Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the category “magazines”

Larger Than Life

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In 2007 and 2008, I was the communications coordinator for harness racing at the Woodbine Entertainment Group in Toronto.  I was on the front lines of the upper echelons of the sport, attending some of the richest stakes races in North America, and it was through that lens that I got to witness a truly extraordinary equine athlete — an Ontario-bred pacing colt named Somebeachsomewhere.

If you have any sort of Standardbred background, the name (however unwieldy — it came from a country song, I’m told) needs no introduction.  If you don’t, let me put it in perspective for you:  this horse was harness racing’s answer to Secretariat.  Not just the horse of a generation, but of a lifetime — and owned by a small collective of car dealership owners and assorted friends from tiny Truro, Nova Scotia.  Gawd, it wrote itself.

I watched this colt burst on the scene in Ontario as a two-year-old, winning the Metro Pace like a tornado.  Even then, he was a bruiser, almost twice the size and bulk of his juvenile competitors, and his gait was effortless.  There was a sense of enormous power that just rippled off this horse. 

I watched him win the Pepsi North America Cup, then a $1.5 million dollar mile, the following June.  I interviewed his trainer and part-owner, Brent MacGrath, and his driver, Paul MacDonell, a couple of dozen times at least, and wrote about the horse almost weekly, either for WEG (which was riding the wave of his career with everything it could muster, given that Mohawk — WEG’s “summer” track just west of Toronto — was more-or-less Beach’s home oval) or for other publications like the Canadian Sportsman, Trot, or Hoof Beats, the US Trotting Association’s magazine.   

If you click on either of the links above, you’ll get a complete synopsis of the horse’s career.  (There was tons in the Sportsman, too, of course, but that archive, alas, is no longer with us.)  He lost only one race — the $1 million Meadowlands Pace — to Art Official, but the effort was so valiant that it only enhanced his reputation.  Towards the end of his three-year-old year, MacGrath sent Somebeachsomewhere to Kentucky to the Red Mile — renowned for being the fastest track in North America, if not the world — specifically to chase the world record.  Watch how effortlessly Beach paces a 1:46.4 mile to smash the record for three-year-old pacing colts and equal the world record for any horse of any age:

Now, a horse like this almost never gets to race beyond his three-year-old year.  He was simply too valuable to risk breaking down on the racetrack.  So off went Somebeachsomewhere to stand at stud in the United States.  Click on that link for stats and video of some of the more prominent of his progeny.  None have dominated the sport quite so completely as their sire, but many have been damned impressive (one son, Captaintreacherous, captured the 2013 NA Cup), and as far as we knew, the best was yet to come.

Unfortunately, the news came on Sunday, January 14th, that The Beach had been euthanized thanks to the discovery of large cell lymphoma in his intestine.  The stallion was 13, and there had been only a brief mention of health issues in the news prior to this, back in November.  To say his death was unexpected is an understatement.

The photos at the top of this post have never seen the light of day before … they’re shots I took of Beach and his trainer and biggest fan and promoter, Brent MacGrath, warming up on the track at Mohawk in the late afternoon, before the 2008 North America Cup.  Hard to believe that’s a three-year-old.  

Most years, one or two horses emerge in the ranks of three-year-old trotters and pacers to dominate to some degree.  But we’re not going to see the likes of Somebeachsomewhere again.  I’m grateful I got to be a small part of that ride, which I’ll always consider to be one of the highlights of my media career.

A few more photos I found in my archives, from spring, 2008.  The other colt with Somebeachsomewhere is Deweycheatumnhowe, who was just as dominant that year on the trotting side of things.  I think I was one of only two photographers to get some shots of the two of them in close proximity.  It really was an extraordinary season.  

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Things That Make You Go, “Hmmmmm….” (Or: A Day In the Life of A Digital Editor, 2013)

And here’s a response from The Atlantic‘s senior editor, Alexis Madrigal.

In part:  “Man, I feel everyone on how scary it is to be in journalism. When I made the transition from a would-be fiction career paired with writing research reports into full-time journalism, I nearly drowned in a sea of debt and self-doubt. I was writing posts on my own blog, which almost nobody read, but it did, with an assist from my now-wife, get me a couple gigs writing for some known websites. I got paid $12 a post by one. The other was generous, and I got $50. I was grateful as hell to have this toehold in the world. I remember walking down Bartlett Street in the Mission and saying to myself, out loud, “I’m a writer. I’m a writer! I’M A WRITER!” It was all I’d wanted to be since I was 16 years old. And I was making it.

Except I was not making it. Every day that went by, I was draining the little bit of money I had. I started selling anything I’d acquired to that point in my life that had any value. After the last Craigslist purchaser walked away with my stuff, I stood there in the living room of our apartment staring at the books and crying.

I had so little money and so much debt that any time I had to go to an ATM, I was seized with horrible anxiety. I practically could only do it drunk. You know those ATMs that display your balance EVEN WHEN YOU TELL THEM NOT TO? Well, I hate those ones. I would take my money and as it displayed my balance on the screen, I would carefully unfocus my eyes so I couldn’t really tell how little I had. The credit crunch was happening and I didn’t have any credit left. My loving, wonderful, brilliant parents were going through a rough patch, too, and they couldn’t help, either. I was tortured by the idea that I’d taken on this new career when my family needed me. I asked myself whether I should have stayed at the hedge fund job that I took right out of college and hated so much I quit before the summer ended.

I sometimes hoped that the whole world would collapse — it certainly seemed possible back then — because my debt would be swept away along with the rest of civilization. My dad had once said, right during the credit crisis, “Don’t worry, we’ll all be potato farmers soon anyway.” And I would think about that and it would make me happy. At least then I wouldn’t worry that I was going to be torn apart at the seams by the demands of a work life that couldn’t even keep me afloat in an expensive city. I really, really resented people who could count on financial support from places unknown. They didn’t seem to get how hard it was to keep it together when you might drown under your own debt at any minute.

Like an idiot, I figured I could write a book and use the advance to pay off my debt. That kind of worked, though the process of doing the book melted my brain. I was so tired and my mind was so filled with words that I would forget where I was, almost coming to in supermarket aisles wondering why I was staring at mangoes. I hate mangoes. But at least the money gave me some breathing room. I could approach an ATM without feeling weak in the knees.

So, all this to say: I know the pressure these debts can put on you. I know how angry it makes you, at yourself, at other people, at the world. Why didn’t I save more? Why did I buy that thing? Why did I have to pick up that tab when I didn’t have any goddamn money? How could I support a family like this? Why won’t the world recognize my talent is worth more!?

And so when Nate Thayer published emails with our newest editor (second week on the job), I can see how that might happen. How you might finish writing your last email, “No offense taken,” and then staring at your blog’s CMS that night, decide, you know, what? I’m tired of writing for peanuts, because fuck that. And if a young journalist in her first week on the job was part of the collateral damage,hey, the world just isn’t fair, kid. Pay it forward.

