Experienced freelance Susan Wallace appeals to the charitable side of feature editors out there, asking them to be good to those precious, hard-working freelances and not cheat on them
FAILED NEW YEAR resolution features have subsided, via Valentines, into Mothers’ Day pegs. As the Fairy Godmother of freelance feature writers, here’s mine — a 2006 wish list for the minority of our generally much-loved commissioning feature editors. With these top tips you too can achieve that sparkling, guilt-free, experienced freelances base you’ve always wanted.
1. WE’RE NOT ALL ONE-TRICK PONIES Some freelances have more to offer than that tough specialisation "real-life stories", which is all many of you seem to want us for these days — no juicy, regular slots to take the pressure off. Thus, we spend hours speaking to maybe half a dozen members of the public for every proposal we do, and sieve through many more first. Our commission success rate is about one in three proposals, when, entirely unsupported, we interview the bereaved, brokenhearted, bewitched, bothered and bewildered. The lucrative-living carrot dangles, but isn’t consistently realised — however jammy-looking the intermittent bottleneck cheque that’s getting signed off. Half of all UK journalists in general earn less than half the average national wage, according to the NUJ.
Freelances obviously forgo company benefits and perks, and they have sole trader and admin costs.
Until recently, I rented city-centre offices for 15 years. So think on when you next blank our beautiful emails.
2. DON’T BE DEVIOUS When a freelance with far-reaching creative flair or solid knowledge pitches to you in a commissioning role; play it straight. Integrity above deception — in spite of there being no copyright on ideas. Don’t pick brains then expand the ideas into an article or area of untapped material to milk yourself or pass off as your own talent to superiors.
3. DON’T BE GREEDY Understand freelance feature writers can’t offer a buy-one-get-one-free mentality with their products any more than any other business. Around one third of my income is re-sales. Be fair. "All rights"
contracts aren’t — on our pockets and reputations or the often-unsuspecting interviewees. I prefer to stay on this planet, when it comes to Planet Syndication… Fairy Godmother’s wand also wags at agreeing first British serial rights only with the freelance, then providing an interviewee’s contract — sometimes directly — stating the copyright is the publications and may appear elsewhere. Oh, really?
It’s also not nice to agree a fee for one word count when intending to expand it for a larger magazine spread or newspaper front page. Mentioning "promotion material" in magazine contracts when you mean "additional use of the full article in a national newspaper without paying, crediting or even telling the freelance journalist, and/or possibly the poor interviewee" is plain nasty. Meanie newspapers: cough up Newspaper Licensing Agency revenue (www.nla.co.uk) payments owed to qualifying freelances.
4. GRANT US PROFESSIONAL PRIDE Many seasoned freelances still jig when commissioned.
Some feel called and many do it for the love of it.
Much goes swimmingly and we appreciate opportunities. We look forward to a solo credit (for sometimes expensively solo sourcing, researching, persuading, legally, medically or otherwise verifying, interviewing and writing the feature, perhaps over weeks). Yet, there increasingly lurks a sub creature who also wants a byline for our story. We’re not talking Woodward and Bernstein Watergate collaboration here; this is somebody we’ve never even heard of.
The sub does not contact us, but makes the odd phone call to our interviewee, maybe not even that — before claiming joint, or all, the glory. No namemaking, prestigious, prize-winning journalism award on that one then. That is if the freelance can unwrangle the freelance article entry requirements and doesn’t feel too uncomfortable if the work has been routinely and sometimes unnecessarily slightly re-worded throughout — or worse, taken over having locked horns on subjective, simple word choice by a bullying feature editor suddenly acting as "superior", leading co-writer.
5. DON’T TAKE US FOR GRANTED Actors have Equity; lawyers, The Law Society; doctors, the BMA — so that others can’t dilute and diminish their profession. TV script writers are protected by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain‘s good practice agreements. "Casualisation of the marketplace for hacks" is one thing, free articles, citizen journalism, blogging and blanket requests for unpaid case-study research or other excessive, investigative pre-commissioning work is another.
Add to this F-list celebrities, academics/experts carving sideline media niches and wannabes caught up on some glossy, glamorous lifestyle fantasy — where will it all end? Is this a profession at all? For some, like me, this is the sole household income — not middle-class, pin money. We don’t even get sent on any of the glowing feedback letters on our work.
Have a heart.
6. DON’T ASK US TO SELL OURSELVES SHORT Please don’t ask us to supply our real-life or casestudy contacts for a mere fraction of the value of the written piece without actually ordering the feature.
Writing is the easy bit; finding the stories is the competitive lifeblood of our living. We’re feeding you as independent journalists, not PR or other journalists’ researchers: recognise our status. If we propose a high-profile first-person article based on our own experience, don’t pass us to your staff journalist to be "interviewed". If someone has years of good experience with similar publications, but not yours, don’t go all flaky. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Commission properly, or pass up.
7. SMILE FOR AUNTY When we go beyond the call of duty in sending additional freebie collects, (interviewees’ own photos), a cyber-cuddle thanks wouldn’t hurt. We don’t get paid any extra for doing that and photographs do have value. Before email, there was no pics expectation except for rare, inherently visual stories, and our writing was printed off and faxed, requiring manual inputting your end. For all today’s spoon-feeding, with our upgraded equipment and expensive training, some publications pay about the same or even less than a staggering 10 or 15 years ago. One publisher threatens to cut those dismal rates in half if we won’t sell "All rights". Many expect, or have just taken, free electronic use too. Please also see copyrightclassaction.com.
We’re assets, not the enemy to squeeze to death, and if we’re not left happy bunnies, you don’t get those much-prized first dibs. To score brownie points, be first, be fast, be accurate. Put the invoice "on the system" and get it "authorised" speedily — despite holidays, home working or staff sickness. I mean, nothing else stops dead!
8. FEED THE ANIMALS I’ve got some lovely memories of lunches with feature editors from national newspapers and various women’s magazines. This includes plush, white tablecloth-to-the-floor restaurants to canteens at The Guardian, Northcliffe House and IPC media. This makes the isolated freelance feel a member of the journalistic community. These days, some face-toface visits are met with suspicion rather than delight and mutually productive fun.
The one thing we all want in our incestuous, merry-go-round uncommunicative communication culture, feature editors and fairy elephant freelances alike, is a brilliant article for the readers and a better future. The reward for good work should be more work, preferably grief-free — and I’ll sprinkle some magic glitter over that!