egypt was in the works. According to an anonymous source, the movie will be “a dirty, bloody, political thriller told from a feminist perspective,” as opposed to the movie Cleopatra of 1963 starring Elizabeth Taylor, which had been a historical epic.

Our fascination with Cleopatra endures because we know surprisingly little about her. And what we do know is based purely on speculation. This lack of information makes Cleopatra the perfect canvas onto which…

Please click here if you wish to read the entire article.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Hanya Yanagihara’s A LITTLE LIFE and the Perpetual Present-Day

A Little LifeHanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, is a wonderfully written, heart-wrenching novel about four friends—J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude—who form a life-long friendship while being roommates in college. More than 700 pages long, I finished the novel in less than five days, on more than one occasion staying up reading until three in the morning. While reading A Little Life, I found myself wondering during what time period the story is supposed to take place. The story has the feeling of a tale of the twenty-first century, but it follows the lives of J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude for approximately forty years. It is as if the story is suspended in some kind of perpetual present-day.

One of the reasons why I wanted to find out during what time period the novel takes place is because there are certain aspects of Willem’s Scandinavian heritage that puzzle me. To be able to understand what Yanagihara might have been thinking when creating his backstory I needed to know what year Willem was born. In trying to figure out his year of birth, I discovered that Yanagihara is a sophisticated manipulator of time, who has written a novel of speculative fiction in the guise of literary fiction.

Yanagihara creates the feeling of a perpetual present-day by not mentioning any years or dates. Moreover, she makes no mention of any political or cultural events that can help anchor the story in time. However, she does mention the birthdays of the four friends and what age they have reached at that particular time.

At first I assumed that the novel, like most novels of literary fiction that span several decades, ends at the point in time when Yanagihara stopped writing, presumably in 2013 or 2014. Towards the end of the book, we are told that J.B. is sixty-one years old. If the story ends in 2014, that would mean that J.B., Malcolm, and Willem were born in 1953 and Jude, who is two years younger, was born in 1955.

But that doesn’t make sense when reading the novel. The friendships formed and the relationships entered into could only happen in the twenty-first century. Moreover, throughout the story, there are references to e-mails, cell phones, text messages, and digital photos.

What is going on?

The clue can be found in a brief mention of an art exhibit at the very beginning of the novel. The art exhibit consists of dioramas depicting Asians in America during each decade from the 1890s until the present-day. Through J.B., Yanagihara tells us that the artist has already completed the diorama for the two-thousands, i.e. the decade that lasted between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2009. From this brief mention, we can conclude that A Little Life does not end in 2014; it is more likely that it begins in 2014.

Through Malcolm, Yanagihara lets us know that at the time of the art exhibit, he is twenty-seven years old. Consequently, J.B. and Willem are also twenty-seven years old while Jude is twenty-five. If the novel indeed begins in 2014, this would mean that our friends were born in 1987 and 1989, respectively.

Therefore, if the four men were born in 1987 and 1989, and J.B. at the end of the novel is sixty-one years old, the story told in A Little Life in actual fact ends in the year 2048. The story of the friendship between J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude takes place entirely in the future.

Stories about the future is considered to belong to the realm of science fiction, where technological advances has transformed the world into something very different from the one in which we live today.

Personally, I believe that Yanagihara’s vision of our future is a more accurate prediction of what is to come. Our little lives take place in a perpetual present-day which does not change much over the decades. Yes, forty years ago we didn’t have the internet and today, one single smart phone is a more powerful machine than all the computers that brought us to the moon combined. But forty years into the future we will still live in houses, drive cars, and speak on the phone. We will still find love and make friends. And we will still read fantastic novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Fresh Off the Boat Put in Context. Asian American Representation on American Network Television, 1965–2015

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[This post was edited on March 1, 2015.]

As the first TV show with an Asian American main cast in over two decades, much is at stake for ABC’s sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. So much so that before the pilot had even aired, the show was described as “historic.” The reason for this description is the fact that because of the lack of Asian American characters, regardless of being in leading or supporting roles, the success of Fresh Off the Boat will potentially determine Asian American network representation for years to come.

As an historian I take an interest in the description of Fresh Off the Boat as “historic.” Whenever something is described as “historic,” my initial reaction is to object to the use of that word. Looking to the past to make predictions about the future goes against everything that historical research is about. The only way we can say anything about the significance of an event is by relating the event in question to other similar events that have already taken place. In other words, the way to determine the significance of Fresh Off the Boat from an historical perspective is to contextualize it within a discussion on how minorities in general, and Asian Americans in particular, have been represented on scripted network television shows over the years.

In the following discussion, I will focus on scripted TV shows with a diverse main cast broadcast by the three major networks of American television, i.e. NBC, CBS, and ABC. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, these three networks are the oldest of all the TV networks available to the American public today. Therefore, they provide a time span long enough for performing an historical analysis. Secondly, these three networks reach the most viewers on a daily basis. With the exception of AMC’s The Walking Dead, the most watched shows on American television are broadcast on these three networks.

Some of the TV shows mentioned below are problematic in how they portray the minorities they set out to represent. My discussing these TV shows does not mean I endorse these portrayals in any way.