I get it, but it was still a nasty thing to do.”

So Madrigal (I have to say, Alexis Madrigal is a helluva handle … but whether real or nom de plume, I couldn’t tell you, not being in the habit of travelling in such rarefied circles as the editorial conclave of The Atlantic) opens with the sympathy card.  While it rings true, it smells a little less like freelance spirit by the end of the piece, and a smidge more like defense of the indefensible.  But see for yourself, and do read some of the very well-presented, thoughtful, and insightful comments by freelancers and editors alike at the bottom.  (And then come back here and share your thoughts on THIS blog, because I’m another starving freelancer who fantasizes that I will be able to monetize this brilliant and under-appreciated blog just as soon as I have enough hits and engagement to spontaneously set the world ablaze.)

In its entirety:  A Day In the Life of A Digital Editor, 2013.

Mushroom Farm

Tonight I am keeping company with an exceedingly geriatric and wheezy pair of dogs, as the writing career continues to stutter and stall.

There’s a magazine to which I used to contribute on a pretty regular basis.  I believe it still ranks as the highest-circulation horse magazine in the United States.  It’s aimed at amateur horse owners and beginner riders, so the content is generally pretty basic, but the production values are high and the pay, okay (as in, I haven’t been offered a raise in about 10 years but its rates are pretty much par for the course for ‘nag mags’).

One thing I always found irksome, however, was their Pay on Publication policy.  Not that this is a rare thing in my little lagoon (though apparently outside of niche markets, it is the exception rather than the rule and makes mainstream magazine writers scrunch up their faces at me in various versions of being appalled).  But given that their editorial calendar is decided a year in advance, and the gap between my deadline and the magazine landing on newsstands can be four to six months, with payment 30 to 60 days after THAT … well, that was getting a little old for me, so a few years ago I reduced my commitment to them to one or two articles a year.  Cuz, to my intense bewilderment and frustration, I still have not been able to get Rogers to put my cel phone bill on hold for half a year at a time …

This year, I had only a single assignment lined up for them.  I proposed the topic back in May of 2011.  They assigned it to me in June of that year.  They wanted the article at the end of August.  In 2012.  For publication in December.

Seriously.  I have magazines who expect a 48 hour turnaround on six-interview, 3000 word magnum opera, and then I have this.

I neglected to enter it on my phone’s daytimer (actually I’m not sure I could, it was that far ahead) and thus it completely dropped off my radar.

Luckily, I did at least put it in my mostly-useless Outlook reminder thingy.  Can’t imagine why; I never do that.  So a week before the deadline, my computer made a disconcerting chimey noise it almost never makes, and I was alerted to the imminent requirement to toss together yet another witty, insightful, gripping, yet approachable essay on how to dote on your senior horse (who may or may not be as wheezy and infirm as the canines with whom I am currently cohabitating).

Disaster averted.  And yet, another loomed on the horizon.  While I had been compliantly lining up interviews and compiling background info, rumblings began.  Rumblings from fellow contributors to this same magazine.  Most of whom contributed more frequently than I do, and thus had their ears to the train tracks, or something.

Hey, doesn’t really matter whether it’s a storm or an oncoming train you’re hearing.  Either way, not exactly inspiring news.

Turns out my fellow contributors have not been getting paid.  Not even on the usual ‘four-to-six-months after you send in the completed article’ schedule.  Just, you know, not.

Turns out, the parent company of this magazine has put itself … well, how can I put this delicately.  Up shit creek without a paddle?

Said parent company owns a whole (if you’ll pardon the expression) stable of magazines, in addition to a book publishing division.  If it trots, crawls, slithers, flutters, undulates, swims, or sheds, they probably have a magazine about it.  Or did.  Cuz some of these titles are starting to disappear.  It’s kind of a weird parallel universe extinction thing.

Meanwhile editors are promising the non-payment thing is all just a temporary glitch. Don’t worry, be happy.  Keep writing for us, you promised you would, we’ve got a magazine to put out.  And we were gonna pay you last week, honest we were, but it was a payroll week and you should be just so very, very glad and relieved that all the editors here are still able to make their car payments.  Hang in there.

It’s hard, sometimes, to remind yourself that the editors are not the Snidely Whiplashes in this scenario.  They have undoubtedly been given directions from On High, as to what they can and cannot disclose to their freelance contributors.  Heavy on the cannot.  And as tiny shreds of info do come to us, it has begun to look more and more as if the editors are currently existing, against their will, on a mushroom farm.  There is definitely fungus among us, as they say.

Especially spore-rific was the announcement early this week that one of the parent company’s other horse-related titles had declared bankruptcy and locked its doors.  All staff caught completely by surprise and unable to retrieve their favourite coffee mugs.   Picture puff-ball mushroom being stomped by shod Thoroughbred hoof.  Ouch.

So my dilemma is this:  do I bust my chops to fulfill my obligation to this magazine?  Factors in favour:  loyalty, tendency to want to meet my commitments, possibility that all this will sort itself out and that there will be more business for me down the road and a gold star on my forehead for having kept the faith.

Factors against:  It’s looking pretty fucking likely that I will never see any money for this article.

I’m grateful that I am not quite as screwed here as some of my colleagues, who are owed four- and five-digit amounts at present.  I’m grateful I’ve been so determined not to put all the proverbial eggs in one basket that I’m only fringe-angsting over this.  But at a time when more and more titles seem to be dissolving, evaporating, or imploding, it’s scary.  Between this, and the markets which still exist but for which I will no longer write because they’ve been total asshats to me, I find myself now babysitting pleasant but neolithic dogs in order to not-quite survive.

More on other weird and occasionally degrading odd jobs in a future rant.

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I Am (Briefly) the One Per Cent

I’ve dabbled in a number of different forms of journalism over the years.  I’ve covered advances in veterinary medicine, described how to shop for a manure spreader, written how-to’s and op-eds, provided blow-by-blow event coverage, and even poked a few hornet’s nests.  But unless you count Big Name Trainers (BNT in horsey chatboard vernacular), I can’t say celebrity profiles have ever been much on my radar.

I do, however, now know where to go should I ever hanker to veer in that direction.

A few months ago, I won a little contest.  It was the sort of web-based form you fill out when you’re procrastinating about finishing an article that bores you to desperation.  You know — name, address, age, e-mail address so that We May Spam You Unmercifully in the Future.  That I have won a small handful of these contests over the last few years is probably an indication that I am devoting way too much time and energy to this particular variety of procrastination.

