No, I haven't signed any movie contracts. I grabbed that phrase from an email sent to an aspiring freelance writer, Matt Smith, by Joe Hildebrand of the Daily Telegraph. Hereinafter known as The Terror.
The Smith-Hildebrand imbroglio has gone a little bit of viral on the fringes of Media World. Mumbrella has a great writeup with contributions from both Smith and Hildebrand here. I want to grab a couple of highlights, but for baby writers just starting to make their way in the game the original piece is worth reading in full.
Long story short. Smith, who is a part-time freelancer with a reasonable track record of getting his byline into places like Crikey, The Drum and The Punch had an idea for a quick piece about reality TV and the travails of the Ten Network. Hildebrand found it "vaguely interesting" and offered to print it. (I've never before heard of an editor offering to print something they found only "vaguely interesting", but he coined that description after everything turned to custard, so maybe it's a bit of retroactive sub editing)
Smith was understandably excited at the 'commission'. (There's a reason for the air quotes, which I'll get to). He'd never before submitted any copy to The Terror, which is far and away the most successful newspaper in Sydney. At least in terms of circulation. Hildebrand had asked him for a headshot to run with the piece, and Smith wrote back asking what dimensions he would require. He also, a little late in the piece as it turns out, asked about the word rate. The what now?
How much he would be paid.
Hildebrand replied via email: “Sadly we’ve got a moratorium on paid contributions at the moment mate, so I can only offer you fame. Any dimension headshot will do.”
Smith, somewhat taken aback, volleyed a return: “Hi, Joe. That’s a tough ask for an emerging/aspiring journalist – especially when sites like Daily Life manage to give contributors some money – so I hope you can understand my disappointment. Please run the twitter handle at the end at least, and let me know when the piece will run. Photo attached.”
The photo would not be required. Hildebrand informed the would-be tabloid columnist that getting published in The Terror "is a pretty massive deal for an aspiring journalist mate and you just blew it. Take your piece elsewhere."
And that's it, the shareware lite version. Writing for Mumbrella, Matt Smith makes some reasonable points about the iniquity of successful tabloid newspapers expecting freelancers to work for… well, free, and you'll damned grateful for the opportunity to do so. (An opportunity for free exposure that isn't offered to The Terror's advertisers).
Hildebrand points out that successful tabloid newspapers are inundated with unsolicited copy, contributor budgets are minuscule (he's not lying) and there are any number of other 'aspiring' writers who would be happy just to get that byline published. (Again, he's not lying).
I could take sides in this, but I'm not going to. Well, not much. As a lifelong freelancer my sympathies obviously lie with Smith. When a large commercial operation such as a newspaper accepts a piece for publication, they should pay for it. Even if the payment is only a token amount. Little fish are sweet, as Terry Lewis the famously corrupt former Police Commissioner of Queensland once said. They may not feed you, but in the world of freelancing, especially when you're just starting out, those little fish do help convince the tax office that you're serious about running a business. Even a token payment allows a freelancer to begin claiming tax breaks on their costs.
The equation begins to break down when you move into web publishing where the advertising revenue model is much more precarious and the precedent of free copy, aggregating and bottom feeding has "long" been established. But The Daily Telegraph is not a bottom feeding website.
On the other hand, I have some sympathy with Hildebrand who would spend a significant proportion of his day dealing with entitled lackwits. Just to be clear, I don't include Smith amongst their number. Anybody who has spent any time in publishing or media will have had the experience of clueless amateurs pressing upon them crumpled handfuls of poorly written notes, sometimes with diagrams, outlining some earthshaking story that needs to be published but can't be because the mainstream media is in the thrall of hidden powers and dark forces and yada yada yada.
And shit writing, of course. You see a lot of shit writing.
You also see a lot of hungry, hard eyed young chancers, hundreds of them emerging from campus writing programs and communications degrees every year. All of them getting up in your face, ready to chew out your eyeballs if it moves them that little bit closer to their career goals.
So yeah, I can understand Hildebrand's snark and disgruntlement. But as a freelancer I just don't give a shit about it. His problems are not mine. Me and my people, we got our own problems.
So, let's get to the meat of this. What should Smith have done?
First of all, he should never have written the piece. At least not in the way that he did. On spec, without even testing the ground before he stepped out. If you want to avoid wasting your time as a freelancer, do not go writing stories for editors who have not commissioned them.
Got a great idea? Or what you think is a great idea? Then you ring up somebody like Hildebrand, or email them, or DM them on twitter, or whatever. And you pitch them the idea. Apparently, if it's even "vaguely interesting" you're in with a shot. But a pro-tip from JB? Why don't you try and make it something more than "vaguely interesting".
If the idea is appealing to them and they agree to "take a look at it" – and that's all they will ever agree to – then you can ask them about the contributor budget. The word rate.
Prepare yourself for disappointment.
They didn't ask for your story. They don't need it. They might eventually want it. But unfortunately, Hildebrand is right. There are plenty of other writers and an almost unlimited supply of other stories going cheap, and in most cases free. And it's not just baby writers cutting the legs out from under the market. Politicians, lobbyists, academics, shameless self promoters, urgers, pimps, front men, agents… They are legion, and they don't care about getting paid. They really do just want the exposure.
What do you do if someone like Hildebrand says there's no money in the kitty. Or that there is money, but it's a laughable amount, an insult?
That my friends is down to you. Personally, I mostly tell people to fuck off these days. Not always. I'll do a couple of worthy charity gigs every now and then. But mostly it's fuck off. This is how I pay my mortgage, feed my children, keep the hovercraft afloat, you know the sob story. The guy who turns up to fix the filter on my pool doesn't do it to "get his name out there in front of people". He does it for $140. Although, while we're here, Brisbane Pool Boys – I can't recommend them highly enough.
It might be, that if you are in the position of a Matt Smith – you're a young, reasonably established but still "aspiring" freelancer – you just swallow your pride and take the hit. Give them the copy. Clip the article. Add it to your portfolio. If your portfolio is looking pretty thin, especially for print-only material, a couple of pieces like that can help. But only a couple. You don't do yourself any favors by becoming known as someone who will give it away for free. If your copy is that good they will eventually have to pay you for it. I'd suggest a maximum of two or three freebies before you turn off the tap. If they're not paying you by then, they never will. They're just exploiting you.
How then to deal with an editor like Hildebrand who has told you the cupboard is bare, but he'd like to take your lousy, only vaguely interesting story anyway?
If you've decided to wear the humiliation, accept the power imbalance, and grab the marginal utility of getting your byline into hard copy, then don't be a dick about it. The cheap fucking prick who's stealing your story is being a big enough dick for both of you. You don't need to come over like 'umble Uriah Heap, bowing and scraping and grateful for the chance to kiss their unwashed arse. But I wouldn't go showing them how much you've been hurt and offended by getting corn holed on payment either. Hard to believe, I know, but editors have feelings too, and mostly they're even more embarrassed than you are about the payment issue. You want to take it up with someone? The people who are really responsible for this? Get yourself a cheap flight to Google HQ and go kick down the doors of the boardroom.
Bottom line. There are occasions, very rare and mostly to be found in the earliest days of your writing career, when giving it away for free will work in your favor. But always remember you cannot make a living out of doing that forever, or even very often. If Joe Hildebrand doesn't have the money to pay for your article, perhaps Joe Hildebrand can do without it. I'm almost certain he'd agree.