NBC
NBC was founded in 1926 as a radio network. In 1939, NBC expanded into television. On February 18, 2015 I completed a survey of the shows stated as current on nbc.com. Of these shows, one had a diverse main cast—Saturday Night Live. In the past, NBC has been the home of several iconic diversely cast TV shows, e.g. I Spy (1965–1968), Star Trek (1966–1969), Sanford and Son (1972–1977), Diff’rent Strokes (1978–1986), The Cosby Show (1984–1992), A Different World (1987–1993), The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990–1996), and Community (2009–2014). Several of these shows had an African American main cast. As far as I have been able to determine within the scope of this investigation, NBC has never broadcast a TV show with an Asian American main cast.

71ZBGKzqLXL._SL1058_CBS
In 1927, CBS began as a radio network and branched off into television in 1941. In the survey I did on February 18, 2015, of the current shows listed on cbs.com, I identified twelve shows with a diverse main cast. However, of these twelve shows only three had a person of color as the lead actor. Two of them were African American (Halle Berry in Extant and LL Cool J in NCIS: Los Angeles) and one of them was Asian American (Lucy Liu in Elementary). For the past few decades, CBS has been the home of several TV shows with a diverse main cast, e.g. Hawaii 5-0 (1968–1980), Good Times (1974–1979), The Jeffersons (1975–85), and Martial Law (1998–2000). Good Times and The Jeffersons had an all African American main cast and Martial Law had an Asian American leading actor. Meanwhile, Hawaii 5-0, both in its original and its rebooted (2010– ) form, stars a diverse main cast that include Asian Americans.

ABC
Youngest of the three major networks, ABC launched as a radio network in 1943 and went into television in 1948. In the February 18, 2015 survey of abc.com, I identified thirteen shows listed as current and with a diverse cast. Of these thirteen, nine had one or more persons of color as lead actors (Blackish, Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat, Galavant, How to Get Away with Murder, Agents of SHIELD, Modern Family, Scandal, and Selfie). Moreover, three of these nine shows had a main cast consisting only of persons of color (Blackish, Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat). Over the years, ABC has had several TV shows with a diverse cast. Unlike NBC and CBS, these shows have predominantly been cast with Asian American actors, e.g. The Green Hornet (1966–1967), Barney Miller (1974–1982), Mr T. & Tina (1976), Gung Ho (1986–1987), All-American Girl (1994–1995), and Lost (2004–2010).

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Three conclusions can be drawn from the survey done on NBC, CBS, and ABC. First of all, NBC seems to have relinquished its role entirely as a network where diversely cast TV shows can find a home. Instead, ABC seems to be carrying the torch at present. Second, the diversely cast shows on NBC and CBS were predominantly African American. In the case of NBC, the number of African American shows does not seem to be because of a network policy, but rather because of the network’s collaboration with Norman Lear and Bill Cosby, respectively. After NBC and CBS stopped producing shows with all African American casts, the number of persons of color in supporting roles seems to have increased. The number of leading roles for persons of color has not. At present, the diversely cast shows on ABC represent several minorities, both as leading actors and as supporting actors. On the other hand, in the past, ABC seems not to have produced any African American TV shows of lasting significance. Third, the absolute majority of all known TV shows starring Asian Americans as leading actors have been produced by ABC.

Where does this leave Fresh Off the Boat? If you put Fresh Off the Boat into a network television context in general, the show is indeed something of a rarity. Asian Americans as a group are poorly represented on television. However, put Fresh Off the Boat into the context of ABC over the past fifty years and it becomes the network’s latest attempt in representing the Asian American community.

Several of these previous attempts by ABC to represent Asian Americans have been failures. The characters were played according to stereotypes and as a consequence the ratings suffered which resulted in early cancellations. However, with 6.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating in its third week, Fresh Off the Boat could very well be the show that will survive.

Bearing in mind that the last TV show with an Asian American cast aired in the mid-1990s, Fresh Off the Boat being broadcast on one of the biggest networks in the United States is of great significance. However, only time will tell if the show will turn out to be historic.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

 

Happy First Anniversary, The Boomerang!

On June 5, 2013, I published the first post on my new and first-ever blog, The Boomerang. The post was a short but sweet thought-piece about Rihanna’s album Rated R, the songs of which have spawned several science fiction stories revolving around a recurring group of characters. Hopefully, you will soon be able to read these stories in some kind of publication near you.

The Boomerang got its name from a catch phrase used by a Swedish comedy team in the 1990s. Each episode ended with the host sitting in an armchair, holding a boomerang. He said, “In the words of my friend, the Australian, I will be back.” I have taken that catch phrase, changed it slightly to not sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, and made it my sign off phrase after each blog post I publish.

I chose the name and the catch phrase because I love these comedians and because my blog was intended to be a place to where I could return to express my thoughts.

So, how has The Boomerang been doing during its first year?
Here are some stats that might be of interest.

Number of views June 2013: 131.
Number of views May 2014: 708.

The Boomerang experienced a spike in views when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, separating the region from Ukraine, and information on the history of the region was scarce. I was happy to see that The Boomerang could fill a part of that void.

Over the course of this first year, these are the three most popular posts on The Boomerang.
Most popular post: HG Wells The Time Machine and the Issue of Race.
Second most popular post: Iron Maiden and the Crimean War.
Third most popular post: Five Reasons You Should Go to Mississippi.

I started The Boomerang as a place where I could find my voice as an historian and as a writer. I am grateful to all of you who have decided to give me and my posts a piece of your time and your thoughts.

I am looking forward to a second year with The Boomerang.
I hope you will join me.

In the word’s of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.