My prizes, in this case, seemed to have been tossed together in an effort to clear out some 18th floor closet at the Toronto Star (not that I’m complaining, they just didn’t appear to have much coherence).  I received two $50 Visa gift cards, which I used to buy feed for the beasties.  There were also two tickets to a play called The Blue Dragon (love me a night at the theatre, so that was much appreciated).  And there was a huge and unwieldy “wine package” which, when I finally got it all unwrapped, contained decanters, glasses, several corkscrews each more elaborate than the last, a massive coffee-table book about grapey beverages … but no actual wine, which struck me as a bit peculiar…

The piece de resistance, however, was a one-night stay at one of Toronto’s ’boutique’ hotels, the Windsor Arms, in an uber-swanky corner suite equipped with (no foolin’) a grand piano.  I may have mentioned before that I am not generally in the habit of booking boutique hotels, being generally destitute and all.  I like a bit of luxury as much as the next person … okay, given that absence makes the heart grow fonder, I probably like a bit of luxury more than some people do.  But throughout most of my adult life, my budget has been rather more Motel 6 than Relais & Chateaux.

So this sounded potentially amusing.

I’m only an hour north of Toronto, so it’s not that the destination was exotic for me, but since perks, relaxation, and pampering have all been in shockingly short supply thus far this year, I decided I’d book the hotel stay for the weekend immediately following my birthday, and pretty much wallow in it as fully, completely, and decadently as I could.

This was after I determined I couldn’t exchange the prize for its cash value — which, let’s be honest, could have paid my rent for the month, covered at least two of my overdue vet bills, or flown me to Europe.

The thing about Motel 6 and its ilk is that it’s pretty anonymous.  Some bored employee takes your credit card imprint, hands you a key, and then pretty much ceases to care whether you exist unless you call the front desk 15 minutes later to complain that the wi-fi secret code isn’t working.  You can come and go at any hour of the day or night without anyone even looking up from his/her video game.  But the Windsor Arms is a different sort of critter, as the squeeze and I realized when we pulled up for the valet parking (the only option offered, at $35 a night, not included with the package).   Hello, welcome, how wonderful that you’ve come, may I help you with your bags, is this your first time staying with us?  (Um, yes, and almost certainly the last, given my station in life.)

The squeeze and I immediately realized that we had neglected to factor in the sheer number of people here who would have their hands out expecting gratuities.  Eeek.  And me with $6 in my wallet.

We got a very gracious tour of the place anyway, courtesy of Sal.  Herewith some not-very-fabulous pix which are the product of my little point-and-shoot rather than the decent camera (I was trying fruitlessly to travel light).

Strangely enough, they did not grab me by the scruff of the neck and turf me out onto the street, which is what I always expect to happen when I step into this sort of foreign environment.  The squeeze and I kind of poked around all the vastness and tastefulness for an hour, feeling staggeringly silly about it all.  We were careful not to lay hands on the not-at-all-complimentary contents of the mini-bar, or the snack basket in the ‘family room’.  The latter included, rather mysteriously, along with the Pringles and M&Ms, an “intimacy kit” for $12… this was a discreetly plastic-sealed black box with neat lettering and absolutely no indication of what it contained, which of course led to about 20 minutes of fatuous speculation, cuz that’s what we do. (Breath mint?  Edible undies?  KY?  Pamphlet from Birthright?)

We admired the opulent bathroom (oh, for an expansive jacuzzi tub in my day-to-day life) and the fact that every room in the place was equipped with a TV.  We noted with some befuddlement the phones hanging by each toilet (really, that call just couldn’t wait?), and I was mildly affronted by the quality of the paper products (standard-issue scratchy hotel loo roll — I have to say I expected better) but impressed with the big fluffy towels and the terry robes and slippers.

Took a dip in the (deserted) salt-water pool, but decided to forego the exercise room in the end because, as the squeeze observed, “When you come to a place like this, you don’t come to sweat.”  Watched some TV, had a soak in the big tub, goofed around with programmable bossa-nova beats on the fake piano, and had a very pleasant sleep followed by a complimentary buffet breakfast downstairs (the breakfast was actually fairly meh, as well — what, no waffles? — but free is free and they did toast my bagel to perfection).

And that was pretty much that.  The equivalent of $1750, blown in one rather over-the-top evening.  It provided a lot of amusement value, and a bit of decompression, but didn’t really make either of us angst for what we’d been missing … at least, not on the hotel side.

As we checked out, the reporter in me kicked in, as it inevitably does.  I felt compelled to ask the front desk staff who their regular clientele were — since, clearly, it was not me.  “Some international business travellers, but mostly A-list celebrities,” admitted the woman printing up our bill for the valet parking.  I had rather figured as much, knowing that the hotel is very close to the centre of activities during the Toronto International Film Festival, colloquially known as TIFF ’round these parts.  But the stream of actors, directors, producers, and other entertainment types isn’t limited to September, apparently.  “I’ve been here two months,” one of them confessed, “and I’m amazed at the celebrities I’ve seen here already” — though of course she was far too well-trained to name names, and I really wasn’t paparazzi-ish enough to prod her.  (Good to know that Toronto’s film industry isn’t dead, though.)

Given that the suite had two rooms equipped with sliding, frosted-glass doors, I had an immediate vision of Hugh Grant.  Remember that scene in Notting Hill where he walks into the middle of a media scrum in Julia Roberts’s hotel suite, and has to fake being a reporter in order to talk to her?

Remember how he claims to be a correspondent for Horse and Hound?

Well, I’m the genuine article.

And the front desk staff strongly implied that, should I ever desire to ambush and interview a celebrity, that hanging around the lobby of the Windsor Arms just might be a way to do that.

If they try to kick me out, I’ll just tell them Sal said it was okay.

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Please Don’t Ask Me to Write About …

I haven’t been raining negativity, bitterness and bile down on my gentle readers lately.  And apparently, that has to stop.

It has been suggested to me by a devotee of WFTRSOTS (okay, ‘devotee’ might be phrasing it rather strongly, but there is forensic evidence that she pops by on occasion) that I should share with you some of the topics I’d just as soon never, ever, ever write about ever, ever again.

Is that the sort of thing you’d like to read?  No?  It’s just her?

Never mind, I’m going to forge ahead anyway.  Woe betide me should I disappoint her.  You can be the next one to suggest a topic.  (No, really.  Go ahead.  Let’s see if I can riff on anything a la the late, great George Carlin.  My guess is no.)

By the way, I should probably mention that I have made some headway recently in my ongoing crusade to demonstrate that I can, in fact, write entire paragraphs of published text without mentioning hooved quadrupeds of any kind.  This seems necessary because there are a head-spinning number of editors out there who don’t seem to be able to extrapolate from one of my articles about a veterinary issue, that I can write about medical issues, and who can’t read a piece about a riding vacation and take the great leap to believing I could craft a piece about a boating or skiing vacation.

Between my snowmobiling jaunt in Quebec, back in January, and some agricultural pieces ranging from celebrating the Goat Farmer of the Year to rather more sober discussions of how fully farmers are adopting mobile technology, I have now collected …. ohhhhh, about a dozen clips, I guess …. which avoid horses like the plague.  (Okay, yes, the goats are quadrupeds and have cloven hooves, but the article really discusses the award-winning goat farmer rather than his charges.  Mostly.)

