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.