The disappearing editor trick

In a few hours I set off on a series of budget planes, trains and automobiles, for nearly 24 hours of sleepless, undignified, butt-pounding travel (keep your tsk-tsking comments to yourself Tim Leffel) to get myself from Iasi, Romania back to my travel writing Apartment of Solitude in an abandoned vacation village in western Sardinia.  I’ll be in no mood to write something funny (or sit normal) for several days afterward, so instead I’m offering up this week’s humor-starved post early, in order to pass along an embarrassing, but topical cautionary tale about a major ‘don’t’ in freelance writing.

If you haven’t dabbled in freelance writing, or if you have and have been far too clever to fall for the “can you really quick write something for our next issue without a contract?” scam, then the following rant may be of no use to you.  The rest of you might like to like to absorb the following advisory and potentially save yourself some precious time and energy on your next “vacation” that might otherwise be spent drinking cider and playing Halo II on your friend’s Xbox.  Let’s begin.

Editors are busy people.  Some of them are great, smart, funny and busy, some of them are hateful, malicious bastards and busy.  But they’re all busy.  This is a maddening constant in the life of a freelance writer.  For example, it’s not only common, but it’s virtually guaranteed that whatever editor you’re pitching to will either:

A)       never reply
B)      reply with a form rejection, possibly with someone else’s name at the top, in 6-8 weeks (this is considered very generous)
C)      never reply and add your email address to their personal spam list, complete with rejection notification (they don’t have time to reply, but they have the time to maintain a voluminous spam database?)

This is just one of the many ego and pride demolishing aspects of freelancing.  Astonishing as it may sound, some editors (at newspapers, more often than not) simply do not want stories from exotic locales, written by fresh-faced writers landing, fully written, in their in-boxes, preferring instead to run the latest, reliably milquetoast effort from 76 year old staff writer Edna Anderson on her most recent antiquing sojourn to a third tier suburb. 

Even editors that I work with on a regular basis usually can’t be bothered to answer more than one out of every three emails (unless they need something from you, then you’ll get prompt replies at 5AM on a Sunday morning).  One of my esteemed colleagues once suggested that we freelancers should just cut the crap and form a self-flagellation society, since flogging ourselves for 10 minutes a day with barb-tipped crack whips would take far less time than researching and sending out story pitches to people who are going to such extraordinary lengths to avoid and/or screw us.

However, when an editor is in panic-mode to fill an issue with a story, they are suddenly your best friend in life.  Their emails are quick, friendly and encouraging.  When you’re just starting out, desperate for a byline, or your receive this email during a weak moment, this attention is perilously exhilarating.  So when an editor contacts you out of the blue and asks you to work up some of your existing material that they found through Google to fit their guidelines – a seemingly easy task – and the deadline is in 48 hours, you don’t think about a contract or how they’re going to get that 200 euros to you when you don’t have a European bank account.  You just drop everything, even if you happen to be in the middle of an infrequent, fleeting visit home, and bang that sucker out like the professional you fancy yourself to be.

When I was in Minneapolis last October, I experienced a freakish deluge of work:  five unsolicited assignments from four entities in five days.  Four assignments were from people I had worked with previously or who immediately sent contracts.  The fifth was from a fledgling Eastern European men’s magazine who wanted me to clean up one of my blog entries about Romania for their upcoming Romania issue.  Since I was on a roll cranking out work, all thoughts of relaxing and seeing friends were tossed out the window and I whacked those suckers out, zip-zop, with a rare burst of speed and focus on my part.

The Eastern European magazine also wanted me to write an all new piece on Romania’s entry into the EU for another 200 euros.  OK, no problem.  Another day of work, I’m on task baby!  I did the work and sent it all in weeks before his deadline.  The editor replied, vaguely saying the work looked good, but needed some grammar clean-up and a little re-organizing, but failed to make any reference to the offending sections.  I replied in my most enthusiastic and eager voice asking for a little direction.  I never heard from him again. 

Two follow-up emails were ignored.  Without having the decency to inform me, he’d decided to flout the material that I sent in promptly and on good faith, written on the strength of my 16 cumulative months of living in Romania and went with articles submitted by one of his regular writers who contributed material from his recent “high-octane” road trip through the area.  I haven’t read the articles, but they certainly sound gripping, edgy and not even remotely hokey to me.

Needless to say I was pissed off.  Not only had I fallen for the “Do Quick and Inconvenient Work for a Jackass Disappearing Editor” ploy again, something like my fourth offense in three years, but in the process I had pissed away more than a full day at home in Minneapolis, hiding from family and friends, working for nothing, when I should have been out kickin’ it with my homies. 

And it’s not just this one, indecisive fuckwit who decided to blow me off.  There’s a troubling trend where editors treat writers like expendable pack mules whose time, effort and trust are not worthy of their majestic attention when it isn’t immediately beneficial to them.  After all, freelance travel writers are a dime a thousand and everyone knows it, so there’s little motivation for editors to find the energy to treat us like humans.

Again, this is not the case with all editors – hold off on the worldwide tar and feathering brothers and sisters – but it’s the case with a troubling majority and it forces us freelancers to be difficult assholes sometimes, demanding contracts, just to protect ourselves from further abuse.  Of course, for every writer who wants a guarantee of payment, there are 587 suckers who will unflinchingly jump to do the work on the strength of one encouraging email (OK, OK, I’m an idiot, all right???), so really, why waste time with the difficult ones?  Just like the pyramid building slaves in Egypt, when one guy stubs a toe and starts limping, they just cut off his head without ever asking if he only needs a Band-Aid and shove a new slave in there.

So, the moral of the story is, unless you have nothing better to do and the pyramid slave scenario doesn’t sound all that bad (at least they got all the free beer they could drink each night), DO NOT spent a single minute working on an assignment without an agreement (kill fee included), no matter how easy it seems or how friendly and trustworthy your new editor pal may appear.  Chances are pretty good that you’ll get burned and boy does that suck, not only financially, but also through blown expectations which is even more painful for people just getting started.

On a completely different note, the Tiraspol installment of my wretched LP research last year has won me a tiny award: Jaunted’s “Worst Travel Media Moment”, awarded to the least appealing travel destinations written about in 2006, which I’m sharing with some nut who touted tourism in Columbia now that kidnapping of foreigners has dropped to a fairly benign 369 instances per year. 

So now I’ve got Award Fever something fierce.  Since I’m hardly getting paid at the moment, I’ll settle for some potentially fulfilling recognition instead.  As such, I’m now going to refer you to the 2007 Weblog Awards.  The grand prize is a whopping 2007 US cents (i.e. US$20.07).  I want one.  Criminally, there isn’t a travel category, so the possible categories that I vaguely qualify for include: Best European Weblog, Best Topical Weblog, Most Humorous Weblog, Best New Weblog, Best Kept Secret Weblog and, what else, oh yeah, WEBLOG OF THE YEAR!!!!  So, look into your hearts and decide which category (WEBLOG OF THE YEAR) that you feel I may qualify for and vote accordingly.

As shamefully self-serving as this seems, I’m actually promoting this little popularity contest on behalf of my more humble blogging brethren, since each ballot must list at least three different nominees, though you can nominate any one blog in as many categories as you like within the ballot.  So, make sure you contentiously give nods to all your favorite bloggers, after you’ve carefully added my name to every remotely applicable category, and give them the notoriety they richly deserve (after me).

Now I have an overnight Romanian train to catch.  There’s packing to be done, sandwiches to be made and an epidural to be performed.  Thanks once again for humoring my lust for attention.  Tell your friends.