I consider this a minor triumph, but then, I have to take my triumphs where I find ’em these days.

I was also charged with writing my very first infographic a few months ago.  It wasn’t easy, let me assure you.  But the artist quite skilfully made a silk purse out of a (proverbial) sow’s ear …

I would happily write about goats some more.  Or pigs.  Or soybeans.  I’m learning quite a lot about all three.

But please don’t ask me to write another infographic.  It made my head hurt.

Of course, it’s still true that the vast majority of my portfolio — and the archive currently stands at somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2000 published articles — does feature, or at least discuss, equines of one sort or another.  You’d be surprised how much variety there is within that niche:  personality profiles, hard science, event reports and recaps, PR for future events, how-to’s, training tips, health and veterinary advances, a few fluff pieces, even some controversy on occasion.  Maybe I’m not a flak-jacket journalist, but that doesn’t it’s all meaningless trivia (she said self-righteously).

There are few truly new topics under the sun, however.  And there are some old chestnuts that editors seem to trot out every year without fail … depending on we starving freelancers to invent a new spin, lest we all simultaneously slip into vegetative states from the sheer, desperate redundancy of it all.

Some of these subjects, I don’t mind, honestly.  I don’t object to writing about internal parasites, for example.  There’s usually a bit of new science to discuss every few years, which keeps it fresh and interesting for me … and also, although I am easily grossed out by, say, eye diseases (I cannot look at the photos — ick), I apparently have a high tolerance for pondering the life cycles of slimy blood-sucking phylla who inhabit eyeballs and intestinal folds.

But please shoot me, I beg of you, if I ever have to write about the following again:

1. Fencing for horses.  Coma-inducing?  Oh, gawd, yes.  New stuff to discuss?  Pretty much never.  The most exciting thing to come down the pike in recent decades has been an electric fencing product which has two-way current or something and doesn’t need to be grounded, which I guess is great because I don’t really understand the whole grounding thing and thus find it difficult to describe in articles.  But ‘great’, in this case, is very much a relative term.  If I have to put together one more bloody chart comparing oak board fencing to pipe corrals to high-tensile wire to synthetics, I may in fact garrote myself on the next electric fence I see, regardless of its grounding or lack thereof.

2. Thorny regulatory issues.  Especially when they’re American.  I write for a lot of American magazines, some of which, in their peculiarly Ameri-centric way, insist on ONLY American sources being quoted.  This, to me, is short-sighted as hell … seriously, if you had a chance to hear from a showjumping expert like Beat Mandli (Switzerland) or a dressage guru like Edward Gal (the Netherlands), wouldn’t that be every bit as interesting to a reader from the United States, as someone home-grown?  I don’t see how the US can continue to teach its citizens that nothing of any note happens beyond its borders, but I digress.  What really makes me crazy is trying to figure out which government agency I have to phone, when I am commissioned to write an article about some issue which concerns or involves American government agencies (ie. drug regulations, feed and supplement labels, or the slaughter industry).  The whole regulatory situation in the US, with so many things under state jurisdiction rather than national — and thus wildly different from state to state — makes me absolutely postal.

I’m nearly as unenthused about doing pieces about Canadian regulatory issues, but at least I can usually identify a ministry or organization as a likely starting place.  Fuggeddaboutit in the US of A.

3. Fly Control.  Again, this is a topic that makes the rounds at the beginning of every summer, and it is just mind-numbingly stupifying to write about.  And to read about too.  I can tell you all about the relative toxicities of various pyrethroid compounds, and discuss the efficacy of supposedly natural alternatives like apple cider vinegar and (I kid you not) Avon Skin-So-Soft, but really, I’d rather not.

4. Trailering.  By this I mean, the methods and mechanics of moving horses from one place to another over asphalt.  I have discussed health issues.  Regulatory (ugh) issues.  How to inspect your trailer for safety.  How to select the right towing vehicle.  Just run me over with a diesel dually next time instead of making me rehash it all again.

Et vous, gentle reader?  If you are the type who peruses horse magazines, which topics do you find irretrievably old and tired and would rather not see again in your lifetime?  I promise I’ll stop writing about them immediately.

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Dear Editor: Seven Things Freelancers Want to Get Off Their Chests

Sometimes I feel like a three dollar hooker.

By which I mean the lowly freelancer still doesn’t get a whole lotta respect in this mean ol’ world.  And it’s not just a matter of having no dental plan.  (Mercifully, I am Canadian, so at least I have basic health coverage … I really feel for my American counterparts who are forking over 3/4 of their income every month for health insurance!)

There’s this vast, yawning gulf in perspective on the publishing industry, depending on which side of the editor’s desk you’re observing it from.  Funnily enough, most freelancers, including myself, have spent some time as editors, so I like to think we’ve got a fairly balanced viewpoint of the priorities of each job.  The converse, however, is not always true —  not all editors have spent time as freelancers.

Many years ago, I started a little e-mail chatlist for freelance writers and photographers who work in my little niche, the ‘nag mags’.  I was just trying to develop a community of similarly occupied people who could compare notes on the markets for whom they were writing, share story ideas and sources, maybe kvetch a little.  Freelancing of any sort can be a very isolating thing, toiling away in obscurity as all are in our various versions of home office.  The chatlist, as Mesozoic as it was, took off, and it’s still alive and just as Mesozoic (technologically speaking) today.  I like to think it serves a purpose, beyond giving me egoboo as its ‘listgoddess’.

But oh my, you should have seen the knickers twisting and the hands wringing, when some of the horse mag editors got wind of the fact that the freelancers were talking amongst themselves!

The horror.  The horror.

Somehow, I was instantly cast as Norma Rae, rabble-rousing in a factory.  Good lord (thought the terrified editors), if we let them compare notes, we can’t divide and conquer anymore!  It’ll get out when we take months to pay someone.  When we steal a story idea and assign it to someone in-house.  When we forget to assign something and then expect one of our little factory minions to churn out a brilliant 2000 word feature on a 48-hour turnaround with no additional compensation.    When we send out a completely draconian contract that requires writers to sign away rights they hadn’t even conceived of yet.

Well, yes, that was sort of the point.

Needless to say, assignments for me were rather thin there for a while.

But eventually the editors got used to the idea.  And got over themselves.  Everyone had to come to grips with the fact that this whole Interwebz thing was making it much easier for people to converse.  I don’t really get frozen out anymore over it … most of these same editors probably assume the chatlist is long dead by now.  (It isn’t, but it’s invitation only, so if you’re a freelancer who’s genuinely interested, leave me a comment and I’ll e-mail you details.)

Oh, and btw, the idea of freelancers unionizing does come up regularly, and there are organizations out there, but unfortunately none of them really has the clout they would like to have, so they haven’t really made much headway on behalf of the really struggling demographic like myself, which can’t afford the annual dues.

