Every magazine pitch hides a potentially catastrophic conflict of interest. On one hand, writers are creative professionals who want what is best for their stories. They need to have good relationships with their editors or their pieces may falter. On the other hand, writers also need to look out for their own financial and creative interests. This means taking a hard look at every contract and then advocating for fair terms in what can sometimes be a contentious negotiation. Every writer fears that they could hurt their editorial relationships if they argue too forcefully on their own behalf. So, more often than not, writers choose to sacrifice their bottom line in the name of what is best for their writing. Over time, this can mean that writers never learn to advocate for themselves and that they sign contracts that give away too many rights or just simply don’t pay enough.
I think, however, that I have a solution to this pickle that just about any writer can try. Let’s call it an experiment in paired pitching.
It works like this: find a writer with a similar portfolio to yours. They could be a friend, or maybe they’re just someone whose work you respect. It’s important that they publish at about the same frequency as you do and have approximately the same earning power. Both of you need to be eager to treat the business of writing with the same respect that you do the craft of it.
Partners agree to represent, invest in and grow each other’s work. Instead of pitching magazines your next story idea, you will ask your partner to do it on your behalf. They will be in charge of selling your ideas in the same way you will be responsible for selling theirs. When it comes time to negotiate a contract, your partner acts in your best interest, going over terms closely with the publication without worrying about damaging any creative relationships that you are going to have with the editor. In order to provide incentives, both writers take a percentage of each other’s final story fee. This percentage can be whatever you mutually agree on, although it should probably start at 15% and could go as high as 50% once you establish a level of trust.
As long as you are both writing and pitching at the same time, and have roughly similar earning power, then both writers should at least break even on this arrangement. However, since neither part of the pair has to worry about harming their creative relationships, both writers should benefit from better contracts than they could negotiate on their own. By sharing revenues, you will have effectively invested in each other’s work and, over time, develop working strategies for a thriving writing business.
There’s clearly demand for this sort of arrangement. Since we launched two weeks ago PitchLab has been overwhelmed with submissions. We currently have far more ideas in our pitch queue than we could ever possibly represent. But that doesn’t mean that writers can’t take steps on their own to level the playing field.
Of course, not every writer necessarily knows what contract terms are negotiable, or which editor might be most receptive to a particular pitch. And yes, this is going to be a shameless pitch, but this is where the WordRates contract comparison and contact details sections can be particularly useful to partner teams.
Premium members at WordRates can access our customized contract reviews for many leading publications. If you click on the link shown above, you can find examples of how we would negotiate boiler plate contracts for many A-list magazines. These short documents are based on user-submitted contracts that we have received and note key weaknesses in current magazine contracts. They are aimed at giving writers an idea of what contract terms are fair, and which ones should be avoided at all costs. The contract comparison feature is still growing, but we have basic negotiating points for many top publications including Wired, GQ, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Vogue, Vanity Fair, High Country News, The New Yorker and Popular Science. In the coming weeks I intend to put up 20 more contract discussions. And, since this is a crowdsourced website, if you have any particular contracts that aren’t yet in the database you can submit them to email@example.com for review and inclusion into the site.
Ok, that’s the end of the pitch about upgrading. Let’s talk a little more about paired pitching. The first few times you pitch an idea on someone else’s behalf are going to be awkward. It’s going to be strange to think about someone else’s work as a product with a value all of its own. This is mostly because you probably aren’t used to thinking of your own work that way. Normally we are so caught up with the promise of how we think our stories will turn out, that we lack the ability to see them objectively. It’s often easier to see failings in someone else’s work than to see them in your own. A writing partner will be able to give you feedback and sharpen your thoughts before they are ready to go out to the world. After all, the only way anyone will go out to the market with an idea that isn’t their own is if they really believe in it. And for this reason I think Paired Pitching won’t only let you negotiate better contracts, but actually give you better ideas overall.
So give it a try. You might be surprised at how this one simple step could supercharge not only your own career, but also a friend’s.