Yup, pay them pathetically enough and you can keep ’em under your boot-heels indefinitely.

Now, to be fair, it’s often not the editors who are really to blame when freelancers get a raw deal.  The edict usually comes from further up the food chain, and the editor just gets to be the bearer of bad tidings.

Still, when it comes to freelancing in the 21st century, there are a bunch of things we freelancers would like editors and/or publishers to know.

(Here comes the crowdsourcing part. I asked for contributions from my fellow freelancers for this, so editors, please don’t take these as personal attacks on my part, but as constructive and deferential commentary from freelancers at large!)

1. If you can’t pay well, then at least pay quickly.  Believe it or not, I’ve got biiiiig vet bills, just like you.  POA, or payment on acceptance — meaning that once the writer submits the article, and a cursory glance has determined that it isn’t irretrievable rubbish and has the potential to be published, the writer is sent a cheque for a previously-agreed-upon amount — used to be the industry norm.  But increasingly — and especially, for some unfathomable reason, within the horse magazine niche — it’s now POP, or payment on publication.  Which can be months and months and bloody months after you’ve done the research, interviewed the sources, transcribed the tapes, written and edited the piece, chopped 650 words off it because it was too long (um, maybe that’s just me), and sent it out.

Which essentially means that the magazine has your work in its hot little hands, interest-free, for yonks.  Which, frankly, Ontario Hydro doesn’t understand, even when I try to explain it to them in words of one syllable or less.

When the pay rates keep plunging, POP is really adding insult to injury, folks.  I understand that budgets get slashed and that sometimes your hands are tied and you’re only hanging onto your own job by the slimmest of threads.  But listen, if you’re only able to offer some paltry amount for my blood, sweat, and tears, you’ll soften the blow considerably if you can hustle that cheque into the mail (or my PayPal account) just as quickly as the accounting department’s little legs can manage it.  My cel phone and internet providers and all my other utilities, thank you.

2. It is not easier to “write short”.  Several times in the past few years, I’ve received breezy e-mails from editors, announcing that their publication is reducing the wordcount for their feature articles to approximately half what it used to be … and yet they’re still willing to pay me 2/3 of what I used to get.  Like this is doing me some big fat favour or something.  Like it’s going to save me so much time and work.

Writing short is not easier, especially when (as is almost invariably the case) my gentle editor still expects me to include just as many quotes from just as many experts, and thoroughly cover just as many thorny aspects of whatever the topic du jour might be.  Writing short just means I have to do that much more machete-ing of copy once I have the framework down.  And when I do that, I risk having to eliminate something that’s crucial to the subject and also really interesting, and then, sometimes, being told to shoehorn it back in there somehow (without increasing the wordcount!).

I once had an editor ask me to cover a week-long international showjumping tournament at Spruce Meadows in 600 words.  Not one class — the entire tournament, which if I recall correctly included at least 14 big-news classes.  And then he complained that my copy didn’t “sing”.  Sing?  With that wordcount I could barely manage to list the names of the winners in point form.

Writing short, writing ‘tight’, is a skill that not all writers have.  It’s something I continuously strive towards, and I’m a lot better at it than I used to be (this blog notwithstanding).  But c’mon, peeps, don’t be trying to spin it like it’s some great big Sisyphean boulder off my back to have less space in which to express myself.

3.  When I bail you out of a tight spot by generating fabulous copy on a ridiculously short deadline, at least have the class to acknowledge that I saved your ass.

Or as one of my compatriots put it, “Your publishing / editorial mismanagement is not my problem!  WHY would you call me on Friday with an offer of a project, only to tell me it’s needed on Monday? Your editorial calendars are set months in advance. What happened? Someone let you down? You know I’m reliable and will get it done so you call me? What’s the incentive?  None.  Your rates are draconian and your attitude simultaneously arrogant and demeaning. I’m doing YOU a favour! At least offer me a slight ’emergency’ bonus.”

4. Hellllooooo?  “Editors who don’t have the decent common courtesy to at least respond to the read request when you send in an article or photo — that’s a pet peeve.  They expect us to have stuff in on or before deadline, then can’t even have the decency to let us know they received it.  I only have two editors who faithfully respond back, and it is so nice not to have to wonder if the thing made it or not.  It’s just bad manners and makes the person sending the article feel unappreciated.  I meet their requirements; can’t they at least have the decency to acknowledge me?  All they have to do is push a button.” — a fellow freelancer (Oh, we are legion, people … and apparently, we’re pissed!)

5. Identity theft is a crime … or at the very least, bad form.   “When you copy-edit my work, I would appreciate it if you would not change my style of writing quite so radically.  You asked me to write it, but now it reads like you were the author.  I also don’t appreciate it when you make changes that make the copy grammatically incorrect.  I’m not complaining about issues that might be right on the line or could be interpreted in different ways … I’m talking about making changes I learned not to do in Journalism 101.”  — a victim of butchered copy (see machete, above).

It’s true that one has to have a thick skin when one is a writer.  Some editing is inevitable, and you can’t be joined at the hip with every precious bon mot you generate in a Word doc.  But there’s editing, and then there’s the Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.  When you don’t recognize a single sentence in the published copy as your own, you know you’re not dealing with an editor, but a control freak.

 6. Please stop trying to rob me blind with rights-grabbing contracts.  I know, I know, these don’t get generated at the editor’s desk.  They’re handed down from some weasely little lawyer at the behest of a bean counter in a corner office.  But it’s the editor who mails it out, accompanied by another breezy message which thanks me (I kid you not, I actually received this) for helping their company to “thrive”.

Funny how I end up feeling like you’re thriving at my expense when you send out a contract which requires me to sign away not only my right to get paid if you decide to use my material in six different magazines instead of the one we discussed, but also my right to make a little extra income from my work in alternate formats existing or not even imagined yet, forever and ever amen.  Oh, and then there’s that liability clause which asks me to assume all responsibility for your edited copy, and the little “moral rights” thing.

From the Writer’s Union of Canada: “Stay away from or amend contracts that ask you to waive (i.e., give up) your moral rights. Waiving moral rights permits a publisher to make substantial changes to your work, even to your viewpoint, or to alter the authorship credit by publishing it anonymously or under someone else’s name.”

“The biggest thing is to stop grabbing rights that a) they’ll never use, and b) prevent us from re-selling or making additional income from our work. It is a total piss off.” — another compatriot of mine.

Gawd, we’re a bunch of ungrateful wretches, aren’t we?

7.  Make up your mind.  “Be clear about what you want when you make the assignment, and ensure that you and the freelancer are on the same page. It is wildly frustrating to have an editor ask for rewrites not because the story is lacking per se, but because his/her vision of the story is “evolving” as you go along.” — yet another comrade, who when acting as an editor, strives for clarity.

Thanks to Simon Chadwick, whose cartoons can be found at http://www.ceratopia.co.uk

And at this point, I’m going to save further constructive criticism for a future post.  I’m sure I’ve already gotten myself blackballed by at least a dozen of my regular markets for this one.  Editors, after all, don’t have the thick skins freelancers do …

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The Accidental Travel Writer

On anyone’s list of fantasy occupations, travel writer has to be right up there in the Top Ten.

I mean — jetting around the world, climbing mountains and scuba-diving among coral reefs and eating at five-star restaurants, and re-discovering the odd lost jungle culture, all expenses paid, and then getting paid again for the article you write about your exotic experiences — well, good golly, what’s not to like?

Oh, but here I am again, playing bubble-burster for all you good people.  Much as I heart Andrew Evans and his @WheresAndrew tweets, the truth is very few of us get to play in his sandbox.

I have hankered to get into travel writing for years.  Even though I know the fantasy’s a little rosier than the reality.  With family half-way around the world in South Africa, I was dragged through a number of the world’s airports before I could even walk or register that screaming at the top of your lungs was bad form on a trans-Atlantic flight.  (I’m told they drugged me with whiskey and honey.  Disgraceful.)  Maybe that’s why I seem to be the only person in the world who actually likes the (teetering-on-the-brink-of-cancelled) series, Pan Am.  I still have one of those Pan Am flight-deck pins the flight attendants used to give kids in the hopes of shutting them the hell up.  I have one from Swissair and a few from South African Airways, too, and even a BOAC pin which I suspect is not really worth as much as I’d like to think.

So maybe it’s in my blood to some degree.  It’s certainly a compulsion of mine to sniff out interesting stuff and write it down whenever I’m somewhere new; I’ve never been good at just lying like a lump on the beach, devoid of curiosity about what goes on beyond the gated resort.  Gotta hit the museums, pick up the brochures, learn the history … and more than likely, if I bring home any souvenirs, it’ll be books about the region and its special peculiarities, because my budget never allows me to linger long enough to learn it all.  This usually means my luggage is significantly over-weight on the return flight.  (Ka-ching.)

Severe, crippling poverty has curtailed my globetrekking activities in recent years.  That’s when it all starts to sound so simple:  why, just parlay your scriberly talents into free trips to everywhere!  Write a few hundred words for Islands magazine, and Bob is your proverbial uncle.

Back in the day, maybe.  (When exactly was that?)

Yes, there are lots of places and companies and tourism boards who would like you to publicize their lovely Museum of Bacon And Cured And Brined Pork Products, or World’s Largest Tapir sculpture, or gentrified slums, or Third Annual Furby Festival.  To this end, they organize what are called FAM trips (for familiarization, I believe, though I never really questioned what FAM stood for, come to think of it).

A FAM trip is generally a whirlwind tour of all the local sights and attractions, some legit, some dubious …  crammed into unbelievably long and exhausting, but often really interesting and story-generating, days.

Rule #1 of the FAM trip:  Do NOT, under any circumstances, be late for the bus.

(Rule #2:  politely ask your tour coordinator to mail you all the collected promotional materials you will be handed throughout the trip, or your luggage will absolutely, without a doubt, be over-weight on the way home.)

In order to qualify for a FAM trip, you generally have to demonstrate that you are in fact, a Real Journalist, and not just some wanker looking for a free tour of America’s third-best Christian Fundamentalist theme park, Jesusland (or whatever).  This you do by sending clips of your previously published travel articles, and/or securing assignments with Known Travel Publications before the trip.  The preferred publications, of course, are those with circulations of 100,000 or better — think Conde NastNat Geo Traveler, some of the in-flight mags, that sort of thing.

Well I’d certainly prefer those too, since they pay upwards of $1 a word (there’s that Holy Grail again).  But securing an assignment from the hallowed likes of them isn’t exactly shooting fish in a barrel, especially since it’s notoriously difficult to make a great pitch when you haven’t even seen the place yet, and it might be a colossal dud.

(Not fun calling your editor after the fact and saying, “Um, well, it was all a bit run-down, only three of the 12 apostles showed up, and the owner of the place just got arrested for diddling little boys, so the Pearly Gates are now locked and it doesn’t look like it will be re-opening anytime soon.”)

And besides, they don’t know you from a rabid llama, they don’t care if you can write 2000 words about the neurological form of equine herpes virus and actually make it sound fascinating, and they already have an established stable of Real Travel Writers way ahead of you in the line.

Oh, and they did Jesusland two issues ago.

So you try to get as complete a description as you can, of the exotic delights awaiting you from the tour coordinator, in order to aid your pitches to publications you hope are sufficient to actually qualify you for the trip.  Because it’s all rather embarrassing if you get an editor to take a chance on you, only to have to e-mail back and say, um, sorry, the whole thing’s off, because they gave my spot to some knob from Luxury Travel, but I do have a really spine-tingling story about the adult bookstores of central Kentucky if you’d like that instead …?

The interesting thing is, even when you have done backflips to prove you are a Real Journalist and have secured multiple assignments for the trip so that the tour coordinator will get his or her mileage out of you … there still always end up being a couple of wankers on the tour who are NOT, in fact, Real Journalists and are just freeloading.  Generally, you can spot them — they’re the ones not taking notes (though they usually take lots of pictures, always featuring them standing in front of the waterfall or herd of wildebeest or commemorative plaque denoting the Battle of Grand Rapids).

They are generally met with considerable hostility by those who are on the trip to work, and it doesn’t faze them in the slightest.

FAM trips are also rather tricky because you tend to find out about them on rather short notice.  Now, I’m a fairly spontaneous type, and less tied down than those with husbands and kids, but I do have these horses in my backyard and it’s not always that easy to locate a reliable critter-sitter 48 hours before you are scheduled to get on a Greyhound.

But the most challenging thing about FAM trips is that, increasingly, they don’t include the cost of transportation.  They are generally happy to provide accommodations (in whatever weird theme hotel or trailer park they are trying to promote — I have stayed in uber-elegant B&Bs, on houseboats, in medieval castles, and also in the world’s most bizarre hotel/taxidermy museum, featuring as an added bonus an extensive collection of miniature Bibles) and they will bring the minivan around to take you from the Thai/Polish fusion restaurant to your next destination … but getting to the site of all these wonders is frequently on your own dime.

Now, given that the vast majority of travel publications and websites do not pay $1 a word, this is a bit of a stumbling block.  At least for me.

Take newspaper travel sections, for example.  In my limited experience with these, I am given to understand that markets like the Toronto Star and the New York Times pay only a couple of hundred dollars per travel feature.  And worse, many of them refuse to accept any material that is generated as the result of a FAM trip — the thinking being, the writer will be swayed to say biased or dishonest things because he or she was generously hosted, which I guess is somehow akin to blackmail.

So if the travel articles you peruse, increasingly seem to read as if they were penned by a retired doctor or lawyer who spent six months exploring the waterways of Vietnam in a sampan (complete with a captain, a navigator, and two personal chefs), now you know why.  They’re the only people who can afford to crank out travel articles.

The rest of the travel writing world has adopted something of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy regarding FAM trips.  Since most of us can’t really justify shelling out $6,000 to seek inner peace in Nepal only to earn $250 writing about it, it’s a necessary evil.  But in my case — lacking, as I am, a spouse who is racking up Air Miles  — if the FAM trip doesn’t include at least a train ticket, if not passage on a cut-rate red-eye flight, then I regretfully have to turn it down.  Not that the FAM trip organizers are exactly beating a path to my door.  The fact that I can’t afford to go on most of these trips means that I don’t have all that many travel clips to show, and so I don’t impress the FAM trip organizers, and so on.  Bit of a vicious circle.

Mercifully, every now and then an organizer does take a chance on me.  In recent years it’s been less Tuscany and more Trenton … or in other words, mostly within the bounds of North America, where the transportation costs tend to be a little less outrageous.  That’s okay; there’s plenty of weird and wonderful stuff to write about here.  In a couple of weeks (if all the plans don’t disintegrate) I’m due to travel a couple of hours beyond Quebec City, courtesy of the Charlevoix Regional Tourism Board, and freeze my little Anglo tush off trying all sorts of winter sports I have either never tried, or already know I am bad at — and it sounds like a lot of fun.

Not least because, for once, it has absolutely nothing to do with horses (which for the purposes of my resume and clip collection, is a good thing — I am continually attempting to prove to editors that I can, in fact, string 1500 words together without mentioning a hooved quadruped).

It’s been something like 20 years, and I’m still trying to break in as a travel writer.  Conde Nast, you really don’t know what you’re missing.

THREE Things I Like About Freelancing

The Number One Tip for more blog traffic, according to 1,293 (or more) blogsperts:  Include More Numbers in your blog titles.

Number Two:  Make a lot of lists.  People like lists.

Actually this isn’t news.  It’s a tried-and-true technique for magazine articles as well.  Check out any Cosmo cover.  Or Men’s Health for that matter — the magazine which has infamously been recycling exactly the same cover teasers for years on end.  

And it’s an easy, easy way to crank out an article.   I actually feel a bit guilty doing it.  Feels like cheating.

But hey, if it keeps editors happy and generates a cheque …

The whole list thing has only become more prevalent since all of us have had to learn to write for the web.  “Humans have the attention span of a horny wombat,” we’ve been told.  “They can’t read whole sentences anymore.  Give ’em the sound bite.  Give ’em point form.”

People like point form.

I don’t really buy the idea that people are incapable of reading more than 350 words in a row anymore.  If people can slog through 2500 of my words on how to buy a compact tractor (and they assure me they have, all the way to the very end) in a magazine, then I have at least 85% confidence (see, Google?  Numbers!  You have chills, don’t you.) that they can do so on the Interwebz too.

But it really doesn’t matter whether I can convince you, gentle reader.  Got to cater to the folks handing out the meagre cheques …

So both in the spirit of practising the art of the Numerical List, giving Google naughty little tremors of pleasure … and writing something a smidge less bitter and negative, here are my Top Three Things I Like About Freelancing (with apologies to Pitching the World, one of my fave bloggers, whose concept I have blatantly stolen here under the guise of imitation being the sincerest form, yadda yadda yadda).

Number One:  I Don’t Do Office Well.

Oh, believe me, I’ve tried.  Either I’m allergic to fluorescent lights, or just claustrophobic when I’m trapped in a fabric cube, but either way, nine-to-five jobs make me feel like I’ve got fire ants crawling all over my extremities and nibbling on my bits.

There are a couple of reasons for this, I think.  First, I have screwed-up circadian rhythms (or maybe mine are the ones which are normal, and everyone else is just play-acting because they want to conform and keep their jobs and their benefits more than I do).  NOT a morning person, and often at my most productive in the wee hours of the night when all those conformist drones are tucked away in their warm, soft, cozy, ever-so-inviting (mmmm) beds.  I found out long ago that I do not thrive on nine-to-five.

Second, I have absolute contempt for office weasels, a species which seems to breed indiscriminately and proliferates in cube farm habitats.  I can’t STAND that fishbowl feeling of always having a disapproving pair of eyes on the back of my neck (or on my computer screen), trying to work out what sort of subversive activities I’m up to instead of What I’m Supposed To Be Working On.

I briefly took on a gig this past summer, doing social media for a veterinary clinic with ambitions of World Domination (hey, that’s always a benign and noble goal, right?), and whence I encountered an office weasel with a whole lotta passive-aggressive going on.   To say she enjoyed making me squirm is to understate considerably.  Clearly feeling her territory as the reigning (ahem) SM goddess was being threatened, she did her best to make my life a living hell from the moment I arrived, and it didn’t take me long to decide I wasn’t being paid nearly well enough for that crap.  I left after two months, to our evident mutual satisfaction.  Ugh.

Number Two:  I Can Go To the Dentist Without Begging for Permission

As a freelancer, I don’t need to justify my time usage to anyone but myself.  I get paid by the project, not by the hour, so whether I take  10 minutes to bloody well move cards around in a game of solitaire, while my gray matter tries to generate the particular word or phrase I’m looking for, is nobody’s business.  And I can schedule the rest of the minutiae of my life without having to count my remaining sick days, invent another funeral for my grandmother (both long dead), or grovel so I can get to the damn feed store before it closes.

Now, there’s a downside to this, which is that when you work from home, everyone thinks you’re completely free to help them move, dog-sit (I have at least made it clear that I do not human-sit), or wait for their cable guy, because really you’re just sitting around with your proverbial thumbs up your ass all day, aren’t you?

The truth is that I probably work at least twice as many hours per week as most of you lucky bastards with Real Jobs.  Probably three times as many.  Seriously, I put in some crazy-ass hours.  I work until I’ve got a product I can send out the door.  I have deadlines, so it’s not like that undergrad job I had at the university library, re-filing the card catalogue (yes, a card catalogue with actual cards — we’re talking Bayeux Tapestry era, folks) and re-shelving books, where basically anything that needed to be done today, could just as easily be done tomorrow with nary a complaint from the universe or the student body.  The whole self-motivated meet-the-deadline-or-you’re-fucked thing is not something that everyone can do.  Some people apparently need those office weasels breathing down their necks.  But I’m so much happier self-motivating, I can’t even tell you.

Number Three:  It’s Compatible with My Horsey Lifestyle, Mostly

I have horses, and they live in my backyard.  This requires that I live on a farm, which makes commuting to a Real Job something of a challenge (though by no means impossible if the right opportunity were to come along, hint hint).  They require rather more care than, say, a guinea pig or a tank of tropical fish.  (Not just blowing smoke, here — I worked in a pet shop when I was a high-school brat, and cared for everything from crickets to sulphur-crested cockatoos, which are evil, nasty creatures, and saltwater lionfish with uber-poisonous pointy spines.)  As a freelancer, I can be here to change the bandages on a gimpy beast on stall rest, and I can rescue the lot of them from rotten weather that they’re standing out in, even though they’ve got a perfectly good run-in shed that they’re too stupid to use.  I can be here to hold them for the farrier or the vet I can’t afford, too.

What I do precious little of, of course, is ride.  What with working 190 hours a week, I’m lucky to carve out enough time to muck the stalls, never mind perks like riding.  But c’est la guerre … the inclination to loathe office weasels also makes me pretty intolerant of boarding stables, where sniping and snarking often are elevated to art forms and the care is rarely up to my exacting standards.  I’ve actually had some unbelievable stuff go down at boarding stables, which will no doubt become the subject of a future rant.  With my horses at home, little control-freak me is in charge of every aspect of their day-to-day management, and everyone is a whole lot happier, especially me.

There, that’s three.  That’s all I can come up with.  The Things I Rather Dislike About Freelancing List is likely to be a little bit longer.  Fair warning.

I Don’t Work for Free. Please Don’t Ask Me.

I really didn’t want my next entry to be a rant.  I fear I might be coming off as negative.  😉

But this subject just keeps rearing its ugly, venomous little head, and if I don’t do it now, it’s just going to sink its nasty needle-sharp teeth into my cranium and gnaw away until I’m gray-matter hamburger.  So forgive me. 

It’s the whole “we don’t really have a budget for content/photos but we’d like you to donate your work to us anyway” thing.

Drives me fucking nuts.

I’ve never been able to fathom why anyone and everyone thinks they can get into publishing in the first place.  It seems to be one of those things where skills and experience have no bearing on the decision.  I have no background in plumbing, so to date I have never woken up with an uncontrollable impulse to plunge my head under the sink and rip out a few pipes, because really, how hard could it be?

But publishing a magazine or a website?  It’s Mickey Rooney territory.  “Hey, we’re show folks … we can put on a show in the barn!  Sally can dance, and I can tell jokes, and Mom can sew all the costumes.  It’ll be swell!”

And then they proceed to launch a magazine (or website, or whatever) with absolutely no editing skills, only the most rudimentary grasp of the language, and zero emphasis on quality content.  There are three typos on the cover alone?  No matter, it still looks SPIFFY, doesn’t it!  We’re so proud.  Advertise with us.

This total lack of journalistic training results in a complete disregard for people who produce content, and almost invariably, nothing allocated in the budget for said content.

Photographs are free, after all. You can get ’em all over the Interwebz.  The photographers won’t mind, because we’re giving them (wait for it) … Valuable.  Exposure. In Our Fine Publication.

(More on this in a moment.)

And editorial ….?  Well, we’d like you to write for us of course, because you are well-respected and clever and we have read your articles and we looooooove them.  Look how honourable we are being, asking you to write something original instead of stealing your content from said Interwebz and running it sans permission.  (Oh, wait, we did that too.  Oops.)

We would like you to write for us for free because (choose one or more):

a) we’re a struggling little start-up and if you’re nice to us, maybe we’ll be able to pay you something sometime in the dim, dark future if we don’t fold first

b) we’ll give you a byline and what fantastic (wait for it) EXPOSURE it will be for you

c) we’ll barter you some ad space or give you a free subscription or something else equally worthless.

d) we’re a non-profit (but we’re paying our editor, our production team, our printer, our marketing agency, and a host of other people, including the plumber who had to rip out the pipes under the sink in our office because we wouldn’t touch that stuff with a 10-foot pole).

Ohhhh, who hasn’t sung this refrain to me?  Most recently, I was approached by a start-up which is going to cover all the sparkliest and most luxurious elements of the horse industry.  It plans to attract ads from Ferrari and Rolex and cover high-goal polo and multi-million-Euro warmblood auctions and such … and it isn’t paying its writers.

So, um, I’m supposed to somehow sneak into the sponsor’s tent at Aachen in my ripped Walmart jeans and my beaten-up Blunnies with the soles peeling off (only because the Prada is at the cleaner’s, you understand) in order to interview the latest royalty who has purchased six showjumpers for the Beerbaums?

Cuz hey, I was gonna be there anyway …

I’ve had requests that are even more insulting than that, actually.  A few years ago, a local lawyer who was enamoured of Canadiens (the horse breed, not the Habs) decided to launch a slick, glossy magazine celebrating Canadiens at work, at play, and in provocative poses (or something).  I encountered her at a trade show and she was positively ecstatic to meet me, gushing that she had read my books and my articles and how WONDERFUL it would be if I were to write for her fantastic magazine.

I gave her my card.

Two days later, she e-mailed me, gushed a little more, and then offered me what she clearly considered an unparalleled opportunity.  If I would like to sell a few full-page ads for her new effort, then I would be welcome to write about the advertisers.

For free.

Was there some satisfaction in seeing her magazine last two issues, then fold?  You betcha.

Once a writer, now re-classified as a “content provider” (sometimes with gratis ad sales, apparently) with all the appeal and value of an intestinal parasite.

(My friends say I suffer from low self-esteem.  Hmmm.)

This has been the evolution of the publishing business.  I dabble in photography, but I have many, many friends who are Real Photographers, and I know the world of hurt that has resulted from the digital revolution.  Where once, a photographer’s skill was valued, now anyone can plunk down for a professional-quality camera body and some decent glass, and get publishable images — if one isn’t too fussy about composition and such.  Photoshop is your friend …

And likewise, where journalism was once a respected profession, now everyone’s a bloody blogger.  (Gawd, including me.)  “Citizen journalism” is free, and it amazes me how many people apparently have time on their hands and are tickled enough to see their names in print, to contribute it, no matter how inaccurate, badly written, or flogging-an-agenda it might be.  It’s free, so by gum we’re a-gonna run it!

All of which makes we professional content providers, I guess, look rather cheeky to be expecting to get paid for what we do.

On the photography side, here are a couple of blogs which tackle the subject even more frankly than I’m doing right now.  Please have a look — they’re well worth reading.

Tony Wu’s “Reasons Why Professional Photographers Cannot Work for Free”

Tony Sleep’s “We Have No Budget For Photos” 

and Mike Spinak’s “When Publishers Request Freebies”

Though photogs have been particularly outspoken on this issue, you could pretty much insert the word “writer” wherever you see “photographer” in any of these articles.  Or “graphic designer”, “illustrator”, or just about any creative content provider.  The issues are essentially identical.

So please, launch a magazine.  Sew the costumes, hang the curtains, pass out the playbills.  But have the sense to hire a director who knows what he/she is doing, and create a budget which allows you to fairly purchase the content you’re doing to need to earn you that Tony … er, Pulitzer.  Otherwise, don’t bother.

And please, pretty please, don’t plead poverty to me when you come, cap in hand, to my doorstep, all obsequious and ingratiating.  I could teach you a couple things about poverty.  Sheesh.

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